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.

Book Review – A Free People’s Suicide (Os Guinness)

Os Guinness, A Free People’s Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future, (Downers Grove: IVP Books, 2012), 205 pages plus substantial endnotes.

Os Guinness is becoming one of my favorite authors. He personifies what I consider to be the best attributes in an author: first, he is aware of and interacts with authors who have dealt with the same subject – going back to the classics of Greek and Latin. Second, he does not shy away from calling a turkey a turkey, if that is what he genuinely believes. And third, his prose is beautiful to read. In other words, he is not a contemporary American author.

In A Free People’s Suicide, Guinness asks the question of the sustainability of American freedom. He points out that the founders of America both won and ordered our freedom, but the issue of its sustainability is open to debate. In point of fact, Guinness is rather melancholy about the prospect, although in the concluding chapter he expresses a measured optimism, but only if there are some (rather significant) changes in our current leadership and citizenry.

The book is organized into seven chapters, and I believe the key chapter is the middle chapter (4) where he provides what he calls the “golden triangle” of sustainable freedom. That triangle consists of the conviction that freedom requires virtue, and that virtue requires faith. The exercise of faith then requires freedom, which must must be built on virtue, which then returns to faith, and on and on. Guinness is forceful in his rejection that America will remain free (or great, for that matter) if all its citizens do is rely on the Constitution or our ever-expanding quagmire of laws. His point, which he returns to repeatedly, is that unless the super-structure of the Constitution and our laws is built on a stronger foundation than what he calls “parchment freedom,” all freedom will eventually disappear and America will fall, just as every major empire in the world has ultimately fallen.

It should be noted, and Guinness does make this point, that there is a big difference between what most modern Americans call “freedom” and the much more poisonous concept of “license.” What we see in so much of our domestic debate today is not a discussion of freedom at all – it is an infantile demand for license to do whatever we want, the consequences be damned. Freedom, as Guinness expounds beautifully, demands self-control and the virtue of a people that is rooted deeply in faith. (Spoiler alert – while Guinness does refer to the Judeo-Christian features of so much of our founding documents, he is painstaking in not asserting that our nation is a “Christian” nation. He is far too educated not to know that many of our founding father were deists at best, and some were outright humanists.)

The publication date for the book is 2012 (I thought is was much later), so I would really be curious to know what Guinness thinks of the petulant little toddler that currently resides at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. in Washington D.C. Whatever that opinion might be, Guinness’s observations and warnings are even more critical in 2019 than they were in 2012. The tendencies that Guinness criticized through the G.W. Bush years have only been magnified in the Obama and Trump presidencies, and the “slippery slope” (Guinness never uses the term) that he warns about is on the verge of becoming a national catastrophe. He question is chilling – will a leader stand up who has the courage to put a stop to our self-chosen suicide?

I cannot end without providing Guinness’s three tasks if America is to save itself from a certain demise. First, “… America must strongly and determinedly restore civic education, and education that is truly ‘liberal education,’ or an education for liberty. Conservatives must get over their shortsighted aversion to the ‘L word,’ and liberals must reexplore what liberal  education really means and why it matters.” (p. 192) Basically, what Guinness is calling for is an education in citizenship – and everything that entails. Guinness illustrates this beautifully, but painfully, “With civic education, for example, the clash between backward-looking teachers’ unions  and forward-looking foundations concerned only for educational ‘skills’ leaves the United States industriously turning out students who are deficient not only in global competitiveness but in American citizenship and in Socrates’ examined life.” (p. 196)

Second, “… America must strongly and determinedly rebuild its civil public square, leading to a profound resolution of the current culture warring and a re-opening of public life to people of all faiths and none, so that all citizens are able to play their part in a thriving civil society and a robust democracy.” (p. 194)

Third, “… America must strongly and determinedly reorder the grand spheres that make up American society and its powerful cultural influence in the world.” (p. 194) By this Guinness means reordering the “spheres” of business, law, education, entertainment (and others) to serve the “wider public good,” a system of “checks and balances” that is frequently quoted in terms of our federal government, but rarely (if ever) applied to other aspects of our culture.

There is a fourth task, that Guinness demurs from expanding, that requires a “… restoration of the integrity and credibility of the faiths and ethics of the citizenry, which in many cases in America today are as faithless, flaccid and fickle as the health of ordered liberty itself.” (p. 196). This, he believes, is outside the responsibility of the government to address, and I would agree. If the church is “faithless, flaccid and fickle,” it is the church’s responsibility to address those issues.

A final word to my fellow members of the Churches of Christ. We are heirs of a heritage that is commonly referred to as the “American Restoration Movement.” All too frequently, however, the concept of restoration has fallen into disrepute among our congregations. From the extreme conservatives we hear that the restoration is complete, that there remains nothing to restore. From the extreme left we here that restoration is a folly, that the very idea itself is unchristian. “We cannot look back, we have to look to the future” is the mantra of far too many preachers today. I was dumbfounded to read in Guinness’s closing comments one of the best defenses of restoration I have ever heard – not in the sense of restoring some kind of pristine past (which was never pristine to begin with, and which can never be done in the second place), but a return to the very foundational concepts and practices of our faith. Two quotes must suffice: “But history shows that when it comes to ideas, it is in fact possible to turn back the clock. Two of the most progressive movements in Western history – the Renaissance and the Reformation – were both the result of a return to the past, though in very different ways and with very different outcomes.” (p. 197, bold emphasis mine PAS) And this, “In other words, all three movements – Jewish, Christian and American – share a striking feature that sets them apart from much modern thinking: A return to the past can be progressive, not reactionary. Each movement in its own way best goes forward by first going back.” (p. 198, italics by Os Guinness, bold emphasis mine, PAS). As I have said, and perhaps written elsewhere, the American Restoration Movement must continually remain a restoration movement, or it becomes a statuary monument – an idol.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough. It is a painful read – but Guinness’s words must be heard if health is going to be restored to our republic. I for one believe Guinness’s medicine to be too strong for us to stomach. I tend to be much more apocalypticist in outlook – I just do not think we have the political will to do what Guinness recommends. But, be that the case or not, this book needs to be read and digested by everyone who is concerned about the direction our country is headed.

How Big is Your Church? (Part 1 of 2)

Okay, okay – its NOT your church. It is Christ’s church. It is the church of Christ, the church of God, the church of the firstborn ones. It is described in a number of ways – but I’m asking a question that is designed to prick in a certain spot. And so, I ask, how big is your church?

I have been thinking about this question for a number of weeks. In writing these two posts I do not think that I will solve any major issues, but maybe in putting some things in “print” I can work through those issues in my own mind. In this first post I want to discuss the mistake (sin) of making your church too small. Then, in terms of fairness, I want to discuss the opposite mistake (sin) of making your church too big.

The other day I re-discovered a story that I first heard years ago. It states, far better than I can, the ultimate end of trying to make one’s church perfect, and therefore to remove anyone who does not “fit.”

When I first became a member of the church my circle was very big . . . for it included all who, like myself, had believed and had been baptized. I was happy in the thought that my brethren were many . . . but — having a keen and observant mind– I soon learned that many of my brethren were erring. I could not tolerate any people within my circle but those who, like myself, were right on all points of doctrine and practice. Too, some made mistakes and sinned. What could I do? I had to do something! I drew my circle, placed myself and a few as righteous as I within, and the others without. I soon observed that some within my circle were self-righteous, unforgiving, jealous, and proud, so in righteous indignation, my circle I drew again, leaving the publicans and sinner outside, excluding the Pharisees in all their pride, with myself and the righteous and humble within. I heard ugly rumors about some brethren. I saw then that some of them were worldly minded; their thoughts were constantly on things of a worldly nature, they drank coffee, when, like me, they should drink tea. So, duty bound to save my reputation, I drew my circle again, leaving those reputable, spiritually-minded within. I soon realized in time that only my family and I remained in that circle. I had a good family, but to my surprise, my family finally disagreed with me. I was always right. A man must be steadfast. I have never been a factious man! So in strong determination I drew my circle again, leaving me quite alone. (Author unknown – I attempted to discover the author but was unable to with full certainty).

The sad thing is, I KNOW individuals who fit this little story exactly!

The problem is, when we start shaving off pieces of the church because those people do not fit our concept of the “righteous remnant,” the shaving never stops. Eventually it gets down to just me and you, and to be quite honest, I’m not too sure about you, either.

TRUE STORY – Within the Churches of Christ we have a number of congregations that would consider themselves to comprise the “righteous remnant.” One of their well known preacher/authors was a man by the name of Homer Hailey. Brother Hailey was a well known evangelist and scholar who came to believe and to promote what is pejoratively referred to as the “anti” view within the Churches of Christ. These Christians do not believe, for example, that it is proper for the Lord’s church to support physical institutions such as orphan children’s homes, or schools of higher learning (thus, they are “anti-institutional”). Most will refuse to have any part of their building associated with a kitchen or fellowship room, and a great many of them will refuse to have separate classes for children and adults, some will refuse to pay a full-time, located preacher. Some insist on using only one cup for the Lord’s Supper (the “one-cuppers”). There are many varieties, however; for example, some will pay a preacher, but not have separate classes.

As I mentioned, Homer Hailey was one of the better known preacher/prophets of this wing of the Churches of Christ. Then, almost unknowingly and certainly unwillingly, Bro. Hailey was “excommunicated” from this faction of the church because he taught that an individual who had been married, divorced for a reason other than adultery, and then remarried prior to becoming a Christian did NOT have to then subsequently separate from their second (or later) spouse in order to demonstrate full repentance. To many in the “anti-institutional” group of the church this was just pure heresy – if one divorced for any reason other than adultery and then remarried they were living in an adulterous relationship and HAD to separate in order to be a faithful Christian.

Homer Hailey, hero and preacher extraordinaire, had to go. The circle got smaller.

(For the full story, see David Edwin Harrell, Jr., The Churches of Christ in the 20th Century: Homer Hailey’s Personal Journey of Faith, (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2000), especially chapter 7.

The question is, how small is your church? On what basis do you exclude those with whom you cannot fellowship? I will freely admit that I have my circle too (see next post!). But – on what basis do we make those decisions?

I know of no one who “draws their circle” smaller and smaller who would admit to doing so for purely personal reasons. Everyone has a reason exterior to their own admitted whims and fancies. Roman Catholics use the “magisterium” of the Roman Church – allegiance to the Pope and to the church councils. Lutherans have their confessions of faith, as do the Presbyterians, the Episcopalians and the Baptists. As previously mentioned, within the Churches of Christ there are a bewildering number of unwritten creeds and confessions that must be adhered to in order for one to be considered a “faithful” member of the church.

And in Matthew 16:18, Jesus said he would build ONE church – His church. In Acts 2 those who believed and were baptized were added to ONE church. As dysfunctional as they were, there was only ONE church that one could be a member of in Corinth, Ephesus, or Rome. There were divisions, to be sure, and Paul wept over them and worked to heal them. But, there was only ONE church.

As I said way up above, I have no firm, rock solid, undeniable answer to this question. I do, however, have some serious issues with those who attempt to make the Lord’s church much smaller than he would make it.

My main issue is this – when we “draw our circle” smaller and smaller we are acting in the role of God – whether we want to admit to that or not. When we say that someone is “saved” or “lost,” “faithful” or “erring,” based upon tendentious interpretations of disputed texts, we are making ourselves to be divine arbiters of heaven and hell, and that is a VERY dangerous place to be. As one of my favorite professors once said regarding his own journey of faith, “I came to realize that being God was above my pay grade.”

This post, as well as the next, is designed not so much to provide an answer, but to get us to probe one of the most critical questions we can ask ourselves – how big is our church and upon what criteria are we going to make that determination?

As always, thanks for reading, and I hope my meandering thoughts somehow point you closer to the heart of the One who died for us.

Book Review – Faith Formation in a Secular Age – Andrew Root (pt. 4)

[A little background here – after I posted my first review of Andrew Root’s book, Baker Academic “tweeted” a link to it. I was mortified. It’s one thing to opine about someone’s work if you are, like, 99.999% sure the author will never read your critique. With the surprise advertisement, I was suddenly faced with the fact that Dr. Root might read my review. He did. And he responded. In some of the most gracious words imaginable, no less. I emailed back and forth with him a couple of times, and I am deeply touched by his willingness to discuss his book, and what he saw as legitimate critiques that I made. His correspondence made my week.]

Okay, its been a while in coming, but I think I am finally ready to share my last (maybe, hopefully) review of Andrew Root’s book, Faith Formation in a Secular Age. As I have hopefully already made clear, this book has deeply cut into what I consider to be “faith development,” and I eagerly await the next two volumes in this series. If you have not read my earlier posts, the bottom line is I highly recommend this book – even with the caveat that there is some technical language used, so parts of the book may be daunting.

Now I want to share my main “quibble” with the book. I have a real hesitancy in doing this for one huge reason. My quibble is not so much with something Root said, but with what he did not say. My hesitancy is that I have a real issue with people criticizing what does not exist in a work. I have two master’s degrees and a doctorate, and the one thing that always irritated me the most in getting a graded paper back was when the professor said something like, “…but you did not address ‘x'” (what ever ‘x’ might have  been.) The one time I really deserved this critique was in my Master of Divinity comprehensive exams. I totally forgot to answer half a question. I thought I was going to get “pass plus” and I think I got a pass-minus. Oops.

In regard to Dr. Root’s book, the essence of what he identifies as “faith” centers in the Pauline expression, “in Christ.” My ears perked up. He went on to discuss Saul of Tarsus’ conversion in Acts 9, and the transformation that took place in Saul’s life. I grew more interested. Root emphatically defended his contention that faith in the New Testament occurs when a person symbolically dies, has someone come and minister the death of Christ to them, and then comes to a new life consisting in service and ministry to others. I was totally captivated. And, with bated breath, I kept turning pages waiting for the ultimate hammer to fall – the hammer that would locate this death, burial, and resurrection to a new life in the physical moment of baptism.

It never fell.

And, as I mentioned above, it is not appropriate to overly critique the omission of a topic in someone’s else’s work – so in terms of reviewing Faith Formation in a Secular Age, I will leave you with this simple observation. The omission in no way minimizes the value of this book – I recommend it highly. But – if the book had been mine to write, this is the section I would add regarding baptism.

Ever since the days of Barton W. Stone and Alexander Campbell, the heirs of the Restoration Movement (especially the Churches of Christ) have been accused of overly emphasizing the physical and spiritual act of baptism. Too many times, I fear, this accusation has been all too accurate. Maybe “overly emphasizing” is overly critical, but we have taken one aspect of conversion and, hopefully not to generalize too much, have turned it into the only aspect of conversion. Just as an example, when someone comes to one of our congregations and seeks membership, the primary question asked of them is not, “do you have the gifts of the Spirit active in your life?” but, “have you been baptized?” (And often included in that question, “. . . by the right person in the right church. . . “)

The end result of this emphasis is that now two hundred years (give or take a few) from the writings of Stone and Campbell, I honestly believe that many members of the Churches of Christ have a totally sacramental view of baptism. Conversion and transformation have been replaced with a magical view of baptism that is utterly absent from the New Testament. What I hear from all too many members of the Church is a curious mixture of evangelicalism (you must be ‘born again’) and Roman Catholicism (it’s just ‘one and done, baptized you’re in, unwashed you’re out’). Talk about your unholy marriages.

Don’t believe me? Just look at the practice of baptism in so many churches. We say that we do not believe in infant baptism, that we are “credo-baptists,” that we only baptize believing adults, or, at the very least, those who have reached the “age of accountability.” [WOULD SOMEONE PLEASE SHOW ME WHERE THAT PHRASE IS USED IN THE NEW TESTAMENT?] And, yet, I see and hear of younger and younger children being baptized – as young as 8 or 9, in some cases probably younger.

We do not allow adolescents to drive until they reach an age twice what we gloriously accept as a “believing adult.” We do not allow anyone to join the military until a couple of years past that. We do not allow anyone to purchase or legally consume alcohol until a couple of years past that. Yet, we trumpet the decision of a child barely into elementary school as a great transformation of life and character. And, we come up with some of the most specious arguments to defend that practice. “But, they believe in Christ.” Um, yeah, so do the demons, according to James 2:19, and it does them no good. “But, what happens if we tell them ‘no’ and they leave the church?” Well, why do we tell our children they can’t have a driver’s license until a  certain age, that they cannot marry until a certain age, that they cannot join the military or drink a beer until a certain age? Why does our judicial system protect minors who are not capable of making adult decisions and being responsible for those decisions until they reach a certain age? And, just to respond to an absurd argument with one equally absurd, what happens if we DO baptize them and then they leave the church – as is happening by the hundreds if not thousands? What then? Do we become crypto-Calvinists and whisper, “Once saved, always saved” as our young adults stream out the back door?

[If you have never sat and answered the anguished questions of one who was baptized as an infant/child, and had them question their faith, their beliefs, their actions, then I suggest that you do sometime. You will not be so quick to dismiss their hopelessness. If they ask for baptism again they feel like they are rejecting the approval of their loved ones years ago. But to continue on living in the doubts and fears of realizing they simply “got wet” in order to please parents or to succumb to peer pressure is spiritually paralyzing.]

You see, as a group of biblical reformers – whose sincere and genuine desire was to restore baptism to a foundational place in the conversion process – we have come full circle to simply practicing baptism as a quaint “right of passage” that doubles as an entry into the membership of a congregation and provides legitimacy to partaking of the Lord’s Supper.

Which brings me right back to Dr. Root’s book. If he is correct in his definition of faith (and I think that if not fully correct, his view points us in a bright and helpful direction), then we must, repeat must, restore the biblical view of baptism to that picture of faith. And, I emphasize this, not just as a brief, momentary photo opportunity, but as a life-long, unending commitment to following in the life, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus.

After examining Saul of Tarsus’ conversion in Acts 9, the passage that was most lacking in Dr. Root’s book is Romans 6:1-14. But, hear me on this – it has also been lacking in my preaching and in my life as well. I too have fallen into the “one-and-done, baptized you’re in, unwashed you’re out” mentality. I too have been caught up in the baptism of infant/children. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

I think it is time, past time actually, that the heirs of the Restoration Movement do some actual restoring again. I think we need to restore baptism to its rightful place, not just in the event of a new birth, but in Root’s words, to a lifelong commitment to the death of Jesus – as lived out in service and ministry to others.

In other words, we need to restore the biblical view of faith back into our vocabulary and our practice.

Middle Isaiah and the Churches of Christ

This is the third installment in my series on middle Isaiah, so if you have not read the first two, I encourage you to do so. That will provide the necessary background for what I want to convey in this post.

One of the necessary, although frustrating, statements that needs to be made anytime an entire group of people is discussed is that in doing so the author must depend upon generalities. So, in this post I am going to be making some general observations about the Churches of Christ in the United States, and invariably someone is going to be able to say, “That is not my experience at all!” To which I will say, “Great! I am glad that you have not had the experiences that I have had, and that you can see things from an entirely different point of view.” But, I cannot see things from eleventy-billion different sets of eyes, so what you will read below is my observations based on years of study and personal experience. As with every automobile commercial ever made – your mileage may vary. If the shoe fits, wear it, if not, find one that does.

What I can say from my experience and study is that the Churches of Christ, as a whole, are not a liturgical group of people. That is to say that our services are largely extemporaneous (although sometimes highly routine). We do not follow the lectionary readings, we do not follow the “church calendar,” and we most certainly do not have a hierarchical view of the priesthood v. the laity. This very decided “low church” atmosphere is even reflected in our architecture and interior building designs. Most congregations are housed in simple wood frame buildings, or if necessary, other very simple structures that, if the name outside were hidden, could be confused with a mortuary or a nursing home. “Ostentatious” is NOT a word that could frequently be used to criticize any of our buildings. Likewise, the interior of our buildings are almost exclusively utilitarian. We have no majestic arched colonnades, no awe-inspiring auditoriums, no sparkly stained glass windows, no lofty pulpits and certainly no jaw dropping organs or choir lofts. Most buildings in the congregations where I have served or worshipped have simple floor plans, and the auditoriums are sparsely decorated, save for a simple table that provides a place for the Lord’s Supper emblems, and a simple (although sometimes massive) pulpit for the preacher to hide behind (just kidding about that one!).

So what does our decidedly non-liturgical form and functionality have to do with middle Isaiah – and the points of emphasis I have made in the last two posts? I’m glad you asked, even if you didn’t.

I have often said, and even now repeat, that one of the greatest failings of the Churches of Christ – particularly in the late 20th and early 21st centuries – is that we have forgotten who we are. We have no sense of history – of our own and certainly not of the Christian church. It seems like for many decades we have tried to prove that we are so unlike everyone else that we have lost sight of Him who we should be like.

In a short, pithy little sentence, – we have forgotten who God is, and in so doing, we have forgotten who we are supposed to be.

Enter in middle Isaiah. In the middle section of this magisterial prophecy, Isaiah proclaims the word of God to a people who have not only forgotten him, but who have actively rejected him and who are following gods that are not gods – the idols. While making a show of being good Yahwists, those who believe in and worship the true God, these syncretists had created a religion that by all appearances was devoted to Yahweh the true God, but in all reality was simply a veneer to cover their real worship of human imagination, and more to the point, of human strength. They had created God in their own image, and would have nothing to do with prophets who tried, with all their might, to get them to return to the Holy One of Israel.

I really have no objections to being non-liturgical, and there is much to be said for having simple, utilitarian buildings. However, there is an insidious danger that is attached to both of those characteristics that I do not think we have cared to think about. When you minimize the truly awesome experience of coming into the presence of a holy God (by making the worship merely extemporaneous and by minimizing the glory of the meeting structure) you inadvertently and I would say quite unintentionally minimize the God to whom you are offering your worship. There were good reasons why the liturgy developed – and why the churches of the middle ages became such magnificent edifices. The Christians of these ages realized it was simply too dangerous to come into the presence of God without some structure, some careful guidance, about how to do so. They also realized, just as with David and Solomon, that the place where God met with man was to be a magnificent dwelling place – not that God was restricted to that place or that he lived only there. But, I believe they rightly understood that if we were going to invite God to meet with us and to feast with us – might we not want to make the meeting place just a little more important than our own homes? I’m not arguing for the kind of ornateness that makes you afraid to enter lest you get dirt on the floor. But I am suggesting that if all we offer to God is some ramshackle little building, then maybe our view of the awesomeness of God is just, well, ramshackle.

Anyway, I think the teachings that are encapsulated in the middle chapters of Isaiah indict the majority of congregations of the Churches of Christ. I think we are too flippant when it comes to worship, and I think our “low” view of our meeting places communicates something that we do not intend, and would actually actively deny. In a word, I believe we are too humanistic in our approach to worship. We do not have, nor do I think we attempt to create, an Isaiah 6:1-9 kind of experience when we “enter his courts with thanksgiving.”

The natural outgrowth of this lack of “awe” in our worship is seen when we promote humanistic approaches to solving all of our problems (the parallel of Isaiah’s compatriots sending down to Egypt for deliverance from the Assyrian hordes). If our God is simply too small to demand our finest and our best, then why not put our faith in politicians and in the Supreme Court justices? They do demand our allegiance! They do demand that we respect their power. Notice how majestic the House and Senate Chambers are? Notice the pomp and circumstance when the President enters the room? Most male members of many congregations cannot even be bothered to put on a nice dress shirt these days. “Come as you are” has now deteriorated into, “who cares what you look like, just wear whatever ratty old clothes that are in the bottom of your closet.” Try wearing those clothes in a courtroom. I’ve heard of judges throwing people out of their courtrooms because of inappropriate dress.

How can we claim to worship a Holy God if we treat him with less respect than we are called to give to a magistrate judge?

You see, middle Isaiah (along with Amos, and Micah, to say the least) has much to say to the 21st century Churches of Christ. I’m afraid not much of it would be pleasant, either.

We have forgotten who God is. We have forgotten who are are called to be. And we have forgotten who we are.

May we all ascend by climbing lower.

I Don’t Get It (Church Division)

I have often said, and now once again confess, that I am not the sharpest bulb in the drawer, or the brightest blade in the box. There are many things about which I am confused, and when someone explains them to me I want to say, “Duh, why didn’t I think of that?” So, the following conundrum may not be a problem to you at all. But for me, well, I’m stuck . . .

The problem to which I refer was illustrated by a recent conversation when, in a room full of individuals representing many different churches, a person said, “We are all Christians, we may have different labels, but we all believe the same thing, believe in the same God, believe in Jesus.” To which I thought to myself, “Um, no we don’t.”

You see, in my limited intellectual capacity, you either believe something or you don’t. If you believe something, it is important to you and you are at least willing to defend it as a personal belief, or you are willing to discuss your belief in the hopes of arriving at a better belief. Let me state a necessary deduction to my way of looking at the world:

Those who claim that all “Christians” believe the same thing and are simply divided by different “labels” are either (a) ignorant or ambivalent about the beliefs of their own church or are (b) ignorant about the beliefs of other churches or (c) are of the opinion that said beliefs are totally irrelevant.

If you hold position (c), then my only question is why do you affirm any of your current beliefs? If such beliefs are irrelevant, then it seems to me you would discard those beliefs and accept the beliefs of other who are utterly and totally convinced of the importance, and correctness, of their beliefs. So, let’s look at positions (a) and (b), which are really just two sides of the same coin.

To be as honest as I can, and to be as gentle as I can and still be clear, it is simply impossible for followers of Roman Catholicism, Lutheranism, Calvinism, and various other stripes of free church theology, to be “united” in any realistic sense of the word. For example –

If you are a Roman Catholic, and you firmly believe in such dogmas as Papal infallibility, apostolic succession, transubstantiation (and its related dogmas), the veneration/adoration/worship of Mary (and the perpetual virginity of Mary as well), then it is simply impossible for you to be “united” with those of us who reject those dogmas. Those doctrines are not just incidental to the Catholic faith – they are what makes Roman Catholics what they are. If you reject Papal infallibility, if you reject transubstantiation, if you reject any kind of special place for Mary – well, it is very difficult for you to consider yourself a Roman Catholic. And if I reject those doctrines, how can you say you are in fellowship with me?

Likewise with Lutherans – if you  hold to consubstantiation, if you hold to the doctrine of “faith only,” if you defend infant baptism, then I would suggest it should be impossible for you to consider that a Roman Catholic on one side or me on the other would be faithful Christians. The Catholic should (if he/she is being true to Catholic doctrine) reject the idea of “faith only,” as do I, for entirely different reasons. The Roman Catholic and I both believe we are saved by faith, but I flatly reject (and I have reason to believe the Roman Catholic would too) the addition of the word “only.” Martin Luther added it to Paul’s teaching in Ephesians (and elsewhere) and in so doing completely changed the meaning of the text.

Calvinists (and all their permutations in the Presbyterian and some Baptist churches) are in more of a pickle than Lutherans, in my opinion. If you hold to the traditional TULIP explanation of Calvinism (Total depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and Perseverance of the Saints) then I am so far away from being a Christian as to be an atheist – I reject every one of those doctrines. But, if you reject any one of those teachings, the house of Calvin folds like a wet paper bag. You cannot hold to total depravity and reject irresistible grace. You cannot believe in unconditional election and reject the idea of limited atonement. In other words, to be consistent, you have to hold all of these concepts in a tight bundle, or your concept of Christianity comes unraveled. I would certainly not be in the “family” as it were.

The point I am trying to make is that when someone makes a statement like, “All Christians believe the same thing and we are all saved by Christ and the only thing that makes us different is our different names,” they either are woefully ignorant of the differences they claim are unimportant, or they do not really believe the fundamental tenets of their respective church.

If you believe that Christ is sacrificed every time the priest blesses and elevates the host, if you believe that Christ’s body is physically present in some form in the elements of the Lord’s Supper, if you believe that an infant needs to be baptized and receives the forgiveness of “original sin,” if you believe that a person is born to eternal salvation and someone is born to eternal damnation – then I suggest that you and I have very little in common except some generic teachings of a wandering rabbi who lived approximately 30 years before the final destruction of the Jewish temple. Jesus then becomes a more pious Plato or Aristotle. If you think that those distinctions are merely “opinions,” then I suggest you need to reject those opinions, because it is those “opinions” that are the main sources of division between churches who claim the name Christ.

I also want to make another point very clear – some of my favorite authors and “mentors” (in an impersonal sense) hold Roman Catholic, Lutheran or Reformed (Calvinistic) beliefs. When I want to learn more about the spiritual disciplines I find that more often than not I am drawn to Roman Catholic authors (or, Anabaptist writers). When I want to learn more about the Old Testament, chances are I will end up with a Presbyterian or Anglican author. If I had to get rid of every book in my library except for one author, I would keep my collected works of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran and someone to whom I am deeply indebted for my understanding of what it means to be a Christian. So, am I making a blanket condemnation of those who hold these various doctrines? No, I hope not – that is not my intention. My only goal in this little exercise in rambling incoherence is to point out that despite our best intentions, and regardless of what sweet sounding words we may use, if we truly hold to the major confessions of our faiths, we are NOT united as Christians.

I freely confess – I am a child of the Restoration Movement and I am convinced that if disciples of Christ would simply return to the teachings “once for all” delivered to the saints (and in my world that would be Genesis-Revelation), then we could call ourselves united. Then there would be differences of opinion (types of worship, perhaps, other truly incidental and transitory questions), but we could at least convey to the world that we are united on the very basic core of our Christian beliefs.

Maybe someone can explain to me how people who hold diametrically opposing viewpoints can be said to be one united faith, but until someone does, I just don’t get it.

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.