[JFG: I apologize for the length of the article, but it seemed best to present this information in a single setting, as it all ties together so closely. A draft of this article was sent to the authors of the articles mentioned prior to publication with an offer of an opportunity to respond here and a request for correction if I’ve misrepresented their views.]
Like the February issue of Wineskins, the February issue of the Gospel Advocate is dedicated to unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. I can think of no better topic. I thought it would be good to review the teachings of the writers of the GA. My own reactions are placed in [brackets].
Essential Ingredients for Maintaining Unity
Tim Lewis, who preaches for a Church of Christ congregation in Oklahoma City, leads off a series of five articles on the magazine’s theme. He takes his lesson from Eph 4:1-3, arguing, “Unity is possible for this generation of believers, but certain indispensable components must be in place if we are going to be one in Christ.”
(Eph. 4:1-3 ESV) I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, 2 with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, 3 eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
He then reflects on humility, gentleness, patience, and love. He concludes,
If God’s people do not work harder to join together in unity, the same tragic cry might ring out on the day Christ comes again, “Would to God we had joined hands sooner!”
No Divisions Among You
Cecil May, Jr. is dean emeritus of the V. P. Black College of Biblical Studies at Faulkner University in Montgomery, Alabama. He first takes up Paul’s instruction in 1 Cor 1:10 that “all of you agree, and that there be no division among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment.” May notes that this does not “imply that it is necessary to agree with everyone about every understanding about Scripture in order to have unity.” After all, “If that were essential, I would have unity with no one I know”!
May points out that the most conservative and least conservative believers believe that some doctrines are salvation issues and some are not. They may disagree as to where the line should be drawn, but they agree that there is a line. Everyone tolerates some diversity. No one tolerates complete diversity. The real question is which doctrines require agreement for there to be fellowship.
May then lists some of the issues he considers true salvation or fellowship issues:
- The good confession: “Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God.” This is both a matter of salvation and fellowship. [Amen.]
- Gal 5:4: “those who rely on their own attainments and good works for forgiveness thereby reject the sufficiency of Christ’s sacrifice, resulting in a fall from grace and fellowship. [Again, amen.]
- Worshiping in a congregation in a way that some members may not participate in in good conscience forces those members to leave, thus breaking fellowship. [I would point out that there’s a shift in the meaning of “fellowship” here. If my elders change the assembly in a way that violates my conscience, I can’t worship in that assembly, but I can still treat the members of that church as fellow Christians. We can still participate in good works in the name of Jesus together. We can still teach at a lectureship together. And they would be more than welcome to worship and even take communion in my more conservative congregation. We’d have limited fellowship, but there is much more to Christianity than the assembly. Worship practices should not be seen as necessarily salvation issues, but they may create partial barriers to practical fellowship.]
May then notes that “forbearance” in Eph 4:2 (KJV, NASB) “implies some offense suffered, at least some perceived wrong done; otherwise there is nothing to forbear. We should not be easily offended or carry grudges but should forbear.” [Amen.]
[May didn’t declare his list exhaustive. I would add persistent rebellion against the known will of God, as taught in Heb 10:26ff, and I’m confident May would agree. Beyond that, I would not presume to speak for May.]
Unity is Possible
Phil Sanders, who speaks for the In Search of the Lord’s Way TV program, addresses doctrinal grounds for separation. He declares that churches that accept as a fellow Christian those who’ve been sprinkled rather than immersed engage in “union with error.” [Of course, as May points out, everyone believes that there are some errors that don’t break fellowship. The question isn’t whether to fellowship error but what does the Bible say regarding which errors break fellowship and which do not.]
Sanders then declares, “To reject Jesus’ words at any point is to reject Him altogether (James 2:10-11).”
(Jas. 2:10-11 ESV) 10 For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. 11 For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law.
[Taking Sanders’ words at face value, any one doctrinal error damns (and hence we’re all damned). Now, no one argues that we may intentionally rebel against the known teachings of Jesus (Heb 10:26ff, for example). But what about an honest error? What if I misunderstand a command (other than the non-negotiables, as described by May) despite diligent study and prayer? After all, even the writers of these articles disagree with each other! Does that make some of them apostate? Sadly, I find no grace in Sanders’ article. Indeed, he seems to deny that our human weakness might excuse error.]
Sanders writes, “Continued study and spiritual growth allow us to put away erroneous notions and overcome our biases. … Are Paul’s words impossible to keep? … While no one has absolute knowledge of all things but God, we are not mistaken or deceived when we affirm the things God affirms and deny the things God denies.”
[In taking such a narrow position, Sanders has left the roots of the Restoration Movement. As Bobby Valentine has just shown, Alexander Campbell objected to those who drew lines of fellowship as narrowly as Sanders.]
[I take Sanders’ theology to be essentially Gnostic. That is, he sees our intellects as not fallen but capable of such a pure understanding that we don’t need grace as to doctrinal issues — and so we don’t need to grant grace to others on matters of doctrine. But in truth, every human but Jesus is a sinner, not only in terms of moral failings but also doctrinal understanding. Our intellects will not be perfected until the Second Coming. And until then, there has to be grace for error. Not for every error, of course. As Campbell taught, some teachings are non-negotiable. But it’s not a long list.]
Chris McCurley, a minister in Abilene, Texas, explains, “For as long as the church has existed, differences have existed among the brethren and will continue to exist among the brethren until the Lord comes back. How we handle these differences is the key to church unity.” [Amen.] McCurley next addresses Rom 14 and its implications for church unity.
“When all was said and done, Paul’s resolution to the matter was to accept one another in spite of scruples. … To accept or receive them means to treat them as brother or sister in Christ, to swallow our pride, and to set aside our petty differences for the sake of the church.” [Amen.]
[While I don’t disagree with McCurley’s article, he overlooks the heart of the problem. Except for the current progressive/conservative and the racial divisions in the Churches of Christ, every division in our history has been over whether a particular doctrine is a scruple (“opinion”) or a doctrine (“faith”). To those who believe instrumental worship is sinful, their view is a question of faith. To those who consider instrumental worship acceptable, the question is one of opinion. The same is true of church support for orphans homes, one cup, fellowship halls … you know the list. Therefore, to declare that we should not divide over “opinions” or “scruples” is to state the obvious. The hard question is how to deal with a disagreement that one side considers doctrinal and the other side does not.]
[The only examples of opinions that shouldn’t divide that McCurley offers are insistence on the KJV and wearing ties and dresses to worship. And many believe that the Bible requires us to wear our “best” to church. To them, ties and dresses are indeed doctrinal (Deu 12:11; 22:5). Just so, many have been persuaded that modern Bible translations are “liberal” and reflect a disrespect for God’s word. To them, the KJV is a doctrinal matter.]
[In the early years of the Restoration Movement, we proudly proclaimed,
In faith, unity;
In opinions, liberty; and
In all things, charity.]
[We have now erroneously defined “faith” to mean “taught by the Bible,” limiting “opinion” to things not addressed in scripture. The most common example of opinion in our literature is the color of the church foyer walls. It seems that someone, somewhere has found a proof text for nearly every other disagreement we are capable of. To them, their opinion is a question of “faith.”]
[This analysis shows how badly we’ve misunderstood both our scriptures and our Restoration Movement forebears. When these words were spoken in the early 19th Century, the founders of our movement meant by “faith” … faith: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God”; “Jesus is Lord” (Rom 10:9); faith in Jesus as Messiah (or Christ). This is how the NT uses “faith,” and it’s what the Campbells, Stone, and the other early Restoration Movement leaders meant by “faith.”]
[And yet we’ve taken “faith” to mean “women may not wear pants” because we can support our position from Deu 22:5 — and so we claim Rom 14 does not apply and so tolerance of those who disagree is not required.]
[The “weak” brothers in Rom 14 thought it was wrong to eat certain meat (likely either meat sacrificed to idols or that violates kosher) and that Christians are required to honor certain days (likely the Sabbath and Jewish festivals, such as Passover). To the weak, these were doctrinal issues founded on clear OT teachings going back to the Torah. They were mistaken, but in their minds, they were honoring God’s will as revealed in scripture. They thought they were disagreeing over matters of (as we would say) “faith.” And yet Paul called them weak in their faith and insisted that they accept the “strong” (those who refused to bind these rules) as saved despite appearing to the weak as violating the scriptures. Hence, the “conservatives” (who bound more rules as doctrine) were required to treat the “progressives” (who bound fewer rules as doctrine) as saved. This is a very different approach from the one urged by Sanders, who would countenance no fellowship with what he considers error.]
“That the World May Believe”
Melvin L. Otey, who teaches at Faulkner University, focuses on Jesus’ prayer for unity in John 17. He points out that Jesus prayed for unity for evangelistic reasons. “If we say we are all one in Christ, but do not live as one, our hypocrisy will discourage acceptance of the gospel message.” [Amen.]
Otey questions the fact that we have racially segregated churches, and even have lectureships targeted to audiences of a particular race. Such division “fosters a condition contrary to the one Jesus desires, and all the world sees it.” [Amen.]
[Otey is right to call us out for dividing based on race. It’s always been wrong. Now it’s not only wrong but obviously wrong to even the lost world around us. When we behave this way, to paraphrase 1 Cor 5:1, we have “immorality among [us], and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans.”]
Editorial: We Hear God’s Voice and Are Ashamed
Gregory Alan Tidwell, editor of the GA, and my favorite conservative preacher, leads off the magazine issue with some thoughts on unity in the Churches of Christ. He writes,
Once we discount the Progressives (who are in the process of defining a different religion), the brethren who remain true to the New Testament pattern for God’s church are remarkably united in faith and in fellowship.
[Well, that’s obviously true. Except for the non-institutional churches. And the pre-millennial churches. And the one-cup churches. And the no-Sunday school churches. And the churches dividing over elder re-affirmation. And the racially segregated churches. And … well, the list just has no end. So, yes, the Churches of Christ are remarkably united — if we define “Church of Christ” as those who agree with the editorial positions of the GA and no one else. Of course, even the GA writers don’t agree about everything. And some of them disagree with the founders of our Restoration Movement on many important issues. So, no, we’re not “remarkably united” in any sense.]
[And being something of a progressive, I couldn’t help but notice that I’m evidently on the road to damnation even though I believe with all my heart that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, and even though I was baptized by immersion as a believer for the remission of sins. And even though I don’t believe we’re saved by our works. So how can I be a follower of Jesus — and I am — and yet be “defining a different religion”? Well, the last time I saw that particular claim was in a series of articles by Tidwell in the August 2007 issue of the Gospel Advocate, each beginning with the lead “You Know It Is a Different Religion When …”]
The church of Christ is dividing into two irreconcilable camps. On one side are those who have kept the same faith; on the other side are those who are experimenting with a wide range of differing faiths. …
Congregations, schools and other institutions previously following one religion have embraced a different religion. …
Those Christians who continue to uphold the complete truthfulness of Scripture have kept their faith that God has spoken through Scripture. Those who have abandoned their faith in Scripture have abandoned their faith in the God of Scripture.
(page 34). [I asked Tidwell whom he was referring to as disputing the truthfulness of Scripture. He brought to my attention God’s Holy Fire, a book published by ACU Press, which has a section questioning the claims of “inerrancy” of the scriptures. If I read Tidwell correctly, he is saying that those who question inerrancy are lost even though they consider the scriptures inspired, true, and authoritative (which the authors of that book do) unless they are willing to affirm his view of inerrancy. Notice the shift from the NT’s faith in Jesus to Tidwell’s “faith in Scripture.” This is neither the language nor the theology of scripture. The scriptures never, ever make themselves an object of “faith.”]
[I’ve written on the inerrancy controversy here before —
- Inerrancy, A Parable (Appetizer)
- Inerrancy, A Parable (Entree)
- Inerrancy, A Parable (Dessert)
- Inerrancy, A Parable (Coffee)
- Inerrancy, A Parable (Midnight Snack)
- Inerrancy: A Parable (Morning Espresso) ]
[For now, it should be enough to note that rejecting a term (“inerrancy”) that is neither found in scripture nor even well-defined is not a fair test of one’s view of scripture. The proper question is whether the authors of God’s Holy Fire accept the claims scripture makes about itself. And they clearly state that they do. By what right do we damn them? If we’re saved by faith in Jesus, how does a lack of faith in an undefined “inerrancy” somehow damn? They may be wrong. But does wrong necessarily mean damned? Even a “different religion”? Surely not.]
[A group of conservative scholars made a serious attempt at a definition of “inerrancy.” It takes up several pages. It looks rather like a creed, but at least they were willing to state what they meant by the term in enough detail to allow for the meaningful conversation. When we make language not found in the scriptures a test of salvation, we’ve become creedalists — exactly what Thomas Campbell objected to when he helped found the Restoration Movement.]
[From Thomas Campbell’s “Declaration and Address” —
Proposition 6 — That although inferences and deductions from Scripture premises, when fairly inferred, may be truly called the doctrine of God’s holy Word, yet are they not formally binding upon the consciences of Christians farther than they perceive the connection … no such deduction can be made terms of communion … no such deductions or inferential truths ought to have any place in the church’s confession.]
Regarding those who consider those improperly baptized to be saved, Tidwell writes,
Lowering the boundaries between the church and other religions weakens the meaning of being a Christian. It is an apostasy of attrition. …
We must never, however, blur the lines that make being a Christian distinct from belonging to a different faith.
(page 36). [Thus, if I follow Tidwell correctly, those who consider either Baptist or infant baptism sufficient are apostates, even if they are themselves properly baptized. Indeed, disagreeing on baptism is a “different faith,” even though the Baptists and infant baptizers believe in the same Jesus we in the Churches of Christ believe in. Again, Tidwell keeps shifting the object of our faith away from Jesus. If disagreeing on baptism is a “different faith,” then we must be saved by our faith in baptism. As Bobby Valentine has recently shown, Alexander Campbell himself considered the Baptists his brothers in Christ.]
Regarding the introduction of the instrument into Restoration Movement churches and women taking on leadership roles in worship, Tidwell writes,
The problem was not just the instrument but, more to the point, the lack of faith in scripture. …
Worship defines a religion. Changes in worship are often the clearest sign of a fundamental shift from one religion to another.
In our day, changes in worship are highlighting a change that has already occurred in the hearts of men and women. Congregations that use instrumental music in worship and that use women to lead in worship have already lost their faith, if you define “faith” as trusting and obeying the Lord.
(page 37). [Again, Tidwell speaks of the object of our faith being not just in Jesus but also scripture. Moreover, “faith” in the scriptures has become faith in the GA’s doctrinal positions on instrumental music and the role of women. Disagree with the GA, and you lack “faith.” Thus, unity is achieved by sleight of hand. Just define as damned those who disagree with you, and (voila!) the church is united on every doctrine!]
[First, I am thankful to God that the Gospel Advocate considers unity important enough to dedicate an issue to the topic. And I find most of what was taught in the articles agreeable — and often even insightful. And I’m thrilled that Tidwell, as editor, has published articles reflecting multiple views on this important topic.]
[On the other hand, I’m saddened that some articles reflect an attitude of “If you want to be united, then just agree with me and the problem will be solved.” No, the problem will be solved when we stop holding up our interpretations of the text as just as important as faith in Jesus.]
[The solution to the problem is to refocus our faith. In the NT, “faith” is always faith in Jesus. And everyone on every side of every issue mentioned here believes in Jesus. They are therefore united into a single body by the grace of God and the work of the Spirit. Woe to those who seek to separate those whom God has united.]
(1 Cor. 3:16-17 NIV) 16 Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst? 17 If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person; for God’s temple is sacred, and you together are that temple.