Peter Abelard (1079-1142), who pioneered the scholastic method of theologizing, produced a volume entitled Sic et Non (or, “Yes and No”) for use in teaching through the dialectic method. It is a composition of quotes from earlier theologians and fathers on a variety of topics, but they are arranged oppositionally, that is, some theologians say “Yes” and others say “No.” He does suggest that some may be harmonized by understanding the semantic variation of key terms (thus the use of dialectics), but he does not attempt to harmonize them.
Todd Deaver–not to rank him with Abelard in the history of Christian thought (sorry, Todd)–has done something similar. He has given us the “Yes” and “No” to the questions of fellowship, boundaries and salvation among conservatives (traditionalists) with Churches of Christ in the past thirty years. His new, self-published book Facing Our Failures: The Fellowship Dilemma in Conservative Churches of Christ points out that the presupposition that “every practice considered to be unauthorized in the New Testament is grounds for breaking fellowship” is incoherently explained, inconsistently applied, and ambiguously stated among traditional Churches of Christ (p. 18).
It is ambiguous because many disagree about what is unauthorized and what is unauthorized (his list on pp. 52-56 is impressively documented; e.g., praying to Jesus in the assembly). It is inconsistenly applied because fellowship still exists (or is claimed) between those who disagree about what is authorized and what is unauthorized (e.g., why is instrumental music in the assembly grounds for breaking fellowship when clapping during songs or singing during the Lord’s Supper is not?). It is incoherent because the method by which this is discerned is unclear and inconsistent (e.g., what is the deciding factor or criterion? the assembly?).
Todd meticulously cites and details these problems. Though the inconsistencies pointed out have been previously noted by others (there is a long history of this since the 1960s), what makes Todd’s book valuable is his thorough grounding of his argument in the writings of conservatives (traditionalists). We are able to see the problem unfold through the contrasting words of conservative writers themselves (thus, Sic et Non). And Todd does this without malice, sarcasm and with great appreciation for the faith and commitment of the traditionalists he cites.
Further, Todd does not simply contrast–unlike Abelard. Rather, he seeks to understand what is at the root of the contrary statements, explores possible harmonizations, and probes the inner logic of the conservative position.
Todd concludes that the paradigm is the problem (chapter five: “Our Paradigm is the Problem,” pp. 81-104). If any doctrinal error (and if not any, then which ones, and how do we decide) excludes us from the fellowship of God as per the traditional interpretation of 2 John 9, and “persistence in any unauthorized practice warrants the breaking of fellowship,” and “our salvation depends on” identifying the correct “limits of fellowship,” then Todd believes conservatives (including himself among conservatives) are in quite a pickle. He asks: “Who among us has the boundaries of fellowship figured out completely and with absolute certainty?” (p. 88). No one, he concludes, and this entails that the paradigm itself is flawed and “extreme.”
Todd searches for consistency within the conservative position and he fails to find it. “We consistently withdraw from those who worship with the instrument because we believe such is without scriptural authority,” he writes, “yet we continually fellowship some who do other things we believe to be just as unauthorized” (p. 106). And, at the same “we teach that we cannot fellowship those who bind where God has loosed, and we maintain fellowship with many brethren who oppose as sinful practices which we believe to be authorized” (p. 107; e.g., supporting children’s homes from the church treasury).
At root, Todd has deconstructed the ecclesiological perfectionism of the conservative (traditionalist) understanding of fellowship and authorized practices. Such perfectionism on fellowship and boundaries is unattainable (and, I would add, not intended by the authors of the New Testament). This was the “sole purpose” of his book (p. 108).
Todd does not offer a solution to the problem; that is not his purpose and there is no solution within the current paradigm. Rather, he suggests that what is needed is a “theological shift” (p. 110) whereby we turn to a different paradigm.
I trust that this “shift” is partly a shift from ecclesiological perfectionism to Christological centrism. Many, including myself, have suggested this as a way out of our incessant dividing and infighting (see my series on theological hermeneutics). The value of Todd’s book is that is a fearless, fair and friendly demonstration that the current paradigm among conservative (traditionalist) Churches of Christ is a dead end–and, I would add, ultimately harmful and destructive.
Thanks, Todd, for your work. I encourage those interested in the documentation and argumentation to purchase and read the book. The dialogue will continue at Todd’s new website “Bridging the Grace Divide.”