There was a time within living memory when things were different. Gospel meetings would extend for weeks on end. Preachers would stand firm for the distinctive doctrines of churches of Christ, powerfully denouncing the errors of Christendom and exhorting people to return to the ancient landmarks. These men fortified the faithful with strong preaching highlighting these themes and the church grew and grew. The church now finds itself struggling to grow because preachers have become soft and no longer strongly emphasize these distinctive doctrines. If preachers would only re-affirm the importance of emphasizing the distinctiveness of the church of Christ, then churches of Christ would grow again.
Such is the view of what can be deemed the “distinctives” gospel. The “distinctives” gospel is so named on account of its emphasis on the distinctive doctrines of churches of Christ, including, but not limited to, immersion in water for the forgiveness of sins, weekly observance of the Lord’s Supper, congregational singing and the lack of instrumental music, the nature and work of the church, and all to highlight the uniqueness of churches of Christ. According to the “distinctives” gospel, the church must hear constant preaching and exhortation on these matters in order to continue to affirm and uphold the “ancient paths,” and in preaching these things frequently many will be converted. In this view “strong” or “hard” preaching focuses on these distinctive doctrines; “weak” or “soft” preaching is what might focus on other matters, for one might hear a similar message in denominational churches. Many adherents of the “distinctives” gospel” look to the 1950s or beforehand with nostalgia and to support their premise that preaching on the “distinctives” is what allowed the church then to grow.
As Christians we always do well to keep Ecclesiastes 7:10 in mind regarding nostalgia: the “former times” were not as great as imagined, and this is true of the 1950s as well. It is true the church grew well at that time; various Christian denominations also grew numerically at the time, which complicates any narrative suggesting such growth was entirely due to “preaching the distinctives.”
Let none be deceived: doctrinal and practical matters that prove distinctive among us ought to be preached and taught upon and practiced. The difficulty with the “distinctives” gospel is not in whether we should uphold the distinctive doctrines or not but upon the supreme emphasis on the “distinctives.”
A charitable reading of the “distinctives” gospel would suggest that much is taken for granted. It is not as if those who would assert the “distinctives” gospel would deny Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, ascension, lordship, and imminent return, or of anything established in the New Testament; instead, the “distinctives” gospel takes all of these things for granted. The “distinctives” gospel hearkens to a time where people felt reasonably confident that the vast majority of people with whom they would interact agreed that God existed, Jesus was Lord, and upon the general contours of Christian faith and practice, and thus could then focus specifically on the points of disagreement manifest in the “distinctives.” According to this perspective most people already were practicing some form or variant of Christianity, and thus the primary focus should be upon those points of disagreement in order to emphasize the distinctiveness of the church and thus as a call for people to leave their denominational affiliations and doctrines and uphold the nature and work of the church as set forth in the New Testament.
Even if one could have maintained the pretense of living in such a world before, we cannot any longer. A growing percentage of people in America have no background, heritage, or understanding of the Bible and the Christian faith. Even those who have spent time participating in various denominational and non-denominational churches often have poor understanding of what God has accomplished in Jesus and what it means. We cannot take it for granted that people already are on board with the basics of Christian faith and practice; in such an environment, to focus on the “distinctives” will lead to blank stares and visible confusion.
Emphasis on the “distinctives” can cause its own problems even among the Lord’s people. It proves too easy to take for granted that people understand the fundamental message of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, ascension, lordship, and imminent return, and the basics of Christian faith and practice; this leads many to understand the “distinctives” better than they do the core principles of the Christian faith itself. Far too often the “distinctives” are preached and taught without regard to their connection and association with the core concepts of Christian faith and practice. It can become all too easy to view every interaction and even every Biblical text in light of the “distinctives,” conflating the Biblical context with the presumed challenge of the present moment. Furthermore, the association between the “distinctives” and “strong” or “hard” preaching proves toxic: it becomes too easy for Christians to believe themselves justified because they uphold these distinctive doctrines, and base their view of their salvation upon their participation in churches of Christ and their manifestation of the “distinctives.” Preaching that reinforces the sanctimony of the audience is the opposite of “hard” or “strong”; such terms are reserved for preaching the things which prick the consciences of the audience and offends their sensibilities (cf. 2 Timothy 4:1-5).
The “distinctives” are not the Gospel; the “distinctives” flow as consequences of the Gospel, not because they are distinctive, but because they represent what God intends to accomplish through Jesus in His Kingdom. We do well to note how Peter and Paul would continually anchor all they preached and taught in what God accomplished in Jesus, and we should follow in their footsteps. Not one of the distinctive doctrines is true because they are distinctive of churches of Christ; they are true because they are what the Gospel of Christ demands in terms of various aspects of Christian faith and practice. Any doctrine which cannot be thus rooted in what God has made known in Jesus ought to be discarded.
We do well to consider the “distinctives” in terms of salt. Salt, after all, is a flavoring that provides distinction in many dishes. We use salt to flavor food that would otherwise be bland and unpalatable. Nevertheless, if we use too much salt, food becomes intolerable; we cannot stomach it. And so it goes with the distinctive doctrines of the faith: if we never speak of them and do not practice them, our faith will become generic and bland; indeed, at that point, people could participate in all sorts of “churches” and get the same effect. But if all we ever do is talk about distinctive doctrines, our preaching and teaching becomes intolerable: we might generate resistance to those “distinctives” because of the overemphasis, people begin to justify themselves on the basis of the “distinctives,” and those who would follow Jesus are not properly trained in the full message of what God has accomplished in Jesus. Just as salt is to be used judiciously in order to provide flavor without overwhelming the senses, so it ought to be with the “distinctives”: they should be continually practiced, discussed so that all may understand why we do what we do as we do it, exhorted as part of the call to follow Jesus as God has established in the New Testament, but not as overwhelming the overall message of Jesus as the Christ.
The Gospel is not centered in the distinctive doctrines of churches of Christ; the Gospel is Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, ascension, lordship, and imminent return, and all the truths of Christian faith and practice flow from this Gospel message. The “distinctives” are true inasmuch as they are rooted in the greater message of what God has accomplished in Jesus; they should be practiced and preached judiciously, and understood to be part of a greater whole. Those who will be saved are converted by the Gospel of Christ in its fullness, not merely in particular distinctive doctrines. May we proclaim Jesus the Lord and Christ in word and deed and obtain eternal life in Him!
Ethan R. Longhenry