Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Watered down Christianity

God forbid that we ever water down our faith. Unfortunately, though, sometimes we have an inverted idea of what it means to do that.

You see, when you water a mixture down, you decrease its strength. You add things to the mix that make it less effective at doing what the full-strength solution was intended to accomplish. This is precisely what we do when we take the opinions and deductions of men and stir them in with the requirements of the pure and simple gospel of Jesus Christ.

The simple gospel message preached by Peter on the day of Pentecost in Acts 2 was sufficient to save the souls of thousands that day. Nothing has been added to that saving message since then. All of the inspired writings to those who had already been brought into the faith were written for the purpose of encouraging them to stay true to the original, undiluted message of Jesus Christ.

Too often, we think that watering down Christianity means relinquishing an opinion, or caving in to the people, ideas, and factions we've opposed for so long. First, this just isn't true. We can hold the very same opinions on how we believe churches ought to function without setting those opinions and deductions as the standard by which we determine who our brother is and if we should associate with him. Second, it is a sad state of Christendom to see opinions reinforced and walls fortified for the high goal of opposing our brothers.

We were never meant to divide over differing understandings about what we believe to be true. I believe it is true that the New Testament scriptures have no record of a church-owned building, but that is not a truth to either unite or divide over. It is also true that the scriptures do not give Christ's called out a name, but that also is not something to unite or divide over. We are to unite in our common obedience to the good news. That is the Great Mystery that Paul writes about. It is that Jews and Gentiles from all walks of life are brought together as joint citizens in the commonwealth of Israel, members of one body, not one faction.

We can't try to slip our own opinions in with the good news of Jesus Christ and expect that message to be an effective one. Peter didn't give a doctrinal position statement for new believers to sign when he preached the gospel. He simply preached the gospel. Those who responded to it became citizens, those who rejected it did not.

If we will make it our goal to preach that very same gospel without demanding that others subscribe to our own fallible opinions, our faith will become the most powerful force for personal reform and evangelism in our lives that we've ever known. That is not watered down Truth. That is distilled Truth.

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Saturday, December 18, 2004

Things are different now

The problem with unity is that there are too many opinions that didn’t exist in the formative days of the church, we say. Things are different now. The church in its earliest state didn’t have denominations vying against each other, we are quick to point out. Factions didn’t battle each other for supremacy, and a million divergent opinions weren’t warring against themselves.

That’s right. Things are different now. That’s my point. Let’s get back to the way things were in the beginning, before the unity of believers was spoiled by factions and opinions of men.

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Thursday, December 16, 2004

Factories for men: an allegory

A church is a local gathering of the citizens of Heaven intended to work together as a factory for godly men and women. It is not so much a factory for creating saints, per se, but for them to have some value-added work done on them. They are to be taught and encouraged to live for their King and should be trained to bring new citizens into His Kingdom. It is a factory whose raw material is regenerated, washed men and women, and whose end product is supposed to be godly, motivated citizens of the Kingdom. Well, ideally, at least.

Over the course of time, different designs have been tried for these factories. Some men have confused their factory with the Kingdom that they were citizens of, attempting to convert people into it rather than into the Kingdom. Innovations were made to the factories, sometimes dysfunctional processes were adopted, and ineffective techniques were often used in the effort to produce godly men and women. Ineffective processes didn't necessarily keep men from remaining saints, but sometimes kept them from being godly ones. Of course, some citizens eventually renounced their citizenship in the Kingdom.

Results from various experiments in factory designs varied as widely as the techniques tried. Some innovations that were not contrary to the divine record were effective at producing godly saints, and some factory operators that chose not to use certain manufacturing processes were also effective at producing God-fearing citizens. Unfortunately, the opposite also happened. Innovations prohibited by instructions contained in the divine record produced decreasingly godly saints and led some away from Christ altogether. Likewise, restrictions unduly imposed in some factories were also contrary to scripture, producing less Christ-like men and women.

In an era of great social awakening, a movement came along to restore the primitive design of the first factories recorded in the divine record. It was a noble experiment in the beginning, intending only to unite the saints produced by the various factories already in existence. But during much of the 20th century, the grand experiment in simplifying the horribly inefficient contemporary factories took a bit of a wrong turn. Conscientious men whose aim was to arrive at the ideally designed factory ended up severely crimping the production of godly citizens in their factories while they debated its ideal name, look, feel, and production techniques. Both the quality and quantity of the saints processed in these factories declined rapidly.

Debates over systems of production, in some cases, shut down production all together. Men became so consumed with how the machinery should best be configured for optimum performance that they forgot that it wasn't performing very well at all in the meantime. In some cases, they didn't realize the switch had been flipped off on the operation while they debated the risks of turning out Christ-like saints using an incorrect process. Some actually came to think that the decreased production rate was a sign of faithfulness, and that any factory which actually produced a greater number of active, committed citizen of the Kingdom must have something wrong with it. Sadly, many factories ended up disbanding or split into multiple factories, each generally less productive than the one that spawned it.

Meanwhile, evangelical factories, although imperfect in their operations, were humming along producing citizens motivated to serve the King. Imperfection appeared to be the human condition, but that didn't stop these other factories from trying to improve their manufacturing processes. They had been given citizens to improve, and imperfect or not, they were determined to accomplish that task. Their citizens were encouraged to live godly lives and to go out into the world to bring the lost into the Kingdom and into their factories.

Eventually, after another great awakening, the time came when the saints who were being processed by all of these disparate factories realized that they were, indeed, citizens of the same Kingdom united for the same Purpose: to spread the good news of their King. The great mystery of oneness in Christ had been solved. The angels rejoiced at the multifaceted wisdom of God that was made known through the Lord's saints in His Kingdom.

The moral of this story: We're citizens of a Kingdom, not a Factory. Let's stop being fearful of different methods of processing and fire up our factories once again to start turning out more Christ-like citizens.

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Tuesday, December 14, 2004

The almost-ancient order of things

Sometimes I think those of us who find ourselves wanting to restore the "ancient order" of the New Testament church don't really want to bring the church back to its most primitive state. It is much more comfortable for us to bring the church back to the almost-ancient order of things--perhaps the end of the 1st century--rather than the day of Pentecost.

What do I mean by that? Well, consider that by the end of the first century, some pretty horrible practices had already been slipped into the church. To rewind history back to about 96 A.D. still gets us back to a point where the churches of Asia, described by Jesus in his Revelation to the apostle John, taught deviant doctrines and had outright anti-Christian practices taking place within their congregations. I don't think that's the "pristine state" we want to restore the church to.

If we rewind history back to 55 A.D., we still end up with a divided church. The apostle Paul had to write to the Corinthian church about that time to discourage them from getting drunk at the Lord's supper, and forming factions around Paul, Apollos, or any other preacher of the gospel. In an odd sort of way, those looking for a "pattern" for the factionalism so prevalent today can find it in Paul's first letter to this congregation. I guess it makes us feel better to know that they had a problem with it too.

But what would happen if all Christendom rewound the clock back to the day of Pentecost? After all, social movements, including divinely inspired ones, start in their ideal state and decline through subsequent generations of human influence. Christianity is no different, and the content of the inspired epistles, written for the very purpose of correcting already-errant practices in the ekklesia of that era, emphasizes this point.

This means that the pattern for our ideal church is found somewhere in the days following Peter's first gospel sermon on the day of Pentecost, not further down the road of the first century. Believers in that primitive state were undivided by opinions, brought together in koinonia solely for the love of their redeemer, each other, and their newfound Way. Of course, God used the apostles to reveal divine solutions to the problems those early Christians encountered, but it was all with the goal of restoring that primitive state of harmony and zeal for the Lord expressed in the church during those formative days, months, and years.

Not one fact was added to the saving gospel of Jesus Christ after its first presentation by Peter. Christians were saved and thrived as a community for about two decades before the first epistle was penned. This means that everything revealed in the apostolic letters, while God-breathed, must be seen as attempts to eradicate human error, rather than attempts to create an appendix to the gospel or a new codebook of legislation for the church. The epistles are not so much "additive" but "restorative." Leave it to fallible men to take uniting, uplifting doctrines and turn them into tools of division and factionalism. Men are good at dividing, and not so good at uniting.

My point is that factionalism is the ultimate "innovation" in the church. We are called to to return, not to the almost-ancient order of things, but to the truly ancient, primitive order of the church. This is the state where Christians knew each other as brothers, not as hyphenated Christians or half-brothers alienated from each other to forever work apart in the great cause of Christ.

We do not have to agree with our brother on a list of creedal matters in order to share with him in our cause. If he is our brother, he is worthy of our mutual love and edification. The correctness of our opinions does not justify the enforcement of them upon lesser (or greater) intellects. This was, at one time, the powerful restoration plea of the early 19th century.

Those of us who are the heirs of that legacy here in the 21st century might find that level of tolerance a bit startling due to our current factional climate. I thank God that the pendulum is swinging away from the divisive zeitgeist that infected the 20th century restoration movement. I sincerely hope that a new restoration movement--returning, not almost, but fully to the primitive concept of the brotherhood of all believers preached on Pentecost--will take hold in my generation.

We need to understand that the Lord himself adds to His church--not to a particular sect--those who would be saved, making clean the hearts of people with diverse backgrounds and intellects. What God has made clean, let no man call common, unclean, or unworthy of our koinonia. If God has called him, who am I to reject him? That is the truly "ancient order" of the church.

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Thursday, December 09, 2004

Good Alexander Campbell quote

Here's another Campbell quote that I will probably put in the sidebar. And just a reminder...no human contrived words are authoritative, but we are to encourage and edify one another. That is the only purpose in quoting voices from the past.
    "But men cannot give up their opinions, and therefore, they can never unite, says one. We do not ask them to give up their opinions--we ask them only not to impose them upon others. Let them hold their opinions, but let them hold them as private property. The faith is public property; opinions are, and always have been private property. Men have foolishly attempted to make the deductions of some great minds the common measure of all Christians. Hence the deductions of a Luther, and a Calvin, and a Wesley, have been the rule and measure of all who coalesce under the names of these leaders. It is cruel to excommunicate a man because of the imbecility of his intellect."
This theme is recurrent in Campbell's writing. His Parable of the Iron Bedstead makes a similar point.

The slippery slope of the slippery slope

Is accepting brothers as brothers without dividing into sects a slippery slope? Some of the most clarifying thoughts are the simplest ones--like the fact that the slippery slope argument itself can be seen as a slippery slope fraught with danger.

"Where will it lead?" is the question most often asked. "Look at the slope you will be sliding down!" But ask that question about the question itself.

Where will it lead if we embrace the slippery slope argument, and it keeps us from ever growing in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ? Where will it lead if we are so afraid of the slope we might fall down that we never boldly take the message of faith to those whom we disagree with, or share in its glory with them? The message of the cross was not meant to be enjoyed in a corner with a few like-minded friends. It was meant to be shared with pagans, humanists, theologians, atheists, agnostics, naturalists, scientists, and yes, our brothers and sisters in the faith of Jesus Christ.

If it is wise to be fearful of the slippery slope, then surely it must not have been wise for Paul to rethink the entire basis of his belief system, which he held "in all good conscience," in the days following his experience on the road to Damascus. What an amazingly slippery slope he embarked upon, when he first opened his mind to helping those whom he had set out to debunk and destroy.

What a slippery slope Simon the sorcerer slid down when he accepted the gospel without fully realizing it meant he wouldn't be a magician anymore. If he had considered this fact before becoming a believer, perhaps he would never have become a believer in the first place.

The apostles and elders in Jerusalem, together with the whole church, also slid right down a slippery slope when they convened to discuss the issue of Judaizing teachers. Perhaps they didn't think it through enough in advance to realize that this single event would give a "precedent" for centuries of authoritarian church councils and decrees.

The logical dilemma we face if we subscribe to slippery slope arguments is that we are prejudging a premise by condemning a conclusion we think it might lead to. We are presupposing that there is a slope in the first place, and that we are at the top of it. What if there is no slope at all, or what if we are on bottom of the slope?

It's not helpful in the cause of truth to dismiss a premise for fear of where it will lead without judging the merits of the premise itself. Conclusions should proceed from premises. When premises proceed from conclusions, it is prejudice.

The underlying premise at issue that can't be disputed is that we are to receive brothers on the same basis that we ourselves have been received. That basis is the gospel and obedience to it. We can't set a standard for someone else to be in the "brotherhood" (like agreement on a list of deductions and church practices) that Christ didn't demand for us to be in the "brotherhood." We are in it solely because we have been redeemed by the blood of the Lamb.

One might advance the notion that it is dangerous to accept all brothers as--well, brothers. To that I counter that there is more danger in not accepting both weaker and stronger brethren into the fold. We need only look at the fractured state of restoration movement churches to see this potential danger brought to real fruition. That's not only a slope we don't want to slide down any further, it's one I think we need to start trudging back up.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Should I post the whole interview?

I may have to at some point! Here's another excerpt (from a Ketcherside book called "In the Beginning"):
    Q: It would probably take too long to enumerate all ten of these [areas that need further investigation to effectuate the restoration], but I wonder if you might mention a few of them which you consider to be of greater importance.


    A: The means of induction into Christ....The idea of a personal covenant with the Lord, based upon conviction, conversion and consecration is almost foreign to our thinking. The concept of a covenant with God is wholly unknown to thousands among us. The congregations are filled with many who were converted to water baptism but were never converted to the Lord Jesus Christ. They have confused the physician with his prescription, the captain with his orders, and the sower with his seed. Immersion in water is essential. But we should be immersed not because we believe in baptism but because we believe in Jesus. We have but one Savior. It is not a rite, ritual or ordinance, but entrance into a divine person.

And another:
    Q: What do you consider the greatest hindrances to resumption of the restoration movement?

    A: There are a number of hindrances. One is prejudice. Someone has said, "Reasoning against a prejudice is like fighting against a shadow; it exhausts the reasoner, without visibly affecting the prejudice." We are generally opposed to anything which cuts across our thinking, and we condemn it without investigation. It seems ridiculous that anything could possibly be right if we have not known it.

Another gem

Here is another gem from this interview.
    Q: What has been the end of all previous reformation and restoration attempts?

    A: Every such attempt has invariably ended by producing another sect, generally more narrow, intolerant and uncharitable than those which have preceded it. As men concentrate on what they have discovered, they build a wall around it to protect it. All sectarianism is built upon fear--a fear of losing what has been gained. It is a strange phenomenon that when one learns something and leaves where he is to embrace it, it is being faithful to the Word, but when another learns something he has not discovered, and goes on to accept it, he is departing from the faith.

I especially see the truth in the idea that sectarianism is built upon a fear of losing what has been gained. While I understand that natural human tendency, I think we need to overcome it, not cherish it. We are free agents to grow and learn the truths that God has laid down for us, and we will never grow to where God wants us to be if we are kept in the coral of someone else's conscience.

Restoration: A movement or a monument?

This is from an interview transcribed in a Ketcherside book I just ran across called "In the Beginning." I'll try to post a PDF of the book in the near future.
    Q: Has progress in restoration been as rapid in the last fifty years as before?

    A: Not at all! Those who were the spiritual descendants of the men mentioned[Thomas Campbell, Alexander Campbell, Walter Scott, Barton W. Stone] made the mistake of thinking that they had taken them all the way back to the original, and thus have rested on their oars. They have spent much of the last half century trying to defend what they already have and wrangling with each other over what it is. As a result they have ceased to be a movement and have become a monument. A movement is ever changing. A monument stays where it is. It is visited by many to celebrate the accomplishment of dead heroes instead of living giants.

That's a pretty profound observation, I think. A monument stays where it is and is meant to celebrate past of accomplishments. It can do nothing but deteriorate with time. It glorifies the old paths forged by a previous generation, not the old paths described by the New Testament writers.

Friday, December 03, 2004

The sacred treasury

One of the most divisive doctrines restoration movement churches have had is the notion that the treasury--the money donated by congregants--is somehow a sacred fund, or the "Lord's Treasury." This belief naturally creates an explosive cache of ammunition with which to shell "the enemy" over every difference in opinion on the use of this fund. Unfortunately, the enemy becomes fellow brothers and sisters in Christ whose consciences and intellects differ on the proper use of the treasury.

Here are a few issues related to this one belief that have created schisms among Christians:

  • Kitchens and fellowship halls built with the "Lord's money"
  • Christian colleges supported with the "Lord's money," individually, or not at all
  • Bake sales and other fund raisers
  • "Second collections"

But the idea that the "treasury" (never once is it called that, by the way) is sacred is foreign to the New Testament scriptures. So is the idea that we're giving our money to God in order for it to be redistributed according to legalistic rules. The fact is, there is zero evidence that the New Testament church was even intended to maintain a standing treasury, much less own property and build buildings. I am not necessarily opposed to these practices, but we have to be honest that they are innovations.

Part of the problem may be the misunderstanding that "the collection" referred to by Paul is the money collected, rather than the process of collecting the money in the first place. It is a subtle difference, but one that may give us an "a-ha" moment when we understand it properly.

    1 Corinthians 16:1-2 - Now concerning the collection for the saints, as I have given orders to the churches of Galatia, so you must do also: 2 On the first day of the week let each one of you lay something aside, storing up as he may prosper, that there be no collections when I come. (NKJV)
This verse is commonly understood "Now concerning the treasury for the saints...," which seems to take for granted that there will always be one. But a proper understanding is this: "Now concerning the gathering of funds for the saints..." This puts it in a different light, and suggests that Paul is simply giving instructions for dealing with a particular need. The misunderstanding has caused us to be too quick to seize these verses as a legal precedent for a standing "treasury" for the church.

Ah, but if these verses command a standing treasury, then what do we do with verse 3?

    3 And when I come, whomever you approve by your letters I will send to bear your gift to Jerusalem.
We'll be waiting a long time for Paul to show up in our congregations to bring our liberality to Jerusalem. Of course, that's absurd, but my point is this: Where do we get the idea that Galatian and Corinthian churches we're meant to keep donating to a standing fund after Paul picked up the benevolence for the Jerusalem brethren? Certainly not from the New Testament. Possibly from whole cloth.

Now it's true that the apostles also maintained a common fund in Jerusalem, at least for a period of time. But I would point out that there is no indication that the common fund that was amassed by the apostles was anything more than a means to accomplish the desired end of supplying the needs of saints who suddenly converted to a new faith on Pentecost while miles away from their homes. Needs were great, and the saints pitched in to help each other out. That's all there is to it.

When our country was formed, many were adamantly opposed to the creation of a standing army. They felt that it was just asking for trouble to place too much power in the hands of a military force that would not be needed very often. What does it do when there is no war? They had just shaken off one tyrannical ruler who used his army against his own people, and they did not want another one.

The same fears are somewhat correlative in the creation of a standing "church treasury." By having a ready supply of money, the question naturally follows "What are we going to do with it?" Enter diverse opinions and human-derived doctrinal disputes, and voila, we have all of the fruitless debates we see today in Christendom.

Instead, we should re-examine our opinions and realize that the church treasury is nothing more or less than a fund created by and for a congregation to use in a way that they believe advances the cause of Christ. We have no right to create artificial laws and regulations governing the use of other congregation's money. We can offer our opinions. We can suggest the wisdom of one use over another. But it is their money, donated by them for the purpose of funding their own work. We certainly can't "disfellowship" them for not using their money as we might think best.

No doubt, this "back off" approach will create some consternation among those of us who have believed that there was some legal codebook for the use of the "Lord's money." But we should not grow weary in re-examining our presuppositions any more than we should grow weary in well doing.