Category Archives: Church of Christ
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.
From Greg Boyd’s blog:
I am passionately convinced that if Mennonites will hold fast to (and in some cases, return to) their historic vision of a non-violent, self-sacrificial, counter-cultural Kingdom that transcends nationalism and politics, and if they are willing to become very flexible with their distinctive cultural traditions, Mennonites are positioned to provide a home for the increasing number of people such as myself who are discovering this vision of a beautiful Kingdom and who therefore are repudiating “Christendom” (the traditional “church militant and triumphant”). Many of us want to be rooted in a historic tradition and fellowship that espouses this vision, and this makes becoming a Mennonite very appealing.
I only know one Mennonite–a local pastor in town who was raised in a different denomination (Baptist, I think) and wanted to be part of a church that would understand and support his vocal pacifism. He found that among the Mennonites. We had lunch a while back and I was telling him about the peace tradition in Churches of Christ, folks like James Harding and David Lipscomb in the 1800’s who believed that human government was inherently corrupt, and worse, idolatrous. They knew that the tendency of government–any government–was to exalt itself to rival God, and demand blood sacrifice. Governments would send their young men to die and to kill others.
Lipscomb wrote things like this:
The children of God are so mixed and mingled with the kingdoms of the world, that God cannot destroy the wicked kingdoms, without destroying his own children. Hence the call of God is:
“Come out of her my people that ye be not partakers of
her sins and that ye receive not of her plagues.” (Rev.
This is spoken of the Babylon of human government. We cannot find one word of ground, in all the New Testament, for the children of God participating in the kingdoms of the evil one. The practice weakens the church of God; deprives it of the service, the talent, time and devotion of its children, gives its strength to the building up of what God proposes to destroy. It brings the spirit of the world kingdoms into the church of God, corrupts the church, drives out the spirit of God, destroys the sense of dependence upon God, causes the children of God to depend upon their own wisdom and devices, and the arm of violence, and the institutions of earth rather than upon God and his appointments; weans them from trust and faith in God, and from service in his kingdom, diverts their minds, means and service from the church to the kingdoms of the world, and so defiles and corrupts the church that God cannot bless that church.
I know about this, and at one point, a bunch of people did. And they respected it. There’s a university named for Lipscomb in Tennessee, and one named for Harding in Arkansas. These guys weren’t outliers, they were in the mainstream of our movement.
I’m not enough of a historian to know when those views lost currency. When I was growing up, I never even heard of non-government involvement and pacifism as faithful options. Good Christians were supposed to vote Republican and support the troops. I suspect it was World War II that sounded the death knell for the radical kingdom of God versus kingdom of the world theology in Churches of Christ. I’ve aligned myself with that strain of our tradition, but as a movement we’re so far away from our pacifist roots that it’s like I’m speaking a foreign language when I try to talk about this stuff.
Which is a real shame. I would like for Churches of Christ to be appealing for a guy like Greg Boyd, but most people aren’t going to think of Churches of Christ the same way they think of Mennonites. Because that’s just not us anymore. Maybe we’ll recapture the pacifist tradition. I know some younger people who are attracted to that posture. But most of them are on their way to a different denomination. I don’t know if they’ll stay among us long enough to help us change.
Which is fine. We’re far from the only outpost of the kingdom. Peace be unto them.
A side note: a couple of weeks ago the associate minister at our church asked for suggestions for what message to put on the church marquee. I recommended “Praying for the Peace of Iran.” He thought that would be controversial. Which is right. But that’s wrong.
How many times did Jesus tell us to pray for our enemies? How often do we?
How many times did Jesus tell us to pray for our troops?
Note: When I write “Fundy” or “Fundies” as a shorthand for “Fundamentalists” I do it because I’m a slow typist, not because I want to denigrate my Fundy friends. For them, in spite of our disagreements, I have “all the love in the world,” as Dr. Wilson says.
I have here introduced the notion of “practical atheism,” meaning by it, that although a person may espouse a belief in God, it is quite possible for that belief to be so removed from everyday life, that God’s non-existence would make little difference.
Surprisingly, I would place some forms of Christian fundamentalism within this category (as I have defined it). I recall a group affiliated with some particular Church of Christ, who regularly evangelized our apartment complex when I lived in Columbia, S.C. They were also a constant presence on the campus of the local university. They were absolute inerrantists on the subject of the Holy Scriptures. They were equally adamant that all miracles had ceased with the completion of the canon of the New Testament. Christians today only relate to God through the Bible.
Such a group can be called “Biblicists,” or something, but, in the terminology I am using here, I would describe them as “practical atheists.” Though they had great, even absolutist, faith in the Holy Scriptures, they had no relationship with a God who is living and active and directly involved in their world. Had their notion of a God died, and left somebody else in charge of His heaven, it would not have made much difference so long as the rules did not change.
I realize that this is strong criticism, but it is important for us to understand what is at stake. The more the secular world is exalted as secular, that is, having an existence somehow independent of God, the more we will live as practical atheists – perhaps practical atheists who pray (but for what do we pray?). I would also suggest that the more secular the world becomes for Christians, the more political Christians will become. We will necessarily resort to the same tools and weapons as those who do not believe.
I think this is spot-on. I’ve often remarked that it’s a pretty thin line between atheism and Fundamentalism. Both are essentially Enlightenment postures that deny mystery and seek a purely rational foundation. That’s why the leading claims of the Fundies are claims about the Bible, primarily the claim of innerrancy, which is foreign to the scriptures themselves. This is the great Fundamentalist irony–they simultaneously claim that the Bible is perfect and all-sufficient, and that you begin by believing one thing that the Bible never says. Having asserted this view of the scriptures, everything else proceeds from there. I think this is bad theology, of course, but it also has a huge practical consequence–any Fundamentalist who begins to notice that the Bible sometimes contradicts itself or wrestles with competing views doesn’t have to just rethink his understanding of the scriptures, he has to rethink his entire faith. It was all predicated on a bad assertion. This isn’t my idea–Fundies set themselves up for this all the time when defending their notion of inerrancy. When I started really wrestling with the Bible, I must have been told dozens of times, “If there is a single mistake in the Bible, then how do you know what parts of it you can trust? It’s either perfect or useless.” I was in essence told that if I came to believe that Genesis 1-11, for example, was not straight history, or that it’s unlikely that there were two Philistine giants named Goliath, one killed by David and one by Elhanan (a contradiction that the Chronicler tries to make go away) I had only one choice–reject the Bible outright and become an atheist. Which is, for a time, exactly what I did. Online, I encounter other people on the same trajectory with surprising regularity. It is the Fundamentalist position that there are only two coherent worldviews: Fundamentalism or Atheism.
In Churches of Christ, inerracy was paired with the view that all miracles ceased when the Bible was completed (because who needs a Holy Spirit when somewhere in the world the ink is drying on the book of Revelation?) I remember a sermon when I was a child that claimed that when the New Testament says “Holy Spirit” what it means is the Bible. The Bible leads us into all truth; the Bible comforts us; Jesus said it was better for him to depart so that we could receive the Bible. Bibliolatry is not too strong a word for this view. And it’s ultimately a very lonely theology. God used to do interesting things, but quit a long time ago, so I can’t expect anything from him. Jesus is up in heaven, quietly interceding but not interacting. The Holy Spirit is the Bible, and there is no magisterium, no creed or tradition to help me make sense of it. It’s up to me and my rationality, and the stakes if I mis-interpret are eternal hell. This, among some people, counts as good news.
I think Father Freeman is right that this theology is going to tend toward gaining political power. After all, God isn’t going to fix this world. I can’t trust the Holy Spirit to change people’s hearts. What I should do is get more right-thinking people into office so that we can claim some power and privilege in order to safeguard our rights and enforce Biblical morality. That is diametrically opposed to the servant pathway of Jesus, but, on the other hand, Jesus believed that God was still at work.
There’s a further consequence in this system: having established the Republican party as the torch-bearers for goodness and faith, the Democratic party is inevitably demonized. Sometimes this is overt, as in the insistence that Obama is a closet Muslim, if not the anti-Christ, but often I see it among as disheartening number of my friends who believe that no matter what a Democrat says, there’s some other agenda lurking underneath. The insistence that Obama is a socialist because he wants to repeal Bush’s tax cuts and offer an optional government sponsored health insurance plan is one manifestation. On the other hand, no matter what Bush did, it was vital to “support the President and our troops” (an unseemly blend of faith and militarism). So we get a phenomenon of conservative Christians who don’t bat an eye at torture, secret prisons, warrantless wiretapping, optional wars, outing covert CIA operatives, etc., etc., etc., but are deeply convinced that the new guy is an authoritarian. This requires an astonishing amount of denial.
Which goes back to why I gave up voting: It’s nigh unto impossible to pick a side without beginning to view them as unalloyed forced for goodness and the other team as pure evil. I eventually decided that if I was going to believe in a living God who was King of All, that didn’t leave me a lot of reason to try to enact my agenda through political means. Let other people grapple over who the President is, I’ll look a bit higher. This does not, though, rule out prophetic critiques of those in power. In fact, I think in some ways critique is strengthed by a refusal to pick a team.