red meat

Back to substantive posting.

A while back, I received a note in response to one of my October posts on history and tradition.  I want to take a post or two to dialogue about the issues that the note raised.  What follows is the text of the response (edited for readability, not for content) and my own response.  Warning: LONG post ahead.

Wow, I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a more cynical outlook on the simple plan of salvation built around a simple message of God’s words. It is obvious someone or something has turned you […] off to the wonderful church that Christ established. Not every congregation or teacher will be able to convey the mission of the church as laid out in the NT — love one another, assemble to worship the awesome and all-powerful creator of the universe…sadly some soon become disillusioned that the congregations aren’t doing this or joining in that.

I guess I’m wondering if you think the church of Christ was started as a reformation movement by Alexander Campbell and B[arton] Stone, or has the church that Christ built endured through the ages (despite the lack of attention we may see in written history – i.e., the “1st Century” pattern endured)? Does it matter? Or does what matter is following the pattern clearly written out in the N.T.?

And I guess I also wonder why you say the Holy Spirit “took a sabbatical?” Is it because many Christians don’t believe in continuing revelation, or miracles at the hands of holy-spirit-filled men? Of the latter, I would certainly say IF that is the doctrinal test, then since we are wrong, then there ARE holy-spirit-filled men wandering the Earth healing people? Please, someone give them a Yellow Pages and point them to the children’s hospitals! Ok — I, too, turned on the satire…but you get my point.

The church of Christ (Rom 16:16) was est[ablished] by Jesus the Christ at Jerusalem on the first Pentecost after his resurrection, approx 30 A.D.  I would think the apostasy you […] ridicule that took place within a few years of each congregation’s establishment and growth might strengthen your faith since it was prophesied by the Holy Spirit through the N.T. authors. If the apostasy had not occurred, perhaps THEN I would begin to wonder if these N.T. writers were truly inspired.  As [to] the Campbell movement 1700 years later, I’ve found references to congregations PRIOR to Mr. Campbell’s so-called restoration where the members call themselves simply Christians and churches of Christ, from Tubermore and Glasgow, Scotland, to Paris, KY.

I’ll start at the beginning.  My respondent detects a note of cynicism in my previous posts.  So, he begins with a question about my attitude before moving into more substantive criticisms.  He is quite right to say that the Church is Christ’s, as is the salvation that comes through it.  He goes on to say, correctly, that the Church is made up of fallible, sinful men and women.  Those who preach the Gospel or teach in local congregations do so sometimes effectively, sometimes not.  That’s all well and good, but it misses my original point.  What I am critiquing in that series of posts from October is not Christ or his Church, but rather a flawed human understanding of history.  Perhaps on a surface reading (although I’m not willing to grant this), what I wrote might be seen as “cynical.”  But I would ask my respondent to think a little more deeply with me.  The point of view that I was criticizing is very widespread in NI Churches of Christ.  I criticize it not because I disdain NI Churches of Christ, but because I believe that this point of view is damaging to our efforts to understand the NT and God’s work in history ever since.  I criticize because I love the Church and want to see my brethren take its history seriously, not because I’m attempting to slander it. 

As adults, we understand this principle as it relates to parent-child relationships: we point out to our children areas where we see them going astray or making ill-considered choices because we love them, not simply because we delight in taking potshots at them.  Sometimes, of course, we can do this in a humorous or satirical fashion in order to get our point across.  Again, it isn’t motivated by a lack of love, but rather by a sincere love that seeks what is best for its object.  Likewise, our relationships with our brethren in the Church.  I am perfectly comfortable utilizing satire: it’s not directed at our Lord, it’s directed at fallacious views that have grown up among our brethren over the past two centuries.  Our spiritual forebears understood this principle: the redemptive possibilities of satire.  As an example, one might read Alexander Campbell’s “The Third Epistle of Peter.”  For him, satire was an effective way to goad his audience into reflection about the all-too-common tendency of the Church, which is populated by fallible men and women, to misplace its priorities and to lose sight of its Lord.  So, in sum, I would ask that my respondent read my own attempt at satire in the context of the posts around it, understanding that the goal of those posts is to begin discussion about a damaging set of assumptions that exist among our brethren.


Moving on to paragraph two.  My respondent asks, “[Do] you think the church of Christ was started as a reformation movement by Alexander Campbell and B[arton] Stone, or has the church that Christ built endured through the ages (despite the lack of attention we may see in written history – i.e., the “1st Century” pattern endured)?”  

First things first: I asserted above, and I think my respondent would agree, that Christ established his Church, a group of men and women to be his Body on earth.  When he did so, he said that the gates of Hades would not prevail against it (Matthew 16.18).  I think that I and my respondent agree up to this point.  The problem lies in what happens next.  Was there a complete apostasy, predicted by Paul in 1 Timothy 4, or did the Church “endure through the ages?”  Both of these options are worthy of comment: my respondent, if I understand him correctly, seems to want it both ways.  It seems to me, however, that the two are mutually exclusive. 

I will begin with what is commonly called the “Great Apostasy” theory, which my respondent alludes to later in his comments (see the text above).  This view, based upon a (as I hope to show in just a moment) faulty exegesis of 1 Timothy 4, asserts that during the second half of the first century the Christian communities around the Mediterranean, without exception, fell into apostasy with regard to faith and practice.  By the time the Apostle John penned the final words of the Revelation, the Church was in darkness.  This stark picture leaves no room for the possibility of the survival of a “faithful remnant.”  This is an extremely important point: as the preachers, teachers and Sunday School material that I was exposed to throughout my youth continually emphasized, there is no wiggle room in apostasy, i.e. you are either apostate or you are not, you are either walking in darkness or walking in light.  Furthermore, there had to be a falling away in order for there to be a Restoration.  Conversely, you cannot restore something that has not fallen away.  The one assumes the other, as the title of J.W. Shepherd’s popular book from the early 20th century suggests.  All of the intervening years (approximately 1700 years) between apostasy and restoration were a total wash, filled with the rankest heresies, creeds and false teachings.  This was most assuredly not an open question as it was presented to me: the study of history was useless aside from the negative examples that it provided for us, showing us what not to do.  I am not simply making this stuff up: it was the unequivocal historical perspective that I imbibed growing up in NI Churches of Christ.

AN ASSESSMENT: There are a number of problems with the “Great Apostasy” theory.  First, the “Great Apostasy” theory is built upon bad exegesis of 1 Timothy 4.  Second, the “Great Apostasy” theory flies in the face of Jesus’ promise in Matthew 16 (cited above).  Are we really supposed to believe that he was so ineffectual in that promise that the Church barely lasted a couple of generations past his ascension?  Third, the “Great Apostasy” theory takes the care and headship of the Church out of the hands of Christ, who is its Lord, and places it in the hands of frail and fallible human beings who are expected to “restore” the Church by getting everything regarding doctrine and practice absolutely correct. 

Now, I’d like to spend a little time examining Paul’s “prophecy” of a “Great Apostasy” in 1 Timothy 4.  First, the text:

Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will renounce the faith by paying attention to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, through the hypocrisy of liars whose consciences are seared with a hot iron. They forbid marriage and demand abstinence from foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected, provided it is received with thanksgiving; for it is sanctified by God’s word and by prayer.  (1 Timothy 4.1-5)

I was always taught that one should look at the context of a passage when attempting to understand its meaning.  Let’s do that first.  Given the nature of the standard interpretation of this passage among NI Churches of Christ, it will be most useful to examine the historical context of the passage and of 1 Timothy as a whole. 

Paul’s first letter to Timothy is written to address false teaching that was affecting the church at Ephesus where Timothy occupies a leadership role.  The text gives some clues as to the nature of that false teaching: they desire to be “teachers of the law” (1.7), there is a focus on “myths” and “genealogies” (1.4), there is a focus on wealth (2.9-10; 6.6-10) and (somewhat paradoxically) asceticism (4.1-5).  What all of this adds up to, in the estimation of almost every commentator on 1 Timothy, is some form of early Gnosticism (especially regarding 4.1-5).  It has nothing to do with mediaeval Catholicism, which is the way that I’ve most often heard it interpreted.  I say this for a couple of reasons.  First, the letter has to make sense to its writer and its immediate recipients.  A diatribe by Paul on “false teaching” from a thousand years after the time that the letter was written would be useless to his audience.  For this reason alone, an historicist interpretation of 1 Timothy can be rejected (in much the same way that Churches of Christ have gradually rejected the historicist view of Revelation, by the way).  But let me go a bit further.  Consider Paul’s situation: he and Timothy are dealing with false teaching that is there among the Christians at Ephesus even as Paul wrote the letter.  Do we really think he has time to worry about what’s going to take place a full millennium later (assuming that the Second Coming hasn’t already occurred, which Paul seems to have expected at any moment)?? 

My respondent, and many others in NI Churches of Christ, understand this passage as prophecy, based upon (I would guess) Paul’s use of the phrase “in later times” (4.1), understanding that phrase to be a reference to the distant future.  But that interpretation ignores the reality that both Jesus and Paul believed that they were living in the “last times.”  For Christians in the 21st century, this is no less true now than it was then.  I think that Paul saw the presence of false teaching in the church at Ephesus as simply part and parcel of what it meant to be God’s people on earth in the “last times.”  Had you asked him, I think that he would have said that Satan was always scheming to disrupt the Body of Christ and that that was exactly what was occurring at Ephesus.  Exegetically, there is simply no need to resort to an interpretation of 1 Timothy 4.1-5 that relies upon the fanciful connections with mediaeval Catholicism instead of the context of Paul’s own time.


My respondent also puts forward an alternative, what one might call the “faithful remnant” theory.  Among NI Churches of Christ, this certainly constitutes a new understanding.  It is most assuredly not the understanding of our spiritual forebears, who would have rejected the idea out of hand.  Having said that, though, I would like to examine the “faithful remnant” theory on its merits.

Briefly stated, the theory holds that, throughout time, there have been small groups of faithful Christians even when the Church was in the darkest night of apostasy.  (As the idea is typically expressed, that “darkest night” would have been during the Middle Ages, at the height of Roman Catholic influence in Europe.)     

AN ASSESSMENT: The “faithful remnant” theory has a long history: it was first put forward by Anabaptist and Puritan apologists in the 16th and 17th centuries.  These groups (and other branches of the Reformation) were persecuted heavily by Roman Catholic authorities.  Catholic polemicists argued that these groups were new, their doctrines were new and had no basis in the 1500 years of Christian history.  To counter the charge, Anabaptist and Puritan apologists looked to groups in the past that had likewise been persecuted by Roman authorities (e.g. Waldensians, Albigensians, Nestorians, Arians, etc.).  Due to shared persecution, Anabaptist and Puritan believers felt a kinship with these groups and they saw some of themselves in these bygone movements.  In that shared sense of identity, Anabaptist and Puritan believers could lay claim to a sense of antiquity (and, therefore, legitimacy).  Moreover, that antiquity could be proven (they thought) by a traceable succession of dissident Christian movements.  Such a succession would span the embarrassing gap between the first century and their own time that their own charges of apostasy against the Roman Catholic Church had created.

The idea of a “faithful remnant” has had staying power: many a Baptist minister, well into the twentieth century, has relied upon this model in order to prove that the Baptist faith has observable New Testament roots.  Of late, this schema of church history has been adopted by conservatives in Churches of Christ.  As was noted above, however, it is something of an exotic plant growing in our CofC garden — it does not, indeed it cannot, fit with our traditional notion of apostasy and restoration.

But there is another problem with this particular viewpoint: if you are going to trace the history of the Church in this fashion, you have to play loosey-goosey with the dates.  Even if the Waldensians and the Nestorians count as representatives of the True Church, there are still significant chronological gaps left unfilled.  The typical response to this is to say that the True Church was simply underground during those times and didn’t leave behind any evidence of itself.  While the argument from silence (argumentum e silentio) may work in Biblical hermeneutics (that’s another discussion, though), it will not work in historical study.  In other words, you cannot pull out evidence where there simply is none. 

Third, and probably most significant for NI Churches of Christ, the “faithful remnant” theory glosses over what those dissident groups (i.e. the Waldensians, Nestorians, etc.) actually taught and practiced.  In most cases, the doctrine and practice of those groups looks nothing like that of the groups that cited them as their spiritual forebears.  Simply put, were you to put Nestorius, Peter Waldo, and Balthasar Hubmeier in the same room, what would have resulted would have been something less than total doctrinal agreement and harmony.  That is the essential problem with this view for NI Churches of Christ.  I know, my respondent knows, my readers know that, among NI Churches of Christ, our ministers and journal editors believe that fellowship is achieved and maintained through exact doctrinal agreement on a set of issues that need not be enumerated here.  Any deviation on those issues leads to a fracture in fellowship and the eternal damnation of the individuals, congregations, and denominations that hold to the “wrong” position. 

It is not to be denied that certain groups existed prior to the time of Thomas and Alexander Campbell that bear a superficial resemblance to them with respect to some of their teachings, such as weekly communion or baptism by immersion (e.g. the Glasite and Sandemanian churches in Scotland and the Scotch Baptists in Middle Atlantic colonies).  But, again, we run into the problem of doctrinal agreement: not everything that those churches taught would be accepted in an NI congregation in the first decade of the 21st century.  Without exact agreement, according to the consensus that exists among non-institutional churches, there can be no fellowship.  Thus, it is pointless to even try to search out such groups.  Those who attempt to prove a Church of Christ lineage throughout history (here’s one example) are, and I don’t mean to sound overly harsh, embarking on a fool’s errand.

One last point.  We saw earlier how the “Great Apostasy” theory of church history completely invalidates Jesus’ statement in Matthew 16.18.  Does the “faithful remnant” theory honestly do a better job?  The answer, I think, is no.  We might say that if the “Great Apostasy” theory completely invalidates Matthew 16.18, then the “faithful remnant” only severely weakens the promises.  Not much of a consolation prize, if you ask me.

In sum, both the “Great Apostasy” theory and the “faithful remnant” theory are historically untenable and mutually exclusive. 

Part 2 coming soon.               


6 responses to “red meat

  1. Good to hear your thoughts on these matters. I also appreciate your rhetorical flourish here when you say:

    “Simply put, were you to put Nestorius, Peter Waldo, and Balthasar Hubmeier in the same room, what would have resulted would have been something less than total doctrinal agreement and harmony.”

    Ahem! Yes.

  2. This issue of exact doctrinal agreement is a frustrating one, but it’s big for non-institutional Churches of Christ.

    Thanks for reading. Hope you’re well these days.

  3. Chris,

    While he may not have used the term “faithful remnant”, Alexander Campbell did write that there were men and groups throughout history that opposed the “man of sin” (i.e. the Pope). And that they exhibited the same spirit that his “current Reformation” had.

    I can’t see how a faithful remnant theory would necessarily go against the idea of Restoration, especially the Campbellian idea of “restoration of the ancient order”. Campbell taught that it was the duty of every Christian to come out of the sects (the denominations) and practice Christianity according to the principles laid out in the Declaration and Address which would result in the Church achieving its correct ‘order’.

  4. Also you could point out that everyone agrees that the vision in Jeremiah about the stone destroying the statue and becoming a great mountain is a reference to the Church and the destruction of the pagan Roman empire. IOW, it is of necessity by prophetical vision that the Church existed, in a powerful way, well into the 300 to 400s AD.

  5. I didn’t know that Campbell entertained the “faithful remnant” theory. (I have since found out, by the way, that the accepted terminology is “successionism.”)

    Campbell aside, though, Churches of Christ have been ardent “Great Apostasy” advocates. It has been such a point of dogma with us, that I don’t think we could successfully balance both views (if indeed that is possible at all).

    As to your second comment about Daniel’s vision (Daniel 2.31-45), that’s a good point. But no preacher that I ever heard expound upon the “Great Apostasy” — even though they usually interpreted Dan 2 just like you do in your comment — made the connection between the two.

    Churches of Christ, of all varieties, are really in the jaws of a dilemma when it comes to the patristic era. The recent furor over The DaVinci Code showed this up plainly. Because we don’t accept the patristic era as normative in any way, we have nothing to say to people re: the formation of the canon, the rule of faith and the principles of Gnosticism.

  6. Oops, sorry, yeah Daniel instead of Jeremiah.

    ISTM, that the great apostasy theory can be used to justify just about anything.

    BTW, I posted something from Irenaeus of Lyons on one of my blogs that touches on this:

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