I’m teaching a class on Restoration History on Wednesday evenings this quarter. This is NOT a class I would choose to teach in my first year of ministry at a new congregation but it was on the curriculum I inherited when I arrived here. Personally I love studying church history but I know it can be very disorienting and even upsetting to some people.

Yesterday I had a tremendous conversation with one of my favorite people in the entire world. He helped me see some things that I want to share here.

Many religiously-oriented people are attempting to answer the same fundamental question: “How can I be acceptable to God?” (What must I do to go to heaven when I die? What must I do to be saved? are all variations on the theme). How one frames the answer to this question radically influences how one views him or herself, God, the church, the Bible, and many other things.

Although the initial leaders of what later became the American Restoration Movement did not approach the mater this way, among Churches of Christ our tendency has been to answer the question this way: “In order to be acceptable to God I must belong to the right church.” The follow up questions then become:

  1. “How do I identify the right church?”
  2. “How do I comply with the requirements for entrance into the right church?” and
  3. “How do I insure that the church where I am now attending stays in compliance with the requirements to be the right church?”

For lack of a better term, I say that all of these questions relate to the organization of the church—they are organizational questions. How is the church structured? How does one get into it? How does one stay in it?

What this approach tends to produce is an institutional approach to Christian discipleship. What it also tends to produce is “Institutional Legalism.” Through the years I have noticed that even among individual members who are very grace oriented otherwise there is a very low tolerance for sins related to the correct organization of the church.

I don’t know a single person who believes that a drunkard has no chance of going to heaven. In fact, a brain-damaged drug addict can find redemption in many of our churches. However, ask some about the person who misunderstands the biblical purpose for baptism and there can be a zero-tolerance response.

I know many “believers” who have (1) heard the gospel; (2) believed the gospel; (3) repented of sin; (4) confessed the Lordship of Jesus, and (5) been baptized (completely immersed as believing adults). In other words, they have done everything I have done to be saved. Among this group are my father, his sister, her children, as well as many other people who mean a great deal to me. 

But, these people are viewed from within our fellowship as non-Christian. And, what is more mind-boggling to me, anyone from within our fellowship who openly confesses that they are (or even may be) Christian is a heretic. Why? Because when they were immersed they did not fully understand water baptism. Their sin is one of omission in the area of church organization. God will forgive an adulterer but He will not forgive a sincere believer who misunderstands baptism? How can that be?

The answer, as I see it, is that our emphasis on the Bible has made us grace oriented in matters of lifestyle whereas our emphasis on the institutional structure of the church has made us legalistic in matters relating to the organization of the church.

While individually preaching and practicing salvation by grace through faith, Satan has done an end-run and helped us become Institutional Legalists.