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.

An Imperative and a Challenge

The subtitle to this blog is “Living the crucified life in the 21st century.” I want to build on that ideal for a few moments. Nothing, in my opinion, is more critical for the health and vitality of the church today than the goal of each disciple of Christ to surrender his or her self and walk a crucified life. I do not think that is an option. I believe that to be an imperative. Cultural Christianity is dead, and with it the scores of churches who sold their souls to the god of the moment. We have “crossed the Rubicon” in terms of what is real and what is fake in Christianity, and if Christ’s church is to survive, it will be due to the witness of those who have surrendered their life to the cross.

So here is my challenge: make a list of what you believe the world considers to be important. Here is my short list – power and money. If you have the power you can enrich yourself, and if you have wealth you can purchase (or at least influence) power. These two worldly goals coalesce in the realm of politics – the very reason to be involved in politics is to gain power, so that ultimately you can gain wealth. Those who have wealth are frequently those most interested in politics, as they want to ensure their wealth remains protected.

Now, compare that to the life of Jesus, and that of the early church. Was Jesus focused on the acquisition of power, or the accumulation of money? NO! In fact, he repudiated the subversive nature of both power and money and instructed his disciples to do the same. To the extent that the modern church is focused on either power or money (or both), it is rejecting the plain and simple teachings of the One it claims to follow. I cannot stress that point enough. Focus on power, or wealth, and you deny Jesus.

So – how do we purge ourselves of this lust for power and money? Try this simple (yet painful) task. For the next thirty days, consciously remove yourself from every source of media that attempts to persuade you to act in a way that would demonstrate the use of power or wealth. Do you follow certain political sites on Facebook? Mute them. Do you follow political sites or politically motivated people on Twitter? Mute them. Better yet, try a 30 day Facebook and/or Twitter/Instagram/Snapchat fast. Just stay off of your favorite social media site for a month. Call it 30 days to purify your soul. Notice what happens.

I am going to make a statement here that I know many Christians will disagree with – that’s okay, I am gracious enough to let everyone be wrong every once in a while. It is impossible to wallow in the filthy depths of power, prestige, and money and not have your soul corrupted. It is just impossible. This is why (among other reasons) David Lipscomb was so adamant that disciples of Christ abstain from any form of political activity, up to and including even the act of voting.

If you think I am crazy, just stop for a moment and ask yourself why you think it is valuable, or even appropriate, for a disciple to crave political power or the wealth that drives the political system in America. If you say that if Christians are not active in the political system the other side will “win,” you have just identified your god – power. We elect certain people to give them the power to do things – things we want done. Our opponents elect certain people to do things – things they want done. If our guy or gal wins, we say our god won. If their guy or gal wins, they say their god won. And, to be blatant, both sides are right – power has won.

Jesus told his disciples to renounce power. He told us not to be like those who lord it over their subjects. His greatest example of leadership was taking a towel and washing the feet of his apostles. He then surrendered his life to be lifted up on a cross – the ultimate victory over the “power” of this world.

Can his disciples claim his name and refuse to follow in his steps?

I don’t think so. Renouncing power is an imperative. Challenge yourself to see if you have what it takes to deny the god of this world his grip over you.

Let those who call themselves disciples of Christ start living a crucified life.

Why Lipscomb Had It Right

In my last post I talked about how Barton W. Stone’s apocalyptic worldview was transmitted to David Lipscomb (1831-1917), and how Lipscomb articulated that worldview not only in word (his book Civil Government) but also in his daily life. His views were to be utterly discredited during the heated debates over premillennialism, and today his teaching would be considered odd at the very least, most likely unscriptural, and probably even treasonous and heretical. I think Lipscomb had it right.

To summarize his views would be too much for the time I have allotted, so I will just jump to the conclusion – there has never been a civil government that has been blessed by and chosen by God. None. Never. Nada. I can see the arched eyebrows and hear the snickering – you think you have me with the selection of Saul. But re-read that story. God told Samuel that he was indeed capitulating to the whims of the Israelites, but he also made it very clear that the request for a king was a rejection of the reign of God. Saul was an abject failure. David, the “man after God’s own heart” lead a government that eventually involved adultery, murder, rape, fratricide, and would eventually disintegrate under the weight of misgovernment, violence, and outright idolatry.

Yes, God used the Egyptians, the Assyrians, the Babylonians for his purposes. Yes he chose Pharaoh and Nebuchadnezzar and Cyrus. But in every situation he punished those leaders for the abuses of the instructions and the limitations he gave them. He destroyed Jerusalem and the Jewish temple at least twice. I repeat – there has never been a civil  government that God has blessed or chosen for more than a very limited period of time, and history (if not Scripture itself) records that God eventually punished that regime/nation. God is not in the business of establishing civil governments.

The reason, I believe, is clear. It is not within the power of man to govern himself – this is Scripture. Even in the kingship of David, the word that is most often used of David’s rule (and often of that of his successors) is not melech, (king) but nagid, (prince). God demands that he remains king. The human ruler is just a figure-head. The government resides with God. When man demands the kingship, disaster follows.

Taking the longest length of an Israelite king (approximately 50 years) and the shortest (just a few months), the United States has been in existence for anywhere from 5 – 15 Israelite kings – not a lot of time. And look at what has happened: the “separation of powers” among executive, legislative, and judicial powers is all but non-existent. Especially over the past several presidents the power of the presidency has been significantly increased. Likewise we see the judicial branch not even coming close to just measuring if laws are constitutional, but the Supreme Court is actually writing legislation. The legislative branch is just a bunch of empty suits and dresses – they have no more power today than a high school debate team. That basically leaves the entire government of the United States in the hands of 10 people – one President and 9 Supreme Court justices. When the President and the majority of the SCOTUS all share the same political affiliation (as happened under President Obama) there is no recourse, there is no justice, there is no rule of law in the land. Harsh words you say? Well, it happened. President Obama and his Attorney General decided that a law that had been in place for a number of years was unconstitutional – a power they did not have – and the Supreme Court, emboldened by his directive, promptly ruled in favor of his administration’s decision. Our “representative democracy” is  quickly crumbling into a marginal oligarchy.

David Lipscomb saw this. He lived through the Civil War. He saw the reality of the dictum, “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” He, perhaps more than anyone in his time, realized that Christians are just exiles and aliens in a foreign land, and while we are to obey the laws of that land, we cannot foul our hands by participating in a bloody and godless civil government.

It has been argued that Christians have to participate in civil government or Satan will win. I have one question (well, actually, two): where in Scripture does it say that Christians have to participate, have to vote, have to hold political power? And, two, what part of losing your life for the kingdom of God do you not understand?

The essence of politics (of civil government) is power. Individuals run for office in order to gain power, and once in office, their goal is to maintain that power and to try by all means necessary to increase that power. In a closely related issue, the grease that makes a democracy run (if the powers are relatively equally divided) is compromise. That means person A has to give up something he or she wants in order to get person B to vote with his or her proposal. The problem is that you cannot give up Christian morals. You cannot give up Kingdom ethics. You cannot trade a vote on abortion for a vote on war subsidies. Dance with the devil and see how far you get.

On the other hand, the essence of Kingdom ethics is self-surrender and submission. Those who lose their lives will find them. We have to die to Christ in order to be raised with him. We have put off the old self in order to be clothed with Christ. Do not be like the Gentiles, Jesus said, who love power and love to lord it over their subjects. Instead, become servants. Chose the lowest place. Put down your crown and pick up a towel. What part of this is difficult to understand? Where is the concept of grasping power found in the cross – check out Philippians 2 if you need to.

I get that these words are radical. But you want to read an interesting story? Read Jeremiah 35. Jeremiah was told to invite a group of people over for some wine. The folks were known as the Rechabites. He did – he invited them over and set a lot of bowls of wine and cups and said, “party hearty!” They would not touch the wine, because their ancestor gave them two instructions – never live in a walled city and never drink wine. They had obeyed their ancestor for generations – always living in tents and never drinking wine. God used them as a powerful parable against the Israelites who had rejected his teachings repeatedly and in grotesque fashion.

I just wonder if someday God is not going to use the Amish and the Mennonites to judge, and condemn, sinful America. We ridicule those folks with their backward ways, their rejection of everything modern, and of their simple faith. Ah, yes, their simple faith. They believe God told them to eschew extravagance and to live simple, faithful lives. And, for the most part, they have – for generations. To our lasting shame, I might add.

I can live in the United States and pay my taxes and obey the laws of the land and be completely detached from the filth of the government. I do not have to vote – in fact I actually  believe it to be more faithful to my God not to vote. I can respect my leaders, and even pray for them, without becoming complicit in their ungodly and unchristian decisions. In fact, I believe that my God calls me to do exactly that. I am to pray for the inbreaking of the Kingdom of God and all that means, not the continued dominance of one political party or the other.

It all boils down to where is my allegiance – to the Christ of calvary or the American flag?

Listen, I know I am not going to convince everyone – I probably will not even convince some of my closest friends. They, among all who read this blog, know I am a nut, and kind of untethered in certain respects. But I have come to a devout conclusion: if anything nice can be said over my dead, stinking body, I want it to be that I was consistent in my beliefs. If I say, if I preach, if I write, that “man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from God” then I had better act like I believe those words. I just do not see any passage of Scripture that tells me I have to be active in a civil government. I see many that tell me I should not. I see many principles that teach me I should stay away from governmental powers. I see many truths that lead me to believe that compromise with politics is death for spirituality.

I want to know Christ, and the power of his rising, share in his suffering, conform to his death – when I pour out my life, to be filled with his Spirit, joy follows suffering and life follows death.

That, my friends, is why Lipscomb had it right.

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.

Rush Limbaugh and the Stunning Collapse of Trumptopia

A little background here. I have been an occasional listener of Rush Limbaugh for years. At first I thought he was some kind of guru or swami. Over time I came to realize he is just a really good entertainer with a keen eye for politics. The title of my page, “Undeniable Truths for Theological Reflection” is a tongue-in-cheek acknowledgment of one of his books, something along the lines of undeniable truths for life. I am not a regular listener, much less a devoted ditto-head. He is a brilliant satirist, and for years he was the only voice that challenged what is now referred to as the “main stream media” – and he has been reviled for it.

But the other day I heard him say things I would never, ever, have expected him to say. When President Trump signed the “Omnibus Spending Act of 2018” I thought Limbaugh was going to bust a gasket. He was absolutely apoplectic – angry, upset, disturbed, irked. I don’t think he agreed with Trump at all.

Which is, to put it mildly, hysterical. I have never heard Limbaugh campaign for anyone more devoutly than he campaigned for Trump – even during the primaries. He claims not to take sides during primaries, but even my occasional listening proved to me that his shows were “all Trump, all the time.” I heard him say on more than one occasion that Trump was not a conservative, but he was willing to overlook that reality for the simple reason that Trump stuck his finger in the eye of the Washington “establishment,” and for Limbaugh that was good enough. And, of course, after the primaries it did not matter who the Republican candidate was, the mission of the day was to make sure Clinton #2 was not elected.

So, returning to Trump signing this 1.3 trillion dollar budget – one that Limbaugh swears was created by the “establishment” in order to destroy Trump. I just have one question – why is Limbaugh, and all of his loyal ditto-heads, upset, or even shocked? They knew that Trump was not a fiscal, nor an ethical, conservative. They knew he made decisions based on what he thought was best for himself. They knew he loved to be provocative and to stick his finger in other peoples’ eyes. What they did not expect is that he would do it to them! They expected a non-conservative, free-wheeling and dealing, ethical opportunist would remain faithful to them and their agenda, and when he did not, they did not know how to handle it.

All of which just drives me deeper into the wisdom of David Lipscomb, and more recently, Glen Stassen. Lipscomb lived during the presidency of one of the greatest, if not the greatest, of American presidents. And he also lived during one of the greatest, if not the greatest, catastrophes to ever befall this nation. Through it all he remained steadfast in his conviction that it was only to God and to God’s kingdom that one should pledge allegiance. For Lipscomb a smaller government, or a more constitutionally conservative government, or a more Christian government, was not the solution to mankind’s problem – government itself was mankind’s problem! A physical government might be necessary, but it was an evil necessity, one that should be steadfastly ignored beyond what it was biblically permitted to demand (and for Lipscomb, that was basically only taxes).

Glen Stassen guided me in an individual study of the theology and ethics of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. As a result of that study I was introduced to a new, and for me, profound understanding of the Sermon on the Mount. Stassen took an exegetical observation made by W.D. Davies and D.C. Allison and gave it hermeneutical “legs” on which to stand. The observation is that Matthew 7:6, “Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you,” far from being just a disjointed and unconnected saying, is actually a central teaching regarding a disciple’s commitment to God and God’s kingdom. If we sell ourselves, and our allegiance, for a mess of political slop, we should not be surprised when the political dogs and pigs turn around and bite us.

Which is, precisely true to Jesus’s words, exactly what has happened to the followers of Trumptopia.

I have been utterly dumbfounded by the way certain Christians have turned a blind eye to Trump and his ethical and moral collapses. I remember the “moral majority” screaming for then President Clinton’s impeachment over his sexual misconduct and his lies. Now we are told sexual misconduct is not a major factor in whether a man should remain president – only that he promote our conservative agenda.

Except that President Trump is not now, has never been, and most likely will never be, either fiscally nor morally conservative.

When we cast what is holy and precious (our physical and spiritual allegiance) into a political pig sty, can we be surprised that the residents of that sty turn and attack us?

With each passing day I am becoming more and more convinced that the Sermon on the Mount speaks directly to the disciple’s relationship to every aspect of his or her culture – and that includes the government. Lipscomb was absolutely correct. Government may be necessary, but it is an evil necessity.

The disciple’s allegiance is to God, and to God’s kingdom. If we forget that, or if we reject that, we have no one to blame but ourselves when the dogs and pigs come growling.

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.