Facing Our Failures: A Review

Peter Abelard (1079-1142), who pioneered the scholastic method of theologizing, produced a volume entitled Sic et Non (or, “Yes and No”) for use in teaching through the dialectic method. It is a composition of quotes from earlier theologians and fathers on a variety of topics, but they are arranged oppositionally, that is, some theologians say “Yes” and others say “No.” He does suggest that some may be harmonized by understanding the semantic variation of key terms (thus the use of dialectics), but he does not attempt to harmonize them.

Todd Deaver–not to rank him with Abelard in the history of Christian thought (sorry, Todd)–has done something similar. He has given us the “Yes” and “No” to the questions of fellowship, boundaries and salvation among conservatives (traditionalists) with Churches of Christ in the past thirty years. His new, self-published book Facing Our Failures: The Fellowship Dilemma in Conservative Churches of Christ points out that the presupposition that “every practice considered to be unauthorized in the New Testament is grounds for breaking fellowship” is incoherently explained, inconsistently applied, and ambiguously stated among traditional Churches of Christ (p. 18).

It is ambiguous because many disagree about what is unauthorized and what is unauthorized (his list on pp. 52-56 is impressively documented; e.g., praying to Jesus in the assembly).  It is inconsistenly applied because fellowship still exists (or is claimed) between those who disagree about what is authorized and what is unauthorized (e.g., why is instrumental music in the assembly grounds for breaking fellowship when clapping during songs or singing during the Lord’s Supper is not?).  It is incoherent because the method by which this is discerned is unclear and inconsistent (e.g., what is the deciding factor or criterion? the assembly?).

Todd meticulously cites and details these problems.  Though the inconsistencies pointed out have been previously noted by others (there is a long history of this since the 1960s), what makes Todd’s book valuable is his thorough grounding of his argument in the writings of conservatives (traditionalists). We are able to see the problem unfold through the contrasting words of conservative writers themselves (thus, Sic et Non). And Todd does this without malice, sarcasm and with great appreciation for the faith and commitment of the traditionalists he cites.

Further, Todd does not simply contrast–unlike Abelard. Rather, he seeks to understand what is at the root of the contrary statements, explores possible harmonizations, and probes the inner logic of the conservative position. 

Todd concludes that the paradigm is the problem (chapter five:  “Our Paradigm is the Problem,” pp. 81-104).  If any doctrinal error (and if not any, then which ones, and how do we decide) excludes us from the fellowship of God as per the traditional interpretation of 2 John 9, and “persistence in any unauthorized practice warrants the breaking of fellowship,” and “our salvation depends on” identifying the correct “limits of fellowship,”  then Todd believes conservatives (including himself among conservatives) are in quite a pickle.  He asks:  “Who among us has the boundaries of fellowship figured out completely and with absolute certainty?” (p. 88).  No one, he concludes, and this entails that the paradigm itself is flawed and “extreme.”

Todd searches for consistency within the conservative position and he fails to find it. “We consistently withdraw from those who worship with the instrument because we believe such is without scriptural authority,” he writes, “yet we continually fellowship some who do other things we believe to be just as unauthorized” (p. 106).  And, at the same “we teach that we cannot fellowship those who bind where God has loosed, and we maintain fellowship with many brethren who oppose as sinful practices which we believe to be authorized” (p.  107; e.g., supporting children’s homes from the church treasury).

At root, Todd has deconstructed the ecclesiological perfectionism of the conservative (traditionalist) understanding of fellowship and authorized practices. Such perfectionism on fellowship and boundaries is unattainable (and, I would add, not intended by the authors of the New Testament). This was the “sole purpose” of his book (p. 108).

Todd does not offer a solution to the problem; that is not his purpose and there is no solution within the current paradigm. Rather, he suggests that what is needed is a “theological shift” (p. 110) whereby we turn to a different paradigm. 

I trust that this “shift” is partly a shift from ecclesiological perfectionism to Christological centrism. Many, including myself,  have suggested this as a way out of our incessant dividing and infighting (see my series on theological hermeneutics).  The value of Todd’s book is that is a fearless, fair and friendly demonstration that the current paradigm among conservative (traditionalist) Churches of Christ is a dead end–and, I would add, ultimately harmful and destructive.

Thanks, Todd, for your work.  I encourage those interested in the documentation and argumentation to purchase and read the book. The dialogue will continue at Todd’s new website “Bridging the Grace Divide.”

20 Responses to “Facing Our Failures: A Review”

  1.   Tim Archer Says:

    Thanks John Mark. That’s one of the more helpful reviews I’ve read of this book.

  2.   Nick Gill Says:

    That’s because he’s smarter than I am 🙂

  3.   Nick Gill Says:

    OOPS! PS – Well done, JM. This book is precisely the gift from postmodernity that our brotherhood needs.

  4.   rich constant Says:

    thanks john mark i just posted on Todd’s blog.

    I get you out of here and go to work, but I hope to read the three posts that he had tonight when I get back home.

    Blessings all rich

  5.   Matthew Says:

    Thanks for the review John Mark.


  6.   richard Corum Says:

    Considering Todd’s family background and religious heritage I would imagine that he thought long and hard before he publicly voiced his concerns. I just wish we could have a genuine civil discussion. Thanks for bringing this book and blog to our attention.


  7.   Clyde S. Says:

    Thanks for this review–I pray Todd’s book will help some who are wrestling with the inconsistencies they’ve inherited/accepted.

    I know Todd’s heart is not in attacking but in helping, and his posture is one of seeking and discovering truth. How can anyone ask more of him than that?

  8.   Frank Says:

    Yes, thanks for this notice and review. An unusal book. I wonder how it will be received.

  9.   K. Rex Butts Says:

    I had a chance to read an early version of this book and thought it achieved its purpose in a very loving but candid manner. I know it took courage and faith for Todd Deaver to step out in faithful obedience to God like this rather than be cowered by certain powers who, though they are sincere in their love for God, are driven by ‘ecclesiological perfectionism.’

    Todd Deaver may become to a new generation of conservatives/traditionalists among the CoC what Rubel Shelly was to a past generation. That is, he will become someone who helps lead many out of a misguided paradigm into a Christo-centric faith while also becoming a traitor to “sound faith” in the eyes of many others.

    Grace and peace,


  10.   Drew Chapados Says:

    John Mark,
    Is Todd related to the Deavers like Mac & Roy?

    I struggled for a number of years with the same issues while most saw me as ultra conservative–but at the same time I couldn’t have a clean conscience with my own answers of why some things were demanding of a withdrawal of fellowship and others were not.
    I wonder if Todd will make headway with the traditional conservative church or will he be a new one to shun?

  11.   Terrell Lee Says:

    Thanks for the review.

  12.   John Mark Hicks Says:


    Todd is the son of Mac Deaver and the grandson of Roy Deaver. I did not mention it in my review because I thought it immaterial to the substance of the book.

    Let us hope–and it is my hope–that his book will renew some dialogue between parties that disagree, and that dialogue will be characterized by mutual respect and a love for each other.

  13.   randy blankenship Says:

    Brother, thanks for the review of Todd’s book. I will be ordering several copies for my home congregation. I attend a One Cup congregation in Wichita, Kansas. For 20 yrs. we have tried to get brethren to realize that our approach to “Fellowship” is flawed. Of course we have been branded as Liberals, Digressives, not willing to take a stand. The same brethren who advocate the removal of all who do not agree with their views, have no trouble working together. They disagree on a host of Bible subjects yet continue to work together. Case in point: One brother, in the power circle of One Cup Churches, believes the “guilty” party can re-marry another brother in the power circle doesn’t. They have no trouble working together, holding meetings together, writing for the same journal (Old Paths Advocate). However, when brethren in local churches practice Unity in Diversity they are told it is a sinful practice. This seems to be the approach taken by CofC’s across the board, it is not peculiar to the One Cup group. I pray that the Lord will bless all who seek unity in Christ. God Bless you and Todd in your service to the Kingdom.

  14.   David Braden Says:

    Thanks for the review. I just sent in an order for Todd’s book. At the congregation I attend we are currently studying the Stone-Campbell Movement using material from the Jule Miller film strips, information from a journal of the East Tennessee School of Preaching and Missions, and information provided by John Waddey. I am hoping that Todd’s book will provide me with some insight as to how I might tactfully and gracefully raise some questions with the materials that are currently being presented.

  15.   John Mark Hicks Says:

    In terms of the history of the movement, I would recommend Foster and Holloway’s ACU Press book for general history. I would not think Jule Miller film strips would be very helpful but Bill Humble’s videos and book would be better, I think. May God bless the study and I pray Christ is exalted.

  16.   randall Says:

    For a study of the Stone Campbell Movement Leroy Garrett’s book The Stone Campbell Movement (An Anecdotal History of Three Churches) is quite good but a little longer that the Foster and Galloway’s book. Many also appreciated Richard Hughes book. I don’t recall the title exactly but is something like Reviving the Ancient Faith.

    I hope you enjoy the study. There is a lot of really interesting stuff there as JMH points out on a regular basis.

  17.   David Braden Says:

    I appreciate your suggestions. I have read Hughes’ book as well as the one he wrote with Allen. Those books as well as T. Olbricht’s Hearing God’s Voice, North’s Union in Truth, and Kingdom Come I found most helpful in my own understanding of our history. Our minister (who is one of the most humble Christians that I have ever known) that is teaching the class studied under J. Bales and F. Wallace. His presentation of our history is from a perspective to show how men depart from the truth and how the Restoration brought back the true church with true worship. His view of our present state would be in line with that of John Waddey. His point is not likely to look at favorably on our recent history. That is why I am looking forward to reading Todd’s book.

  18.   dannydodd Says:

    Good review. I am seeing these pop up everywhere and I think that is a good thing.

    No doubt- because of man factors- we are in the midst of evolving as a fellowship. The “old paths” as we have defined them, are finding fewer and fewer feet trodding on them.

    This evolution- while it may be anathama to some- is welcome and refreshing for others.

  19.   David Decker Says:

    One wonders what JMH alludes to in the reference, “ecclesiological perfectionism of the conservative (traditionalist) understanding of fellowship and authorized practices.” Especially in view of the passing remark that this is not what the N.T. intends. Forgive this writer, but passages such as 1 Corinthians 1:10, among a host of others, come to mind as a candid refutation of these observations. Eviently, Paul was somewhere to the very right of the so-called, “conservative (traditionalist),” understanding.”

  20.   John Mark Hicks Says:

    I assume, David, that you are reading “perfectly united in mind and thought” (1 Cor. 1:10) as a rebuttal to my rejection of “ecclesiastical perfectionism.” Fair enough.

    I think it depends on the “list” of “essentials” (or obligations) that you draw up. If the list is the same as Paul’s, then perhaps you might have a ground for discussion (though I think this is not Paul’s point).

    It also depends on what Paul means by “perfectly.” Actually, it is a verb that has the idea that “you be perfected together,” that is, it is a process of growth. Paul prays for a growth into unity and harmony, a common life together. He does not say it has already happened or that it would even happen before Christ returns again.

    I would suggest that what Paul intends is something like “let us all stay focused on what God has done for us in Christ, united in his work in the crucified and risen one as we share life together without schism and abuse.” The unity is Christ and him crucified in the Corinthian letter. That focus is not a list of formal marks of the institutional church, but following Jesus, trusting his work for us, and living in relationship of love and mutual encouragement with each other.

    My problem with “ecclesiastical perfectionism” is rooting unity in a list of essentials that are partly construced out of human inferences, binding examples not intended to be bound, and assuming a pattern in the text that does not exist, and then making these particulars the dividing line between “faithful” and “unfaithful” churches. And, if a chuch is not perfectly alligned with the determined “essentials” (that is, they are not ‘perfect’ on that score), then they must be disfellowshipped, rejected or otherwise dismissed.

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