An Open Letter by Matt Cramer
To the members of the Greater Cleveland Church of Christ,
Many of you have wondered why I left your church. At the same time, I often heard Rueben and other church leaders voice their concern over the number of “fallaways.” I have written this letter to explain why I no longer attend your church. While there are many good things I noticed about your congregation, the Greater Cleveland Church of Christ is not without its faults. I have written this letter to call a few of them to your attention in the hopes that they can be mended, as I suspect they are the same problems that caused many others to leave.
When Kaprina invited me to attend a worship service, she said the Greater Cleveland Church of Christ was non-denominational. But later I discovered that you are a member of the International Churches of Christ (ICC), and that you not only hold identical interpretations of the Bible to other churches in the ICC, but you also cooperate with them in charities like HOPE International and even had a pastor from another church in the ICC deliver a sermon one Sunday. The dictionary has a pretty simple definition of a denomination: “An organized group of religious congregations.” That’s about the same as my definition, and the International Churches of Christ definitely qualify as a denomination under that definition. While this may seem trivial, your claim to be non-denominational makes me question your honesty about the rest of your church. And honesty is not trivial.
Within a few Bible studies, Ed brought up the amount of importance your doctrine places on the word “disciple.” Strangely enough, that word only appears in five books of the New Testament. So it appears that your church emphasizes the word “disciple” more than the Bible does.
I found one sermon particularly disturbing. The sermon emphasized the importance of having a vision. The story used to illustrate this involved two hospital patients, one who could look out a window and one who couldn’t. The one without the window enjoyed listening to the other patient’s descriptions of the view from the window, which according to the man at the window overlooks a beautiful park. Then one night, the patient by the window begins to die, and his roommate refuses to summon help, hoping to get the bed by the window. As it turns out, he does get the window… only to discover that it faces a brick wall.
The trouble with that sermon was that it seemed to convey an unspoken, but not subtle message. The sermon implied that it’s acceptable to lie to people and mislead them to give them a vision. And there are plenty of Scriptures that unequivocally condemn lying; Revelation 21:8 is one of your favorites. So maybe that wasn’t really what he meant to say. But combine that with other actions I’ve observed in the church, like your claim to be non-denominational, and I have to wonder.
The way you treat spiritual gifts was a major point of contention. Your use of spiritual gifts does not follow the way they are described in 1 Corinthian, chapter 12. There are many verses that make it clear that God gave His followers a wide variety of gifts, did not give everyone the same gifts, and had a good reason for giving different people different gifts. 1 Corinthians 12:18-19 says, “But in fact God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be?” But instead of wanting every believer to identify and develop his or her spiritual gifts to the fullest, you want everyone to have the same set of spiritual gifts. There are more steps to spreading the word of God than just reaching out and bringing people in to the church. 1 Corinthians 3:5-9 provides an excellent illustration of how there is more to making disciples of all nations than just getting them to church. Of course, the number of “fallaways” your church has experienced recently is a further illustration of this. Your church emphasizes a few spiritual gifts, mainly evangelism, giving, and serving, at the expense of others. I’m worried that you are trying to come up with a different arrangement for the body of Christ than the one God intended.
Your members told me I needed to “bear fruit”, by which you mean I needed to bring others into your church. But they discouraged me from examining what kind of seeds I was to sow by questioning the church’s interpretation of the Scriptures. You are all familiar with the “tree and fruit” passage from the book of Matthew, but I usually remember your emphasis on the final verses. The first few verses, Matthew 7:15-16, are usually either not read or not emphasized, and they read, “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles?” Also, you tend to say that “fruit” in a Biblical context means new members; in Galatians 5:22-23 it means something else entirely. And I was having very little trouble being fruitful, in the sense Paul used it in those verses, before I visited your church.
You claim to pattern your church after the first century church, but they don’t appear to have practiced “discipling” the way you do. While there were discussions of spiritual matters between two individuals, it appears that much of Jesus’s teaching to the Twelve addressed them as a group. After Jesus ascended, the church didn’t take up this practice of “discussions” on a long term basis between a more “spiritually mature” member of the congregation and a newer member (or between two older members and a newer member if it looks like the newer member isn’t accepting what he’s being told). There is no record of such discussions in the book of Acts. The apostle Paul included instructions on proper behavior between people of just about every social status. If “discipling” were a common practice in the early church, surely Paul would have included instructions on how disciples are to follow their disciplers. I find it strange that a church which refuses to use musical instruments in worship services because such use is not explicitly mentioned in the New Testament would consistently engage in extrabiblical practices such as discipling.
My decision to leave your church came immediately after a Tuesday night service in which Rueben told the congregation that he would expect prompt obedience if he ordered a member to move to the other side of Cleveland. If God told me that I had to do something like that, I’d start packing up my belongings immediately. But after seeing inaccuracies in many other issues of doctrine in the church, I do not believe that Rueben or any other member of the Greater Cleveland Church of Christ can interpret God’s Word with enough precision to tell me where I should live.
I noticed that your church has many praiseworthy attributes. You are dedicated and serve generously. But your church is not without its faults. Some of your doctrines and practices do not appear to be solidly founded in the Bible. These teachings were enough to convince me to find another church, and judging from the way Rueben constantly reminded you of how many people had left your church, it appears there are many people who agree with me. I have written this letter in order to call your attention to the teachings that caused me to leave. I hope you will circulate this letter among your congregation and examine the practices I have mentioned to see if they are truly biblical.
With love in Christ,
©1998 by Matt Cramer <firstname.lastname@example.org>. All rights reserved.
Make sure to also read Matt Cramer’s story of his involvement in the ICC.