Influence is a powerful thing.
Every person both influences and is influenced by others in varying degrees. Jesus stressed the importance of godly influence when he compared his disciples to salt (Matt. 5:13).
Paul also warned of the power of bad influence when he noted that “evil companionships corrupt good morals” (1 Cor. 15:33 ASV). The Greek word for “companionships” is
homilia having to do with association. Here it denotes “bad company” (Arndt and Gingrich, 568). We tend to behave like those we run with.
The Influence of the Primitive Church
It is remarkable that the church of Jesus Christ as such was constituted in the initial centuries of its existence was a body of tremendous influence. It revolutionized the antique world. The Lord hinted of this in his prophetic parable of the leaven (Matt. 13:33).
Historians have noted that as a consequence of Christianity, many evils of the ancient world were abolished or at least curtailed (e.g., crucifixion, the brutal gladiatorial games, slavery, the abuse of women, infanticide, etc.).
Even skeptics have conceded the point. British philosopher Bertrand Russell conceded that the influence of Christianity “remains the inspiration of much that is most hopeful in our somber world” (Russell, 137).
It is not without significance, however, that when the church was exerting such a wonderful impact, it was being persecuted bitterly. Then, a strange thing happened.
In A.D. 313, Constantine issued his famous “Edict of Toleration,” which brought an end to Christian persecution. Unfortunately, it also accelerated an era of spiritual decline. Christianity even became a state religion. Ultimately, the church was “baptized” in an atmosphere that can only be described as worldliness. For an interesting survey of this period, see chapter IX “The Imperial Church” in Hurlbut’s The Story of the Christian Church.
Great and devastating changes were wrought that finally resulted in an egregious, fully-organized apostasy the residue of which abides to this day.
Our More Recent History
The concept of restoring pristine Christianity was revolutionary, both in Europe and in America. Courageous pioneers sought a return to the original pattern of Christ’s religion. The idea caught on, and the cause of the “ancient order” spread like a prairie fire across the frontier in the waning days of the nineteenth century.
In the late 1800s, students of the old Nashville Bible School (later named after David Lipscomb) baptized some 5,000 souls in a five-year period. In the early portion of the last century, the Lord’s church was one of the fastest growing religious bodies in America.
A typical example of the influence of the church was seen in the Tabernacle Meetings conducted by N. B. Hardeman in the early 1920s. When the first meeting was held in March-April of 1922, the old Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tennessee was “packed and jammed” with 6,000 to 8,000 people. An estimated 2,000 to 3,000 were turned away (Hardeman’s Tabernacle Sermons, 11).
And there was no compromise of doctrine in Hardeman’s sermons! Those were glorious days for the kingdom of Christ.
But in the early decades of the previous century, something else was happening. A movement known as “modernism” was evolving. It reflected an inclination to reject the concept of propositional truth based on divine authority.
Men like Presbyterian clergyman Harry E. Fosdick (1878-1969) argued that the Bible had developed along evolutionary lines. They rejected the supernatural elements of Scripture.
This ideology became pervasive in both Catholicism and mainline Protestantism. A major component of the restoration heritage (the Disciples of Christ) was also influenced by this heresy.
More recently modernism has been succeeded by a philosophy known as “Postmodernism” This dogma, more dangerous even than modernism, is a mid-to-late 20th-century theory that contends there is no such thing as real knowledge—at least in the objective sense. Rather, truth is subjectively determined by each individual.
One writer says that Postmodernism reflects a “rebellion against all aspects of the modern culture that had prevailed in the West since the late 19th century” (Dever, 30). Postmodernism has impacted the religious community at large in a devastating fashion, and the churches of Christ have been significantly influenced by this ideology as well.
For an excellent treatment of postmodernism as it relates to the church, see Phil Sanders’ Adrift: Postmodernism in the Church.
The Trendy Church
Over the past several decades there has developed a growing mentality that the church is an outdated organism. Somehow, we have lost touch with the “millennial” generation. It is, therefore, imperative (they say) that we update the chuch model. We must make it more trendy.
This idea is rooted in a cultural phenomenon that may be figuratively described as “societal osmosis.” Environmental influences silently and slowly move from one realm to another. The trends of secular society to a significant degree have seeped into the religious fabric of our culture.
There is no better example of this than the current endorsement of homosexual unions in some of the historic Protestant sects, and increasingly so within the churches of Christ. That which once was an abomination is now fashionable.
Further, the contaminated elements of “Christendom” in differing degrees ultimately trickle into the church. Not a few citizens of Christ’s kingdom are like the Israel of Samuel’s day. They lust to be like the nations [churches] round about (1 Sam. 8:5).
Consider briefly some of the major changes that have been observable in the church over the past several decades.
A New Call for Denominational Blending
Though a few radical “voices of concern” (e.g., Carl Ketcherside and Leroy Garrett) were being raised a half-century ago, scarcely anyone would have dreamed that high-powered people in some of our major schools would be calling now for an ecumenical blending with denominationalists in the swaddling days of the new millennium.
And yet, voices as “sectarian” as anything imaginable are now frequent and unrestrained within our midst. No longer is J. D. Tant’s quip, “Brethren, we are drifting,” apropos. Many are rushing with a full head of steam towards a “Casey Jones” disaster.
We are progressively departing from a dependence on the New Testament as the authoritative source of instruction in religion and ethics towards a subjective-style, get-in-touch-with-your-feelings philosophy.
Many congregations no longer have substantial Bible classes where the Word of God is explored deeply and taught powerfully, with a solid application made to Christian living. Rather, we have “sharing” sessions wherein we “testify” of exciting events we’ve experienced in the work-place.
Even some of our Bible class literature (not a little of which has been transported from denominational publishing concerns) is filled with people-centered scenarios. “What would you do if you were in Johnny’s place?” The biblical emphasis is paper thin.
At the same time, a “new hermeneutic” has evolved by which the authority of apostolic example is questioned, the concept of necessary inference is ridiculed, the matter of the silence of the Scriptures is affirmed to be a pure fabrication.
Incredibly, some even advocate that the issue of authority is in the final analysis irrelevant!
Feminism in the Church
The influence of society’s feminists is being felt in the church. As denominational groups ordain female “priests” and “clergy,” congregations of the Lord’s people from Connecticut to California are also opting for an expanded role for women.
Church after church is announcing that Christian ladies will be progressively employed in leadership roles. The New Testament subordination of women is viewed as a cultural oddity of the first century with little, if any, application for today.
Again, some of our institutions of higher education are leading the way in this digression.
Erosion of Marriage
When Hollywood blazed the trail in serial “marriage,” many wondered if small-town America could be far behind. It wasn’t. Now, the same pattern is seen running rampant in the church.
“Single again” groups are in vogue. Experts in “marriage enrichment” skills are in great demand, while the seminar directors generally are careful to throw a wide loop that avoids confrontation with the biblical law of divorce and remarriage.
Every sort of quirky notion imaginable, the design of which is to “sanctify” adulterous liaisons, has surfaced in recent years. While we must have sincere compassion for those who are victims of divorce, the compromise of biblical truth is not a solution for these heartaches.
Just as the world of denominationalism has been gimmick-driven in recent years, so our people have not been far behind. We have explored every mechanism under the sun for attracting the public’s attention.
We have offered a variety of classes (somewhat analogous to a community college) and a host of public services within our neighborhoods in hopes of enticing the baby-boomers, Generation-X, and now Millennials. All the while, we largely have ignored the very thing responsible for our greatest success — the wonderful and simple proclamation of the gospel.
While some labor under the illusion that the modern world no longer wants the message of a dusty book twenty centuries old, actually, just the reverse is true. Many are starving for spiritual truth. Rich Bible teaching presented by instructors who are excited about the treasures of scripture is attracting the attention of a whole new generation of lost people.
The denominational world has little interest in the teaching of the New Testament in terms of a divinely-authorized worship format. Will-worship (Col. 2:23) for the most part has been the order of the day.
With roots that reach deep into paganism, Catholicism has been steeped in pageantry for centuries. Early Protestantism attempted a remedy. Calvin, Wesley, Spurgeon, and other notable Protestant scholars, for example, expressed strong views against the use of instrumental music in Christian worship.
Ferguson has noted that the expression A cappella (which refers to purely vocal music) literally means “in the style of the church.” His exhaustive research led to this conclusion:
The classical form of church music is unaccompanied song. To abstain from the use of the instrument is not a peculiar aberration of ’a frontier American sect”; this was easily, until comparatively recent times, the majority tradition of Christian history (Ferguson, 83).
Less than fifty years removed from Ferguson’s comment, it is not at all uncommon to hear prominent brethren arguing that instrumental music is a non-issue that certainly ought not to be treated as a test of Christian fellowship.
“There should be room in the Christian fellowship for those who differ on … whether instrumental music is used in worship” (Osburn, 90).
It is almost certain that conditions are developing among churches of Christ that eventually will accommodate large-scale innovations in congregational worship.
Even now, a number of sizable churches following the lead of denominational groups (Veith, 4-5) are staggering their services, providing a “traditional” worship format for the older generation (dare we say, “fogies”?). Then also a jazzed up service is arranged for those who are more contemporary.
Too, it is a sad commentary on our attitude toward the hours of sacred worship that our dress has degenerated to the exceedingly casual, not to mention sloppy. In a recent gospel meeting, a song leader was adorned in a tee-shirt and jeans. Sandals and shorts are observable not infrequently in some places. Neckties are becoming rarer at the Lord’s table.
What has happened to our sense of reverence for the solemnity of the occasion? What impression do we convey to visitors from the community? Contrast the decorum of the “Jehovah’s Witnesses,” as they proceed from door-to-door, impeccably dressed, with the bedraggled appearance of some Christians in the worship assemblies.
In his letter to the saints in Rome, Paul instructed the brethren to “be not fashioned according to the world” (Rom. 12:2). The present imperative form of the verb means, “stop being fashioned [conformed — KJV]!” The principle involved in this admonition is broad in its application. Barclay attempts to catch the spirit of it.
“Don’t try to match your life to all the fashions of this world; don’t be like the chameleon which takes its colour from its surroundings; don’t go with the world; don’t let the world decide what you are going to be like” (170).
Let us summon the courage to make the appropriate applications, yielding to truth and common sense, rather than to the fickle trends of an unspiritual society.