A Time to Gather Stones Together

I have been rather fascinated over the years by history.  I am by no means a historian, but I firmly believe that George Santayana was correct, that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”  This is true on many different levels.  The grander the scale, the greater the temporal consequences.  However, there are other scales of history that are more difficult to analyze, perhaps due to the limitation of the records that are available or because those records that do exist are so subjective in nature.  A case in point is that of church history.  At the broadest scale, church history is probably quite objective.  At the level of understanding the origins, histories, and interactions of specific church traditions, those histories become increasingly tinged with subjective interpretation, as those who are interested in the history are almost invariably a part of the group.  One group with a recent and distinctly American history is the Stone-Campbell movement, made up of the Christian Churches (both Independent and Disciples of Christ), and the Churches of Christ.  Within the lineage of the churches of Christ, there is an expanding plethora of views, practices, and splinter groups that turn the Campbells’ original plea for Christian unity into a hollow appeal at best, and what many may consider to be a wholly rejected premise.

I have become quite interested in the history of the Churches of Christ.  I claim no great knowledge of that history outside of the reading I have done.  But it is hard to be a part of a group without gaining at least some passing knowledge of major points of its history and having heard of some of the formative leaders of the specific group(s).  Having grown up the son of a preacher in the non-institutional (NI) churches of Christ, I grew up hearing code words like “sound,” “conservative”, “liberal”, and “the issues”.  I had little knowledge of what these things were.  I was taught that anyone who was not in perfect agreement over “the issues” was wrong.  I often wondered about the exceptions, however: how could the NI group be in fellowship with the “hat and hair” crowd that believe and teach that women should wear a head covering in the assembly?  I always perceived it to be an uneasy alliance that brought together two apparently disparate camps to face a common “liberal” “enemy.”  We would drive past church buildings with a church of Christ name on the sign and I never quite understood why they were so different.

In my understanding of the history of this group, there has been little more than constant debate, argument, division, mistrust, and unfortunately hatred—if not that, then something very close to it.  Some issues in the past were issues of core doctrine like pre-millennialism.  Many of the points of division have been over peripheral issues that some will equate with points of Gospel.  That is one of the roots of the matter: a disagreement over what is “Gospel.”  Some will consider the Gospel to be the story of Christ, his coming to earth, his ministry, his sacrifice and resurrection for the purpose of reconciling man with God.  Everyone will accept that much as Gospel.  However, some consider anything written in any New Testament book regardless of historical and cultural context to be Gospel, and everything must be equally weighted: the death, burial and resurrection, the requirements of faith and obedience to grasp the gracious gift of salvation—all of these foundational things are on par with conclusions reached by stitching together disparate scriptural passages with the express goal of recreating the worship of the early church.  Thus, according to some, there can be no latitude in the manner of worship.

This perceived drive to re-establish every nuance of 1st century Christianity without error or flaw is another root of the splintering divisiveness that has split us into so many feuding factions.  This is, of course, an impossible task on many levels.  While we have the collected writings of the Bible (which they did not have 20 centuries ago), we lack a direct line to understanding specific instructions to specific groups regarding specific issues that they faced (which they had in the form of the apostles).  While there are potentially differing views of how certain things may have been implemented in the early church (frequency of meeting and the Lord’s Supper, elders in every city vs. every congregation, the role of women) the accretion of 2,000 years of ecclesiastical tradition has so entangled us that we are paralyzed beyond any hope of extrication from it.

One of the greatest limitations that we face is the unquestioning allegiance to a method of interpretation known as “Command-Example-(Necessary) Inference,” or to those who have made a study of it, CEI or CENI.  The universal commands are collected and revered by all among this tradition: faith, repentance, confession, baptism, and righteous living are all supported by all of the major groups as far as I can tell.  Examples are given the same level as command, since those records could only be there if those actions were taken as a result of a command, which means that examples are actually made “law” based on inferring a command, which is an apparent logical tautology, and takes the argument to the third leg of the hermeneutic stool, inference.

I have written before about these issues, and I will not revisit them here, as my views have essentially not changed since I wrote the earlier essays.  It is sufficient to say that this is a point that is so ingrained in the most ardent defenders that there can be no expectation of change. There have been attempts to repackage the same concepts with different terms, but any conclusions drawn using a synonymous methodology are identical.  Sadly, any attempt to introduce or entertain a new or different method of interpreting scripture, even one that is focused more on scripture itself, is met with cries of indignation and calls to expel the heretic, even though the current method is a purely human construct and eminently subject to fallible human interpretation and prejudice.

The “issues” that I mentioned earlier deal with the underlying disagreements that led to the last great schism that tore the churches of Christ apart some 60 years ago.  One group believed that church funds could be used to do good works, like support orphans’ homes, colleges, and schools.  The much smaller faction, some say now about 10% of the overall body of the churches of Christ, held that we have no authority to do these things.  But there appears to be various points of internal inconsistency in the group.  For example, while church buildings are not directly authorized, they are expedients to getting the job of evangelizing the world done.  However, vans to bring people to the building are not permissible, because of the “slippery slope,” i.e., some may use the van for things other than transportation to worship events.  Some consider the presence of a kitchen in the meeting place to be a sin, citing the excesses of the Corinthian church and their abuses associated with the corruption of the Lord’s Supper, while others consider the meeting place to be an acceptable location to also engage in a common meal and enjoy the company and fellowship of their brothers and sisters, building a spiritual community by sharing social interaction separate from the Lord’s Supper.

There are journal articles from both sides of that debate that went too far in their (over)zealous condemnations.  Calls to “quarantine” the “anti’s” went out, congregations were torn apart, locks were changed to prevent the “other” side access to the church building, preachers were questioned, tested, threatened and fired on both sides.  Attempts were made at talks between the groups, probably more so back in the 1960’s and early 1970’s.  But the wounds were still too fresh, and there was no real attempt at “peace,” or even a half-hearted détente.

The generation that fought that war is fading.  Like Reagan and Thatcher, the last of the great western cold warriors on the geopolitical stage, they are passing into the misty aura of history.  Today, many people know nothing of the “issues” that once divided us.  For most of my life, I only heard about the other side.  I almost never interacted with them.  If someone told me where they worshipped, and it was not on the approved list, I considered them to be no different from the rest of the catalog of churches that aren’t “us.”  Being curious by nature, I have read extensively from authors across much of the spectrum of the churches of Christ.  I agree and disagree with views from practically every perspective.  I have also come to respect many of those views.  If I go my entire life and never challenge what I have been taught, if I only accept a teaching without investigation or question, I am no more than a slave to an ideology.  Paul told the Thessalonians to “…test everything; hold fast what is good.” (I Thess 5:21)  I’ve said it before, and I still believe it: any religion that cannot withstand the earnest scrutiny of honest inquiry is not worth pursuing.

When Jesus said to take his yoke and learn from him, it was not the pharisaical yoke of interpreted and interpolated commandments, like the burden of the rabbis of his day.  His burden, and indeed the burden that he offers us, is the burden of humanity, of showing our love for him by channeling his love through us.  We must keep his commands.  But we must never lose sight of that most central command, that very kernel of Christianity, which is love.  I return to this theme so often because it is the essence of who we must be.  But not all members of the churches of Christ see this.  I recall one exchange in which a person with the dangerous combination of being both highly opinionated and loudly vocal actually called into question whether or not we are under the express command to “love your neighbor as yourself” because it was not originally written expressly to us as readers in general, or to a post-Pentecost New Testament recipient or group from whom we may infer the application to ourselves.  I’ll stick with Jesus on this one.  You’ll see all you need to understand Jesus’s view of love by reading the Gospel and First Letter of John.  Matthew 25 seals the concept of love’s centrality for me, since humble, selfless caring for others is the focal criterion that Jesus describes as being the measure of his true followers, and not absolute perfection in the structure and duration of a worship service.

I recently asked a friend who preaches for an institutional congregation what he knows about the NI churches.  From that brief exchange, I concluded that he knows practically nothing.  But I also noticed that there was not the vehemence and condemnation that I have seen in the minority NI wing when referring to the institutional brothers.  We know almost nothing about them, except what we have heard passed down from the veterans of that ideological war.  And what we think we know is likely to be inaccurate, at least as it applies to this generation.  We serve the same God through the same Gospel. We are saved by the same grace through the same obedient faith as we are baptized by the same baptism into the same Christ.  On these points, the NI and mainstream churches of Christ agree.  But we have allowed peripheral things to cloud the true message of the Gospel.  Although we use the same interpretive method or hermeneutic, we have come to radically different conclusions on things like kitchens and money.  Where one sees entertainment, the other sees outreach and spiritual community building.

By allowing things outside the heart of the message to tear us apart, evil wins.  Imagine how strong we would be if we were to link arms in unity rather than take up arms in strife; if we like the Psalmist could shout for joy in the Lord instead of shout down the earnest cry of a seeking soul; if we could take the planks and beams that blind our self-righteous eyes and build bridges, not walls.

Paul reminds the Gentile Ephesians in chapter 2 of that letter to:

“12 …remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.  13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.  14 For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility 15 by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, 16 and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. 17 And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, 21 in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord.  22 In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.”

If Christ destroyed the barrier between Jew and Gentile, who are we to build walls to separate us from our brothers and sisters who obey the same Gospel but differ on matters that neither the Gospel nor any scripture ever addresses?

I am not so naïve as to believe that this brief call to reason will have any effect on the most steadfast defenders of their respective orthodoxies.  If experience is any predictor, my assessment of the vocal opposition will be vindicated.  The wise man relates in Proverbs 18:13 that “If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame.”  This necessity to listen and understand was echoed by Francis of Assisi who prayed that God may help him to “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”   This is a noble aspiration, but one that must be born of diligence, patience and humility.  If we are unwilling to communicate, we become like the fool in Proverbs 18:2, who “…takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion.”  John encouraged his readers facing the early waves of the Gnostic heresy to “test the spirits.”  Each person must do this even today and not merely succumb to the volume generated by the most vocal and opinionated in whichever camp we may find ourselves.  God gave us minds to serve not only as receptacles for knowledge, but also as generators of inquiry to propel us to deeper learning and to growth in wisdom.  To refuse to communicate is to remain in ignorance and isolation.  It is a waste of a precious opportunity to grow in love and understanding.  And like a squandered mind, an opportunity is a terrible thing to waste.


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