Can Negativity Spark Renewal? Thoughts on Jesus’ Prayer for Unity and the Need for Continuing Restoration

It takes a lot of energy to be negative.  I should know, since I’ve spent so much of my life being just that, and I’m exhausted so much of the time.  But some circumstances (like autism) make it awfully hard to stay positive.  I know people who can do it even in the face of abject adversity, and I admire them a lot. 

One place that we see a lot of negativity is in religion.  There are times when I am so bone weary of the negative messages with the rider always added that, “It’s not what I say, it’s what the Bible says.”  I have yet to find some of those overly confident prohibitions on a page of scripture.  But these people assure me that they are there, hidden between lines of black and white (and red). 

Or, spoken in peals of deafening silence.

It just struck me that there is a huge difference in the way that many of the most notable Old Testament Laws are presented and the way the New Testament provides commands.  Just think for a moment:  only two of the Ten Commandments are not delivered in the negative, and one of the remaining ones has a negative command in its explanation.  The best Jews of Jesus’ day had difficulty with keeping track of all of the prohibitions.  Centuries of Rabbinic teachings had resulted in multiplied rules that were put in place to make sure that the primary prohibitions were kept. 

In the New Testament, there are first fewer commands, and the ones given are more frequently spoken in the positive, or delivered in couplets with a negative statement being balanced by a positive one.    Jesus commanded his disciples to “Love each other”, as opposed to “Do not hate each other.”  “Love your enemies.”  “Bless those that curse you.” “Husbands, love your wives.”  Take, eat…”  Certainly, there are negative statements in the New Testament.  Jesus said, “Do not love the world.”  But the positive seem to outweigh the negative.

So why have we developed a framework for Christian behavior and church function that is built on negative commands, frequently implied or inferred from silence? 

I have fought that battle before.  After years of study and thought, I don’t much believe in the “Law of Silence” anymore, which is itself a construct of the silence of scripture forged after the Protestant Reformation.  Odd, isn’t it, that we command and condemn based on something that is not explicitly instructed, but is manufactured from the same reasoning that the one talent man presented to his master?

I am weary of the joyless existence that the Law of Silence binds on people.  I am also weary of the lies that are spread from pulpits regarding other people in other tribes who differ from those in a particular group.  I don’t know how many times I have heard brothers in other streams denounced for their fellowship practices by calling their congregational common meals nothing more than plying people with “food, frolic and fun.”  I used to believe that, too, because my preacher said it.  But then I learned differently.  I learned the truth.  And it makes me sick and sad to think that such lies continue to be spread to drive a wedge between brothers.

I have heard preachers say say things like if you can find the name of your church in the Bible, they would gladly attend there.  But they didn’t really mean it, as witnessed by the easy way that they can denounce people whose churches include names like “Church of God” and “Church of the Firstborn,” even though those names are there in the Bible in black and white.  I may not agree with all of the specific practices of those groups, but their names are in scriptures as prominently as the one that we profess to wear.  The argument that we are the only church with a scriptural name is baseless and wrong.

Another untruth that I have seen perpetuated involves the statement by preachers in this faith heritage who say that Baptists trace their origins back to John the Baptist.  This is patently false.  One Baptist writer, a professor of Church History, discussed this in an essay from 1979.

“Many people assume that Baptists got their name from John the Baptist. This is not the case. Like most religious groups, Baptists were named by their opponents. The name comes from the Baptist practice of immersion.

The first known reference to these believers in England as “Baptists” was in 1644. They did not like the name and did not use it of themselves until years later. The early Baptists preferred to be called “Brethren” or “Brethren of the Baptized Way.” Sometimes they called themselves the “Baptized Churches.” Early opponents of the Baptists often called them Anabaptists or other less complimentary names.

Baptists rejected the name Anabaptist, not wishing to be confused with or identified with the people who bore that name. (In fact, the true Anabaptists were not fond of that name either, because it had unfavorable overtones from early church history.) Even as late as the eighteenth century, many Baptists referred to themselves as “the Christians commonly (tho’ falsely) called Anabaptists.” – H. Leon McBeth (http://www.baptisthistory.org/baptistbeginnings.htm)

According to McBeth, much like the churches of Christ and their insistence on the unbroken chain of a faithful (if unrecorded) remnant of New Testament Christianity, there are those among the Baptist faith who have purported an unbroken chain of Baptist tradition, a “trail of blood,” since apostolic times.  In many ways, our stories are similar.  But again, while I may disagree with some of their specific doctrines, Baptists, so “named by their opponents,” have historically referred to themselves as Christians—also likely to have originated as a term of derision— and do so today. 

My point here is that we cannot allow falsehoods to be preached, whether about those of a different stream in our own faith heritage, or about those in different denominations.  To try and build yourself up by tearing down another, especially by spreading false information, is woefully dishonest.  If we do these things willfully and without any attempt at real investigation, we are guilty of deceit, compounded by an attitude of conceit.

I recently watched an exchange unfold on a Facebook thread that involved one who was apparently a far right-wing church of Christ preacher and some people of different faith traditions.  This man was the farthest thing from the spirit of Jesus when he called Baptist believers “repulsive.”  It is no wonder that adherents to his faith heritage are looked down on by so many people in the world today for what they perceive as cult-like attitudes, teachings, and behaviors.  When we damn what we do not know and what we do not even attempt to understand, that does not in any way support the cause to which we have staked our souls. 

St. Francis of Assisi crafted a prayer that should be studied and considered by any person who truly seeks to follow God.

“Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy.

“O, Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love; For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; it is in dying that we are born again to eternal life.”         

 The sad fact is that while the sentiments of this prayer ought to be universal among all Christians, I can think of some that would dismiss it because of its Catholic origin.  That is not uncommon among some groups.  I even remember an instance where a church of Christ preacher in the heat of verbal combat questioned whether we were under the Old Testament directive to love our neighbors as ourselves, which was specifically ratified by Jesus himself, because it was not breathed on or after Pentecost, and we are only subject to commands rendered after the “institution” of the church.

When you add to these issues the heritage of racism that has plagued at least parts of the movement, and now talk of child sexual abuse in some quarters, the deplorable discipling/mind control perpetrated by an offshoot denomination, among other scandalous incidents and what is considered by some to be the pinnacle of righteousness may have the appearance of having its foundation not on the solid rock, but on eroding sand and clay.

Some will say that I complain too much.  In fact, I was accused of that by an elder once, even though I was only trying to stand up for what I believe in, including things like integrity, honesty, treating people of other faith traditions with decency and respect, and embracing love and grace as central to the Christian experience.

My point is that we cannot hope to affect others and impact the world for good if we refuse to acknowledge our flaws and open our hearts first to healing our own afflictions.  Jesus said it best when he gave that unforgettable mental image of the speck and the beam. 

To move forward and upward, we need men and women who are dedicated to real scholarship, not just parroting the positions of the current and past church luminaries.  We need real knowledge, not filtered through the interpretations of reactionary or activist preachers.  We need a broader willingness to learn, and if our new honest learning leads in a different direction, the willingness to change our practices to better align with what we know.

Another sad truth is that the “un-denomination” is as divided and divisive as any religious body in history.  We have discarded the Restoration plea to unite the Christians in all of the sects, and in so doing, we have become what we beheld. 

I wish it were not so.  I hope that I live long enough to see a renewal of that true Restoration spirit and initiative.  I believe there are winds of change growing across the vast sea of Christianity.  It is not the siren song of change for change’s sake.  It is a longing for something that is a real relationship with God less fettered by organizational hurdles and inferred impediments to a joyful experience.  There was something natural and organic about the dispersal and phenomenal growth of the church in the first few decades after the crucifixion.  Jesus’ message of love and hope and peace and liberty rang true to people who were slaves or living as subjects of hostile powers in occupied territories.  Maybe if we could ever truly get back to the basics, to experiencing love, joy, righteousness and peace, and recognizing it all as the product of grace, both received and given, we might see a glimmer of the true Kingdom of God, not confined by titles and names and specific denominational dogmas, but boundless and real and genuine. 

Jesus prayed for the unity of all of his believers.  Rather than seek new ways to divide ourselves, engender hatred, manufacture mistrust and hinder our influence in the world, maybe we should listen to the words from Jesus’ heart that he poured out to his Father. 

John 17.20 “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, 21 that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”

Jesus prayed for it.  But he must have known that in order for it to have real meaning, that unity of purpose and will must come from the believers.  It cannot be imposed from outside, even if imposed by God.  To be real, it must be freely offered.  If indeed that wind of Restoration is rising, may the Spirit lead us to a simpler, unfettered, joyful experience of better life in the Kingdom.                              

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