I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel —which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let them be under God’s curse!.
-Galatians 1:6-9 (NIV)
I got a phone call earlier this week, and I’ve been thinking about it since. It was similar to a lot of phone calls I’ve received at church over the years. Maybe the sheer number of this kind of call has made me a little cynical and jaded about them. Still, something felt “off” about the call, and I think I know what it is.
The guy on the phone, a brother in Christ, was looking for a church on the south side of Chicago. I sort of assumed at first that he was looking for a church to visit when he came into town, or maybe he was moving to Chicago. I told him that we were on the north side, and asked where he was located. That’s when he told me that he was looking for a church to get in touch with a man in Chicago with whom he had been studying on the phone. That’s when the conversation turned into an interview.
“I’m looking for a solid Church of Christ,” he informed me earnestly. “Solid.” He used that word several times. Based on the rest of the conversation, I gathered that “solid” in this context meant a church that 1) doesn’t have women leading in worship, 2) doesn’t use “praise teams” in worship, and 3) isn’t connected with a specific offshoot of Churches of Christ associated with a specific city. “You’re not that kind of church, are you?” he asked, somewhat suspiciously. (Maybe because I didn’t enthusiastically denounce each item as he mentioned them?)
Remember, he wasn’t even asking because he wanted to visit. He was vetting my qualifications to refer him to another church!
I informed him that we checked all his boxes (as do the vast majority of Churches of Christ). I gave him the names of a couple of “solid” churches, and that was that. But I’ve been wondering since about his checklist. Why were those the items on his list? And what would define “solid” for me?
It’s tempting to start coming up with our own lists of what constitutes a “solid” church. Somewhere in there, I think, is a correct impulse. It’s important for the church to be vigilant against heresies and digressions that compromise the gospel — and therefore compromise our identities as people who are formed by the gospel. If our witness is tainted by teaching and lifestyle that run counter to the teaching of Jesus that we’ve received, then it’s an open question as to whether we are still the church at all. Paul was concerned about the real possibility of another gospel that could “pervert” the gospel of Christ, confuse the church, and ultimately cause us to turn away from life in the “grace of Christ.”
He seems to think that’s what the gospel does — it gives us a new life lived in the grace that Jesus preached, demonstrated, and embodied on the cross. That may be new to us, to think of the gospel as something active, something that creates, rather than something to be passively understood and believed. And maybe that’s part of the problem. If the gospel is a collection of doctrines to be correctly understood, interpreted, and believed, then we’d better make sure we get it all right. We’d better make sure to check all the boxes on the list. But beyond that, we’d better make sure that the list we have is the right one!
But if the gospel is intended to create something in us by the power of God, then getting all our doctrines right, all our boxes checked, is kind of putting the cart before the horse, isn’t it? That’s really what Paul is getting at later in Galatians 1, where he reminds the church that he didn’t have the gospel he preached vetted ahead of time by anyone from the “home office.” And there were plenty of people who would have doubted if Paul’s gospel was “solid.”
What changed Paul from persecutor to believer was not a set of doctrines that made more sense than the set he already believed. He wasn’t won over by logic, or convinced that the story of Jesus fulfilled prophecies. He was converted by an encounter with Jesus. And after meeting Jesus, and seeing first-hand the life that God’s grace created for him, everything else sort of fell into place. “Solid” doctrine, for Paul, was whatever seemed to fit inside his new life in Jesus. If it didn’t fit, it wasn’t solid.
Church history is full of people with lists, people arguing about what’s “solid,” true, healthy, or right. Some of those arguments seem hopelessly quaint now. (Anyone want to argue about how Jesus is present in Communion? Maybe you’d like to participate in a panel discussion about pre-, post-, or a-millennialism?) The divided state of the church today is largely to be attributed to those lists; people couldn’t see how they could get along with such differing definitions of what is “solid,” so we’re left with a fragmented, compromised witness to the One who said his people’s unity would be their best testimony.
The items on my phone friend’s list are worth talking about. I know “solid” churches on both sides of every one of them. Also worth talking about: why didn’t he ask about caring for the sick? Feeding the hungry? Visiting those in prison? Surely those belong in any discussion of a church’s “solidity.” Funny how limited our checklists can be. But it sounds now like I’m coming up with a list of my own.
It kind of comes down to this: Jesus comes first. Too often, we have our lists first. We think we’re defending the gospel, when what we’re really doing is advocating for our own understanding of what a life formed by the gospel is supposed to look like. in so doing, we’re preaching a different gospel.
In case you’re wondering what the difference is, it’s this: you and I are Christians, not because of our lists, but because of the grace of God revealed to us in Jesus.
If you sound like Jesus in a given moment, you’re probably right. If not, you’re probably wrong.
It really is that simple, because the gospel has little to do with our lists. It has everything to do with creating in us a life filled with, mediated by, and lived out in the power of God’s grace.
And that’s a solid life.