Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Going off the deep end

The many pathways of human thinking provide each of us with an infinite array of choices for which trailhead to follow next. I don't think anyone takes a particular fork in the road of thought with the knowledge that it is a path of error. Correct and erroneous thinking alike are chosen because they are not perceived to be errors. Some may think that I've chose an erroneous road because I accept all who are immersed into Christ as brothers, yet I am convinced of the fundamental truth at the trailhead, even as I'm uncertain of what conclusions it might draw me toward.

I'm refreshed by that uncertainty, not afraid of it, as I was at first. It tells me that I don't have a preconceived notion that I'm trying to arrive at. That is the way it was in the early days of both the gospel and the restoration movement of the 19th century, and it should be no different now. The first assembly of believers in Jerusalem had no preconceived notion of what truths and blessings they might discover in Christ when they first believed.

When they strayed from the simplicity of faith in Christ, the apostles always brought them back to the beginning - not to deductions about correct methods found in the apostolic letters, which were not penned for decades after the first gospel sermon, but to the beginning of each and every Christian's original faith in, and obedience to the gospel. Their letters were for training, not making, citizens. My fear is that we are expecting sinners to assent to our understanding of the training manual before we ever allow them to become trainees, not realizing that we ourselves are merely fellow trainees.

The trailhead I start at is primitive Christianity. I know that some will think, due to where their paths of thought have taken them, that because we may currently stand in different places on a few conclusions, that I have necessarily taken the path of error - that I have gone off the deep end. I think that is judging ourselves by a relative standard, rather than the absolute standard, Jesus Christ. Some will assume, without any consideration, that my faith has been shaken in the church that Jesus died for or in the ancient message that we've all labored so hard to understand and to put into practice. That couldn't be further from the case.

It's true my faith is no longer in a particular mode or method of worship or edification, but in Jesus Christ himself. It always has been, in its most basic sense. But I've realized, and I hope my brothers everywhere do as well, that the methods found in the new testament "patterns" were means to an end, not the end itself.

Achieving the "pattern" of the Lord's supper is not the primary goal of our practice, but is only the means to achieve our goal of joint communion with Christ and with each other. I owe a debt to one brother who pointed out that the exhortation given at the Lord's supper was not a time to be justifying a particular pattern for the supper, but a time to be implementing it. Too many "table talks," including my own, have been legal rationale for the Lord's supper rather than meaningful reminders of His death until he comes. This is like a lawyer repeatedly justifying before the court his authority to practice there without ever practicing there. He is tilting at windmills.

It is possible for a pattern deduced from scripture to be expounded and debated laboriously, while the true pattern, Jesus himself, gets relatively minor attention. In some congregations, I suspect that some have heard more sermons on the system of mutual edification than sermons that actually do edify. This is not an indictment of the system, but of the honor we give to the system, elevating it above the goal that the system attempts to reach. Have we ever considered that we have an obligation to mutually edify all of our brethren everywhere, and not force upon them our system for doing so?

Are we in the churches of Christ with a non-institutional or mutual edification designation correct in many things? Of course I believe that. But I must confess that I have made the mistake of thinking that "right" makes "fight" - that we ought to pursue to the point of division every issue in which we are confident of the correctness of our intellectual position. But fighting for the truth is not the same as fighting for the Truth, if you know what I mean. It is possible to be factually correct, but wrong in our application of that fact. The partisan mindset has turned the church into an exclusive debating society for over a century, where pulpits, newsletters, and colleges are used for the purpose of distilling only the true believers - not in our common faith, but in a particular understanding, deduction, or practice. It should be no surprise, then, that those who are not interested in debating, but in simply following Christ to the best of their imperfect present knowledge, don't exactly feel our brotherly love.

My own mistake, dating prior to my first day in the Lord, was in thinking that being correct and agreed about a practice or a pattern places one brother in fellowship with another. I honestly believed that agreement was unity and unity was agreement. I thank God that it is not, because if that were the criteria for either unity or fellowship, not one single congregation could exist in unity. Not a single congregation is or can be either fully correct or fully in agreement. Yet we have Jesus' prayer and Paul's command to remain fully unified and to speak the same thing, a command that is impossible to carry out on the basis of agreement upon doctrinal deductions.

When I consider whether my own conclusions thus far mean that I've gone off the deep end, I look back on all of the new testament patterns that I've deduced. I still see most of them as I always have. I don't think we have to give up imitating the forms and functions of ancient assemblies of believers. But such imitation does not constitute the deep truths of God, nor does it bring about our salvation. Our salvation can only be obtained by holding up the banner of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and our unity can only be preserved by rallying around that banner, not our systems and patterns. In that sense, it may be true that I've gone off the deep end. But if this is the deep end of the pool, I don't want to wade in the shallow end anymore. There are deeper waters in our shared faith, and believe me, they are much more thirst quenching.

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