Accused of Being a False Teacher
Recently a brother gave me a warning, it was out of love I am sure. “Watch false teachers that want to make the Church of Christ like Denominations.” The caps are his.
This was a well meaning brother. But the irony of that statement was completely lost. I, of course, was the “false teacher,” that all needed to be on guard.
I am for being on guard for false teachers. They exist. I see many posting all over social media espousing what I see as false, everything from religious nationalism, to Marcionism, to not so subtle Gnosticism, to sectarianism. We need to watch out for these wolves in sheep’s clothing.
But what is my particular heresy? My heresy is that I think, indeed I know, that me and my group are not the only Christians on the planet. I know that my standing before God is not based on the precision of my understanding of doctrine nor the precision of my performance of commands. Nor is the standing of any I disagree with based on their precision either.
I am grateful that it is the Lord who died, and was raised again, who is “able to keep you [us] from falling, and to make you [us] stand without blemish in the presence of his glory with rejoicing …” (Jude 1.24-25).
Here I Stand: The Years of Misunderstanding
The “standing” given to us in the presence of his glory is given by Jesus the Messiah. It is not given by me, nor my critic. It is not even given by a sign that says “Church of Christ” on a building.
I grew up in the Buckle of the Bible Belt, Florence, Alabama (in the very shadow of the T. B. Larimore Home). From my earliest memories of church there was, for lack of a better term, an “adversarial” relationship with other people who claimed to be Christian. In fact, I have no memory of ever thinking anyone “in the denominations” was in fact a Christian, that is a real Christian. (I apologize for the often horrible ways people with amazing faith in Jesus were often caricatured in print, in sermons, in conversations to which I was exposed growing up. I also admit that the Baptists down the street were often as sectarian as we were).
It is an ironic fact we did not use the lingo “Christian” very often at all. Rather we used “coded language” such as that a person was “a member of the church” or “they are Church of Christ.” We were the only true Christians for we were the only true church.
In fact if you were “in a denomination” it could only mean you did not love the Bible and did not want to obey it. This was also true for the various false Churches of Christ that I had a vague knowledge (the “anti’s” or those folks who were worse than Baptists, the “Christian Church”).
Here I Stand: Learning Surprising Grace in “Our” Story
I took a class in college called “The Restoration Movement.” It was a revisionist, almost a propogandist, presentation that reinforced a sectarian posture. I actually learned next to nothing about Barton Stone, Thomas and Alexander Campbell, Walter Scott, the “Christians,” the “Reformers,” the union of those groups, nor the incredible diversity between them.
Today, I believe, this perspective and attitude represents an absolute perversion of the what the Stone-Campbell Movement was all about. I know now that what I grew up in North Alabama is not, in fact, the vision of the Stone-Campbell Movement.
Barton Stone, Thomas & Alexander Campbell, Walter Scott did not think they were seeking the only true church. They certainly did not believe, nor teach, that they and their group were the only Christians. The first item in the Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery is utter nonsense if they did hold that view.
“We will, that this body die, be dissolved, and sink in union with the Body of Christ at large; for there is only one Body and one Spirit.
They did not think Christianity had disappeared. Christianity had become divided and they were scandalized by it. They were seeking unity of a divided church. The chasm between the former and the later is cosmic in its distance. As the Last Will and Testament calls us to the task of unity.
“Let all Christians join with us, in crying to God day and night, to remove the obstacles which stand in the way of his work … We heartily unite with our Christian brethren of every name, in thanksgiving to God …”
I remember early on, late 80s, starting to read some of Stone and Alexander Campbell for myself. I was in for a shock. Campbell carried out frequent correspondence with religious folks all over the place. The Baptists were “brethren.” Campbell certainly took the Baptists to task, this is clear. But his chastisement was, ironically, over their dogmatism and narrowness. The Baptists disfellowshiped Campbell (See the Beaver Anathema), Campbell did not disfellowship the Baptists!
Campbell published the missionary reports of the famous Baptist missionary Adoniram Judson (1788-1850) and extolled him and his work. Campbell would engage in “social worship” (that is corporate prayer, praise, breaking the bread around the table) with anyone who claimed allegiance with the Messiah even while disagreeing on particulars.
Joseph Hostetler and his Dunkards are a classic example of the spirit of the Stone-Campbell Movement. Hostetler wrote Campbell a letter asking about his “Ancient Order.” Campbell states unambiguously that the “Ancient Order” is not some kind of creedal statement in which agreement is necessary for either being a child of God nor to be in fellowship with Campbell. Hostetler’s Dunkards practiced triune immersion (baptized three times), they took the Lord’s Supper within the context of a meal (love feast), they took the Lord’s Supper not weekly but only a couple times a year, practiced foot washing as a sacrament/ordinance, and other “quaint” notions. Campbell’s reply to Hostetler explains why he disagrees on these particulars. But before he says anything he makes this bold statement.
DEAR BROTHER — For such I recognize you, notwithstanding the varieties of opinion which you express on some topics, on which we might NEVER agree. But if we should not, as not unity of opinion, but unity of faith, is the only true bond of Christian union, I will esteem and love you as I do every man, of whatever name, who believes sincerely that Jesus is the Messiah, and hope in his salvation. And as to the evidence of this belief and hope, I know of none more decisive than an unfeigned obedience, and willingness to submit to the authority of the Great King” (Alexander Campbell, “A Restoration of the Ancient Order of Things, No. XI,” Christian Baptist, 1825, p. 223. Campbell’s emphasis)
Certainly, Barton W. Stone, Alexander Campbell and Walter Scott wanted nothing to do with “sectarianism.” But because they had meditated on numerous passages in the Bible like 2 Peter 2; 2 Timothy 2.14-28; 3.1-3, etc.
They realized that a false teacher is not primarily recognized by what is taught. A person can be incorrect and not be a false teacher. A false teacher is known primarily in the New Testament by his/her arrogant self-righteousness, harshness, eagerness to fight, lack of gentleness, love, and greed, etc. Barton Stone hit the nail on the head when he called certain over zealous and convinced of their own rightness brothers, “anti-sectarian sectarians.” What a wonderful phrase. Here is the quote.
“The scriptures [sic] will never keep together in union, and fellowship members not in the spirit of the scriptures, which spirit is love, peace, unity, forbearance, and cheerful obedience. This is the spirit of the great Head of the body. I blush for my fellows, who hold up the Bible as the bond of union yet make their opinions of it tests of fellowship; who plead for union of all christians; yet refuse fellowship with such as dissent from their notions. Vain men! Their zeal is not according to knowledge, nor is their spirit that of Christ. There is a day not far ahead which will declare it. Such antisectarian sectarians are doing more mischief to the cause, and advancement of truth, the unity of christians, and the salvation of the world, than all the skeptics in the world. In fact, they make skeptics.” (Barton W. Stone, “Remarks,” [Christian Messenger August 1835], 180)
Can Brother Stone get an “Amen?”
Even the Gospel Advocate, throughout the life time of David Lipscomb, recognized those immersed in the name of Jesus as genuine Christians. Lipscomb noted the cancer of sectarianism that was growing among members of the Stone-Campbell Movement.
“A sectarian is one who defends everything his party holds or that will help his party, and opposes all that his party opposes. This partisan takes it for granted that everything his party holds is right, and everything the other party holds to be wrong and is to be opposed. Hence the party line defines his faith and teaching. He sees no good in the other party. He sees no wrong in his own party . . .
“A truth lover and seeker always looks into whatever party he comes in contact with, and will first look to see what truth the party holds … The love of truth is a spirit of kindness and love toward all, even to the holder of error. He loves the holder of truth because he receives truth and strength from him” (David Lipscomb, “A Sectarian and a Truth Seeker,” Gospel Advocate. June 27, 1907, p. 409.)
Can Brother Lipscomb get an “Amen?”
Our Fathers and Mothers in the Stone-Campbell Movement did not claim all love, loyalty, honesty and devotion to God’s truth was found only among “us.” They recognized most (yes most) of the ultimate devotion to Christ comes from the centuries of Christianity that had nothing to do with “us.”
They preserved the Bible (often on pain of death). They translated the Bible. They sacrificed life and limb for the Lord. They gave us the songs we sing. The prayers we pray come from them. As the Hebrews Preacher says of the Maccabees, “the world was not worthy of them.”
It is the cursed sectarian spirit that produces the ugly fruit I grew up in and what is still thriving all over. Anti-sectarian sectarians are harsh and, as Stone pointed out, do more to hurt the cause of Jesus Christ than all the atheists combined … they make atheists. They make unbelievers of their own children! Why because, as Lipscomb said, they believe they already have all the truth and cannot learn a thing from anyone. They have no reason to grow or to change. They have no sin of which to repent, and yet live in abject fear.
Here I Stand: Disciples are Seekers on a Journey
But the genuine disciple of Christ is a seeker.
I can, and do, disagree on matters with other disciples of Jesus. I can, and do, press the case for what I think the Bible teaches on this or that with other disciples of Christ. But they are still disciples!
The wonderful vision of the Stone-Campbell Movement was that we are Christians Only. We are not the Only Christians. I do not have to “paganize” fellow believers and, like Campbell, I refuse to do so. If that makes me a false teacher in the eyes of a few then I am in good and holy company.
I am grateful for our heritage. I am equally grateful that I have rediscovered what it really is. May we all be brave enough to be like Stone and Campbell, brave enough to go to the Bible and say, “upon further study I think you were right and I was wrong.” Confessing that I misunderstood does not mean that I was previously lost but now I am ok. When God, in God’s grace, throws light on our eyes and we see afresh this is reason to praise and thank God that in the Spirit’s grace we were allowed to grow.