In recent days the powers that be in Churches of Christ have lamented “apostasy” from preachers, congregations, and “colleges” that do not toe the unwritten creedal line. The irony is deep because historically it has been claimed that God’s church does not own any colleges therefore did not have a creedal position on anything. But to my main points.
Way back in 1933, G. C. Brewer published a review in the Gospel Advocate of a, then, controversial book by K. C. Moser, called The Way of Salvation. He praised,
“the author’s independence of all denominational views or brotherhood ideas, or what the ‘fathers’ taught, or of what has been ‘our doctrine” as “the most encouraging think that I have seen in print among the disciples of Christ in this decade.”
Well the powers – in this so-called non-denomination – do not seem to like it if we actually practice the Restoration Plea instead of just using it as a rhetorical hammer against others. But restoration is not a position on anything rather it is a posture of seeking continually the truth and will of God knowing we have never quite grasped either. We doubt ourselves not God or God’s truth. We journey towards the goal but confess with Paul we have not quite attained it (Philippians 3.12-14). With this in mind I have six areas that I pray for myself, for Churches of Christ, and for all God’s people where ever they may be.
First. I pray for a genuine Spiritual revolution among the principalities and powers in Churches of Christ. As Barton Stone stated many years ago “we would that preachers pray more and dispute less.” Is the Bible merely a weapon to defeat other stragglers on the Way? Is Scripture merely an echo chamber that confirms all of our already cherished points of view? Or is the written word more akin to a sacrament that pulls us into deeper discipleship of denying ourselves and taking up the cross to follow Jesus, daily? Discipleship that issues in genuine love for justice and mercy for all is what Spiritual revolution is all about.
Second. I pray we in Churches of Christ realize that Restoration is not simply a doctrinal destination. Restoration is a journey, or process, through which we finally see God’s will done on Earth as it is in heaven. Restoration is not about restoring some non-existent pristine first century but living God’s new creation in the power of the Spirit in the here and now. Restoration finds its fulfillment in God’s Kingdom swallowing up all human kingdoms. The church bears witness to the kingdom in its life on earth as we wait for the goal. Restoration does not terminate upon the first century church in all its dysfunction but in God’s renewal of all things.
Third. I pray for a “restoration” of the non-sectarian attitude that G. C. Brewer celebrated in K. C. Moser. I, personally, am quite tired of the only response the principalities and powers can offer to a different position is that I have given up on the authority of Scripture. The statement is absurd on the face of it.
J. N. Armstrong, founding President of Harding University was adamant on this matter. Restoration depends on openness to God’s truth breaking in on our previously held understandings. He wrote,
“There is a great need to stress the importance of maintaining freedom of speech in the kingdom of God. Intolerance is dangerous to the future growth of the church . . . All progress of truth – scientific truth, political truth, or religious truth – all truth – has always depended on free speech and progressive teachers who were not afraid to teach their honest convictions.”
Doctrine, and faithfulness, is not determined by what “we,” “you” or “I” have ever believed was, or is, the truth. A position is not rejected because we do not like the implications of it. A position is not rejected simply because we already know the “truth.” It is the height of arrogance to simply declare a position in error because “it has left the truth.”
Truth is determined by exegesis of the biblical text not by tradition, grandparents, moms or dads, preachers or even the powers that be. The founders of the Stone Campbell Movement fearlessly used every tool they could get their hands on to engage the biblical text “to see if it was so.” I treasure that spirit. Restudy does not imply judgement upon anyone in the past. It simply means we actually practice Restoration as a way of life rather than seeing it as rhetorical flare.
Fourth. I pray for the day we actually believe 2 Timothy 3.15-16. Some of the powers, at least in practice, think the crucial words of this text apply only (primarily) to the New Testament. Paul does not say “the New Testament is inspired and is useful for DOCTRINE.” The context is clear that the Hebrew Bible is under consideration (those are the only Scriptures Timothy could have known from his “childhood” (3.15). No, Paul says that the Scriptures – a technical term used by the Rabbis – for what is commonly termed the Old Testament (Paul and no “NT Christian” ever heard of the so called “Old Testament” much less a “New Testament” by which is meant books). Paul says the first 39 books of the Bible are “inspired and good for DOCTRINE.” It is rare to find a Church of Christ elder or preacher that actually believes this. They do not believe it – not because of what it says – but because it would throw a huge monkey wrench in their ability to declare people unfaithful and nonbelievers.
Reaffirming the Pauline doctrine that the Old Testament is actually, inherently, authoritative does not solve all problems but it does call us to go back to the text in the tradition of Stone and Campbell. There may be two Testaments but they tell
- the same Story,
- about the same People,
- the same Hope,
- in the same Promise,
- with the same Mission,
- with the same God.
The New Testament documents see themselves as dependent upon the authority of the Hebrew Scriptures and it is rare to find a New Testament text that is not molded by those Scriptures. Even if preachers do not suddenly go on a year long preaching spree from the First Testament (though that is not a bad idea), they can show how the NT connects to the grand narrative of the Bible.
Fifth. I pray that we have the devotion to the undivided nature of God’s family (as a sign of God’s renewed creation) that Paul, James and Luke clearly had. Division is tantamount to heresy in Scripture and the early Way. The old paradigm of division at the drop of a hat that prevailed among Churches of Christ from the 1910s thru the 2000s and is still prominent with the powers is just wrong. I do not say this because I do not believe in the authority of the Scriptures. I say that precisely because I do believe in the truthfulness and authority of the Scriptures more than the authority of the powers. Each congregation was not a carbon copy of the other in the first century. We cannot read Acts and not know that there was serious diversity among the NT churches. The apostolic church in Jerusalem, Judea, Galilee did not “practice” things the same way Gentile churches did (especially Pauline ones). This is clearly evident in numerous places in the text that we simply filter out because these texts are an inconvenient truth. I have said before, and I will say it again, Acts 15, Acts 21.17-27, Acts 24.11-18, etc, were nightmare texts for mid-20th century Firm Foundation readers. Many simply did not even know the texts were there (especially Acts 21, I have learned this in personal conversation with many people, I never heard of them growing up). But here you have two apostles who go the “extra mile,” as they say, to affirm each other as brothers in the Lord. Paul did not castigate and disfellowship James. James did not disfellowship Paul. And Luke did not disfellowship either. Both were right if we believe the actual words of the Spirit guided letter to the gentile believers (not Jewish ones) in Acts 15.6-29.
J. N. Armstrong’s question to W. E. Brightwell is apropos. “Could you, my brother, maintain fellowship with a man who offered animal sacrifices? Could you maintain fellowship with a church that did the same?”
But that is exactly what James, Paul and Luke do. This is what the Jerusalem church does. I have never forgotten that question. Why is it that Paul’s example is Acts 20.7 is “binding” but both Paul’s and James’s example is thrown out the window in Acts 21.17-27 and 24.11-18 (some even dare to claim they sinned and the whole Jerusalem church is wrong).
How I pray the folks at the Open Forum and the folks at ACU could join hands like Luke proudly says apostles James and Paul did. And note that they did worship together even with ceremonial washings, bloody animal sacrifices, incense and instruments.
Sixth. I pray God’s people are so grasped by the kingdom of God we are thrust into commitment to justice, righteousness, faithfulness and mercy (stuff Jesus declares to be the most important, Mt. 23.23). This extends from our first prayer commitment above. I pray that Churches of Christ would understand that as a beacon of the new creation we are by definition anti-racists. We are the voice of the widow, the parents to the orphans, the defender of the aliens among us. I pray that the Gospel of Reconciliation digs deep into our collective and individual psyche and crucifies any vestige of anything that keeps of from being on the forefront of the message of justice for those who have been declared to be less than (at times by those claiming to be God’s people). I pray we are a refuge for those scarred by divorce. Churches of Christ have often been pro-law and pro-order but ironically anti-justice and anti-righteousness in our witness to the world around. I pray for God’s mercy. I pray that we recognize that we completely miss God’s will without a commitment to racial justice and the goal of God’s restoration movement in the Spirit indwelled church.
These are six realities that I earnestly pray for regarding all God’s people.