Back in 2013 (wow, time flies!), I wrote an article challenging readers to what I called the Clean Bible Challenge. Some have asked me how I got my head out of the legalistic teachings I was raised in, and one big piece of it was this “challenge.”
Of course, I didn’t name it that until I wrote the article. At the time, I was just earnestly trying to figure out what I truly believed and why—and I did that by putting away the notes in the margins of my Bible, and reading a fresh copy, as if for the first time. More than once. Wow. I had missed so much by cluttering the words of Scripture with chain references, cross references, and book references. What I really needed was a completely clean frame of reference.
But it occurs to me that I left something out of my story that may help others. Maybe it won’t—maybe you’ve already grown past this point. Or, if the thought of doing this scares you to death, maybe this is precisely the time to consider it. Consider what, you say?
As I reflect back on my family’s journey out of legalism, one of the greatest periods of spiritual growth was during what I’m going to call our Clean Church Challenge. Similar to my Clean Bible Challenge, this simply involved stripping away the church practices of men, and replacing them, one by one, with only the church practices we found in scripture after re-examining the Scriptures ourselves. We simply wanted to be the Bereans.
By “we,” I mean a group of family and friends that eventually migrated to Idaho with us. My family moved here in 2005 after some close friends moved. They were fellow homeschoolers whose kids were about the same age as ours. Our families had already spent a lot of time together doing homeschooling kinds of things, and we had a lot in common. That was the nucleus of our little gathering, at first.
Then another family followed. Then another. Then another. My parents followed (only my dad met with our little group, of course), and brought my grandmother with them (she met with us as well until she couldn’t any longer).
We didn’t try to recruit other “members” at this point, although we didn’t try not to. We just (accurately) realized that we first needed to get our own thinking straightened out—to get the beam out of our own eyes, before picking the splinter out of someone else’s, so to speak. We intentionally didn’t name ourselves, or collect funds unless for a specific purpose. The first century church didn’t “call” themselves anything—they were first “called” Christians by people in Antioch. We were as they were—simply a group of believers meeting together to learn and re-learn what we could about this person named Jesus, and encourage one another in daily life. Kinda like the first century church, right?
I can tell you that “church” became something entirely different for us than what it had been growing up. Instead of “doing” church, we found that we were truly “being” the church—living out our faith, and encouraging one another to walk with Jesus through life. About half the families were raised in the Church of Christ (though not the Stanton sect), and the other half had been baptized from the neighborhood around our Anaheim congregation. We joked that we all needed to leave our baggage at the door when we sat down—not in pews or folding chairs, but on our living room couches. Because rest assured, we all had doctrinal baggage to work through. We all needed to add to our knowledge. That’s called being human. Some of us had to unlearn some things first. That’s called being honest.
What did “church” look like for us? It probably looked different than it will for you, because your background and starting point is different than ours was. Most of us loved to sing four part harmony, so we did a lot of that. We learned new songs, sang around campfires, and sang in retirement homes to uplift the spirits of the elderly.
My grandmother enjoyed singing the old hymns with us, as did my mom. I know, that’s probably a shocker—but she loved to sing with us, as long as we assured her it wasn’t a “church service” (it wasn’t—but we also didn’t define that term like they did). Of course, that ended when her Stanton ̶t̶e̶a̶c̶h̶e̶r̶s̶ handlers found out about it. We loved to cook, bake, and eat, so we did a lot of potlucks. There’s a reason the first century church did a lot of “breaking bread” together. There’s a reason they called their potlucks “love feasts.” Eating together is an essential part of loving people and doing life together.
We did topical Bible studies, book studies, men’s studies, ladies’ studies, and more. We asked a lot of questions, agreed on a lot, but also disagreed on some things. Because, you know, a group of flawed humans who are growing in spiritual maturity will never be at the same place in their thinking at exactly the same time.
Christian brotherhood and unity were big topics of study and conversation. We wanted to wrap our minds around that concept in a more Biblical way. The subject of fellowship (misused in modern church culture to mean “who’s in and who’s out” of your circle of associations) was another frequent topic. What did “fellowship” mean Biblically? Were we “in fellowship” with only the other Churches of Christ in the Treasure Valley? Were we “in fellowship” with the denominations? These were enlightening and informative conversations and studies.
If any of you have the opportunity due to proximity to gather together with ex-Stanton sect friends who are similarly interested in re-examining the scriptures and church practices from scratch, I might recommend doing your own version of this Clean Church Challenge. I suppose proximity is not really required if you’re willing to do Zoom gatherings. It’s not the same as living out our faith in real life with other believers, but it might have some value. I would just caution you NOT to come into this experiment with the goal of recreating a modified version of what you just came out of. Truly go into it with the humble goal of re-learning first principles, not of Merie’s teachings, but of Jesus’s teachings. If you don’t follow this advice, you will just end up starting another sect. Alas, the last thing Christendom needs is another sect. I hope you agree.
You may wonder why I’ve refrained from using this blog as a platform for pushing the conclusions I reached during these influential years of growth for me. That’s a good question—I’m glad you asked. 🙂
While I have shared bits and pieces of my thinking where it relates to the primary topic of this blog, I have also recognized that sometimes it’s more effective to do than to say. To show, than to tell. My experience illustrates this well, actually. I had spent several years studying and theorizing about the newly discovered freedom I had in Christ. But until I lived it out in daily life with a church family, it was only theory. The Clean Bible Challenge gave me an intellectual foundation on which to build. The Clean Church Challenge made it real, turning theory into practice for my family and our small group of believers. Maybe it will do the same for you. Remember that your story doesn’t need to be exactly like mine. Just stay in Jesus and you’ll figure it out.