Since it’s the holiday season and a time of the year where quite a few religious people celebrate, I have been thinking about interesting first encounters with religious groups. I thought I would share some of the best stories with you. Keep in mind that I may have had earlier contact with people of these faiths, but not in a religious context.
I wasn’t raised going to church much, but when I did attend it was Baptist churches. So, my first religious encounter with a Church of Christ member was in college. Mark was a friend in high school, but we never really discussed religion until we started college. I can remember one day standing in the school parking lot discussing the book of Revelation. Mark did not believe that the tribulation, rapture, thousand year reign, lake of fire, etc were actually going to happen. At that time in my life, this was foreign thinking. The Baptist churches I had attended and the evangelists I had listened to on TV all taught that they would actually happen.
So, I asked Mark, “Well, if the book doesn’t mean what it sounds like it means, then what does it mean?”
Mark replied, “You have to first understand that some parts of the Bible are literal and other parts are figurative.”
I inquired, “Okay, so how do you tell the difference?”
Mark said, “Well, that which is literal is literal and that which is figurative is figurative.”
I was dumbfounded. What he said was obviously true, a tautology in fact, but it helped not one bit in making a determination about literalness or figurativeness. There had to be something more definitive. Yet, we kept going around and around and never really understanding each other. This did not leave a very good impression on me of the Church of Christ. And to make it even worse, Mark’s preacher had a regular radio program which I began to occasionally listen to after my conversation with Mark. One day the preacher started talking about how some things in the Bible were literal and some were figurative. “How do you tell the difference?” he asked the audience. His answer: “That which is literal is literal and that which is figurative is figurative.” Oh, boy! Well, at least I now knew where Mark had gotten that phrase from.
Interestingly, after I graduated from college and took a full time job in Alabama, I made some new friends. They invited me to church, and I went. Lo and behold, it was a Church of Christ. I was a bit hesitant, but decided to give it a chance. Over time I began to understand how they actually distinguished literal parts of Bible from the figurative parts. I began studying with a teacher, Jim Massey, at a local Church of Christ college every Sunday evening. Jim was a man of many hats in the church. He was a minister, evangelist, teacher, missionary, author, and more. I was very impressed by the logical manner in which he approached the Biblical text and how he attempted to look at the Bible as a whole when determining doctrine. I eventually joined the church, and Jim baptized me.
Shortly afterwards, I was back home visiting my parents in Kentucky, so I decided to give Mark a call and tell him the good news. (Note that the conversation may not have been exactly as I quote below, but the gist is accurate.)
“Hey, Mark. Guess what.”
“I joined the church.”
“The Church of Christ.”
I was ready for his excitement to burst forth.
“Okay. Let me ask you a few questions.” Mark said.
Uh-oh, I thought. What’s up?
“Do you have a kitchen in the church building and eat in the church building?”
Oh, no. I had learned enough about the Church of Christ in the short time I had been a member to know that there were a number of divisions in it with differing beliefs. One of the more conservative wings was known by the group I had joined as the “anti brethren”. Not in the sense that they were not our brethren, but in the sense that they were opposed to more things than we were.
I responded, “Yes we do.”
Several more expected questions followed. I finally said, “Okay, you are apparently in the group we call the anti brethren.”
“Yes, I am,” he said.
So, after getting past my initial impression of the Church of Christ and then actually joining it, I was still not in the right group according to Mark. I guessed I was still bound for hell; I just didn’t know it. I wondered how many other people were in my situation. After all, if you believe you are right with God, but really aren’t, you don’t even know to seek out an alternative.
Before I close, I would like to relate an interesting story about Jim Massey. He was known for being open minded. If he ever became convinced he was wrong about a Biblical issue, he was not above admitting his error and changing his position on the matter. In fact, in one of the classes I took from him he admitted that his position on a particular doctrine, after studying the issue in more detail, had changed since he taught the class the previous year. This impressed me.
Anyway, shortly after Jim baptized me, I had been studying the issue of drinking alcohol and had come to the inevitable conclusion that the Bible taught that drinking was not a sin, only drinking to excess. Somehow word got back to Jim. He caught me one day and asked me if I indeed believed drinking was okay. I said I did. In fact, I told him, the wine used for the Lord’s Supper was obviously alcoholic. In 1 Corinthians 11, Paul chastised the believers for misusing the Lord’s Supper by getting drunk. Jim told me that the Greek word used there meant to be full, not drunk. I asked then why the translators translated it as drunk. He asked me to come to his office with me. Jim knew Greek and always carried a Greek New Testament with him to church. He pulled this out, went to the passage I was referring to and showed me the Greek word. Then he pulled out his Greek dictionary and looked that word up. I asked him what it said. He responded, “to be drunk.” After a pause, he said, “I’ll have to study this some more.” I never heard back from him on what he concluded from this study, but I always admired him for not trying to weasel out his dilemma, but rather used it as an opportunity to come to a deeper understanding of Scripture.
As for me, I was also open minded and willing to change my beliefs. After studying the Bible in more detail over the next several years, I ultimately concluded that many of the “facts” in the Bible could not be substantiated. I was therefore compelled to leave the church. I discuss all this in detail in my book God Is: Exploring the Nature of the Biblical God. It can be purchased in paperback or Kindle format at Amazon.