This next part you’re going to think I’m making up. As much as I played make-believe-cowboy-in-the-old-wild-west, I remember thinking how lucky I was not to have lived back then. Lucky not because I’d have to face bloodthirsty cut-throats and gunslingers with itchy trigger fingers (that would have been the good part). No, I was glad I didn't live in the old west because there weren't any real churches back then. I grew up believing that my church was the only true church... the only church that people would be going to heaven from. I was baptized at age 9, and I went to church three times a week every week for my entire life (so far). And I was taught that you just didn't go to church; you went to the right church—the one that said “Church of Christ” on the sign. Some that had the right sign didn't have the right church (because they had pianos). If you weren't going to go to the right church, you might as well not go yo any church. That's why I was glad that I I didn't live on the Ponderosa. They had churches in the old west, but none of them were the right church. The true church.
I’m still glad I didn’t live in the old west (I’d be allergic to cut-throats and gunslingers). But that old monolithic view I had about “the true church” seems about as realistic to me now as the Lone Ranger shooting the gun out of the outlaw’s hand. Oh, I believe that there is a true church, one bought by the blood of Christ. And because it is His, only He keeps the membership roster. You can’t tell "the true church" by a single set of doctrines or practices or organization principles. True churches are true because truly reflect the person and character of Jesus in their world. Granted, that’s a lot messier than just looking in the auditorium to see if they have a piano. It’s also messier because we will never fully arrive. We can become satisfied with our view of Calvinism or the millennium, but surely no one would ever think, “Well, we’re enough like Christ now.”
It is interesting that my religious tribe chose the moniker “Church of Christ.” Maybe we should stick to Him as “the mark of the true church.”
I’m constantly taught, entertained, challenged and annoyed by Experimental Theology, the blog of Dr. Richard Beck of ACU. His is actually one of four blogs that I check every day (in case you’re interested, the other 3 are by Patrick Mead, Roger Olson and Rachel Held Evans). I don’t always agree with everything Beck says; hey, sometimes I don’t have a clue what he’s saying! But generally I take away something that is helpful. His blog yesterday was on creating a study guide on the Sermon on the Mount as a “condensed but comprehensive moral inventory.” If the Sermon on the Mount is a single-shot presentation of “moral vision of Jesus,” why not boil this down as our guide for living as true Christians. Beck does that—here’s my condensation summary of his condensation summary of Matthew 5--
- Do not be egoistical or self-absorbed. (5:3)
- Weep over the pain in this world.(5:4)
- Be gentle, tender and kind. (5:5)
- Try to be a better person. (5:6)
- Show mercy to others. (5:7)
- Be sincere, genuine and real. (5:8)
- Work for the cause of peace. (5:9)
- Other should see you’re different (5:13-16)
- Let go of your anger toward others. (5:21-22)
- Worship isn’t as important as relationships (5:23-24)
- Try to resolve conflicts face to face. (5:25-26)
- Do not sexually objectify others. (5:27-30)
- Honor your marital vows. (5:31-32)
- Live with integrity; be true to your word. (5:33-37)
- Practice non-violence. (5:38-39)
- Give and serve generously. (5:40-42)
- Love your enemies and pray for them. (5:43-48)
Obviously, this won't answer every question one might ask about being a true disciple today (like whether or not your church should have a piano). But I fear there are many us who argue a lot over "the right church" who don’t seem to make much effort at these kinds of things at all. And maybe these are better reflections of the person and character of Christ (and thus more essential parts of being “Christian”) than all the particulars of how we conduct the church’s worship and work.
And I think these are things that could be worked on even in the old west even if the churches weren't exactly perfect in other ways. So maybe me and Little Joe would have been able to hang out together after all.