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.
(Note: this should probably go without saying, but this is my reaction to a recent series of events, so, if you have another take on the discussion, good on ‘ya.)
Another “tempest in a teapot” amid a larger hurricane has erupted in the fellowship of the Churches of Christ. To summarize, Matthew Morine wrote an article in the Gospel Advocate excoriating those who advocate for gender egalitarianism in the Churches of Christ. Deeply offended, yet feigning magnanimity, Mike Cope responded in Wineskins, excoriating Matthew Morine and anyone who would dare agree with him. Together the two articles accomplished nothing but to establish that a deep division regarding this issue has already occurred in the Churches of Christ. Unless one side or the other experiences a major manifestation of the Holy Spirit, there will be no repairing it.
First, a little background for those who might be confused. Matthew Morine’s article in the GA was written as red meat for the most entrenched, conservative segment of the brotherhood. It was something akin to a warm-up before the key-note speech at a political convention. Was it thoughtful, carefully reasoned, and tactfully delivered? No, no and no. I’m not sure it was supposed to be. Morine is something of a wunderkind to the conservative right, and he is a favorite author in the GA fold. Mike Cope, on the other hand, is one confirmed miracle away from being canonized as a saint in the progressive left of the brotherhood. His writings serve as the red meat entree for the progressives. Politically speaking, Cope is Barak Obama to Matthew Morine’s Ted Cruz. It is matter, meet anti-matter.
The problem is that Morine has expressed (however provocatively) a concern that many – conservative or moderate – feel is a legitimate critique of the egalitarian left’s position: it is biblically and theologically weak, fueled mainly, if not exclusively, by cultural pressure. Cope, presented with an opportunity to take the high road and explain his position in clear biblical terms, totally wiffed, choosing rather to express his umbrage that Morine would dare attack his motives.
Well, at the severe risk of causing Cope and his followers even more emotional pain, a great many people do look at his conclusions and question his motives. Morine may have been too acerbic (actually, he was too acerbic), but his challenge was spot-on. I would say that my main problem with Morine’s content was that he misidentified the hypocrisy of the egalitarian left. It is within that element of the brotherhood that the loudest complaints about “proof-texting” a position can be heard. Yet, when it comes to gender egalitarianism, their entire argument is built on one single verse from the book of Galatians, and it is completely taken out of context, and twisted into something Paul never intended. Talk about the pot calling the kettle black.
Neither Cope, nor any other egalitarian I have read, has adequately addressed Morine’s basic observation: their position is based on a misinterpretation and misapplication of Galatians 3:27-28, and in order to defend this misinterpretation, they must either excise or condescendingly dismiss several other passages of Scripture which contradict their position. Harrumph if you want, but throwing a temper-tantrum when your conclusions are challenged is not an effective apologetic technique.
The issue as I see it is that both Morine and Cope are speaking in an echo chamber and talk completely past each other. Morine could have been, and should have been, much more respectful. He, or someone at GA should have edited his article to be less acerbic and confrontational. Cope totally missed Morine’s point, choosing rather to express hurt feelings rather than address issues. I honestly have to ask why Cope was even concerned with Morine and the GA. Does he even think that his readers are going to care about the GA?
I said above, and I fully believe, that a schism equal to the instrumental music division of the last century has already occurred within the Churches of Christ. Just as it is impossible for two groups to worship simultaneously with and without instruments (however congregations try to paper over this division with “separate” worships services), you cannot worship simultaneously as a male-led congregation and a matriarchy. Just my opinion here, but it seems to me that there needs to be a clean break and we need to stop this illusion that we are all one big happy family. There needs to be a “Churches of Christ” and a “Churches of Christ / Instrumental and Egalitarian” (Funny, but the two “improvements” are virtually inseparable.)
One other observation about Cope’s response. He added that his “journey” from a male-led leadership to an egalitarian position was “painful.” That is a common thread in “journeys” from traditional convictions to progressive ones. I wonder why that is? If you move from a conviction that worship in song should be acapella to an acceptance of instrumental music, your “journey” is harrowing, painful and gut-wrenching. Why? It seems to me that if you can throw off the shackles of hundreds of years of bad exegesis and even worse theology, the process would be enlightening, exhilarating, and joyful. Same with egalitarianism. Why the angst? Why the pain? It seems to me that if you can scrape 2,000 years of encrusted barnacles of patriarchy off of your congregational cruise ship, why would that be so painful? I would think you would be ecstatic. The whole thing just sounds a little too “Oprah Winfrey” to pass my sniff test.
If someone can explain to me, using established methods of exegesis and hermeneutics, how Galatians 3:27-28 can have any association with male or female leadership in the Lord’s church, I am ready to listen (or read). If anyone can explain how Paul can be so clearly right in Galatians 3:27-28, but be so clearly wrong in Corinthians and Timothy, let me know. If someone can convince me that Jesus could overturn virtually every oppressive and Spirit-rejecting religious aspect of his culture but the one issue of male spiritual leadership – please enlighten me. But, be forewarned, my obfuscation meter is set to high sensitivity – so don’t try the “Hillary Clinton” condescension trick or the “Bart Ehrman” re-write the New Testament trick. As the old saying in this part of the country goes, this ain’t my first rodeo, ma’am.
(Note: I have been informed that Matthew Morine was queried about the article by the GA editorial staff, and wanted the article to be published as it was written, and so I retract my comments about the editors at GA missing an opportunity here to help Matthew.)
I have been reading a book on believer’s baptism (note: review upcoming), and because of that I have been evaluating what I have heard taught in the Churches of Christ, and what I have taught myself as a minister within the Churches of Christ.
A little bit of background – for my first graduate work I wrote a paper on the topic of baptism in the early days of the Restoration Movement. I wish I still had that paper, but alas, it was consigned to the landfill many, many years ago. What I learned was equal parts fascinating, reassuring, and troubling. Speaking as a whole, the views of baptism within the Churches of Christ have not been monolithic, and, sad to say, not always biblical.
Cut forward to the book I am reading now. The book is primarily devoted to refuting the theology and practice of infant baptism, and it is written by a group of Baptist scholars. This second fact is made obvious by the many references to the manner in which Baptists have historically believed something, or believe something today (I wonder if the authors/editors think that Baptist thought is really that monolithic?) So, the book is not genuinely a theological exposition on the meaning of baptism, although that is a major component of the argument for believer’s baptism and against infant baptism. As I will discuss in a future review, I have learned much about the practice of infant baptism, and serendipitously, I have learned much about my belief in baptism for the remission of sins.
However, in this post I want to share some concerns I have about the teaching of baptism as I hear and read in various reports concerning Churches of Christ. I write as an insider, and a concerned (but hopefully not negative) critic of our words and our practice. Here are some things that have occurred to me as I have been forced to review what I believe about baptism:
1. Churches of Christ claim to disavow infant baptism, but as I have witnessed, toddler or young children baptism seems to be increasingly the norm. We cannot claim to profess “believer’s baptism” or “confessor’s baptism” when the subject of the baptism is barely in elementary school. I have to confess – I too have been a perpetrator of this practice. I baptized a young person who then frequently showed up at church services with a toy in hand to occupy the time during the sermon.
We baptize little children for a variety of reasons – and none of them are especially attractive nor defendable. A child wants to be baptized so they can take communion. Or they are baptized because an older sibling has been baptized, and they want to have the same attention shown to them. Or, they are baptized because their father is being considered for the role of elder or deacon, and Dad will not be confirmed if a child is not a “believing member.” Or, a child is baptized because he or she is the last one is his or her class to be baptized, and peer pressure is just too great. We make all kinds of good sounding excuses – “He has reached the age of accountability, and we do not want him to go to hell if he dies.” “She knows everything there is to know about baptism – we cannot deny her this request” (excuse me, who knows everything there is to know about baptism?) “Her grandparents are here and we want them to be able to share in her baptism.” Perhaps the worst reason is that multiple baptisms make the resume of ministers and youth ministers look really attractive when they want to move on to a higher paying ministry position somewhere.
The point is we are baptizing younger and younger children. We may say we do not believe in infant baptism, and I have not seen an actual infant being baptized (yet), but what about 6, 7, 8, 9, or 10 year olds? Let me ask you a quick question: would you allow an 8 year old to decide he or she is old enough to drink wine or beer? Would you allow a 10 year old to take the family car and stay out until 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning? Would you allow a 9 year old to decide who she can date, when and where her dates will be, and if she wants to have sex with her partner, would you allow it because she is now an adult and can make her own decisions? Why is it that youthful offenders are categorized entirely different than adults in our judicial system? It is because the young brain is simply not advanced enough to fully understand actions and consequences. And yet, young (and younger) children are being baptized in Churches of Christ by the dozens, if not hundreds.
This, my dear brothers and sisters, is a refutation and rejection of what the Bible teaches about the importance of faith, repentance and commitment that is demonstrated in the event of baptism.
2. Related to that last point, I fear many members of the Churches of Christ function with what the authors of the book I am reading describe as an ex opere operato understanding baptism. That is a Latin phrase meaning that the practice of baptism is efficacious in and of itself, regardless of the subjective beliefs of the recipient. Thus, in baptism, the child may not know anything at all about baptism, or may hold entirely erroneous beliefs about baptism, but the very fact that they are baptized (especially if the right words are used and it is in a Church of Christ baptistery) then the child is “saved” because of the rite itself. This is what has been communicated to me, although in not so Latiny language. When I express my uneasiness about baptizing a child, the response is usually, “Well, even if he/she does not know everything, at least he/she will be baptized, and then he/she can learn.” So, let me get this straight – we will not accept the baptism of an infant that was baptized in a church that practices infant baptism, but we will baptize an 8 or 9 year old for exactly the same reason?? What is it about hypocrisy that we do not understand?
3. I do not want to make this post too long, but I will add here that I believe Churches of Christ need to “restore” (to use a good word we are all associated with) a healthy, biblical understanding of faith, repentance and confession when it comes to baptism. But none of these concepts have any meaning unless we restore a biblical concept of sin. A couple of very simple questions to conclude this paragraph – how can we teach that baptism is for the forgiveness of sin, when we routinely baptize children who cannot have a mature understanding of sin, let alone have any experience with that sin? Are we really so callous as to believe God would send the soul of a deceased 9 or 10 year old to hell for sassing his or her parents? Is our concept of God that grotesque? Heaven help us if it is.
I have much more to say, but this post is already well over 1,000 words. The Churches of Christ have been accused of over-emphasizing baptism, even to the point that others accuse us of works salvation. Nothing can be further from the truth – that is biblical truth. Whether we have been guilty of preaching “salvation in the water” is up to God to judge – I am sure that many within the fellowship of Churches of Christ do stand guilty of that charge.
What is sad to me is that I am witnessing in a fellowship that has for over two centuries stood on the claim to teach what the Bible teaches and only what the Bible teaches a refutation and a rejection of that basic principle.
I care not what others accuse us of, unless what they accuse us of is being unbiblical and that accusation is true. I read, and hear, far too many members of the Churches of Christ who are rejecting the biblical teaching of baptism.
And, for whatever it is worth, that really bothers me.
A few more thoughts as I work through the content of my dissertation. The practice of confession has a long and quite varied history. My study in the history of confession taught me that I had much to learn about this important Christian practice.
First, if you were raised in a largely “protestant” (usually meaning, “anything other than Roman Catholic or Jewish) background, you probably thought of confession as something that you did just between you and God. For the really big sins, or even the little sins that happened to be the topic of family dinner tables, you had to “go forward” and sit on the front pew and tell the church you were sorry for what you did. Often the church members where you had to do this were totally unaware of what you had done, so your “confession” very often created a considerable amount of gossip. Which, in turn, I suppose should have caused more people to “go forward” and confess, but it rarely did.
If you were raised in a Roman Catholic, Anglican/Episcopalian, or Lutheran church (and perhaps some others) confession probably meant going into a room or closet such as is pictured above and making confession privately to a priest. I think that in the imagination of most Americans today, that is the most common image of confession.
What I discovered is that in the earliest centuries of the church, the church members took the commands of James 5:16 quite literally. Confession was made before the entire congregation, and was specific rather than generic. The congregation then responded with forgiveness, or, if necessary, a period of “penance” in which the offender was made to endure some punishment (usually exclusion from the congregation) until such time as he/she was deemed to have suffered long enough. Obviously the process varied between congregations, and even regions of the world. The point of the procedure was to purify the soul of the penitent, and to make clear that further inappropriate behavior would meet with stricter punishment.
After Constantine’s “conversion” and after Christianity became the prevailing religion of the realm, confession took a turn for the private – and the seeds of the modern confessional were planted. As the gap between “clergy” and “laity” became wider, the need for “official” absolution became more important. So, the congregation was excluded from both the confession, and the absolution/penance. This took decades, even centuries, to fully develop, but this is the procedure that is so common in the “high” liturgical churches such as I listed above.
With the Protestant Reformation confession was frequently, although not exclusively, returned to the people. The concept of the “priesthood of all believers” was variously implemented, and in especially in groups associated with the Anabaptist movement the idea of confession to one’s Christian brother or sister – or to the congregation at large, was once again practiced. Both Luther and Calvin taught confession to one’s Christian brother or sister, and only in times of great spiritual distress must one go specifically to a priest (although, in later years, both Lutheran and Reformed churches have put a higher value in confession to ordained clergy).
With the Reformation another, very distinct, usage of the word “Confession” (with a capital “C”) became prominent – that of a specific “Confession of Faith.” A Confession of Faith is similar to a Creed, although a Creed is much more succinct, and has the purpose of defining what is accepted as orthodox faith as opposed to heresy. A Confession of Faith is longer, and has the purpose of defining different styles, or forms of worship. Stated another way, Creeds are designed to be universally believed, Confessions of Faith are more sectarian and define specific positions of separate groups. So, the question “What Confession do you follow?” would be analogous to the more common question today, “Which denomination are you a part of?”
All of this 2,000 year history of the word confession makes a “restoration” of the concept problematic. The word just means so many things to so many different people. Many people think they are confessional, when, in reality they are not. Others are confessional, but not in the biblical usage of the word.
It is my great hope and prayer that I can teach – and hopefully convince – those who are willing to consider my insights that we as members of the Churches of Christ need to become a confessional church once again. We need to renew the biblical concepts (plural) of confession – adoration and praise, thanksgiving, lament, and the specific confession of sin. While we do not necessarily need to mandate the old practice of “going forward and confessing fault,” that would be a huge first step for many congregations. After all – it was one of the fundamental practices of the early church!
As I have mentioned in all of my posts on this subject, I will be presenting this information in seminar form, and if you and your congregation is interested in learning more about how to schedule a seminar, please contact me at my regular email address: abqfr8dawg (at) msn (dot) com.