Let’s get one thing straight up front: this is an opinion column designed to provoke thought, and nothing more. I don’t write as an official mouthpiece for ACD. I’m just one of a gaggle of wordsmiths who’s allowed to vent his literary spleen on this website. I may or may not agree with things other writers write in this forum. The same is true of them regarding my rantings. I do, however, agree with the idea that the purpose of this website is to help us all move in a godly direction.

I don’t know about you, but I think a lot about God and my relationship with him. I want above all to live as a godly man in what seems to be a largely ungodly world. I have found, however, that if I rely on preachers to show me the way, I may end up in confusion. It’s analogous to food and diet “experts” – they all tend to cancel each other out. One says potatoes are good for you, loaded with nutrients. Another says they’re anathema. Some say food combining is a misguided notion; others swear by it. Good luck finding the ideal diet!

Finding the ideal church is no easier – in fact it’s far harder. After more than fifty years of Bible study, I’m still trying to bring certain issues to resolution, and I am enormously unsatisfied with my relationship with God (my end of it, not his). I’m still trying to figure him out. Perhaps I’ve set myself an impossible task. After all, Paul wrote of God, “…how unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out!” (Romans 11:33b). I agree with Paul.

Relationship with God is one thing, religion is another. I have little concern with the latter, much with the former. Religion, all too often is about denominational, pastoral or congregational politics, relentless fundraising, required tithing, building programs, and doctrinal squabbles that are seldom resolved. Then there’s personal empire building. Within the churches of God pod (Armstrongian) we are currently witnessing yet another crisis of leadership, especially within the disunited United group.

Ideally, relationship with God is portable and custom-tailored to the individual believer. It’s who we really are in Christ. We take it wherever we go and act accordingly. The challenge then, is to build within oneself the kind of faith relationship with God that isn’t dependant upon one’s relationship with a denomination, ministerial or priestly hierarchy, or congregation. Such a relationship is not tied to a set of cemented dogmas and non-negotiable doctrines. Upon the discovery of new and better understanding, any teaching should be revisable. Bible study should be an adventure in growth, new insights and deeper comprehension of the way of God. We are called upon to grow in knowledge and to “get understanding” (II Peter 3:18 & Proverbs 4:7). For those who diligently study, understanding deepens and changes over time. This is followed by wisdom.

When I was a “baby” Christian, I had a small amount of knowledge and virtually no spiritual understanding or wisdom. Consequently, I accepted doctrines and practices that upon later learning turned out to be false. I don’t think that those who taught them were intentional about it. They sincerely believed they were conveying truth. Yet, as I grew in knowledge and understanding, that put me at odds with those who had set in concrete what they believed to be correct. They had no intention of questioning the status quo for they believed it to be inspired and therefore inerrant. They had become locked in to what philosopher Eric Hoffer called
“the true believer” mentality. There is no arguing with that mindset.

It’s also easy to become a “ditchist” – plunging from one ditch to another. We are naturally creatures of extremes. We can swing between “ever learning and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth” (II Timothy 3:7) and intellectual constipation.

It’s in the Book

Ultimately, it all comes down to the Biblical texts. What do they say and mean in their original setting? No matter what some ignorant folks say, it takes scholarship to find out. Most of us didn’t grow up speaking and reading Biblical Hebrew, Aramaic or Greek. Most of us rely on those scholars who translate the ancient languages into the languages we speak and read. All translation involves interpretation. Interpretations can vary, depending upon what assumptions the translator brings to the table.

Once a translation is made, and is in print, further interpretation takes place. Translations have to be “exposited” or explained. This is often done in the light of, and in support of, existing doctrines and dogmas. Have you ever heard a sermon given using The Living Bible? It’s not really a translation – it’s a paraphrase. It can be wildly inaccurate – that is, unfaithful to the meaning and intent of the text. Preachers will use it to the degree it seems to support their spin on the message.

The prejudices a preacher brings to his subject matter can determine the conclusions he draws from the text. A Catholic priest, a Baptist preacher, and a Pentecostal evangelist may read the same text, or translation, three different ways. A teacher who believes in Trinitarian doctrine will approach all passages under the assumption that the Holy Spirit is a third “Person” in the Trinity. Unitarians see the same passages quite differently, as do Armstrongites. God is explained as a Trinity, a Binity, or a singularity — all based on different ways of understanding the same texts.

Christians of all stripes tend to grow up believing whatever their family’s chosen denomination believes. Mormon children are raised with Mormon teaching. Those who attend churches that teach some version of Liberation Theology may see the Christian faith through a Marxist lens.

Ideally, all doctrines (teachings) should be measured against the Biblical text. Sadly, most of us Christians don’t have the ability to do this. So we rely on our preachers and teachers to tell us the truth. Think about this: If our teachers are all teaching us different things using the same texts or translations, someone has to be wrong somewhere along the line.

The result is hundreds of disparate doctrines all cancelling each other out. This means we see a variety of “Christian” faiths – a plethora of denominations. All of which, no matter how remotely, or far removed, derive their characteristics from interpretations of the Biblical texts. Apart from those texts, we have no way of knowing what authentic Christian faith really was in its original form. Does that mean we should despair of finding the truth? Not at all. Rather, we must relentlessly seek it out. Truth has not disappeared from the earth. It is there for all to find. The journey Godward involves better understanding the Biblical texts.

The Meaning of “Disciple”

It takes effort to find the truth about anything. Jesus told his apostles to preach the Gospel and to make disciples (Matthew 28:19). He told them to teach those disciples. A disciple is not a passive hearer but an active participant. Let’s focus for a moment on the meaning of the word “disciple.”

Jesus the Jewish rabbi spoke Hebrew (not Aramaic) to his followers. A rabbi’s followers were known as talmidim. The singular is talmid. It means “student” or “disciple.” The relationship between rabbis and their students was very close. “…not only did the talmid learn facts, reasoning processes and how to perform religious practices from his rabbi, but he regarded him as an example to be imitated in conduct and character (see Matthew 10:24-25;  Luke 6:40; John 13:13-15 & I Corinthians 11:1),” – from the glossary in the Jewish New Testament, p. 374.

The Pharisaic rabbi Paul was willing to hold himself up as an example to his disciples, as       was Peter (II Thessalonians 3:7&9; Phil. 3:17; I Peter 5:3). This is perhaps the greatest demand on a Jewish or Christian leader – being an example to his disciples (students).

A teacher’s authority does not come from wielding structural power over a congregation, but rather from the fact that he knows what he is talking about. Nor does it derive from his podium theatrics, loud, raspy voice, or melodramatic presentation. The best teachers understand and correctly explain the Biblical text itself – and they do it from a Hebraic perspective.

Many have presumed to teach, and to wield authority, over congregations without the benefit of understanding. One historic example is the famous Reformer, John Calvin. His understanding of Scripture was a “mixed bag.” He understood some things and misunderstood others. His misunderstandings cost some people their lives.

Calvin in Geneva

For five agonizing years, John Calvin ruled the Swiss city of Geneva with an iron fist. He turned the city of 16,000 into a theocracy, based on the poorly grasped ideal of ancient Israel. In his reforms, he “discarded everything that savored of Catholicism, including pictures, images, vestments, bells, candles, and the like; but unlike Zwingli (another reformer), he introduced congregational singing. Preaching took the most important place in the service. The Lord’s Supper was administered four times a year. All church festivals, including Christmas and Easter, were abolished.” – A History of the Christian Church by Lars P. Qualben. P. 270.

You can see from the above that Calvin understood some things but not others. Calvin’s understanding of church government, like that of all too many denominations, was a disaster. In Geneva, a group called the “Consistory” or “Presbytery” was given responsibility, under Calvin, for church discipline. “Severe discipline was exercised upon high and low…Crimes and sins were severely punished. In five years, 1542-46, Geneva, with 16,000 inhabitants, had fifty-seven executions and seventy-six banishments. All these sentences were sanctioned by Calvin. Innocent merriment was sternly checked. Attendance at public worship was enforced. Watchmen reported all breaches of discipline. There was no thought of religious toleration. Servetus, a famous Spanish physician, was condemned and burned on October 27, 1553, because of his anti-Trinitarian doctrine. This is the darkest blot in the history of Protestantism,” (ibid. p. 272).

I believe that every Christian should read at least one History of the Christian Church. The one mentioned above is as good as any. We need to understand how we came to be where we are today. The story is at once inspiring and horrifying. Christians have not always been Christ-like. They have not always understood and followed the teachings of the Master. It behooves all of us to study the texts of Scripture in their original languages – and if we can’t do that, adhere to teachers who can. There follows a list of recommended study materials.

Recommended Study Sources & Materials