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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A funny thing happened on the way to the blogosphere recently. It seems that a large number of religious bloggers have come down with traditio-phobia. This disease is the irrational fear and rejection of anything having to do with the spiritual tradition in which they were raised. Catholics fear and hate the papacy and all the related hierarchy, along with the traditional mandates of the Catholic church. Mainline protestants are disgusted with mainline Protestantism. The disease even afflicts non-denominational and non-aligned groups, as large numbers of members of the Churches of Christ have all but disavowed any relation to the tradition of the American Restoration Movement. The disease has strange symptoms, but perhaps one of the most revealing is the manner in which those who are afflicted attempt to “out hate” those from other groups who have come down with the same disease. For example, one person might say, “You don’t agree with the pope? Wow, that is big, but guess what – I don’t agree with the New Testament!” It forces everyone in the circle to come up with a bigger and badder enemy to disagree with.
Another symptom of the disease is the unity that is demonstrated among the traditio-phobic when confronted with someone who actually loves and appreciates their tradition. “Wow, dude, that is so cool that you diss the Pope. But watch out for Paul over there – man he is so in love with his traditions that he will try to give you a guilt trip. Why don’t you come over and hang with us for a while – we don’t like any traditions either, and you will be safe with us.”
Honestly, it is getting to the point that I actually appreciate talking to a Catholic that does not hate the Catholic church. I may disagree with their theology, but at least I can appreciate their devotion.
Why are we so traditio-phobic? And why are those who are traditio-phobic about one tradition so willing to accept, and even promote, the traditions of another group? And to add another wrinkle, why are they willing to accept the traditions of a group that is losing large numbers of their own traditio-phobic members because their traditions are deemed too repressive?
In the Churches of Christ we have a significant number of ministers who are openly disavowing long-held biblical doctrines because they are too culture-bound, or are too repressive, or too exclusive, or too something-or-other else. At the very same time I read blogs of others who are just now discovering (or are re-discovering) the importance of baptism, the beauty of acapella singing, the theological wisdom of male-centered spiritual leadership. It is enough to give a person spiritual whiplash.
I don’t claim to know any of the answers. I’m just a worn-out, sawed-off little munchin of a theologian who does his best to make sense of the this world so that I can talk about the next one. And when I am confused I don’t mind expressing that confusion. And right now I am confused.
I happen to love the tradition into which I was born, and into which I made a conscious decision to join. The American Restoration Movement was founded upon some of the loftiest and most divine concepts to ever flow from the pen of a theologian onto ordinary paper. Just use the Bible as the only sure guide to knowing God. Just be Christians only, not Christians plus something else. Use the adjective Christian or noun disciple exclusively. When you disagree on a matter of opinion, have the love in your heart to accept your brother or sister in peace.
Have we always lived up to those lofty goals? Hardly. But I would rather aim for the stars and come up short than to aim for the pigsty and hit my target. I would even suggest that learning about the failures of my spiritual forefathers has made me appreciate them more, not respect them less. I know they were human, and the fact that they might not have always lived up to their words does not diminish the value of the words they held up as their standard.
I’ve said it before a hundred times and I’ll probably say it again a hundred times – but I am not the sharpest knife in the drawer. I just don’t understand why a person has to hate their tradition just because someone who lived and died 100 years ago, or 1,000 years ago, stubbed his toe and fell down. I don’t worship my spiritual ancestors – that activity is reserved for God alone. But I can honor and respect those who blazed the trail on which I now walk by holding up the standard by which they walked and thereby carrying the torch just a little further. (Okay, perhaps a few too many mixed metaphors there, but I hope you get my drift – arrrrrrggh.)
I will offer this advice to those who are traditio-phobic – at least have the courage of your convictions to leave the people you have decided you no longer can honestly love. Don’t preach for a group you disagree with. If you no longer can hold to the teachings of the Catholic church, don’t try to pass yourself off as a Catholic. If you can no longer abide by the traditions of the Baptist church, stand up and say so.
And if the name Church of Christ is just so abhorrent to you that you grit your teeth every time someone says it or you have to park under the sign, then by all means do us all a favor and move somewhere else. I cannot judge you for your convictions (God is your judge, not me) but I am really growing weary of hearing, or reading, you bash something that I love very much.
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)
(This picture is of “Bear,” one of my best Bible study assistants. Sadly, Bear passed away several years ago, but this post is in his honor.)
This installment to my reflections upon my reflections follows very closely to numbers 4 and 5, so if you have not already consulted my page of 15 Undeniable Truths you might want to do so now, or perhaps read my post explaining numbers 4 and 5.
So, here is Undeniable Truth For Theological Reflection #6:
6. However, the study of Scripture is not for the lazy. The original texts were written in three ancient languages and the youngest of these manuscripts is now approaching 2,000 years of age. We must be extraordinarily careful in the study of Scripture that we do not read our historical situation (culture, biases, feelings) back into the original texts.
Whoo Boy. If there was ever a philosophical or theological topic that simply screams for caution it would be this one. The problem is (as I see it, of course), that everyone is guilty of violating this truth in some degree or another at some time or another. There are some who are more aware of their predilection to doing this, and they are more willing to confess it when it happens. But there are many others who can only see this fault in others. They blithely go about wallowing in the same sty, but they can only see the mud on the other pig.
Before we progress any further, please remind yourself of Undeniable Truth For Theological Reflection # 1.
There are many ways to read our personal situation back into the original texts. Males read the Bible as if everyone was a male. Females do the same, only as if everyone was a female. Americans are particularly guilty of reading the Bible as if everyone lived in a democratic Republic. Capitalists read capitalism into every biblical transaction, and Socialists do the same. The poor and oppressed read poverty and oppression into every saga, while the rich and the free only see prosperity and freedom. Calvinists see John Calvin on every page of the Bible, and Arminians are just as convinced that only Jacob Arminius can be found in Sacred Writ. The GLBT alphabet soup mishmash can find all the evidence they need that God fully endorses the GLBT lifestyle, meanwhile the hyper-puritans are not sure that sex can even be found in the Bible at all. Fundamentalist creationists are quite positive they can date the creation of the world all the way down to year, month and day, while evolutionary creationists are equally certain that Moses and Charles Darwin are both equally correct. Hmm. As the trout once said to the salmon, something is fishy here.
Is the Bible that disjunctive? Can God be guilty of both fully endorsing homosexuality while at the same time condemning homosexual sex acts? Is God both a Calvinist and an Arminian? Does God sanctify both capitalism and socialism? Can God be both a Marxist and a little “r” republican?
Sometimes the situation is comical. Sometimes it is serious, but with a little reflection we can catch ourselves and correct the mistake. And sometimes the sin is so grievous that it takes generations to repair the damage, if it is possible at all. I am thinking here primarily of the German Christians in the early 1930’s who so totally identified Jesus as the prototypical Aryan that they used his name to further their program to exterminate the Jews. The very sad truth is that there are many alive today even within the Lord’s church who would agree with these monsters. The way to the heart of Christ is narrow indeed, and there will be few that find it.
As I write this post I am limited by several “accidents” of birth. I am a male, I am of Anglo-Franco descent, I was born in the United States (well, nominally – I was born in Santa Fe N.M. and we are a strange breed) and I have been raised my entire life in a church that has a very high view of Scripture. I am married, and I have the glorious joy of raising one of the most precious little girls that has ever graced this earth. By virtue of my parent’s love and sacrifice I have received a college education, and through a quirk of life’s twists and turns I have also earned all of my certificates and ratings to be a commercial airplane pilot. Every one of these “accidents” or later developments puts me in a category with more or fewer people. And, all of these “accidents” or developments tends to color the way I read and interpret Scripture. I must be aware of these facts and deal with them openly and honestly. In my most humble but undeniably true opinion, for me to do otherwise would be to distort the meaning of the text.
The only way I can do this is, as I stated it in my “15 Truths” is to be extraordinarily careful as we study the text of the Bible. We must force ourselves to read Moses and Isaiah and Matthew and Paul and Peter as Moses and Isaiah and Matthew and Paul and Peter intended us to read their words. While John Calvin or Dietrich Bonhoeffer or Paul Smith might have something important to say about the 10 Commandments or the Sermon on the Mount, I have to read the words of Moses or the words of Jesus as they were given and received. That means I must work to understand the original languages and the historical situation of each book of the Bible, and of each epoch covered by the biblical writers. Moving forward (and I will have more to say about this in the near future) we must also see how these words have been interpreted by others in different times and in different cultural contexts.
By placing ourselves under the text, and by wrestling with the manner in which others have read and understood the Scriptures we reduce the likelihood of reading our own biases back into the text, and we simultaneously increase the possibility of understanding what the original writer intended. In other words, we allow the text to set the agenda, and we are able to allow the text to critique and correct our agendas.
I do not want to suggest that modern situations do not call for a deeper reading and a critical study of the text. For example: the American slave trade, the system of Apartheid in South Africa, the American Civil Rights Movement, the oppression and murder of the Jews in Nazi Germany – many human rights tragedies have been exposed and corrected by a fresh reading of Scripture. The American Restoration Movement is itself a testament both of the ability of men and women in a particular historical situation to return to a “primitive” understanding of Scripture and of the blind spots that make it difficult for men and women in a particular historical context to completely extricate their biases from their interpretations. The exact same thing can be said of John Calvin, Martin Luther, Dietrich Bonhoeffer (my particular hero), Billy Graham or Paul Smith.
Humility, careful study, being aware of our own blind spots and emotional tendencies – these are all necessary skills in studying the Bible. Honestly, I just wish I could herd all of these cats (and others) into the same corral.
That’s why the study of theology is so frustrating and so entertaining at the same time!