Lo and behold – I am in the final stages of getting my DMin dissertation approved. It has been a wild ride. Soon, though, I hope to have it in my rear-view mirror. In 2015 I hope to present a series of posts here that will kind of summarize my dissertation, although I will probably add some comments here and there that were not necessarily pertinent to my academic paper.
One benefit of my paper was that I was introduced, and perhaps re-introduced in some areas, to some parts of my history that I was not aware of. Even now, as a result of reading a book that came into my vision as I was writing my paper, I realize that I know very little of my own spiritual history – the history of the Churches of Christ. This is odd, because before I started writing my paper I would have argued that I knew quite a bit of this history. I had classes in Restoration History, I have read extensively (so I thought) in Restoration history, and yet…I barely touched the “hem of the garment” as the old saying goes.
Why are members of the Churches of Christ so adverse, or afraid, of learning and teaching our history? As I address this and issues next year I will undoubtedly expand on some of my thoughts here, but here are some of the reasons that have occurred to me as I have worked on my dissertation.
1. We deny that we even have a history. Other churches have histories, we do not. We were created on the day of Pentecost, round about AD 33 in Jerusalem, and that is that. No need to study all that historical stuff that happened over the past 1900 + years. As Henry Ford has been quoted as saying, “History is bunk.” Just study the Bible and that is all you need to do. Sadly, this is the opinion of a great number of members of the Churches of Christ today.
2. Even if we admit that we have a history, there is no use studying it, because it really does not matter anyway. Studying history only dredges up old fights and issues that no one wants to deal with today. Let sleeping dogs lie. Besides, if I do not study what actually happened in my history, I can write my own history. That way my side is always right. Do not try to confuse me with the facts, my mind is made up.
3. We are simply mortified to find out that our history, is, well, so different that what I pictured it. I am stunned to discover that some members’ (even well educated members’) understanding of our history is so blatantly wrong. I have taught a couple of survey type courses on Restoration history in congregations, and without fail someone will walk up to me and say, “I never knew [insert subject] happened that way.” Usually it is in regard to the instrumental music question, but several other topics always seem to catch people off-guard. Case in point – recently a congregation had a “Friends Day,” always a perilous adventure in Churches of Christ because visitors are stunned to find that the band packed up and moved out. So, explanations must be made as to why there is no electric guitars, drum sets, or nary a piano to be seen. Now, a perfect opportunity exists to open visitor’s eyes to the depth of understanding that encompasses over 200 years of Restoration thought. But no, not for this congregation. No, the reason there was no band up front was because it is our tradition not to have instrumental music. No mention of the biblical, historical, or theological reasoning that lies behind that tradition. No mention that Churches of Christ are just one of many groups that recognize the power and beauty of acapella singing. Nope. Just a half-hearted dodge from someone who was terrified that a visitor might think that there was actually a defensible reason why there was no instruments of music in sight. You see, if your history embarrasses you, it is far better never to actually investigate that history.
4. Studying our history exposes our weaknesses and our failings. Here is where I spent most of my time briefly surveying the history of the Churches of Christ as it related to my specific topic. Everyone wants their history to be a history of nobility, honor and unimpeachable righteousness. How strange that the Churches of Christ would want to think this, seeing as how the entire history of the Israelite people (the original “Church of God”) is one long history of mistakes, faithlessness, and more mundane goof-ups. Why should we expect our history to be any different? The fact is the leading voices of the Churches of Christ have made just as many mistakes as they have made things right. But, admitting your weaknesses and failings is a painful, humiliating experience. Many, if not most, members of the Churches of Christ would just rather blithely go through their life thinking that the men (and sometimes women) that they have some vague connection to are enshrined as God’s cherubim and seraphim – blameless, holy, and untouchable.
I genuinely wish more members of the Churches of Christ would learn to appreciate our history. Our history is one of the richest, most exciting, and dare I say, most entertaining of stories. It is replete with triumph and tragedy, success and failure. This history is part and parcel of who I am – how can I deny it? And, for those who have come to the church late in life, it is an amazing story of the American spirit (for good or ill) and learning from this history explains much of the current religious situation in America today.
Why are we so afraid of our history? Maybe I know, and maybe I don’t know. But it bothers me that members of the Churches of Christ are so blatantly ignorant of our history. I pray that changes. Maybe the next generation will not be so phobic about pulling out some dusty history books and turning a few pages…
I have far more to add to this series, but it simply would become too cumbersome if I said everything I wanted to say. Also, I have had a wonderful conversation with a follower of this blog, and I promised I would address some of his questions, so many other topics await. And, this has been an extremely fertile period for me in terms of personal study, so my list of future topics grows relentlessly. But, we now rejoin our topic at hand.
As briefly and as emphatically and as passionately as I can, I want to say that the Churches of Christ share a heritage that is as rich and vibrant as any faith group on earth. The community that has (over a long period of time and through many struggles) come to be known as the “Church of Christ” was born of a profound vision. A large and diverse group of individuals came to see that denominational Christianity was and is corrupted Christianity. They were separated by time and by distance, but all came to a remarkably similar conclusion: a return to the apostolic teaching of the New Testament would eliminate the barriers that divided the Christian world. The two most well-known, and therefore most influential, of these men were Barton W. Stone and Alexander Campbell. Of the two, Campbell was wealthier and had more influence, and so for the greater part of the history of the Churches of Christ the group has followed more of Campbell’s theology than Stone’s. However, the two men had widely divergent viewpoints on many issues, and through careful study of the history that I call my own, as well as reading deeply in the faith traditions of others, I have come to see where in many respects Barton Stone was more faithful to the Scriptures than was Campbell. I see this especially in regard to Stone’s apocalyptic worldview. Whereas he was a “restorer” in the sense of desiring to return to apostolic Christianity, he was nonetheless drawn forward by his understanding of the coming Kingdom of God. I believe it is this forward facing apocalypticism that we must return to if we, the Churches of Christ, are to remain faithful to Christ in the 21st century.
Nowhere is this need more apparent than in the manner in which many (if not an overwhelming majority) of the members of the Churches of Christ have accepted nationalism, and in particular, Republicanism, as the most prominent manifestation of God’s kingdom. In the first century to which so many “Restorers” point, the first Christians were deeply aware of the fact that they were “sojourners” and “aliens” in a foreign land. Members of the Churches of Christ, particularly in the United States, have utterly lost that sense of homelessness. In fact, we actively argue against it every time we wrap the Bible (and therefore all of its teachings) in the American flag. We are totally and completely at home in this world, and our guiding book is not the Word of God, it is the Constitution of the United States. If you doubt me just pay attention to the Sundays leading up to an important election. Sermon after sermon, class after class, announcement after announcement is made declaring that it is not simply the Christian’s right to vote, but it is his or her duty and obligation to vote. And, not just cast a ballot, but that ballot had better be for the candidate of the Republican party. I guess the passage of Scripture that teaches that particular concept is found in 1 Opinions or 2 Interpretations, because I have searched for it all through my Bible and I cannot find it anywhere. Christians are citizens of the city that is above, and our allegiance is to the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
There is a HUGE difference between obeying and submitting to a government as long as it does not conflict with Kingdom ethics (which is a biblical teaching) and supporting and furthering that worldly government with our passionate support (which is clearly a concept that is condemned in Scripture).
The more divided and rancorous our political situation becomes, the more critical it becomes for members of the Churches of Christ to divest ourselves of the whole disgusting, ungodly, and corrupting system. In politics everyone loses at some point, and the poor and powerless lose the most frequently and with greater harm. And, just a question, what group is it that receives the greatest concern from God in every book of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation? Exactly – the poor and powerless who are abused and manipulated by the politically powerful.
Second, if we are to divest ourselves of our political affiliations, we are going to have to design a system by which we can care for the sick, the poor, and the abused in a manner that glorifies God and grows the Kingdom. We must be done with this attitude that, “that is the government’s job.” No, it is not. God gave that task to his people, the saved, the “holy ones.” If we claim the name, we had better start playing the game.
And, finally, lest this post turn into a dissertation sized monologue, the Churches of Christ need to return to a policy of passionate and honest engagement with our religious neighbors. As I mentioned in my last entry, we cannot do so if we harbor a pathological hatred of our past. I am sick of hearing preachers who claim an allegiance to the Church of Christ who stand in pulpits or write in journals and vent their spleen regaling how much they hate the Church of Christ. They hate that Churches of Christ have traditionally (and for very good theological and historical reasons) have not used instrumental music in the worship service. They hate how Churches of Christ have traditionally (and for very good theological and historical reasons) have limited leadership roles within the church to males. They hate that Churches of Christ limit the power of their ministers (and for very good theological reasons, I might add) by having independent, locally selected groups of elders in each autonomous congregation. It is not a perfect system, because it depends upon imperfect humans in each and every congregation. But it sure beats having some stuffed-shirt autocrat decide what every congregation, or even a group of congregations, must do in order to fulfill his (or her) vision of grandeur.
Likewise, we cannot enter into an honest engagement with our religious neighbors if we harbor a passionate hatred for anything that does not look or smell like a Church of Christ. I can, and I believe I do, hold my beliefs with passion and honesty. I must recognize that members of other faiths hold their conclusions just as passionately, and with reasons that they believe to be just as honest. Yes, there are charlatans in every group, including the Churches of Christ. I discount all of them. But if I expect others to give me an honest hearing, I must extend to them the same courtesy. It is amazing what happens when that exchange occurs. If you have never experienced that event I do pity you. You have missed out on an amazing gift.
I will close with a very personal anecdote, and I realize I share this with great risk. But I have been a part of two Doctor of Ministry programs, one
associated with the Churches of Christ, and my current program at Fuller Theological Seminary. My experience with the university associated with the Churches of Christ was dreadful. I was clearly the most conservative student in my class (theologically speaking) and the contempt and vitriol expressed relating to Churches of Christ was unbelievable. You could cut the hatred in the room with a knife. Every discussion, every topic was somehow skewed to point out how wrong the Church of Christ had been and continues to be.
On the other hand I have never been a part of a group that is more welcoming that the situation at Fuller. I just naturally assumed that as a theologically conservative “Church of Christer” I was going to be in the same basic situation. [By the way, I despise the term “Church of Christer” which I first heard from a member of the Church of Christ who used it approvingly, but I have since had it used against me as well. I place it in quotation marks to indicate I am using someone else’s term, and not my own.] I had steeled myself for that eventuality and consoled myself that at least the wrath of my fellow classmates could be attributed to the fact that they were “outsiders” and did not understand my history. To my amazement just the opposite occurred. My classmates at Fuller have been far more willing to hear my positions than my “brothers” at the university associated with the Churches of Christ. Now, to be sure, my Fuller classmates did not and do not fully agree with me – but they listen and I have learned to respond in kind. In fact, as a funny aside, one day one of our professors wanted us to sing a song that no one had heard before. As there were no instruments readily available this was going to have to be an “acapella” chorus. No one had the foggiest idea how to lead the song so they turned to the only one in the group who they were absolutely sure knew how to read music and therefore lead the group in this acapella version of the song – ME, the lone “Church of Christer” in the group. The irony is that I do not know how to read music and therefore let the group down. We resorted to going upstairs and borrowing an administrator who was gifted in the art of sight-reading music and she taught us how to sing the song.
I tell that story to make this point: if the Churches of Christ are going to continue to have a valid and meaningful voice in the religious world of the United States, it is imperative that her spokesmen return, or continue, to hold two positions without fear or favor. One, we are going to have to defend what we believe with passion and intellectual honesty. You cannot defend something you hate or something you disagree with. If you hold positions that are theologically and historically counter to what members of the Churches of Christ have proclaimed for almost 200 years now then it is your responsibility to “man up” and declare your spiritual independence and leave the community. Do not expect the church to change because you like guitar music or are raising a daughter. Thousands of members of the Church of Christ have loved and continue to love guitar music (I am chief among them) and have or are raising daughters (once again, me too). Two, it is absolutely imperative that we open our ears to actually listen to those who share a faith in Jesus, but who have differing opinions regarding doctrines and practices. I am not advocating that we embrace denominationalism, but we must engage with those who participate in it. I honestly believe that when we do so from a position of passion and honesty we will be heard with a far greater degree of reciprocity than what we have come to fear.
I have rambled far too long. I appreciate your patience in reading, and for many of you, for following this blog. Your support is humbling.
After a brief (although, in my mind, necessary) detour, I would now like to return to the series of posts I have been writing about my perspective on the current situation the the Churches of Christ find themselves in, and what I believe would be a biblical response.
In this entry I would like to discuss the relationship the Churches of Christ have had, and currently do have, with other churches in the Christian tradition.
To begin with, this subject has been a complicated one from the earliest days of the American Restoration Movement. The two men most frequently named as “founders” or “leaders” of the Churches of Christ (Alexander Campbell and Barton W. Stone) both believed with no hesitation that there were Christians within every denomination that existed in the early 1800s. It would have been simply unfathomable to these men to try to defend the statement that the church had “disappeared” from the face of the earth. The very point of their “restoration” movement was to call Christians who were in the denominations to leave those institutions, not because there was no way they could be Christian, but because these institutions demanded that the person be something else in addition to being a Christian. In order to be a Presbyterian (as both Campbell and Stone were) you had to subscribe to the rules of the Presbyterian church. Likewise the Methodist church, the Lutheran church, the Anglican or Episcopal church, and the Roman Catholic Church. In the early 1800s these denominations exercised far more “boundary discipline” than is exercised today, so it is hard for some people to understand the religious landscape to which Campbell and Stone were writing. The point that I want to make here is that neither Campbell nor Stone thought they were creating or re-creating anything. They believed in “restoring” the church, but that simply meant removing all the barnacles that had attached themselves to the hull of the great sailing ship “church.” In both of these gentlemen’s minds, if a person was to return to the teachings of the New Testament and New Testament alone, the resulting community, or “church” would be the pure New Testament church.
In my own very personal and, at least in my mind, educated opinion, the weaknesses of such “pure” restorationist thinking has been adequately revealed. There were some historical and philosophical realities the Campbell and Stone either were unaware of or chose to ignore. Thus, the movement that they helped spawn has had more than its fair share of divisions and brutal intramural fights. We have certainly not lived up the the concept of uniting on the essentials and having charity in the matters of opinion. But this basic beginning point of Campbell and Stone must be understood for the Church of Christ to move forward.
Explained in the most simple way I know how, the Churches of Christ have moved through three stages in dealing with the denominational churches.
The first stage has been noted above. It is the stage of engagement. Both Campbell and Stone sought to engage the denominations with a simple plea – return to a point of time in history when there were no denominations. Hence the term “non-denominationalism” was born. Campbell and Stone saw that, for all the unity with the various denominations, what divided them was not the New Testament (nor, for that matter, the Old Testament), but the later creeds and, more specifically, the Confessions of Faith that each denomination held as a barrier between them and the rest of the Christian world. The original message of the earliest restorers was to simply remove those Confessions of Faith as tools of division. In order to communicate this message the early restorers engaged the leaders of the denominational world. They went congregation to congregation and house to house explaining their plea. And, by any reasonable measure, they succeeded wildly. Entire congregations severed their denominational ties and joined the “Stone/Campbell” movement to unite all Christians.
However, disciples of prophets very rarely follow closely in their leader’s footsteps. And so another
group of leaders emerged that believed if a person should leave a denomination, that meant he or she could not be a Christian if he or she was a member of that denomination. So, even during the lifetime of Stone and Campbell the second phase of the relationship between the Churches of Christ and the denominational world developed, and that was the phase of debate. Now, to be sure, Campbell was a master at the skill of debate. But his debates were never to destroy the enemy, they were designed to convince the doubting. This was not enough for this emerging set of firebrands. They believed the gains made by Campbell and Stone were impressive, but that they were not enough, and those gains had to be defended at all costs. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, the non-denominational plea espoused by Stone and Campbell was turned into call to enter into another denomination, the “Church of Christ.” A person could not be a Christian unless he or she adhered to each and every demand that a particular preacher, elder or editor saw was critical – whether it was baptism “for the forgiveness of sins,” the use of titles for ministers, paying ministers, using an instrument of music in worship, not partaking of the Lord’s Supper each and every Lord’s Day, having separate Bible classes for children, using women to teach Bible classes, supporting non-congregational “institutions,” and the list could go on and on. Each and every one of these topics became the fodder for debates, and for several generations a preacher’s skill was measured not by his spirituality or ministerial ability, but by how well he did in “debating the denominations.” Being labeled “soft on the sects” was enough to destroy many a good preacher’s reputation.
This then led to the third phase of relations between the Churches of Christ and their Christian neighbors, and that is our current situation. Many, although by no means most, of the members of the Church of Christ want to continue this position of ridicule/demean/hate the denominations. They have moved from being “non-denominational” to being “anti-denominational” in the worst possible sense of the word. They use words that are clearly not appropriate for a disciple of Christ to use in dialogue with someone of another belief. Quite frankly, they demonstrate a very unChristian attitude. However, on the other end of the spectrum there is a group that still wants to be identified as members of the Church of Christ but they have begun to embrace the main beliefs of the denominational world in an absolutely uncritical way. They hate all right, but they hate the Church of Christ. They ridicule the founders of the Restoration Movement every chance they get. They refuse to accept that anything positive has come from the heritage of the Restoration movement over the past 200+ years. They apologize for every perceived fault, and cannot wait to make fun of those who still believe in the premise of non-denominational Christianity. But, they stoically remain as ministers, elders and editors of “Churches of Christ” so that they can obtain some kind of martyr status by being criticized for their adolescent rejection of their spiritual father’s beliefs.
I have elsewhere stated that I am a staunch believer in the American Restoration Movement. I am a child of this movement, and, while I have been made aware of some of the presuppositional faults in the thinking of Stone and Campbell, I am never-the-less in awe of their spiritual foresight. They truly were prophets who could see 200 years into the future. Much of what the modern world is experiencing in the “Emerging Church” movement was pre-saged by Stone and Campbell. It is astounding for me to read of modern authors calling for a return to “apostolic Christianity” as if it were a novel idea, and Campbell and Stone were promoting that idea back in the early 1800’s. Just goes to prove the author of Ecclesiastes was correct – there is truly nothing new under the sun. But I digress.
While I am a child of the American Restoration Movement, I would like for the Churches of Christ to return to the ideal promoted by Stone and Campbell, and that was the process of engagement. I want to see us be able to engage the denominational world, but at the same time be secure enough in our own convictions that we do not embrace the denominational world. I hope it goes without saying that I reject the ridicule/hate position uncategorically.
As I close I want to make two final comments – to which I will return in depth in my final post in this series. One, we cannot honestly engage other faith traditions if we do not have a healthy understanding and appreciation of who we are. This is where I have such a deep seated distrust of and dislike of certain “leading ministers” in the Churches of Christ today who have virtually thrown the Restoration Plea under the bus. We cannot sit down at the table to have a dialogue with other faith traditions if we pathologically hate our own. To have a conversation in which we agree wholeheartedly with everyone around is is not a dialogue, it is a multi-person monologue.
But conversely, we cannot engage other faith traditions if we do not have a healthy understanding and appreciation of who they are. Truth, I have come to understand, does not reside only in one church building. I have been deeply touched and formed by a Lutheran (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, my favorite theologian), an Anglican (C.S. Lewis, although I’m quite sure he would not be an Anglican today), several Roman Catholics (Henri Nouwen, Thomas Merton, several others), a Baptist (Glen Stassen) and a number of others, some of which I know their traditions (Anabaptist, Mennonite, United Church of Christ) and some of which I do not. I can only come to the table to begin a dialogue with them if I first understand who they are and what they believe, and not to belittle or ridicule that faith, but to learn from it and grow from it. Just as I would hope they would come to hear me, and to learn from me and to grow from me.
So, my question is do we engage, debate, hate or embrace? In my most humble, but undeniably correct opinion (since, after all, this is MY blog), we have participated in the middle two for far too long and the last is just pure kissy face narcissism. Let us return to the process of engagement. And it is to that goal that I will direct my concluding thoughts.
“Chocolate Cake for Breakfast”
Anyone familiar with the comedian Bill Cosby has surely heard this story. His wife leaves him in charge of the children for a few days and the first crisis he meets is what to feed the kids for breakfast. They clamor for chocolate cake. He refuses. He is thinking in terms of healthy foods like eggs and milk. They beg, wheedle, demand and otherwise make it obvious they want chocolate cake. He still refuses, but something happens. He reviews the ingredients that comprise the chocolate cake. Eggs. Milk. Wheat. Healthy stuff. The kids get chocolate cake for breakfast.
The Churches of Christ in the United States over the past 200 years or so have been anything other than monolithic. The only thing that members of Churches of Christ universally agree on is that we cannot agree universally on anything. Well, almost anything. There is probably someone out there who even disagrees with what I just wrote. So, with that caveat clearly understood, what I have to share in this series of articles is purely my own observations and reflections. I speak for no one but myself unless a person so desires to publicly agree with me.
It might be argued that in its deepest psyche the Churches of Christ in the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries have been bi-polar. I believe this position could be sustained by the careful examination of two of the brightest lights in the formation of the group that now bears the name, “Church of Christ” – Barton W. Stone and Alexander Campbell. While similar in certain respects, these men held vastly different views of human nature and the nature of the restoration to which they were committed.
Briefly summarized, Barton Stone was a deeply spiritual man who was convinced that the Holy Spirit was active in the early years of the 19th century to lead the church back to a pure form of worship. He was distrustful of human nature, and especially human government, and believed that while God would ultimately make things right, humans had very little or no power to do so. What humans could do was to follow the leading of the Spirit and submit completely to the will of God, particularly as revealed in the New Testament. Alexander Campbell was equally as spiritual as Barton Stone, but in many ways was the reverse image of Stone. Just as convinced in the power of the human being as Stone was distrustful, Campbell believed that humans could, and in fact were in the very process of, ushering in the millennial reign of Jesus on earth. Where the two agreed was in the normative power of the New Testament to guide the “restoration” of the church to a pure, apostolic form. Thus the two agreed to merge their fledgling movements under one broad canopy, but philosophically the two were nowhere close to being united.
Barton Stone’s “DNA” was carried down through the middle and late years of the 19th and into the 20th centuries by men such as Tolbert Fanning and David Lipscomb. In their writings we see this distrust, even blatant rejection, of human political structures and a greater reliance upon the Holy Spirit. While not exactly premillennial in outlook, their spirituality has been described as being “apocalyptic,” and that word accurately communicates what they believed and taught. As much as they looked back to the time of the apostolic church, they looked forward to the kingdom of God being made manifest on earth, and they knew that humans had no control over that event occurring. It would occur when, and how, God wanted it to.
It is extraordinarily difficult to remain apocalyptic in outlook when everything in the world seems to be proving that mankind does have the ability, and perhaps even the responsibility, to make things perfect on earth. So, little by little the influence of Stone, Fanning and Lipscomb disappeared from the ethos of the Churches of Christ. The first World War almost eliminated this counter-culture viewpoint. By the time the Japanese had crippled the American navy at Pearl Harbor the thought of remaining critical of, and aloof from, the American flag and “the republic for which it stands” was simply unthinkable. Except in small and isolated situations the Churches of Christ made the leap to equating faithfulness with patriotism, and the twain have never since been sundered. So, today a pacifist would not only be viewed as being “unAmerican,” he or she would be viewed as “unchristian.” Pleas for responsible gun control efforts are most vehemently rejected by ministers of the Churches of Christ who point, not to Scripture, but to the 2nd Amendment to the Constitution, for their support. Prayers for the members of American military forces are routinely offered during worship services, but any mention of the civilian victims of American military actions are never confessed, repented of, or even mentioned. The one area where church and state are most certainly NOT separated is in the auditoriums of many Churches of Christ, where God, church and country are fused into one uniform entity.
Which, after over 900 words, brings me to the main point of this first reflection – (and to admittedly sweep with too large a brush) I suggest that a large majority of members of the Churches of Christ are far too wedded to the prince of this world than they are the slaughtered Lamb of God. And, if I am correct, within the next three years this incestuous marriage will have profound and irreversible implications for the future of the church.
The presidency of Barak Obama has pushed the United States past a tipping point. Never before has a president been able to achieve the legislative and moral changes as has President Obama. From sweeping judicial changes, to the passage and implementation of a radical new health care mandate, to the unparalleled changes in the moral distinction of homosexual behavior, this president has indeed accomplished his goal of transforming America. If I am not mistaken, this surge past America’s previous conservative worldview will only accelerate after the presidential elections in 2016. As I view the political landscape the only thing that will prevent Hillary Clinton from becoming the first female president of the United States is if she declines to run, or if she should die before being elected. There are several solid reasons for my conclusion. The primary one is that President Obama has turned the citizens of the United States into wards of the state. Everyone is now dependent upon the government to a greater or lesser degree. Our national debt is exploding, but no one wants to surrender his or her entitlements. No true conservative, one who openly suggests that our government is out of control and must be scaled back, has much of a chance to defeat a progressive who will suggest that, far from being too intrusive, the government needs to take a greater role in directing the lives of its citizens. Simply stated, America’s narcissism virtually guarantees the victory of the nominee of the Democratic party in 2016, especially if that nominee is Hillary Clinton. I do not foresee any realistic chance of a conservative winning the election even if another Democrat should become the nominee.
Which, then, brings me back to my main point – because the majority of members of the Churches of Christ have not only been complacent as this political and moral metamorphosis has taken place, but have actually aided and abetted it with their defense of and subjection to the Constitution of the United States, a radical change is going to have to occur in the hearts and minds of these members of the Church if the Church is going to survive in any meaningful way deep into the 21st century.
In other words, we are going to have to reject the Campbellian (and utopian) view that mankind is smart enough and spiritual enough to direct its own footsteps. We are going to have to return to the Spirit led, overtly counter-cultural and biblically apocalyptic world view of Barton Stone, Tolbert Fanning, and David Lipscomb.
The New Testament begins with a radical sermon – one that calls upon its hearers to reject man-made philosophies and to accept whole-heartedly the vision and Spirit of the God who created this world. The New Testament ends with the most majestic description of this counter-cultural kingdom – a kingdom in which the godless powers of worldly governments are cast like large stones into the abyss. In between the sermon and the vision are the words of God revealed through the power of the Spirit, and not one single word teaches or even suggests that the way in which the final Kingdom of God will be revealed is through the power of a human government. While citizens of this kingdom must temporarily live in subjection to the laws of a human government, the worship of the citizens of the Kingdom of God must never be divided.
Either we worship God, or we worship the political powers of this world. There simply is no other choice.
In one respect I fear for the future of the Church of Christ. I fear because we are too American, too incestuously married to the spirit of this world. We depend more upon the Constitution of the United States than we do the inspired word of the eternal God. We allow politicians, comedians and common men and women to mock and despise the teachings of the Bible, and yet when our “rights” or “entitlements” are even remotely threatened we become apoplectic. Some members of the Churches of Christ have more of the Bill of Rights memorized than they do the Sermon on the Mount. And that, my friends, is truly pathetic.
On the other hand, my faith is not in the Church of Christ, but in the God who created this world and who established the church of Christ for a dwelling place for his faithful people. The church of Christ will survive, even if the Church of Christ should one day disappear.
I am an unabashed and proud member of the Restoration Movement in general and the Church of Christ in particular. I believe deeply in her goals and aspirations. I am firmly committed to the precepts and objectives of men such as Barton Stone and Alexander Campbell. I am also well aware of their failings and short-sighted goals, even the well-intentioned ones. I am aware that they were human, lived and breathed the hubris of the time in which they lived, and that as any human being, they made mistakes in what they taught. I also believe they were brilliant men whose vision far exceeded the time in which they lived. Those of us today who love and respect their work are truly standing on the shoulders of giants – and I will never, not for one moment, surrender that heritage.
But as a child of God and an heir of the Kingdom of Heaven I must also be aware of the fact that any human association can fall from its pure intentions. So, while I am deeply committed to the Church of Christ (capital letter C), I am first and foremost a member of and committed to the church of Christ (little letter c, meaning that assembly devoted to Christ whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life). Some say the two are identical. I cannot – for the very reasons that I have articulated. Far too many members of the Church of Christ have surrendered to the beast and proudly wear the number of its name. They want to walk, and talk, and do business with the beast while demonstrating the semblance of submission to the Lamb. While here on earth it is impossible to fully recognize those charlatans, but I rest in full assurance that God knows who is His and who is not. That will be made clear at the last judgment.
In other words, I just want to be a disciple of Christ. I do not want the additives that turn the Church into something that it never was intended to be. I certainly do not want to be a part of a religious institution that is simply a front for, and defender of, a godless and corrupt government. I want to be lead by the vision of the Kingdom of God as described by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount and in the Revelation to John. While respecting my heritage and its respect for the past, I want to be pulled forward by the biblical vision of the Bride of Christ. As I have previously written, you cannot fly an airplane by looking in a rear-veiw mirror.
A juvenile world wants chocolate cake for breakfast, lunch and supper. Our government says, “Look at all this wonderful cake – full of sweetness and covered with all this luscious icing.” The Church must recover its apocalyptic voice and renew its strength to be able to say, “No. We will not be fooled. Politics is the play toy of the damned. We are children of the King. We will serve our God and worship Him only.”
Church, it is time to grow up. And if that means we must leave the chocolate cake on the table and be viewed as unpatriotic traitors, then so be it.
“I lift my eyes to the hills – from where does my help come from? My help comes from the LORD, the maker of heaven and earth.” Psalm 121:1
Sources: I rely on many fine works related to the history of the Restoration Movement, and the Churches of Christ specifically. Of particular interest in regard to this subject are: David Edwin Harrell, Quest for a Christian America and Sources of Division in the Disciples of Christ 1865-1900; Richard T. Hughes, Reviving the Ancient Faith: The Story of the Churches of Christ in America and Reclaiming a Heritage: Reflections on the Heart, Soul and Future of Churches of Christ; C. Leonard Allen, Richard T. Hughes and Michael R. Weed, The Worldly Church: A Call for Biblical Renewal; and Richard T. Hughes and C. Leonard Allen, Illusions of Innocence: Protestant Primitivism in America, 1630-1875. Beyond my love for Churches of Christ, I have been deeply touched and challenged by the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, these writings are simply too immense to list individually. His complete works are published by Fortress Press and can be found in the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works series, 16 volumes which includes all of his major writings, letters, sermons and theological reflections. In addition to Bonhoeffer’s original works, there are numerous secondary works of significant value. Chief among them would be Glen H. Stassen and David P. Gushee, Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Society; and Keith L. Johnson and Timothy Larsen, eds. Bonhoeffer, Christ and Culture; and a book I am currently reading, Mark Thiessen Nation, Anthony G. Siegrist, and Daniel P. Umbel, Bonhoeffer the Assassin? Challenging the Myth, Recovering His Call to Peacemaking.
This series has been building, like a slow developing thunder storm, for the past few months. I have been reading several recent and not-so-recent books on the changing face of Christianity among American teenagers, and while the material does not focus exclusively on young members of the Churches of Christ, I feel that the substance of the books very accurately describes the situation within the Churches of Christ. I also sense a paradigmatic change in American culture; one that has already started and if I am correct, will be made virtually unchangeable subsequent to the next presidential election in 2016. Theologically speaking, I have been working carefully through the book of Revelation for a college class that I am teaching. Reading and hearing the word of Christ through John has re-ignited a fire in my bones regarding the fate of the Lord’s church. When these issues are combined with the already observable changes in the religious landscape of our narcissistic 21st century I believe the result will either (a) utterly destroy what is already a weak and beggarly religious institution or (b) prove to be the furnace of purification for a vibrant church that is unduly burdened with generations of worthless slag.
Where to begin?
Let me say that as I currently envision this series, the beginning will be a discussion of the relationship that the Churches of Christ have had with the political realm of the United States from the time of Barton Stone and Alexander Campbell down to the current day. If history is prediction, the church must learn from her past and be prepared for the future.
Second, I want to gaze in my crystal ball and hazard some projections as to where this country is headed in terms of economics, and what those predictions might have in store for the life and work of the Churches of Christ.
Third, I want to examine the tenuous relationship that Churches of Christ have maintained with the rest of the religious world, and in particular, the surrounding churches that proclaim allegiance to Jesus and yet hold to doctrines and practice actions that make it difficult, if not impossible, for members of the Churches of Christ to claim fellowship with these groups. That, and also work on creating shorter sentences.
And, finally, hopefully, I can wrap everything up in one whiz-bang finale.
I will attempt to keep these posts somewhat close to my average of 1,200 – 1,300 words or so (give or take a few hundred) but they will not be your typical sound-bite size post. I will have a lot of ground to cover in a brief time, so I will generalize when possible and document when necessary.
I cannot promise a time-line either, as much as I would like to. My work load this semester (teaching 4 university courses plus a growing campus ministry) has stretched me to my limit. Yet, this blog is a passion of mine, so I will attempt to tend to this series with due diligence.
For my brothers and sisters within the Churches of Christ, I would love to have your comments, questions, and observations. For those outside of the fellowship of the Churches of Christ, I would also appreciate hearing from you – how do you see your faith group in this discussion and how accurately do you see my observations? To everyone – thank you for reading and especially to those of you who follow this blog on a regular basis. Your support is humbling, and I strive as my goal to create and share valuable material for you to ponder and either accept or reject as you see fit.
How horrible it will be for those who go to Egypt for help, who rely on horses, who depend on many chariots, who depend on very strong war horses. They don’t look to the Holy One of Israel. They don’t seek the LORD…The Egyptians are humans, not gods. Their horses are flesh and blood, not spirit. When the LORD uses his powerful hand, the one who gives help will stumble, and the one who receives help will fall. Both will die together. (Isaiah 31:1, 3, God’s Word Translation).
This has been a transformative year for me. It was my first year of teaching in a university setting. I have been working on preparing myself for my doctoral dissertation – basically trying to refine my thesis and research possible resources. I have been forced to re-think some old cherished ideas and have been driven back into some that I had foolishly set aside. In some ways I think I have grown more in the past 12 months than I have in the previous 12 years. And, considering that time period in my life, that is saying something.
Weird way to introduce my thoughts on Isaiah 31, I know. But there is something, well, just – transcendent about Isaiah 31. You actually have to go back to chapter 30 and read chapters 30 and 31 together. Isaiah set it out so clearly for the Israelites. God is saying, “Listen, trust ME. Believe in ME. Don’t worry about these foreign armies – do you think they can defeat ME?” But Israel would not listen. They looked at the armies of the oppressors, looked at the armies of Egypt, and said, “Wow, we need some of those, a couple of those – aw, just send the whole kit and kaboodle.” And God said, “Okie fine, you won’t trust me, you won’t believe in me, so I’ll give you what you want.”
Jeremiah had basically the same message to the nation of Judah two centuries later, and guess what? Yep, the leaders of Judah still preferred to trust in the power of the Egyptian armies rather than trust in God. Honestly, some people are so stubborn that they will not learn.
Well, we have the messages of both Isaiah and Jeremiah and guess what? Have we learned? Are we willing to trust in God?
Our military spending is into the multiple hundreds of billions of dollars, and even though the top brass in the Pentagon says we can get by with less, the Congress refuses to cut any military spending because of the political repercussions in the districts of the Representatives and Senators.
Following every mass shooting, when the national conversation turns to even minor and sane gun ownership legislation, the ultra-conservative right-wing of our country goes ballistic (love the pun) and sales of both guns and ammunition go through the roof.
The more right-wing and ultra-conservative a person is, the more likely that person is to defend the ownership and use of multiple weapons – even those weapons whose design and use is strictly for the taking of human life. In addition, the more likely that person is to defend the creation of a personal defense shelter and the hoarding of many months, if not years, of food in the event of a “cataclysmic” event.
Many of those who I described in the last two points would also describe themselves as “Christians.”
The underlying rationale for the building up of an unbeatable military force, a personal arsenal, and a stockpile of food and water is the fear of the unknown, and of the known but misunderstood. We either do not see the boogey-man in the dark, or we see what we think is a boogey-man in the dark and we over-react.
And God is still telling us not to worry, not to trust in foreign powers, or even in our own military power, but to trust in Him. Question is, will we listen?
I find it enlightening that at least one scholar in the Restoration Movement referred to Barton W. Stone as having an “apocalyptic” theology. That is to say the difference between Barton Stone and Alexander Campbell can be described as the difference between someone who saw history as being on an inexorable climb to perfection (Campbell, who saw the Restoration Movement as the crowning jewel in that climb) and one who saw mankind in a hopeless quandary and utterly dependent upon the power of God (Stone, who saw the Restoration Movement as an ultimate submission to that mysterious power). Up until the Second World War the Churches of Christ were generally, although not exclusively, under the influence of Stone and his successors, Tolbert Fanning and David Lipscomb. As the Churches of Christ became more “mainstream” and also more “evangelical,” the apocalyptic view of Stone, Fanning and Lipscomb became an unwanted burden and was soon excised almost entirely from the theology of the Churches of Christ.
Although couched entirely in the prophetic genre, Isaiah 30 and 31 proclaim the message of the apocalyptic theologian perfectly. We may see only the tanks, armies and inter-continental ballistic missiles of our enemies and also of ourselves and our friends. We may see only the guns and ammunition in our personal bunkers. We may take courage and feel safe because of those weapons.
But God looks down and laughs. Use a tank against God? Shoot a missile at God? Out last a famine that is sent by God?
I get the reality that atheists might want to trust in their armies. I understand that those who deny God might want to build a bomb proof shelter and store up enough food to last a generation. But disciples of Christ? Really? Where is our faith? Where is our trust? In what do we actually trust, God or ourselves?
Faith is a leap into the unknown because we know and trust who it was that told us to jump. I think Stone, Fanning and Lipscomb all shared a far greater faith in God and a far greater distrust in humans than we do in the 21st century.
Call me an apocalyptic theologian if you want to. Actually, I believe I am in pretty good company. That fellow John wrote a pretty good apocalypse, and we have it as the last book of our Bible. If you read it carefully you will note that it is God who is in control of history, not mankind.
And, just as an aside, what happens to those who trust in their armies in that apocalypse?
Yea, thought so.
Then Assyrians will be killed with swords not made by human hands. Swords not made by human hands will destroy them. They will flee from battle, and their young men will be made to do forced labor. In terror they will run to their stronghold, and their officers will be frightened at the sight of the battle flag. The LORD declares this. His fire is in Zion and his furnace is in Jerusalem. (Isaiah 31:8-9, God’s Word Translation)
Dum de dum dee dumm…..we finally arrive at # 15 in my trek through ruminations and explanations of the 15 Undeniable Truths For Theological Reflection. This has been an entertaining little jaunt down memory lane for me (some of these truths date back many years) and I hope these posts have at the least stimulated some thoughts for you.
Here is #15 and its corollary:
15. The practice of doing theology requires the honest appropriation of lessons learned from history. We cannot handle the text of Scripture honestly today if we ignore, or even worse, disparage the work of theologians in our near or ancient past. This is true both of those theologians with whom we agree, and with whom we disagree. To borrow a phrase, “Those who do not learn from history (or past theology) are doomed to repeat it.” History is a beautiful thing.
15a. However, the above truth does not mean that we slavishly follow every conclusion reached by earlier theologians. We must read theology with a discerning eye, knowing that all humans are capable of great spiritual insight, and all humans are capable of great sin. We are to respect our forefathers and foremothers, not worship them.
Those who read this blog regularly know that I am a member of, and minister to, congregations of individuals associated with the churches of Christ. At our best moments we live out the ideal of non-denominational Christianity, simply taking the Bible as the Word of God and, without adding to it or taking from it, we seek to follow all that God has revealed in the Bible. However, when we fail to live up to that ideal our failure is, well, spectacular. In many respects we have turned a movement of non-denominationalism into one of the most hardened denominations you can possibly imagine. Some of our more vociferous leaders have mouthed the words, “we speak where the Bible speaks and we are silent where the Bible is silent” only to speak volumes where the Bible is silent and to remain utterly silent where the Bible shouts. But, I dare you to find ANY religious body ANYWHERE that lives up to its stated goals and aspirations. I would far rather associate with a group that fails to meet heavenly goals than one that meets every earthly goal with absolute perfection. It does not take any courage to curse the darkness. It takes some real vision to light a lamp. I want to be one that lights a lamp.
Oops, kind of got off on a tangent there…
What I wanted to point out was that like many different groups, the Churches of Christ in America have all too often been guilty of a sense of “historylessness” that has crippled it as a movement. If you have a bent sense of humor such as mine this can and does make itself manifest in the strangest of ways. For example, a generation or two ago one of the most prickly invectives you could use against a member of the Church of Christ was to call him or her a “Campbellite.” This is because of the powerful influence Alexander Campbell had in the creation of what has been labeled the “American Restoration Movement.” This movement spawned three related religious groups – the Disciples of Christ, the Conservative Christian Church and the Church of Christ. So, to label a member of the Church of Christ as a “Campbellite” was a real slur, seeing as how Campbell never wanted his name to be associated with his efforts to restore New Testament Christianity, and indeed his goal was to go back to the New Testament and simply live those teachings. Now, what is funny today is that if you called a member of the Church of Christ (especially someone under the age of 40 or so) a “Campbellite” they would stare at you like you had a third eyeball right in the middle of your forehead. The irony is palpable. Older members do not want to be called “Campbellites” because they do not want to be tied to an early 18th century historical figure, younger members are absolutely clueless as to the existence of this early 18th century figure. And so many members of a group with one of the most richest, interesting, and provocative stories in the history of religion in the United States simply do not know of or they refuse to acknowledge their diverse and compelling history.
Hence my 15th Undeniable Truth For Theological Reflection. This one is for me – a reminder of who I am and what my brightest stars call me to be. I need to acknowledge the fact that I could not see as far as I can see if I were not standing on the shoulders of giants. I cannot read my Bible today without hearing the voice of my mentors – some of whom have joined that “cloud of witnesses” that awaits their final reward. But those men (and women!) all heard the voice of their mentors when they read Scripture, and on and on it goes back throughout all of history. You can only read the Bible once as if you had never read it before. Every other time your reading is influenced by your first reading, other teachers, other books, other influences. If we attempt to excise those influences we rip the fabric of our story – our history - and we lose far more than we gain in the process.
The more that I read of Alexander Campbell and Barton W. Stone and Moses Lard and “Racoon” John Smith and David Lipscomb and many others the more I am enthralled by their courage and their spiritual insights. These men were truly prophets crying in the wilderness. They saw something that was truly unique, and they attempted to get others to see, to understand, and to accept their vision. Their goal was a united church, one that could stand only on the pages of the New Testament, without all of the competing creeds and confessions of faith and human structures. They differed on a great many issues, some of which were substantial. For example, Barton W. Stone never felt comfortable with the concept of the Trinity, because he felt like that was a human word and not a divine word. They differed on the exact meaning of baptism (Campbell was more precise than Stone) and on the invitation to the Lord’s supper (Stone was a little more generous) but they all agreed that if we could return to the New Testament teachings then we could return to a pure church.
In addition to my closest spiritual relatives, however, I am also captivated by the insights of some more distant cousins. I love reading the Roman Catholic Henry Nouwen, and the Anglican C.S. Lewis wrote the second largest section of books in my library. The largest section in my library was written by the Lutheran Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I also have selections from Ignatius of Loyola, St. John of the Cross, Thomas a Kempis, Julian of Norwich, Thomas Merton, Eugene Peterson, Richard Foster, and Richard Peace. In other words, I try to read as broadly and as deeply as I can, realizing that no one single group has a corner on truth, and that for all of their mistakes and misunderstandings, these men and women all communicated some profound spiritual truths. If the teaching initially comes from Scripture, I am not particularly concerned about who God uses to put it in words I can understand.
But now for the corollary – I must and do recognize that all of these men and women, Campbell and Stone included, are all merely mortal human beings. Yes, they all communicated some great spiritual truths. But they all had failings as well. Campbell and Stone were both blind to the fact that they were creatures of history, and that it was impossible to erase 17 hundred years of history to “restore” a culture that was long dead and buried. As much as I am transfixed by the spiritual insights of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, I recognize that he had his blind spots as well. The moment we place anyone, in any time period, as THE model for our teachings or behavior we have created an idol, and God will have nothing of our idolatrous worship.
AND THAT INCLUDES MY INTERPRETATIONS AS WELL!
When everything is said and done I have one redeemer, one savior, one messiah – Jesus. I have one God, the Father and creator of all. The Bible is not to be an idol I worship, but a sign and a pointer to Jesus and His Father. It is they whom I am to worship, not my leather-bound Bible, nor my immediate mentors, nor my long distant and dead mentors. I can learn from all men – some more than others but none exclusively. I can give thanks to God for their insights, but I can never put any of them on a pedestal.
I have a rich history, and you can take it from me when you pry it from my cold, dead fingers. I will not surrender an inch, nor a decade, of what has been given to me. My parents gave me something that cannot be bought, measured or sold. They gave me a faith that is over 20 centuries old and is as new as the dew on the grass this morning. It is as real as my daughter’s gentle kiss and as profound as the love of my wife. I will never understand it, but I will always live in its shadow. And that might be my greatest undeniable truth of all.
After doing a lot of reading over the past couple of weeks I have come to a conclusion that is relatively new to me. Because I am not the sharpest knife in the drawer I have to make that little observation clear, or people will think that I am trying to reinvent the wheel. I am not trying to reinvent it, I am just discovering how profoundly valuable the wheel can be.
The new (or perhaps renewed) concept that has been made very clear to me is that we will not go very far in solving many of the questions facing the Lord’s church today if we do not first come to an understanding about a very basic concept: what is the “kingdom of God?” I believe this is important for a number of reasons. One, I don’t think many people have really thought through this question. I think many, including preachers and Bible school teachers, work under a basic assumption of what the kingdom of God is, but they have not really put any hard effort into either confirming or denying their assumption. Two, I think many are laboring under conflicting ideas of what the kingdom of God is. This is really a problem if a person has not burned a little midnight oil working on this question. The result is too often one view of the kingdom in one situation, and another view of the kingdom in another situation, and too frequently these views conflict with each other, and so therefore cannot both be true. Three, I think some (if not many) are afraid to do much thinking on the subject, afraid that they may be forced to revise some of their viewpoints. This, of course, is the main reason why people do not do any serious thinking about any subject.
Without going into too much detail, there are a number of views that are currently held by church members, each with its own set of problems:
1) The kingdom is equal to the church. I remember being taught we cannot pray for the kingdom of God to come (i.e. the Model, or Lord’s Prayer) because the church was established on the day of Pentecost and therefore the kingdom had arrived. Problem: which church? And if the kingdom of God is the church, why is it so divided? Why are there so many competing visions of the church and therefore kingdom? Why did the kingdom of God fall into such disarray? You can’t say, “because of man’s sinfulness” because the kingdom is God’s kingdom, not man’s kingdom. You can’t have it both ways. And, if Matthew was teaching his congregation how to pray, and he taught them to pray the model prayer, then was Matthew wrong? Why did he include the prayer as a part of his gospel if it was not to be foundational in the church to which he was writing?
2) The kingdom is equal to an earthly kingdom – be it Israel, the United States, or perhaps a reconstituted Israel. Problem: Jesus never spoke of his kingdom as an earthly kingdom. In fact, quite the opposite – he said his kingdom was not of this earth. I know this disappoints the moral majority crowd, but facts is facts. By the way, this is also a problem for view #1 above.
3) The kingdom is totally in the future. Basically related to some form of millennialism (either post, or more likely, pre), this view says that the kingdom has yet to be revealed, but will be revealed either at the end of a 1,000 year reign of Christ, or that Christ will inaugurate the kingdom which will precede a 1,000 year earthly reign. Problem: all the many passages (Luke 17:20-21) where Jesus speaks of the kingdom of God as being present even as he speaks – it was a reality on earth even 2,000 years ago.
4) For all the mugwumps out there, there is the “already but not yet” suggestion. That is, the kingdom of God is already here, but yet there is more to come. Problem: which is already, and which is to come? Because when you ask people to get specific, they will combine aspects of all of these as the “already” and the “not yet.” For instance, the kingdom is foreshadowed by the United States (or the new Israel) but will only be completed with the perfect kingdom on this earth (variously identified as the New Israel or the New Jerusalem). Others point to the church as the already, and the ethereal “heaven” as the not yet.
And, just to muddy the waters even more, there is the translational problem of deciding whether to translate the word as it is more commonly translated, “kingdom” (a formal sense) or to translate it in a more dynamic sense of “reign.” Thus, we should not so much speak of a kingdom in the sense of a king and a realm over which he reigns, but as the actual dynamic power of the act of his reigning. There is a difference in talking about a kingdom of God and the reign of God. The one is static, the other is fluid. And, because I am the professor here and not the student, are there passages where the kingdom is static (kingdom), and passages where it is fluid (reign)?
No matter how you define it, the identification of the kingdom of God is critical to one’s politics, and even to one’s ethics. I have learned this in a profound way by looking at how the kingdom view of Alexander Campbell differed from that of Barton W. Stone within the American Restoration Movement. Over time the view of Campbell overcame that of Stone, and it has had a profound impact on the prevailing view of Churches of Christ up to this present time.
Anyway, I thought I would share these thoughts and see if anyone has the answer (tongue firmly in cheek). I would love to hear your thoughts, and perhaps some ideas about how we can come to a more acceptable universal answer. I might even be goaded into giving my own personal opinion.
Or, then again, maybe not.
I’ve been asked occasionally, “How did you get so interested in Dietrich Bonhoeffer?” I am not a Lutheran, nor am I a German, nor was I alive during the second World War. To that question I might respond, “How do we get interested in anything?” We are not born liking spicy New Mexican cuisine, breakneck bluegrass music or the Minnesota Vikings. But, through our various experiences we are all (or most of us at least) blessed with the opportunity to become aware of all of God’s greatest gifts. And, even though I cannot remember when or how I was introduced to Bonhoeffer, I consider him to be one of God’s great gifts to me.
I also believe, as I have read and attempted to digest Bonhoeffer’s writings, that he has much to say to a movement that started as an effort to unite all Christians on the simple teachings of the Bible. For today’s post I would like to take a few of his comments (admittedly few and without much contextual background) from his essay, “Protestantism without Reformation” in the volume, Theological Education Underground: 1937-1940 in the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, vol. 15 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2012). As I read them I could easily imagine some of the thoughts coming off of the pen of Alexander Campbell or Barton W. Stone.
The overall context of these quotes is a report that Bonhoeffer made regarding his visits to the United States (written after his second trip in August of 1939), and the observations he made regarding the differences between the Christian world of Germany and the Christian world of the United States. Sometimes it takes an outsider to see things the way they really are, instead of the way we as insiders want to see them. There is no indication that Bonhoeffer was ever introduced to a congregation of the American Restoration Movement (Disciples of Christ, Christian Church, Church of Christ). I would truly love for him to have had that experience and to have written on it, but we can only deal with what we have, not what we wish to have had. I present these thoughts then for your consideration:
The doctrinal differences are often more significant within denominations (e.g. Baptists, Presbyterians) than among the different denominations. (p. 442)
Where churches are not divided by the struggle about the truth, the unity of the church should already be won. But the real picture is exactly the opposite. Precisely here, where the question of truth does not become the criterion either for community or for church schisms, there is greater fragmentation than anywhere else. (p. 442)
Only the truth revealed in Holy Scripture can and must decide between the existing differences. Churches must allow themselves to be questioned by one another on the basis of Holy Scripture. (p. 443)
The unity of the church is both origin and goal, both fulfillment and promise; it belongs to both faith and sanctification. (p. 445)
The claim to be the church of Jesus Christ has nothing to do with pharisaic conceit; rather, it is an understanding that humbles because it moves toward pennance). (p. 445)
It remains a fact that the New Testament gives legitimacy to the concept of church, not to the one of denominations. (p. 445)
The unity of the church as promise, as future, as the fruit of sanctification, is a work of the Holy Spirit…There are no methods that lead to the unity of the church. Only total obedience to the Holy Spirit will lead us to common understanding, confession, action, and suffering. (p. 445)
There are several other quotations from this essay that I would like to present, but they are not really germane to the issue of church unity. I simply present these as thought seeds and to challenge my readers as Bonhoeffer challenged me.
Are your toes as tender as mine are?
Have you ever stopped to consider why airplanes have no rearview mirrors? Actually, I believe there was a model that was produced with a rearview mirror, but it was kind of a novelty. Give up? Airplanes are designed to go in only one direction – forward. If you are worried about what is behind you, just kick the rudder a little and turn your head. Airplanes are designed strictly for optimists and visionaries. Historians need not apply.
I believe therein lies a great message for the church of Christ. As heirs of the American Restoration Movement we look back on our history (at least since the days of B.W. Stone and the Campbells) with pride. Before that, not so much, until we get back to the days of the first century church. So, you might say we have a pair of binoculars attached to our rearview mirror. We are not so much focused on the road behind us, but the distant horizon is a definite attraction.
In one way this is a good thing. “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” We must be constantly reminded of our history, even more so than we claim to pay attention to it today. (As an aside, I would also argue that we need to add the time from from 100 AD to 1800 AD as well.) Just think of how the Israelites were not just encouraged, but COMMANDED to review and even to relive their past. The feasts of Passover and Booths were not just fun holidays – they were actual re-creations of a rich, powerful, and theologically centered past. So, let us be unequivocal here – knowing and valuing ones history is critical for a healthy and sane future.
But I return to my analogy above. You cannot drive a car, much less fly an airplane, by staring in the rearview mirror. Especially difficult would be to do so with a pair of binoculars attached to the mirror. While a healthy knowledge of, and participation in, ones past is critical for the development of one’s future; the goal, the vision, has to be forward. Just stop and consider how the New Testament writers describe the major processes of discipleship: it is a growing, a transformation, a becoming, a renewal. These are all forward looking verbs. It is no mystery to me that the final book of the Bible is an apocalypse – a deeply metaphorical look into the future. But don’t just focus on Revelation. The author of the book of Hebrews says it all in one terse little sentence, “Here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come.” Look forward, not back. Our rearview mirror is important, but it is to be small and narrowly focused. It is an appendage to the church, not the primary means of navigation. We live our life in the eager expectation of Christ’s return, not in woeful recollection of his temporary death.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer said it this way: here and now we live in the penultimate, but we are created by our faith in the ultimate. It is not the penultimate that gives the ultimate its meaning, it is the ultimate that gives the penultimate its meaning. I believe Barton W. Stone and David Lipscomb lived this focus on the ultimate far more passionately than did Alexander Campbell, and it is instructive that as the Churches of Christ have made their peace with this world they have moved further and further from the Stone/Lipscomb tradition and more and more into the Campbell tradition. You cannot have your eyes focused solely upon God’s kingdom and believe yourself to be anything other than a stranger and a pilgrim on this earth. Stone, and later, Lipscomb were pilgrims. Campbell came to make his peace with the powers of this world, and as he did so he took down his tent and built a house. He ultimately became a very much a citizen of this world.
I love the history of the American Restoration Movement. I also love reformation history, medieval history, and both pre-and post Nicene history. But history can only be instructive, it can never be determinative! We must learn to cast our eyes upon the ultimate, upon the “last days,” so that we can truly live as God’s people and Christ’s disciples in our own age. The ultimate gives meaning to the penultimate. Christ’s return teaches us how to live today.
I will never remove my rearview mirror. But I am never going to try to fly in the fog by watching what is behind me. I want to keep the pointy end going forward, and the shiny side up. I want to take as many people with me as I can, too.