A Question and Answer Dialogue on . . .

Individual Judgments and Responsibility

 

*** Does your group expect its members to adhere to and believe everything alike?

No. The Association for Christian Development has a Statement of Faith booklet outlining just eight points that we feel are basic, core teachings of Scripture. We purposely kept the statement brief and we assume our associates are in general agreement with these points. But even then, many of these points are broad concepts which undergird our basic understanding and approach to the Christian way of life.

The ACD is a voluntary association of Christians and we exercise no control over what our members believe or don't believe. Beyond the eight fundamental teachings of Scripture we list there are many more important doctrines we believe and teach. I'm sure a number of our members view some points somewhat differently. And, of course, when it comes to the question of "everybody" seeing "everything" exactly alike we feel that would not only be impossible, it would be contrary to God’s intent and purpose for the individual Christian.

*** Don’t you believe God wants all members to think and believe alike? Shouldn't all Christians live alike?

In the most important areas, yes. In looking to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, in love, in humility, in the spirit of obedience to God and his Word, in dedication, in attitude of service, things like that. Read Philippians 2:1-8 for an example. And God wants us all to come to the unity of the knowledge of Jesus Christ, and to grow up in spiritual maturity to the fullness of his stature (Eph 4:12-15, 2Pe 3:18). But even then, each individual will be different in how he expresses love, humility, etc.

But in the area of doctrinal knowledge and biblical teachings, every Christian is at a different level of understanding. (This is obviously also true regarding our level of spiritual maturity and degree of internalization of God’s love and attributes as well.) Notice 1 Corinthians 8 in that regard: "There is not in every man that (same) knowledge" (v 7). The whole chapter (also Romans 14) shows that love, patience, and doing what will help your brother is much more important than the acquisition of knowledge by itself. The Bible also repeatedly teaches against men judging one another (Mt 7:1-5; Ro 14:4, 10, 13; Jas 4:11-12). Read 1 Corinthians 13:2 and James 3:13-18 too.

*** But aren’t some things sin in God’s sight? Doesn’t God want the ministry to rid the church of sin, evil, and error?

Yes, the ministry certainly has a major responsibility in this regard. But they aren't dictators nor do they have control over people's lives—nor should they. Their means of influencing the church is primarily through loving persuasion coupled with godly leadership and example. A good minister will hold up the highest standards of God, preach against sin and for Godliness, but will not attempt to be an enforcer. Sins, be they ministerial or lay, must be confronted by the individual Christian. God wants us as individuals to "internalize" his spiritual laws and precepts, to have them written in our hearts and minds (Heb 8:10-13; 10:16-17; 2Co 3:3, 6). That’s what the New Covenant is about. That’s a major function of the Holy Spirit now available to mankind through Christ.

God wants each individual to be perfect as our heavenly Father is (Mt 5:48), to grow to the fullness of Christ’s stature (Eph 4:11-15), to follow the perfect example of God our Father (Eph 5:1) and his Son (v 2, also 1Jn 2:3-6), and to purify himself of sin, unrighteousness, lawlessness, and hatred (1Jn 3:3-10). This involves growth and development. It is a process of seeking and understanding God’s will, of repentance and change, and of the internalization of God’s laws and principles in one’s mind and life through the Holy Spirit. By its very nature, this growth toward Godliness and perfection requires that individuals learn to apply overall spiritual principles to specific situations in life. Individuals, guided by God’s Spirit and Word, must learn to make their own decisions and stand on their own two feet in matters involving personal conscience and understanding.

*** But since every individual member is at a different level of understanding and knowledge, isn’t it the church’s responsibility to define for its members those things that are "right" and those that are "wrong"?

The things clearly taught in Scripture and don’t need men to clarify or further "define" them as right or wrong. But this is not always the case. Some matters are taught in principle or by example. It is in these areas, of course, where differences of opinion and understanding sometimes occur. Applying principles and examples in specific situations in a Christian’s life is a matter of personal responsibility according to one’s own conscience; and that is based on individual understanding. One of the jobs of ministry is to provide people the interpretative tools of biblical scholarship to aid in arriving at an accurate understanding of the Scriptures from which application principles can be drawn.

Where Scripture is silent or not definitive, we don’t believe that men have the right to make authoritative judgments on subjects to bind them on others as laws equal to God’s plain teachings in Scripture. We believe that only God is the Lawgiver. He is our Teacher. His word is our Guide and Path. And only he is our Judge (Jas 4:11-12; Ro 14:4). We don’t believe it’s the church’s responsibility to legislate or dictate in matters of personal conscience and understanding. God’s Commandments, Christ’s teachings and example, and the record of Christ’s apostles are preserved for all of us to study. With the help of God’s Holy Spirit in each of us as individuals, God can teach us, lead us, guide us, and help us. This is an essential part of the spiritual maturity and development process of the individual and the New Covenant relationship of every individual with God.

And, of course, God has also provided to his people a ministry to teach, guide, counsel, and help stimulate our individual growth and spiritual development. Are not Christ’s ministers commissioned to plainly teach to his people what is plainly and clearly taught in the Bible? To call a spade a spade? To not be men pleasers but to please God? A minister of God is responsible to teach the Bible and its principles, to guide and to counsel, but not to make the decisions for people that they must make for themselves. Nor is it his prerogative to interfere in a person’s private life and personal affairs.

*** Could you give some examples?

A minister should certainly preach against "idolatry," for instance; but he has no authority to dictate his personal judgments on the members, like condemning members who purchase a new car every year or two as worshipping "idols" instead of the true God. How the spiritual principles are applied to specific circumstances is more of the member’s responsibility, though the minister can provide counsel, of course. For another example, the Bible teaches the principle of modesty of dress and attire. Some churches try to "define" and legislate codes of modesty for their members. They often prescribe a religion of numbers, measurements, and a righteousness by physical, outward appearance. Of course, it’s absolutely impossible to dictate what is "modest" for every time, culture, or circumstance. What is "modest" in the latter 20th century was "immodest" in the 18th or 19th centuries (or even in the early 20th century). What is modest in California may not be in Iowa. What is modest in the United States may not be in England. What is modest among certain African tribes and cultures may not be here. What is modest at a beach may not be appropriate while shopping downtown. Etc.

That’s why the Bible is so often written the way it is. Rather that giving many clear-cut, unbending "definitions" and physical specifics, it teaches spiritual principles and provides positive and negative examples of people’s applications of these principles, providing us with help and guidelines for our individual judgments in our own particular circumstances.

But the church or ministry has no biblical authority to legislate or dictate in such matters. Within the parameters of God’s laws and teachings, each individual has the right to maintain his individuality. He or she is a human being with a God-given right for his or her self-respect and human dignity—is personally accountable to God for his or her own actions, decisions, conscience, and convictions (Ro 14:10-12). We all stand as individuals before our Maker.

Of course, there may be times when flagrant transgressions not only threaten a member’s personal salvation but also endanger other members as well. A minister of God would be derelict in his responsibility as a shepherd to ignore such a serious situation.

The ministers of Christ are shepherds to God’s flock. They have a vital role in the Body, as stated so often in the scriptures. They are given to the church by God (Eph 4:11-13; 1Co 12:18, 28) to serve, to help, to teach God’s Word and its principles, to comfort and console, to protect the flock from "wolves," to lead by example, to even exhort and sometimes rebuke (2Ti 4:1-5) – but not to take the place of God’s Word as the "Lawgiver" or to replace God himself as the "Judge" of men’s hearts and lives. Yet, true ministers play an integral part in this educational, internalization process God is working out in the lives and minds of his people.

When God planned to call out individuals into his Church, he also planned to provide the needed guidance and leadership (Eph 4:11-16). In his wisdom, he knew the church wouldn’t spiritually grow and prosper without a competent, dedicated, and Spirit-led ministry. Such a ministry is God-centered and committed to serving God's people as a good shepherd who would give his life for the flock of God. There are, unfortunately, ministerial hirelings a-plenty who might as well hold a sign at the corner reading "will preach for money, but I also require prestige and security, including a good retirement package." Avoid these. Find a good shepherd; God has many in his service.

*** I can see many areas of our personal lives where these principles apply. But isn’t it easier to have someone, like authorities within the church, to spell everything out for every individual?

Certainly, it may be easier to merely follow explicit orders, but it is not necessarily best. God wants sons who can think like he thinks; sons with God’s Mind, Attributes, and Character; not mindless robots that merely respond to external commands. And such human dictums could easily hinder the working of God’s Word and Spirit in our minds and lives, and be counter-productive to the very purpose he’s trying to work out in our development as Christians. It also sets up an atmosphere and environment that encourages people to judge one another, often in physical or personal matters. We need to concern ourselves most with the weightier matters of the law – mercy, judgment, and faith – and those things that really count in our development as Christians.

The main point to remember is that true Christianity involves a spiritual relationship of an individual with God and with his neighbor. As individuals personally accountable to our Creator, Teacher, and Judge, we must all reverently study God’s Word and wisely exercise his Spirit. We must individually replicate his love, his laws, and his mind; we must learn how to serve God and neighbor, and be a light and example of God and his way of life. And, not be judging one another over physical matters, personal judgments and applications of principles, and matters involving individual conscience and understanding. That’s the opposite of true, spiritual Christianity.

(This piece was first published by ACD in 1974)