…Worship God! For the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy.” Revelation 19:9-10
An open letter to Church of Christ elders (non-instrumental)
What an exciting time to be alive! We live in a day and age, when the only seeming constant, is change. Medical breakthroughs and the general standard of living, have raised life expectancy to levels not seen in millennia. New technology and social media platforms are constantly emerging and evolving at an exponential rate. This accessibility is allowing the Gospel of Jesus Christ to reach those places missionaries either feared to tread or couldn’t in years past. This letter itself will reach every continent in a matter of seconds, and the ability to translate it is unlike anything we’ve had since the days of Babel. Such is the open door we currently have, but this open door will not remain open forever. The Bible is crystal clear on many things, one of which is that conditions on earth will go from bad, to worse, before they get fixed permanently by our Lord Jesus Christ Himself. This is where Biblical Eschatology comes in.
Eschatology (bible prophecy) is the doctrine on the study of last things. It is a Greek word that is broken into two parts, éschatos meaning "last" and -logy meaning "the study of." Bible prophecy is broken into two parts: things predicted and fulfilled, and things predicted and not yet fulfilled. Like the other major doctrines within the realm of Christian theology, eschatology is unique, in that it makes up nearly 1/3 of the Bible. J Barton Payne’s Encyclopedia of Bible Prophecy lists 1,239 prophecies in the Old Testament, and 578 prophecies in the New Testament for a total of 1,817. These prophecies encompass 8,352 verses (out of a total of 31,103 verses) to equal 27% of Scripture (1). See here (2) for a sampling of chapters and verses of the prophetic texts.
Not only does eschatology make up such a large percentage, but it is distributed in such a way that it is in nearly every book of the Bible, from Genesis 3:15 to Revelation 22:19 with the exceptions of Ezra, Philemon, and 3 John. In fact, the most prophesied event in all of Scripture is not Christ’s first coming, but His second by a factor of 8 to 1. Christ’s return is mentioned in 17 Old Testament books, and 23 of the 27 books in the New. This means that in the New Testament alone, 1 out of every 30 verses teaches that Jesus is coming back to earth. Even Jesus referred to His own return 21 times.
Facts and figures are fine, but you’re probably asking yourself, what does Bible prophecy have to do with me and my church? First and foremost, Churches of Christ used to study this…a lot. The abandonment of the prophetic scriptures is a semi-recent development that frankly, makes little sense (More on this a little later on). One of the unique characteristics of eschatology is that it is uniquely tied in with every other major theological doctrine, from ecclesiology (the study of the church) to soteriology (the study of salvation).
We would be grossly remiss to neglect so great a doctrine, seeing its importance with every other biblical doctrine. I would equate neglecting prophecy to only reading two-thirds of a book, or only watching two-thirds of a movie. You might get a general idea, but you have no idea how things end. Additionally, let me share with you three points currently impacting the Churches of Christ (collectively) in the US in the 21st century.
1. Our nation is increasingly moving from an Acts 2 culture to an Acts 19 culture. What this means is that our nation is increasingly turning pagan. We are becoming more unchurched, de-churched, and increasingly hostile to the Gospel message. Again, the Bible predicts this would happen (2 Timothy 3, 2 Peter 3, Jude, etc.)
a. Unchurched happens when a society places little to no emphasis on the importance of religion or church in people’s life. The church becomes a non-factor in people’s lives. Furthermore, the less homogenous a population becomes, the more belief systems are thrown into the mix causing Christianity to just become “another” belief system.
b. De-churched happens when people who formerly attended, make a decision (for a variety of reasons) they no longer need God or church. Three major causes for people abandoning Christianity are confusion over what “Christian” means, people, confusing spirituality for Christianity, and people confusing religion for a relationship with Jesus Christ.
c. Hostility toward Christianity has been on the rise, particularly, through legal and political action, as well as the rise in popularity with post-modernism, secularism, and Marxism/socialism. But the bottom line is the Biblical worldview is increasingly put out from the marketplace of ideas and the public forum
2. Our church population is on the decline. While Barna Studies are showing evangelical church populations holding steady (pre-COVID), Churches of Christ (non-instrumental) in particular, are declining faster than others. Recent studies have shown that Churches of Christ lose an average of 2,400 members a month nationwide from 2016-2019. Ironically, this decline is at a time when other evangelical churches are seeing a growth in membership (Source)(3) (Source) (4) (Source) (5). The bottom line on this- aging populations, as well as decreasing newer, younger membership, will cause Churches of Christ to go extinct within a generation. Causes for the decline:
a. Older generation aging out
b. Lack of leadership roles for women
c. People wanting more experience-driven worship (i.e., entertainment)
d. Decline in church planting and discipleship
e. Pandemic fears and quarantines- older and vulnerable populations no longer feel it is worth the risk or necessary to attend in person
f. No emphasis on prophetic scripture
3. The world is becoming increasingly destabilized. Whether we are talking about the rise in violence/terrorism, political polarity, economic inflation/deflation, global pandemics, extreme weather events, or the national debt, people are becoming increasingly fearful of the future. People are desperately searching for answers, and increasingly, church pulpits are remaining silent for a variety of reasons (political correctness, confusion over eschatology, being labeled as fringe, etc.). The red flag issue here is that churches that remain silent, are increasingly being shunned by those seeking answers.
a. Declining memberships are driving denominations to turn to non-biblical measures to maintain membership populations (social justice gospel, “Woke” gospel, purpose-driven, seeker-sensitive, entertainment, etc.)
b. Silence from the pulpit on America’s precarious decline is increasing online ministries who focus on end-time/last days events. However, the downside is there is little to no quality control for what’s being put out there online
Bottom line: Bible prophecy offers both the reason why things are happening the way they are, as well as the solution for the world we are living in. There is a common saying that goes, things are not falling apart, they are falling into place. However, if you don’t study or are taught what these things are, things just appear chaotic and fearful. This is why prophecy exists- not to tickle our ears or our curiosity, but to settle our hearts on the things above.
Jesus stated on numerous occasions that He would tell His apostles things ahead of time so that when it happened, they would believe (John 13:19, 14:29, 16:4). The proper usage of Bible prophecy is for OUR edification, not God’s. He is omnipotent and already knows how everything will play out. We are finite and mortal, and presently living in enemy territory. Things are fearful and frightening, but we have God’s word as a lamp to our feet, and a light unto our path (Psalm 119:105).
Not only this, people today are starving for information on the things to come. It is more preferable that this comes from a sound, biblical perspective. When churches refuse to teach on this, people will turn to other sources to find the answers they are searching for. There are plenty of cults, wolves, and other nefarious groups waiting to pounce upon these people who are just searching for the truth.
Departure from Restoration
The historical eschatology of many of the leaders from within the Restorationist movement was originally camped between either the Pre-Millennial view or the Post-Millennial. As far as I could tell, none were amillennial until at least the 1930s. The Post-Millennial view had men like Alexander Campbell (Millennial Harbinger) and Robert Milligan (Scheme of Redemption) as their chief proponents.
The Premillennial view had men like Barton Stone, David Lipscomb (university’s namesake), James A. Harding (university’s namesake), and R.H. Boll (Gospel Advocate) as their proponents. It wasn’t until Foy E. Wallace (source) 6 came along in the 1930s and 1940s that this began to change. He began an intense purging of these views while simultaneously promoting amillennialism. If that weren’t bad enough, he also promoted or endorsed keeping congregations racially segregated as well as rejecting pacifism throughout the Churches of Christ during this time. According to Church of Christ professor Lynn Mitchell (the University of Houston and Editorial board member of Leaven), this is when churches of Christ began their downward spiral.
Quote:Eschatology: Essential, Yet Essentially Ignored, Lynn Mitchell (Source) (7)
Eschatology died as a living concern among our churches because of at least four related developments: (1) the acceptance of the church-kingdom identity fostered by Tolbert Fanning and like-minded sectarians; (2) the powerful and brutal assault on millennial modes of thought and millennial thinkers, particularly premillennial, by the Foy E. Wallace Jr. cadre of de-eschatologizers; (3) the subsequent ruthlessly enforced triumph of amillennialism and the dogma of church-kingdom identity; and (4) the filling of the vacuum in eschatological thinking with inane, hybridized life-after-death language uninformed by biblical or systematic theology.
All we have left is ah-millennialism.
We are neither passionately radical nor invigoratingly hopeful.
From the 1940s onward, not only millenarianism but serious study of eschatology in general became "an excellent subject to let alone." I do not believe it is an exaggeration to suggest that the Churches of Christ, since the middle part of our century, have been living in a theological wasteland left by the systematic destruction of premillennial piety among us and the heartbreaking oppression of our premillennial brothers and sisters by the self-appointed suppressors of error and developers of nothing.
In Matthew 16:1-4, some of the harshest rebukes in all of Scripture are recorded, when Jesus chastises the religious leaders of His day for NOT being able to discern the signs of the times in which they lived. In Revelation 3:1-3, Jesus strongly chastises the Church of Sardis for not watching for His return. The command (not request) to watch is echoed over a dozen times in the Bible for believers. We are commanded to watch for His return, expecting it at any moment, because we know not the hour of our Master’s return. When churches fail to watch, or even able to discern the times in which they live, they overwhelmingly turn their focus back to earthly things.
But take heed to yourselves, lest your hearts be weighed down with carousing, drunkenness, and cares of this life, and that Day come on you unexpectedly. Luke 21:34
As the old maxim goes, nature abhors a vacuum. If Bible prophecy makes up nearly 30% of our Bible, and as a congregation, we refuse to teach on this 30%, what do we fill that void with? It has been my experience (in nearly a dozen Churches of Christ in three states), is that they fill it with teaching videos, busyness programs, and social justice endeavors. I taught a 12-week course on eschatology at a Church of Christ in Kansas years ago, not from any particular perspective, just a general overview, and I was astounded by how many seasoned church members approached me afterward to tell me they never knew any of it. I just said it’s in your bible, it’s all there. All I added was how views came into favor (or disfavor) over the past two millennia.
Having spoken to a number of elders and leaders within each of these Churches of Christ, I’ve been told on more than a handful of occasions that they did not want to study prophecy because it was too “divisive.” I reminded them that technically, every doctrine is divisive (Matt. 10:34), and will become increasingly divisive as our culture continues to nosedive into post-modern immorality. But historically speaking, Churches of Christ from the Restoration Movement on forward (as well as any number of other types of churches), have fought and divided on any number of issues:
The color of the carpet or the type of seating
Literally, all churches have fought and divided over an endless list of things. To say that we should avoid teaching 30% of the Bible because it has the potential to be divisive is wrong on a number of levels. First and foremost, we are to study the whole counsel of God, not just the parts we aren’t offended or troubled by. Secondly, if we are worried about not being politically correct, technically, the whole bible is politically incorrect. Someday soon, preaching the basic Gospel message is going to be considered divisive, because it is too exclusive to say that Jesus Christ is the ONLY way to salvation. Churches today are already abandoning this wholesale for a more appealing, non-offensive feel-good message that is guaranteed to offend none and also save no one. (Hebrews 4:12, 2 Timothy 2:15)
Amillennialism, as an eschatological endeavor, is flawed on any number of fronts. It is a fact that the original eschatology of the early church was Premillennialism. Amillennialism didn’t even begin until Augustine published his book, City of God, in the early fourth century. It would go on to become THE eschatological position of the Roman Catholic Church from 431AD (the Council of Ephesus, until this day. Roman Catholic amillennialism promoted the idea that they were the kingdom, hence, the need for a Pope (i.e. the Vicar of Christ), that they should have a physical headquarters (i.e., the nation-state of the Vatican), and that their economic and political power should hold sway over the nations.
Although the Reformers (Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, et al) were able to break away from the RCC and their stranglehold over Christendom, they did little to address the issue of eschatology. For the most part, they just adopted RCC’s amillennial eschatology, and wouldn’t address it again for the next 100 years. Thus, like any academic venture, when starting from a faulty position (list below) it is nearly impossible to get the rest of your biblical doctrines aligned correctly.
Here is a list of things Amillennialism erroneously promotes
The Church is the new Israel
The Church is the Kingdom
The Church has to conquer the world for Christ
The world will get better until Christ returns
The Kingdom is now
The Kingdom was only spiritual
If these were true, then we have every right as Christians, to be confused and perplexed as to why our Kingdom is in such shambles. If these were true, then we have every right to be confused as to who these people are over in the Middle East, claiming to be Jews. If these were true, then we have every right to wonder why our righteous campaign to reclaim the earth, is faltering at every turn. We would have every right to question God’s motives if these were true…and it is a very good, advantageous thing for us now in the 21st century, to know these Amillennial positions are NOT true.
Here is a list of things the Bible does say:
God is not through with the Jew (Gen. 12, 15, Jer. 31:31-40, Luke 21:24, Rom 11, etc.)
National Israel will return to her ancient homeland (Ezekiel 37, Isaiah 11, Luke 21:24)
Israel will return to her ancient homeland a second time, never to be moved again (Isaiah 11:11, Amos 9:14-15)
The Church is not grafted into Israel, but into God’s outworking’s that include both Israel and the Church. The Church does not replace Israel, we join them (Romans 11)
The Church becomes partakers of the blessings and privileges of Israel and all nations by faith in the redemptive work of Christ. As believers, we become “spiritual descendants” of Abraham (Galatians 3), however, our inclusion does not replace or supersede the physical descendants of Abraham. God did not just promise Abraham spiritual descendants, but flesh and blood descendants (Isaac, Jacob, and the 12 tribes), thus, God’s OT promises to the nation of Israel are still valid and will be fulfilled
So what can the Churches of Christ do?
It is my hope that the same passion to grow and learn in all things Christ that I have, would be shared by the rest of your wonderful congregations. If this seems daunting (changing directions from an eschatological position) or it seems like the opposition is too great, I would echo that every great movement, change, vision, has and will meet opposition.
Admittedly, I feel a little like Don Quixote myself in even broaching this subject with the elders across the country. I recognize that change can be painful, and change can be scary, but sometimes, change is necessary, especially, if we have wandered off the path. We should welcome this and challenge what we believe in a biblically consistent and authoritative manner (iron sharpening iron). Here are some practical things we can do as a congregation.
Elders should ask themselves if they are keeping to the 1st-century model? They maintain the same stances on some things, but are they maintaining them on all the major things?
Church elders should re-examine how they understand and interpret the Bible (hermeneutics). Ask yourselves, is what I understand, and how I understand it, consistent across all theological doctrines?
Consider teaching Scripture from a literal, historical, grammatical approach, avoiding both over- allegorization and wooden literalism
Begin teaching apologetics. This is imperative as our culture continues to move deeper into post-modernism and cultural relativism
Preach the soon return of Christ. While we don’t know the day or hour, both Jesus and Paul stated we would know the season and see that day approaching.
The Churches of Christ, who pride themselves on being like the early church, why then would it not keep their eschatology? Why would they not even keep the eschatological views of their Restorationist forefathers? I am not advocating that we only teach prophecy, but just that we don’t avoid it. The whole counsel of God, perfectly in tune with the promptings of the Holy Spirit, to serve its community in uncertain times. May we heed the spirit of prophecy, and aspire to Paul’s teaching that we may grow up into all things Christ.
And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting, but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head—Christ— Ephesians 4:11-15
Payne, J. B., The Encyclopedia of Biblical Prophecy, Baker Pub. Group, 1980, p. 675