not much, you?

It’s cold and rainy in Nashville. Good weather for lots of things — hot soup, staring out the window, sober reflection on the course of life.

Two things: I’ve spent a good deal of time over the past couple of weeks pursuing a couple of different ideas. First, the pacifist ideal among Churches of Christ. Second, I’ve been spending more time in Lipscomb’s library pulling from their collection of literature (debates, tracts, etc.) dealing with the institutional controversy among cofCs in the 1950s. I’ll take them in order.

1) I spent Sunday afternoon discussing some issues surrounding Christian participation in war and in government with some friends. One of my interlocutors is closely involved in the research that one of the Lipscomb profs is doing re: pacifism in Churches of Christ. He is attempting to show the continuity of pacifist thinking throughout the history of Churches of Christ. As we’ve been talking, I’ve been thinking about how this plays out among the various sub-groups of cofCs, including my own.

  • Mainstream cofCs have largely rejected pacifism (although there is a bit of a resurgence of late, mostly it seems among young people).
  • One-cup cofCs are (and have been for the duration of their existence as a separate communion among cofCs) staunchly pacifist.
  • My own heritage (NIs) seem to have taken something of a middle road. Pacifism has never been proscribed in the way that it was in the “mainstream.” But, at the same time, it doesn’t — at least judging by the periodicals — appear to be a majority position. In other words, it is a viable option. Most often, it is seen as an issue that Christians can disagree on without breaking fellowship. (Perhaps the locus classicus for this view is Quentin McCay’s “The Controversy Concerning the Christian’s Relationship to Civil Government” in Their Works Do Follow Them, FC Annual Lectures 1982.) There are problems with this approach, to which I will return later.

My question is this: what accounts for these differences? Is it simply historical circumstance?

2) Reading Harrell’s Emergence of the “Church of Christ” Denomination (and other more or less contemporary works, such as the Tant-Harper Debate) has caused me to wonder: how would one go about reconstructing the doctrinal/theological history of NI cofCs?

The sources for such an endeavor are polemical to the core. Take, for example, the so-called “grace-unity movement” of the early 1970s. The surviving literature is disappointing. Neither side (esp. on the Truth Magazine end of things) seems especially interested in the concerns of the other side. What really happened there and what does it say about the NI movement at that specific moment in its history or over the span of the last half-century? Will there ever be any way to (even partially) objectively answer that question? The same thing obtains for the war question. Let’s say that I wanted to reconstruct the fortunes of the pacifist/non-pacifist positions among NIs. Where would I go? I read an article the other day in a 1993 issue of Truth which asked the question “Was Jesus a Pacifist?” The author’s argument was singularly unhelpful: his definition of “pacifist” seemed to be “wimp.” He doesn’t seem to have investigated the question at all really and came across as exceedingly emotion-driven. How sad. But that’s a digression. Why is the war question not an issue among NIs? You would think that it would be otherwise. War is a life and death issue. Abortion is a life and death issue. But no congo that I’m aware of would hire a preacher who thought that abortion was something that Christians could disagree on and remain in fellowship. Would they? Will some intrepid historian ever be able to recover what played into the development of this outlook?

That’s enough for now. I’ve got a headache.



12 responses to “not much, you?

  1. Fellowship in churches of Christ has historically been decided more by church politics and history than by the actual pattern we see in Scripture. I blogged some on this here.

    Not really any different today. A decade ago, disagreements over the word “day” in Genesis in NI churches were not grounds for separation; today, they are among some. Why? Largely political reasons, as far as I can see. (Note: I don’t agree with the day-age theory in the least; I just don’t find grounds for withdrawal around it.)

    And yet we can completely disagree on the interpretation of Revelation and remain in harmony. I suspect one day that will no longer be politically expedient for some and be grounds to attack another group of Christians.

  2. Jeff,

    I really appreciate you stopping by and contributing. I speak my mind, as you may have noticed. I hope that you aren’t terribly offended by what you read here.


    Politics. Why are we so blinded to it? Why do we so often act like it doesn’t exist? Paul speaks of being enslaved to “principalities and powers;” this is most certainly one of them.

    I ask these questions because it seems to me that we have, among NI churches, a denomination on our hands. Sure, we would never call it that in polite company (we say “brotherhood” or “fellowship,” instead). We still render lip service to the notion of congregational autonomy — everyone praises it to the skies and then goes home and promptly ignores it. We have all of the attendant mechanisms of hierarchical control — editor-bishops, national conventions (we call them “lectureships”), policing/doctrinal enforcement mechanisms. Somehow, somewhere along the way (this is a history yet to be written) these things developed among NI churches and, whether we like it or not (I’m certainly not crazy about it), men occupy positions of powerful, nation-wide influence.

    We could say, “O.K., this is wrong and needs to be done away with.” That’s all well and good, but entrenched power does not give up that easily. Note, for instance, the recent publication of a book entitled We Have A Right by the folks at Truth Magazine (a rather brash title, don’t you think?). I think that when a group does something like that you almost have to start asking questions about motives. What, politically speaking, is to be gained from, for example, writing an open letter or continuing to bring up a person who has been dead for many years? Is it about power? If so, power among whom? Is it more cynical — stirring up fear of “false teachers” (fill in your own definition) for political ends? But I digress. Simply put, Truth (and any number of other publications, for that matter) is not going anywhere, if they have anything to say about it.

    So, what do we do? Let’s say that we realize that these parachurch organizations are a problem. They need, further, to be fought and dismantled because of their unhealthy influence on the brotherhood. Think about the logistics of doing that. Effectively combatting them could not be done by individuals on their own. One person stopping their subscription to a particular magazine is not going to substantively affect the editor of that magazine. What would be needed is some sort of network, some sort of coalition of like-minded people who recognized the cancerous affects of said parachurch organization (or magazine or whatever) and created an organization (or rival magazine) of their own to combat it collectively.

    Irony of ironies! One parachurch organization (affiliation, fellowship, etc.) formed to combat another one. This is the essence of denominationalism. But it’s the Catch-22 that we find ourselves in.

    You might be tempted to say, at this point, “Wait a minute! I don’t need a collective organization or magazine to do that. I and my local congregation can get along just fine on our own.” (This seems to be what Sam Dawson is saying, if I understand him correctly.) This very rarely works. What with all of the diocesan bishops (or “apostles,” as you so aptly put it) that travel around from place to place, congregational autonomy is more pleasant fiction than reality. Moreover, such independence, while it looks good on paper, is a recipe for disaster. It isolates the local congregation, cutting it off from the church universal and leading to all sorts (usually) of inbred heresies that grow very easily when a group of people is cut off from larger discussions about Scripture and theology. You might be thinking, right now, that you wouldn’t cut yourself off from everybody. But then, of course, you’re back to square one: existing as part of a network of like-minded people and congregations, i.e. a denomination.

    So what do we do? Why not make use of what we have? Why are the collective forums (lectureships, periodicals) that already exist among us not used constructively — i.e. to solve problems in a brotherly way rather than to aggravate them? (I’m talking off the top of my head here and do not mean to sound “papist,” to borrow a horribly archaic term. If you’ve got a better idea, please by all means share it.)

    Again, thanks for stopping by and participating on my blog.


  3. Chris,

    One could always admit that the whole autonomous congregation idea is a non-starter to begin with. Likewise, the denial of a “clergy/laity” distinction.

    Howabout a “reimaging” of NI churches of Christ along these lines. First, that Christ has “graced” the Church with leaders to oversee and guide His flock. The first of this group of overseers were the apostles but also includes the list as manifested in Ephesians 4. The apostles not only manifested a special ministry of delivering a new revelation but also manefested the more mundane ministry of “oversight”. By example and word, their oversight was a “sphere of influence” of multiple congregations, and, indeed, areas, which was passed on to others.

    Secondly, this oversight was not manifested in a “lone wolf” capacity, but was collegial as demonstrated by Paul’s visits to Jerusalem and the Jerusalem council. This collegiality is represented by the “messengers” of Revelations and, the apparently, extensive communication network exhibited in the Paul’s epistles.

    Finally, in order for all this to work, there needs to be a distinction between the overseers and the “overseen”. Its this lack of distinction that allows some in the NI coC (and the mainstream too) to assume a mantle of authority by widespread publication of their writings.

  4. Not to weigh-in on the controversy; I just wanted to compliment you on your “sassy” new blog look and express my anxious anticipation of seeing you and HLC soon.


  5. Chris,

    As always, the answer is to first admit we know nothing. Only God has the answers that work and are suitable to him.

    God din’t see fit to continue the office of apostle. Don’t know why. But it was His prerogative and choice. He knows what’s best, not us. He knows what He wants, not us. Therefore, it’s not an option for us to re-establish it. Neither is it up to us to create a hierarchy He did not endorse, nor a clerical system of non-Divine origin.

    What God has revealed is independent congregations, each led by a group of qualified elders doing the work God has assigned, where each member is a royal priest. When we return to that (dare I say it?) pattern, we’ll be pleasing to God and find our efforts blessed (though Satan obviously won’t leave us alone). While we cling to our warring factions, business meetings, de facto clergy, parachurch organizations (church-funded or otherwise), and other man-made innovations, we won’t.

    Simple as that.

  6. Hi Jeff,

    I think you may have confused me with Ken re: apostles and hierarchy.

    Anyway, correct me if I’m wrong about your most recent comment. Are you saying that the answer to all of these problems which we have been discussing is to do nothing, to ignore them?

    You said:

    “What God has revealed is independent congregations, each led by a group of qualified elders doing the work God has assigned, where each member is a royal priest. When we return to that (dare I say it?) pattern, we’ll be pleasing to God and find our efforts blessed (though Satan obviously won’t leave us alone). While we cling to our warring factions, business meetings, de facto clergy, parachurch organizations (church-funded or otherwise), and other man-made innovations, we won’t.”

    This sounds very attractive — total freedom to serve Christ and whatnot — but how do we get there practically speaking? The men-only business meetings, the pastor system, the parachurch organizations all exist. They are a reality. Moreover, they are an entrenched reality that is self-perpetuating. They’ve manufactured justifications for their own existence and status and they’re not giving that up. If we could say the magic word and poof! they all disappeared, I’m sure that we would do that. But we can’t.

    But that doesn’t absolve us of the responsibility to do something about it.

    So, again I ask — and please don’t take this the wrong way — concretely speaking, what is to be done? (Maybe a march on Bowling Green? 🙂 )

  7. Chris,

    As you might presume me to think, I simply see no biblical precedence whatsoever for autonomous local congregations with no episcopal oversight. The Bible doesn’t say it (though some think it to be found there, even they will normally admit that it is to be found nowhere clearly); early Church history says so unanimously and forcefully the exact opposite that I would be very hardpressed to argue otherwise.

    Ken is spot on when he warns of the dangers of treating every member as a theologian. St. Paul told Timothy to use great caution in the laying on of hands, and that seems to be because the office conferred through that ordination (St. Timothy, of course, was a bishop himself, according to Eusebius) was of such extreme importance in “committing the faith” unto other “faithful men.”

    The assumption that God forbids any succession to the Apostolic episcopate is based on the tried and sadly-lacking experiment called “sola Scriptura.” I don’t know where you stand on that whole mess; I’m guessing you still adhere to some milder, more nuanced form of it, but I think you might recognize the inherent problems in such an approach — theological problems, not to mention the more obvious historical ones.

    You take a movement that is supposedly comprised of 100% autonomous local churches, but which has obviously never worked that way (and can’t; it’s simply not possible), which then begins to function with some strange and contorted episcopacy, all the while denying it, and, well, it is not exactly the picture of consistency.

    But what I fear is that the CofC is in extreme danger of lapsing into rather large heresies. I have already encountered some outright Nestorianism in Harding U. Professors; the frightening thing was that they professed Nestorianism even while denying it (I think they had so lightly treated history that this was possible). I have CofC elders and preachers in my own extended family who question Trinitarian thought and come up somewhere closer to St. Justin Martyr’s Adoptionism. But the alarming thing is that they speak of this rather glibly, and their churches, being still somewhat autonomous and sadly deficient in historical theology, do not and cannot offer any sort of corrective.

    And where is the bishop when he is needed? Where is St. Gregory of Nyssa? St. Athanasius? St. Basil?

    He is long gone, replaced by a relatively uneducated high school graduate who rejects the Spirit, leaving himself with only his concordance studies and a few old volumes of 19th century sermons, writing “articles” on the “threat of music” while the Gnostics et al douse the building with gasoline.

    Perhaps a bit overly dramatic, but I think you get the point I’m after. The CofC is becoming increasingly impotent because it is not gathered around the bishop, the bishop who passes on the same faith passed on to his ancestors. The CofC’s cannot simply change terminology or methods; they are a different animal than the historical church. St. Ignatius of Antioch said, “Where the Bishop is, there is the Church.” Ignatius was a disciple of St. John.

    It is all this and more that has me squirming in my “nondenominational” pew.

    Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner.

  8. Chris, I have a short paper presentation on McQiddy’s pacifism during WWI (which, subsequently, shifted with government pressure). Maybe I can send it to you some time.

    Ken, your comment concerning “outright Nestorianism in Harding U. Professors” is a bit too cryptic. Would you help us with a more tangible lead to search this out?

  9. The second response is to Kevin (not Ken). Sorry about that.

  10. Hi Jeremy,

    I’d be glad to have a look at what you have to say about McQuiddy. Whenever you like, you can email it to anastasisblog[at]gmail[dot]com.


  11. Re: apostles and hierarchy, I apply the same principles to informal networks and brotherhood spokesmen. Formal or informal, the problem’s the same.

    How do we get there? Prayer. Persuasion. Patience. Perseverance.

    Most of the needed changes aren’t changes in direction. They’re principles already held by Christians (at least in NI churches). Everyone agrees we need qualified men to act as elders, for example; the problem is we’ve decided God’s way is too hard. It’s easier to take our stopgap expedient for decision-making and turn it into a formal replacement for elders. And so we’re content with a man-made replacement and, being content, don’t train men to take the role of elders.

    The other root cause (IMO) of a lot of our problems is a lack of Biblical study. Again, it’s easier to get the “correct answer” from a preacher or a commentary or periodical; these might be good supplements to study, but aren’t adequate replacements for it. We’re much better at telling people what to believe these days than we are at showing them how to find truth.

    Both of these concessions to convenience cause a domino effect. We let located preachers and other unqualified men become de facto elders. We train ourselves to be fed rather than to feed ourselves. And, because we lack knowledge of the Word, we need someone to lead us. Lacking qualified leaders, we follow men who at best often lack self-control and judgment, and at worst are divisive.

    Basically, we need to look to God more and men less and persuade others to do the same.

  12. Jeremy,

    I dialogued for several weeks with a Harding U. Professor (he may have recently retired; I cannot recall) who was also a preacher and missionary. I don’t remember how, but the subject of Nestorianism came up. I remarked that many in the CofC were Nestorian, in effect if not explicitly. He denied that, but then went on to also deny that Mary was the Mother of God. He said that she was the mother of the man Jesus, but not of Christ.

    That, historically, is Nestorianism. Whether he would outrightly assert two distinct persons or not, I don’t know. But, the direction he was leaning was emphatically Nestorian. Since that time, I have had a few other conversations with lay people in the CofC who also make the same claim. From my time growing up in the CofC, I seem to recall that most would deny Mary’s motherhood of Christ (God), while allowing only the motherhood of the man, Jesus.

    I hope that clarifies what I meant. The point of that example was not to highlight Nestorian tendencies, but rather to demonstrate the hunch I have that autonomous churches (such as the CofC) are at high risk of falling into rather weighty heresies (with weighty implications for the rest of Christian doctrine), while tending to highlight and emphasize doctrines pertaining mostly only to their own sect.

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