Hermeneutics is Always Inferential

January 21, 2020

Below I summarize the point of Searching for the Pattern: My Journey in Interpreting the Bible.h

Growing up in Churches of Christ, I embraced and practiced a hermeneutic that sought an implicit blueprint for the work and worship of the church in Acts and the Epistles. Through a filter of generic/specific distinctions, coordinate associations, the law of silence, and expediency (among other rules for authorization), I shifted through the commands, examples, and inferences within the New Testament to deduce a blueprint, which then became the standard of faithfulness and a mark of the true church.  And if everyone agreed upon and practiced the blueprint, we would be united! Part I of my book tells this story.

The inadequacies of this approach as well as its subjectivity (every conclusion and most steps along the way were inferences) created doubts. This is not how the apostolic witness called people to gospel obedience. They did not read Scripture or write Scripture with a blueprint lens. Something different was going on. This is described in Part II of my book.

The problem is the location of the pattern. The pattern is not found in an implied blueprint in Acts and the Epistles. Paul does not call people to obedience based on a blueprint located in the practices of the church. Instead, he calls them to obedience based on the pattern manifested in the incarnation, life, death, resurrection, and exaltation of Jesus. This is the gospel we obey—the story of Jesus—rather than a blueprint we have inferred from the text but is not explicitly there. This is my point in Part III of my book.

Hermeneutics, even a theological hermeneutic which I promote in the book, always involves inferences. We cannot escape them; every application is an inference. But here is the significant point: the pattern is not an inference. On the contrary, it is the story in which we live. It is the narrative air we breathe. The pattern of God’s work through Christ in the power of the Spirit is clear, objective, and formative. It is the story told in Scripture; it is an explicit pattern.

We will find unity when we confess the same pattern, and the shame of our division is that we already confess the same pattern.  Our pattern is God in Jesus through the Spirit, or our pattern is Jesus. Here we are united, and our hermeneutics (whether blueprint or theological) must not undermine that unity but provide ways to embody it.  That is the point of Part IV of my book.

Response to Dan Owen’s Article in the Gospel Advocate

January 16, 2020

In the December 2019 issue of the Gospel Advocate, Dan Owen offered a brief response, in part, to my recent book Searching for the Pattern. I thank Dan for reading the book, and I am grateful for his article as it calls attention to an important concern about how we read the Bible. I wish I could link to the article for my readers, but it is unavailable.

Dan quotes this sentence from Searching for the Pattern (p. 119), which he finds problematic: “In other words, the rule or canon by which Christians walk is not fundamentally or foundationally the New Testament as a written document.” He then quotes another sentence: “The rule or pattern, according to the apostle Paul, is not a detailed blueprint pattern for church practices, but the cross of Christ and the inauguration of a new creation.”

Dan does not question whether there was a rule or canon before the New Testament existed as Galatians 5:15-16 indicates. His point, however, is that the New Testament comes to us as a rule or canon that contains the teaching of the apostles. Consequently, he thinks I proposed, “to some degree, a false dichotomy” (40).

However, I do not dispute that the New Testament is a rule or canon. It is the teaching of the apostles handed down to us through divine inspiration. The question is what within the New Testament is essential, normative, and necessary for the faith and practice of the church. As Dan notes, we must read each biblical text in context and in the light of the whole story of the Bible (42). Consequently, we must discern through a contextual and wholistic reading of the Bible what is required for Christian faithfulness today. In other words, we must discern what in the New Testament canon is an essential rule for the contemporary church. What I claim is that the rule is, in summary, the cross of Christ and new creation.

Dan wrote, “Those who reject the apostolic documents as inspired and immediately authoritative for our lives will travel down a very different religious road from those who accept only the theological ideas in the core gospel as normative” (40).

I believe, as I affirmed above, that the apostolic documents are inspired. I am not exactly clear, however, what “immediately authoritative” means. If one means something like, “when it is clear that the apostles intended to require X as normative for all churches in all times by writing Y, then we ought to obey.” I affirm that. The question, then, is how do we discern that?

But if Dan means that whatever is asserted or taught by the New Testament is “immediately authoritative” in the sense that “when the Bible says X, we automatically and without discernment do or replicate X,” then this is problematic because the Bible tells us to do many things we do not do, including women wearing veils, enrolling widows and only those over fifty-nine, or greeting each other with a holy kiss among many other particulars.

Where Dan and I agree, I think, is that through contextual and wholistic study of Scripture, we seek to discern what God requires of us and the kind of life and practices into which God calls us. The truth of this contextual and wholistic study, I suggest in my book, is summarized in the gospel (e.g., the work of God through Christ in the Spirit; the rule by which we walk, according to Paul, in Galatians 5). This is the means by which we discern what is and is not normative for the practice of the contemporary church. I believe this because this is what I think the inspired apostolic documents teach.

Where Dan and I disagree, it seems to me, is not so much about the inspiration and authority of the Bible but how to discern what is normative and required from reading the Bible. At the same time, we share lots of common ground. Through a contextual and wholistic reading of the Bible we may, as committed disciples of Christ, see the grand story of God as the truth, and that truth is the mystery of God’s reconciling work in Christ through the Spirit.

Hermeneutics and Racial Segregation

October 4, 2019

This is an appendix from my recent book Searching for the Pattern: My Journey in Interpreting the Bible.

I have several vivid memories about race relationships in my history. 

I grew up in two very different places. In one city, African Americans lived across the river in a different city. They did not live in mine. I did not attend elementary school with any children of color, and neither did my congregation have any people of color in it. On one occasion, when a minister of an African American church of Christ from across the river visited my father for several hours at our church building, a neighbor called the police.

In the other city, I attended an integrated High School. The congregation where my father ministered was integrated in both leadership and membership. I was too young to understand or know how those dynamics played out in the congregation, but I do know I attended church with people of color. My father ministered in India for six weeks every year for a decade, and my family welcomed diverse guests across all ethnicities in our home for meals as well as lodging them for weeks or months. I learned to respect and love people who were different.

The first congregation I served as a preaching minister was in a northern urban center where half the church was African American and the other half was Caucasian. We were small but enjoyed wonderful fellowship. I officiated my first funeral there. It was the wife of my mentor and close friend, one of the congregation’s African American leaders who had led many to Christ.

When I moved to the deep South, it shocked my system. I remember sitting at a table with some elders and their wives near the Florida-Alabama border where, after talking with them about reaching out to the African American community, one of the wives grudgingly agreed to welcome them into the church but insisted she would not invite any into her home. At a congregation in Mississippi, I was present the first time an African American led singing. In response, three couples walked out of the building and left that congregation. I have known ministers in the deep South who were dismissed because they baptized a black person in the church’s baptistry, preached on racism, or were involved in community efforts toward racial reconciliation. On multiple occasions, I have seen white people flee congregations they had attended for years when African Americans grew in numbers that threatened the balance of power and/or added color to the youth group in an unacceptable mix. Some parents feared their children might date, perhaps even marry, someone of another race.

Racism is alive, and while I hope it is dying, it does not seem to be in its death throes. Indeed, I fear it is raising its ugly head with even more ferocity in the past few decades. Yet, nothing is more subversive of the gospel than racist attitudes and practices. Racism strikes at the heart of the gospel itself!

How does a theological hermeneutic address this problem?

As a matter of perspective, I suggest a blueprint hermeneutic does not address the heart of the issue well. Every congregation should accept every Christian no matter their color, ethnicity, or nationality. But how would the blueprint hermeneutic make this argument? It cannot point to a pattern except that no congregation should accept the ethnic division between Jew and Gentile. That is helpful, but it is insufficient. Might it be that the blueprint hermeneutic is not up to the task? Instead, when the blueprint hermeneutic attempts to tackle this question, it naturally shifts to a theological hermeneutic. In other words, it does not resolve the question in terms of a scripted pattern but with a theological argument, which seems rather obvious to all who love God and their neighbors. To the degree our history has neglected a theological hermeneutic, to that same degree racism is able to get hold of our hearts because we have been more deeply formed by racist social pressures and practices rather than by the heart of God. Like the elder brother who precisely obeyed all his father’s rules but did not know his father’s heart, some are so focused on searching for, arguing about, and precisely obeying a blueprint that they don’t know the Father’s heart.

To make my point, let me rehearse, in a brief way, how a theological hermeneutic addresses racism. I will not fill this out in any detail as I assume (and hope) most will see the point rather quickly. To do this, I will simply walk through the story of God and note a few significant points.

Creation. Every human being is created in the image of God, and, therefore, is crowned with glory and honor (Genesis 1:27; Psalm 8:5). Every human being has the status of a royal priest within the creation, and despite the fact that every human being has sinned and fallen short of this glory, every human being still images God. Consequently, no one should curse, hate, or mistreat another person (James 3:9-10).

God intended humanity to inhabit the whole earth (Isaiah 45:18) and commissioned humanity to “fill the earth” (Genesis 1:28). When humanity fills the earth, humanity diversifies. People do not eat the same food, wear the same clothes, and have the same skin color when they live in such diverse places as Alaska, Guatemala, Singapore, Germany, and Sub-Saharan Africa. Consequently, these geographically diverse peoples created diverse cultures. Just as God created diverse plants and animals with diverse colors, so God commissioned humanity to fill the whole earth. Humanity, by God’s design, grew diverse, and this is as beautiful as what God created in other aspects of nature. God intended diversity, and God loves diversity.

Israel. Racists often appeal to Israel’s distinct role as a holy nation to support some kind of separatism or segregation. But this woefully misunderstands what God is doing in Israel. For example, God chose Israel to bless the nations rather than condemn them, and God ultimately wants to include the nations rather than exclude them. God called Israel to be “a light to the nations, that [God’s] salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (Isaiah 49:6). Further, God invited the nations into community, “Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth” (Isaiah 45:22). God sent Jonah to Nineveh, and Jonah, who did not have the heart of God, objected to the mercy God extended.

In addition, Israel welcomed and included the aliens who lived within their borders. Israel was explicitly commanded, “You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien” (Exodus 22:21). Israel was to love the alien just as she loved herself (Leviticus 19:34), and Israel shared its tithes with aliens (Deuteronomy 26:12). Aliens could eat the Passover (2 Chronicles 30:25), offer sacrifices (Leviticus 17:8; 22:18), and were included in the forgiveness God extended to the community (Numbers 15:26). Israel’s status before God did not authorize them to oppress others.

The Ministry of Jesus. While Jesus was sent to Israel in order to announce the coming reign of God, he did not neglect opportunities to serve and love Gentiles. We see this in his healing of the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter (Mark 7:24-30) and the centurion’s servant (Matthew 8:5-13). Ultimately, of course, the resurrected Jesus includes all nations as the object of gospel proclamation as he commissioned his disciples to make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:18). More, of course, could be said.

Church. The church is one race. Believers in Christ share life in a new community that transcends all nationalities and ethnicities. Peter calls the church “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people.” In other words, they are a new humanity, and they are a race that includes all ethnicities and nationalities. Like Adam and Eve, and like Israel, this new race is a royal priesthood who proclaims God’s “mighty acts” (1 Peter 2:9).

Paul makes a similar point in Ephesians 2. Talking about Jews and Gentiles (the nations), Paul stresses that, through the cross, Christ knocked down the wall that separated Jew and Gentile and created “in himself one new humanity” (Ephesians 2:16). As a result, there are no ethnic or national divisions in the church, and there “are no longer [any] strangers and aliens” but only “citizens” and “members of the household of God” (Ephesians 2:19).

New Creation. The picture in Revelation 7 is quite clear. There “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” stands “before the throne and the Lamb, robed in white” (Revelation 7:9). Together they sing, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb” (Revelation 7:10). There is no segregation in the throne room of God!

Of course, much more could be said about each of these movements within the biblical drama. But I have shared enough to demonstrate that racism is fundamentally out of step with God’s agenda in creation and new creation as well as throughout the story.

At the center of the gospel is the mystery of Christ rather than a racist narrative. The gospel testifies to God’s love for the whole world through the gift of Jesus (John 3:16), Christ’s death for all (1 Timothy 2:4-6), and God’s inclusion of all within the church, whether “Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free” because “Christ is all and in all” (Colossians 3:11). In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, nor slave nor free, nor male or female because we are all one in Christ (Galatians 3:28).

While this only touches the surface of this topic, a theological hermeneutic is at work here. We discover God’s values, God’s identity, and God’s heart through the narrative, and in Christ God testifies to the “mystery of godliness.” God in the flesh, vindicated in the Spirit through the resurrection and seen among the angels as the enthroned Lord, is now “proclaimed among Gentiles” and “believed in throughout the world” (1 Timothy 3:16). With Christ at the center of our theology, there is no place for racism, and racist practices subvert the gospel.

As segregation within the church reared its ugly head in the 1870s, David Lipscomb, the editor of the Gospel Advocate, opposed it. In 1874, when a consultation of church leaders met in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, it passed a resolution that recommended that “our colored brethren who have membership with whites, whenever practicable to withdraw themselves and form congregations of their own.” Lipscomb opposed it, and he labeled it “destructive to the Spirit of Christ” (Gospel Advocate, October 29, 1874, pp. 1017-8, 20). On another occasion, Lipscomb wrote: “The whole idea of churches along race lines is contrary to the spirit and the precepts of the New Testament, and to refuse fellowship to a child of God because of its race or family is to refuse it to Jesus himself” (Gospel Advocate, August 15, 1907, p. 521).

Nevertheless, Jim Crow culture led churches of Christ to segregate into different congregations. They were not alone, of course. It was the dominant culture. Unfortunately, the effects of that segregation still loom large. Indeed, some Christians have believed, as one stated in a letter, too many people “fall for the big lie that segregation is unchristian.”

In this instance, unlike in many cases where churches of Christ divided, the gospel is at stake. Whenever racism dictates and influences our practice, it subverts the gospel, and we proclaim and practice another gospel, which is no gospel at all. In such a circumstance, we find ourselves under Paul’s anathema (Galatians 1:6-9).

May God have mercy!

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.