Many times in life we see a crisis of definition. How are we being defined? Who are we? What do we stand for?
We see such things all around us. Politicians attempt to “set the narrative,” telling a compelling story about themselves and their opponent and why people should vote for them and approve their policies. The media, meanwhile, devotes its time to “setting the narrative” as well, attempting to tell the story in a way to get ratings. Companies, advocacy groups, etc. all do the same thing, attempting to set a narrative and tell their story in a way that attracts interest and money.
This is also true in spiritual terms. We need to be just as concerned with how we are defined, and how we define ourselves, as are people in the world. Ultimately, part of our success or failure in promoting the Kingdom is based on people’s perspectives of God, the faith, and us. Sometimes this perspective is accurate; many times it is not.
I fear that we (and by “we” I speak of members of churches of Christ generally) are suffering a crisis of definition. The difficulty is that we are defined more by what we are not than what we are.
This is in many ways self-inflicted. We spend copious amount of time indicating the contrast between what we teach and what “all those denominations” believe. Much of it is negatively presented. “We don’t believe in denominationalism.” “We don’t use instruments.” “We don’t believe the church should give to institutions/have a fellowship hall/have a gym.”
I am not saying that we should spend all of our time indicating areas of agreement, or to deny the distinctions between ourselves and others. On the other hand, when all we ever do is talk about what we don’t do, why are we surprised when others define us only by what we are not?
“Those people are church of Christ. They don’t use instruments.”
When was the last time you wanted to be part of something that you defined in terms of what it was not? We tend to want to be part of things for what they are for, not for what they’re not.
The sad thing about all of this is that it is entirely based on definition.
As opposed to defining ourselves as “not being part of a denomination,” we could define ourselves as “a group of people seeking to reflect the image of God and part of His Body (Ephesians 5:22-33).”
As opposed to defining ourselves as “not using instruments,” we could define ourselves as “those who believe strongly in the value of singing praise to God, speaking to one another in spiritual songs (Ephesians 5:19, Colossians 3:16).”
As opposed to defining ourselves by how we don’t use the treasury, we could define ourselves by what we do with one another, and how we strive to help all men in need (Galatians 6:10, Acts 2:42, etc.).
People like being part of something that has value for what it is for; it’s not as easy to just be “against” something, or to attract merely on the virtue of not being something else.
And, interestingly enough, Jesus provides a hint of this.
“Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself,
‘God, I thank thee, that I am not as the rest of men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. I fast twice in the week; I give tithes of all that I get.’
But the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote his breast, saying, ‘God, be thou merciful to me a sinner.’
I say unto you, This man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that exalteth himself shall be humbled; but he that humbleth himself shall be exalted” (Luke 18:10-14).
Notice here the nature of the Pharisee: he defines himself primarily by what he is not. He is not a “terrible” person. The basis of his righteousness, or his supposed righteousness, is in what he isn’t. The tax collector, however, is more than willing to define himself by what he is, a sinner, and notice who, in the end, is justified.
We have no basis to glory in what we’re not. God is concerned more with who we are (or, more accurately, who we’re supposed to be: obedient servants of Him) than who we’re not. Yes, we are supposed to avoid sin, and we should not suffer being accurately called sinners in various ways (1 Peter 4:15).
But look in the Scriptures. Peter doesn’t define himself by not being a Gentile, or not in error. Neither does Paul, nor James, nor anyone else. They define themselves by who they are: servants of Jesus Christ, chosen to be His Apostles, etc. (Philippians 1:1, 1 Thessalonians 1:1, James 1:1, 1 Peter 1:1).
Again, we do need to be against error. But we stand against error best by being for the truth, living the truth, manifesting the light of Christ to men (Matthew 5:13-16). Ephesus was condemned for being against error but not living for Christ (Revelation 2:1-6). That should be a sober warning for us.
As long as churches of Christ are known more for what they aren’t than what they are, don’t be surprised when it’s a challenge to grow. It’s when Christians and the church are better known for what they are for and what they do than what they aren’t and what they’re not doing that people will be more interested.
So the church throughout all Judaea and Galilee and Samaria had peace, being edified; and, walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, was multiplied (Acts 9:31).
Ethan R. Longhenry