What Makes Us Who We Are (6 of 7)

Free Believers in Free Churches

July 18, 1999 / Gal. 5:1

The church you read about in the New Testament was a simple and voluntary association of believers in Jesus Christ. It looked far more like Alcoholics Anonymous than General Motors or McDonalds. That is, it was the banding together of souls seeking support from one another in their personal pursuits of spiritual healing rather than a bureaucratic organizational structure with heavy-handed officials, tight chains of command, and uniform product menus.

Alcoholics Anonymous and McDonalds

Alcoholics Anonymous is not an organization in the sense that Girl Scouts or Little League is. If you want to form a Girl Scout troop or Little League team, you must apply for the right to do so. You have to file papers, have your suitability for the organization reviewed, and be chartered by a national board. If you were to proceed with forming either without meeting the criteria established by its officers, they would have lawyers on your doorstep very quickly. If you do apply and get the necessary charter to operate under one of their trademark names, you will have to pledge to follow a manual of procedure drawn up for it and pay regular fees to its headquarters in order to maintain your affiliation.

If you were to decide to form a chapter of Alcoholics Anonymous, by contrast, there is nobodyís permission to be sought. There are no papers to file for a charter and no headquarters to monitor you. There are no dues to pay ó except as your little band may need to call for donations to pay for a meeting place or utilities. Nobody tells you when to meet, how often to meet, or how long a meeting should last. There will be only the loosest sort of organization in that someone may be designated to convene meetings or to hold the money collected for basic expenses. Most every member will have a copy of what is called "the Big Book"1 of AA, but the meetings will take on their own unique character in Nashville, Peoria, or Tucson.

AAís Big Book explicitly says the following about the nature of the free association of people seeking sobriety from alcohol:

We are not an organization in the conventional sense of the word. There are no fees or dues whatsoever. The only requirement for membership is an honest desire to stop drinking. We are not allied with any particular faith, sect or denomination, nor do we oppose anyone. We simply wish to be helpful to those who are afflicted.2

Churches of Christ operate out of the so-called "free church tradition." Our structures are more like those of Alcoholics Anonymous than McDonalds. That is, we donít have any organization beyond the local church. We havenít been chartered to exist by anyone other than Jesus, and donít have any constitution or by-laws other than the New Testament. We donít pay fees to a national headquarters. Nobody can revoke our right to exist as a Church of Christ. And our various congregations are not uniform in polity or ministry, worship style or doctrinal emphasis. Each church is free to chart its own course and is independent from every other church in the same tradition. Cooperative ventures may be undertaken, but no church can force any other to participate in a program it doesnít consider appropriate or desirable.

There are some advantages to our way of doing things. There are some notable disadvantages too. And we have never been altogether consistent or faithful to the ideal of "free Christians" associated in "free churches" ó an ideal we usually summarize with the term congregational autonomy or self-governance. Both churches and para-church entities among us have frequently bullied one another with threats of how some congregation or its leadership must believe or behave ó or else! But I believe the ideal has biblical roots and practical value.

Freedom in Christ

Paul wrote: "It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery" (Gal. 5:1). Yet the ink was hardly dry from writing those words when the Spirit of God compelled him to add this: "You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love" (Gal. 5:13).

Christian freedom has limits. First, we have no freedom to step outside the clear limits of the explicit will of God. So Paul writes: "To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from Godís law but am under Christís law), so as to win those not having the law" (1 Cor. 9:21). Thus we have no freedom to sin, to violate our fellowship with Christ, to behave immorally. One woman said recently, "Iím not happy in my marriage, so Iím going to get a divorce, marry this wonderful man Iíve just met, and repent of it later." That ladyís problem is not her affirmation of a biblical theology of grace toward sinners but her willful sin against the Lord, and the Bible says there is no forgiveness for deliberate transgression (Heb. 10:26; cf. 6:4-6). Second, we choose to limit our freedom for the sake of love for others. "ĎEverything is permissibleí ó but not everything is beneficial. ĎEverything is permissibleí ó but not everything is constructive. Nobody should seek his own good, but the good of others" (1 Cor. 10:23-24).

A state trooper in Michigan had stopped the same man twice in one day for reckless driving. The man was weaving in and out of traffic at speeds up to 93 miles per hour. When he was pulled over, he flashed his credentials as the consul general of another country and said he had no intention of obeying Michiganís traffic laws. He honked his horn impatiently while the officer radioed his superiors to verify that a foreign diplomat could not be detained except for felonies. Upon getting his answer, the officer said, "Even though you arenít subject to our speed laws, you could at least have some regard for the safety of our people." In the same way, even though Christians are answerable to Christ alone and have no obligation to the traditions of Judaism or the past of our own tradition, we must not use our freedom as an excuse for lawlessness. We must be deliberate in doing what we do for the right reasons and not simply for the sake of arrogant disruption.

We are free from the ceremonial legacy of the Law of Moses ó circumcision, dietary laws, and the like. We are free from legalisms that would turn the gospel into an oppressive code of behavior. We are free from the tyranny of formalism and sacramentalism in religion. We are free from the tyranny of clergy, for in the body of Christ revealed in the New Testament there is no "clergy-laity distinction"; the church is a fellowship of brothers in sisters in Godís family, a fellowship in which all are priests and royalty under the Lord God Almighty (cf. Gal. 3:26-28; Rev. 1:6). We are free from the regimentation of faith and practice that cultic religions love so.

This means, then, that we are free to study the Bible and think for ourselves. We are free to minister grace to one another as a community of priests, confessing our sins to each other and praying for one another (Jas. 5:16). We are free to share the Good News of Christ with anyone and to invite people into the pursuit of the Blessed Son of God, to experience him as their personal Savior, and to join with him in the daily journey of maturing faith. We are even free to plant churches without hierarchical blessing and to officiate in the ordinances of baptism, confession, and the Lordís Supper with one another.

Free Churches

The most obvious danger of this sort of personal freedom is its abuse in what someone has called "the church shuffle." Personal spiritual freedom run amuck has people of our time sampling churches like they sample burgers. As soon as one church ceases to meet the needs or tastes of the moment, they move on. What matters is neither biblical teaching nor spiritual heritage but self ó "self" as in "self-ishness."

For all that the Bible affirms about personal freedom in Christ, the New Testament also sanctions, champions, and promotes community in free churches. Fellowship in a community of Christians is so threatening that it scares some people away. Community means being known by others. It means working through clashes and difficulties. It means being there for one another. Simply to walk away from a church is common nowadays, but itís serious business. It is not like quitting an organization but disconnecting from an organism. It is wounding a body.

In avoiding community, we are in part avoiding accountability. Often it is nothing more than a shameless running from correction, training, and responsibility. As soon as a sister or brother points to some sin that calls for repentance, an opportunity that calls for commitment, or a need that calls for sacrifice, we go looking for a new church that wonít ask tough questions or challenge our lethargy. In searching for a church that is comfortable, we lose sight of our need for one that can help us grow in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ and in love and service to one another.

A healthy church is a company of believers in Christ that has covenanted to worship together at certain times and places, to nurture one another in the things of God, to serve each other and the world around itself in the name of Christ, and to bear witness to the world about Christís saving power.


Allow me to end this lesson on free believers in free churches by paraphrasing the section I read earlier from the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous: This church family is not an organization in the conventional sense of the term. There are no fees or dues whatsoever, and nobody here has to pass judgment on your joining us. The only requirement for joining us on our spiritual journey is an honest desire to abandon the sin that has caused you and the people you love so much pain. We are allied with Jesus Christ alone and subscribe to no creed or confession of faith other than the New Testament, nor do we define ourselves in relation to opposing othersí understanding of Christ. We simply wish to be instruments of God to others who are afflicted with the same problems we have ó and for which we are finding grace, healing, and hope in Christ.

If you think you would like to be part of such a quest, we would welcome you to partner with us.


1 Alcoholics Anonymous: The Story of How Many Thousands of Men and Women Have Recovered from Alcoholism, 3rd edition (New York: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc., 1976).
2 Alcoholics Anonymous, p. xiii-xiv.


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