The Consequences of Trivializing Sin

[Continuing my thoughts from yesterday, SIN – It’s Not Just a Little Boo-boo]

I think, on a fundamental level, we just do not fully understand sin. As I pointed out yesterday, we may have a pretty good grasp of individual sins, as in moral deficiencies, but I am just not convinced that we really have a handle on SIN. This, I further believe, has at least two huge repercussions. The first is in relation to our understanding of the cross as made explicit through the act of baptism, and the second is our lack of understanding (or appreciating) the depth of the pervasiveness of sin as a systemic issue in our lives. I will have to save point two for a later post.

To set the background for my first point, let me use the only example I can speak confidently about – my own experience. During my early teen years I watched as all of my peers stepped forward and were baptized. I watched as they went into the water, and then came out of the water basically the same person. I never really noticed any changes, and in one or two cases, they actually became more accomplished sinners! I fought being baptized for this very reason – I just did not see much of a change in the lives of my friends. Then one day I too stepped forward and was baptized. I went into the water and came out of the water basically the same person. I felt a little different, at least at first, but as time wore on it was pretty obvious to me at least that there had not been much of a change in my life.

The problem was, at least as I can analyze it today some 40+ years after the event, that before I was baptized I considered myself a pretty good person. Oh, I was only too aware of my sins, but nobody is ever perfect, and since everyone around me considered that I was a pretty good person, I was only too willing to go along with the general consensus. Thus, when I was baptized I was vaguely aware that a legal transaction had taken place, that my sins were forgiven, that I was now a member of the church of Christ.

But, on an existential level, nothing had really changed. I came out just as self-centered, just as prone to anger, just as narcissistic, and just as capable of “playing the game” as I was was when I entered the baptistery. The only real difference, as far as I could tell, was that over the course of a couple of minutes I had now become an “insider” where before I was an “outsider,” and I was now “saved” where just a few minutes earlier I had been “lost.” I could now partake of the Lord’s Supper, and, as I am a male, I could lead in worship.

Outside of the generic Bible classes to which we were all being subjected, I had not been discipled. I was not at that time being discipled. In fact, no one ever took me and became my mentor, my teacher, my “discipler.”

This is just a guess, but I am thinking that my story could be repeated hundreds, thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of times for young people in my generation, maybe even other generations.

If all baptism is supposed to do is to be a legal transaction, a “rite (and sometimes a right, something owed and expected) of passage” and a place marker that separates the insiders from the outsiders, the “saved” from the “lost,” then I think the main reason is because we have completely lost an appreciation of what sin really is. By extension, we have completely lost an appreciation of the meaning of the cross.

The “gospel plan of salvation” as it was presented to me illustrates my conclusion perfectly. We are taught, at least once upon a time in the Church of Christ kids were taught, to “hear, believe, repent, confess and be baptized.” That was it. That was the “gospel plan of salvation.” That was the Church of Christ equivalent to praying the sinners prayer or inviting Jesus into your heart. Notice nothing followed “be baptized.” It ended right there. Oh, in some presentations there is lip service given to “live a good life,” but really, what does that mean? For virtually every kid that ever grew up within the Churches of Christ, we WERE good kids before we were baptized (or so we thought, very, very few would have confessed to being “sons of disobedience”) and we continued to be basically good kids after we were baptized. Sin, if it was mentioned at all, was illustrated by dancing, smoking, doing drugs, having sex with our girlfriends (or boyfriends, if you were a girl), or maybe using “cuss” words or looking at magazines that were hidden behind brown wrappers at the convenience stores. That is, sin was simply a list of moral failures, a long list of things to avoid. I was never taught that SIN was a realm, a spiritual dimension of my life presided over by a malevolent “prince of the power of the air” as the apostle Paul describes him in Ephesians 2:1.

It is dreadfully difficult, if not impossible, to renounce something you never knew existed, or continued to exist, in your life.

Sadly, what I have described as my experience is the very same message I have been preaching for years. I can remember baptizing a number of young people, or at least having a part in bringing them to baptism, and then just dropping them. No discipling, no mentoring, no bringing them to an awareness of the seriousness of the concept of sin. They were “lost,” now they were “saved,” so move on to the next target. If no concept of sin, then no concept of grace, of forgiveness, of the cross.

God, save us from our arrogance!

As I am learning in my studies in Ephesians (and, thereby retroactively to other of Paul’s letters), Paul did NOT have this misunderstanding of sin. For Paul the awesome reality of the seriousness of sin was as real as the nose on his face. Paul’s converts were dead in sin, until they died with Christ in the waters of baptism (Eph. 2:1; Rom. 6:1ff; 1 Cor. 15:1ff; Gal. 3:27-28). [Aside here – I just realized today the power, and really the beauty, of Paul’s usage of the words death and dying. We are all spiritually dead outside of Christ, until we die to ourselves and to the world, so that we might live in Him. Wow.] There are only two realms for Paul – we are either in the world, or we are in Christ. The one is under the power of the “prince of the power of the air,” the other is to be ruled by Christ and his Father. Although God is ruler over all, Paul was still aware that for those who so desired, Satan was very much a power and lord of their lives.

As I mentioned yesterday, if sin is only a catalog of sins, if sin is simply a matter of mastering a few moral deficiencies in our lives, then the cross is emptied of all of its power. It should be more than obvious that agnostics and atheists can live as moral, or sometimes even more moral, lives than some “born again” Christians. If morality and ethics are the only issue, the cross becomes literally and physically meaningless. And, if the cross is meaningless, then our baptism means that we only got wet.

I have so much more to say on this issue, but for the moment, I must pause. I hope that these meditations have been valuable to you. I hope that you are reading Ephesians along with me. I hope that either through my words or through your own study you can come to grasp what Paul is telling these Christians. Sin is nothing to trifle with. Sin is not just a violation of a little children’s song. A cosmic battle is taking place, and SIN is the realm into which this world has fallen. There is only one rescue from this realm, and that is the cross of the Messiah, the blood of Jesus.

If we cannot grasp that first reality, then the second is of no use whatsoever.

Sound Conservatism

Those who read my post yesterday, (Neither Sadducee, Pharisee, nor Qumran) who are otherwise unaware of who I am, may have come to the conclusion that I am some kind of flaming liberal. Well, I can assure you that is not the case. I may be a flaming dingbat, but I digress. My point yesterday was to illustrate how conservatism can be, and has been, coopted by ideologies that ultimately destroy healthy conservatism. There is a sound, healthy conservatism, and I believe the Bible teaches that conservatism.

After writing yesterday’s post, it might be surprising for me to say today that biblical conservatism contains aspects of each of those three distortions of conservatism I dismissed. While I firmly reject the conservatism of the political Sadducees, the legalistic Pharisees, and the escapist Qumran covenanters (perhaps the Essenes), I do believe that biblical conservatism holds the basic truths of those movements, but in a way that fundamentally rejects where each of them ends up.

In terms of the political Sadducees, there is a sense in which biblical conservatism seeks to maintain a healthy equilibrium, a measure of the status quo. Even a cursory reading of the Bible reveals that God’s chosen people can exist, and can even pray for the leaders, in any and every human culture. Daniel did not seek to overthrow Nebuchadnezzar. Jeremiah commanded the exiles to pray for their Babylonian captors. Both Paul and Peter encouraged Christians to pray for the leaders of a godless, pagan Roman empire. This is because, as I firmly believe, the Kingdom of God transcends human politics. The kingdom is dynamic, and will eventually work to overcome those pagan cultures, but it is not dynamitic – it is transformative but it is not revolutionary. Where the Sadduccean view of conservatism goes awry is that it seeks to maintain a certain political status quo for purely selfish and covetous reasons. It is all about power, and Christians today who are pressing for a political solution for moral issues have sold their soul to the devil when it comes to power. Power corrupts – and there is not a single elected official who does not have to deal with the issue of how to exercise his or her power. Human nature being what it is, and Sin being what it is, that power is virtually always turned inward, and the more power the more selfish and egotistical that power holder becomes.

Regarding the legalistic Pharisees, the Bible clearly enjoins faithful obedience to the laws of the Kingdom of God. The New Testament nowhere repeals every injunction of the Torah (a point not often understood). Jesus himself, in that oft quoted passage (Matthew 23:23-24), clearly states that obedience of the letter of the Law is not to be ignored, but that what is more critical is that the “weightier” concepts (justice and mercy and faithfulness) to which the letter of the Law points is to be observed with greater diligence. To ignore what the Pharisees were trying to protect is to totally misunderstand their righteousness (see especially Matthew 5:20). Jesus never condemned the Pharisees because they were concerned with protecting the Law of Moses. Jesus condemned the Pharisees because they elevated a legalistic interpretation of the Law over the spiritual message that the Law was pointing to. Today’s Pharisees are not to be blamed because they are devout in wanting to follow God’s commands to the furthest extent that they can see them. Where today’s Pharisees share with their historic counterparts is in their devout, almost psychotic, elevation of their interpretation of some jot or tittle of Scripture and who completely miss the truth of that text. Just as one example, yesterday I mentioned an overly literalistic interpretation of the age of the earth. Now, no one knows how old the earth is, and I defy anyone, scientist or theologian, who can prove to me conclusively that he or she knows otherwise. It simply cannot be done – and do not even start with Archbishop Ussher’s chronology – I’ve seen it and while I appreciate its scope, I reject its basic premise. However, today’s Pharisees mandate that a believer holds to a very specific age of the earth, and anyone who disagrees with them is a heretic, certain to be excommunicated if not burned at the stake. It does not matter to them if there are other possible scenarios (and the entire thrust of Genesis 1-3 is utterly ignored). The only thing that matters to them is whether their interpretation is unquestionably accepted as absolute truth.

That leaves the Qumran covenanters, and once again, there is a level of legitimacy to their desire to separate themselves from the pagan society in which they found themselves. Jesus himself clearly taught that there are firm boundaries between the Kingdom of God and the kingdom of this world. Paul taught that the call of Christ is a call to “come out” of the world and enter into a new realm – to become citizens of heaven. Peter addressed his Christian readers as exiles in this world. This is an aspect of the Kingdom of God that I find disturbingly missing from much of contemporary Christianity. Within the Churches of Christ we have deep roots in this line of spirituality, and the fact that we have virtually eliminated that strain of thought has weakened our message and out influence considerably. We (and I speak as the majority of Churches of Christ) are far too comfortable in this world, and we have welcomed far too much of the world into our congregations. However, taken to a radical extent, this desire to separate from the world leads to a spiritual pride, and even a physical separation, that is wholly unknown in the New Testament. Paul called on his readers to separate from the world, not at all meaning they were to leave their cities and move to the desert, but that they were to separate themselves from the behaviors and practices of those who were “outside” of the kingdom. It is possible, and even biblically commanded, that Christians are to be separate, to be God’s Holy people. But we can never allow that command to countermand the equally valid injunction that we are to salt and light in a bent and broken world.

So, while I firmly reject the political compromises of the Sadduceean conservatives, and the legalistic dogmatism of the Pharisaical conservatives, and the utopian escapism of the Qumran conservatives, I do equally affirm the reality of a sound, healthy, biblical conservatism. I believe that the church must profess the last, while rejecting the excesses and errors of the first three. There is, to use Aristotle’s term, a “golden mean” that allows a disciple of Christ to be thoroughly conservative, and yet at the same time be energetically concerned with the social issues of the day. It requires that we be thoroughly biblical – that we be Old Testament Christians as well and New Testament Christians. It means that we have to re-learn some texts that we have either forgotten or have ignored – mostly the Pentateuch and the Prophets.

But it can be done. And, when we dive deeply into those books we discover a wonderful new world – it is the world of Jesus and the Kingdom of God.

Let us ascend by climbing lower.

Does Architecture Matter?

Strange question for this Friday – which has absolutely nothing to do with any cataclysmic issues of the day. But, this funny question popped into my mind. To be honest, I am utterly conflicted. My answer is no, but, really, yes.

I am the product of a non-liturgical church. The churches of Christ in which I was raised went out of their way to be non-liturgical. In fact, we developed an entire liturgy to declare our non-liturgicalness. Our ministers wore no special garments, studiously avoided any special recognition (woe be to the funeral director who attached the epithet, “Rev.” onto the preacher’s name!) Our choirs wore no special robes because we never had a choir – the congregation was the choir!! There were no “special days” – and most likely the preacher preached on the resurrection of Jesus the week before December 25, and preached on the birth of Jesus the day everyone else was celebrating the resurrection. Our services had no uniform “liturgy” as such, except that the routine of opening prayer, three songs, Lord’s Supper, song, sermon, song and closing prayer could be predicted within a verse or two of having a universal application. That’s what I mean by having a liturgy of non-liturgicalness. Heaven help the poor soul who dared to rearrange any aspect of our worship.

This “low church” approach was especially evident in the architecture of our buildings.There were no stained glass windows, no crosses, and certainly no crucifixes. The only piece of furniture that could even remotely be considered “high church” was a simple table with the words “Do This in Remembrance of Me” or perhaps even just “In Remembrance of Me” carved or emblazoned on the front. Our buildings were constructed to be utilitarian, not expressive. The main room was not a “sanctuary,” it was an “auditorium,” designed for the specific purpose of having something “heard.” Classrooms were added alongside the auditorium, or in an adjacent “education” wing. If there was a “fellowship” hall, it was  quite often detached from the “auditorium” so that there would be no confusion as to what purpose each room was constructed.

Most, but not all, of that changed when the Churches of Christ “crossed the tracks” and became respected, and respectable, members of the community. Our buildings became more ornate – some even had stained glass windows installed! – but the basic utilitarian nature of the building never changed. It is still the very rare congregation that displays a cross behind the pulpit, “praise teams” abound but there are very, very few “choirs,” and only the most pompous preachers would dare to wear a clerical robe or accept the title, “Reverend.”

I contrast that with the most common “high church” architecture. I think of the massive cathedrals in Europe, and even many of the fabulous church buildings in the United States. I grew up just a few miles from one of the most beautiful Spanish churches in the United States in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I still love to visit that and other Roman Catholic churches in my home state. They are beautiful, ornately constructed, and the architecture conveys a message that our utilitarian church just simply cannot convey.

For one, the interior of the buildings lifts the worshipper’s view upward. There is a feeling that, when you enter the main worship center, you are called to experience something greater than yourself. In a pre-literate society, pictures, statuary, and architecture was the primary way of communicating the holiness and transcendence of God. The manner in which the church was constructed was a silent, yet powerful, way of communicating a basic truth: God is greater than the worshipper and a measure of respect and awe was due when one entered the place where God was to be worshipped.

Even the exterior of the building conveys this truth: the spires and the other forms of elevating the worshippers eyes let the person know this is a building like no other. When you enter here, you are entering sacred space – leave the world outside. Enter his courts with joy and thanksgiving, to be sure, but remember whose courts you are entering, and respond appropriately.

Compare that with the modern combination of a “worship” space and a basketball court. Who is being worshipped? God or LeBron James?

I said in my opening paragraph that I am utterly conflicted. On the one hand, it matters not in what kind of building we worship. We can worship in a house, in a rented store-front, in a cave or in a tent. Or, we can worship in an ornate, classically constructed cathedral decorated with beautiful stained glass windows and majestic arches. The apostle Paul was equally content to worship in a synagogue (which, as archeology has proven, were often incredibly ornate and beautiful) or gathered with fellow worshippers by a stream.

But, to be honest and straightforward, when God told Moses how to construct the tabernacle, and when David instructed Solomon how to construct the temple, there was to be no limit on how beautiful the physical structures were to be built. The purpose determined the result. If it is to be God’s house, if the purpose is to praise and to worship a holy and transcendent God, wouldn’t it make sense to have that house, that worship center, the most beautiful and glorious that we could make it? This is where I struggle the most with our utilitarian focus. If all we do is gather together to listen to a lecture and sing a few songs, then who cares what the building looks like.

But . . . if we are gathered into His Presence, if we are present with His Holy Spirit, if the creator of the universe descends to “tabernacle” with us, doesn’t it just make sense to signify that presence with architecture that reflects that presence?

As always, thanks for considering my meandering thoughts.

Honoring Heroes – and Respecting Differences

In my last post I shared some reasons why David Lipscomb and Dietrich Bonhoeffer are two of my heroes of theology. I freely admit that my thinking contains more than one paradox. These two are hardly theological twins. Maybe that is one reason they attract me so much. In no way whatsoever do I want to suggest they shared the same theological conclusions in every possible way. And so, in part to clarify some issues, and in part to continue to honor their influence, I share these rather significant differences between my two favorite theologians.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer
David Lipscomb
  • Dietrich Bonhoeffer was trained in, and always practiced, the classical form of liberal biblical studies that was current in Germany in the early 20th century. David Lipscomb would NEVER have accepted what Bonhoeffer viewed as something that was self-evident – that theologians could, and should, identify the purely human elements involved in the production of Scripture as opposed to the work of the Holy Spirit. Bonhoeffer would have viewed Lipscomb’s literalist approach to Scripture as being reactionary. But it is here that I find a remarkable similarity – when Bonhoeffer preached, he preached the Bible as fervently and “literally” as Lipscomb would have. That is to say, when Bonhoeffer was doing academic theology, he leaned heavily on his liberal training. But when he preached, he preached the text as if he were a conservative’s conservative. He thought the “theology” that was being taught at Union Theological Seminary was laughable – he wrote that the only place he could find the gospel being preached in New York City was in the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. I am not the only one who strives to hold two vastly different viewpoints in tension!
  • Bonhoeffer accepted the view that the universal church was comprised of the various “churches” found primarily in Europe. He was mystified by the proliferation of “denominations” in America – I’m not sure he ever really figured out what Americans did with the concept of the church. Lipscomb was a Restorationist – he was firmly convinced there was only one church, and it could not be comprised of a number of different bodies who held significantly different beliefs. Lipscomb rejected both the European view of the church, as well as the uniquely American experiment in denominationalism.
  • Similarly, Bonhoeffer had no issue with promoting the classic creeds of Christianity, and was active in formulating the Confession of Faith that defined the Confessing Church in Germany. Lipscomb believed that creeds were unnecessary, and that Confessions of Faith were divisive, not unitive. Yet, even here, there is a strange intersection of belief between these two men – both men believed that the church they were a part of was the one true church! Bonhoeffer famously wrote (and was excoriated for it) that if one separated himself from the Confessing Church, he separated himself from salvation. For Bonhoeffer there was one church, and the Confessing Church in Germany was that church (or at the very least, was a part of that church). Lipscomb would have said the same thing (and perhaps did), except that the church to which he would have referred would have been a conservative Church of Christ (certainly not a congregation of the Disciples of Christ!) Coming from two radically different approaches, both men ended up basically in the same place.
  • As Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a devout Lutheran, it goes without much explanation that he and David Lipscomb would have had significant differences in understanding the Lord’s Supper.
  • Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote one of the finest explanations on the topic of baptism that I have ever read – and yet, he concluded that infant baptism was perfectly acceptable. [Note, this is one area where Bonhoeffer just drives me crazy. His justification for the necessity of baptism could have been written by Alexander Campbell or David Lipscomb, but then he concludes that it is this necessity for baptism that mandates, or at the very least, allows for, infant baptism. His logic makes my head spin. The only thing I can suggest is that, like every single one of us, Bonhoeffer was a product of his theology, not just a shaper of that theology. For him to have rejected infant baptism would have meant far more of a radical turn than he was willing to make, and, for the battle in which he was so completely devoted, the specific question of infant vs. believer’s baptism did not occupy a critical position.] Lipscomb rejected the idea of “inherited” or “original” sin, and for him infant baptism was not only unnecessary, it was unbiblical.
  • Related to another point above, Bonhoeffer was deeply involved in the ecumenical movement of the 1930’s. His conception of the church universal not only allowed this, it pretty much demanded it. Lipscomb would have rejected this approach of recognizing the church universal, and would have been emphatic that the only way to unify divided Christianity was to return to a simple and straightforward understanding of the New Testament.
  • Bonhoeffer held firmly to the Lutheran doctrine of the “two kingdoms.” One of the distinctive views of Lipscomb is that there is only one kingdom, that of God, and that any attempt of man to govern within that kingdom was a repudiation of God’s kingship. Therefore, for Lipscomb, a Christian should not participate in any form of government, even down to voting! Bonhoeffer believed that government was established and blessed by God, so long as it reserved its authority for strictly “secular” purposes. The role of the church was to teach the government how to govern appropriately, and to correct the government when it overstepped its boundaries.

As I mentioned in my first post – the differences between Lipscomb and Bonhoeffer are vast and deep. One should in no way confuse the beliefs of these two men! However, the intersection of their thoughts, where they do indeed intersect, is profoundly interesting to me, for the very reason that they approach Scripture and the church from such differently positions. I am captivated by both. I favor Lipscomb in many ways because he is family – we share the same ecclesiastical heritage. I find his political views refreshing, and dare I say it, far more biblical than most of my fellow members of the Churches of Christ. I believe Lipscomb and Bonhoeffer both drank from the same Spirit. I can see, despite their differences, a strange union. Maybe its because I am so strange. Who knows.

Anyway, thanks for sharing a bit of my conservative, and liberal, heritage!

Honoring Heroes – Dietrich Bonhoeffer and David Lipscomb

Okay, maybe I’ve have put the whole “orthodoxy/heresy” question to bed. Time to move on.

I have often ruminated that the two greatest theological minds to have influenced me are (in chronological order) David Lipscomb and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer would get the nod in terms of amount of written material that I have, but Lipscomb would get the nod in terms of theological agreement. I have suggested that if I were to name my favorite theologian, it would be David-Dietrich Bonlipscombhoeffer.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer
David Lipscomb

While separated by a generation (Bonhoeffer was nine when Lipscomb died), an ocean (Lipscomb and American, Bonhoeffer a German), a culture, and vast theological differences, the two share some striking similarities; maybe not profound to many, but poignant to me. Here are just a few of the most important:

  • Both were center-right of their respective churches. Bonhoeffer was considered an irritant by many in the German church. He was labeled a trouble maker and extremist. Lipscomb was also viewed as somewhat of an extremist – not so much for his theological positions, but for the radical ethical positions he drew from those theological positions. While Lipscomb could also be attacked by those further to the right on the Restorationist continuum, both of these leaders were marked for their obstinate refusal to surrender core biblical teachings, or to compromise for the purpose of “just getting along” with their opponents.
  • Both were committed to reforming these churches. Lipscomb would use the word “restore” rather than “reform,” but both men dedicated themselves to correcting what they saw were serious errors in the church. Both men were able to see that the error they were facing was not simply the presence of individual “sin” in the church, but rather that there was a systemic bent toward sinfulness in the church. Any preacher can preach against sin, but it takes a true visionary to attack the presence of systemic Sin in the life of the church.
  • As a result, both men were willing to face the inevitable wrath of former friends and colleagues. Neither man was exempt from such wrath.
  • Both men were pacifist. This is truly intriguing. Both men saw the error, the futility, of war. Lipscomb lived through the American Civil War, and preached tirelessly that Christians in the South were not to take up arms against Christians in the North. Bonhoeffer was just a youth during World War I, and as a patriotic German, defended the act of going to war even as a young preacher during his ministry in Spain. However, by the time Hitler ascended to the role of Chancellor in 1933, Bonhoeffer had come to reject his earlier defense of militarism, and was fully aware that his acceptance of pacifism might ultimately cost him his life. It was a risk he was willing to take.
  • Both men were deeply committed to mentoring, teaching, and developing young men for the ministry of the church. Bonhoeffer led an illegal seminary for Lutheran pastors, and Lipscomb created a college for the purpose of educating and training young preachers. Through their tutelage, scores of Christians have been influenced by this interest and love for training the next generation of preachers.
  • Finally, (at least for this post), both men were deeply committed to the power of God to effect the changes necessary to reform or restore the church, but both men were aware that humans were going to have to change if there was to be any lasting transformation. You could say that both had almost a child-like faith in God both to will and to empower the church to change. After all, it was Jesus who said, “Unless you change and become like these little children . . .” Lipscomb and Bonhoeffer both radiated that child-like love and faith in their God.

Perhaps other similarities could be drawn, and perhaps I will do so. Obviously I have not labeled all of the differences – and they are numerous and not insignificant. I have considered it profound how two men who, at least ostensibly have so little in common, have been such influences in my life. If you know me very well at all, you should be able to see David-Dietrich Bonlipscombhoeffer in my words. Alas, I’m afraid I’ve not put much of their courage or their holiness into actual lived experience, but maybe I can change that over the remaining portion of my life on this earth.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In everything, let us ascend lower.

The Beauty of the Restoration Principle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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