The Power of a Biblical Story

August 6, 2015

Bible stories.

Many of us have heard them since we were children.

  • Daniel and the Lion’s Den.
  • Noah’s Ark.
  • Three Angels Visiting Abraham.
  • Moses and the Burning Bush.
  • David and Goliath.

And many more!

Bible stories are important. They do more than tweak the emotions or offer a moralism, as important as those dimensions are. Their power arises from something (even Someone) much deeper than human morality or emotion.

What is the power of a biblical story?

The power of a biblical story is what it reveals about God. Even when a biblical story does not name God (as in the case of Esther), it is still about God. As such, God is the subject of every biblical story, and that story says something about God’s identity and character.

Biblical stories reveal God’s goodness as well as God’s holiness. We see God’s faithfulness, a divine commitment to the divine goal among God’s people. We see God’s transcendence but also God’s immanence; we see God’s holy otherness but also God’s deep involvement in the world.

Reading a biblical narrative, we ask: what does this story tell us about who God is and what God is doing in the world?

The power of a biblical story is what it reveals about the human condition. We locate ourselves in the human condition; we find ourselves in the story. We see our own frailty, weakness, and unbelief in the story. We also see courage, strength, and faith in the story.

Biblical stories reveal both the depravity and the dignity of human beings. As we hear these stories, we recognize how evil human beings can behave but also the heights to which their faith draws them. We see both the absurdity of life with all its brokenness, woundedness, and death, but we also see the good gifts of relationships, community, and family within God’s good creation. Biblical stories tell both sides of the human story.

Reading a biblical narrative, we ask: what does this story tell us about who we are, what we have become, and the heights to which God is calling us?

The power of a biblical story is how it invites us to participate in the theodrama. As we read the stories in the Bible, we are invited to see ourselves in the story. This is not simply a matter of locating ourselves there. Rather, we engage the story as part of the larger theodrama, the dramatic history of God at work within creation and human history. We are participants. This story is our story.

Biblical stories are not isolated moral plays; they are part of a larger narrative, a metanarrative. The stories themselves participate in God’s mission within the world. Each story is an expression of the larger story, and we are invited to participate in that larger story even as we see ourselves in any particular story.

Reading a biblical narrative, we ask: how does this story invite us to participate in God’s larger metanarrative?

So, what do we do with that?

If we know who God is, and we know what our condition is, then we are enabled to discern how a story summons us to play our role in God’s grand redemptive drama.

The God of the burning bush is both redeemer and holy. The holy God encounters Moses, and invites Moses to participate in God’s redemptive movement within the world. We see in Moses our own reticence, fear, and inadequacies, but we also see God’s enabling power and summons. God includes Moses in the redemptive drama such that Moses partners with God in liberating Israel from Egyptian bondage. What Moses becomes is rooted in what God does.

Who is God? The Holy Redeemer.

What is humanity? Weak and fearful, yes. But the story also affirms human dignity by inviting Moses to participate in the divine mission.

What is our summons? To participate in God’s redemptive agenda in the world, pursuing God’s mission in dependence on God’s power. We are still on the same mission as Moses, as the redemption of Israel is part of the grand narrative of God’s redemptive work for all peoples.

Biblical stories have something to tell. They inform, moralize, and motivate.

But, more importantly, through them we also encounter Someone. We encounter the God who invites us into God’s own story, God’s theodrama.

At bottom, biblical stories are callings. God calls us.

Review of Muscle and a Shovel by Michael Shank (Part 3)

August 22, 2014

[Michael Shank, Muscle and a Shovel: A raw, gritty, true story about finding the Truth in a world drowning in religious confusion (5th edition, 2013; Kindle version). I have cited the book with chapter number first, then the Kindle location. For example, Chapter 1, location 245 is cited as 1:245.]

[My first and second blogs in this series are here and here. I have expanded my three-blog review into a 21,000-word review, which is available here.]

Have You Not Read the Scriptures?

“But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless.”  Matthew 12:7

Shank reads Scripture with the goal of getting it “right” in order to be saved. One must be baptized for the “right reason,” and one must be faithful to the “true [right] church.” We have to get it “right” because God does not accept anyone who doesn’t get it right. So, if you don’t get it absolutely and precisely “right”—in teaching and practice—then one is lost and “headed for eternal destruction.”

The Right Baptism and Right Church

What must we get right? Here is Shank’s list, at least as it appears in the book:

  • Baptism is absolutely necessary
  • Baptism for the right reason is absolutely necessary
  • Faithful to the true church of Christ
  • A right name
  • The right organization (autonomous congregationalism)
  • Right leadership (when qualified: elders, deacons, and evangelists)
  • The right “articles of worship” in the assembly
  • Weekly Lord’s Supper and only on Sunday
  • Weekly free will offerings and only on Sunday (no tithing)
  • A cappella singing
  • Teaches the biblical plan of salvation, that is, how to obey the gospel through hearing, believing, repenting, confessing and being baptized.

These are teachings and practices within churches of Christ that have a long history of discussion. I will not take the time to deal with each one in the list in this short blog, though they are important and deserve attention (and I have done some of that in the ebook). Rather, I am more concerned about what lies underneath, that is, the assumptions that shape this way of reading the Bible.

But, first, there are at least two problems with the list itself. Notice (1) what is missing from this list. When Randall seeks to identify the “true church of Christ,” there is nothing about the ministry and mission of the church but only the form and procedures of the church. The list says nothing about what the church does outside the building, how it ministers to the poor, or what the mission of the church is. That is not to say that Shank does not have opinions about these points—I would assume he does and sometimes they come out in marginal ways in the book, but his book defines the nature of what it means to talk about the church in an evangelistic tract. His purpose is polemical—to convince denominationalists that their denominations are wrong. Consequently, it is not ultimately about the fullness of the church of God and its mission in the world, but rather about specific items that, in effect, defend the teaching and practice of the “churches of Christ” (the ones with that name on their signs) in contrast to the denominations.

(2) I also have a problem with the function of this list. Is every one of these necessary in order to have a faithful church? Must one be a member of a group of Jesus-followers who practice Christianity in precise conformity to this list in order to be “faithful to the church”?

If we answer “Yes,” then it is rather strange that the New Testament does not have this list somewhere present within its pages as a list? If this is a prescribed list, then where is the list of prescriptions within the pages of the New Testament?

If we answer “Yes,” then are we an unfaithful church if we are missing any one of these items or fail to do them perfectly? Is this also true if a congregation does not minister to the poor, fails to speak out against injustice in the world, refuses to fully integrate, etc., etc. How perfect does a congregation need to be in order to be “faithful,” and how well must a congregation comply with this list in order to be “faithful”?

Such a list does not appear in the New Testament, and Paul, for example, does not engage congregations through his letters in ways that assume a kind of perfectionism or an assumption of prescribed list of forms that identify the true church of Christ. Instead, he calls us to transformed living, encouraging assemblies that conform to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, living together in love, and a missional orientation to the world. Paul points us to the heart of Jesus rather than to the forms of a legal code.

Consequently, Shank’s evangelistic tract reads quite differently from the New Testament itself. While Shank’s book is filled with prescribed, perfectionistic legal technical lists about how to “do church,” there are no such lists in the New Testament, and what lists there are encourage transformed living (e.g., Galatians 5:22; 2 Peter 1:5-8).

Legal Approach to Scripture

Shank, in effect, uses the Bible to discover the law codes embedded within the story and finds them even where there are no codified prescriptions in the text. Narratives are turned into legal prescriptions. This seems reasonable to Shank because his primary question is, “What does the Bible require us to do?” So, he searches for the requirements and finds them in narratives and letters in order to construct a pattern for the church. And, surprisingly (if indeed the Bible is intended to provide such a pattern), this pattern is nowhere simply and/or fully stated. It has to be pieced together like a puzzle, and we have to find the pieces scattered throughout the Bible. We must connect the dots through inference, assumptions, and expectations of what we think the Bible is supposed to tell us.

Shank expects a pattern and therefore searches till he finds one even if he has to piece it together with examples and inferences. He has to fill in the blanks with more than explicit statements. And where the pieces (specific commands) are missing, we infer their presence (by example or inference). In effect, he finds it because Randall followed an interpretative model (coupled with assumptions) that constructed the pattern for him without questioning the exegesis (interpretation) of the texts utilized and without recognizing his assumptions about how he is reading the Bible.

This is a major concern with Muscle and A Shovel. It reads the Bible with a central concern to discover something it expects to find, and the book assumes that the way to find it is to piece together scattered prescriptions (and non-explicit [even unstated] prescriptions like examples and inferences) in order to construct a pattern that is not explicitly there.

There is a better way to read the story of God in Scripture.

Here lies a fundamental difference between how Shank reads the Bible and how I read it. For Shank, the fundamental question the Bible answers is, “What does God require of me?” For me, the fundamental question is, “What is the story into which God invites me?” The former is a legal question, but the latter is a missional one. The former wants to know what is legal or illegal. The latter wants to know the divine mission and how we might participate in it.

Muscle and a Shovel misses the central story of Scripture. Shank reads the Bible with a legal concern operating at the heart of his hermeneutic. This obscures the missional nature of Scripture itself. There is little to nothing in Muscle and a Shovel that gives us much hint about the grand narrative of Scripture—a loving God who created and nurtured the world for the sake of loving fellowship, who chose Israel as a light among the nations, who became incarnate as Jesus of Nazareth to redeem the sin, pain, and hurt of this world, and who poured out the Holy Spirit to sanctify and empower a community that they might be dedicated to good works. As an evangelistic tract, it does not tell the story of the gospel. Rather, it converts people to a church pattern, the data for which is mined out of Scripture, abstracted from its original historical context, and then used to construct something that does not exist in Scripture, that is, a specific legal blueprint for how to do church. It converts people to a plan (a church pattern) rather than to Jesus.

When Paul called Titus to teach sound doctrine (Titus 2:1), that healthy teaching included an ethical life, an understanding of what God has done in Christ, the out-pouring of the Holy Spirit, and the hope of eternal life (Titus 2:2-3:8). It did not include the specifics of a church pattern as outlined in Shank’s book. Rather, telling the gospel story (much like Paul summarizes in Titus 3:3-8) is how one builds communities of faith who are dedicated to good works. I don’t think Muscle and A Shovel followed that pattern, that is, the book does not follow the example of Paul in teaching the great truths of the Christian faith.

The hermeneutical (how we read) shift from “shaped by a story” (regulated by the gospel story narrated in the ministry and life of Jesus, anticipated by Israel, and lived out in the early church) rather than “codified in the prescriptions” (rulebook) is a huge one for many people. The former permits contextualization while the latter is rigid replication. The latter often thrives in fear (did we get that right?) or arrogance (we got it right!) while the former stimulates incarnational, missional practice (how might we embody the story in our context?).

When we read Scripture though the lens of a legal, perfectionistic lens, we have to get it right in order to be saved. We have to be baptized for the “right reason,” and we have to be faithful to the right church. We have to get it “right” because God does not accept anyone who doesn’t get it right.

When we read Scripture through the lens of a missional God, the story unfolds as the divine pursuit of a people whom God transforms into the image of God for the sake of mission to the world. That story is more about direction than it is perfection, and God accepts and welcomes imperfect seekers.

Mercy, Not Sacrifice

When I finished reading Shank’s book, I was neither angry nor enthused. I was sad.

Over my forty-plus years of preaching and teaching I have slowly shifted from reading Scripture as a legal textbook designed to provide a specific pattern to reading Scripture as a story in we participate by imitating God. Rather than servile slaves whose obedience is rewarded and disobedience is punished based on keeping the technicalities of the law, we are God’s partners in the divine mission who are enabled by the power of God to participate in the unfolding story of God. 

The fundamental problem with Muscle and a Shovel is that it exalts sacrifice over mercy (Hosea 6:6; Matthew 12:7). It assumes that humanity was made for rituals (baptism, church patterns, etc.) rather than rituals made for humanity. It prioritizes “sacrifice” (ritual patterns) over “mercy” (transformation).

In other words, Muscle and a Shovel makes the same mistake that the Pharisees made. It does not understand that God desires mercy over sacrifice, that is, God embraces the heart that seeks mercy over the heart that exalts rituals—even prescribed ones!—over seeking, trusting hearts.

May God have mercy!



Review of Muscle and a Shovel by Michael Shank (Part 2)

August 21, 2014

[Michael Shank, Muscle and a Shovel: A raw, gritty, true story about finding the Truth in a world drowning in religious confusion (5th edition, 2013; Kindle version). I have cited the book with chapter number first, then the Kindle location. For example, Chapter 1, location 245 is cited as 1:245.]

[My first blog in this series is here. I have expanded my three-blog review into a 21,000-word review, which is available here. In my first post, I described the purpose of Shank’s book and the ways in which I appreciate its effort. However, I have some serious concerns about the book which I will now address in two posts. A full review of 21,000 words is available here.]

Gracious Speech

Act wisely toward outsiders, making the most of the time. Your speech should always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you should answer each person.”   Colossians 4:5-6

Kindness to All

How Shank describes “denominational” leaders and churches is polarizing and disrespectful. This is a significant problem.

It sets up a not-so-subtle contrast—even if true—between “the denominations” and “the truth” that is emotional in character. The portrayal of denominational leaders as unhelpful and greedy, for example, contrasts with Randall and real truth-seekers. Denominational leaders are dismissed categorically. This plays well emotionally in some quarters, but it is an unfounded generalization.

Denominational leaders do not come off very well in this book. They are “arrogant Pastors” (8:1115), and Michael’s Baptist Pastor, in particular, is “condescending” (8:1083), “pompous” (9:1149, 28:4778), greedy (23:3694), and “lives off our donations while [he] parks his fat a__ in that fancy chair that we pay for” (8:1095). “Denominational preachers seem to love and crave the glory that is of men more than the glory that is of God” (28:4752). They are nothing but “false teachers” (30:5063) who pervert the gospel (40:6543-45) and thus are anathema (cursed) by God. Pastors, or “denominational preachers,” are “religious experts” (24:3858), “high-paid, well educated, professional clergyman” (24:3884) who “no longer endure sound doctrine” (28:4747) and demand others “call them by a spiritual title [Reverend] with a word that’s used in the [KJV] Bible exclusively for God’s name” (28:4744). This language judges motives, sincerity, and their love for God.

As such, the narrative implies a personal, character-driven, question: Who will you believe? Would you believe Michael’s pastor who “responded in a condescending tone that conveyed an unspoken message which told me I was stupid for wasting his precious time with such a rudimentary and trivial question” (8:1084) or Randall who was “encouraging, meek, respectful, and it was evident that he really loved God” (5:853)? The narrative sets us up so that if we believe the denominational preachers, then we have chosen the “bad” character in the narrative over the hero in the story. This is nothing more than an emotional appeal based on broad generalizations and narrow experiences.

Denominational churches don’t come off well either. While I could go point-by-point with repeated misunderstandings and caricatures of denominational teachings (including Michael’s historical errors, which abound in the book–see my book review for some details), I will note only how Michael assesses the “Community Churches.” His critique is particularly harsh based on a visit to a Bible class in an unidentified community church. From this experience (and a few others) he provides a sweeping characterization of community churches. They are “no brain, no backbone, all fluff” and they stand “for almost nothing” (20:3222). Recognizing his attitude “wasn’t exactly Christian,” he regarded the community church folk as “a bunch of idiots” (21:3267). The “Community Church crowd” is “sweaty-palmed, weak-kneed, rosy-cheeked, wishy-washy, feel-good, stand-for-nothing, ineffectual, spineless, let’s-all-hold-hands-and-just-get-along garbage” (21:3293). They “accept everything except true Bible unity,” and the community he visited “needed psychiatric help” (22:3547).

The language is unkind and lacks gentleness. Michael’s rants sound more like extreme political rhetoric (whether left or right) than something that belongs in an evangelistic tract proclaiming the good news of Jesus. Scripture calls us to a different sort of engagement with people than what is reflected in these attitudes expressed by Michael (and some stated by Randall). Hear the word of God:

“Remind them…to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people.” Titus 3:1-2

“But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.” James 3:17

“And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kindly to everyone, apt to teach, patient, correcting opponents with gentleness.” 2 Timothy 2:24-25

I leave it to the reader to judge whether Shank’s book reflects the values expressed by the above Scriptures.

The book does not listen well. Denominational preachers and churches are summarily dismissed as inept and ignorant. The narrative oozes with disrespect for others, and there is no extended attempt to listen to them, their views, or give them a fair hearing. Counter-arguments are rarely advanced, and nuances are overlooked. Denominational preachers and churches are caricatured rather than heard. It is insulting rather than spiritually forming.

Jesus calls us to be, like God, “kind to the ungrateful and evil” (Luke 6:35) and to live with mercy toward others (Luke 10:37) because “judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13).

The book’s language appeals to emotion, prejudice (towards education, ministerial profession, etc.), and class-envy.

Honest Hearts

Honesty is a key word in Michael’s story. It appears, in some form, thirty-four times. It is the undertow of the book. Honesty is the key virtue in reading the Bible correctly. And, of course, honesty is a godly virtue.

At the same time, the way honesty appears within Michael’s story is condescending and lacks humility. Since Michael was honest, and if everyone else is as honest as he was and as diligent as he was, then everyone would come to the same conclusion that he did. In other words, people are only truly honest and sufficiently diligent if they agree with Michael.

Michael sometimes recognizes that there are many honest people among the denominations. To his credit, he acknowledges that there are good, honest, and sincere people in various denominations (17:2532, 24:3804) though “blind guides” lead them (24:3861). But—and this is the significant point—they are misguided, deceived, or satisfied with their present circumstances to the extent that they will not question received traditions. In other words, denominational people (especially leaders) won’t deal honestly with the text or its context. “They won’t reason together honestly,” Michael opines, “They won’t sincerely listen” (5:815). Such judgments of motives are unkind, and Michael has no way of knowing whether they are actually true or not.

It is almost as if when one disagrees with Michael, they are insincere and dishonest. Is that really a fair characterization? Is that the standard of honesty? Is one dishonest because they disagree or thinks that a text should be interpreted differently than Michael interprets it?

Michael believes that his particular understanding of the “gospel is so simple that every person of sound mind and accountable age can understand it and obey if they choose to,” and this will happen if “honest-hearted people” read the Bible for themselves. In other words, if you are honest and your use your muscle and shovel (show due diligence), you will agree with Michael. And if you don’t agree with Michael, then you—assuming you are of “sound mind and of accountable age”—are dishonest, lazy (including apathy and other similar vices), or, more ominously, rebellious and unwilling to listen to the truth.

Randall, in fact, says: “Mr. Mike, there is no rational spiritually honest person in the world who can refute God’s plan of salvation” (that is, the way Randall construes that “plan;” 35:5782). And, Michael counsels, “if you are honest with yourself and with God you’ll flee from man-made denominations” (38:6165). “No honest individual after studying” the Bible could do otherwise (39:6375).

Listen to how Michael summarizes this point near the end of the book (39:6279)

Denominationalists refuse to accept the entirety of God’s plan of redemption for mankind. They ignore the elements that they simply don’t understand or refuse to accept.

However, when honest, sincere, good-hearted, moral, Truth-seeking people research the entirety of the Scriptures, they consistently and unanimously find God’s marvelous plan of redemption and salvation, which is [and then we have the five steps of salvation listed, JMH; my emphasis]

So, if one does not come to the same conclusion as Michael, then they lack one of the virtues listed. They are dishonest rather than “honest,” or they are insincere rather than “sincere,” or they are malevolent rather than “good-hearted,” or immoral rather than “moral,” or apathetic rather than “Truth-seeking,” or perhaps they were too lazy or apathetic to research it sufficiently. But if anyone has these moral virtues along with a due exercise of muscle and a shovel, then they will join with everyone else who has those virtues because it is consistent and unanimous in the lives of good-hearted, honest, moral and sincere people. In summary, if you don’t agree with Michael, you are either “ignorant or dishonest with God’s Word” (39:6366).

I think that is an unfair account of life. It lacks humility and kindness. In other words, it loudly declares to fellow-believers in Jesus, “I know I’m right, and if you disagree with me, then there is something wrong with you! There is something wrong with your heart!”

May God have mercy!


Mark 12:28-34 — Kingdom Priorities

May 14, 2012

As Jesus teaches in the temple courts, his opponents confront him with a series of questions. Jesus had enraged the temple authorities when he cleansed the Court of the Gentiles from merchandizers. They questioned his authority, his allegiances, and his theology. These hostile questions intended to subvert his popularity and/or endanger his life.

Now, however, a scribe—like one of those who questioned him in Mark 11:27—approaches him with some respect. While Matthew (22:35) portrays this incident as the result of a Pharisaic conspiracy to test Jesus once again, Mark is more ambiguous. Mark’s scribe was impressed with how well Jesus handled the succession of questions and consequently wonders how Jesus might answer the question that rabbis discussed among themselves: “Of all the commandments, which is the first of all?” Which commandment, he asks, ranks as “numero uno”! Which commandment is the most important?

Given that the rabbis counted 613 imperatives within the Torah, it is not surprising that there would be some discussion about which was the most important or which had priority. Allen Black (College Press NIV Commentary on Mark, 216) reminds us that many, including Jesus’ contemporary in Alexandria Philo (Who is the Heir of Divine Things, 168; Special Laws, 2.63), considered the ten commandments a summary of the Torah divided between responsibilities toward God (“piety”) and responsibilities toward people (“justice”). This two-fold categorization fits the answer Jesus himself gave: love God and love your neighbor.

Jesus identifies two commands—out of a host present in the Torah—as the first and second. “Love God” is the “first of all,” that is, it has priority, but the “second” is “love your neighbor.” The first quotes the great Shema (Hebrew for “hear”) of Deuteronomy 6:4-5 which was repeated twice daily by devout Jews in the Greco-Roman period (Allen cites Letter to Aristeas, 160; Jubilees 6:14). The second quotes Leviticus 19:18.

It seems rather amazing that Jesus could lift two isolated commands out of the Torah and identify them as first and second. The identification of the Shema as first is more understandable as its narrative function in Deuteronomy is the fountainhead of Israel’s response to God’s deliverance and land-grant recounted in Deuteronomy 1-5. Since God has graced Israel, Israel returns that grace with loving gratitude.

But the identification of Leviticus 19:18 appears more arbitrary. It seems to appear as one command in a list of others within the Holiness Code (Leviticus 18-20). Some suggest that Leviticus 19:18 functions as a summary statement in the Holiness Code, but this is not apparent. Nevertheless, Jesus recognizes its theological importance.

What enables Jesus to so clearly and succinctly identify these two texts—among many others that could have been chosen—as the first and second commandments? It is apparent that Jesus does not read Scripture as a flat text where every command is as equally important as every other command. Rather, he reads the text in a hierarchical fashion. That is, he recognizes levels of priority and importance. I suggest he reads in a narratival way such that the story (plot) of God moves us to recognize “love you neighbor” as the second greatest command. Some commands are more fundamental than others.

The scribe recognizes Jesus’ point. He repeats what Jesus quoted—and thus the narrative underscores the unparalleled significance of theses two imperatives—and also interprets the significance of prioritizing these two commands. In effect, Jesus has prioritized these two commands, according to the scribe, over “burnt offerings and sacrifices.” In other words, Jesus has prioritized loving God and neighbor over the temple, its sacrifices and their atoning significance. This does not mean that sacrifices are unimportant but rather that they are less important that what some might have thought. The two greatest commands are love God and love neighbor–and we must be careful that we don’t respond with “but….” [fill in the blank with an “important” command].

There is a tradition with the history of Israel which prioritized the sacrifices so that if one comes to the temple and offers their sacrifices, then God is pleased with them (despite their lives). This is the safety of the temple to which Jesus alluded when he cleansed the Temple as Jesus quoted from Jeremiah’s Temple sermon (Jeremiah 7). Some believed that despite their adulteries and social injustice (how they treated the poor, widows and orphans) their sacrifices were accepted because the temple represented God’s gracious presence. The second command, love your neighbor, does not sanction such an interpretation of the temple.

What makes one more fundamental than another? How are these two imperatives (“love God” and “love your neighbor”) more important than sacrifices? Perhaps we might see in “love God and love your neighbor” an act of sacrifice itself. It is the gift of ourselves to God (our whole body, soul and strength) and, in turn, to others. We are the sacrifices. This is more important than any ritual which expresses that devotion.

It reminds us that God loves mercy more than sacrifice (Hosea 6:6) or Micah’s declaration of what the Lord requires more than a thousand rams, that is, “to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). We are the sacrifices which God requires (cf. Psalm 40:6-8).

The context in which Mark places this exchange underscores the importance of “love your neighbor” (quoted twice). It appears between the exploitation the money-changers practiced in the temple courts (Mark 11:15-16) for which Jesus judges the temple complex and Jesus’ accusation that the wealthy temple authorities (“scribes”) exploit widows (Mark 12:38-40). Leviticus 19:18—love your neighbor—falls between the prohibition against defrauding (robbing) your neighbor (19:13) and honest business practices (19:35). Economic justice functions prominently in the last part of the Holiness Code.

Given the temple context, controversy and practices in Mark 11-12 as well as Jesus seemingly gratuitious comment about widows, “love your neighbor” has added significance. It is, it seems, a further judgment against the temple authorities. The scribe did not ask Jesus for the second commandment. He only inquired about what was “first of all.” Jesus volunteered the second and his reference to the social injustice of the scribes later in this chapter is a narrative clue for Mark’s readers as to why.

This may explain Jesus’ rather curious (backhanded?) compliment to the scribe: “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” Jesus notes that the scribe is “thoughful” (nounechos, only here in the NT)–he has got the right mind (nous) about it, but does he practice what he knows (loving God with soul and strength?)? Jesus did not invite the scribe to follow him and he did not say he was a kingdom participant. He still seems at a distance though near. Perhaps the scribe’s involvement in the temple complex was why, though near, he was not yet a Jesus-follower.

Whatever we make of Jesus’ “compliment,” the scribe correctly affirmed kingdom priorities. The kingdom ethic is to love God and love our neighbor. It is that simple though it is far from simple; easy to grasp perhaps, but difficult to live. The kingdom is rooted, grounded and expressed in love—God’s love for us, our love for God and our love for each other.

It is rather sobering, however, to consider whether, possibly like the scribe, we are “not far from the kingdom of God.” Is it possible that we might affirm but not practice the two greatest commands? Is it possible that we might know better but we don’t do better? Is it possible that we know about God but we don’t know God as people who love our neighbors?

Is it possible, I wonder, whether we know the commandments but we are so emeshed in the structures of oppression and injustice (much like the scribes in the temple; like those living under Jim Crow or in southern slave states) that we don’t even recognize that we fail to love our neighbors even as we insist that we do?

May God have mercy on us all.

When Patternism Subverts Grace

April 17, 2009

If the life and ministry of Jesus is our pattern, then we all fall woefully short.

Consequently, whether it is conforming our character to the image of Jesus or embodying the ministry of Jesus through the church, we all–individuals and congregations–need divine mercy since we all fall woefully short of the image of God in Jesus.

While I am a patternist, I am not a perfectionist in either ethics or ecclesiology. Not all patternists are perfectionists (or legalists). Patternism per se neither entails legalism nor perfectionism. If it does, then everyone who believes that we are called to conform to the image (pattern) of Jesus is either a legalist or a perfectionist or both.

Legalism arises when the quantity, level and progress of sanctifiction is made a condition of communion with God.  Libertinism (or antinomianism) appears when sanctification is so disconnected from faith (seeking and trusting God) that whether we seek sanctification or not is inconsequential.

Ecclesiological perfectionism is when the understanding and practice of a set of ecclesiological patterns are made conditions of communion with God such that without perfect or precise compliance to those patterns (however they are defined) there is no hope or promise of salvation. 

In contrast I would suggest that perfect or precise compliance to ecclesiological patternism–like ethical conformation to the pattern of the life of Jesus–is not a condition of communion. Rather it is a matter of sanctification as we are conformed more closely to the image of Christ, both corporately and individually. To more closely conform to an ecclesiological pattern (however that is concieved or defined) is a matter of communal sanctification. It is a process, not an event. As a process, sanctification will never be perfect or 100%.

At the same time such conformation is something that faith seeks because we want to be like Jesus. When we refuse to conform to what we know that is rebellion. Insubmissive (rebellious) faith is not faith since faith involves trusting in Jesus and submissively pursuing God’s will in our life however imperfectly we may do that.

Ecclesiological patternism subverts grace when perfect obedience to a set of patterns for the church becomes a test of fellowship or a condition of communion with God. Ecclesiological patternism then becomes ecclesiological perfectionism. I define “perfect obedience” as precisely meeting a set of criteria for ecclesiological practice which distinguish between the “faithful” and the “unfaithful” (thus “apostate” which amounts to a “different religion” [see Jay Guin’s assessment of Greg Tidwell’s use of this language]).  In this context our faithfulness, rather than the faithfulness of Jesus, counts as our righteousness and salvation; it demands perfect obedience in order to measure up to the standard–we keep the pattern or there is no hope! This kind of ecclesiological patternism stresses that if we are guilty in one point, we are guilty of the whole. If a congregation is missing one mark of a true church, then it is a false church. This is ecclesiological perfectionism.

So, for example, if the ecclesiological criteria include observing the Lord’s Supper every Sunday and only on Sunday, then “perfect obedience” would mean that only those who eat every Sunday and only on Sunday are faithful and everyone else is unfaithful (apostate).

Or, for example, if the ecclesiological criteria include singing a cappella, then “perfect obedience” would mean that only those who sang a cappella are faithful and everyone else is unfaithful (apostate).

Or, for example, if the ecclesiological criteria included the absence of the female voice except in singing, then “perfect obedience” would mean only those assemblies where women were silent are faithful and everyone else is unfaithful (apostate).

I would suggest–without debating the merits of the examples above as parts of a biblical pattern–that ecclesiological patternism belongs in the category of communal sanctification. It is a process of growth, maturation and progressive conformation to the image of God in Christ.  Consequently, it is not so much about who is faithful and unfaithful (that is, who complied with the precise conditions of the pattern and who did not) but about orientation, direction and the submissive nature of their faith and heart. Faithfulness and unfaithfulness is more about faith itself than the accumulaton of specific acts of obedience or failure.

Moreover, I would suggest that there are more important questions in ecclesiological patternism than the frequency of the Lord’s Supper or the nature of music in the public assembly.  If ecclesiological patternism means engaging a process of conformation to the image of Christ, then here are few more important dimensions of the “pattern” than frequency and music style. Such as:

  • relationship with the poor (the pursuit of mercy)
  • the communal use of funds for ministry
  • advocacy for the oppressed, marginalized and excluded (the pursuit of justice)
  • leadership models within the community of faith
  • relationship with enemies
  • opposition to suffocating traditionalism that hinders the kingdom of God
  • outreach to the sheep without a shepherd or the lost

What I know is that I fall woefully short of these Christological patterns in my own life and in my community. I cannot soothe my imperfections by noting how well or precisely I comply with other dimensions of the pattern (e.g., Lord’s Supper and singing). However, by grace through faith, God is working with and in me to transform me into Christ’s image.  I am in process and I am not perfect.  I am neither perfectly obedient nor do I obey perfectly.  On the contrary, I submit my will to the process of God’s sanctifying work through faith and God redeems me by his grace through faith.

Patternism subverts the grace of God when it makes conformation to the pattern (however defined) as a condition of communion rather than as the fruit of God’s sanctifying work among his people through faith. Grace through faith is the means by which we commune with God and our conformation to the pattern of God in Jesus through the power of God’s Spirit is the means by which we become more and more like him. We are saved by grace through faith and works (sanctification) is the fruit of that communion with God.

I do not offer this post as definitive or indubitable.  Rather, it is only my thinking at this moment. It is part of my own sanctification as I reflect on the situation of fellowship within Churches of Christ.  I have hopes that the “Grace Conversation” website may yet be productive of mutual understanding. My next post will include a few historical reflections of where we are now as opposed to where we were 100 years ago in relation to ecclesiological perfectionism.

[I first offered some of this kind of soteriological reflection in my 1992 “Grace, Works and Assurance: A Theological Framework.]

I am a Patternist; Yes, Really!

February 12, 2009

Jesus is the logos (word) of God; he is our pattern, the speech of God. His life is the word of God. He embodies all that God desires.

Disciples of Jesus follow Jesus. They follow him into the water, and are thereby baptized. They follow him into the wilderness, and thus seek solitude with God in the midst of their trials. They follow him into intimacy with other disciples, and thus they seek honest relationships with other believers. They follow him to the table, and thus experience relationship with others and commune with God. They follow him into the world as missional people, and thus are heralds and practitioners of the good news. They follow him into the assemblies of God’s people to praise God, and thus they gather as a community to celebrate the good news of the kingdom. They follow him in pursuing mercy and justice, and thus seek to embody a righteousness that declares that the kingdom of God has arrived. Disciples of Jesus do not follow the church, they follow Jesus and thus become the church–the outpost of the kingdom of God in this broken world.

Patternists are generally concerned about “authority.”  I suggest that what Jesus does is our authority. His actions, teachings and practices authorize as they model how God incarnates himself as the presence of the kingdom of God in the world. We follow Jesus to become kingdom people. We are called to be Jesus in the world for the sake of the world.
The Gospels provide the pattern, that is, the ministry and life of Jesus. Acts illustrates how the early church lived out that pattern. The epistles interpret and apply the meaning of the good news of the kingdom for believers living in community. The Hebrew Scriptures give us the lens to read the story of God in Jesus within the frame of God’s story among his people and see the depth of Jesus’ life and teaching.

For example–and issues that are often the focus of patternistic discussions, we are baptized because Jesus was baptized; we eat and drink at the table of the Lord because Jesus did. We discern the meaning of baptism and the Lord’s Supper thorugh the lens of God’s relationship with Israel, what it meant for Jesus within his own ministry, and how it was continued and interpreted in early Christian communities (Acts and Epistles). This is the approach I (along with my co-authors) utilized in my books on table, baptism and assembly.

The pattern for the church is not the historical descriptions in Acts, but the incarnation of God in the person of Jesus. The pattern for the church is the ministry of Jesus. What Jesus began to do and teach, the early church continued.

Some patternists divorce the church from the ministry of Jesus and seek their patterns solely in Acts and the Epistles. Indeed, this was Alexander Campbell’s patternism. But to say that the pattern for the church of Christ cannot be located in Christ’s ministry seems counter-intuitive to me. It is like saying that the church can’t be like Jesus or that Jesus is not the model for the church. How can that be? The church is the body of Christ!

Simply speaking, I would suggest that the pattern for the kingdom of God is anticipated in Israel, fulfilled in the ministry of Jesus, continued (applied and interpreted) by the early church, and brought to fullness (completion) in the new heaven and new earth. For a more detail explanation of this approach, interested persons can read my series on “Theological Hermeneutics” and the series entitled “It Ain’t That Complicated“.

The pattern for the kingdom of God lies on the surface of the story of God–it is the narrative of Jesus’ ministry in a broken world.  But that narrative is rooted in the theology and redemptive history of God’s story among his people–first in Israel, climaxed in Jesus, and practiced by the early church.  Rather than constructing patterns through stringing together isolated texts, I suggest we live out the pattern which is given to us in the narrative of Jesus’ own life.

Patterns, Legalism and Grace: J. D. Thomas

February 9, 2009

 Patternism and a healthy theology of grace are not mutually exclusive. 

previous post noted that Alexander Campbell did not make his particular understanding of the apostolic pattern a test of fellowship. The “ancient order” was not a soteriological category for him. Rather, it was a  matter of communal sanctification, a matter of growth, development and maturation. Consequently, he regarded other communities of faith than his own Christian.  What would “all that we have written on the unity of Christians on apostolic grounds” mean, he asked, “had we taught that all Christians in the world were already united in our own community?” (Millennial Harbinger 1837).

In this post I turn my attention to J. D. Thomas (1910-2004), Professor of Bible at Abilene Christian University for thirty-three years. He is the author of probably the most significant hermeneutical manual for Churches of Christ–We Be Brethren (1958).  It assumes (practically everyone assumed it in the 1950s), explains and applies the command, example, and inference (CEI) hermeneutic in some detail. The issue the illicited the book was the raging controversy surrounding institutionalism.

Between 1950-1970 about 10% of Churches of Christ banded together as non-institutional congregations. The issues are both broad and narrow. Broadly, these congregations rejected the cultural assimiliation of Churches of Christ, as they saw it, into the mainstream of American denominationalism. Narrowly, they opposed the use of church funds (collected in the church treasury for kingdom work) to support human institutions (incoporated entitites like schools, children’s homes, mission boards [e.g., sponsoring congregations], or any parachurch organization). To these churches the support of such human institutions to do the work of the church is analogous to the support of missionary societies to do the work of the church.

Churches of Christ were generally agreed upon an apostolic pattern in the 1940s:  five acts of worship (a capella singing, praying, teaching, Lord’s supper, and giving), congregational polity with a plurality of elders and deacons, silence of women in the assembly except for singing, etc. This was supported by the standard hermeneutic: command, example and inference (CEI). But the institutional controversy raised specific questions about how to use church funds and how to apply the received hermeneutic.

Thomas defends patternism, explains the hermeneutic and applies it to institutional issues. Roy E. Cogdill (1907-1985), one of the premier defenders of noninstitutionalism in the 1950s-1960s, reviewed Thomas’ book in 1959. That review, a series of articles, is available here. For Thomas, the NT contains a pattern–“a teaching that is binding or required of Christians today” and the “pattern principle” is “what bound the New Testament characters binds us, and what did not bind them does not bind us.”  And this pattern is “established by command, necessary inference, and example” (p. 254).

Thomas provided guidelines for how to apply the hermeneutic. His book has a glossary to define terms such as “generic authority,” “incomplete command,” “hypothesis of uniformity,” “hypothesis of universal application,” “excluded specific,” “overlapping classification,”  and “expedient.”  Sounds fairly technical, huh? Well, that is the point–Thomas took the standard CEI hermeneutic and gave it a “scientific” formulation in hopes of adjudicating the dispute between institutionalists and noninstitutionalists. My question has become–is reading the Bible for discipleship really that difficult?  See my series on “It Ain’t That Complicated.”

At the same time, Thomas is very concerned that the debate between institutionalists and noninstitutionalists reflects–on both sides–a deficient theology of grace. “Our real problem, and the place where we have become ‘bogged down’,” Thomas writes, “is in our tendencies to Legalism” (p. 119).  And “we should admit that we have all had Legalistic tendencies throughout the whole Brotherhood in tim past” (p. 116).  Hear his plea (239, 241):

The man who has not yet realized what it means that the Christian religion is a non-Legalistic, grace-faith system has not yet been able to be thrilled by its true meaning and beauty…When we truly realize the relatinship of faith and owrks in the Christian system–that we work because of our faith and to complete it, and not because of our relation to the Saviour, we find motivation for working even ‘beyond our power,’ yet with the greatest happiness and joy as children of the Most High God!…Matters such as ‘Love the Lord with all your heart,’ and ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,’ and ‘Christ liveth in me,’ cannot be reduced to little precise legal obligations.  Too many of us have thought of Christianity in too small terms and we have therefore failed to see its majesty and immensity and transcendent grandeur…All of us who have been in the church very long have been guilty of some Legalistic inclinations….none of us are ‘without sin.’ We have all no doubt argued strongly for points that we actually were not able to clearly prove to others. Perhaps there has been a degree of selfishness in the most of us, in being critical of the views of others without the ability to show clearly whereiin we were right. Tolerance, humility and a greater love for the Lord and for each other are in order if we want to solve our problems (and if we want to be saved). We must appreciate the fact that WE do BE BRETHERN, and that the tie that binds us in Christian unity is more important than our opinions.

 J. D. Thomas once told me that he was significantly influenced by the teaching and writing of K. C. Moser and that Moser’s understanding of grace was exactly the same as R. C. Bell, another of Thomas’ heroes in the faith and a primary representative of the Tennessee Tradition.  In fact,  Thomas once recalled that both R. C. Bell and G. C. Brewer were among the few who had a “good comprehension of grace” in mid-20th century Churches of Christ (Firm Foundation, “Law and Grace (2) 100 [23 August 1983] 579). And, I have argued, that it was partly the teaching of R. C. Bell and J. D. Thomas at Abilene Christian University that paved the way for a shift in the Texas Tradition toward a Tennessee (e.g., G. C. Brewer, K. C. Moser, James A. Harding) understanding of grace (see Thomas, The Biblical Doctrine of Grace). This shift, along with the popularity of Moser’s writings, led to “The Man or The Plan” controversy in the early 1960s. [As an aside, Harding College had actually kept this grace tradition alive through the teaching of J. N. Armstrong, Andy Ritchie, F. W. Mattox, and ultimately Jimmy Allen; and Harding College Press actually printed some of Moser’s writings in the 1950s.]

My point is that though J. D. Thomas was a good patternist–a defender of patternism and CEI as a sound hermeneutic–he nevertheless preached a healthy theology of grace. The two are not mutually exclusive.

The question to pursue, however, is when does patternism subvert the gospel of grace in such a way that it actually becomes a legalism.  That question belongs to a future post.

Patterns, Legalism and Grace: Alexander Campbell

February 6, 2009

It is not legalism to seek patterns or to live by patterns.    

It is legalism to use those patterns in such a way that they undermine salvation by grace through faith.

That is my summary of what I thought was the sentiment of Cecil May, Jr.’s concluding comments in his February 3, 2009 Freed-Hardeman Lectureship speech (see my previous post).

In this post and in a subsequent one, I will illustrate how this point has functioned in the thinking of two significant leaders in the Stone-Campbell Movement: Alexander Campbell and J. D. Thomas. Both were patternists (to differing degrees), but did not permit their patternism to trump the fundamental truth of the gospel: we are saved by grace through faith and not by works.

In the 1825 Christian Baptist Alexander Campbell inaugurated his famous series “A Restoration of the Ancient Order of Things.” He thereby introduced “restoration” as a key term in the self-understanding of the Stone-Campbell Movement.  A patternism of some sort inheres in the idea of “restoration” as Campbell used it.

Campbell assumed (1) “there is a divinely authorized order of Christian worship in Christian assemblies” and (2) “the acts of worship on the first day of the week in Christian assemblies is uniformly the same.” The “authorized order” is the “same acts of religious worship” that “are to be performed every first day in every assembly of disciples” (CB 3 [4 July 1825] 164-166). Campbell believed there is a pattern (his favorite word for it, in good Reformed fashion, was “order”). Subsequent essays explained the role of breaking bread (Lord’s Supper), fellowship (contribution), and praise (singing). In addition, the “ancient order” included topics such as congregational polity (bishops, deacons) and discipline.

Campbell’s series intended to identify particulars where the “church of the present day” needed to be brought up to the “standard of the New Testament.” To “restore the ancient order of things” is to “bring the disciples individually and collectively, to walk in the faith, and in the commandments of the Lord and Saviour, as presented in that blessed volume” (CB 3 [7 February 1825] 124-128).

It is clear that the “ancient order” is serious business for Campbell. It is a matter of obedience to the commands of the New Testament. The series was a call to the church of his day to conform to the “order” contained in the New Testament, that is, to conform to the apostolic pattern in the New Testament.

The interesting question, however, is whether he thought the “order” he discerned within the New Testament was a test of fellowship among believers. Did he believe that conformity to this order was necessary to salvation? Was it his intent to identify the marks of the church that defined the true church so that every other body of believers who did not conform to those marks was apostate and thus outside the fellowship of God?

This was implicitly raised in the Christian Baptist by one of Campbell’s critics. Spencer Clack, the editor of the Baptist Recorder, wondered whether Campbell’s “ancient order” functioned similarly to the written creeds to which Campbell mightily objected (CB 5 [6 August 1827] 359-360). Campbell’s response is illuminating. He maintained that his “ancient order” was no creed precisely because he had “never made them, hinted that they should be, or used them as a test of christian character or terms of christian communion” (CB 5 [3 September 1827] 369-370, emphasis mine–and thanks to Bobby Valentine who was the first to call my attention to this statement).

The pattern–the ancient order–was not a test of fellowship. It did not define Christian character. Campbell believed it was biblical and apostolic, but he did not believe obedience to it was a condition of salvation. The pattern was not a soteriological category, but rather an ecclesiological one.

If he did not identify these ecclesiological particulars as tests of fellowship, then what was the purpose of the series? He tells us. He believed that the restoration of the ancient order, though not necessary for fellowship and salvation, was “the perfection, happiness, and glory of the Christian community.” In other words, it was a means toward the unity of all believers. Restoration of the ancient order was not for the purpose determining true vs. apostate churches, but rather to set out a program upon which all believers might unite on the New Testament alone. If everyone would “discard from their faith and their practice every thing that is not found written in the New Testament of the Lord and Saviour, and to believe and practise whatever is there enjoined,” then “every thing is done which ought to be done” (CB 3 [7 March 1825] 133-136). He wanted to “unite all Christians on constitutional grounds” rather than on the basis of human creeds (CB 5 [6 August 1827] 360-61). The “ancient order,” according to Campbell, was the only legitimate (constitutional) and practical means of uniting all Christians, and it enable communities to discard their creeds and stand on the New Testament alone.

Theologically, this essentially means that eccelsiological patterns are matters of sanctification rather than justification (to use the classic terminology of Campbell’s era). The discernment, recognition and implementation of apostolic patterns were matters of growth and maturation. They were not the foundation of the church–who is Jesus, and the confession that he is the Christ, the Son of the Living God–but rather the sanctification of the church in conformity to a constitutional model of reading the New Testament.

Campbell never applied the “ancient order” as either a test of salvation or fellowship.  However, he did attempt to persuade others that a return to the “ancient order” was the way to restore unity to a divided Christianity.

Subsequent participants in the “Restoration Movement” turned the “ancient order” into a test of fellowship as the fundamental identity of the New Testament church, the distinguishing mark between the true church and apostate churches.  That was never Campbell’s intention and he would have regarded it as a subversion of the gospel itself–substituting the “ancient order” for the confession of Jesus as the Messiah as the true test of faith.

Mercy, Not Sacrifice: Sabbath Controversy in Matthew 12

January 8, 2009

A “God of technicalities”?

The first article I ever published in academia was “The Sabbath Controversy in Matthew: An Exegesis of Matthew 12:1-14″ which appeared in the Restoration Quarterly 27.2 (1984) 79-91. I have now uploaded this on my Academic page.

At some point in the future, I may reflect in personal terms on how that study subsequently impacted me. But that is for another time when I have more time. Perhaps I will make it part of a series about theological turning points in my life. 

However, I linked it today because it relates to my last post, especially the paragraph I quoted from Daniel Sommer at the end of that post. Sommer rebuked what he called a “technical” use of the hermeneutic of silence and authorization. No doubt many wondered whether Sommer himself was not guilty of similar technicalities on where he drew lines of fellowship. In other words, why is the use of instrumental music in a worshipping assembly a godly reason to limit fellowship but to break fellowship over the right hand of fellowship is a technicality? Especially, I might add, when we have technical definitions of when a worshipping assembly begins and ends (choirs–even instruments!–are permitted after the closing prayer but not before), whether a family worship in the home using the piano meets the definition of “worshipping assembly, etc.

Sommer’s language of technicality intrigued me.  That language sometimes pops up in the Stone-Campbell Movement. One recent example  is F. LaGard Smith’s argument that the God of Jesus is a “God of technicalities” (e.g., Naaman, Uzzah) in his Who is My Brother? Facing A Crisis of Identity and Fellowship (p. 252; also p. 127).

It seems to me that this is exactly where Matthew 12:1-14, including the quotation of Hosea 6:6, has something to teach us.  God is not interested in technicalities–he desires mercy rather than sacrifice.  Technically, David broke the law when he ate the “bread of presence” because he was hungry and in a hurry.  Technically, the priests profane the Sabbath every week when they offer sacrifices on the Sabbath.  But if we understand the heart of God, then we will not make these technicalities into fellowship barriers between God and humanity.

Jesus quotes Hosea 6:6 as a hermeneutical principle.  If the Pharisees had known the meaning of Hosea 6:6, they would have had the theological and hermenutical lens through which to consider the actions of others. If they had known the meaning of Hosea 6:6, they would not have condemned the disciples….and neither would we condemn David…and perhaps we might not condemn each other as well.

When we evaluate others based on the technicalities of ritual and precision obedience, we miss the heart of God. God is relational, not technical.  God is more interested in mercy than he is ritual.  God is more interested in relationship than he is perfectionistic precision. This is the declaration of Hosea 6:6, the application of Jesus, and Matthew expects his readers to embrace it as a principle for living in relationship with others (see also the use of “mercy” in 9:13 and 23:23).

This does not entail a rationale or an excuse for disobedience, but it should soften our heart with the mercy of God as we relate to others. After all, should we not treat others with the mercy with which God treats us? And, indeed, I need lots of mercy…mercy for my actions, my words, my ignorance…and much more!  I am grateful that God’s heart yearns for mercy more than sacrifice, for heart more than ritual, for relationality more than technicality.

The article I have posted–first written as a seminar paper for a course at Western Kentucky University in 1980–was one of my first steps toward seeing God’s heart instead of what I once thought was his technicalities.  Maybe it might help you…or maybe not.   :-)

Controversies over Hands–Forgotten Debates

January 4, 2009

David Lipscomb (1831-1917) and James A. Harding (1848-1922) belonged to the same theological orbit. They started the Nashville Bible School (now Lipscomb University) together in 1891. Harding, for a time, was an associate editor of the Gospel Advocate in the 1880s.lipscomb-and-harding They agreed on a host of theological issues, including opposition to rebaptism, renewed earth eschatology, special providence, pacifism, sole allegiance to the kingdom of God in opposition to allegiance to the nations, etc. Bobby Valentine and I have written about their spiritual legacy among Churches of Christ in Kingdom Come.

However, they did not agree on everything.  Harding, I believe, was more of a hardliner on ecclesial practices. His insistence on following the examples of the New Testament and the use of the command, example, and inference (CEI) hermeneutic was more strenuous than Lipscomb.  While Lipscomb opted for some flexibility here, Harding sought precision in every detail when it came to imitating the New Testament church.

Two of the most significant disagreements, which yield considerable discussion in the first decade of the 20th century, regarded the use of hands–the laying on of hands and the right hand of fellowship.  On both of these issues Harding insisted on following what he thought was the biblical pattern whereas Lipscomb failed to discern any precise or obligatory pattern on these questions.  Consequently, we have a good example of two prominent leaders among Churches of Christ from the same theological orbit addressing “church practices” in relation to the biblical pattern on the basis of the same hermeneutic but yet disagreeing.  They were “divided” but somehow remained “united,” as Armstrong’s article reproduced in my previous post trumpets.

Laying on of Hands

Lipscomb thought it unnecessary and without Scriptural authority, but Harding believed he was following the example of the apostles and their example should always be followed when it comes to ecclesial practices.

Harding believed that elders and evangelists should be appointed through a laying on of the hands, fasting and prayer.  This is the apostolic example of Acts 13:1-2 and Acts 14:23. Regarding these texts, Harding wrote:  “we learn that we are under solemn obligation to follow apostolic teaching and example, that in so doing we are following Christ. If we neglect to follow apostolic teaching and example, we neglect to follow Christ.”  It is, according to Harding, “scriptual and safe” when elders are appointed in this way (“A Reply to Bro. Elam on the Appointment of Elders,” Christian Leader & the Way 21 [9 April 1907] 8-9).

Lipscomb contended that there was no example of anyone appointed to an office by the laying of hands in the New Testament.  At one level, Lipscomb did not believe the evangelist or elder occupied an office, and at another level he did not believe there was any example of appointing persons to a task by the laying on of hands.  Since there is no biblical example or precept, there is no obligation. Indeed, it is “a practice without scriptural authority” (“Appointment and Laying on of Hands,” Christian Leader & the Way 20 [27 March 1906] 4).

Do we follow apostolic example or not? Is there an example? Is it binding? The Churches of Christ, in the first decade of the 20th century, were divided on these questions.  Jesse Sewell and James A. Harding on one side of the question and David Lipscomb along with E. A. Elam and others on the other side .  This, according to Harding, is a “very radical difference in judgment” between believers “who are on most points of doctrine in full accord” (“A Reply to Bro. Elam on the Appointment of Elders,” Christian Leader & the Way 21 [9 April 1907] 8). It needs to be settled so that there is no division.

Right Hand of Fellowship

Daniel Sommer–editor of the Octographic Review–thought it necessary, Lipscomb–editor of the Gospel Advocate— thought it good but optional, and Harding–editor of The Way— thought it should be prohibited.

In the late nineteenth century, the dominant practice–“nearly all, if not all, congregations of the disciples of Christ” (Harding, “What Does the Bible Teach on the Right Hands of Fellowship?” Christian Leader & the Way 20 [11 December 1906] 8)– of receiving another person from one congregation to another was by the corporate extenstion of the “right hand of fellowship.” This was a corporate, congregational act. The whole congregation lined up to extend their “right hand of fellowship” one by one to the new member as part of the assembly itself.  Sometimes, however, an elder acted for the whole congregation in receiving the new member.  Either way it was an ecclesial act in the assembly. The “right hand of fellowship,” then, brought that new member under the oversight of the eldership of that particular congregation. When this was extended to a Baptist who wanted to now join fellowship with a Church of Christ, those who opposed this union with a Baptist without rebaptism called this “shaking in the Baptists.”

Sommer believed that Acts 15, Galatians 2, and Acts 11 all involved the reception of members through the right hand of fellowship. He believed there was apostolic example.  Moreover, he believed that it was an “unavoidable conclusion” that members should be received through the “right hand of fellowship” into a local church so that the elders of that congregation might have disciplinary authority.  No congregation can exercise discipline unless there was some formal entrance into the local congregation itself. (See his articles “Concerning the Right Hands of Fellowship,” Octographic Review 45 [11 November 1902] 1, 8 and “Concerning Right Hands of Fellowship,” Octographic Review 47 [23 August 1904] 1, 8.)

Though he onced practiced the custom, when Harding was thirty-four he discovered it was not in the New Testament. From then on he regarded it as an innovation. If we cannot “read it in the very words of the New Testament” it should not appear in the assembly (“What Does the Bible Teach on the Right Hands of Fellowship?” Christian Leader & the Way 20 [11 December 1906] 8). Though it is often regarded as a “church ordinance” rivaling baptism and the Lord’s Supper, there is no authority in Scripture for this congregational act in the assembly.  Any fair look at the New Testament would discover that “the giving of the right hands of fellowship for the purpose of receiving baptized belivers into the fellowship of the congregation is without Scriptural authority” (“Brother Sommer’s Visit. No. II.,” The Way 5 [30 July 1903], 755). According to Harding, it is a “high crime against God, Christ and the Holy Spirit” to add an unauthorized practice to the assembly, and such additions will receive the judgment of God just like Uzzah.  We should, according to Harding, “give up this unapostolic, man-made ordinance, and abide in the teaching of Christ”…and we should “remember Uzzah” (“An Article Suggested by Brethren Cain, Hillyard and ‘A Well-Known’ Texas Preacher,” Christian Leader & the Way 21 [30 April 1907] 8).

Interestingly, on this question Harding was alligned with the majority of writers in the Firm Foundation (one notable exception is Jackson, McGary’s co-editor in the 1890s). For example, Price Billingsley (“‘Hand of Fellowship’ Again,” Firm Foundation 18 [14 April 1902] 2) writes that “we can not worship and honor God in doing something that he has not told us to do; and it must be that these things are done to please men; and if true it becomes mockery instead of true. worship.” It is an “unauthorized” practice since there is no command, example or inference for it as a corporate act in the assembly.

Another interesting dimension of this debate is that the precise difference between Sommer and Harding, according to Sommer, is that Harding extends the right hand of fellowship individually to new members after the formal closure of the assembly while Sommer does it in the assembly (“Concerning Right Hands of Fellowship,” Octographic Review 47 [23 August 1904] 1) and that Harding thinks it authorized for individuals as individuals but not for the corporate body.  Does that sound familiar to anyone?  I remember discussions about whether a College chorus (choir) was permissable as long as it was heard after the closing prayer of the assembly and noninstitutionalists stress the significant difference between individual and corporate acts. Harding argued something similar about the right hand of fellowship.  Somethings don’t change when we seek a pattern in the New Testament that does not exist. 

No Division

Churches of Christ did not divide over these issues.  Though Harding–as one among others–thought the questions were matters of compliance with apostolic example (laying on of hands) and the silence of Scripture(right hands), the movement as a whole did not divide.  (There were, however, a few congregations that did divide.) 

Lipscomb’s methods prevailed. Lipscomb regarded “right hands” as optional, and given the desire for unity, it was done after the closing prayer rather than in the assembly.  Elders were generally appointed without the laying on of hands and usually–if not practically always–without fasting.  By the 1950s it was a rare congregation that had a communal ceremony for receiving new members with the right hand of fellowship in the assembly and that appointed elders through fasting and the laying on of hands.Churches of Christ, in my experience and in my reading in the mid and late 20th century, were not convinced by Harding’s arguments but followed Lipscomb’s practice on both the right hand of fellowship and the appointment of elders. 

What we have in this story is an example how Churches of Christ negotiated their hermeneutic so that they did not divide over these questions even though the same principles and hermeneutic were utilized to separate from congregations that used musical instruments in their assemblies.

Perhaps “common sense” prevailed–as it has saved us from our hermeneutic at times in the past.  Perhaps instrumental music was such an embedded cultural concern (“worldliness”) that it transcended mere pattern arguments. (Remember one of the first articles against instrumental music in the Stone-Campbell Movement was also about dancing!)  I don’t know, but it is an interesting question to think about.

In our history, some things divide us but do not subvert the unity (“right hands” and “laying on of hands”).  Other things divide us and prevent unity (“instrumental music” and whether there should be more than one elder).  But both are pursued through the same hermeneutic with the same assumptions about assembly and ecclesial patterns. Some things create a division, others do not.

Go figure.  :-)

P.S. I found this particular paragraph from Daniel Sommer quite interesting, and it is filled with questions about the ambiguity of the received hermeneutic–to what does it apply and to what does it not apply.  Sommer, “Concerning Right Hands of Fellowship,” Octographic Review 47 [23 August 1904] 1, 8.  See what you think.

     Another evidence that those who denounce a formal giving of the right hands of fellowship are technical is that they have never been, they are not, and never will be consistent.  They say, “There is no divine precept nor example for a formal giving of the right hands of fellowship, and therefore it should not be practiced.” But this is what may be called “one premise logic.” The major premise is suppressed. What is that major premise? It is this general proposition: Whatever practice is not authorized by divine precept or example should not be adopted, or, having been adopted, should be discontinued. Those who assume that such a proposition is true, will need to discontinue all formal exercises when they are going to preach to sinners, all formal invitations to sinners in the public congregation, all formal invitation songs in the congregation, all rising up to give thanks at the communion table, all formality in regard to attidute in time of prayer, all formal invitations to preachers to hold protracted meetings, and all formal acceptance of such invitations on the part of preachers, all formal keeping of church records, and all formal business meetings of the church. I could mention more, but this is enough.