Friday, November 19, 2004

Disputing the indisputable

There is historically some disagreement on the application of Romans 14, and it appears to be a dispute over what Paul means when he writes about receiving brothers who hold "disputable" opinions. In verses 1-3, he writes:

    "Receive one who is weak in the faith, but not to disputes over doubtful things. For one believes he may eat all things, but he who is weak eats only vegetables. Let not him who eats despise him who does not eat, and let not him who does not eat judge him who eats; for God has received him."
Verse 5 shows that in matters where there are differences of understanding, we are each to be convinced in our own mind without binding our brother to the conclusions we have personally reached:
    "One person esteems one day above another; another esteems every day alike. Let each be fully convinced in his own mind."
The underlying principle is one of love and respect for our brother with whom we disagree. Verse 13 says:
    "Therefore let us not judge one another anymore, but rather resolve this, not to put a stumbling block or a cause to fall in our brother's way."
The "correct" view is that it is OK to eat the meat. Technically, we could say that the brother is an "erring brother" if he abstains from meat under the belief that God doesn't want him to eat it. But Paul says in verse 18 that both men are accepted before God in spite of their divergent views.
    "For he who serves Christ in these things is acceptable to God and approved by men."

But the idea is suggested that this chapter only applies to matters that God has not legislated on--matters where God is indifferent. (I don't like the term "legislated," because I don't consider the New Testament scriptures to be legislation. But that is a topic for another time.) In other words, we can each hold our divergent opinion in peace only if it is a matter that God is indifferent to. That makes some sense on the surface, but then we're left with a catch 22. Isn't the question of whether God has legislated on it or not what makes it disputable in the first place?

The reasoning is circular. It demands that we agree that a matter is indifferent to God before we classify it as "disputable" and open to multiple interpretations. But once we agree that the matter is disputable, it is really no longer in dispute, because we all agree that God hasn't legislated on it.

Look at the actual situation that Paul was writing about. One Christian concluded God had legislated that meat was forbidden, while another concluded that God allowed it. Must these two brothers agree that the issue is indifferent to God before they can forebear each other and "worship" with each other? Of course not, that is the whole point of this chapter. It's the very fact that the matter was in dispute that caused Paul to write to them to practice patience and forbearance.

Remember verse 19:

    "Therefore let us pursue the things which make for peace and the things by which one may edify another."
The inspired lesson here is that believers clearly should de-emphasize disputable issues that have nothing to do with salvation in order to pursue peace, and emphasize the things that lead to the edification of our brother. That's not "compromise," that's a direct command.

We're blessed

Last night's study at my congregation was a great experience even though we were not all in agreement. There was a genuine love and concern for each other in the attitudes of all. No one became bitter, no one walked out the door. That is the point of unity. Greater is He who binds us together than the petty issues which sometimes divide us.

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Obedience: not if, but how

Believe me when I say that I have wrestled with the paradox of rejecting "pattern-finding" in the New Testament scriptures while accepting the self-evident notion that we ought to obey the instructions we find there. What makes this seem paradoxical is merely the presupposition that the examples and instructions we find recorded in the sacred pages are somehow a legal precedent to follow and bind on others. They are not. We can obey the instructions as we understand them without viewing them as legal dogma.

It may seem shocking to our sensibilities to speak this way, but the apostolic epistles are not Christian law, just as the Decalogue is not a governing law for us under the New Covenant. We are bound to the spirit of both, but the letter of neither. (Before you jump out of your skin, ask yourself whether we are to follow the letter of the command to wash each other's feet, or the spirit of it.) That doesn't mean the epistles are not authoritative. They most certainly are. But they were simply never meant to be viewed, dissected, and exposited as legal documents. The question that Christians really face, then, is not if to obey them--that is quite obvious--but how to obey them.

Consider some legal questions we have to answer if we consider the Book a legal document:

  • Does the Christian law, as noted above, include the command to wash each other's feet? To greet one another with a holy kiss? To have women in the assembly veil themselves? To have women keep silent in all church assemblies? Which women? Just married women, or single women as well? How about girls or unimmersed women?
  • Do approved examples carry legal authority, like meeting in upper rooms for the Lord's Supper? Using a single cup? Baptizing in a natural body of water? Using messengers rather than bank accounts to transfer "benevolence funds" to needy saints?
  • How much can we infer from the absence of a particular example, like church-sponsored Bible colleges? Individually supported Bible colleges? Separate classes for different age groups? Hired preachers? What about church-owned buildings, which are not countenanced in the scriptures? Fellowship halls? Area-wide singings? Cooperative arrangements between congregations?

I do not throw these questions out there in order to confuse the issue, but to clarify it. If we keep doing what we're doing, we'll keep getting what we're getting. That is the clarifying point in all of this. If we don't recognize the fallacy in our ideological presuppositions, we'll keep getting the same superficial debates about forms, methods, and precedents, rather than the weightier matters, like shaping every facet of our lives after the Pattern, and bringing Him to those who don't yet know Him.

Am I naïve to question the "patternology" hammered out over the last century of Church of Christ history, and pin my hopes on the pure and simple gospel? Maybe. But I'm a student of history, as many of my brothers in the restoration movement churches are. If we don't learn from history, we are doomed to repeat it, as the saying goes.

After all, unity (not a passive unity, but an active unity that takes effort) is plainly commanded by both Jesus himself and his apostles. He prayed for it, and we can be assured that it pains him when he doesn't see it among his followers. Let's be honest, though, and come to grips with the fact that unity on the basis of uniform doctrinal opinion is not humanly possible. To enforce this concept of unity from the top is tyranny, and to promote it from the ranks creates dissention. I'm convinced there is a sounder scriptural basis for our unity.

The problem is not that we need to devote more intellectual resources to the futile questions that have plagued Churches of Christ until we can announce to the world that, at long last, we are unified. The problem lies in our understanding of what unity is. We defy human nature and our God-endowed intellects to expect uniformity of opinion among disciples of Jesus Christ, yet that is what most 21st century Churches of Christ have come to demand.

Do we have to throw out most of the New Testament to obtain unity? Of course not. The inspired writings are not at fault for our disagreements. We simply need to readjust our frame of reference when we read the New Testament, and remove the ideological veil from our eyes. The proper frame of reference starts and ends with the cross. When Jesus died on the cross, he did not nail one set of codes to it in order to institute another.

Consequently, when Paul wrote to Timothy and Titus, he was not writing to provide legal documents for us to dissect and systematize into a theory of evangelistic practice. Yes, Titus was told to do the work of a "bringer of good tidings" (euaggelistes), and Timothy was to commit Paul's teachings to faithful men. But I'm confident that those tidings and teachings Paul refers to were not the tedious creedal issues that divide Christians today.

He wrote to Timothy, his longtime helper, to encourage, strengthen, and instruct him how to behave in the "dwelling place" (oikos) of God, which is the "gathering of called out citizens" (ekklesia) of the living God. If the gathering remains faithful to the Person who called it, it will be the pillar and ground--not of All Truth--but of The Truth, Jesus Christ himself.

Paul's other letters are not legal documents either. When he wrote to the church at Corinth, it was not to issue a legal opinion on women wearing a napkin on their head in the assembly, or meals being consumed in fellowship halls that didn't even exist yet. When he preached until midnight in an upper room, he was not laying down a precedent for us to legalistically follow. Nor was he doing so, in my opinion, when he sent his fellow laborer, Titus, to appoint elders in Crete. Just as the former was a means to an end--the means being preaching in an upper room, the end being the edification of the gathered saints--I believe his commission of Titus was also a means to an end. The circumstances surrounding Titus' journey may have been largely incidental, but the objective--the encouragement of the Cretan saints and the appointment of overseers there--was not.

The New Testament writers had a thought in mind when they wrote, and their words were intended to express that thought, not to build a case for this or that "doctrinal position." Viewing their words in that context makes an enormous difference in the interpretations we draw from them. It is the difference between unity and discord.

While I don't believe it is possible to unify any group of organizations, I do believe it is possible to unify people within them. On that hope I rest my prayer that the restoration movement begun in the 19th century will someday yield the intended fruit of unity among believers. It was perhaps as naïve and bold a goal in the early 1800s as it is now. At least now we have the benefit of hindsight to add to the discussion.