Blog Archives

Confession – Nothing Could Be More Biblical

This is the third in my series of working through my Doctor of Ministry dissertation on confession in the Churches of Christ. Today I look at the biblical evidence for the practice of confession.

Within the Churches of Christ our focus has been primarily on the New Testament. The Old Testament is valuable, so children are told, but mostly because all the really cool stories are in the Old Testament. There are no floods, no arks, no fish that swallow humans, no giant-killing little shepherds in the New Testament. As adults we are told that the Old Testament is valuable because it “teaches us about God,” but if that is the case we must not want to know much about God because we spend precious little time studying (I mean really studying) the Old Testament.

However, in my doctoral studies I wrote a paper on the Psalms of Lament, and it struck a nerve with me. Depending on how you classify the Psalms, approximately one-third of the Psalms (maybe a little more, maybe a little less) are Psalms of lament. Now, stop and ask yourself a question – why was lament such a major part of worship for the Israelites/Jews? Well, that got me to thinking, and when the time came for me to select my dissertation topic, one thing kind of led to another and the subject of confession made itself sort of unavoidable.

So, as a result of the paper on the Psalms of Lament, I turned not to the New Testament for the “skeleton” of my biblical study on confession, but to the Psalms. What I discovered was that the Psalms are basically a roadmap for the practice of confession. In fact, you might say that “confession” is one major, if not the major, theme that unifies the entire book of Psalms.

In a very brief summary, I discovered that the book of Psalms contains the following four types of confession:

Adoration, Praise, and the confession of belief/faith in God
Thanksgiving
Lament
Confession of sin

Now, some may quibble about my taxonomy here, but as John Denver once quipped to his audience that was clamoring for him to sing their favorite song, “Hey, this is my show.”

I then turned to the narrative sections of the Old Testament and discovered that these same qualities, or types, of confession are described throughout the text. Within the prophetic material the aspect of lament is particularly evident in Jeremiah, but the other types of confession are evident in the prophets as well. Certainly the book of Job contains both lament and praise.

Turning to the New Testament I discovered the same thread – there are examples of each of the four main types of confession, although lament is noticeably more subdued in the New Testament. I believe there is a theological reason for that – but there are examples of lament within the New Testament as well.

The purpose of this section of the dissertation was to demonstrate that confession (in all of its various forms) was, and is, a critical component of the daily life and worship of God’s people. The absence of a clear and sustained emphasis on confession in the Churches of Christ is all the more striking, then, because one of the “pillars” of our heritage is that we want to go back to the Bible and practice the pure faith and religion of the earliest church. I am convinced, and I argue in my dissertation, that we have failed to do so when it comes to the practice of confession.

I realize these blog posts are rudimentary – just giving the briefest sketch of my work. However, I am creating a seminar that covers this material in-depth, and if you would like more information about scheduling a seminar in your area, please contact me at abqfr8dawg (at) msn (dot) com. Also, I am presently searching for a publisher who might be interested in publishing the dissertation (although expanded and modified for a general audience), so if there is anyone out there in the blogosphere who has a connection with a publisher who might be interested, please let me know at the above email address. I will be deeply grateful!

Thanks for following me in the fog!

Beg Your Pardon, But Your Philosophy is Showing

One of the greatest blessings given to me through my studies for my DMin. coursework was the realization of how secular philosophies affect our theology. Second to this observation is the further truth that these philosophies are virtually hidden to our conscious thought. These philosophies are just like the air we breath – we are controlled by them yet we are hardly aware of them, if at all.

In my last post I discussed the reality that for many members of the Churches of Christ, our physical history is something of an enigma. We clearly have one (kind of like a belly button) but for many of us we do not want it to be seen or discussed (again, much like a belly button). We can cover it up, and refuse to admit we have one, but sooner or later the truth comes out and our history rises up to bite us when and where we least expect it.

If acknowledging our history is difficult for the majority of the members of the Churches of Christ, the admission that we are affected by secular philosophy (or philosophies) is tantamount to heresy. Even those who accept that the Restoration Movement is rooted in history will more often than not claim that this history is divine history, and therefore unstained by any human embellishment. In that limited world-view, God simply swooped down and deposited the Restoration Movement onto the pages of history much like he swooped down to snatch Elijah from the earth. Don’t laugh. For many years this was my concept of Restoration History. Sort of like the “big bang,” first there was no Restoration, and then “POOF” there was a Restoration. Call it Restoration ex nihilo.

This, much to my initial chagrin and later relief, cannot be any further from the truth. The fact is that Alexander Campbell, Barton W. Stone, Tolbert Fanning, David Lipscomb, and every leader down to the latest graduate from our universities or schools of preaching were and are profoundly affected by the prevailing philosophies of their day. For Campbell and Stone that meant the philosophy of John Locke, Francis Bacon, and the political philosophy that drove the “Founding Fathers” of our nation to create the Constitution. Evidence of this can be amply produced through the language used in the early documents of the Restoration Movement. This is why so much of our contemporary language focuses on “pattern” and “constitution” and “blueprint.” We are simply following in the footsteps of those who were following in the footsteps of those who formed the new Republic.

For us today the situation is the same, although the prevailing philosophies have changed. We are no longer marching in lock-step with those who believe in the ultimate goodness of technology or the limitless capacity of the human mind. We have seen both the incomparable good of splitting the atom, and also the horrific evil of the same. Yet, having split the atom, we cannot seem to figure out a way to put the thing back together. We realize now that man is more likely to be the cause of his own demise, rather than the source of his own salvation. There is no “ultimate good” for which man is destined. The “modern mind” which so fully captivated Campbell has been replaced with the “postmodern mind;” therefore, much of what Campbell believed to be incontrovertible truth now just seems like a quaint little fairy tale. Such is the air that we breathe, the truth that we hold to be “self-evident.”

What does all of this “philosophizing” have to do with theology? Simply this – if we do not at least attempt to recognize our own temporal worldview, we will end up making the same mistakes of our spiritual forebears. I for one am an avowed restorationist. I am constantly awed and humbled by the profundity of Campbell, Stone, Walter Scott, “Raccoon” John Smith and a host of others. They were centuries ahead of their contemporaries, as modern theological thought has proven. But, that having been said, they were woefully unaware that the basic philosophy of their day was coloring the theology that they were producing. Therefore, they read early 19th century America back into the Bible, especially the New Testament, and the result of their research was that Jesus was the quintessential American Patriot. That philosophical blindness has been passed down for numerous generations, and it has affected our spiritual vision at every step along the way.

The solution to this vision problem is not to discard our history! (As so many are wont to do). Neither is it to idolize our history and simply ignore the reality of temporal nearsightedness. The solution is to acknowledge the reality of our own human frailty, to acknowledge the affect of secular philosophy upon our most deeply held convictions, and then to challenge those convictions with the penetrating truth of God’s word.

In my own, very narrow study of confession, what I discovered was that the Lockean/Baconian empiricism of Campbell and his early disciples made it virtually impossible for them and their heirs to develop and bequeath a healthy practice of confession. Stated in its most raw expression, if you have everything all figured out, if you have perfectly restored that which was defective, there is no need for confession. That, of course, is an over-simplification, but it works for a “nuts-and-bolts” summary of the early chapters of my dissertation.

Lest I be counted as an ancestor-bashing, history-hating, long-haired, dope-smoking hippy, let me repeat – I am an avowed restorationist. I am far more Stonian/Lipscombian than I am Campbellian, but if I am cut I bleed Restorationist blood. I wrote my dissertation to honor my heritage, not to trash it. So, in the greatest heritage of seeking to improve upon that which has been given to me, I recognize some areas where my spiritual heritage can be strengthened. One of those areas is confession, and that is what led me to my final research.

As I mentioned in my last blog, I will create a seminar dedicated to sharing this information with any who are interested. Please contact me at abqfr8dawg (at) msn (dot) com and I will gladly get back with you.

An Irrational Fear of Our History

I promised some time ago to work through the conclusions of my doctoral dissertation. I hope to do so in a general way, although for the “brass tacks” specifics you will have to wait awhile.

I chose that creepy picture that accompanies this post for a reason. I am not afraid of many things, although a few issues really creep me out. Heights for one, and I do tend to be claustrophobic. But, Black Widow Spiders?? I would just as soon hit my thumb with a hammer as to have to deal with BWS (for short). I have no idea why God created them, and he can just un-create them as far as I am concerned. Do not talk to me about the “balance of nature” – as God could have created umpteen other ways to get rid of flies and other nasty bugs. Black Widow Spiders? – my back is icky just typing the words.

One of the main conclusions of my dissertation is that the overwhelming majority of members of the Churches of Christ are either afraid of our history, or are at best ambivalent toward it. That is to say that you would be hard pressed to find 1 out of 10 or 10 out of 100 members that either enjoy learning about the history of the Restoration Movement, or even care about it. That leaves more than 90% of our fellowship (and I imagine the number is much higher) that either hate the idea of Restoration History or simply do not care one way or the other. The end result is the same – our history is steadfastly belittled or ignored.

Those who hate, or fear, our history can be divided into two groups. On the far conservative side are those who simply deny we have a history, and it terrifies them to consider the fact that, yes, we do have a very real physical history, and we are descendants of very real, fallible, sinful human beings. Go back as far as you wish, but you can trace our spiritual heritage to a handful of men – visionaries and spiritual giants all – who observed that the Christian church as they saw it was corrupt and corrupting. They could see in the New Testament a better way, and a far more simple concept of the church. They all sought to “restore” that vision of the church. Some attempted it in ways we would be proud of; some in ways we would disagree with. All of them, however, were human and all of them failed in lesser or greater ways. That is not to criticize nor to idolize. It is simply to acknowledge reality.

On the far other extreme we have those who acknowledge our history, are perhaps are acquainted with it in greater or lesser degrees, but who are equally terrified of that history. These are the “intelligentsia” of our movement, those who would claim to be leading us to more verdant pastures than our forebears. Instead of denying the history of the Restoration Movement, these leaders do not want the hoi poloi, the common people, to learn about the theology of Alexander Campbell, Barton Stone, and their immediate disciples because there is something profoundly compelling about these early 19th century spiritual pilgrims. When we open up the pages of the Christian Baptist or the Christian Messenger we see real genius at work. We see Christian leaders trying to throw off the yoke of the “guaranteed results of modern scholarship” and simply go back to what the New Testament taught about being a disciple of Christ. I think these individuals are afraid that, if the real wisdom of Campbell and Stone (and Fanning, and Lipscomb, et. al.) were widely disseminated it would destroy their grip on the hearts and minds of the average, pew sitting Church of Christer today.

Caught in the middle between these two opposite, yet strangely married extremes, are the vast majority of church members. They hear first the one side, more strident obviously, but they they also hear the murmurings and whispers of the second group. Held in ignorance by both sides, and unwilling to face the wrath of the first group and not willing to be labeled as Luddites by the second group, they simply maintain their silence and go about their business as if there was no real issue to begin with.

This is tragic! The modern day heirs of the Restoration Movement have one of the richest, the most compelling histories in the wide and complex history of the Christian movement itself. As just one (admittedly puny) example, much of what is being preached today by elements of the “Emerging Church” and the “Missional Church” comes straight out of the theology and praxis of Alexander Campbell and Barton Stone. But, because we (speaking generically, of course) are so ashamed of our history we do not even recognize the fact, and because we have not claimed our history and proclaimed it’s strengths the world does not know that we could be at least 200 years ahead of the ecclesiastical curve, if not more.

So, to make a long post much shorter, in my dissertation I begin by looking at our history with as clear a set of spectacles as I could. I could not address ALL of our history, as that would take volumes. But I did examine how our history was affected by philosophical beliefs as well as theological conclusions, and how this combination worked against the practice of confession within the Churches of Christ.

Beginning in October of this year (2015) I will begin presenting the conclusions reached in the process of preparing my dissertation in a weekend seminar format. If you are interested in learning more about the biblical practice of confession, and especially how Churches of Christ need to “restore” the practice of biblical confession, send me a personal note to abqfr8dawg (at) msn (dot) com, and I will be happy to get back with you quickly. The first seminar will be in Portales, New Mexico, in October, so perhaps you can attend that seminar, or I will be happy to come to your congregation and present the material to you.

Talking in an Echo Chamber

Regardless of who we are, what we do, or what we believe, we like to be around others who share the same interests and opinions. It is the most natural and logical of situations. We seek out those with whom we have the most in common and situations where we feel the most comfortable. It would be ridiculous to constantly want to be around people who disagree with us or to be in situations where we constantly feel threatened.

Nowhere is this phenomenon more apparent than in issues of faith. Christians want to be with other Christians, not Muslims. Muslims want to pray in Mosques, not Cathedrals. Even more specific, Roman Catholics like to worship with fellow Catholics, Lutherans with Lutherans, and Baptists with Baptists. I choose to worship with fellow members of the churches of Christ. It is there that I am at home. I know the language.  I am with family.

Even certain doctrines or beliefs within a specific faith or faith community have their own boundaries. Within the churches of Christ we have those who accept separate Sunday school classes for different ages, and those who believe the congregation should not be divided. We have those who believe it is wrong to eat a common meal in the church building, and those who have full sized gyms and coffee houses in their buildings. We have those who partake of the Lord’s Supper with one cup and one loaf, and those who have the  oversized thimbles full of grape juice and multiple little crackers. Instruments of music, female worship leaders – every question creates new divisions and either creates or deepens animosities.

And every division creates a new echo chamber. It is impossible not to recognize that each position comes complete with a venue to promote that opinion. As early as the second generation of the Restoration Movement, members were divided as to whether they were “Advocate men” or “Standard men.” (Women, I suppose, were identified by their husband’s allegiance). Then there came the Firm Foundation, and the Gospel Guardian, and the Heretic Detector (I kid you not), and Contending for the Faith and the Spiritual Sword and then Image and then Wineskins – and the beat goes on. Each journal, and sometimes associated lectureship, has rules about who can, and more importantly, who cannot be included in their “circle.”  Although in the early years of the Restoration Movement many journals carried written debates and articles that conveyed opinions contrary to the editor, that day has long since disappeared. Now, in order to be accepted by any journal or any lectureship a writer or speaker must be fully vetted, and if there is any shibboleth that cannot be explained, he (or she) is simply excluded.

Every journal and every lectureship within the fellowship of the Churches of Christ today is simply an echo chamber of the opinions and attitudes of those who edit/direct it. Oh, you may have the rogue conservative that travels out west or the closet progressive that manages to sneak in the midwest somewhere, but those situations are rare to the point of being isolated, and perhaps embarrassing to the powers-that-be once they are discovered.

So conservatives speak and write in echo chambers that simply reinforce their interpretations and opinions, and progressives speak and write in echo chambers that reinforce their interpretations and opinions. I am not exactly sure how to change that situation. Like I said, who wants to be in a place where they are threatened and made to feel like a lamb in the middle of a wolf convention? Not I, said this sheep.

But I just wonder (thinking out loud here), if some of the outrageously stupid things that were said in these echo chambers were spoken in a venue where they could be challenged and proven to be utterly baseless, would the condition of the average church member not be much healthier? I mean, to be absolutely honest and utterly frustrated here . . . it cannot be that it is scripturally wrong to hold or participate in a particular belief or practice and at the same time for that belief or practice to be scripturally right and blessed by God. One belief or practice is (a) wrong, and therefore a sin, or (b) right and therefore blessed by God or (c ) it is not a scriptural issue to begin with and therefore is neither (a) nor (b). But it cannot be both (a) and (b). Likewise, a passage of Scripture cannot have diametrically opposite interpretations and both (or all, if there be more than one radically different interpretation) be correct. One interpretation must be false. Jesus did not suggest that the Pharisees and Sadducees were merely mistaken. He called them blind guides and fools, and a brood of snakes. I get the impression Jesus believed the Pharisees and Sadducees were BOTH flat out, positively, absolutely wrong.

I have grown weary trying to hear a sane and honest, and yet direct, debate about some issues facing the Church of Christ today. There are a lot of people talking and writing and pontificating and lecturing and other sundry things. But they are all doing so in their respective echo chambers, where they receive standing ovations and feel-good reviews and everyone goes away happy. It is easy to feel good about what you hear in an echo chamber.

Problem is, Jesus did not say to listen to the voices in an echo chamber. He said to listen to his voice. God said listen to the voice of Jesus. It seems to me that the ONE voice we are not paying attention to today is the ONLY voice we should be listening to.

Book Review – The Church According to Paul (James W. Thompson)

41KM5lhF34L._AA160_

The Church According to Paul: Rediscovering the Community Conformed to Christ James W. Thompson, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014), 289 pages including bibliography and indices.

I’ve noticed that most of the book reviews I write are on books that are years, if not decades old. So, it it nice to finally read (and review) a recent publication. This book has a 2014 publication date, so you cannot get much more recent than that. And, the subject matter is relevant to so many discussions regarding the church today.

Dr. Thompson’s main thesis is that in all of the discussions (written and oral) about the church today, the one voice that is missing is the voice of the apostle Paul, and since he had the most to say about the New Testament church, it just makes sense to go back and read what he had to say about the church. Throughout nine chapters this is exactly what Dr. Thompson does – examining such topics as the key themes in Paul’s ecclesiology, the corporate nature of the church, the visible manifestations of the church, spiritual formation and the church, justification, evangelism, the universal church, the relationship between the universal church and house churches, and leadership in the church. Dr. Thompson concludes with a summary chapter discussing the church after christendom. Dr. Thompson moves well beyond the Roman Catholic position, as well as the standard Protestant definition of the church. He also challenges the standard understanding of the church in the American Restoration Movement (I’m not so sure I agree with his views on Paul’s teaching regarding the importance of baptism, but that is a minor point in the book). Dr. Thompson explores the rich nuances of Paul’s ecclesiology in-depth, and opens the path to a much deeper and more vibrant understanding of what it means to be the church of Christ.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book – there is hardly a page in my copy that does not have multiple sentences underlined and maybe a passage or two with a star in the margin. The book is written in an academic style, but Greek words and phrases are transliterated so that the reader who does not know Greek can follow along. Dr. Thompson employs voluminous Scripture references – no one can accuse Dr. Thompson of avoiding the text. The reader may not agree with Dr. Thompson in every point (I did not, nor do I ever fully agree with an author), but you know that Dr. Thompson has done the heavy lifting to research his topic and to present his material in an easy-to-follow format.

Regarding those who will disagree with this book – those in the “the church has to be missional to be a church” crowd will not enjoy this book. Maybe that is why I enjoyed the book so much – the whole “missional” movement has left me utterly flat – few can define what they mean by “missional,” and even those who try to define it cannot do so with reference to the Bible. Usually what they end up doing is quoting some Latin phrase (missio dei) or some such and then grinning really big like they have said something important. (How about this for a quote, “The word ‘missional’ seems to have traveled the remarkable path of going from obscurity to banality in one decade.” p. 12, quoting Allan J. Roxburgh in footnote #55).  Dr. Thompson challenges vapid thinking, and this book is a healthy and very much needed corrective to the pabulum being touted as the next thing to save the church from obscurity. But Dr. Thompson does not just attack the “missional” church movement and leave the scene of the fight. Dr. Thompson provides a healthy and scriptural response to those who follow the “missional or bust” movement.

Regarding the aspects of the book I did not appreciate – Dr. Thompson has an irritating habit throughout the book of making reference to “Deutero-Isaiah” and “the contested letters of Paul.” Now, I am fully aware of the controversy regarding the authorship of the book of Isaiah. But, we do not have an Isaiah, a “Deutero-Isaiah,” and a “Trito-Isaiah.” What we have in our text is the book of Isaiah. If you are quoting from the book of Isaiah, quote Isaiah, not from some unproven theory that there were multiple authors of Isaiah. If you are writing a commentary on Isaiah, or if you are writing a critical introduction to the book of Isaiah, then by all means cover the relevant arguments and state your conclusion. The same holds true with the “contested” letters of Paul. So what if the authorship is contested? Either they were written by Paul (if so, say so and move on) or they were not (if so, why even mention them in a book discussing Paul’s ecclesiology?) then state your reason for not including them in your book. Oh, well, that is why Dr. Thompson has his work published by Baker Academic, and mine won’t be. Still, it is irritating to constantly be confronted with these phrases, which, at least to me, are not just descriptive, but have crossed the line into being judgmental.

Dr. Thompson’s book is timely, and for those who are interested in the health of the church, is a much needed addition to the study of ecclesiology (the study of the church). Doubtless, Dr. Thompson’s conclusions will upset some people – he certainly challenged me in many healthy and beneficial ways. But, agree with him or disagree with him, you must appreciate the depth of the study and the imminently readable fashion in which Dr. Thompson writes. Sure, there are some things that I wish he would have changed, but this book should be on the “to read” list of any minister, elder, deacon, or Bible class teacher who is vitally interested in the health of today’s church.

Why Are We Afraid of Our History?

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…

Book Review – Hearing God’s Voice (Tom Olbricht)

Tom Olbricht, Hearing God’s Voice: My Life with Scripture in the Churches of Christ (Abilene: ACU Press,1996).

I just finished writing my dissertation for my Doctor of Ministry degree. I learned so much in writing that paper. One of the things I learned was that no matter how much information I thought I had gathered on a particular topic or sub-topic, there was always one more (or a dozen more) reputable sources to consider. When men have been thinking and writing about the Church and Christian topics for almost 2,000 years it is just impossible to be original.

One of the sources that I discovered in the process of writing my paper was Tom Olbricht’s, Hearing God’s Voice. I have been vaguely aware of Dr. Olbricht – he was at ACU when I started my undergraduate program there. I was always intimidated by Dr. Olbricht. He was a large man, and it would be kind to say that his suits were never impeccably tailored. Scuttlebutt was that you only took Dr. Olbricht’s classes if you had a suicidal wish to blow up your GPA, or if his course was required. Because he was primarily in the grad program, I never had to make that decision. When I did finally enter ACU to earn my Masters degree, Dr. Olbricht had moved on to Pepperdine University in Malibu, CA. By that time I was not so easily led by whispers and gossip, and I took every course I could from Dr. Everett Ferguson. Since that time I have regretted not having had any classes with Dr. Olbricht. After reading this book I regret that lack even more.

Hearing God’s Voice is a book about hermeneutics within the Churches of Christ, but it does not read like a typical book on hermeneutics. It is mostly an autobiographical journey through Dr. Olbricht’s life, showing how hermeneutics (or how a person interprets the Bible) both shapes and is shaped by life experiences. It is a fascinating story, and if you are interested in the history of the Churches of Christ in the mid to late 20th century, you will want to get this book and read it. The book is part “who’s who” within the Churches of Christ, part pedagogy on how to obtain advanced academic degrees, part critique of the Restoration Movement, and, finally, part hermeneutic.

You have to get to the end of the book before Dr. Olbricht explores his hermeneutic in any great depth, except that you have to really read all of the early parts of the book, because his hermeneutic is inseparably connected to his life’s story. He did not just get his hermeneutic out of a book, and he does not want anyone to try to get their hermeneutic out of his book. At least, I do not think he does. I think, in perfect professor fashion, Dr. Olbricht would say, “Now that you’ve read my book, go forth and discover the art of hermeneutics!”

Dr. Olbricht is certainly one of the premier theologians within the Churches of Christ. Few men have attained the level of expertise, both theologically and in rhetoric, of Dr. Olbricht. I think I would still be intimidated by Dr. Olbricht, but having challenged myself with Dr. Ferguson’s classes, I think I would have greatly enjoyed listening and learning from Dr. Olbricht.

I do not agree with everything Dr. Olbricht says in this book – especially with his understanding of hermeneutics. After all I have said in praise of Dr. Olbricht, that may sound heretical, but no man is perfect, and, while I deeply appreciate many of the moves that Dr. Olbricht proposes in this book, I also identify some significant weaknesses in his approach. Perhaps the greatest is that I sense Dr. Olbricht’s approach is simply too open-ended. To use a sports analogy, he has an impressive wind-up, and the pitch leaves his hand in a blur, but by the time the ball gets to the plate it is barely rolling across the ground. I appreciate the emphasis that Dr. Olbricht places upon the reader (or auditor), but in the end it appeared to me that the reader/auditor had a greater place in Dr. Olbricht’s hermeneutic than the Scripture did. I believe his two examples illustrate that. And, today, approximately 20 years after the book was written and published, I believe that the steady march of same-sex relationships and gender-bending would support my contention.

Any hermeneutic, if it is to faithfully transmit God’s word to a new generation, must begin with the full and unquestioned authority of Scripture. We need to make sure the message of Scripture is heard in new and fresh ways, but the reader NEVER is to be allowed to determine the meaning of Scripture. The reader/auditor is to discover the meaning of the text, but the skill of discovery and the power of determination are two completely different concepts.

Oh well, sorry for the sermon. Bottom line – if you are interested in hermeneutics, and especially if you share a love for the Restoration Movement and the Churches of Christ, I highly recommend this book.

Questions from a Generous Antagonist – Sola Scriptura

Martin Luther, author of the text of Christ la...

Martin Luther, author of the text of Christ lag in Todes Banden, and who, with Johann Walter, also wrote the melody (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Another of the very good questions posed to me by my on-line conversationalist has to do with Scripture (in fact, several are related to this subject). Hopefully I can do these questions justice.

The specific question posed was, “Where does the Bible teach sola scriptura?” I find that question fascinating for a couple of reasons. One, my questioner looks to Scripture for the answer to his question, and two, if you asked a room full of members of the Church of Christ where the Bible teaches sola scriptura they would more than likely answer that it is not necessary to know Greek in order to be saved. (Inside joke). The fact is that “sola scriptura” is a phrase that comes from the Reformation movement, and was coined by Martin Luther, if I am not mistaken.

But, the question is a good one – do the Scriptures teach that what is written is all that is necessary for man to know God and to be in a saved relationship with Him?

I would begin by quoting Moses in the last half of Deuteronomy 8:3, “…man does not live by bread alone, but that man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the LORD.” I chose that particular verse because it is the phrase that Jesus used to overcome the first temptation by Satan in Matthew 4:1-4. Clearly, Jesus knew and quoted Scripture (the Old Testament to us) as authoritative and final. He emphatically said that he did not come to abolish the law and the prophets, and that nothing from the law would pass away until he had accomplished all things (Matthew 5:17-18).

In regard to that law, two Psalms in particular point to the everlasting nature of the word of God and how it was revered and honored in Jewish faith – Psalm 19 and 119. Because of a diluted form of Marcionism that remains alive in the church today we as Christians sometimes fail to appreciate how important the books of the Old Testament are to our faith. As I was trying to communicate in my last post, I think this is one of the areas that needs “restoring,” even in, or perhaps especially in, the American Restoration Movement.

Moving further in the New Testament, however, we find statements such as 2 Timothy 3:16, “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” (RSV, emphasis mine). Once again, I believe that the apostle had what we refer to as the Old Testament in view here, as I am not sure what New Testament works would have been created and would have been accorded the value of “Scripture” at the time Paul wrote to Timothy. But notice – the words of God in Scripture are ALL that is necessary for a “man of God” to be complete! There is nothing else necessary – no special dispensation of the Holy Spirit, no latter day revelation, no continuing or “progressive” revelation. God’s word, labeled as “Scripture” (Greek, writing) is final, and fully efficacious.

Next I would turn to 2 Peter 3:15-16, in which Peter refers to the writings of “our beloved brother Paul,” in which he admits there are some things that are hard to understand, and then he continues to say, “…which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures.” (RSV, emphasis mine). Now, at the outset I want to acknowledge that this is a problematic text for many people. They deny that Peter wrote the letter to begin with, and they certainly do not believe that Peter was equating Paul’s letters with Scripture. However, many, many scholars believe that the letter was indeed penned by Peter and that yes, he WAS equating Paul’s letters with Scripture, and we know that from a very early date both Paul’s and Peter’s letters were collected, copied, shared among congregations, and viewed as being authoritative and inspired words from God.

So, I believe (along with an innumerable host of others, both within and without the Churches of Christ) that the Bible, both Old and New Testament, teaches sola scriptura – Scripture alone.

I have other, non-biblical, reasons for holding to sola scriptura. When a group of people divests itself of the anchoring authority of Scripture the only result is an elevation of human hubris, which is another way of saying man turns his own fantasies into idols. Because the point of contention between my questioner and myself is (are) the differences between the Church of Christ and the Roman Catholic Church, I will select a neutral third party to illustrate my point: the Mormon Church.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is a perfect example of a group of people who have turned the wild, and dare I say, heretical visions of a human being into a gross caricature of the Lord’s church. The teachings of the LDS conflict with the Old and New Testaments on virtually every point, yet that does not disturb the Mormon faithful at all, because they are not bound by sola scriptura. This is what bothers me about attempting any kind of conversation with a Mormon – they will not, indeed cannot, conduct a conversation involving religion without referring to the Book of Mormon or the Pearl of Great Price or any one of the other “approved” writings of Joseph Smith or one of his followers. For a Mormon everything depends upon the “latter day” revelation (?) received by Joseph Smith, and which supposedly still continue through the president of the church, the prophets and the apostles.

[Interestingly enough, the LDS started as a “restoration movement” roughly about the same time period as Alexander Campbell and Barton Stone were doing their work. It seems that “restoration” was in the air and water of the early pioneers of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.]

You see, when you divest yourself of the power of Scripture to both teach and admonish, you become a victim of any powerful person’s whim and fancy. I do not stand over Scripture, I stand under it. I do not dictate what it means, I seek to allow it to dictate to me what I should be.

I am a firm believer in the power of tradition. I happen to be one of those who feels that one of the weaknesses of the American Restoration Movement is that we are a “traditionless tradition.” We have severed ourselves from the great river of Christianity throughout the ages, and I believe we have an impoverished liturgy and spirituality because of that ill-fated decision. However, and this must be understood by all who want to understand me, I would never place tradition over Scripture or even on the same level as Scripture. The value of tradition is to help us understand Scripture and to guide our attempts to honor and worship God. I have believed, do now believe, and as far as I know will always believe that Scripture is the sole source of my understanding of God, Jesus, and the church. I cannot allow any human being, no matter how saintly or holy he or she may be, to usurp that position.

Next up: I will continue my discussion of Scripture, especially in relation to the question of an open or closed canon and the authority of councils and the resulting creeds and confessions of faith.

Questions From a Generous Antagonist

Interior of the original meeting house at Cane...

Interior of the original meeting house at Cane Ridge, Kentucky (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I have been swamped by a mixture of pressing duties and an admittedly poor administration of time management. That has accounted for the paucity of posts over the past several weeks. However, now that I am in-between semesters, maybe I can do a little catching up.

One item of immediate business is to address some questions/comments that were made in response to my comments to the Churches of Christ. In particular is one rather animated individual who, at least in my initial impression, was genuinely off-put by some of my declarations. In subsequent comments it became more clear to me that while not quite so antagonistic as I had originally thought, this individual has some serious questions/challenges to the concept of restoration theology, and he provided me with a few of those questions. So, I have identified this individual as a generous antagonist: antagonist in that he clearly disagrees with me, generous in that he has engaged me with an accepting tone, albeit a pointed one. This is how it should be. If your position is not worth defending, it is not worth owning.

At the outset I want it clearly understood, however, that I am only defending MY position, and if you were to ask 100 other ministers within the Churches of Christ you would probably come up with 162 other opinions. That is because ministers within the Churches of Christ rarely agree, and even if they agree they have to share some unique twist or “improvement” on someone else’s opinion. So, I am not declaring divine inspiration here, but I do want to make my own understanding of the situation as clear as I can.

So for a general beginning, here is what I consider to be a very pertinent question:

So my question is, how do you justify the idea that there are 2,000 years of Christian history if the “true Church” left planet earth shortly after/during the apostolic era (who knows when?) and then popped up in the 19th century? Is it not more honest to suggest that your tradition only has less-than 200 years of history?

Perhaps a little background might be valuable. I was making the argument that the record of church history defended the use of acappella music as opposed to instrumental music. My interlocutor wondered, if the Churches of Christ disavow church history from “X” period of time up until Alexander Campbell “got it right” then how can we appeal to “church history” as a defense of acapella music in worship?

My answer in response to this and similar questions posed by the same individual is this: I do not believe the “‘true church’ left the planet earth shortly after/during the apostolic era (who knows when?) and then popped up in the 19th century.” I know there are some (perhaps many) within the Churches of Christ who do believe this, but my antagonist must ask them this question. As I do not believe the statement, I cannot defend it.

The phrase “true Church” is mystifying to me. That phrase communicates that there are true churches and false churches, real churches and fake churches, good churches and evil churches. The New Testament, continuing and building upon the Old Testament, communicates no such idea. In the Old Testament there were the “people of God” (sons of God, Children of Israel, the “faithful”) and there were “the nations.” In the New Testament we find this “people of God” being identified by a new communal name, “the Church,” but the concept is identical. There is “the Church” and there are the “nations” – those who either flat out disbelieve in God or who might accept that God exists, but who reject his commandments.

Now, within this Church there are a number of other “categories” that we might identify from phrases either found in Scripture or closely akin to terms used in Scripture. One would be schismatics, those who would divide the Church because of ego or some other non-doctrinal matter. John had his Diotrephes, Paul had his opponents in Corinth. These folks need to be disciplined, to be sure, but theirs is more a problem of ego rather than doctrine.

Another group would be those who would destroy the Church over matters of doctrine. Paul was much more severe with these individuals: Galatians is the best example of his address to these folks. However, there were some of these people everywhere Paul went – he told Timothy to watch out for Hymenaeus and Philetus. These two clearly had a false teaching related to the resurrection and Paul says they have “wandered away from the truth.” (2 Tim.2:17).

So, while we have schismatics and heretics, we only have one “Church.” While schismatics may seek to divide the Church, and heretics must be cast out of the Church, there can only be one “Church.” Jesus did not come to build many churches, but only one – His Church.

So, out of the dozens, if not hundreds, of “churches” in existence today, which is the “true” Church? Answer: the one that truly seeks to “love God with all of its heart, soul, mind and strength, and that loves its neighbor as itself” to borrow a phrase both from the Old Testament and Jesus’ teaching. The “true Church” is not defined by the name on the building, the legal documents that establish it with the state, the creed or confession that separates it from other “churches.” The true Church is the Church was created by Jesus, bought with his blood, and the one that lives its life in total surrender to the grace and command of God.

Now, please note: within that Church there may be many who are schismatics and heretics. The one group needs to be disciplined, the other needs to be removed. Just as with a human body, some diseases need to be cured; gangrenous limbs need to be amputated. In regard to the sheer number of “churches” in existence today that process appears to be impossible. But, I also believe in the power of the Holy Spirit and in God’s desire that His Church be as pure as is humanly possible. Therefore, I am a firm believer in, and defender of, the restoration movement.

However, let me be clear about this next point as well. The restoration movement that I see as my example did not begin with Alexander Campbell and Barton W. Stone. My example for the restoration of the Church began with the apostle Paul.

It is impossible to read Paul’s letters without noticing one overwhelming theme: Christ’s Church is to be focused on and lead by Christ. Just read 1 Corinthians and underline every mention of the names “Jesus,” “Lord,” “Christ” or any combination of the three. How many times in the prison epistles (Ephesians, Colossians, Philippians, Philemon) is the phrase, “in Christ” used? Paul was not concerned about creating, developing or maintaining a human institution. He was concerned about being a people devoted to Christ. Paul was the archetypal restorationist. I believe in “restoration theology” because it is what the apostle Paul taught. The closer we as humans get to Christ, the more we become the “true Church” of Christ.

And, so, to my generous antagonist I will say this in answer to his question: the “apostasy” that affected the church affected it in the first century, and has repeated itself in every century since. The “restoration” of that church started in the first century, and has been necessary in every century since. To the extent that the Church fails to be the pure bride of Christ in any generation it has “apostatized,” and therefore a “restoration” becomes necessary. This was true in Ephesus, Colosse, Philippi, Rome, Jerusalem and it is every bit true in every place where there is a Church in 2013.

I will continue with some other very good and thought provoking questions in the days to come.

P.S. – It occurred to me in re-reading this post that I did not address the second part of the question above. To conserve space I would simply say “yes, it would be appropriate to admit that our ‘tradition’ is only approximately 200 years old, if by ‘tradition’ you mean that movement which was popularized and promoted by Alexander Campbell, Barton Stone, and a host of others.” If, however, you mean by ‘tradition’ that we as a group of people seek to follow God the Father and Jesus as Lord in all that we do, then no, our tradition spans the entirety of history from the call of Abraham until today. Depending on the context and my audience, I will use ‘tradition’ in either sense, and in my opinion, justifiably so.

The Church of Christ – A Personal Reflection and Appeal – # 3 (b) Relations With Other Churches

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.

Collaboration logo.

Collaboration logo. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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

Debate Logo

Debate Logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

English: A metaphorical visualization of the w...

English: A metaphorical visualization of the word Anger. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 425 other followers

%d bloggers like this: