by Gene Shelburne
January – April, 2006
Excerpted from The Quest for Unity (Leafwood, 2004)
This past summer after more than forty years of ministry I learned something about Christian unity. A smarter fellow would have picked up on the concept a long time before I did, but it was a new insight for me. Alas! Even old dogs ought to be able to learn a few new tricks. “When you quit learning, you’re dead,” some wise man said.
When Franklin Graham came to preach in our city last year, the churches who joined hands to host that evangelistic effort represented the broadest coalition of Christians ever united for any cause in our community. But some churches chose not to join.
Of course, we expected a handful of staunchly separatist groups to reject any link to the rest of us. Those of us on the planning committee knew from the beginning that the Jehovah’s Witnesses would rebuff our efforts to involve them. So would the Mormons. By their own choice these groups are not part of the larger Christian community in any way, and they’re proud of it. That’s the nature of a sect. By definition a sect is not part of the whole. The fact that most of the Churches of Christ in the area opted out of the Franklin Graham Festival did not surprise us either. But it did make me sad to see how much our refusal to participate in preaching Christ to the lost made us look like the Witnesses and the Mormons. No wonder some of our non-Church of Christ friends describe us also as a sect. Many of us act the part. I was proud of my own small congregation and the large Central Church of Christ in Amarillo. We surprised some folks. In a dramatic departure from our separatist roots, people from our two congregations took leading roles in planning and conducting the crusade that resulted in thousands of first-time decisions for Christ. But we were the minority. Almost without exception, the denominations who have strong historical traditions of separatism kept their distance.
This is not the truth I learned. I knew it would be that way.
The Graham Festival, however, posed a peculiar challenge to the Catholics in our area. Until Vatican II, now more than three decades past, the walls separating Catholics and Protestants had seldom been breached. We lived in two different worlds and had almost nothing to do with one another. But in the days after that historical conference the walls that had kept us apart began to crumble, and we Protestants and Catholics found ourselves working side by side on a host of humanitarian and spiritual projects. Only a few years before Franklin Graham came to our town, the Catholics and Baptists amazed us all by merging the two largest hospitals in our region. So we just assumed that our Catholic neighbors would be solidly on board for the Graham effort. And, indeed, it would be hard for me to exaggerate the enthusiasm of the Catholic leaders’ response to our first invitations for them to share in the planning stages. In our early planning meetings several of the leading priests repeatedly shook my hand, embraced me, and went out of their way to thank me for making sure that they were included. They knew from sad experience that they often had not been, and that cruel exclusion had wounded them. Even the diocesan official we contacted in those early planning-stage days responded with excitement. He had ministered in Lubbock when Billy Graham came there back in the 1970s. “It was the finest thing we did while I was there,” he said. So he assured me that we should have no trouble getting the bishop’s consent for their parish priests to work alongside us in our grand undertaking.
Imagine our chagrin when our relatively new Catholic bishop not only withheld his blessing for the event, but began to warn Catholics across our region to beware of getting entangled in such alliances with us Protestants. The Graham team was flabbergasted. Nowhere in recent decades had Catholic officials refused to take part in a local crusade. In Lubbock, only 120 miles south of us, their bishop was taking a leading public role in an identical Graham Festival right at the time when our own local bishop refused to and warned his flock to have nothing to do with the rest of us.
I tell you this brief bit of recent history, not to preface an anti-Catholic diatribe, but to help you understand what follows.
As a lifelong member of a religious group that has been fiercely separatist during most of the past century, I was fascinated by a series of essays that in the weeks before the Graham Festival began to appear in the weekly newspaper published by our Catholic diocese. The bishop commissioned a young priest named Robert Busch, one of his most capable writers, to produce a series of essays explaining why “Bible Belt Catholics” would be wise to avoid getting mixed up with what he called “Evangelical Christians.” Here in these essays was a well-reasoned, irenic defense for Christian separatism. With a loving spirit Robert Busch explained week by week why one group of people who believe in Christ and trust in him for salvation should be careful not to sacrifice their distinctiveness by getting mixed up with others who call Jesus their Savior. What amazed and amused me about these essays was how much they sounded like the separatist arguments I’ve heard all of my life from Church of Christ preachers.
About the same time Busch was writing his series of essays, a group of Church of Christ preachers in our area ran a newspaper ad to explain why they could have nothing to do with Franklin Graham or with anybody who befriended him. Except for the fact that Busch, the priest, wrote with a kinder, gentler tone than my Church of Christ colleagues often do, my preacher friends could have changed “Catholic” to “Church of Christ” in Busch’s essays and gladly signed them. As I read the essays week by week, I was made aware that the basic arguments for Christian separatism are the same regardless of who makes them.
Somehow I had never seen this truth before. I had always just assumed that we Church of Christ folks were a bit odd and ugly in our opposition to Christian unity. Suddenly it became crystal clear to me that the basic reasons Christians give for standing aloof from others who honor Christ are the same in any separatist fellowship.
Reasons to be separate
Whether the spokesman is a Missouri Synod Lutheran pastor, or an old-world Catholic priest, or a firmly traditional Church of Christ preacher, anyone who advocates Christian separatism will almost always present the same reasons for the people in his particular group to avoid links with Christians of any other stripe. Let’s examine the reasons separatists give for staying separate.
1. Separatists say: Our church is Christ’s only church.
This is the bedrock premise, the indispensable foundation, of any Christian group’s argument for separatism. Any group who is convinced that they alone are the true Church of the Lord, that they alone have a valid relationship with Christ, that they alone teach the truth–any group with those convictions can make a strong case for staying isolated from anybody else who wears the name of Jesus. All those other people are just pretenders. We are the real Church.
In his final essay Robert Busch wrote: “We Catholics believe that there is but one Church of Christ, and that the fullness of this one Church continues to exist in the Catholic Church.” There is only one Church, he contends, and we’re it. What this Catholic priest asserts is not one whit different from the claims of separatists in the Church of Christ or the Mormons or the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
My mail last week included the annual report of a local Church of Christ project. In a chart showing his contacts with various church groups, the director listed eight or ten categories: Methodists, Baptists, Lutherans, Catholics, Presbyterians, and so forth. One category–the one for us–he called “the Lord’s church.” It was a subtle but clear way of saying, “The rest of those folks just claim to be Christians, but you and I know better, because we’re the true Church.”
That’s exactly what some of our Church of Christ missionaries are saying to us in their reports. They come home from some huge city where somebody other than us has been preaching Christ for hundreds of years, where there are major cathedrals and Christian churches all over the landscape. Now, johnny-come-lately, we have arrived with “the truth.” Now the only true Church of Jesus is on the scene. So these missionaries come home and tell us with straight faces that in a city of millions there are now twelve Christians. If you know the language of separatism, of course, you know what they mean. There are now twelve people in that place who are just like us. My blood boils when I hear these reports. I have to remind myself that these missionaries do not mean to be hateful or haughty. Just like the Catholic priest who wrote those essays, these men honestly believe that their converts are the only people in that mission field who have any hope of going to heaven.
2. Separatists say: You get into the one true Church only by performing the rituals we specify.
The rituals vary from denomination to denomination, of course. Because of our heavy emphasis on Scripture and our emphasis on imitating first-century Christian practices, baptism by immersion is the only way to get into the Church of Christ. We usually don’t explain it exactly that way, but that’s what it boils down to.
Every group claiming to be “the true Church” has its own peculiar rituals of entrance. Robert Busch in his series of Catholics-are-the-only-true-church essays reminds his Catholic readers that through the “Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults” people who previously were misled into other so-called Christian groups can be welcomed “into the full communion of the Catholic Church.” He points out that you can’t just transfer membership from some Protestant group. To become a Catholic, you have to go through their prescribed set of rituals.
All separatists are the same on this point. If for whatever reason you fail to go through their rituals of initiation, you don’t belong. You don’t share their blessings. You can’t participate fully in their activities. You are an outsider until you submit to the ritual they prescribe.
Curiously, some form of baptism is the way to get into most Christian groups. But the truly separatist groups almost always want it to be their kind of baptism done in their setting by their official. This reduces Christian baptism to a terribly sectarian rite. A Baptist and an Anglican co-authored a recent book on baptism. They titled it The Water That Divides. Tragically in separatist groups baptism is exactly that, the dividing line between those who are in “the one true Church” and those who are not.
3. Separatists say: Our Church alone is right.
After giving an astonishingly perceptive summary of Evangelical Christian doctrines about how to be saved and how to know the truth, Robert Busch pointed out to his Catholic audience that this “bare bones” Protestant approach to the Christian faith is clearly at odds with some of the core beliefs of Catholicism. And he warned his people about “watering down” their views in order to minimize the differences between themselves and their Protestant neighbors. It was a nice way of saying, “We’re right and those other folks are wrong.”
All separatists believe that.
Ford Motor Company used to tell their Texas customers that their cars were “made in Texas by Texans for Texans.” The true separatists in the Church of Christ have always claimed that “the truth” was made “in the Church by the Church for the Church.” Of course, we were no different than any other separatists in any other group when we claimed to have an exclusive hold on the truth.
No separatist can maintain his separatism if he is soft on this claim. If we once admit that we might be wrong about something and that folks on the outside might be right, a crack appears in the wall that separates us. To be separatists we have to be the only ones who are right. To back up this claim, our separatist preachers have often quoted the verse that says, “The church is the pillar and ground of the truth”—meaning, of course, our church. The only Church.
When I was a boy just beginning to “make talks” on Wednesday nights at church, my folks gave me a little sermon outline handbook. It contained one of the golden oldies preached in Churches of Christ across the land in the 1920s and 30s. That sermon asserted that we alone were the true church of Jesus Christ because we alone had the right name, the right founder, the right date of origin, the right baptism, the right worship—and on it went, point by point, affirming how right we were (and, at least by implication, how wrong everybody else was). That kind of sermon is well-received in a separatist church because it exudes the only atmosphere in which separatism can survive.
The us-against-them mentality
Even most of the Catholics in our town were scandalized when their bishop cold-shouldered the Franklin Graham effort to reach the unchurched in our city for Christ. Both to them and to their Protestant neighbors, he came off looking like a stinker. And the Church of Christ preachers who took out the ad to confess the sins of those of us who hosted the Graham team came off looking just as bad. To Christians with a more ecumenical spirit, both the Catholic and the Campbellite officials appeared to be harsh, intolerant, judgmental, unbrotherly, and needlessly antagonistic toward other Christians. I suspect that only those of us who had grown up in separatist fellowships could realize that the bishop and the preachers who opposed the Graham effort were not just being nasty and negative for the joy of it. Given their separatist convictions, they really had no choice.
The claim to be “the only true Church” carries with it certain inescapable attitudes and actions by those who feel that they are part of such a select and holy group. Separatists must be:
Isolated. 2 Cor. 6:17 is the favorite text of separatists. “‘Come out from among them and be separate,’ says the Lord” (NKJ). People in those other churches will just confuse you and contaminate you, separatists warn their people. Don’t date them. Don’t marry them. Don’t buddy with them. You belong to the Lord. You must associate only with the Lord’s people. The separatists are right, of course. Any significant friendship with people in other groups will show us just how wrong our separatist views have been. So a separatist leader must keep his people isolated at all costs.
Evangelistic. If I am convinced that I have the truth and you don’t, if I am convinced that I am saved and you aren’t, my conscience will require me to pay any price to communicate my version of truth to you and to convert you. If doing this requires that I wind up looking dogmatic, stubborn, uncooperative, and unloving, as painful as this may be to me, I must bear it in order to stand up for the truth and to save your soul. My separatist convictions leave me no other choice. So what appears to be churlishness in a separatist may actually be an expression of strong convictions and love for lost souls.
Uncompromising. Jesus prayed fervently that his followers might be one. The Scriptures command us to “maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3). But every separatist knows that unity must be based only on the truth. In his concluding essay to his fellow-Catholics Robert Busch wrote, “The path toward genuine Christian unity, then, is not one which attempts to skirt around, ignore, or even downplay … differences, but that which leads us to confront them head on.” No Christian separatist of any stripe would disagree with his words. But each one of those separatists—Busch included—means, “We will have genuine Christian unity when you finally see things my way.” And that thesis guarantees that we will never have Christian unity.
The apostles-in-training had all the marks of true separatists. After all, they alone had been handpicked by Jesus and commissioned by him to carry his message and do his mighty works. And along came some upstart who dared to try to muscle into their private domain. “Teacher,” John boasted, “we saw a man driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us.” But Jesus rebuked their proprietary view of the Kingdom. “Do not stop him,”Jesus said. “No one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, for whoever is not against us is for us.” And to show just how broad his own view of the Kingdom really was, Jesus said to his men, “I tell you the truth, anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name because you belong to Christ will certainly not lose his reward” (Mark 9:38-41).
Deep in the bowels of Mt. Horeb, holed up in a cave, depressed, Elijah moaned self-righteously to God, “I, only I, am left.” In his limited view he had convinced himself that he was alone in his goodness. “I’m the only faithful prophet still living. I’m the only true believer in Jehovah. All the others worship idols. All the others collude with Jezebel. I’m the only decent fellow left. I’m the only one even trying to do right.”
Elijah was wrong, of course. Separatists always are. Nobody has all the truth. Nobody alone has the truth. God set Elijah straight. He told the prophet, “Up in Israel (where you’re supposed to be) I have four thousand people who are true to me. You don’t know who they are, Elijah, but I do.”
That, I believe, is God’s message to every separatist: You are not the only one who is right. You are not the only group who loves me, nor are you the only group I love. You’re too blind to see them, but I have thousands of people who are true to me.
Jesus said, “Other sheep I have who are not in this pasture.” We are not paying attention to him if we claim to be the only pasture.
Can you see the pastures beyond your own?
Gene Shelburne is in his thirty-eighth year of ministry at the Anna Street Church of Christ in Amarillo, Texas. He is the Senior Editor of a monthly devotional magazine, The Christian Appeal, and the author and publisher of the Family Bible Study curriculum. His column Cross Currents appears in the Amarillo Globe-News and in several other Texas newspapers. For over two decades his writing has appeared on the dust jackets of many best-selling religious books. His own books include The God Who Puts Us Back Together, Expect the Light!, and his two latest books, The Quest for Unity, and Homes That Last. For 31 years Gene has taught the daily academic Bible course at Amarillo High School.
Gene is an active Rotarian. He is immediate past chairman of the Baptist-St. Anthony Foundation, he is on the board of the Curtis and Ruby Humphries Charitable Trust, and he has served on the boards of numerous civic and religious organizations. He served on the founding board of High Plains Food Bank, he served on the executive committee for the Franklin Graham Festival 2000, and he has been served as president of the Amarillo Ministerial Association at least four times.
Granted a degree from Abilene Christian University, Gene has lived in Amarillo most of his life. He and his wife Nita have been married for 46 years. They have a daughter, two sons, and 12 perfect grandchildren.