Bursting Out Of Boxes

It is so easy to move into a religious cocoon (box). And once inside, everyone who is there does not realize that they have enclosed themselves into their own warm fellowship, being unconscious of the fact that they have moved away from all other religious cocoons in the community. We would think that those who are living the gospel would behave in the reverse, just as it is in nature.

In nature, it is first the cocoon, but then there is the burst from the cocoon when the beauty of the butterfly is released into all the world. This is nature. We would think that this would be natural among those who have obeyed the gospel. But we have found in many cases that the reverse is true. In reference to the message of the gospel that must burst forth into all the world, we have discovered that many seek to function contrary to the nature of the gospel. This feeling among some is so strong that “evangelism” has simply become an exercise of inviting others to come into our own denominated cocoon, which cocoon is identified by certain trademarks that separate it from all other cocoons in the community. But this is not the nature of the gospel, nor was this the function of the early Christians.

The gospel does not develop legal cocoons into which we seek to invite others through the preaching of a list of statutes that define a particular cocoon. The gospel invites people into Christ. And it is in Christ where people of faith enjoy freedom from cocoons. Those who are obedient to the gospel are inherently free in their fellowship with one another (See 1 Jn 1:3). They are made free through grace, and thus they are in fellowship with one another by their common obedience to the gospel.

We realize that some early Jewish Christians initially had some difficulty in this area because they wanted to maintain a culturally cocooned identity of Christianity. They struggled to break down the middle wall of partition that divided Jews and Gentiles (Ep 2:14). It took a vision from God to a Christ-sent apostle, and then an angel, in order to get Peter out of his cultural cocoon and into the house of a Gentile (See At 10). And then when he was in the Gentile house, it took the Holy Spirit to signal with the speaking in languages that the gospel did not establish cultural cocoons (See At 10:44). Once the Spirit came upon the Gentiles on that occasion, by his direct question to those Jews who were with him, Peter revealed that he was convinced. He almost dared any of the Jews present to object baptizing those Gentiles in the house to which he had just preach the gospel (At 10:47).

But the preceding story was not over when those Gentiles immerged from the waters of baptism. When Peter returned to Jerusalem, “those who were of the circumcision [Jewish Christians] disputed with him” (At 11:2). They disputed with Peter for stepping outside the box of “Jewish Christianity,” and into the cocoon (house) of a Gentile. The dispute revealed that the Jerusalem cocoonists were initially more interested in preserving a Christianity that was identified by Jewish culture than by the nature of the inclusive gospel. They were very upset when they heard that Peter had stepped outside the box.

We have found that cocooned brethren have not changed much since those days. They are still disputing with those who seek to step outside the comfort of their own religious cocoon in order to take the gospel into the houses of the Gentiles. They will dispute with those who would dare take a step outside the cocoon of the saved in order to preach the gospel to the unsaved wherever they are in their houses of worship.

Fortunately for all of us who are reading this narrative, the Jewish disputers of Jerusalem repented of their waywardness. They repented of their disputing when Peter explained to them that he was on a gospel mission to preach to the Gentiles. Their repentance was according to the nature of the gospel that we must break out of denominating cocoons in order that the message of the gospel be preached in the religious cocoons of denominated religious groups wherever we are allowed in their assemblies. Luke wrote of their repentance: “When they heard these things [that were explained by Peter], they held their peace and glorified God” (At 11:18).

Nevertheless, this ordeal did not solve the Jewish cocoonism that was so prevalent in the church of Jerusalem. In fact, a few years later Paul wrote of the problem when there was an attempted legalization of the “gospel” in Jerusalem according to Jewish traditions. “This happened because of false brethren secretly brought in, who sneaked in to spy out our liberty that we have in Christ Jesus, that they might bring us into bondage” (Gl 2:4). We must not forget that the Holy Spirit in this statement identified as false brethren those who would endanger our freedom in Christ.

It seems that after the experience of entering the house of the Gentile Cornelius, and subsequently being confronted by some disputing Jewish brethren, Peter himself could not shake off being intimidated by those who sought to bring the church into the bondage of legal theology. In fact, several years after the “disputing” encounter with some Jewish brethren in Jerusalem when he returned from the house of Cornelius, Peter went to Antioch of Syria (Gl 2:11). Upon his arrival there, he initially sat down at the dinner table with the Gentile brethren of Antioch. But when some of the Jewish cocoonist came up from Jerusalem, “he withdrew and separated himself” from the Gentile brethren (Gl 2:12). He did this because he feared those brethren from Jerusalem who were intimidating other leaders into conforming to “their gospel,” which was indeed another gospel (Gl 1:6-9). These Jewish brethren were preaching the gospel. But they were also attaching other religious rites and rituals that must be obeyed in order to be justified before God, specifically the religious rite of circumcision (See At 15:1).

The Antioch incident indeed reveals something very important in reference to the nature of the gospel of freedom that we preach. If anyone would legally bind on the church as law any cultural matter or opinion that is not bound by God, then that person is preaching a gospel of exclusion, which is another gospel. The entire letter of Galatians was written in order to confront those who preached this other gospel of legal justification.

Paul’s entire argument in Galatians is that those who have been set free in their obedience to the gospel are not to be brought into the bondage of any unique religious cocoon that is identified by religious ceremonies, rites and rituals wherein one is supposedly justified. In the following statement, Paul concluded his exhortation to the free: “Stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free, and do not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage” (Gl 5:1).

We deny our freedom in Christ when we, as Peter, are intimidated to enter the house of the Gentiles. We stand condemned as Peter if we succumb to such intimidation (Gl 2:11). Since the intimidation is based on conformity to religious rites and rituals, or even customs, then we stand condemned by our failure to defend the freedom that we have in Christ through our obedience to the gospel.

For this reason, we do not see many seeking to preach the gospel in the assemblies of other cocoons other than our own. Unfortunately, we often discourage evangelists from going to assemblies where devout religious people are meeting. We have often established a culture of intimidation among ourselves that would discourage those who are gifted to preach the gospel to anyone of faith who is of another group. We would rather establish our own cocoons in which to preach “gospel meetings.” We would rather preach our own campaigns than ask other groups if we can come into their cocoon to preach the gospel that will set them free from religious cocoonism. If we are timid about answering an invitation to preach the gospel in the assembly of another church than the one for which we ordinarily preach, then we are possibly suffering from cocoonism. If we are intimmidated by others not to preach for those who invite us to come, then we, as Peter, stand condemned.

However, there may be another problem. If we dispute with those evangelists who seek to preach in every religious center throughout the world, thinking that these evangelists may be compromised in their faith, then it might be true that we are promoting a legalized “church.” We may be preaching and defending our religious heritage, and not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, we may not ourselves understand the nature of the truth of the gospel, but have confused it with legal points on a doctrinal outline that identifies our particular religious group.

If this is the case, then we are in the same position as those churches who have long forgotten that “church” is the serendipity of the gospel, not the other way around. Our “gospel” message is not church, but the incarnate Son of God who is now King of kings. It is King Jesus to whom we all must be connected, not to our favorite group that is identified by a specific set of doctrines and traditions. If this is the case in reference to our discouraging others from going out among religionists to preach the truth of the gospel, then we need to take another look at the foundation of our own faith. Is the foundation for our faith the church or Christ? If it is the church, then we can be assured that we are not totally loyal to Christ. Our total loyalty to Christ may have been compromised, as the disputing brethren in the Jerusalem church who could not separate culture from Christ.

Our loyalty to Christ is revealed in our loyalty to His body. We must not compromised our loyalty to Christ with the trademarks of our own religious heritage. If we do so, then we are not the church of Christ about which we read in the New Testament.

We remember almost fifty years ago asking a local religious group if we could address the assembly of their church. After a brief “questioning” by the local pastor, we were lined up to preach one Sunday morning. We have since preached the gospel to hundreds of assemblies of people who have come together to hear more about Jesus.

Sometimes you just have to ask. And if you know the gospel, it is the gospel that people want to hear. We preach the gospel, not church. Church is the serendipity of preaching the gospel. Our behavior as the church is not the standard by which we would judge one another. We are thankful that the Holy Spirit never used the behavior of the church in Corinth as the model by which we all must judge ourselves as the church.

Unfortunately, some have preached the gospel for so long within the confines of their own halls that they have subconsciously become cocooned within ourselves. They have developed the inability to separate gospel from church, and thus when they think they are preaching the gospel, they are actually preaching church. Cocoon preachers no longer know how to preach to those who have not been cloned after their traditional assemblies. The world is not hearing the gospel message, therefore, because we have trapped the preachers of the gospel in our own assemblies Sunday after Sunday, often denying them the opportunity to go preach in some “synagogue” in the community. They have preached to the choir Sunday after Sunday for so long that they have to preach the gospel an orchestra in a house of those who want to know more about the gospel.

At the same time, we hinder the preaching of the gospel by intimidating those who would accept every invitation to preach the gospel to those who have a difficult time connecting all the gospel dots. Cocoonists often dispute with those evangelists who seek to preach the gospel to all people of faith. They do so by accusing people like Peter of “fellowshipping the Gentile denominationalists.” Or, they do so by accusing that those evangelists who are entering the synagogues of others “are no longer with us.” Or, they accuse that they have “lost the identity of our cocoon.” Sooner or later each preacher must make a decision as to whether he will join the delegation of disputers who came out to confront Peter about stepping outside the church cocoon of Jews, or whether he will join the delegation of those who were returning from the house of Cornelius. Choose your delegation.

This discusssion is all simply nonsense when we consider the nature of the gospel. The disputers have brought themselves into the bondage of their own legal cocoon by forgetting the very nature of the gospel. They do not understand that it is the nature of good news to be proclaimed to everyone, especially to those who are sitting in “synagogues,” waiting for someone to come and explain to them more perfectly the way of the Lord. It is the nature of the gospel never to form an exclusive church cocoon that would bar anyone from coming into Christ because we are afraid to take Christ into all the world.

If we presume to answer the prayer of Jesus for unity among all those who believe in Him (Jn 17:20,21), then it is certainly imperative that we are out among those who believe in Jesus in order to preach the unifying effect of the gospel.

The Holy Spirit realized that cocooning religiously was a dangerous trend into which many would fall. Throughout the metropolitan area of Ephesus there were a number of groups meeting in the homes of the members. In reference to such meetings, the Holy Spirit knew that it was natural for disciples to bond so tightly with one another that they would behave unnaturally in reference to the unifying nature of the gospel. Their fellowship with one another on a regular basis could sometimes lend them to being exclusive of others. Therefore, He mandated that all the disciples in Ephesus be “eager to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ep 4:3). This mandate was not to some autonomous group on Main Street. It was directed to each individual member of the body throughout the area of Ephesus, regardless of where each member sat on Sunday morning.

On his last visit to Ephesus, Paul warned the leaders of the church that the time would come when some home assemblies among all the disciples would cocoon themselves under different leaders. He warned,

“For I know this, that after my departure grievous wolves will enter in among you, not sparing the flock. Also from your own selves will men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after themselves” (At 20:29,30).

It is significant to note that it would specifically be some among the leaders who would draw away disciples after themselves. These would be leaders as Diotrephes who would form their own autonomous groups over which they would exercise control through intimidation (3 Jn 9,10). As those Jewish leaders who came to Antioch in order to intimidate Peter, leaders as Diotrephes intimidate evangelists from going into the houses of the Gentiles, or synagogues of the Jews, or even the temples of the idolaters (3 Jn 10). It is simply the nature of cocoonists to establish their own autonomous cocooned assemblies that they legally identify by a code of laws, or the dominance of their favorite personality. All those who do not conform to the code of the cocoon, or the demands of the separatist leader, have “left the church.” Or as in the case of Diotrephes, they are kicked out of the church (3 Jn 10).

No one group of disciples should withdraw themselves from any other group of disciples simply because they are familiar only with the behavior performance of their own assembly. There is no assembly behavior prescribed in the New Testament that would warrant us to establish an assembly standard by which we would judge any other assembly of saints to be “scriptural”. Cocoonism is simply contrary to the nature of the universal fellowship of the body of Christ that is produced by the gospel, regardless of where the members sit on Sunday. It is for this reason that their is absolutely no example in the New Testament of one group of disciples separating themselves as a group from any other group of disciples.

If any one group of disciples would live after the nature of the gospel, then that group must always be eager to fellowship other disciples who have also obeyed the gospel. They must also be eager to send disciples into the houses of the unbelievers in order to preach the gospel. We must do this in order that others also enjoy the unity that all Christians have in Christ. Gospel brings us together. However, if we are in the bondage of religion, then we keep moving further away from one another.

In fact, if one group of disciples seeks to withdraw themselves from another group, then it is evident that the group that takes the initiative to withdraw from other groups on the basis of “doctrinal matters” has defined itself to be involved in religion. The members have so defined themselves because such group division is contrary to the very nature of the gospel. We see no groups of disciples in the first century withdrawing from other groups on the basis of doctrinal matters. Withdraw behavior is always in reference to individuals, not groups of disciples.

[Next in series: April 12]

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