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Where Have All the Christians Gone?

Where have all the soldiers gone,
Long time passing?
Where have all the soldiers gone,
Long time ago.
Where have all the soldiers gone –
Gone to graveyards every one.
When will they ever learn?
Oh when will they ever learn?
(1960’s folk scare anthem, titled, Where Have All the Flowers Gone? third verse)

I picture a scene in the late 1930’s in Berlin. It is a picture of two worlds. On the one hand an economy that was literally on the brink of disaster is now starting to show signs, not just of life, but of genuine health. The mood of the nation borders on ecstasy. The long, dark night following the embarrassment of the Great World War is fading into the dark recesses of history. People are working. There is food on the table. Instead of a waffling, insecure national government, there is a leader who knows what he wants to do – he knows what is best for his Volk, his people. He is their leader, der Fuhrer.*

Crouched over a simple wood desk a young pastor and sometimes university lecturer looks out his window overlooking Berlin and wrinkles his forehead. Through his spectacles he sees a much different Germany. The bright red, white and black swastikas that hang from the government buildings, as well as from many of the church buildings, do not indicate wholeness to him, but rather a terminal sickness. Rather than a facile prosperity, he sees the war machine fueling the new economy. Rather than unity and a restored pride in German law, he sees the systematic dismantling of basic human freedoms. As a country rises like a phoenix from the ashes, he watches a culture begin to burn with the most acrid fires of hell. And he wonders, where is the church? Where are the Christians? The church buildings appear to be full – but where is the faith? Where are those willing to follow their Lord to the cross?

America in the second decade of the 21st century shares far more in common with Germany in the 4th decade of the 20th century than many people are aware of, or are willing to admit (and, no, I am not trying to be sensational here, just point out some disturbing historical parallels). Our most recent economic scare, the “Great Recession” has long since faded from our (increasingly deficient) memory. Ever since September 11, 2001 our federal government has incrementally but steadily become more monolithic and focused on the person of the president. What once was a trip-partite “sharing of the powers” has become a totally inefficient and inept Congress and a judiciary that is nothing but a docile lapdog of the most liberal and leftist agenda. Our current president, and both of the nominees of the two major parties, have made it abundantly clear that they do not respect the constitutional separation of powers, but that, as the elected president, they will be the de-facto fuhrer of the American people.

Morally the country is in a complete free fall. No, we are not emptying neighborhoods of “undesirables” and shipping them off to death camps. But that quaint little concept of “freedom of speech” is fast becoming a relic to be studied in a museum. Do you think we are a country of laws, and not of personal privilege? Compare the story of a baker or a photographer who decline to participate in the wedding of a homosexual couple, only to be sued into oblivion, to the story of a sovereign state, the duly elected officials of which pass a law that protects the rights of individuals to exercise their religious freedoms, only to see one of the largest corporations in the country discriminate against them by removing one of their largest celebrations from the state. Who gets the praise here – those who practice their religious rights, their freedom of speech, or the state, (or corporation) that uses their legal or economic power to bully the other into submission? From newspaper editorials to talk shows to political pundits – the voice of those who defend perversity and attack those who stand for Christian morality is almost universal.

The tragedy here, from a biblical standpoint, is that the church has become utterly complicit in this decay. Instead of a clear voice (remember Amos?) all we here from the collective pulpit of American Christianity is, “Don’t say anything offensive!” “Scientists say they can’t change, so we should not burden them with guilt!” “We have to make the gospel relevant, and telling people about sin just does not communicate anymore!” I guess the worst is, “If we tell people they have to change, they might leave the church!” Yea, right. As if having them in the church is doing them or the church any good.

It’s called SIN, people. Sin in the world, sin in the church, sin in you, sin in me.

What we need is for the church – for disciples of Christ – to stand up with a unified voice and condemn that sin. Condemn the sin in the world, condemn the sin in the church, condemn the sin in us – you and me.

Despite the efforts of the young pastor – and hundreds like him – the church in Germany chose either to remain mostly silent – or to actively support the fuhrer – and the world erupted into another hell of war. Those who refuse to learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them.

So, I ask – Where have all the Christians gone, long time passing . . . 

*Fuhrer (with the umlaut, which I cannot seem to figure out how to insert over the “u”, simply means “leader” in German.)

Book Review – Recovering the Margins of American Religious History: The Legacy of David Edwin Harrell, Jr. (Waldrop and Billingsley, eds.)

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The Churches of Christ have not been known historically for producing giants in academia. There are notable exceptions, to be sure. It is interesting that the majority of scholars recognized by their peers as being at the top of their field has largely been limited to church historians – Lemoine Lewis, Everett Ferguson. A few come from the ranks of New Testament / theology scholars – Abraham Malherbe, Tom Olbricht, Jack P. Lewis, Carroll Osburn. Far fewer have come from the ranks of Old Testament scholars – John Willis is the only name that immediately comes to my mind.* Of course we have a large and reputable stable of Restoration History scholars and theologians – Bill Humble, Richard Hughes, Douglas Foster.

Standing among a much smaller group, although perhaps not all by himself, is David Edwin Harrell, Jr., historian and biographer extraordinaire.

This book, Recovering the Margins of American Religious History: The Legacy of David Edwin Harrell, Jr. (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2012), 125 pages, is a collection of essays written in Dr. Harrell’s honor, a festschrift if the term is appropriate for American historiographers.

As mentioned in a previous post, I had the extraordinary experience of getting to meet Dr. Harrell as he was researching his book on the Churches of Christ in the 20th century/biography of Homer Hailey. I was sort of in awe, and little did I know while I was running around the third floor of the Brown Library at ACU just exactly the kind of man I was assisting. I sure wish I knew then what I know now. Oh, well – story of my life.

Anyway – this collection of essays honors this giant of American historians. For members of the Churches of Christ it is an important record of not only the scholarship of Harrell, but also of the times in which he lived, and especially of the attitudes he displayed throughout his life. A couple of descriptions that I found to be particularly noteworthy:

His pugilistic spirit could be lethal toward academic peers or graduate students who substituted opinions for information and personal preference for thoughtful analysis. He does not suffer fools gladly. (p. xi)

I came to appreciate the tough love he administered in very large doses: lifelong support and encouragement in return for maximum effort, withering criticism for laziness and foolish obstinacy. (xi)

And, perhaps the coup de grace

For those who measured up to his standards but disagreed with his conclusions, there was never a better friend. For those who agreed with his conclusions but sought thereby mainly to curry his favor, he proffered neither respect nor support. For uneducated people who were both sincere in their convictions and faithful in their proclamation, he offered charitable understanding and genuine affection. For politically correct academics who refused to subject their own beliefs to the same rigorous scrutiny they expected from others, he expressed scorn and ridicule. (xi-xii)

In some ways David Edwin Harrell, Jr. taught me more about writing than any of my other professors, and I never had him for a class. His writing is meticulous – painstakingly researched and documented to within a gnat’s whisker of perfection. As I was writing papers for my doctoral degree I kept asking myself, “How would Harrell document this paper?” I cannot say that I even come close to his “standards,” but I can say without equivocation that my academic writing would not be anywhere close to where it is today without the influence of Dr. Harrell.

Dr. Harrell influenced me in a number of other ways as well – demonstrating that the divisions within the Churches of Christ are caused as much by, if not primarily by, social divisions as much as doctrinal disagreements. Once again tying this back to my doctoral work, some of the most glowing compliments I received from Dr. Glen Stassen (Fuller Theological Seminary) related to ideas that came straight from Dr. Harrell. One does not truly understand Lilliput unless he or she has stood on the shoulders of giants like Stassen and Harrell.

This book probably would not be of any great value unless you have read some of Dr. Harrell’s works (some listed below). If you are interested in Restoration history, or in the Churches of Christ, especially in the 20th century, this would be a good book for you to have. It is not terribly long, and as it is a collection of essays, some will obviously be of greater value than others. For obvious reasons, I heartily recommend it.

*My apologies for this tremendously abbreviated list. I am working off the top of my memory right now, so to those devoted students of our other scholars, my sincere apologies if I did not mention your favorite mentor.

Just some of Dr. Harrell’s books (in my personal library) – Quest for a Christian America: A Social History of the Disciples of Christ in America, vol. 1., (Disciples of Christ Historical Society, 1966); Sources of Division in the Disciples of Christ, 1865-1900: A Social History of the Disciples of Christ, vol. 2., (University of Alabama Press, 1973); The Churches of Christ in the 20th Century: Homer Hailey’s Personal Journey of Faith (University of Alabama Press, 2000); White Sects and Black Men in the Recent South (Vanderbilt University Press, 1971); Pat Robertson: A Personal, Political and Religious Portrait (Harper and Row, 1987).

Book Review: The Churches of Christ in the 20th Century: Homer Hailey’s Personal Journey of Faith (David Edwin Harrell, Jr.)

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The Churches of Christ in the 20th Century: Homer Hailey’s Personal Journey of Faith, David Edwin Harrell, Jr. (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2000) 388 pages of text with an additional 63 pages of endnotes.

This book has a number of potential audiences: most broadly it will appeal to those who want to have an understanding of how culture influences religious movements, more narrowly it will appeal to those who want to have a greater understanding of the history of the Churches of Christ in the 20th century, and finally it will have a tremendous appeal to those who want to understand the “anti-institutional” or most conservative wing of the American Restoration Movement (Stone-Campbell) of the early 19th and 20th centuries. This book is actually the third of Harrell’s to document the sociological influences on the Churches of Christ, and it is by far and away the most personal (Harrell is a devout advocate of the anti-institutional beliefs).

The book is part history, part biography. Harrell sets out to tell the story of Homer Hailey, but in order to do so he must explain the historical developments within the Churches of Christ beginning with the turn of the 20th century leading all the way into the final decade of the century. As such, the book contains a treasure trove of information the reader will not likely find in any other source unless he/she is a devoted historian. Harrell is a preeminent historian and he knows the printed material relating to the Churches of Christ as well, if not better, than any other person alive. This is evidenced by the copious end-notes.

Because one major goal of the book is to tell the story of Hailey, the history that precedes the biography section does focus more narrowly on the personalities and root motivations of the institutional/non-institutional split within the Churches of Christ. So, for example, the events and main characters are examined with that division in mind, not simply to explain “X happened at Y period of time.” However, because so much of the early 20th century witnessed the battles fought over pre-millennialism and then the institutions (orphans homes, and later especially the colleges), there is a staggering amount of history that is covered.

One strength of this book is paradoxically one of its weaknesses – Harrell was (and still is) an active voice in the institutional controversy. Therefore, he can provide a “fly on the wall” perspective that many other authors could not – he not only knew many of the main characters involved in this discussion, he joined in the fray. The negative aspect of this connection is that, as good and professional a historian as Harrell is, sometimes he reveals the color of the flag that he is marching under more clearly than he should. He routinely labels the “progressives” (itself a dangerously pejorative term Harrell uses to identify the supporters of institutions) as “rebels,” and in numerous other ways he lets his feelings slip by. He opined that the progressives held “deviant views” and in reporting a comment made by Richard Hughes, he wrote that Hughes “complained,” when a more equitable verb could have been easily chosen. To be fair, Harrell broadly praised Hughes’ history of the Churches of Christ – but the little snarky comments reveal that Harrell thoroughly disagrees with the ultimate conclusions that Hughes draws.

Ministers and other leaders in the Churches of Christ need to read this book, especially if they were born in the late 20th century. This book not only explains what happened during the institutional/non-institutional split, but it also gives a clear window into many of the issues that are plaguing the church today. As I have said before (and as many others have said as well), I believe another clear split has occurred within the Churches of Christ in the early 21st century. This book will explain much of why this latest split has occurred. “What goes around comes around,” or in more biblical language, “what has been is what will be,” and so 100 years later we can see many of the same attitudes, and justifications, for behaviors that are contrary to scriptural teachings.

A personal note: while I was serving as the graduate assistant for Dr. Bill Humble at the Center for Restoration Studies at Abilene Christian University, I assisted Dr. Harrell as he was researching material for this book. He was gracious and extremely kind. As a expression of thanks for my help (which was truly minimal), Dr. Harrell gifted me with inscribed copies of three of his other books – Quest for a Christian America, White Sects and Black Men, and his biography of Pat Robertson. I am indebted to Dr. Harrell for many things, not the least of which was the way in which he taught me (through his writings) to research fully, document extensively, and think clearly about your subject. While I never had Dr. Harrell as an instructor, he taught me much and I owe him more.

A Major Exam for Christian Colleges and Universities

A feature story in the July, 2016 Christian Chronicle (www.christianchronical.org) explains a rather severe exam could be in the offing for colleges and universities that have traditionally been associated with Christian churches – any college or university with a faith-based charter or by-laws. After steam-rolling every other opponent it has faced, the LGBTQ movement has now set its sights on institutions of higher education that (a) refuse to accept the demands of the LGBTQ movement, and (b) receive federal funding. The attack at this point seems to be focused on removing the federal funding, and in an interesting twist, denying these colleges and universities the ability to participate in NCAA governed athletic activities.

The mechanism that is allowing this particular attack is the piece of legislation known as “Title IX” – a law that guaranteed there would be no discrimination on the basis of sex in federally funded educational institutions. Originally, the law was designed to provide for equal educational, and just as important, athletic opportunities for females. For every sport limited to males, there needed to be an equal opportunity (same sport, or a different sport) for females. The law had the unfortunate effect of having schools remove some male sports teams (high school wrestling was particularly hard hit), but now that seems like a minor bump in the road. Now the real target has appeared – remove federal funding from these hate-driven, homophobic bastions of conservatism, or at least kill their football programs.

The main channel of federal funding for most Christian colleges and universities is through federally guaranteed student loans. Take away those loans and you take away the greatest likelihood that a student can afford to attend a private college or university. That would eventually kill the institution, and force all students into state funded colleges and universities where the LGBTQ dogma has been firmly entrenched for years now. A lesser goal, although no less juicy for emotional reasons, would be to prohibit Christian colleges and universities from participating in NCAA governed athletics. That would, in effect, cripple a large majority of Christian college and university athletic programs, as the NCAA governs three different levels of competition (Division I, II, and III).

A Christian college or university can apply for certain exemptions regarding provisions of the Title IX law. While all Christian colleges and universities I know of offer full athletic and educational opportunities for females, there are other issues of compliance which lie beneath the surface, but would create significant moral issues for these institutions. Take housing for just one example – many (if not most) colleges and universities offer housing both for single and married students. Currently, Christian colleges and universities can limit males to male-only dorms, females to female-only dorms, and limit married housing to heterosexual couples (male/female married couples). Take away those exemptions and there can be no gender-specific housing – and in regard to married couple housing, now that the Supreme Court has legalized homosexual marriage, homosexual and lesbian couples who are legally “married” could apply for university sponsored housing. Although apparently many would celebrate this development, to an overwhelming majority of alumni from some institutions, this would simply be unacceptable.

So – a test of epic proportions lies not too far on the horizon for these institutions. Some who claim a Christian heritage are only too willing to comply. (I need only mention Baylor University, a Baptist institution, which knowingly shielded a practicing lesbian basketball player to enhance the chances of an NCAA title. As the Christian Chronicle article makes clear, Pepperdine University, a university once associated with the Churches of Christ, proudly proclaims that their policies are in full compliance with the stipulations of Title IX – and see no need to ask for exemptions). Abilene Christian University (thinly associated with Churches of Christ) has just spent millions of dollars transitioning from NCAA Division II to Division I, so I seriously doubt they will jeopardize any NCAA standing with a request for Title IX exemptions.

It will be very, very interesting to see how these colleges and universities make their decisions. Do they forgo federal student loan money and find creative, alternate methods of assisting students to attend? Do they give up their expensive sports programs in favor of joining athletic associations governed by groups other than the NCAA? Or do they comply with the progressive LGBTQ demands and surrender the right to make institutional decisions based on the teachings of Scripture?

Please fasten your seat belts and return your tray tables to their upright and locked positions. The ride ahead promises to be turbulent. I do not envy the administrators of these institutions. I do pray, however, that they have the courage to stand with Scripture and refuse to be bullied into submission over this issue. Those of us who hope that another generation of young Christians will have the opportunity to study at a college or university committed to Christian precepts must stand shoulder to shoulder with the administrations of those institutions who refuse to bow the knee to this form of legalized blackmail.

** Update – just today I came across this blog by Ed Stetzer that documents a legislative agenda in California to limit Christian based education strictly to seminaries and college programs focused solely on Christian ministry. In other words, those preparing for Christian ministry can be educated in Christian principles, but no one else can.

http://www.christianitytoday.com/edstetzer/2016/june/californias-religious-liberty-moment-coming-to-state-near-y.html

Dear God, Thank You For the Memories

Been a little wistful lately (love words like “wistful.” They are so elegiac.) Along with all this wistfulness comes a very deep sense of thankfulness. Thus, a little different kind of flight through the fog today. I will proceed through a series of concentric circles.

The first circle is that of my immediate family ( and, by extension, my larger family by marriage). As I get older I appreciate my birth family so much more. My father (who passed away in 1990) was a quiet man, but more and more I am coming to understand more of his quietness. I lament the years we collectively lost when cancer took him far too soon. My mother survived her bout with the “c” word, and has lived to see two more grand babies and three great-grand babies. My sister, the aged one, is a grand-ma herself. Through marriage and births our family of four is quite large now. A deep and wonderful blessing for sure. It was in this home that my sister and I received our faith, and in this home that we learned how to love. Whatever I am, or will ever amount to, I owe to my quiet but mischievous father and strong mother. My own little family is all the more golden – my beautiful wife and precocious-yet-tender-hearted daughter. I guess time will tell if I have been able to pass on what I have been given, but I earnestly pray that I can, and have. Thank you, God, for placing me in this home, and for giving me my married home.

The next larger circle is that of my family of faith – the church. So many names and faces flash in front of my mind’s eye here – the small congregation in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and the larger, more metropolitan congregation in Albuquerque. I wonder what has happened to many of those saints – I know many have passed on to await the resurrection. How many are still faithful? I know the faith that they taught to me – were they able to maintain it themselves? At least one congregation that I was associated with bears no resemblance to the congregation of which I was a part. Another has ceased to exist altogether. I was blessed to be born and to live in such a different time. When I was growing up I always knew what my elders stood for. I may have disagreed with them, but at least they stood firmly so that a person could disagree with them. Kids these days are being led by a bunch of theological wet paper bags. I hope that the younger generations will see in me someone who actually believes what he says – and does not have to stick his finger up in the air to find out which direction the cultural wind is blowing before he opens his mouth. Thank you, God, for giving me men, and women, of strength – who, imperfect as they were, yet lived their faith in you to the best of their knowledge, and who taught me that I could do the same, regardless of my many mistakes.

My next largest circle is actually a part of that circle, but I single them out because of their specific role in my life – that of educating me. Here I can name some names – because these names and the faces of these gentlemen are so engraved upon my memory: Ian Fair, Neil Lightfoot, John Willis, Everett Ferguson, Bill Humble, Tony Ash, Eugene Clevenger, Holbert Rideout, Lemoine Lewis, Richard Hughes, Leonard Allen, Thomas Olbricht, James Thompson, and David Edwin Harrell. These men comprise a virtual “Who’s Who” of scholarship within the Churches of Christ. They are great men of wisdom and human knowledge, but also great men of faith. Whatever I am on a professional level I owe to them, although in no way do I blame them the weakness of my study. Thank you God, for dropping me in the middle of the finest associations of scholars and mentors possibly ever assembled among the Churches of Christ. I certainly did not deserve such an honor, and am only now truly coming to grips with the value of the education that I received.

The next circle belongs to those giants of the Restoration Movement that bequeathed to me my spiritual heritage: Alexander Campbell, Barton W. Stone, “Raccoon” John Smith, Walter Scott, Moses Lard, and in the next generation – David Lipscomb. I read their productions in awe – not only were they theologians of the first rate (even though they would have eschewed the title), but they were prescient in attempting to prophesy to the church a full two centuries ahead of what some so-called “prophets” of the church are now saying and writing. Their spiritual heirs have not always lived up to their ideals, and as human beings they themselves were sometimes in error, but I would much rather live with their honest mistakes than share in some of my peers’ dishonest ones. Thank you, God, for giving these men a special measure of your Holy Spirit to lead a revival of truly biblical proportions. I pray for your Spirit to lead us again!

Finally, in the last circle are those who are outside of my circle of faith, but have led me into paths of righteousness that I otherwise would never have known existed. Some I have had the pleasure of meeting – Richard Peace and Glen Stassen, although the second only by way of the phone. Others I know only through written correspondence – John Drane (who supervised my doctoral dissertation). Others I have known only through their books – David Augsburger, Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, C.S. Lewis, and by far and away the single-most powerful theological influence on my life – Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I thank you God for giving these men the talent to write – and the eyes to see and ears to hear what needs to be seen, heard and written. I truly live in a blessed, blessed time as far as being able to stand on the shoulders of some spiritual giants. I pray I can share with others what I have learned from their hands.

Aye, what a “cloud of witnesses” that surround my life! What a treasure to take a trip around my office and look at book titles, certificates, diplomas, and pictures, and realize just how privileged I am.

Thank you, God, far more than words can utter. I am, among all men, most truly blessed.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Community, and the Churches of Christ

A few introductory comments before I take off into the fog today –

A major section of my Doctor of Ministry dissertation was focused on the intersection of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s theology and the Churches of Christ. Kind of like Oscar and Felix, it makes for an odd couple, but we have much to learn from this early 20th century theologian.

Second, although this particular topic is outside of my work on confession, the topic of community is closely related to confession (as most of Bonhoeffer’s theology is closely interwoven).

Third, when reading Bonhoeffer, a person must bear in mind the circumstances under which he was writing. So, with Life Together it is critical to remember that the thoughts, if not the exact words, were formed as the Gestapo was breathing down Bonhoeffer’s neck as he ran an illegal Lutheran Seminary. Ultimately they would force the closing of the seminary where Bonhoeffer taught, and that possibility was clearly in Bonhoeffer’s mind as he worked with his seminarians.

I am re-reading Life Together for the umpteenth time, and like so many other great works of literature, there are always new things to discover in this book. I want to share just a couple of thoughts that I think are so appropriate for the situation Churches of Christ (and many other churches) find themselves today.

First this:

Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest, and sacrificial . . . Those who dream of this idealized community demand that it be fulfilled by God, by others, and  by themselves. They enter the community of Christians with their demands, set up their own law, and judge one another and even God accordingly . . . So they first become accusers of other Christians in the community, then accusers of God, and finally the desperate accusers of themselves. (Life Together DBWE vol. 5, p. 36.)

There are many in the Churches of Christ who want the church to be something that it is not, and frankly can never be. As a close parallel to Bonhoeffer’s time, a growing number of people want the church to be more culturally acceptable than spiritually pure. Their concept of the church is an ideal (in Bonhoeffer’s thought, think of Plato’s concept of the ideal vs. the real). So, just as with the “German Christians” of the early 1930’s, membership in the church has more to do with cultural adaptation than Spiritual sanctification. In a staggering act of irony, these purveyors of tolerance and broad-mindedness become the most intolerant and narrow-minded when confronted by those who disagree with their bent theology. Those who preach “judge not” become the harshest judges, even to the point that they end up condemning themselves. The “faux guilt” crowd that accepts (and at times even creates) blame for everything from racism to male chauvinism to homophobia is really becoming quite obnoxious. They want the church to atone for sins it is rightly guilty of – and for sins it could not even be possible to be guilty of. But, as Bonhoeffer pointed out – when you come to the church with a false idea of what community truly is, the end result is fore-ordained.

Second is this:

Two factors, which are really one and the same thing, reveal the difference between spiritual and self-centered love. Emotional, self-centered love cannot tolerate the dissolution of a community that has become false, even for the sake of genuine community. And such self-centered love cannot love an enemy, that is to say, one who seriously and stubbornly resists it.

Therefore, spiritual love is bound to the word of Jesus Christ alone. Where Christ tells me to maintain community for the sake of love, I desire to maintain it. Where the truth of Christ orders me to dissolve a community for the sake of love, I will dissolve it, despite all the protests of my self-centered love. (Life Together DBWE vol. 5, p. 43)

Now, here is where you really need to understand Bonhoeffer’s historical situation. The Lutheran “union” of churches of which Bonhoeffer had been a member had been destroyed by the heresies of the “German Christian” movement – the Nazification of the Lutheran church. Bonhoeffer was part of a number of theologians who realized that these “Christians” were no longer Christians at all – they were not just schismatics, they were heretics. However, not everyone saw as clearly as Bonhoeffer and his associates. They viewed the “Confessing Church,” of which Bonhoeffer was a significant leader, as an unhealthy and dangerous schism. The emotional toll of Bonhoeffer was tremendous. In effect, he was declaring that many people with whom he had a deep and abiding relationship were no longer his brothers and sisters in Christ. Thus, these words are NOT just ivory tower rhetoric. In these words to his young seminarians, Bonhoeffer is basically saying, “I may feel like maintaining fellowship with a particular group of people, but when the word of Christ tells me to separate from that group, I must decide to obey Christ or my emotions. I will obey Christ at all costs – even and including my human feelings.”

The siren song of liberalism and toleration is being sung at full volume within the Churches of Christ (as, perhaps, it has always been sung). The phrase, “in matters of opinion, liberty” has been expanded to mean that everything is a matter of opinion, and there are no matters of “necessity.” According to a significant, and apparently growing, number of young preachers, the only “sin” is in thinking that there is an inerrant and infallible truth to which all must submit. What is almost incomprehensible to me is the fact that this battle has been fought before, most recently in the early 20th century, and we have the writings of Bonhoeffer and others to show us the price we will end up paying if we reject the words of Christ and embrace this path to an ecclesial holocaust.

Bonhoeffer’s words are both comforting and distressing to me. Distressing because I can see so many parallels between his age and today. Comforting, because I can see where there will always be those who reject Satan’s temptations, and who stand firm in the words of Christ. As I prayed this morning, I hope that I will have the courage to reject the anemic gospel of a worldly church, and have the courage to call for authentic, and costly, discipleship for Christ.

Churches of Christ – The Road Ahead

In response to my last post I received another good question – “So, where do the Churches of Christ go from here?” It seems to this feeble mind that I had already penned an answer somewhat close to answering that question, but I cannot find it – so I guess I did not. Anyway, since I clearly pointed out two reasons for what I would refer to as a “descent” into “cheap grace,” I will begin where I left off.

The first answer is so laughably easy to type, and so insanely hard to implement. You might even say, “pie in the sky by and by when we die.” But, to be utterly simplistic, Churches of Christ are going to have to change their culture. We are going to have to give up the victories we have won and the gains we have made in cultural accommodation. The first few centuries of Christianity clearly illustrate that the church was at best only tolerated, and frequently quite viciously hated, by the dominant culture in which it was placed. It is one of the great ironies of our movement that we look back to the first century as our polar star and at the same time try to move heaven and earth to try to be accepted by our 21st century hedonistic, secular culture. When a congregation can say, “you don’t have to change to be a member of this church” then you know that “the glory of the Lord has departed from Israel.”

Second, the Churches of Christ are going to have to rediscover the Bible. Yes, I said it. We are going to have to stop leaning on our professed affection for Scripture, and we are going to have to start using Scripture the way in which it was intended. The Bible was never meant to become an idol. The Israelites were guilty of thinking they were safe if they could utter the mantra, “The temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD” (Jer. 7:4). Contemporary Churches of Christ have modified that statement to be, “the Bible, the Bible, the Bible.” The word of God is a sign and a path, NOT a destination. One of the things you learn when you step outside of your own tradition is how other traditions have used what you thought was your own possession, and sometimes with much more accuracy and perfection than you have. Many churches claim to follow the Bible only. We have been claiming to do so for right at 200 years now. I have to ask in all honesty and conviction – where is the proof? Do members of the Churches of Christ love each other, and their neighbors, more than any other group? Are members of the Churches of Christ willing to go to prison for their convictions? Are members of the Churches of Christ the most charitable among all the other Christian churches? Are members of the Churches of Christ more willing to share the story of Jesus with those who have never heard it? Are members of the Churches of Christ the most hospitable of all religious groups? I think I could go on. The point is we love to love the Bible, but I am just not too sure we love the core message of the Bible. And I have been and am a continuing part of that digression.

I have often been a critic of our concept of “Bible study.” This is somewhat of a caricature, but not too far off. It goes like this – a teacher is recruited about two weeks before a quarter begins. A workbook is quickly ordered from a “sound” Christian publishing company. It arrives, but remains untouched until the first Sunday of the series. Twenty minutes before class the book is grabbed off the bookshelf as the family goes screaming out to get in the car. Five minutes before class the book is finally opened as the teacher stands behind the lectern, greeting his class members to an hour of “Bible study.” He begins by reading the book in a monotone voice, never once realizing that no one is really paying attention to him. It doesn’t matter whether the class is the adults in the auditorium, the high school class or the 2nd grade class. The process is mind-numbingly common in all too many congregations.

I pray your situation is different. I pray you have a teacher that is on fire every time his or her class meets, and they end the class session drenched in sweat and even more excited about next week. I pray you have a teacher that teaches from a bucket that is overflowing with equal parts passion and information. I pray you have a teacher that both assigns homework and insists on the completion of that homework. I pray you have a teacher that demonstrates and expects world work as well – the faithful practice of the lessons learned from the text of the week. I pray you have a teacher that sees Scripture as a journey into the Kingdom of God, where justice and mercy meet.

I have no illusions that the scenario I have described above will happen any time soon, at least not on a national scale. If it happens it must begin on a person by person, congregation by congregation basis. It is going to take strong elders who lead their congregations away from the siren song of American nationalism back to the vision of dwelling in the Kingdom of God. Those elders are going to have to have the backbone necessary to resist – and even confront – those who claim that the Stars and Stripes are equal to the stripes and the cross. The church is going to have to be led by those who see the church as a path to the future and not just a relic of some mythical ‘golden age’ here on earth. In the most simple terms, the church is going to have to become solidly counter-cultural, unapologetically apostolic, and deeply apocalyptic in order for all of this to happen.

It has happened before. It can happen again. But there is only one way in which it can, and will, happen: “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the LORD of hosts.” (Zechariah 4:6)

[In case anyone is interested, here is a handful of resources that have been helpful to me in this study: The Worldly Church: A Call for Biblical Renewal 2nd ed., C. Leonard Allen, Richard T. Hughes and Michael R. Weed (ACU Press, 1991); The Cruciform Church: Becoming a Cross Shaped People in a Secular World rev. and expanded ed., C. Leonard Allen (ACU Press, 2006); Reviving the Ancient Faith: The Story of the Churches of Christ in America and Reclaiming a Heritage: Reflections on the Heart, Soul, and Future of Churches of Christ both by Richard T. Hughes, (ACU Press, 2008 and 2002 respectively); Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context, Glen H. Stassen and David P. Gushee, (IVP, 2003);  Dissident Discipleship: A Spirituality of Self-Surrender, Love of God, and Love of Neighbor, David Augsburger (Brazos Press, 2006); Mere Discipleship: Radical Christianity in a Rebellious World, 2nd ed., Lee C. Camp (Brazos Press, 2008); Unchristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity…And Why it Matters and You Lost Me: Why Young Christians are Leaving Church … and Rethinking Faith both by David Kinnaman (Baker Books, 2007 and 2011 respectively); Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, vol. 4, (Augsburg Press, 2001). And, the coup de grace, the stunningly brilliant examination recently done by someone we all know and love, We Can Bear It No Longer: Toward a Confessional Theology Within the Churches of Christ (unpublished dissertation, Fuller Theological Seminary, 2015). Caveat emptor: with perhaps the last source as the only exception, I do not agree with every conclusion of each of these authors. Actually, I don’t always agree with the last author either. Read carefully and judiciously – and always compare what a human writes with the one Word of God.]

Reader Question: “Easy Believeism and the Churches of Christ”

A post or two ago I referenced the “easy believeism” that was sweeping the Churches of Christ, and a reader queried me as to what might my opinion be regarding the source of such a phenomenon. Never one to be short of an opinion, I will do my best to answer – and, it must go without saying that although this is my opinion, it has been shaped by decades of observation and years of research in the Restoration Movement.

In brief, I believe there are two reasons for this “easy believeism” – or “cheap grace” as Dietrich Bonhoeffer would put it. To begin, I have to present a little historical background. At the conclusion of the Civil War, and up to and including the beginning of the First World War, the Churches of Christ as a communion were basically poor, uneducated southerners. Those congregations that remained within the Churches of Christ in the north were still considerably less affluent than their close cousins, the instrumental Disciples of Christ/Christian Church. The reasons are fairly simple to understand: those congregations with money (and therefore community prestige) soon felt nothing wrong with adding a piano or melodeon into the worship. If you could not afford one, it was easier to argue against having instruments of music. Those congregations that were fully capable of building an elaborate building, hiring a full-time preacher, and yet remained “acapella,” were few, but they did exist. In the south the story was much different. Congregations were poor – “located preachers” were few and buildings were bare bones. Instruments were out of the question both by doctrine and necessity.

At the same time, Churches of Christ were virtually entirely pacifist. Both during and after the Civil War many leading southern preachers argued strenuously against participating in the war. Following that war, the members became solidly anti-war, and when WWI broke out this became a problem. By the end of the war the government had turned an evil eye on preachers within the Churches of Christ – and the fellowship as a whole – for what was considered “seditious” behavior. If you did not agree with going to war against Germany, that meant you supported Germany. Nothing could be further from the truth, but since when has “truth” mattered to the government? Oops, I digress. So, by war’s end, the tide had turned, and the majority of members of the Churches of Christ had become war hawks – at least in a limited sense.

The pendulum swung back slightly in the years between WWI and WWII, but following December 7, 1941, it would have been very difficult to have found a vociferous pacifist among the preachers of the Churches of Christ. Nationalism and patriotism once again reigned supreme, and even those who held to their pacifist leanings found ways to support the war effort in non-combative ways. Another development occurred after WWI, and was reinforced with the prosecution and winning of WWII. The Churches of Christ “crossed the tracks” when it came to wealth and influence. No longer were congregations housed in little frame buildings – now Churches of Christ sported huge complexes complete with all the newest and finest accoutrements, minus, of course, any instruments of music for worship.

So, roughly speaking within about 50 years the entire culture of the Churches of Christ changed. Congregations went from being counter-cultural, poor, and pacifist; to being culturally savvy, affluent, and wrapped in American Nationalism. Although the 1940’s through the 1960’s and into the 1970’s were a time of exponential growth for the Churches of Christ, huge fissures began to be visible in the foundations that united this “undenominational” denomination. As the 1980’s blossomed and we have now turned the corner into the new millennium, it is obvious (at least to some like me) where those fissures have led.

First, many of the most prominent, “big name” and influential preachers and speakers within the Churches of Christ today grew up in the turbulent ’60s and ’70s. They are also the children (and sometimes grand-children) of the sexual revolution (and anti-authority revolution) and the “me generation” of the post WWII baby boomers. They are embarrassed by the intra-sect fighting that took place after the war, and the (admittedly) sometimes vitriolic attacks on other groups. They became the most highly educated, and clearly the most affluent and well respected, “pastors” of mega-congregations that the Churches of Christ have ever witnessed.

With that new-found respectability, and sometimes popularity, has come a profound pressure to conform to the dominant culture. Now, remember, this journey to cultural accommodation started with both a rejection of pacifism and a growth in financial status as far back as the turn of the 20th century, not the 21st. So, my first answer to the question regarding “cheap grace” in the Churches of Christ has to do with the almost complete acceptance of, and even frequent promotion of, American nationalism and the enculturation that has come with it. The “must have” speakers within the Churches of Christ today are not the fiery prophets of the late 19th century, but the slick, polished, suave, charismatics that large stages and multi-site congregations demand.

At the same time this cultural shift was occurring, there was a similar doctrinal shift taking place within the Churches of Christ. (Note, some would argue the doctrinal changes created the cultural changes, or that the cultural changes sparked the doctrinal changes – I think the two are much more interconnected, and neither one “created” the other). To make a long story short, the Bible became less and less the cornerstone for settling questions of faith and decorum. I have witnessed in my own life a significant devaluing of Scripture, both within the church assembly itself and in the lives of individual Christians. Churches of Christ used to answer questions with, “the Bible says” or “Scripture teaches.” Increasingly I hear excuses for how we should NOT listen to certain passages of Scripture because the culture of their day is not reflected by our culture, therefore our culture is controlling. Which gets me right back to reason #1. This can be demonstrated in so many different areas – questions regarding marriage and divorce, the importance of baptism, restoration of the fallen, and, yes, instrumental music in worship and the increasing demand for equal roles for women in worship.

So, what caused this head-long fall into “easy-believeism” or “cheap grace” in which “I’m okay, you’re okay” and we can’t even critique other faiths because Jesus said, “judge not, lest ye be judged”? Why is it that so many congregations of the Churches of Christ have fully immersed themselves (pardon the pun) into evangelicalism and the quasi-universalism that flows from it? Why are so many congregations taking the name of Christ off of their building and replacing with words like “Community” or “Fellowship”?

First – the members of said congregations have become absolute slaves to the culture of the times, in which “tolerance” is the new golden rule and “exclusivism” is the new pariah.

Second – at the same time these congregations were making the move to total cultural adaptation, they were jettisoning the one foundation that had set them apart from other religious groups, and that was a reliance upon the Bible as the only sure foundation for settling questions of faith and practice.

It is not hard to be a member of these congregations. On the other hand, if Dietrich Bonhoeffer were to appear and preach he would be hanged again, not because he was a Lutheran, (ecumenical Churches of Christ would LOVE that) but because he demanded absolute total discipleship – and blatantly rejected nationalism and “cultural Christianity.” I’m afraid Jesus would not be accepted either – he was never very well accepted by the social or spiritual elites.

Boundaries of Brotherhood – The Exclusive Church

This is the third, and final, entry in a series of thoughts I have been wrestling with regarding the boundaries of brotherhood – stated another way, defining the limits of the Kingdom of God. As I hope I have made clear, I am not at all comfortable in stating my conclusions as being beyond debate. However, one cannot “wrestle” if one does not have at least some place to begin, and so what I have written so far is a record of where I stand. As Martin Luther is reported to have said, I can do no other.

Yesterday I examined those indications, or allusions (however poorly my choice of words might indicate) that God’s kingdom is much larger than what some (including myself) might recognize. Today I examine the flip side – that the Kingdom might be far more restrictive than some (including myself) might want to admit.

I have stated that this is where I exist in my “gut” feelings. This is NOT to say that this feeling is not supported by intellectual arguments or textual evidence. Much to the contrary, this position is well attested throughout Scripture. When I say that this is my “gut” reaction, I am simply saying that it is more natural for me to think in terms of an “exclusive” nature of the Kingdom than it is for me to think of an “inclusive” Kingdom. We all live in our own unique little world, and this feeling is a part of my world.

To begin, I want to return briefly to yesterday’s post. Today I want to emphasize what I admitted as contra-evidence to the inclusive nature of God’s Kingdom. While Ishmael was circumcised along with Abraham, and while he was certainly to be blessed, and while he was (and his descendants remain) a “child” of Abraham, God’s special covenant was to go through the lineage of Isaac. God did deliver the Philistines and the Syrians, but their inclusion in the message of Amos was to highlight the very special relationship God had with Israel. God did certainly send Philip and Peter to the Ethiopian eunuch and to Cornelius respectively, but the message they presented was not that they were secure in their beliefs, but that they had to confess their faith in what was, and is, an undeniably Jewish Messiah. So, even within the evidence of inclusion, there is an unmistakable link to exclusion. Some are chosen, others are excluded – this is the story of Scripture!

Prior to the deluge Noah was chosen, the other humans were excluded. When the people of Israel (God’s chosen people) refused to enter the promised land the first time, an entire generation was excluded, and only their children were permitted to be “included” in the eventual conquest. Only a “remnant” from the Assyrian and Babylonian exiles were allowed to return to Jerusalem. The message of John the Baptist to “Repent” is meaningless unless it is understood that (a) the people were in an “excluded” relationship and needed to return to God, and (b) some would, and some would not, “repent.”  Jesus began and ended his ministry with warnings of the “exclusive” nature of the Kingdom: “…the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Matthew 7:13, 14) and  “…many are called, but few are chosen.” (Matthew 22:14) A significant theme in the book of Romans is that, even among God’s “chosen” people, there are those who can reject their inheritance and thereby be “excluded” from the Kingdom. (Romans 1-3).

The examples both for “inclusion” and “exclusion” can be multiplied – I am not suggesting that my examples are exhaustive. What I hope that I have demonstrated is this: when it comes to establishing boundaries for the Kingdom of God, it is God that has set the boundaries, and as humans we are NOT in a position to make those boundaries either more inclusive than what God has determined, or more exclusive than what God has determined. In our never-ending struggle to be more like God than to accept our blessing to be in the image of God, we attempt to both include what God has excluded, and exclude what God has included.

I see this tendency especially problematic within the Churches of Christ, my only experience with a group of faith. On the one had there are those who are willing to accept any and all who profess even the most lukewarm and shallow expression of “faith” in Christ. Any passage of Scripture that might appear to be exclusive is excused away due to the “primitive” nature of the writings of the New Testament. We are so spiritual now, so intelligent; therefore we must remove ourselves from such tribal thinking. On the other hand are those who draw the circle of fellowship so small that only their little “righteous remnant” will be qualified for eternal bliss. For them a violation of any shibboleth, no matter how minor, constitutes an eternal sin which can be forgiven only upon the most ghastly of penances. This forgiveness is only provisional, however, pending any further deviations from the decisions of the quorum.

So, where do I draw the boundary of the Kingdom of God? Hopefully, only where God has drawn it. I must make every effort to learn where God has drawn that boundary in the pages of his revelation – the Bible. Issues of the new birth (baptism) and a continued life of discipleship and sanctification are fundamental – not incidental. Jesus did not just say, “you are healed,” he also added, “go and sin no more.” I must also, for matters of conscience, draw the limits of my fellowship along areas of doctrine where I feel I am safe to do so. But in so doing I must accept that my circle must be fluid, and that God may indeed have drawn his boundary of the Kingdom much larger, and in some situations much smaller, than my circle of fellowship. I am not God, and I cannot determine the limits of the Kingdom of God. The fact I choose to welcome, or to distance myself, from certain practices is not a decree that God himself must adhere to. I may have brothers and sisters with whom I cannot share table fellowship. I may have brothers and sisters with whom I would love to fellowship, but who feel that they cannot fellowship with me. This is wrong, make no mistake, and every effort should be made to mend those divisions.

But – let me be clear – I am not the one to tell God who is, or who is not, his child. God creates, God redeems: I must follow.

Boundaries of Brotherhood – The Case for Inclusion

Yesterday I spoke of a struggle I have – and probably share with many others. That struggle is with the concept of boundaries, specifically boundaries of the Kingdom of God. I expressed that by nature I tend to be more exclusivistic (the word I used was Pharisaical), but by virtue of intellectual process I know that my “gut” can often be wrong. Today I argue against myself, taking a quick look at those passages in the Bible that let us know that, however much God has revealed of Himself, he is still ineffable, transcendent, and Holy. God is God, and we dare not attempt to tell him what he can or cannot do.

I suppose we need to begin with Ishmael. We all know that Isaac was the chosen son, the son of promise – the one from whom the nation of Israel was to come. Let us not, however, dispense with Ishmael so cavalierly. We learn that Ishmael was to be “blessed” by God, and he himself would be the father of 12 princes (foreshadowing Jacob, anyone?). A few verses later we learn Ishmael was circumcised along with Abraham, and all those who were a part of Abraham’s entourage, whether natural born or bought as slaves (Genesis 17:20, 22-27). The point of the story is clear: Isaac is the chosen son, the son of promise. Ishmael was not forgotten, however – he was a natural “child of Abraham.”

Another text that gives me pause is Amos 9:7. Remember the story of God delivering the Israelites from Egypt? Well, apparently God is in the delivering business for a number of nations, because he pointedly reminds the Israelites that he had done the same thing for the Philistines and the Syrians. Yes, I know – Israel is the chosen people, the “family” of God. Just as with Ishmael, however, God’s reach extends slightly further than Israel wanted to admit. Sometimes God has to remind Israel of that fact.

Another text that causes grief between my gut and my head is John 10:16. In the great passage of the Good Shepherd (we all love that passage, right?) Jesus had this to say, “And I have other sheep, that are not of this fold; I must bring them in also, and they will heed my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.” (John 10:16) Now, I know (or at least I believe I know) to whom Jesus is referring – the “flock” of the Gentiles to whom he would be sending his disciples after his death. What I want to point out is that at the moment Jesus is speaking these words, the disciples had absolutely no idea that this other “flock” would even be considered for salvation – unless, of course, they would change and become exactly as they (the original flock) were. It actually took a fairly significant kick in the seat of the pants to get the first flock to welcome the second flock into the fold. Point is – there was a second flock the first flock had no idea existed. To Jesus, however, it was just one flock that had not been unified yet.

I could go on here to point out the Ethiopian eunuch, Cornelius, and the church council of Acts 15. The people of Israel, the Jews – God’s chosen people – were very slow to recognize and to welcome this “other flock.” The inclusion of this “other flock” did not meet their standards of propriety. God’s plan did not work like their plan did. They wanted to draw the boundaries of brotherhood in one fashion – and God had another design entirely. It took a while, but God’s design finally won.

Now, before everyone lines up to melt the tar and pluck a goose, I am NOT arguing here that any and every “religion” is equal to New Testament Christianity. I have not ever, do not now, nor will I ever, argue that “all roads lead to heaven.” I hope that I have clearly stated my understanding that the covenant promise begins with Isaac and ends with Jesus. My only point in this little exercise is to illustrate that it is God who draws the boundaries, and sometimes those boundaries were just a little bigger than what his followers were able to see. If God is God, then we must always bear in mind that, while we must always and in every way follow his commands and submit to his will, there will be areas of his reign that we simply cannot understand. He has given us everything we need to know (2 Peter 1:3-4), but that does not mean that he has given us everything that HE knows.

To be blunt: I know what God expects of me, but I can place no expectations upon God. I must accept the boundaries that God has created, whether I agree with them or not.

Tomorrow: I return to my instinctual perspective, and argue the case for exclusivity.

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