It is what Leonard Allen and Richard Hughes call an “illusion of innocence” to think or proclaim that any local church, group of churches, tradition, heritage, or fellowship can totally transcend its culture. For all churches have cultural baggage.
Let me elaborate. When I was young, I sincerely thought the a cappella churches of Christ were the only Christians on earth. Others might think they were Christians or call themselves Christians. Others might be willing to die for the Lord Jesus Christ. All of that made absolutely no difference. We, the a cappella churches of Christ, were the only Christians.
Had our leaders not taught us the proper doctrine on conversion, worship, and church organization? Had they not proved that instrumental music in worship was wrong? Wherever any person or church disagreed with us, they were wrong and we were right. After all, we were the only Christians.
Later on I thought, No, we are not the only Christians, but we are Christians only. That was a much more irenic and inclusive view. I still think this is a good goal in a certain sense. We can say, “We seek to be Christians only,” in the same sense in which we say, “We seek to be humble, united, loving, sacrificial, obedient, and submissive Christians,” or “We seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness” (Matthew 6:33). It is proper to say we seek after all of this.
But, if we say we have attained any of this, it is a very arrogant view. To say we are Christians only is tantamount to saying we are Christians through and through. It is to say there is nothing in us or about us that fails to be Christian.
If we say we are Christians only—humble, united, loving, sacrificial, obedient, submissive Christians who have found the kingdom of God and submitted to it, then we are sadly mistaken. This is a false claim that can nauseate other Christians. Why? Because the truth is we are not Christians only.
What We Are
Instead, we are Christians and many other things. We are Christians and our hermeneutics. Our hermeneutics was not let down from Heaven. One Bible scholar’s method of interpretation differs from another.
We are Christians and our Stone-Campbell heritage; and even well-versed scholars within the Stone-Campbell Movement disagree on some issues.
We are Christians and our Western worldviews. As Neil Gallagher points out in his book Don’t Go Overseas Until You’ve Read This Book, we are Christians and our cultural baggage of rugged individualism, romantic optimism, hatred of authority, and views of time, humor, activism, cleanliness, and food preparation. We often trip over these as we try to carry the gospel across cultures.
Well, if we are not the only Christians, and we are not Christians only, what are we?
We are Christians anyway. We are Christians anyway! Just like the church in Jerusalem. If we could visit a gathering of old First Church in ad 33 to 37, the ways in which this church differs from a Jewish sect “might be hard to discern” (Mark Noll, Christianity Today, March 3, 1997). They honored the seventh day. They met in the temple. They read from the Hebrew Bible. They circumcised their sons. They ate kosher foods. They still were zealous for the law.
Earliest Christianity was Jewish Christianity. They were Christians anyway.
When the gospel spread to Syrian and Pisidian Antioch, Iconium, Lystra, Derbe, Corinth, Ephesus, Philippi, Berea, Athens, Troas, and Rome, the church was becoming more Gentile than Jewish. But, they were Christians anyway.
When the gospel spread to Germany, Ireland, Russia, India, Africa, North and South America, and to the islands of the sea, it crossed many cultural boundaries. But they were Christians anyway.
The church today differs over many peripheral issues as it responds to the gospel. Yet, God loves his imperfect, weak, blemished, frail, and fallible church. He loves us even with the cultural baggage we trip over.
He loves us not because we are the only Christians or Christians only, for we are neither. He loves us because we are Christians, anyway. Praise be to his Holy Name!
Rees Bryant is a retired professor of missions and a former missionary to Nigeria.