Follow-Up to ‘A Church Shameful to Christ’ (last post)

Upon reading and re-reading my last post, I feel a few follow-up comments are warranted.

First, I admit my emotions may have come through a little too forcefully in that post. I do not retract anything that I said, but this is an emotional topic for me. Also, the past few weeks of my life have been anything but normal or settled, and perhaps the events of the past couple of weeks made my trigger finger a little too edgy. Sometimes I feel a need to apologize for unkind words or thoughts, and while I do not think I crossed any lines, I do want to offer some additional thoughts that might help explain the rawness of my last post.

I have said repeatedly that I am a child of the American Restoration Movement, and I not only am I deeply moved by the goals of that movement, I am proud of the better angels of that movement. I am aware no group of people throughout history has been perfect, and the members of the Restoration Movement are not exception to that rule. We have had our black sheep, and our closets are more than full of rotting skeletons. What transpired 200 years ago almost to the year, on the Western Reserve of Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Ohio, and south to Tennessee is nothing short of an American miracle. I am grateful to be an heir of that miracle.

The tragedy of the Movement is that we stopped moving. The focus of Alexander Campbell, Barton W. Stone and their compatriots was virtually entirely focused on the externals of ecclesiology. We focused on how to enter the church (baptism) and what one received in the process (forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit). We focused on church polity and decorum (proper worship and congregational government). In other words, over ninety percent of our efforts were focused on the visible congregation, how it was administered, how one entered it, and how one behaved in its assemblies. What was virtually non-existent was any sustained focus on what might be termed the spiritual nature of the Christian life. Exceptions exist, but, as I said, the vast, overwhelming majority of the foci of the early Restoration leaders was on the visible aspects of the congregation.

The problem with that emphasis is, once it was “restored,” once it was deemed to have been brought back into line with New Testament teaching, what else was there to restore? So, we quit restoring and starting fighting. Having decided that we were going to make our stand over jots and tittles, we started civil wars over who could count the most jots and decide the significance of the tiniest tittles.

For proof of that assertion, I point to how our fellowship has distinguished itself in topics that are generally considered to be of biblical or ecclesial importance. Scholars who are associated with the Churches of Christ have distinguished themselves almost exclusively in the areas of New Testament studies and church history, especially within the first three centuries of the church. There are a much smaller number of scholars or authors who are respected in Old Testament studies. Once you leave the fields of textual studies and early church history, the number of scholars, or even of respected authors, from the Churches of Christ virtually vanishes.

  • I know of no member of the Churches of Christ who is respected and recognized in the field of the spiritual disciplines (prayer, fasting, meditation, contemplation, giving, – some authors provide a dozen or more specific spiritual disciplines).
  • I know of no member of the Churches of Christ who is respected and recognized in the field of spiritual direction.
  • I know of no member of the Churches of Christ who is respected and recognized in the field Christian ethics.
  • I can only think of one peer-recognized author in the field of biblical theology.
  • I know of no member of the Churches of Christ who is respected and recognized in the field of serious, biblical ecumenical work.
  • The last of the great revival preachers among the Churches of Christ, those who could roar like Amos and weep like Jeremiah, are all retired or long dead.

Now, just because I do not know of such authors or scholars does not mean they do not exist. But I do read broadly, and the absence of authors from my own spiritual family in these and other areas is deeply disturbing to me. We have fought for decades to “have a place at the conversation table,” and seemingly at the moment we were granted that place, we just quit trying. Or, those who were invited to the table are just so embarrassed to be associated with the Church of Christ that they just rubber stamp what everyone else is saying. That is not ecumenism. That is cowardice.

What I do see is a widening and deepening chasm among factions within the church. On the left I see an avalanche of writing and teaching that has fully accepted the core tenets of evangelicalism. This is actually the full born fruit of Alexander Campbell’s later years and philosophy – “If you cannot beat ’em, join ’em.” In that sense these liberals are pure Campbellites, and they are utterly clueless about what that term means.

On the reactionary right I see the full grown fruit of the poisonous legalism that was introduced by such journals as The Heretic Detector (yes, that was an actual journal). Self-proclaimed guardians of the faith have made a career out of “outing” such blasphemous practices as raising hands or clapping during the singing of a song, having a functioning coffee pot during a Bible class, or, heaven forbid, singing a song during the participation of the Lord’s Supper (you cannot participate in two acts of worship simultaneously!).

Somehow, after two millennia of church history, we have succeeded in re-establishing both the Sadducees and the Pharisees.

When I first started my Doctor of Ministry degree, I had a private conversation with one of the directors of the program. He asked me what I wanted out of my specific study. After a considerable amount of embarrassed humming and hawing, I managed to weakly blurt out, “I want to help the Church of Christ be the church of Christ again.” He allowed that was a pretty noble quest.

Which brings me to my last post, “A Church Shameful to Christ.” It as an emotional outpouring, I admit. But I am pretty emotional right now. I see a church that is increasingly becoming more political (on both ends of the spectrum) – and simultaneously becoming less influential. I see a church that is doing everything that it can to appear to the world to be acceptable and popular. At the same time I see a retrenchment into attitudes that were divisive the first time around, and are proving to be even more divisive today. I see a church that is increasingly becoming embarrassed to be associated with the Bible (instead of Bible lectureships, we now have such foofy lectureships as “Summit” and “Harbor.”) The presidents of the universities and colleges associated with the Churches of Christ have displayed an unwillingness to stand up to the LGBTQ cabal that is repugnant, quite frankly. We are preparing more men (and women!) to preach in evangelical churches than we are men who are committed to Restoration principles.

As the church universal sinks deeper and deeper into utter irrelevancy, the message of the Restoration Movement is a clear and penetrating beacon in an otherwise wretched night. But, we cannot keep fighting battles that were fought and decided centuries ago and yet still consider ourselves faithful to Jesus. We have to move on past the jots and the tittles. Without surrendering an inch of the gains we have made in our biblical and historical studies (which are prodigious, and worth promoting), we must, we absolutely must, move forward.

We must return to discipleship. We must return to Christ. We must return to the basics of what it means to “put off the old self, and to put on the new creation.” We must lay aside the basic fundamentals and move on to a full humanity in Christ Jesus. I do not begrudge my forefathers one little bit, but in order to honor them I must keep the restoration flame burning. I cannot build a city where they merely pitched a tent.

God will not judge this generation, or any generation, on the basis of the successes or failures of the preceding generation. The church of the 21st century will be judged by how we both live and proclaim the cross of Jesus to a bent and broken and dying world.

Correct me if I am wrong, but I just don’t see us doing that. That makes me emotional – and sometimes when I write I let off more steam than I generate light.

If I offended, please forgive. If I spoke truth – let’s get it right.

In everything, let us ascend lower.

The Beauty of the Restoration Principle

I want to pursue a point that I brought out in my review yesterday of Os Guinness’s book, A Free People’s Suicide. At the very end of that  book, Guinness pointed out how the concept of restoration can be progressive in nature. When I read that section I felt a weird sense of both renewal and regret. Renewal, because it gave me courage to stand up for what I believe, and regret because so many of my fellow ministers have utterly rejected the concept of restoration. It was very sad to me that such words celebrating restoration had to come from someone outside of my spiritual family.

I am a child of the American Restoration Movement. Two of my favorite college courses focused on the Restoration Movement (especially the early years), and one of my greatest joys was to serve as the graduate assistant to Dr. Bill Humble, the director for the Center for Restoration Studies at Abilene Christian University. I have read deeply about our movement, and I would like to think broadly as well. I consider myself to be intelligent enough to recognize our faults as well as our strengths, and to a great extent that is what gives me so much grief concerning the current state of the Restoration Movement.

Many preachers today look back and identify a time period or an issue on which we were less than honest or made some mistakes, and based entirely on those years or that issue, dismiss the concept of restoration entirely.

Others want to dismiss the concept of restoration based on the entirely specious argument that the church has never needed to be restored, that there has always been a pristine, immaculate assembly of the saints called the Church of Christ.

Whether you want to bash history, or flat-out deny it, cutting off one of your legs in order to lose weight is pretty stupid, if you ask me. No group of people has ever been perfect, and those who suggest that we can erase our past simply because we stubbed our toe or failed to get some point of doctrine or behavior correct are demonstrating their arrogance and superficiality to the nth degree. Likewise, to magically deny 2000, or even 200, years of history is, well, let’s just say you cannot argue with stupid. We are a historical people, and from the dawn of time until today the wisest peoples have been those who have paid attention to their past in order to improve their future.

This is Guinness’s point exactly. We do not look back on our past, religiously, politically, or philosophically, in order to enshrine it in some kind of air-tight glass trophy case. We examine our past, both positively and critically, in order to learn how we arrived where we have, and what we can do to avoid the mistakes and failures of our forefathers and mothers. This is the progressive view of restoration. We examine the core values and foundational texts (oral or written), and, realizing that no human in the past or present is perfect, seek to maintain or improve upon those values.

There is a reactionary form of restoration, and I do not intend to praise it. Reactionary restoration is to reject any form of progress on the basis that all progress is wrong. There has only been one pristine, perfect, world, and we have to reject everything that separates us from that time period. Granted, there are many reactionary restorationists within the Churches of Christ, but they eventually end up hoisted on their own petard. They meet in buildings, use amplified sound systems, sing out of books, sit in pews arranged in cathedral style, and even read texts that have been translated from the original languages – so much for “pure first century Christianity.”

Progressive restoration recognizes that time marches on, that you cannot step in the same river twice. But, and this is the restoration part of progressive restoration, you can repeatedly step in the river that goes by the same name. No, we cannot worship in the exact same format in which the apostle Paul worshipped (and I would imagine he had one format when he worshipped with Jewish Christians and another when he worshipped with primarily Gentile Christians) simply because we do not have an exact blueprint of what that format was. But we do have the core principles or practices with which he worshipped. We know the apostolic church read the Scriptures, we know they sang songs of praise, we know they celebrated the Lord’s Supper weekly. We know they gave of their prosperity to help the less fortunate. We know they  evangelized and baptized and they expected repentance for sinful behavior.

By identifying these core beliefs and practices (and the number could be expanded), we have a foundation upon which to build our beliefs and practices. We can be apostolic without being slavishly tied to the first, or the fourth, or the twentieth century. This is progressive restoration. We carefully and conscientiously examine the faith of the apostles in order to faithfully represent those core beliefs to our culture.

I will never apologize for being a restorationist. I regret many of the words and some of the behavior of my spiritual forefathers, but I will never reject the principles for which they stood. I do not believe we can be a first century church – simply because we no longer live in the first century!! But we can be an apostolic church – and indeed I am convinced we cannot be a faithful church unless we are an apostolic church.

You may say I am just fiddling with semantics, but at least in my opinion, there is a significant difference between being reactionary and being a  positive, forward thinking restorationist. I am grateful to Os Guinness for giving me the clarity that his brief little discussion gave me. I hope I can be faithful both to the inspired Scriptures and to Barton W. Stone, Alexander Campbell, Raccoon John Smith, David Lipscomb, and to my modern mentors such as Dr. Humble, David Edwin Harrell, Richard Hughes, Leonard Allen – and many, many, others.

As always, thanks for listening in, and should I accidentally say something that is helpful to you, please pass along your thanks to those who made me what I am. I just consider myself lucky to have been given the gifts that I have been given. I am richly, richly, blessed, and I hope through my life and teaching to share what I do not deserve, but have been given anyway.

Why Are We Divided?

I responded to one of those on-line questionnaires the other day, the kind where you are asked a million dollar question and you are given about 25 cents worth of space to answer. The questions were really good, don’t misunderstand me. I just did not feel like I could answer fully in the space allotted. Sometimes questions can be too good.

So, after some time to cogitate just a little more, here is a little more depth to how I responded.

First, are “main line” Churches of Christ divided, and if so, why? My response: I’m not sure that there is a “main line” Church of Christ, and maybe there never was. So, I guess I would have to say, yes, we are divided. Why? Well, as the questionnaire stated, it’s complicated.

First, I said we do not know our history. Many even deny we have a history. We have a history of historylessness. It is a grammatical and sociological impossibility, but somehow we have managed to pull it off. When I was an undergraduate one of the most despised courses (except for a few souls) was the course on Restoration History. The prevailing feeling among my fellow students was that we were just so much smarter than Alexander Campbell, Barton W. Stone, “Racoon” John Smith, Walter Scott, et. al. Everybody wanted to spend time studying the modern gurus of religion like Bill Hybels. How is that working out for you now, fellas?

I once had a good brother express genuine shock when I explained that one cause of the split between the Disciples of Christ/Christian Church and the Churches of Christ was the introduction of any kind of musical instrument into the worship service. He had been under the impression that it was the Churches of Christ who caused the division because we decided we hated music and therefore kicked everyone who wanted to use an instrument out of the building.

Oy vey.

It’s trite, it’s been overused, but the saying is still true – those who do not know and understand their history are doomed to repeat it. You cannot learn from a lesson if you deny the existence of that lesson, and if you refuse to even hear the lesson taught to you. Our current state of disunion is nothing more than the seeds of previous generations sprouting in new soil. But, the overwhelming majority of folks just cannot see that, because they do not believe we have a history.

Second, I pointed out that we as a community do not handle ambiguity well. I fear I will be misunderstood here so let me qualify my statement. I DO NOT believe the Bible to be ambiguous. However, today’s culture is rife with ambiguity, and as a distinct religious community we have focused on the cut and dried, the black and white, of faith. As an aside, I think our focus on the New Testament is the major culprit here. The Old Testament speaks openly of ambiguity, of anguish, of pain, and to be honest, of doubt. Job, Jeremiah, the Psalms, major sections of the Old Testament – all contain long and wrenching passages that express that this world is not what it is supposed to be, and why doesn’t God do something about it. Job, Jeremiah, and the various Psalmists all believed in and proclaimed the truth of God’s message – but they had no reservations but what the world is full of ambiguity. I just do not think we handle the ambiguity of our culture very well. I know I don’t. I am a child of my tradition, too.

Finally, I pointed out that we as a community do not have any mechanism for communal lament and confession. Shameless advertisement here – I wrote my doctoral dissertation of this very issue, so I think I know a little of which I speak. We are very capable of confessing the faults of other groups. Confess our own? Perish the thought. We have no faults. We are perfect. We have never sinned in thought or deed, and an anathema be upon anyone who suggests otherwise.

Um, 1 John 1:8-10, anyone?

So, yes, the “main line” Churches of Christ are divided. Probably always have been, it is just that maybe the lines of division are becoming a little more obvious than in past generations. We now have “super” or “mega” preachers that openly teach and preach positions that are diametrically opposed to biblical doctrine. Scripture is not inspired, it is merely inspiring. Scripture is relativized. Cultural standards are held to be more authoritative than God’s word. I would suggest that the majority of Churches of Christ have gone “mainstream” Evangelical – we have certainly lost our apocalyptic (counter-cultural) roots. Alexander Campbell would probably be welcome in the majority of congregations, Barton W. Stone and David Lipscomb would not.

It is not my job to “fix” the Churches of Christ. All I can do is guard my own teaching – follow the principles of biblical interpretation that I have been taught and hold to be valuable, share what I have learned and what I feel to be important, and rely upon the grace of God to “fix” what is deficient in my admittedly human understanding.

I don’t ever want someone to think or believe something because I said it. I want people to think or believe something because they can find it in the Bible – something that God wants them to think, believe, and obey. May we all have Philippians 2:1-11 as our polar star.

We ascend higher when we climb lower.

When Your Sacred Cow is Gored

I believe that one of the real “acid” tests for our profession of faith in Christ comes when one of our “Sacred Cows” is gored. By that I mean a cherished belief is questioned, a matter of absolute life and death is declared to be nothing more than mere opinion. Let me illustrate with three examples, one from Scripture, and two from Christian history.

The first is the well-known conversion of the Pharisee Saul to the disciple Paul. Saul was convinced with every fiber of his body that the sect of the Nazarenes had to be extinguished. So convinced, in fact, that he devoted his life (or at least a major part of it) to the persecution of that sect. Then, on the road to Damascus, Saul learned that this mission was, in fact, directly opposite of what he thought it was. In fact, he learned that his prior life as a Pharisee was the false religion that he believed the Christian Way to be. His “sacred cow” was gored to death. He spent the remainder of his life proclaiming this Jesus of Nazareth to be the Son of God, and called all men to accept that Jesus as both their savior from sin and Lord of their life.

The first example from history would be the combined efforts of Thomas and Alexander Campbell and Barton W. Stone, and their many co-workers. Both of the Campbells and Stone were raised in and promoted the Presbyterian (Calvinist) interpretation of Scripture. At varying points in their lives, the Campbells, Stone, and others had this “sacred cow” gored. To their everlasting credit they made the decision to follow Scripture where Scripture led them, and they allowed that “cow” of denominational creedalism to pass away.

The second of my historical examples is Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a young German theologian educated in the most liberal of theological universities, and the heir of the other major church reformer, Martin Luther. In the late 1920’s and early 1930’s, Bonhoeffer had his theological “sacred cow” gored, and he would eventually suffer death as a result of his passionate efforts to reform and renew the German church.

What did Saul turned Paul, Thomas and Alexander Campbell, Barton W. Stone, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer all share in common? Not a theological background – Saul was a Jew, the Campbells and Stone were Calvinist Presbyterians, Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran. Not a historical epoch – Saul died in the mid first century AD, the Campbells and Stone in the mid 19th century, and Bonhoeffer in the mid 20th century. Not geography – Saul in Palestine, the Campbells and Stone in America and Bonhoeffer in Nazi Germany. What united these pioneers of faith?

Perhaps many things could be listed, but the one thing that stands out to me is their willingness to be open to the Word of God as it was revealed to them. Saul (Paul) had a miraculous revelation of Christ, the Campbells and Stone were caught up in the fires of the Second Great Awakening, Bonhoeffer was caught up in an entirely different kind of fire. The biblical Saul, the ante-bellum Restorers and the Nazi resister Bonhoeffer were faced with unique and world-changing situations, and each responded to the call of Scripture in almost the exact same manner: they listened to the Word of God and rejected their former beliefs, even up to and (in the case of Saul and Bonhoeffer) including the sacrifice of their own lives.

These all ascended by climbing lower.

I don’t think our Christian mettle is proved when we sit in an auditorium and hear a sermon, the content of which we have heard hundreds of times before, and with with we agree completely. We are not proven to be disciples of Christ when we demand that every word that we hear, or read, comes from a “sound” gospel preacher (whatever in the world that means). We do not “study to show ourselves approved” when we never allow ourselves to be challenged or have any of our “sacred cows” gored.

I am thankful for all the faithful preachers and teachers who have been influential in my life. I am especially thankful for those who have demonstrated to me the ability, and in fact the necessity, of the strength of character to have my own “sacred cows” gored, so that I can decide if the voice I am following is that of the Good Shepherd, or that of the accuser of mankind.

May we all be blessed with that strength of character!

 

A Declaration of Surrender

I have opined on many occasions how, in terms of following my spiritual forebears, I am far more of a Stoner than I am a Campbellite. For those in the “Stone-Campbell” American Restoration Movement that distinction makes sense, for everyone else it is a real head scratcher. In the most succinct way of summarizing the two view, think of top-down or bottom-up typology. I am going to over-generalize here, so please, don’t anyone challenge me on dotting “i’s” or crossing “t’s.” Volumes have been written on the subject I am going to summarize in a paragraph.

Barton W. Stone was basically an apocalypticist. He had a intense acceptance of, although he would probably admit an incomplete understanding of, the the Holy Spirit. He believed completely in the idea of restoring the church to its New Testament origin, he just believed that the work of doing so was up to God, and whatever role that humans had in the process, the work was totally and completely up to God. Alexander Campbell, on the other hand, was an optimist’s optimist. He drank deeply from the philosophy of John Locke and Francis Bacon, and while he probably had a higher view of the Holy Spirit than would make many of his followers comfortable, he was more firmly convinced in the power of human reason and effort in accomplishing the “current reformation.” He was so convinced that his work would usher in the 1,000 year reign of Christ on the earth that he called his second, and most influential journal, The Millennial Harbinger.

These two viewpoints have profound, and opposed, consequences. If you have a top-down viewpoint (as I have characterized Stone) you realize your worth, your value, is only secondary to that of God. You are the servant, God is the master. This is, in my opinion, far more Pauline and biblical. Paul planted, Apollos watered – but God gave the growth. If you have a bottom-up viewpoint (as I have characterized Campbell) at the very least you see yourself as a co-worker along with God. God needs you as much as you need God. In the words of a particularly miserable little sycophant who led a prayer one day in our college chapel service, God is just so lucky to have us on his side. It may be fair to say that I am over-stating Campbell’s view, but one detail leads me to believe he was bent far more in that direction than Stone – when it became obvious that the United States would end up in a Civil War, Campbell was devastated. You see, if humans can reason and work their way up into the millennial reign of Christ, there is nothing to destroy that utopian viewpoint than the carnage of a civil war. Reality, more than theology, destroys a bottom-up, pragmatic approach to religion.

There is a profound, ironic twist to this dichotomy of “top-down, bottom-up” typology. Those, like Stone, who believe in the absolute power of God and who live in a world view of apocalypticism, have a far greater understanding of servanthood than those who believe in the power of human reason and effort. Stone’s apocalyptic worldview had an impact on Tolbert Fanning, and from Fanning down to David Lipscomb. Lipscomb is famous (or infamous) for his book entitled, Civil Government, an incongruous title seeing as how he excoriated the concept of civil government. Lipscomb’s point was that man simply does not have it within himself to govern himself (by the way, that sounds a LOT like Isaiah to me, but what do I know). The more you realize the impossibility of being your own master, the more willing, and indeed the greater the necessity, of submitting to the total will and power of God. The greater God is in your worldview, the smaller you are, and the greater the realization is that anything that you accomplish is simply the result of God working through you.

And, lest anyone question Lipscomb’s concept of servanthood, it was Lipscomb who demanded that his students go out and work in the fields surrounding Nashville for half a day while they were studying with him to become preachers. Nothing like plowing behind a mule for 4-6 hours to teach a preacher humility. It was Lipscomb who stayed behind in Nashville during a cholera outbreak to drive Roman Catholic nuns around in his horse and buggy so they could tend to the sick and dying. You see, when your eyes are focused on the absoluteness and greatness of God, service and compassion become matters of necessity, not convenience. For confirmation, simply read God’s instructions to the Israelites concerning their acceptance of, and care for, the alien, the poor, the widow, the orphan, the powerless, the oppressed. It is gritty reading.

At the risk of starting a political firestorm, far, far too many current members of the Churches of Christ are Campbellites. Campbell was absolutely convinced of the appropriateness of civil government. He saw nothing wrong with promoting, and even serving in, elected positions – he would actually see that as part of the ushering in of the millennial reign of Christ. It might be worthwhile to note that the only member of the American Restoration Movement to be elected President of the United States was James Garfield, who had previously served as a general in the Union Army. Garfield was a member of the Disciples of Christ – the most “Campbellite” of the three branches of the Restoration Movement (Disciples, Conservative Christian Church, and Churches of Christ).

Once upon a time I was enamored with the power of politics. I am a Reagan baby – I came of age watching the results of Reagan’s first election and drinking deeply of the euphoria that finally a good man was in the office of President. Then came Clinton. And then came Bush II. And then came Obama. And now we have Trump. Our nation is more divided, displays more animosity, more hatred, more vitriol, than at any other time in my half-century of life. During the eight years of Obama and the four years of the current resident of the White House, the role of elected officials has not been to lead the country, but to vilify and objectify the opponent. If public service ever did have a noble purpose, it ended with the last century.

I’m done. I surrender. I have seen the folly of my ways and I repent. Reading the book of Revelation yet again has opened my eyes to see the foul nature of the beast – nothing but lying frogs croaking out poison and death to their loyal minions. I used to think that the role of politics could be saved, could somehow be salvaged from the cess-pool where it was headed. I no longer think that way. If it somehow manages to be redeemed, if it is even redeemable at all, it will only be through the power of God working through the Holy Spirit. In Revelation, God destroys the beast, he does NOT redeem it.

I guess now I am a full-fledged Stoner/Lipscombian. I urge all who love Christ and his Church to join with me in my radical, apocalyptic worldview. Things are just so much more clear here. God is in control, not me. God will work his plan, not the Republicans or the Democrats. God works through his servants the prophets, not the king seated on the throne in Jerusalem nor Washington D.C. Jesus established his church, not a nation nor a political party or system. We are called to be followers of the Great Shepherd, not some bloviating buffoon residing at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

It really is liberating to ascend by climbing lower, by demonstrating the power of God by picking up a towel. Those who end up finding their lives must first lose them. Those who reign with Christ must first surrender any claim to their life. It is the way of the cross, and there simply is no other way.

Definitions – Theology

In my thought world nothing is as important as theology. In my spiritual family, nothing is as ridiculed and dismissed as theology. Which makes for some interesting self-talk. Some might question why I spend so much time doing something that no one believes is important. In providing an answer I return to my mantra for this series – it is all in how you define – and understand – the meaning of a word.

In the history of the Churches of Christ, no word is as abused as the word theology. Virtually every promoter of the American Restoration Movement dismissed it, and it would be very difficult to find any prominent leader who would embrace it. The first college associated with the Disciples of Christ/Churches of Christ (Alexander Campbell’s Bethany College) included a specific clause that prohibited the establishment of a professor of theology. Theology, to many early Restoration leaders, was anathema. Their hatred of the practice, and even of the word, has had lasting influence. In my university training we did not have courses in theology – we took courses in The Religious Teaching of the Old Testament, but nary a word about Old Testament theology.

This dismissal of a perfectly good and useful word is one of the great mistakes of these spiritual giants. I will defend Thomas and Alexander Campbell, Barton W. Stone, Moses Lard, Walter Scott, David Lipscomb, et. al., even when I disagree with them, but in this instance they just made a horrible mistake. The huge irony with their mistake is that they were all – every bloomin’ one of them – exquisite theologians. They wrote, and preached, some of the best theology this world has read and heard.

The fact is that any time God, Jesus, the Bible, or any topic mentioned therein, is under discussion, there is theology. Everyone who says or thinks about God or the Bible is practicing theology. If you say God created the world, you are making a theological statement. If you say that baptism is necessary for salvation you are practicing theology. If you make a comment in Bible class that you believe the book of Revelation describes what happens after the day of judgement, you are making a theological judgment.  You just cannot be a student of the Bible and avoid being a student of theology.

As with so many other disciplines, there are a number of sub-groups within the larger field of theology, and here is where Campbell (and his co-workers) made their big mistake. They were reacting against one sub-set of theology, but they “threw the baby out with the bathwater” as the old saying goes, when they dismissed the entire discipline because of the abuse of one small part of it. Theology in its largest sense is made up of a bewildering number of smaller subjects – just a few of which are:

  • Christology – the study of Jesus.
  • Pneumatology – the study of the Holy Spirit.
  • Eschatology – the study of the “last days.”
  • Ecclesiology – the study of the church.
  • Soteriology – the study of salvation.

To expand the horizon ever further, there is the formal study of Old Testament theology, New Testament theology, Biblical theology, the study of human sin, of grace, of prayer, and even of ethics. In fact, the study of theology is truly extensive. To continue to expand the horizon, each and every one of these smaller segments of theology can be performed on a number of different levels – from the coffee shop table, to the preacher’s study, all the way to the academician’s ivory tower, and a number of stops along the way.

To return to the early leaders of the Restoration Movement – what they were objecting to can be described as dogmatic theology, as opposed to systematic theology. They were all engaged in systematic theology – Campbell and Lipscomb both wrote volumes that could be called systematic theologies. Campbell even called his book The Christian System! So don’t try to argue with me that these leaders were not theologians.

So, what were these pioneers objecting to? While some use the words dogmatic theology and systematic theology synonymously, there is in the most specific usage a significant difference. Dogmatic theology is written for a specific religious group, it is authoritative, and those who are given the power to promote and defend that group are not allowed to stray from it. It is basically creedal in form – “This is what we believe, and if you do not accept this teaching, you cannot be a part of this church.” Thus you have Catholic dogmatic theologians, Lutheran dogmatic theologians, Anglican dogmatic theologians, etc. What Campbell, et.al., recognized was that dogmatic theology is divisive theology. They believed, correctly, I would agree, that the only authoritative word is the Word of God. We might opine on any number of subjects, but we cannot demand that anyone bow their knee to our understanding – only to the inspired Word of God.

Systematic theology, on the other hand, is more general, and does not purport to be authoritative, although it does attempt to be thorough. Systematic theologians say, in effect, “This is what the Bible says about “X” subject, and while I have attempted to be complete, there may be more to be said on this subject.” Campbell, Stone, Lipscomb and many others were consummate systematic theologians. Every preacher who has ever delivered a sermon is a systematic theologian. Every Christian who has ever had a conversation about God, Jesus, the church, sin, salvation, the Holy Spirit, prayer, or the meaning of the parables is a systematic theologian – just in varying degrees of expertise.

Let us be done with our rejection of the word theology. It is a great word, and an even greater discipline. Let us be wary of being dogmatic, but let us never weary of promoting the proper and necessary study of the Word of God.

**For those who are interested, there is a marvelous little book devoted to this subject entitled, Who Needs Theology: An Invitation to the Study of God by Stanley J. Grenz and Roger E. Olson, published by InterVarsity Press, 1996. It is perhaps one of the finest books introducing theology that I have read. I have some other resources that you might be interested in – if you are curious just comment here and I will provide those titles as well.

An Apocalyptic Vision for the Church

In my essay yesterday I pointed out that Barton Stone, and just a generation later David Lipscomb, grasped something about New Testament Christianity that Alexander Campbell either could not see, or rejected. Campbell was an ardent post-millennialist: he believed the movement of which he was a part would usher in the “millennium” and at the end of a long period of human perfection, Christ would come and establish his reign in heaven. He even named his second journal the Millennial Harbinger to emphasize that point. In a semi-related footnote, the Civil War destroyed that belief for Campbell, and he died as so many prophets of human exceptionalism die, disappointed.

Stone, and later Lipscomb, saw things differently. They were just as committed to the restoration principle (just return to the pages of the New Testament in order to restore the church to New Testament simplicity), but they recognized something else. The New Testament has an undeniable forward looking dimension, but it is not created by the wisdom or strength of mankind. For Stone and Lipscomb, if the world is to become a better place, it will only happen by the power of God, and that will only occur through the working of the body of Christ on earth, the church! Lipscomb was especially adamant on this point, writing clearly and passionately that Christians are to avoid every form of contamination with politics, even to the point of refusing to vote. Christians could not participate in the army (Lipscomb was horrified at the thought of Christians killing Christians in the Civil War), nor were they to serve in any civil positions. Christians are to live as kingdom citizens, and it is the reign of God in heaven that draws disciples of Christ into living in and promoting the reign of God on earth.

This is the polar opposite of “pie in the sky by and by” theology whereby Christians simply try to be “good people” until they die so that they can float around on little clouds playing their golden harps. This apocalyptic worldview almost got Lipscomb killed, and it was his adamant refusal to participate in politics that has resulted in his influence basically being expunged from the history of the Churches of Christ. On the first point, during a severe outbreak of a deadly epidemic (cholera, if I remember correctly) in Nashville, while Christians fled the city in droves, Lipscomb stayed and used his horse and buggy to drive Roman Catholic nuns around the city so they could minister to the sick and dying. Regarding the second point, it was during World War I, and ultimately World War II that the pacifistic view of Lipscomb was violently rejected (pun intended) so that the members of the Churches of Christ could be viewed as “good patriotic Americans.” Today, among the overwhelming majority of members of the Churches of Christ, patriotism is virtually identical to Christianity. Lipscomb, and I believe Stone, would be aghast.

As any reader can probably guess, I am deeply indebted to Stone (what I can read of him, although he did have some weird ideas). I am even more indebted to Lipscomb. I have read Lipscomb’s Civil Government and I am impressed with two things: Lipscomb’s profound biblical knowledge, and his theological insights. Those who disagree with Lipscomb very rarely ever actually engage Lipscomb, they simply defend their love of country and their political commitments more loudly. Which, in an ironic manner, simply proves Lipscomb’s point: you cannot promote God’s kingdom and the kingdom of Satan at the same time. Jesus said it this way, you cannot serve God and man.

A truly apocalyptic worldview has profound implications for the church. I’m not even sure I understand all of them – no, I am certain that I do not understand all of them. I have lived my entire life in an ethos where Christianity and Americanism were considered identical. America was God’s chosen land, and he blessed it with prosperity and peace. I do not think I have ever seen, and I have certainly not worshipped in, a church that is so fully immersed in the kingdom of God that it seeks to literally overturn the rule of Satan in its community. A congregation that exists so that its members can float around on little clouds when they die is inherently crippled – it has no eyes to see, no ears to hear, and certainly no arms or hands to help. Conversely, a church that lives each and every day empowered by God’s indwelling kingdom not only sees, not only hears, but intentionally and actively works to alleviate human misery and to promote that indwelling kingdom.

As America sinks deeper and deeper into moral depravity and violence, I am growing more and more convinced that only this apocalyptic worldview will save the church. We must, we absolutely must, accept the reality that those who deny the lordship of Christ will never be able to think or legislate themselves out of the quagmire that those who deny the lordship of Christ have thought and legislated themselves into. Only when we learn to live, to utterly and totally exist fully immersed in God’s kingdom of love and justice, will the church be able to be the light set on a hill, to be the salt that purifies and preserves this generation.