Strange introductory paragraph: within the past year or so I read (and reviewed) a book on baptism edited by Thomas R. Schreiner and Shawn D. Wright entitled Believer’s Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ. The book is basically a refutation of the arguments in favor of infant baptism, or to put it positively, a defense of adult, believer’s baptism. As the purpose of the book is the efficacy of infant versus believer’s baptism, the topic of baptism for the remission of sins is dealt with only tangentially. And, because the editors (and, I would assume, most of the authors) are Baptists by denomination, you will not find much of a defense of Restoration Movement beliefs regarding the importance of baptism for the forgiveness of sins. However, and this is the point of this really strange introductory paragraph – I learned a great deal about the Calvinist approach to baptism, and why even many neo-Calvinists are opposed to infant baptism. It is an enlightening book, and I highly recommend it to all who are interested in theology, and especially the topic of baptism.
Baptism and the Remission of Sins: An Historical Perspective, David Fletcher, ed. (Joplin, MO: College Press Publishing Co., 1990) 432 pages.
I’m not exactly sure when I first read this book, but my copy has a 1990 publication date, so undoubtedly it was sometime in the 1990’s, or perhaps early in the first decade of the 2000’s. I just finished re-reading it, and I am struck with a profound thought: This is a book that needs to be read and digested by every member within the Churches of Christ who is concerned about the recent developments within the brotherhood of congregations of the Churches of Christ. Quite simply, this book places the Restoration Movement’s theological wrestling with the practice of baptism within its historical perspective, and as such, provides a wealth of information for understanding the rejection of the importance of baptism by many of the “leading voices” within the Restoration Movement.
The book is a collection of independent studies, and as such, suffers from the general problem of collections: some are outstanding, some are not so much. The opening chapters by Jack Cottrell I hold to be nothing less than brilliant – and provide a historical perspective that is utterly missing in most discussions regarding baptism. Beyond question, the information detailing Huldreich Zwingli’s distortion of baptism is absolutely critical to understand if you want to fully grasp the significance of Alexander Campbell, Barton W. Stone, and the other Restoration leaders. Chapter 3 on the British Restorers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was valuable, but not as illuminating as the first two chapters. Chapters 4 and 5 examining Alexander Campbell’s views on baptism (by John Mark Hicks) are superb – distilling the amount of material and the oftentimes contradictory nature of Campbell’s teaching is a monumental task. Hicks performs the task admirably, and if you know nothing of Campbell and his writings, these introductory chapters will help you immensely. Chapter six is especially eye-opening, and is critical to know in light of present controversies: it details the debate between Campbell and John Thomas regarding the necessity (or lack thereof) of a person’s knowledge and understanding of the meaning of baptism prior to that person’s baptism. My guess is that chapter alone will shock and disturb many within the Restoration Movement. I was personally disappointed with Michael Greene’s treatment of Barton W. Stone in chapter 7 – I believe a far more sympathetic view is both possible and necessary – but I tend to be more of a Stoner than a Campbellite, so I am a little prejudiced there. Chapters 8 and 9 are good (discussing the Rebaptism Controversy between David Lipscomb and the Gospel Advocate versus Austin McGary and the Firm Foundation; and the Open Membership controversy between the Christian Church and the Disciples of Christ), but not exceptional. I believe the subject matter of chapter 8 deserved greater detail, and the material of chapter 9 was also covered in far too cursory manner – but still those are tiny quibbles against two very informational chapters.
So much is being written and discussed today about the meaning and purpose of baptism, how much one must know before baptism, and probably most discussed – how should the members of Churches of Christ view the baptisms performed in the denominations (and increasingly, non-denominational churches)? The practice of baptism is becoming more and more common, and more and more theologians are openly discussing the importance of baptism related to a person’s salvation. I find it distressing to the point of absurdity that, at the very moment when the eyes of more and more preachers and theologians are turning to baptism again, so many “leaders” or “prominent preachers” within the Churches of Christ are backing away from baptism as fast as they can, and promoting the neo-Calvinistic view of baptism promoted in Schreiner and Wright’s book.
While not the only reason I can give for this movement, I would suggest that increasingly more and more preachers, elders, and congregational leaders within congregations of the Churches of Christ are utterly ignorant of the history, and yes, theology, of the practice of baptism. While this book does not delve deeply into the second topic (chapter 10 does cover the design of baptism), the history of baptism as practiced in the early church, the Reformation, and particularly within the Restoration Movement is covered in exceptional care in this collection of essays. If you are struggling to understand baptism in this post-modern context, or if your congregation is struggling to understand baptism today, you owe it to yourself and to your fellow believers to buy, and study, this book.
(Note: In searching for images of the cover of the book, I noticed a 2009 publication date – I provided images of both titles of the books. I could not discern if there was a substantial change from 2000 to 2009, so the 2009 might be a simple re-print, or it could entail an updated and/or corrected copy.)
Many Christians despise theology, and especially theologians (I will overlook the irony for now, but believe me I see it). “We don’t do theology – we just read and study the Bible” is a common belief, if not outright statement. Alexander Campbell stated emphatically that there would never be a chair of theology at the first college established for ministers of the Restoration Movement (okay, more irony, but let’s move on). In my undergraduate and graduate studies I had courses in Old Testament Teaching and New Testament Teaching, but they could not be labeled Old Testament Theology or New Testament Theology.
So, last night I was reading a book by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer has become one of the early 20th centuries most studied, admired, and discussed theologians. Underline that – he was a preeminent theologian, educated by some of the most famous theologians in Germany – and at Union Theological Seminary in New York. He argued with Karl Barth, for crying out loud. No one who rightly knows which end is up can argue that Bonhoeffer is anything other than a top-flight theologian.
Okay – so have I made my point?
So, as I was saying, I was reading in Bonhoeffer and I came across this section –
Theology is the discipline in which a person learns how to excuse everything and justify everything. A good theologian can never be cornered theologically; in everything he says he is just. And the theologian can acknowledge even this without a word of penance. Whoever has begun to justify himself with the help of theology itself has already fallen into the devil’s grip, and as long as he is a theologian, he can never get free! Be a good theologian but keep theology three paces away from you; otherwise eventually it will mortally endanger you. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his lecture on Pastoral Care, see Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works (in English) vol. 14, Theological Education at Finkenwalde: 1935-1937, p. 591, emphasis Bonhoeffer’s).
What was Bonhoeffer’s corrective to the danger of “theology” as he presented it? Staying in the word of God, reading the word of God, preaching the word of God, meditating on the word of God, and praying unceasingly.
Hmmm. Sounds very restorationist, if you ask me. And, if you ask me again, very unpretentious of a top-rate theologian.
This post is intended to be a companion piece to my post of yesterday, so if you did not read that article, use the little arrow thingy and back up a page.
I think most Americans are familiar with the screech made by our former Secretary of State when she was being questioned about the murders of our ambassador and assistants in Benghazi. “What does it matter, anyway?” was her response when being questioned about what she knew, when she knew it, and what could have been done differently. “What does it matter, anyway” has become the mantra of an entire generation of Americans – not just politicians with a failed policy on their hands.
Yesterday I discussed the fact that we (primarily in the church) simply do not have the ability to stand firm anymore. Well, that is only partly true. We will fight to our last drop of blood over the color of the curtains, the positioning of the furniture, and the name of the song book that gathers dust in the book rack; but when it comes to issues of genuine faith, of matters that cut to the core of the gospel, we have one timid little response – “What does it matter, anyway?”
I see three primary reasons why congregational leaders, and therefore the congregations they lead, have found it impossible to stand firm against the onslaught of post-modern secularism. They are: a lack of a foundation, a lack of support, and a lack of courage. Let me address each of these individually.
First, I see the primary issue involved in an inability to stand firm as being the complete lack of a solid foundation. Most important, we have lost the foundation of knowing Scripture. Although we exist with the veneer of being a “Bible people,” we really do not know the Bible. This is true to varying degrees in many elderships, and is only magnified as we move down the generations. Elders today are not selected because of their knowledge of the Bible and their ability to put that knowledge into practice. Elders today are chosen because they are good business men, they are popular, they have the “perfect” family, and maybe even because they come from a long line of previous elders. My wife relates the story of having an elder get furious with her because she corrected him during a teen Bible class. If teenagers can correct men who are supposed to be the spiritual leaders of a congregation, that congregation is in serious trouble. I wonder, though, how many teenagers would know more Bible than their elders? Our knowledge of the Bible is pathetic, and it is impossible to stand for issues of faith when we do not know what that faith is.
In addition to a lack of knowledge of Scripture, we have an even lower (if possible) level of knowledge of our history – our tradition. Some would even argue that we do not have a tradition. Yea, and babies come from underneath cabbage leaves. Tradition is a wonderful thing – a blessed thing. But you would not know that by talking to the average member of the Church of Christ. We know nothing of Alex and Bart and Walt and my favorite – ol’ Raccoon John himself. How could we know anything of our history, and why would we even want to, the way it is disparaged and ridiculed from the majority of pulpits and lectureships in the country? Here is a indisputable but despised fact: the more liberal a person is, the closer that person is to the most radical conservative in at least one respect – they both hate our history. Liberals hate it because, to them anyway, it makes us look foolish, immature, and ignorant. Ultra conservatives hate it because we are simply not supposed to have a history – we popped out of the ground fully grown in 33 A.D., and except for a few hiccups now and then, have been pretty much a perfect people. Both extremes are utterly and damnably wrong – contra the conservatives we have a history that stretches back to Abraham at the very least (remember, the “Father of the faithful”), but is made up of every nook and cranny of human history from that point on. And, contra the liberals, it is a wonderful, beautiful, mesmerizing, and totally enlightening history. Alex and Bart and Walt and ol’ Raccoon were brilliant theologians and practitioners. But you would not know it if you read any of our most recent attempts at explaining our Restoration History. (Okay, rant over.)
Second, elders – and especially our young people – find it difficult, if not impossible, to stand firm because they get little or no support when they try. It’s one thing to get shot in the chest when you are facing an opponent – but it is something entirely different when you are getting shot in the back at the same time. I have seen good men reduced to meaningless figureheads not by their opponents, but by the congregation they were leading. There is a good reason the author of the book of Hebrews wrote, “Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account.” (Hebrews 13:17). It is frustrating when an eldership appears to be paralyzed, but it is disastrous when an eldership takes a stand on an issue they consider to be a matter of faith, only to be skewered by the flock they are attempting to protect. Or imagine the confusion of a spiritually mature 16 year old girl who objects to having to shower next to a psychologically damaged 16 year old boy (in all his anatomically glorious self) only to be told that she is being a bully and needs to be more sensitive – and this by members of her own congregation! It is often difficult to take a stand when you know it is going to be controversial, or even worse, contradictory to secular theories. That difficulty is multiplied exponentially when the people you believe to be your spiritual family abandons you.
Finally, there is the issue of courage. It is difficult to take a stand on a matter of faith if you are confused about what that faith is, and if you are convinced that no one will stand with you if you try. But it is utterly impossible to take that stand if you are a coward, even if you know the truth and have a whole army standing behind you. I believe most elders and a majority of young people are good men and kids. But there is a disturbingly large percentage of elders (and adolescents) who are nothing more than weak-kneed, limp-wristed, lilly-livered cowards (I am trying to restrain myself here). These are individuals who know the truth, and who know that there are people who are looking to them for leadership and will defend them to the last bullet. They choose – willingly – to accept the path of least resistance anyway. They do not want to cause a scuffle. They do not want to be seen as being “old fogies.” They are more interested in their image than in their position of leaders (and yes, young people can be awesome leaders). Ignorance can be educated away. Support can be generated. But cowardice? Cowardice kills before the battle is even joined. “There is nothing to fear, except fear itself.” Oh, what timeless words.
Christians who are concerned about the perilous times in which we live must do three things. We must return to the Bible, we must once again become a people of the book. We cannot stand firm for a faith of which we are ignorant. We must also not only accept, but we must come to appreciate our history – from Abraham to the apostles to the Reformation to the Restoration to our present day. We are products of our history – and we must learn from that history or we are certainly doomed to repeat its disasters. We must stand in solidarity with those who are taking a risk to defend their faith. We must support our elders when they say “no” to the Baals and Asherahs of secularism. We must support our young people when they refuse to be driven by the twisted beliefs of this culture. And finally we must learn what it means to be biblically courageous – to “Be watchful, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong” (1 Cor. 16:13). In a memorable line from one of my wife’s favorite movies, “Courage is not the absence of fear – courage is the decision that there is something more important than fear.”
All of this is critical because our faith, our morals, our beliefs, that which we stand on – all of these things matter very much.
What does it matter anyway?
Stand at the foot of the cross and ask that question. Then you may get it.
(Update, Aug. 11, 2016 – it occurred to me that some might notice that I omitted preachers from this discussion. Be assured, I have no mistaken ideas that ministers/preachers are exempt from being cowardly and just flat-out ignorant. As I was writing I was thinking primarily of congregational leadership, and for some strange, backward, unknown reason I still believe that ministers serve under the eldership, not above them. Yes, ministers/preachers lead, but if the elders would exert their God-given authority, fewer young trash-talking preachers would have a pulpit to do so.)
Book Review – Recovering the Margins of American Religious History: The Legacy of David Edwin Harrell, Jr. (Waldrop and Billingsley, eds.)
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.)
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 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.
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.
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.]
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.
The most difficult thing about flying in fog is also probably the easiest to identify: you don’t know where you are. You also do not know know how you are. That is, in fog or clouds your plane can be right-side up, or up-side down, or any attitude in-between. It is frightening just how easy it is to get disoriented when you enter a fog bank or cloud. That is why so many inexperienced pilots kill themselves and their passengers shortly after taking off into a low overcast. The pilot loses sensory perception, and at that point gravity and simple aerodynamics take over. If the pilot is lucky the result in simply terrifying. Too many do not live to tell the tale around the restaurant coffee table.
In order for pilots to fly, and land, safely in the fog two things are absolutely critical. The first is some form of navigational aid that is fixed in one place – immovable. For years this need was filled by land based navigational aids that generated radio waves that identified their location on the ground. Today those ground based facilities are still available, but increasingly technology has moved to using satellites locked in geosynchronous orbits – orbits that keep the satellite in one precise position over the earth. When I last flew an airplane our GPS (Global Positioning System) receivers were capable of picking up 14 of these satellites at one time. If your receiver had a lock on most, or all, of these satellites, you knew where you were to within feet, if not inches. Now, with the combination of satellite and ground based facilities, airplane pilots not only know where they are, but also what their altitude is, down to an amazing degree of accuracy.
However, the fixed navigational aid is utterly worthless if the pilot does not also have the appropriate navigational instruments in the cockpit of the airplane. All the fancy satellites in the world will not assist a plane built in the 1950’s with 1950’s radio technology installed. Today’s “glass” cockpits look more like the inside of the space shuttle than the planes I started to fly. Stated another way, it does not matter how many voices are out there telling the plane where it is and how high it is, if that plane that cannot “listen” to all those voices.
As more than just a casual observer of the Churches of Christ, and churches in general, my conclusion is that far too many of us have lost connection to that fixed point that allows us to know where, and who, we are. It may sound kind of harsh, but a person would be a fool to deny that our cultural situation today is as disorienting and confusing as flying into a fog bank is to a pilot. Culture is never anything but a morass of confusing and disorienting stimuli. That part will never change. However, I think what does change from one time period to another is how groups and individuals are able to navigate through that fog with greater assurance and safety. To use the image of the pilot and his plane, those groups and individuals are locked on to that fixed point in time and space and they have the necessary receptors in their lives that allow them to “listen” and interpret the message being sent from that fixed point.
What I hear, and read, from a disturbing number of “leaders” within the Churches of Christ lets me know that they are trying to get their bearings from the situation that has effectively blinded them. They are trying to figure out their position relative to their “ground,” but they are doing so by taking measurements from the cloud they are flying in. As any instrument rated pilot will tell you, that is a sure recipe for disaster. Clouds do not tell you where you are, and they certainly do not tell you if you are shiny side up or the reverse.
When I hear that congregations have to change practices that have roots all the way back to the first century simply because “if we don’t our young people will leave,” then I get very worried. When I hear that “today’s generation does not understand the idea of acapella music, so we have to adapt our worship to speak to them” then I grow concerned. When I hear that approximately 2,000 years of biblical interpretation must be jettisoned because of an “enlightened” understanding of gender and sexuality, then I start to feel like up is down and down is up. Yet, that is exactly what I am hearing. “We are flying in a cloud, so let’s listen to the cloud. We don’t need to listen to the ground, or to a satellite – we don’t know where the ground is and we’ve never seen the satellite – but we can see this cloud and it is so soft and fluffy there is certainly nothing that can harm us if we follow this cloud.”
I learned a lot about theology from flying an airplane. In this respect it is quite simple. Pilots who do not have the capability of receiving, or who willingly refuse to receive, accurate information from ground or satellite based navigational aids end up killing themselves, and anyone else who happens to be unlucky enough to be in the airplane. Churches who insist on modifying their vision and practices based on the shifting wisps of culture are just as doomed to failure.
For Churches of Christ there can be but one guiding star – one navigational aid that is steadfast, immovable, fixed in both time and space and from whom there is no variation or deviation. That star is Jesus (Heb. 2:9, 3:1, 10:19-25). If we lose connection with Jesus, it will not matter how large, or energetic, or “contemporary” or well respected our congregations become.
Let us become what our name professes. Let us return to Jesus – to our guiding star, our only secure beacon in this confusing, and deeply confused, world.
(Note: this post has been corrected to fix a horribly confusing second-to-last paragraph. Sorry to those who read the earlier version, and I hope this paragraph makes more sense.)
Bonhoeffer’s Seminary Vision: A Case for Costly Discipleship and Life Together. Paul R. House (Crossway:Wheaton, Illinois, 2015) 197 pages.
One thing that you can say about my book reviews is that I am NOT generally on the “cutting edge” of literary publications. Chances are I am reviewing books that are anywhere from five to fifteen years old – or maybe even older. Every once in a while, however, I do get ahold of a book that has been published in the preceding twelve months, and luckily for me this book is one such example.
Paul R. House has given words to something that I feel very deeply. The fact that he did so by incorporating the theology and practices of Dietrich Bonhoeffer is just icing on the cake to me. In fact, I initially bought the book because of the connection to Dietrich Bonhoeffer (I am hopelessly enthralled with Bonhoeffer, and the title of this volume piqued my interest). However, I quickly came to realize that the real value of this book lies in House’s critique and solutions he gave to a critical issue facing seminaries and schools of theology.
I write from my own perspective, and so others may have a very different opinion based on their experiences, but I will go out on a limb and say that, with few exceptions, Churches of Christ do not do a very good job of preparing ministers. The Bible departments in our colleges and universities, our graduate schools, and our schools of preaching do a passable job in teaching the content of what a preacher needs to know (and some do that better than others), but on an over-all basis the schools that are tasked to prepare the next generation of congregational preachers do not do a very effective job of forming the life of the minister. There is a kind of silent code that states, “our job is to provide a student with the skills he will need to be a preacher, it is up to the candidate to be the kind of Christian he will be.” This was certainly the case when I was in school 30+ years ago; I am not sure how true it is today. Just a hunch based on some very unscientific observations, but things have not changed much in the product, however much has been changed in the theory end of the equation.
If my observation is valid at all, that would mean that the Churches of Christ fare no better, although probably not any worse, than the situation House describes. He challenges the notion that ministers of the gospel can be trained in sterile, “academic” settings exclusively. He especially challenges the idea that a minister can be shaped or formed through the process of “on-line” courses which basically amount to nothing more than the transfer of data between two computers. House is no neophyte – he has a Ph.D from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and has been involved in seminary education for over 30 years. His academic credentials are impeccable. What he says needs to be heard, whether you ultimately agree with him or not.
Basing his argument on two of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s more popular (and readable) works, Discipleship, and Life Together, House defends his argument that theological education – at least the kind of theological education that shapes and forms a minister’s life – needs to be done in community. While rigorous academic work must be a part of the seminary experience (the part I think our schools excel at), there must be a high level of face-to-face mentoring and spiritual formation that occurs as well. House demonstrates that Bonhoeffer had his greatest impact on the future of the church through the experiences he had with his seminarians, beginning at Zingst, and then moving to Finkenwalde and ultimately to the collective pastorates in Kosslin and Gross Schlonwitz. Bonhoeffer was a demanding educator – he expected a high level of exegetical acumen from his students, but he was equally concerned with who the young men were, and what they were training to become. Bonhoeffer did not just want to share information or pass along esoteric tidbits of theological trivia. He wanted to form ministers who could go out into one of the most demanding, and physically terrifying, situations in church history and not only survive, but to thrive and help their church members to thrive.
The fact that a majority of Bible majors in universities and colleges associated with Churches of Christ do not plan to or even want to enter into congregational ministry* is a devastating indictment against the education they are receiving. Various reports are suggesting that there are not enough students enrolled to adequately serve the number of congregations who presently need ministers, and with the baby boom generation of preachers getting ready to retire or are no longer able to serve the congregations, the need for additional servant-ministers will soon become acute. The ultimate answer to this need is no doubt far more extensive than the suggestions in this thin volume, but if you are looking for a place to begin, the wisdom in this book would be my first suggestion.
*Based on a personal report of one prominent university dated some years ago. Other colleges and universities may have a much higher proportion of students who not only desire, but are actively planning, to enter into congregational ministry. My apologies if my brush is painting with too broad of a stroke.