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.

When Your Sacred Cow is Gored

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

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

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

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

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

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

These all ascended by climbing lower.

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

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

May we all be blessed with that strength of character!

 

A Declaration of Surrender

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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