In our first article, we took a quick look at the high calling we have accepted as disciples of our Lord. Holiness is a reflection of Godly character which we are expected to exhibit now and completely, by God’s grace, in the Kingdom.
We ended the last article commenting that the battle we face against sin is not to be undertaken alone. The phrase “muscular Christianity” was coined several decades ago to describe those who felt that they could overcome sin by their willpower alone and personal might. In fact, we are not likely to win such a battle alone. Our Lord was never alone. While he occasionally drew strength from the surges of faith by his disciples, it was his relationship with his Father that was his constant defense against the pulls of the flesh. His use of Scripture exhibited a life whereby the implanted Word had blossomed, ripened and produced the fruit of righteousness.
But, what about faith in the 21st century?
A close examination of Israel and the primitive Christian church demonstrates that it is involvement and participation — fellowship — that is designed by God to help us to win the war against sin. But before we can begin our examination of how the ecclesia is designed to be a primary instrument in the fight against sin, we will need to put aside our own personal experience for a moment. We will need to temporarily park our cultural norms and personal preferences. The questions to be answered are not about what feels comfortable to us, but what is described as the Scriptural standard for our experience. This can only be achieved by a close examination of Scripture.
It may be helpful here to briefly discuss the potential for variance between our “religious life” and our “spiritual life.” At times, it is the religious life that gets almost all of our attention. It is the world that is observable: that is, subject to evaluation by others. Indeed, as we’ve seen, our religious life should be an expression of our innermost self. However, we’ve also seen that our hearts are capable of deceiving us. Our hearts fool us into thinking that if we keep certain rituals and do good works, we must be holy inside. This is the trap that we can fall into when we think of righteous acts separate from holiness.
Even Christadelphian eulogies tend to focus on our religious experiences. A sister who faithfully attended meeting throughout her life, and during her last years fraught with illness. A brother who was an outstanding expositor of the Word. An ecclesial servant who faithfully visited those sick and helped those in need. Of course, these acts of faith are highly commendable and essential to fellowship. But, in such cases there is little possibility of knowing what the brother or sister was experiencing inside. The invisible may very well be what is either strongest or weakest in the sleeping brother or sister’s life.
When Jesus was confronted by the ruler asking what “good thing must I do to inherit eternal life” he was met by someone caught up in “religious” thinking. His life had been fixed on the observable, the religious traditions — those things most likely to be seen of men. But, the solution to this young man’s quest was not about observance of righteous acts, but by dealing specifically with the core of what was troubling him spiritually — the love of money. Jesus took him right to the most unappealing and dark area of the man’s spiritual quest. In our lives, he will do the same for us. I’ve often wondered how the young ruler really dealt with this. Did he deny the need? Did he quickly understand the Lord’s call to surrender? Was he willing to make the fundamental change required in his life? Additionally, did he receive any help from others as he contemplated this decision? Was he able to talk with his kinsmen and the elders about the struggle he must have felt inside?
Personally, I doubt it. Why? Because most of us don’t have that kind of relationship either. If his experience matches ours, he would have had to struggle for long hours, feeling perhaps quite alone. He would be left to wonder if only he alone struggled with the issue? He would have been absent of the assurances from others of faith that would have reminded him that the Lord never forsakes those who trust in him.
The Ecclesia — A support network
So we come to the focus of this article. The ecclesia is to represent a support network unlike anything the world has ever experienced. It is to be a place where brothers and sisters can openly deal with the issues of life. It is where we must go to bind up the bruises and open, oozing wounds. The ecclesia is designed to ensure that all parts of the body are cared for and nourished. It is not designed for the members to feel isolated or alone.
Perhaps it is helpful to briefly discuss here the role of the priests in Israel. What were they to do and why did God appoint these men for full-time work? In fact, the priests were exempted from warfare with the nations because they were already engaged in a life and death war against sin. They were to “do the service” or “war the warfare” against sin in Israel. They were to help fellow Israelites to apply Scriptural principles for life, to discern between the clean and unclean, the holy and unholy. This was not done in some detached, formal way. Priests would have been intimately involved in the confessions and problems of their fellow brothers and sisters. The standard of the priesthood repeated in Malachi was that the priest’s lips should “turn many away from iniquity.” The priests would impart their own experience and knowledge to the erring brother in attempt to teach the righteous principles of God. We read in Hebrews:
“For every high priest taken from among men is ordained for men in things pertaining to God, that he may offer both gifts and sacrifices for sins: Who can have compassion on the ignorant, and on them that are out of the way; for that he himself also is compassed with infirmity. And by reason hereof he ought, as for the people, so also for himself, to offer for sins” (Heb 5:1-3).
This takes us to a central aspect of the work of the priests as well as the High Priest. In order to serve in this capacity, there had to be a full awareness of his own need for forgiveness. He too is “compassed with infirmity.” The High Priest offered first for his own sins, then the sins of the people on the Day of Atonement. If priests then — and today — are to be effective, our acknowledgement of the principle must be clear. We are no better than another. In reality, since we only know how we personally have responded and at times failed with temptation, we must admit that we are the worst sinners that we know. As the old adage goes, “there but by the grace of God go I.”
So, let’s try to move this learning back to our assessment of the Divine design of the ecclesia in the fight against sin.
Definitions of holiness
The ecclesia does have an important role to play in education — of this there can be no doubt. Bible classes and exhortations must be relevant in dealing with the real issues that disciples face. The standards for Scriptural application have often been learned through these talks and discussions. But, each generation has a critical role in defining what holiness looks like in the time in which they are living. The standards don’t change, but the threats take on new faces. A hundred and fifty years ago, our community was not struggling with threats of internet pornography, school systems that teach for “fact” that evolution explains man’s existence, widespread acceptance and condoning of aberrant sexual practices and lifestyles, or confusion about the role of brothers and sisters in the ecclesia. These are all challenges on our watch.
In 1935, the arranging brethren of the Los Angeles Ecclesia responded to what they viewed as looming threats to the ecclesia by issuing this direction to their members:
“Resolved that in order to maintain the high standard of ecclesial life as understood from the Scriptures, the Ecclesia expresses its definite disapproval of the practice of attending theatres, picture shows and collective dancing in homes or elsewhere, and members of the Ecclesia should not countenance such practices. The resolution is… to be read at the Sunday morning meeting from time to time.”
These brethren were attempting to be faithful priests to the flock in Los Angeles. You may quarrel with the way that it was implemented or pronounced, but you cannot argue with the standard that these brethren were holding themselves to. Incidentally, we might find it amusing to know that the “picture shows” of 1935 that they were addressing would receive a “G” or “PG” rating in today’s assessments. “Mutiny on the Bounty,” “The Bride of Frankenstein” and the Marx Brother’s “A Night at the Opera” headlined the movies that were identified as concerns. Clearly, such movies would hardly be seen as a threat today — especially given the vulgarity that is regularly presented at the cinema, on our televisions, and PCs.
Public pronouncements from the arranging brethren are rarely the appropriate standard for our ecclesias. These can sound like edicts. At best, such edicts ask for compliance, often at the risk of not ensuring a sound understanding of the important spiritual principles governing the issue. Rather, the arranging brethren have a dutiful responsibility to ensure that threats to the ecclesia are discussed and that adequate Scriptural study is done. These standards need to be clear from personally studying Scripture and they ought to be to us as clear as our understanding of First Principles.
Scripture is clear that there is great power in being able to confess our missteps and faults to one another. James wrote, “Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed. The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much” (James 5:16).
So simple, but so complex! We all agree with the principle, but you go first!
Let’s take a look at this passage a little more closely. First, it is not about a person who is willfully involved in rebellious sin. This is a brother that is struggling with temptation and wanting to overcome it. That’s important. Confession of sin is of no value unless there is a desire to repent. In the 1930s, the Oxford Group professed that there was great benefit in public confession. Their meetings were filled with personal public “confessions” where they openly confessed everything they had ever done to meeting rooms full of strangers. They entertained their audiences with wild, humorous, and sometimes licentious stories of their sins, misadventures, and escapades before they were changed into moral people. The teachings of Frank Buchman and the Oxford Group later would be embraced by Alcoholics Anonymous, which has helped many to overcome their addiction to alcohol and other substances. However, it is NOT the standard of confession in the ecclesia. Confession in the ecclesia is done not with a sole desire to free oneself of the burdened heart of sin, but it is intended to provide a mechanism for obtaining the loving support and real help needed in overcoming the sin. We are not to parade our sins, but rather to confess them because that’s what’s needed to move on to sustained repentance.
What then does confession require? First, we must acknowledge and accept the gravity of our sins and the need for us to restore righteousness in our lives. We cannot hide it or conceal it from the Lord, our brethren, or even ourselves. It also is an acknowledgement that we need the help of others. ‘I can’t do this alone and I must depend on the love and compassion of my brothers and sisters to survive.’ It also is a public acknowledgment of the acceptance of our accountability to the ecclesia. ‘My fight against sin is the business of my brothers and sisters. They have a stake in my life and my path to righteousness. If I am astray, they are weakened.’ Confession requires our commitment to do whatever is necessary to fight sin — even if it requires us to expose our shame. Jude wrote:
“But ye, beloved, building up yourselves on your most holy faith, praying in the Holy [Spirit], Keep yourselves in the love of God, looking for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life. And of some have compassion, making a difference: And others save with fear, pulling them out of the fire; hating even the garment spotted by the flesh” (Jude 20-23).
This is most instructive in dealing with one another as we struggle with sin. There are times when our brother has sinned, but he is not only aware of his sin, but capably moving to remove the temptation from his life. The brother involved in an unholy relationship has ended the tryst. In such cases, we may judge that what our confessing brother needs is “compassion, making a difference.” This is when we encourage our brother, confirm our love to him. We may need to acknowledge the sin and the wrong thinking that went into it, but our primary service to our brother is comfort. That doesn’t mean comfort as if the sin was no big deal, but comfort in knowing he is loved and in the graciousness of our Lord in forgiving trespasses.
But, this is not always the case. Sometimes we are incapable of rescuing ourselves. The power of sin has gripped us in a way where we feel overwhelmed. This is when we are expected to “pull them out of the fire.” The brother who has fallen into addiction to substance abuse, for example, is not one that is likely capable on his own to be able to overcome the battle. We may be called on, in some circumstances, to take a measure of control of our brother’s life (with his permission!) to separate him from the addictive substance and help him to get critical therapy and counseling.
In both cases, this can take us into a world with our brother or sister that we have never gone to before. It may expose us to dark secrets, “unsanitary” situations. We may be terribly surprised to know that our brother could be involved in such a sin and that it may have lasted so long. But, this is where the awareness of a priest is required. We must first acknowledge our own sin, that we too are in need. We can’t help him if we distance ourselves by thinking we are better than him.
The power of prayer
This brings us to the power of prayer. I find it interesting to observe that we as a community feel very comfortable in asking for prayers and joining together in prayer for those who are seriously sick or experiencing financial or occupational troubles. Certainly, these belong in our prayers and we must bring our petitions to our Heavenly Father on their behalf. He is the Great Physician that heals, the Lord over all aspects of our lives. But, I also find it is far less likely that we would confess our sins and ask our brothers and sisters to pray for us in our struggle against sin. This, in my view of Scripture, is what First Century fellowship was all about!
Furthermore, Scripture teaches us that if we are unrepentant and our heart is not right with God, our prayers may be hindered. Isaiah wrote,
“Behold, the Lord’s hand is not shortened, that it cannot save; neither his ear heavy, that it cannot hear: But your iniquities have separated between you and your God, and your sins have hid his face from you, that he will not hear” (Isa 59:1-2).
Peter emphasized that ill-behavior to our spouse can also limit our prayers.
“Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered” (1Pet 3:7).
This may bring new meaning to why we would wish to ask for others to pray for us. At times when we may be overwhelmed and entangled in sin, “the prayer of a righteous man availeth much.” There can be little doubt that healthy ecclesias are regularly engaged in prayers for one another. This is best done when we adhere to Scriptural admonition about confessing our sins to one another so that we can indeed pray for one another.
We are called to be intimately involved. We are not to shy away when our brother needs us most. Our role is to warn, to have compassion, to assist. Ezekiel wrote:
“Son of man, I have made thee a watchman unto the house of Israel: therefore hear the word at my mouth, and give them warning from me. Again, When a righteous man doth turn from his righteousness, and commit iniquity, and I lay a stumblingblock before him, he shall die: because thou hast not given him warning, he shall die in his sin, and his righteousness which he hath done shall not be remembered; but his blood will I require at thine hand. Nevertheless if thou warn the righteous man, that the righteous sin not, and he doth not sin, he shall surely live, because he is warned; also thou hast delivered thy soul” (Ezek 3:17, 20-21).
We are called to be watchmen. We are expected to be vigilant and to cry out so that the righteous might turn from their iniquity and live. To fail to do so is to jeopardize BOTH my brother and myself!
So, what does that require of ecclesias? The message for us today is significant. While the world around us speaks against authority and decries standards imposed by others, believers embrace Divine standards and the RESPONSIBILITY and ACCOUNTABILITY of brothers and sisters to one another as we strive to live to Divine standards. The cultural norms that may prevail about being “private” with the challenges and doubts in our lives must be rethought. Often in our ecclesias we are so busy, moving from one class to another, from one programmed event to the next, we fail to provide an opportunity or the time to really deal with the issues that we are struggling with. Someone struggling with a sin of fornication, for example, can easily cruise through Sunday school, Memorial Service, and an afternoon program without the slightest chance of being able to have the conversation that is burning in their heart. How do we make time for this? That’s a challenge for each ecclesia to decide. Do you provide a mechanism for real discussion of life? Does the ecclesia pray together for righteousness — in a specific and targeted way? Can ecclesial members depend on some mechanism that will allow them to share their own needs for support? Is your ecclesia “intimate” and a place where one can share that they are flawed without being labeled or unduly judged? Each ecclesia must face these questions to the best of their ability.
Our next article will take a look at the foundation for Scriptural discipline — forgiveness. What must we understand about forgiveness if we are to be the watchmen that Scripture requires us to be? How is forgiveness essential to the recovery of those who are in need of compassion as well as those who we must pull from the fire?
David Jennings (Pomona, CA)