In December, close to Christmas, Joyce and I were tired physically and emotionally. In a period of about 2 months, we moved out of a house that we had lived in twenty-two years; we prepared that house to be put on the market; we bought a house here with much less storage space; and we moved in. We needed to relax.

One Friday night we decided to eat out and go to a movie. After eating, we arrived at the theater early. We were among the first people there, but soon three ladies came and sat two rows in front of us.

Joyce and I were talking, so I hardly noticed them. They seemed to be talking about an acquaintance whose behavior confused them. I only heard two statements, but both caught my attention. One of the three said, "She's Church of Christ." Another responded, "Oh! That explains it." From their tone, it was obvious that they were not impressed. The image projected by her being "Church of Christ" was not a positive image.

Please remember the primary illustration from last week. Grandma died and left an old table in the attic. It has been varnished and painted so many times that it looked like a piece of junk. Only when her oldest son stripped all the paint and varnish off did he discover the table was a treasure, not a piece of junk. When he removed the paint and varnish he found a beautiful walnut table handmade by a skilled craftsman.

The church is like that table. It was made by the skilled craftsmanship of Jesus, and it is made out of Jesus. It is unique and incredibly beautiful. But it has been painted and varnished so many times that it appears to be a piece of junk to many, many people.

We want to remove the paint and varnish without damaging the craftsmanship or marring the wood.

  1. I ask you to do something that is very difficult for many of us to do.
    1. I want you to look at the Church of Christ through the eyes of a person who has never belonged to any church.
      1. There are a few of us who can do that with relative ease.
        1. A person who can do that with relative ease did not become a Christian until he or she was an adult.
        2. He or she has actually looked at the church through those eyes.
      2. However most of us find it very hard to look at the Church of Christ as though we have never been a member of any church.
        1. Most of us have families that have been members of the Church of Christ for two, three, or four generations.
        2. We have always looked at the church from a very specific perspective and have a hard time understanding that other people can not see it as we see it.
        3. It comes as quite a shock to many of us to learn how others look at the church.
    2. If a person has never been a member of any church, it is highly probable that his or her concepts of church, any church, are negative concepts.
      1. Common negative concept one: churches intensify and perpetuate people's pain.
        1. A church is not a place to get help if you have a problem causing you to suffer.
        2. A church will intensify your guilt feelings but will do little to help you resolve the problem or deal with the emotional pain.
        3. If you tell a church that you have the problem, they will tell you how evil you are for having that problem, and they will limit their association with you.
        4. People in a church want you to know that they don't have your problem, they don't like your problem, and that you are inferior because you have the problem.
      2. Common negative concept two: churches intensify hopelessness.
        1. If you are determined to stay even though you have a problem, a church still does not give you any real direction or hope.
        2. If you openly declare: "I am struggling with 'x' problem. I want to recover my life and redirect it. What do I need to do?"
        3. If your problem is one that churches do not deal with, they will tell you:
          1. "You have a very serious problem."
          2. "Beyond repenting and accepting God's forgiveness, we don't know what to suggest."
          3. "We don't know what God will do or can do in a case like yours."
        4. Christians need to understand how easy it is to make people who struggle with guilt and pain conclude that their situation is hopeless.
    3. We need to understand that to those who do not belong to any church, churches are a dime a dozen.
      1. While we are convinced that we are unique and distinctive, they are not.
      2. From their vantage point:
        1. Many churches are dedicated to evangelism.
        2. Many churches seriously study the Bible.
        3. Many churches acknowledge the Bible to be God's word to people.
        4. Many churches regard the Bible to be God's authority.
        5. Many churches are dedicated to prayer and to dependence on God and Christ.
      3. While it may come as a surprise to us, there are numerous churches that are committed to the concept of restoration.
        1. Right at this moment, there is probably more concern in more American religious bodies for returning to the Bible than there ever has been in America.
        2. There is more concern than there ever has been about accepting the Bible as the exclusive divine guide.
        3. In this shared desire to restore Christianity, there will be basic disagreement about how to pursue restoration and what to restore.
        4. But there will be little difference in the shared concern for the importance and necessity of returning to the Bible and Jesus Christ.
    4. By far the largest segment of our American society is those people who belong to no church.
      1. We must understand that our declarations and claims do not make us distinct as far as those people are concerned.
      2. To us, in our own opinion, our declarations and claims make us distinct.
      3. But to them, our declarations and claims give us no distinction.
    5. When we fail to understand that, when we preach and teach, we just talk to ourselves.

  2. Throughout this century we have placed a major emphasis on preserving the distinctiveness of the church.
    1. That is a valid concern.
      1. We need distinctively to belong to Jesus Christ.
      2. We need distinctively to have the purposes that Jesus Christ gave us.
      3. We need distinctively to be God's family.
      4. We need to establish and preserve that distinctiveness.
    2. However, in our desire to preserve the distinctiveness of the church, we have reasoned ourselves to a set of different concerns. Our reasoning has gone something like this:
      1. Position one: To preserve the distinctiveness of the church, it must get credit for anything that happens religiously or spiritually.
      2. Position two: We must advance and preserve the image of the church by being careful to do only those things that will give credit to the Church of Christ; we must not take part in any cooperative efforts.
        1. Cooperative efforts endanger our distinctiveness.
        2. Cooperative efforts run the risk of compromise.
        3. Cooperative efforts might appear to endorse error.
    3. Personally, I am very familiar with this line of reasoning because, in the past, I held that perspective strongly.
      1. "Why don't you still hold that perspective?" That is a fair question.
      2. It was not a quick or sudden transition, but a slow process that took several years.
      3. The process began during my mission work in Africa.
        1. I quickly discovered that some of my concepts were American concepts, not Bible concepts.
        2. If Christ is the Savior of the world, a person does not have to be an American, or learn to think like an American, or reason like an American, or understand religious concerns in America to become a Christian.
      4. As my Bible study proceeded to deeper levels, I began to understand that some of our concerns about the church did not match the concerns of Jesus or the epistles.
      5. As I studied and interacted with people who are not Christians, I learned:
        1. They did not see us as distinctive but as confusing.
        2. They actually thought that the Church of Christ was a closed society that did not welcome visitors and did not want new members--they thought that we wanted to exist in isolation.
        3. This was a common question: If we want to reach out to others, why do we isolate? How do we expect people to understand us if we never associate with them?
      6. I learned this: what I thought were efforts to preserve the image of the church was seen by others to be a deliberate attempt to isolate the church.
      7. Thus the things I thought preserved the image of the church actually created a false image of the church.

  3. In our concern and our reasoned approaches to preserving the church's image, we painted another thick coat of varnish on the church that actually hides Jesus and the beauty of his craftsmanship.
    1. I want to share two scriptures that are, to me, very insightful.
    2. Please turn to Philippians 1:12-18 and think with me.
      1. We first must begin with some background of this letter from Paul to the Christians at Philippi.
        1. Paul started this congregation (Acts 16:12-40).
          1. Among its first converts were two very unusual persons--Lydia, a businesswoman, and a jailor who likely was a soldier in the Roman army.
          2. Paul was not in Philippi long, and during his short stay he was beaten, placed in jail, and begged by the city officials to leave town--he was a very unpopular visitor, and many were relieved when he left.
        2. Though he was there only a brief time, Paul formed a powerful bond with this new congregation; they had an unusual relationship.
          1. Paul was in prison in Rome when he wrote this letter.
          2. This congregation already had sent a man named Epaphroditus to Paul bringing monetary help and personally helping care for Paul's needs (Philippians 2:25).
          3. This was perhaps the only congregation that Paul allowed to financially assist him in his evangelistic travels (Philippians 4:15).
          4. The gift they sent him in prison was a generous one (Philippians 4:18).
        3. These Christians were so involved in Paul's life and work that his imprisonment likely discouraged them.
        4. One of his reasons for writing the letter was to encourage them.
      2. Listen to the unusual way that he encourages them in Philippians 1:12-18.
        1. Verse 12: I want you to know that my being in prison has actually produced greater progress in spreading the message of the gospel.
        2. Verse 13: Because I am in prison, everyone is talking about Jesus Christ--the entire elite Roman guard and everyone else is talking about Jesus.
        3. Verse 14: My being in prison has actually been a blessing to the Christians here.
          1. They have placed their trust in the Lord.
          2. Instead of being afraid, they have found courage.
          3. They speak the word of God without fear.
        4. Verse 15: Surely, some of them are talking about Jesus with wrong motives and with evil goals.
          1. Some are talking about Jesus out of envy and strife.
          2. Some are talking about Jesus from their hearts in dedication to good will.
          3. Verse 16: Those who do it out of good will do it out of love; they know that I am going to take my stand on the death and resurrection of Jesus.
          4. Verse 17: Those who are preaching Jesus out of envy and strife have selfish ambitions and impure motives--they think that they are going to intensify my distress in prison.
        5. Verse 18: But what happens to me really is not important.
          1. The wonderful thing is that Christ is being proclaimed, and the motives of those who are talking about him do not matter.
          2. I rejoice in the fact that everyone is talking about Jesus and I will continue to rejoice in that.
      3. Think about Paul's statement very carefully.
        1. Ask yourself how his statement fits our typical concerns about the image of the church.
        2. When compared to our typical concerns about preserving the image of the church, everything about this situation and Paul's statement seems to oppose the image of the church.
    3. The second scripture is Luke 7:18-23.
      1. John the baptizer is in prison.
      2. His disciples were keeping him informed about Jesus and his activities.
      3. John sent two of his disciples to ask Jesus, "Are you the one?"
      4. They came to Jesus at a time when he was very active in doing miracles.
      5. Jesus' answer is terribly insightful: Go tell John what you see and hear:
        1. The blind receive sight.
        2. The lame walk.
        3. Those with leprosy are cured.
        4. The deaf hear.
        5. The dead are raised to life.
        6. The poor have the gospel preached to them.
      6. Those activities are the fulfillment of prophecies about the Messiah in Isaiah 35:5 and 61:1.
      7. Note what Jesus did not say: He did not say, "Go tell John:"
        1. "How I am exposing the scriptural error of the Pharisees."
        2. "How I am exposing the doctrinal error of the Sadducees."
        3. "How I am revealing how established religion in Israel has missed the point."
        4. Jesus did all those things, but none of that was primary, and none of that proved he was the one.
    4. If we are Christ's church, we will think like Jesus, we will feel about God and people as did Jesus, and we will emphasize the things Jesus emphasized.
      1. We will be concerned about the things he was concerned about--because we are his church, he is our Lord, and he is our Savior.
      2. It is too easy to be more concerned about the church than we are about the Christ.
      3. Championing the church and championing Jesus Christ are not the same thing.
      4. It took a lot of time and a lot of earnest Bible study before I understood the difference.
      5. I do not demand that you see what it has taken me so long to see and understand; that would be unfair and unkind. I only ask you to think about it.

I pray that this congregation as Christ's church will grow away from the image of being "that church with the great big building," or being "that church who does not believe in music," or being "that church who thinks they are the only ones going to heaven," or being "that church who fights everyone," or being "that church who exists to argue."

I pray that as Christ's church we will grow into the image of being "that church who really loves God," "that church who really follows and serves Jesus Christ," "that church who is so caring and kind," "that church who is so compassionate--they really help people," and "that church who really blesses Fort Smith."

How do we remove the varnish? One person at a time; each person from himself or herself. Let the real Jesus shine through you!

David Chadwell

West-Ark Church of Christ, Fort Smith, AR
Evening Sermon, 9 March 1997
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