Having done some blog posts on Evangelicals, Fundamentalists, etc., let me add another term to the conversation – non-denominational. I suspect that some followers of this blog do not know that IRCC is non-denominational. A denomination (in the church world) is a larger church group in which all the congregations fall under some kind of central leadership. The denomination will generally be named for a founding leader (Lutheran, Wesleyan and so forth), a practice or governing distinctive (Episcopalian, Methodist and so forth) or an aspirational aim (Four-Square, Church of God and so forth). But the real point is – there is a headquarters somewhere from which rules and directives flow down to the congregations and to which money, in the form of dues, support of denominational mission’s initiatives, etc., flows back up the chain. How strictly the individual congregation is controlled by the denominational leadership varies. The denomination may legally own the facility in which the congregation meets – even if the congregation raised all the money for the facility themselves. The denomination may appoint ministers for the individual congregations, deciding how long the current minister(s) stay and who comes next. The denomination may determine key doctrinal/social positions – ruling on how the individual congregations should interpret the Scriptures, what the congregation’s stance on issues like gay marriage should be, etc. The denomination generally has a process for credentialing clergy. Most denominations maintain their own colleges or at least have an historic alliance with particular colleges and universities. Denominations provide key services – suggested (or mandated) salary levels, various insurance and pension programs, conflict resolution, legal advice and representation, etc.
Non-denominational congregations operate without such a central office. The non-denominational congregation is, so to speak, on its own. Some non-denominational congregations are one-offs – founded and maintained by an individual preacher or a small group of likeminded individuals. Other non-denominational congregations (like IRCC) are part of a movement – in our case, The Restoration Movement, born in the mid-1800s and now generally known as the ‘Christian Churches/Churches of Christ’. The Restoration Movement has also been called the ‘Stone/Campbell Movement’ remembering three preachers, Thomas and Alexander Campbell (father and son) and Barton W. Stone, any of which would be horrified to think a movement bore their name. The Campbells were originally Presbyterians but chafed at the denomination’s insistence that they could not offer communion to frontier believers from other denominations. Expelled by the Presbyterians – and later, couple of Baptist Associations, the Campbells set out to be just ‘Christians’. Stone was a likeminded revivalist – and there were others. Thus, in a fairly short time there rose a number of ‘Christian Churches’ in Virginia (West Virginia didn’t exist yet but there were ‘Christian Churches’ on that real-estate), Ohio, and Kentucky. There are many thousands of them now, in all 50 states and around the world. But there is still no central office.
Each Christian Church congregation finds its own ministers, the congregation deciding for itself who is qualified and how much to pay, etc. Over the years, the Christian Churches have created and maintained Bible Colleges but the process is decentralized. Some individual has a vision for a college. He has to make an appeal to individual congregations – one at a time – and if he sells them on the vision, they contribute support, send their young people to the college, and consider a degree from that college as valid. Missionary endeavors are supported in exactly the same fashion. Each congregation decides doctrinal questions on their own and there is no one to tell them they can’t arrive at any particular decision.
Some denominational friends have asked me questions like ‘Well, who controls the crazy preacher with wild hare ideas?’ or ‘Don’t all your congregations end up believing totally different things until there’s no point calling it a unified movement anymore?’
I can only say that as the Restoration Movement closes in on 200 years old, there is a remarkable amount of doctrinal unity and, in my experience, brotherly good will. I am as much of a doctrinal outlier as anyone – a historic premillinialist in a largely a millennial movement (If anyone has questions about what that means I’d be happy to take it up in another post.) and so far, so good.
Currently in America the non-denominational congregations (Restoration Movement and others) have two distinctives: 1. They tend to be more conservative than their denominational counterparts. 2. They have for the past two decades at least, experienced more growth than their denominational counterparts.
I fully realize my status as a biased party. I grew up in the non-denominational Christian Churches from the nursery on, graduated from a couple of those colleges that managed to sell their visions to enough congregations to flourish, and have ministered in the same non-denominational Christian Churches all my adult life – over 40 years now. Still, even as I recognize some of its weaknesses, I believe non-denominational is the way to go. I’ll think on whether to write more on that score, saying for the moment only that I have a high and brotherly regard for all who truly follow Christ – from whatever background.
I am a noticer – and oblivious. As with most people, I suspect, these two opposed qualities in me are compartmental rather than contradictory. Most of the women in my life will stress the ‘oblivious’ side of my make-up. I occasionally pick up a vibe from a woman that lets me know there is something to be noticed – something I OBVIOUSLY should be noticing – but am not. Years ago, following several epic noticing failures, I began to devise a checklist for when I caught that vibe – hair, dress, weight loss,…. A female friend of mine once confided in me and asked advice about a romantic relationship and I gave such advice as I could. Soon afterwards, as we spoke again, I caught ‘the vibe’ and started through my checklist. No item seeming appropriate, I continued in ignorance until she gave an exasperated sigh and thrust her left hand forward. Ah, add engagement ring to the checklist.
At 63 years of age, I have pretty much discarded this and other checklists and simply accepted my observational compartmentalization. I notice spiders because I don’t like them. I have an aversion to walking into a spider web and then trying to figure out where on my person the nasty creature may be. I notice birds and trees because they both fascinate me. Such diversity, beauty, and utility ought not be overlooked. Some people have tried to tell me that spiders also are diverse, beautiful and useful. No sale. I will continue to notice spiders only in order to avoid them. But, should anyone ask me at almost any waking moment about the birds or trees I have passed in the last hour, I could probably give you a species list of either. I know before I start looking which birds are likely to hang out at ground level, eye level, mid-terrace, or tree-top. I know the flight patterns and quick identification marks. I know which trees tend to be colonial and which are water tolerant and the profile differences that come with altitude, degree of sunlight and so forth. I can find the mallard nests or the killdeer chicks. I can tell you that the kingbirds seem more numerous than usual in my area this spring. I know the location of mature American Elms that have, somehow, staved off the Dutch Elm Blight. I know these things because I have been noticing birds and trees for going on six decades.
I try to train my grandchildren in my areas of interest. We will go on walks and I will say – point me out a robin or a redbud tree. It is amazing to me that they will have to stop and look around every time – even if I say, point me out a Canadian goose! How can there be a bird the size of a small dog right out in the open and anyone be unaware of it. I can tell you that if there was a spider the size of a small dog in my vicinity, I would notice! But, what can I say – I’m sure my beautiful wife wishes I would notice her hair a little more.
I guess, at the end of this rambling communication, I would simply ask – how many cartwheels and handsprings does God have to do across the landscape of our lives before He gets our attention? And the answer, I suppose, is – we notice what we care about.
I will return to a lighter theme today and relate another true incident from my past. I grew up on a small Indiana pig farm. We had other animals on the farm at times, a few cattle, a couple of ponies, several generations of chickens, a handful of ducks, a clutch of domestic rabbits, the usual collection of farm dogs and cats, and exactly one sheep. My siblings and I, being young at the time, had the habit of naming most of the animals. We were ‘Three Stooges’ fans so the original four pigs Dad started the herd with became Larry, Mo, Curly, and Joe. The cattle were strictly for the freezer and went by names like Hamburger and Pot-Roast. Only a few of the virtually identical White Rock Chickens merited names – including twin roosters called Trouble and Maker.
The sheep’s name was Babette. Babette arrived as my middle sister’s one and only 4H project. Though she stayed with us only a single season (the sheep, not my sister) Babette left an impression. Mainly, she impressed us as stupid, gullible, and able to acquire a bad habit from anyone. When we let Babette out to graze we were concerned about how she would get along with the pigs – swine can be somewhat ill tempered. This turned out not be a valid concern – at least as far as – well, Babette got along fine with the pigs. Sheep are very gregarious and a flock is a flock. But the hygienic habits of pigs are one thing for animals with straight, scant, stiff hair and quite another for an animal with thick, curly wool. We soon decided Babette would be better off grazing in the farmyard, firmly fenced away from the pigs.
It was an odd moment in the life of the farm when a couple of stray female dogs that had wandered, uninvited, into our lives (and apparently also into the life of Bandit, the somewhat surly male dog we kept on purpose) pupped simultaneously. In a relatively brief time we gave almost all of the puppies away. Remember how I told you, we had the habit of naming the animals. You can place this incident in time by knowing that a Presidential Primary was in progress and the two female dogs and the one puppy we kept inherited the monikers Humphrey, Wallace, and McGovern.
Anyway, Babette, banished from the hog lot, took up residence in the farmyard at just the moment the canine population of the estate swelled to an unprecedented 17. Remember also that sheep are very gregarious and a flock is a flock. Babette’s stint as a dog was more humorous than her time as a pig. The highlight was the car chasing. The puppies all did their very best to keep with the older dogs, racing along our front yard fence, yapping for all they were worth every time a car came down the dirt road we lived on. Babette was slower than the adult dogs but faster than the puppies, occupying a middle position in the pack. And have you ever noticed how sheep run? They travel in successive leaps, all four hooves touching in mid-air. The proper caption is ‘Boing, boing, boing’ and always strikes me as reminiscent of old Peppy Le Pew cartoons.
It remains my belief that residents of the township drove miles out of their way for the experience. If cell phones with built in video cameras and social media outlets like Facebook had been a thing at the time, I am sure the scene would have been immortalized.
Anyway – the above story is true and it left me with this firm conviction – sheep are stupid and ready to acquire a bad habit from anyone. It also gave me greater insight into God’s repeated insistence that the best metaphor for us is that of sheep needing a shepherd.
As I begin this second installment on the church/state relationship, please be patient while I review much of what I said in the first installment. God ordained the times and habitation of all nations in such a way as to make it easier for lost sinners in a fallen world to find Him (Acts 17). Because the state derives its authority from the purposes of God, believers should be subject to the authority of the state (Romans 13, Titus 3:1-2, etc.). Although I did not go into the other passages, I find many that give specific details of the ways in which believers being subject to the authority of the state cooperates with the plans of God. Consider for instance, I Peter 2:13-17 where we find that being subject to the state silences the ignorance of foolish men who would otherwise criticize believers – i.e. faith should make us better citizens than otherwise, not worse, and this testimony helps others find God. There are many other such passages but for the time being I will let you search them them on your own – they are not hard to find. But – the books of Daniel and Revelation assure us that earthly state governments also function as the Beast – empowered by Satan to accomplish his will. It is my contention that all the world’s governments always become the Beast in the end, overwhelmed by the moral pressure of the fallen world. When states fall into Satan’s snare, they drive us to God rather than leading us to Him. Either way, the plans of God are accomplished. This reality, however, brings us to the understanding that being subject to the authority of the state does not imply unquestioning absolute obedience. In Acts 4 the Apostles refused to obey state orders to cease and desist preaching Christ. This is disobedience. On the other hand, they, as a part of their testimony, willingly and meekly endured whatever punishment the state dished out for their disobedience. This is subjection.
Having reviewed the previous post – let’s move forward. A Christian’s subjection to the state does not proceed from any faith or hope in the state itself. Rather, our subjection to the state proceeds from our faith and hope in God. This is good! I, at least, have long since ceased to hope much in the state! The same fallen sinfulness that troubles humanity in all its endeavors prevails in our government (the church too – but that’s another discussion). Power, love of money, reckless ambition and lust are far too often the real drivers of state policy. This is no surprise to God and our subjection (not unquestioning obedience) to the state is part of His plan for making it easier for lost sinners to find Him.
All of this applies to the church/state relationship in the current situation. We have the same Biblical insistence that we should be subject to the state even as it issues orders pertaining directly to the operation of the church. But – gasp – the state may be short-sighted and wrong. Bureaucratic policies often accomplish exactly the opposite of their stated intent. The state may not have the best interests of the church – or any concern at all that lost sinners find God – in mind. Many state operators may see a crisis like the current one as an opportunity to seize permanent power over the population! Some state operators will see the pandemic as an opportunity for ‘under the table’ or ‘back room’ deals to milk money from this or that vendor or interest. All these things are true. But remember, Paul’s original remarks about being subject to the state were given under the administration of Nero!
Allow me to flog the poor dead horse ONE MORE TIME and say that these things also remain true.
On Sunday March 15, though pressure was building to cancel in-person services entirely, the Governor of Ohio’s group limit was set at 100. We, along with several other local congregations, chose to meet, making arrangements to ensure our worship groups stayed below 100, changing the way we do communion and offering, disinfecting the building between services, etc.
By Sunday March 22, the Ohio group limit had fallen to 50. We made more arrangements, multiplying services and asking some of our people to come at different times so as to stay under the new limit. We maintained still stricter disinfectant protocols and distancing, ceased shaking hands, spread chairs further apart, etc. By this time we were one of the very few congregations in the state meeting in person.
On March 23, the Ohio group limit fell to 10. Consequently, on Sunday March 29 we held the first ‘drive in’ service. People stayed in their cars in the parking lot and tuned their radios to a short-range FM transmitter we had acquired. A small crew assisted the ministerial staff with sound & broadcast equipment. A hay wagon became the platform. Honking of horns and flashing of lights became congregational feedback. Offerings were pitched at a bucket on the way out. We have held six of those services now, the dedicated staff standing out in the wind, rain and cold as necessary. We will hold at least four more. In each service we give away masks, hand sanitizer, soap, bleach, disinfectant wipes, etc. For the time being, we have suspended all other Bible studies, Sunday School (barring ZOOM classes), outings etc. We also ’live-stream’ the 10:15 service on Facebook and post daily devotions, Scripture readings and prayers. We have worked out ways to continue giving away food to those in need. We wear masks and wash our hands a lot.
We are beginning to discuss the timing and manner of moving back into the building but we wait the next round of policy changes from the state. Obviously, many congregations across the nation have done differently and many congregational or state leaders would be critical of our response. Equally obvious – congregations of vastly different size and demographics would have to employ different solutions. I will only say that our leadership has striven to be subject to the state authority as far as conscience allows while reserving obedience for the mandate of the church to the giver of the mandate – God. Whatever comes, we will trust His purposes.
The whole question of the relationship between church and secular government has a tortured history. The church has been persecuted by secular governments. The church has been the secular government. The church has been set beside the secular government as an equal partner – and as a senior partner. Then, in our context, the church has been – what? Perhaps a semi-free agent operating within the secular society but not subject to (Some of? A few? One or two?) of the rules that bind other organizations: a distinction the church shares with the press. After all, congress (the legislative branch) is not to legislate either the establishment of a religion or any prohibition of the free exercise of religion. The historical reasons for this arrangement are easy to understand. When the secular government (hereafter referred to as the ‘state’) can tell you what to believe, Who/who or what to worship and how, and where you must turn to discover meaning in your life, freedom ceases to exist. Anyone who argues otherwise is angling to take your freedom away themselves. Thus, the first amendment to the constitution of the United States, instructing the state to LEAVE RELIGION ALONE (and the fourteenth amendment placing the same restriction on the individual states) was seen as essential to preserving the American ideal of freedom.
But the line is difficult to draw or hold once drawn. Less than a hundred years after the passage of the first amendment (Reynolds v United States) the Supreme Court ruled that banning Polygamy did not constitute an infringement on the religious freedom of Mormons. In 1940 (Cantwell v Connecticut) the Supreme Court ruled that requiring a license in order to solicit (funds) for religious purposes would be a violation of religious liberty. In 1988 (Employment Division v Smith) The Supreme Court ruled in favor of a state law banning peyote despite its use in Native American religious ceremonies. Believe it or not, legal arguments have been mounted for accepting human sacrifice as a religious practice – as long as the victim is willing. We haven’t got there yet!
And, of course, there is the question of taxes. Churches remain exempt from income and sales tax and can write tax deductible receipts for donations – as long as the church in question doesn’t engage in political activities. Defining and holding that line alone is a nightmare! Or – the question of location – as in – can religious messages be delivered or religious practices carried out on public land?
All this to say – religious freedom is not absolute – and the flip side – the government only has to be hands-off until it doesn’t. Which brings me to the question at hand – the church/state relationship in the current crisis. It has all been less than uniform. Some states have maintained that churches are exempt from the orders placed on the rest of society in terms of public meetings, numbers, etc. And, some churches have carried on in spite of their states, counties, or communities mandating that they can’t. Sheriffs have issued citations to attenders at church services. Individual pastors have been arrested or called to court. Health Departments have posted crease and desist orders on church buildings. Mayors have tried to stomp on some congregation’s efforts to hold drive-in services. The federal DOJ is weighing in.
By and large, American congregations have gone out of their way to comply with guidelines and orders even in locales where they are regarded as technically exempt from those orders. But the compliance effort is beginning to wear thin. I hesitate to predict what American congregations as a whole will do if the orders persist much further into the future. What is our mandate? What is our obligation to the state? What should constitute our concern for the safety of our flocks and the larger community?
What I feel the need to say on this issue exceeds the scope of a single blog post. So, for the moment, I will try to cover a little Biblical background and ask you to stay tuned for another installment to come. If you’re not already familiar with them, please read Romans 13, Revelation 13, Acts 4 and Acts 17:24-28
Romans 13 and Revelation 13 draw an interesting set of brackets around the church/state relationship. In Romans, Paul insists that Christians ought to be subject to the state authorities as all such authority is ordained by God and functions for our good. It’s interesting that Paul wrote this under the administration of Nero and that, late in his career, after much persecution from and on the brink of execution by that same administration, as shown by Titus 3:1-2 and other passages, Paul did not change his mind. It’s also worth mentioning that Peter, John, and James (James a little less explicitly – but it’s still there?) all agree with Paul on this despite their own troubles with the government of the day. However, Revelation 13 (cast against the understanding of similar visons in the book of Daniel) portray the governments of the earth as – The Beast. If not for the pesky identification of states active AT THE TIME in Daniel, an effort could be made to cast only the government of the last generation as the Beast. But a fair consideration makes it clear that the Beast has been in operation all the while. It is, for me at least, an inescapable conclusion that the governments of this world always become the Beast in the end. It’s certainly not hard to see that concerning the administration of Nero in the Roman Empire of the first century – the state Paul said Christians living at the time should be subject to.
In between these brackets lies the insistence as per Acts 17 that God not only made the world in its physical features but that he ordained the times and habitations of all nations – read: the rise and fall of the Roman Empire and the American Experiment – and that He ordained them for a purpose, i.e. that these nations would make it easier for us all to find God – even if as groping in the dark. There is a larger and very interesting story behind that altar to the unknown God in the context of Acts 17 and this assertion! I may include it in another post as it illustrates this point. Or, you can look it up. Hint: it has to do with the Greek poet Paul quotes in the same chapter – the Quatrains of Epimenides.
And a final element – to be subject to does not imply blind obedience. In Acts chapters 4-5 and elsewhere, the Apostles are ordered by their native government to stop preaching about Jesus. They decline to obey that order insisting that they must obey God rather than men. These acts of disobedience however do not mean the Apostles were not ‘subject to’ the government in question. They willingly received any penalty said government wished to inflict – beat me, jail me, kill me if you must but I cannot but preach the things of Christ.
This is already running long but it is the briefest sketch I can draw of the Biblical background for the church/state relationship. I conclude that God has a purpose for secular states – to help us find Him – and that our being subject to the power of the state facilitates that purpose. Several other Scriptures give specific details about that process. But Satan also has plans for the governments of the earth and he empowers them for his plans – and in the end, the fallen states comprised of fallen people in the fallen world always become ensnared in Satan’s plans. The plan of God, however, is never foiled. In those instances where states lead truly, we are led to God. As states fall into Satan’s net, we are driven to God. Our being subject to the power of the state facilitates the process but that subjection does not imply absolute obedience which is reserved for God alone. Rather, we obey as far as our conscience allows and, as part of our testimony, willingly take our lumps when our conscience dictates that we can no longer obey the state. Stay tuned for more on this topic as relates to the current crisis.