Well. That certainly answers my questions about Facebook’s new algorithm. Apparently, it’s possible to post a 1400-word status update and have enough people see it, read it, and care about it that it generates more reaction and discussion than any of my blog posts ever has. The things you learn!
As tempting as it is to engage in the continuing (and mostly civil, thankfully!) conversation, I’d rather focus on what I’ve learned from what everyone has said. It seems clear to me that to different people, the phrase “church of Christ” stands for two very different things. To one group of people, it stands for a collection of traditions based on proof texts. These traditions focus entirely on minutiae as compared to the weightier matters of the law, and they are enforced with grim perfectionism.
To another group of people, the phrase “church of Christ” stands for the notion that ordinary people are capable of reading, interpreting, and practicing the Scripture on their own. The whole Bible belongs to us, and it’s wonderful! Let’s study it together to figure out how to make God happy!
These two groups certainly exist in the same movement. What’s more, I think it’s easy for them to exist in the same church, and it’s easy for each group to overlook the other’s existence. On an intellectual level, I recognize that there are most likely Christians even at Jackson Heights who do what they do because of Church of Christ tradition. However, I don’t gut-level get that (“Why would anyone do that???”), and I’m not likely to notice it because the traditions themselves are derived from the work of good Bible students long since dead. These people will say many of the things I say, but they get there not because of their own study, but because of the tradition.
The converse is true as well. After all, part of the Church of Christ tradition is paying lip service to the idea that Bible study is important. I can’t imagine any church anywhere, no matter how traditional, refusing to agree to that assertion. When I say, “We really need to spend time in the word,” that checks the traditional check-box, but people like that wouldn’t hear the same thing I mean. At most, they would hear, “We need to memorize citations for our proof texts.”
THE GROUP 2 EXPERIENCE
I do not mean proof texts. I mean rejoicing in, luxuriating in, glorying in the fullness of the revelation of the will of God. “Oh, how I love Your law!” I’m currently working my way through two yearly Bible-reading plans simultaneously. Weekday mornings, my co-worker and I begin our day with an hour and a half of study (We’re thinking about livestreaming our studies. They’re wonderful!).
Throughout the day, he and I are constantly in each other’s offices because we’ve studied something that we just HAVE to talk about. Sermons are going unwritten, lesson plans are going unplanned, the church building is burning down around our ears. Who cares? Let’s talk Bible!
My whole life has been like that. I was raised by parents who were contemptuous of traditional faith but loved to study the Bible. Once when I was growing up, we were talking about Deuteronomy 6:6-9, and my mother observed, “That describes us perfectly.” It did.
After I reached adulthood, I fell among hymnists, all of whom were Scriptural heavyweights. They were committed to the church not because of their love for tradition, but because of their love for the word. I learned a whole lot from them too.
This intimate relationship with the word has always been the fountainhead of my faith and my life. It’s how I come to know God. It’s how I determine what I should do. It’s the basis of my interactions with others. It makes my existence incomparably rich, fulfilling, and joyful.
THE GROUP 1 EXPERIENCE
By contrast, when I listened to Amber talk about her life as a member of various churches of Christ, I was left with an unshakable impression of spiritual poverty, and it was the result of Scriptural poverty. The spiritual existence she described resembled mine formally, but in essence, it was as different as a tree branch lying on the ground is from one that’s still attached to the tree. It wasn’t filled with life from its attachment to the word of God.
That is never, ever how things should be in the churches of Christ. It reminds me of Jeff Wilson’s FC Lecture this year. He was handed “Systematic Theology” as a topic, but rather than using it as a platform to critique Calvinism, he used it to warn against the tendency in the church to systematize our theology. We know baptism for the forgiveness of sins, we might know Acts 2:38 and Acts 20:7, but we do not know Acts.
I fear that, too many Christians, even preachers, do not know Acts. I grit my teeth every time I hear somebody say that every example of conversion in Acts mentions baptism. It’s not true. Baptism is never mentioned in Acts 3:11-4:4, and there are many similar examples. I think people say that because they believe (correctly) that baptism is necessary for the forgiveness of sins, but they don’t know why, they don’t know Acts, and so they invent this imaginary Acts to justify their belief.
However, I don’t encounter that kind of thing much, and it doesn’t really bother me because I’m a preacher. I love the Bible, my co-worker loves the Bible, and that means that everything that comes out of the pulpit at Jackson Heights is Group 2 Christianity. The church is fed, and the church is flourishing. Everything is great in my corner of the world!
What if that’s not the case? What if you grow up in a church where the preacher is a Group 1 Christian, and most of the folks in the pews are Group 1 Christians, and you never run into anyone who gets how it’s supposed to be? Frankly, I wouldn’t want to be a Group 1 Christian. I get no joy out of following somebody else’s just-because rules. I am indifferent to tradition.
So, then, you have somebody who thinks Group 1 Christianity is the way things are supposed to be, that it’s what the Church of Christ is. Then, for the first time, they decide to read Romans or read Galatians, and they find some guy online who compares Paul’s discussion of the Law of Moses to the “dead legalism” of the Church of Christ.
The guy online is wrong. It’s a bad reading of the text that goes back to Luther, and probably even earlier than that.
But it’s a reading of the text. It’s an attempt to grapple with the Bible on more than a single-verse proof-text level. Let me be honest. If I think my two alternatives are to use Galatians to extract the proof text of Galatians 3:25 to justify not using instruments and Galatians 3:27 to justify baptism for the forgiveness of sins, and on the other hand to read the whole book of Galatians like Luther, guess what I’m going to do? I’m going to abandon the proof texts and read the whole book of Galatians like Luther.
But those aren’t the two alternatives! They aren’t, they aren’t, they aren’t! Our brethren 150 years ago didn’t just know two verses from Galatians 3. They knew Galatians. Their use of those texts was based on a foundational understanding of the whole book, as I hope my use of those texts is. However, it’s awfully easy to seize on the two proof texts and ignore Galatians.
The older I get, the simpler my spiritual thinking gets. I solve every problem by saying, “More Bible.” Sin problems? More Bible. Marital problems? More Bible. Problems with the brethren? More Bible.
So too here. If the churches of Christ want to survive and prosper in the years to come, we have to get rid of Group 1 Christianity. This does not mean that we need brotherhood watchdogs who will crack down on Group 1 Christianity everywhere. In my view, that would only make the problem worse.
Instead, each one of us must determine to embrace the Bible, the whole Bible, with all of its subtleties, complexities, close calls, and judgment calls. A body of received tradition puts an end to discussion. Study of God’s word ensures that the discussion never ends.
We have to be OK with that. We have to test our beliefs according to the Scriptures, not the Scriptures according to our beliefs. We have to acknowledge that the Restoration is a work in progress, and it always will be a work in progress, with all of the attendant messiness that accompanies such things.
Above all, we have to dwell in the word. We have to return to it again and again, unafraid to ask, “What does this really mean?” Knowledge of the truth doesn’t make Christians afraid. Ignorance does, and a Christian who is afraid of and ignorant of the word of Christ is a pitiable creature indeed!
More Bible: for every church, for every Christian, always and forever. Amen.