The secretary had spent hours working on a document. His manager called and asked for a different document that she had needed first. The secretary and the manager had not made priorities clear. This happens all the time. People get their priorities wrong. This does not mean what they are doing is wrong. That secretary was working on an important document; just not the one with the highest priority. Sometimes we think we know God’s priorities, but he tells us that something else is better. We sing our hallelujahs, and that is good. But other things may be better than a hallelujah, sometimes.
Doctrinal purity. That is the rallying cry of the denominational Church of Christ. Of course, they preach that they are not a denomination, but rather the restoration of the first century church. In practice, though, they are as much a denomination as many other groups that they speak against because of their lack of biblical names or doctrines. Not every congregation that wears the name Church of Christ is of this denomination. Neither can it be said that every individual in one of those congregations is a member of a denomination.
(Perhaps we should define a denomination. In this context, a denomination is a divisionMany who have “given their lives to Jesus” think they are saved from sin when they may not be. of the Christian religion worldwide, distinguished from other denominations by a particular set of beliefs or practices. Within each denomination is the belief that they are the only ones that follow the Bible in at least one particular respect. They can show scripture for this doctrine, but have an inability to accept any other view of that belief. They may even teach that anyone who does not believe as they do on this issue cannot be a “true” Christian. Thus they divide themselves from all other believers in Christ. A denomination, under this definition, may even follow the Bible very closely. The distinguishing mark of denominationalism is division. They separate themselves from others.)
The belief in doctrinal purity says that one must follow the teachings of Jesus and the apostles as closely as possible in order to be saved. It does not matter what else one does; if one refuses to believe or obey the Bible in any particular one is not following God. Doctrinal purists are always in danger of, and often accused of, believing that one is saved on the basis of his works. Or if not that, at least that one can be eternally lost on the basis of unrepented sin. Based on the attitude of Jesus toward some of the Prushim (Pharisees), one wonders sometimes what Jesus would think of the doctrinal purists.
It must be pointed out that doctrinal purity was important to Jesus. His problems with the Pharisees were never over their obedience to actual scripture. He had a problem when they put tradition over scripture. He had a problem when they used scripture unjustly. He never had a problem with them obeying God. If anything, his frustration with the Pharisees was that their doctrine was right but their practice was lacking.
Then spake Jesus to the multitude, and to his disciples, Saying, The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat: All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not. (Matt 23:1-3)
It is important to believe that the scriptures are accurate and true. It is important to follow them. There is even danger in a lack of doctrinal purity. When one fails to accept the entire teachings found in the Bible, then one may even be misled about his own salvation, and miss the boat entirely. Too many who have “given their lives to Jesus” (to use the popular but not scriptural phrase) think they are saved from sin when they may not be. When giving your life to Jesus does not include immersion in water in order to be saved from your sins, then a lack of accurate doctrine can indeed be deadly. If you give your life to Jesus on your terms rather than on his terms, you may find yourself still unforgiven. Compliance with scripture is vital. It is a life-and-death issue.
One can, however, accurately teach that one is not forgiven of sins until one is immersed, and still be in danger of being wrong. One can accurately teach that congregations are independent from one another or any hierarchical structure, the priesthood of all believers, salvation by grace (which is not inconsistent with water baptism), and that one must give up practicing a sinful life style (drunkenness, lying, homosexual acts, theft, etc.), and still be lacking in spiritual maturity.
Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone. (Matt 23:23)
Note that Jesus did not condemn the Pharisees for doing the right thing. He even approved of their industry in following the law. What he condemned was their attitude, while commending the purity of their doctrine.
Church attendance and worship
There seems to be a belief in common across all denominations of Christianity. That belief is that God is satisfied with church attendance and community worship. Many, perhaps most, people act as if they believe that once they become a member of a church all they need to do is attend worship once a week (or thrice a week, or twice a year) and possibly participate in prayer or singing, and that is all God requires.
The writer of Hebrews says attendance is important. He/she writes, “And let us consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works: Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is.” (Heb 10:24-25) Some people even make verse 25 a command that stands alone without the purpose given in verse 24. Assembling together is very important. It shows how much we love our fellow Christians, and how much we are willing to join them in praise to God.
Others choose not to assemble with God’s saints. They see no value in joining with others in praise to God. They feel that they can praise God just as well by themselves. This may even be true. But the purpose of the collective worship is not just to praise God. Christians assemble together primarily to encourage each other. The encouragement of knowing there are others who believe like you do is greater than the songs and prayers to God. What you do for others with your presence is often better than the worship you could have done alone. It is hard to provoke another to love and good works (or even provoke them in the usual negative sense) if you are not in their presence, if you do not know them.
God likes to hear voices lifted in song. (Eph 5:19-20) God listens to our prayers. He may even appreciate the occasional “amen” or “hallelujah” during the sermon. But God wants more than just our corporate worship. If we come together once a week and ignore him the rest of the time, our hallelujahs are empty. God wants our worship, but sometimes he wants something better than a hallelujah.
Better than a hallelujah
What could be better than our worship to God? There is one thing that brings rejoicing in heaven, a better hallelujah, than our worship, individually or collectively. “I say unto you, that likewise joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance.” (Lk 15:7) God likes us to encourage one another and to praise him, but he likes better that we teach others about him. Face facts. Very few people have ever come to God because they sat in worship services. Time and time again, surveys of those who have come to believe in God and his Son show that personal, individual contact made the difference. Bringing people “to church” so they can see the love others share helps. Personal example helps even more. Personal example accompanied by personal teaching accomplishes the most. Better than a hallelujah is a hallelujah heard by one who is seeking God.
In Matthew 25 Jesus pictures a judgement scene. Without arguing whether this is the final judgement or the separation between the church and the world in this life, picture a separation of two groups of people. On one side are the sheep; on the other the goats. To those who are considered sheep God says, in the version expressed by some people’s lives, “Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: For you preserved my doctrine intact, you drove away people by your attitude toward those who erred in certain points of scripture, and you sang loudly every Sunday in the public worship.”
Are those really the criteria which God uses to judge our effectiveness? What does it really say? “For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: What you do with your presence is often better than the worship you could have done alone.Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.” (Matt 25:35-36)
Corporate worship is important. Doctrinal purity is very important. But these must never be required at the expense of compassion. It is important that the person who has no food because they lost their job be told that they are a sinner and that God wants them to be immersed for the forgiveness of sins. That person, though, will never hear that message as long as his belly is empty. Everyone needs to know that Jesus was God’s grace to man, that he died as a sacrifice for sin. The homeless person who is freezing under the freeway overpass will not hear that message until he has a warm place for the night. The neighbor who is hurting because she has been abused by her boyfriend, again, does not need to be invited to church. She needs to be shown a God who is not abusive or indifferent. That is not likely to happen even in a church building once a week. Christianity takes place outside the church building.
“He heareth the cry of the afflicted.” (Job 34:28) God hears the poor and needy louder than he hears a hallelujah, sometimes. God, and the one we bless with our good deeds, hears our actions better than a hallelujah, sometimes.