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When Old Is New And New Is Old

By P. Andrew Sandlin
Published May 1, 2008

People ignorant of history are at a serious disadvantage in assessing ideas, philosophies, teachings, ideologies, and movements. They often have the bad habit of thinking their beliefs and practices are somehow historic, and that anybody who introduces different ideas and practices must of necessity be inventing something new. We might call this trait modernistic elitist snobbery. These are the people who quite often read only twentieth-century books, and automatically think anything recent must be right.

Perhaps no group is more guilty of this modernistic elitist provincialism than contemporary Christians. It appears as though many believe church history began in 1920. If anybody brings up Puritan, medieval, English Baptist, or Protestant ideas from an earlier time, he is charged with introducing some new doctrine. The provincialists, poor souls, have never escaped from Plato’s cave.

Some examples: some who hold to the necessity of an “altar call” somehow feel that those orthodox Christians who oppose it are somehow “modernistic”; but quite the opposite is true: from the standpoint of church history, the “anxious seat” is a modernistic invention. All students of church history should know that this practice-invented probably by Charles Finney or someone contemporary to him and calculated to procure immediate results and circumvent the operation of the Holy Spirit (Finney, interestingly enough, did not believe regeneration was a supernatural work; thus the Holy Spirit was not needed)-was known no time before the nineteenth century. It was not found in the early church, the patristic church, the medieval church, or the Protestant church. It is not supported by the Bible; it is not supported by history. It is, consequently, a modern invention. My point is not to oppose “altar calls,” but to confute the contention of some adherents of this practice that deviation from it is some modern invention.

The advent of “house churches” may be the wave of the future. Those tenaciously embracing the institutional church sometimes give the impression there is something “mod” about the house-church movement.

They haven’t been reading their Bibles. New Testament evidence reveals clearly that in the early-church period there were no other churches but house churches; and if there were others, they are not mentioned. The only thing modernistic in connection with the house-church movement is the ideas of those so tied to the institutional church that they can’t (apparently) read the New Testament. We may solidly surmise that affection of Christians for buildings is a Roman Catholic sentiment. No one, of course, denies that before the rise of Roman Catholicism churches did meet in buildings larger than houses-or at least in very large houses; notwithstanding, the preoccupation with church buildings seems to coincide all too obviously with the Roman Catholic infatuation with “cathedrals of worship,” icons, and “sacramental beauty.” This opinion may be difficult to prove, but it is probably even more difficult to disprove. But to suggest to modern Christians that their preference for church buildings over house churches may reflect Romish ideas rather than the New Testament Faith is likely to invite emotional (but insupportable) outbursts of opposition. To them, old (meeting in houses) is new, since it is new to their provincial minds.

Many of the Church of Christ and Baptist persuasion perceive any deviation from their cherished denominational title as some modern invention. Some from both denominational groups are even convinced their titles are somehow Biblical! They may as well admit, however, that, from the evidence we have in the New Testament, no churches had any titles whatsoever, “Baptist” or “Church of Christ” or anything else. The fact that “churches of Christ” or “churches of God” appears in the Bible in no way indicates these were names given to them. To the best of our knowledge, New Testament churches did not have names of any kind. But those of each persuasion who are convinced the name is so important will nonetheless admit the most important aspect of their Faith is not their name but their doctrine. Oddly enough, however, these same people dislike the idea of deviation from their name!

But they can’t have it both ways. Either these names were not titles from New Testament churches and the doctrine is most important, or the name and title are more important than the doctrine no matter what the New Testament says. They do not prefer to affirm the latter, because it may give rise to accusations that they no longer affirm the authority of the Bible. So they play both sides of the fence. Consequently, they may charge that a return to New Testament ideas constitutes “modernism”; but they don’t realize that the attachment to church titles is a relatively late invention in church history. According to those standards, they are the “modernists.”

Beware when old is new and new is old.


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