Category Archives: Church of Christ

Moving Past the Primitivist Paradigm

Those who were raised in the Churches of Christ and paid any attention at all knew that we were part of the Restoration Movement. That label alone tells you a lot–something had been lost, and we had set about trying to bring it back. In our case, what had been lost was The One True Church, shattered into a thousand apostate fellowships operating in various degrees of error. Or, if understood more graciously, what had been lost was God’s Original Design for the Church, which had been obscured by well-intentioned people who had cluttered up the simple New Testament plan with misguided creeds and practices that detracted from the purity of the early church. Or maybe that should be written The Early Church, a supposed monolithic organization so close to the time of Jesus and so submissive to the inspired teaching of the apostles that their practice constituted a (near?) perfect pattern that could be copied in any time and place. Any group of Jesus-followers who managed to recreate the primitive pattern of The Early Church will have, ipso facto, Restored the Church.

Over time, the Churches of Christ developed a hermeneutic that was understood to enable Bible readers to suss out the pattern from the evidence left in the scripture. That hermeneutic has been commonly called “command, example and necessary inference.” In short, the church can only take a certain action if it has been commanded in the New Testament, if there is an “inspired example” of the church doing it, or if it is necessarily inferred that it must be done in order to obey the commands and examples. That simple formula works in theory, but in reality a whole cluster of traditional interpretation arose to explain why Jesus’ command to sell all our possessions and give to the poor was not incumbent on all Christians, but the example of weekly celebration of communion was. It get even trickier when dealing with matters that are “unauthorized” due to lack of a positive scriptural command or example–like instrumental music. Why are instruments, which God positively commanded in the Old Testament and never mentions one way or the other in the New, now verboten, while something like congregational ownership of property (which I contend caused a much bigger change in the tenor of church life) is accepted without anyone even seeing a need to try to defend it? How do we justify four-part harmony, which was unknown in the early church (and surely as much of a departure from a cappella antiphonal chant as the pipe organ)? Other restorationist groups felt that it was essential to bring back such things as miraculous healings and speaking in tongues–and there are surely approved examples of both of those. Why does Paul’s admonition in 1 Corinthians 14 that women are to be silent overrule Peter’s proclamation in Acts 2 (following Joel) that “your sons and daughters will prophesy?” If it’s possible to be a consistent primitivist, I haven’t seen it in action yet–which is a large part of why the Restoration Movement has divided so many times, over questions of instruments, Sunday School, paid ministers, multiple cups in communion, wine or grape juice in communion, missionary societies, and on and on. The Roman Catholic critique that Protestants got no closer to the truth of God by rejecting the papacy and relying on each person’s own interpretive skill has some bite to it. In the extreme Church of Christ position (which did and still does exist) being part of a congregation that takes the wrong position on any one of those issues could condemn a person to perdition, which means, necessarily, that the vast bulk of not just the world but even of confessing Christians are damned because they made a mistake in somewhere in their chain of logical inferences, and took something to be approved which was, in fact, forbidden, or vice versa.

It’s hard to write all that out now without being overwhelmed by how harsh, how misguided, and how unfeasible the whole system is, but such is the power of group conditioning. If you are raised in a setting where everyone tells you “well, of course instrumental music is not authorized by God” you tend to buy into it and thank Jesus that you were fortunate enough to be born into the company of such right-thinking and righteous folk. Which is, of course, what your teachers had thought when they were younger, and their teachers before them, back to the first revolutionaries who started down this path.

For thoughtful Christians, usually a change in one’s theological outlook comes about gradually, the result of long wrestling with the scriptures, and with valued books, and the stimulating conversation of friends. But occasionally some grand epiphany comes along, or something is said that, in a flash, gives substance to a mass of inchoate thoughts that were cluttering around in your head, waiting to take form.

One day when I was 20, I was performing some errand with the preacher at the church where I was interning, when he said to me “Where in the Bible does it say that we can only do what the Bible specifically says we can do?” I could have fallen over right then. BAM! Our hermeneutic was not commanded. Nor was there an inspired example of Jesus or the apostles interpreting the scripture like we were. And it certainly wasn’t necessarily inferred from anything. It was something humans thought up that was handed down through tradition–the very kind of fallible doctrinal accretion that we were so vigorously fighting to do away with. The foundation of our movement was self-refuting.

There’s a line in Humphrey Carpenter’s The Inklings, where someone explains, “It’s the sort of thing that, once you see it, you can never not see it again.” Halfway across the parking lot, on a walk from the auditorium to the church gymnasium, my life changed.  While the reverence I had been taught for the Bible was a good thing, the way I had been taught to read it was a kind of idol that needed to fall and make room for something better.

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