Issue #105 -------
February 13, 2004
The less there is to justify a traditional
custom, the harder it is to get rid of it.
Mark Twain (1835-1910)
In one of my recent Reflections articles, which was entitled "The Collection for the Saints" (Issue #100), I presented a challenge to those who believe certain fundraising activities to be contrary to God's Word. I invited them to provide the evidence for such a conviction. My exact words were:
A reader from the state of Mississippi has risen to this challenge, although his response still does not provide the "hard evidence" from God's Word that I was seeking. Nevertheless, He was willing to present his own argument and rationale for why he believes as he does. I was most impressed that he also did so with a loving, gentle, respectful spirit, which I found refreshing. I have dialogued with this individual before on other matters and have always found him to be Christ-like in his demeanor.
He wrote, in part, "I appreciate your thoughts in Reflections #100 concerning the 'Collection for the Saints.' Let me first say, I agree with a great deal of what you wrote. However, and I pray that you won't think me falling prey to 'legalism,' I have one objection to your conclusion regarding the church's involvement in fundraising." He then went on to observe, "I will honor your request for verses to support my thoughts, but please don't assume that by my questioning your conclusion that I believe you, or any agreeing with you, 'will be eternally lost.' I will simply try to present a case that fundraising is, to use a term from your hermeneutic, anti-scriptural in nature. To use a phrase from the Hebrew writer, I don't view fundraising as a 'sin that leads to death.' .... But, if sin truly means to 'miss the mark,' then I would categorize fundraising as such." This brother then made this very encouraging statement, "Whatever your final conclusion, I won't label you, even if I feel you fall short of teaching what I believe God would have you to do in this matter. We are both sinners, saved by grace, and we can together praise our Lord and Savior that perfect understanding or obedience isn't a requirement for fellowship with Him. Neither will I make it a requirement for mine."
As you can clearly perceive, the spirit of this brother elevates him head and shoulders above many disciples in the universal One Body who differ with one another. When brethren can lovingly and respectfully dialogue about their differing perspectives and practices, and do so with a view to understanding one another and working toward greater unity, then our Lord is glorified and honored. Like this dear brother from Mississippi, I do not consider these "issues" to be fellowship or salvation issues, even though we each feel the other has somewhat "missed the mark" with respect to understanding and applying God's will for His people. However, when we can discuss our differences and come away at the end of the day still in love with one another, even though we may both remain unmoved by the other's arguments, we have taken a giant leap toward achieving fulfillment of the prayer of our Lord Jesus for oneness and harmony (John 17). I applaud this brother, and I thank him for the opportunity to engage in this dialogue.
Examples and Principles
This brother makes the following observation -- "I believe sometimes God's people did things just because it was expedient for them to do so, but sometimes ... and label me a Patternist if you must ... just sometimes, their actions, or inactions, serve to reveal an underlying biblical principle." I would not disagree with this statement in the least. I think it is quite insightful and certainly expresses the reality that most all biblical interpreters understand. It is extremely vital to key in on a couple of words used by this brother, however. They are critical. "Sometimes" and "biblical" MUST be stressed in the above hermeneutical declaration. Failing to perceive their presence and significance in interpretative matters will inevitably lead to the very form of patternism I decry.
The significance of the word "sometimes" is that not all actions or inactions of early disciples, as portrayed in the biblical account, constitute a divine "pattern" that MUST be followed by all peoples everywhere until the end of time. As this brother from Mississippi correctly observed, there are occasions where their actions, or inactions, were merely the expedient thing for them to do, given their unique situations and circumstances. Thus, what might prove expedient for them then, might not be expedient for us now. The significance of the word "biblical" is that it provides the basis for differentiating between those actions, or inactions, that are merely culturally expedient and those that are eternally binding. An action or inaction, therefore, must have a clearly recorded biblical command or binding principle underlying it before one can even suggest that any such example of action or inaction is to be regarded as universally binding. Further, one must clearly be able to affirm that the exact methodology employed by the disciples in said example is the ONLY approved methodology in the sight of God for the fulfillment of said command or binding principle, and that NO OTHER method will be approved by God until the end of time. This MUST be demonstrated before men may dare to presume to exclude all other methodologies as abhorrent to deity.
This brother clearly understands this hermeneutical principle, for he wrote -- "So, how are we to differentiate the expedient example from what should be viewed as an example that God would have us follow? Look for an underlying biblical principle." That is exactly right! He then goes on to draw the only logical conclusion: if no such underlying binding biblical principle or command is clearly evident in Scripture, then "liberty prevails as long as it is beneficial to the Body." Again, I could not agree more. Unless an action or inaction can be directly linked to clear and binding biblical principle or command, then we must allow our brethren liberty in exercising their best judgment in said matter.
This reader, however, strongly believes that there IS such "an underlying biblical principle where fundraising is concerned." It is this he then sought to prove in the remainder of his letter to me (which was a four page letter). He observed, "When examining the Scriptures for God's counsel concerning money, the Scriptures do indeed reveal a great deal." That is certainly true. Our God does indeed have much to say about the right and wrong use of money, and the motivation that underlies each. This brother then listed and quoted in full several passages of Scripture from both the OT and NT documents:
He also notes, in addition to the above, "I could type for days concerning God's words on money and faith in Malachi, but I know you are as aware of them as I." Yes. And there are also a great many other passages he could have cited. As noted, God has certainly shared with us His feelings on this matter. Although this brother quoted extensively from the OT writings, he nevertheless freely admits that we are no longer under that Law, however he believes we "can learn from God's decrees about what pleases Him." I was greatly encouraged to read these words by this brother -- "If you are demanding that I must provide LAW to make the case that fundraisers are sinful ... well, let's just say I hope neither of us gets to the point in our spiritual walk where we demand to go back under the law. Under the New Covenant God desires more from us than that." Amen, and AMEN!
As noted by this brother, under the New Covenant in Christ, we are free from bondage to LAW. We have been liberated, and it would be unconscionable to go back under an oppressive system of restrictive legislation limiting our loving expressions of worship and devotion to God and our fellow man. We have been freed to "serve in newness of the Spirit and not in oldness of the letter" (Romans 7:6). Thus, godly principles can be practiced anywhere at any time in history, in the context of any culture or society, and are not frozen in any one time or cultural expression. With such barriers lowered, the godly principles of benevolence, hospitality, love, compassion, service, and so many others, can be practiced in a wide variety of ways among widely diverse disciples, and yet still be consistent with the underlying biblical principle itself. It is not a particular methodology that is eternal, but rather the principle that underlies it.
I would strongly encourage the readers to carefully read each of the above passages provided by this reader from Mississippi. Read them carefully, and contextually. Indeed, get a good concordance and read every passage you can find in the Scriptures dealing with our use, or misuse, of money. You will perceive that God does indeed desire us to be a benevolent, charitable, generous, giving, sacrificial people; a people who place the needs of others above that of our own; who are willing to give with no expectation of return; who are to demonstrate in our lives the very antithesis of greed. Something else you will notice from these passages, however, is that God nowhere makes an issue of methods and techniques. God's focus is always on the heart of the giver. Men may often get distracted by the various intricacies of logistics, but that is not the focus of our Father. Nowhere in any of the passages cited by this brother is such even remotely a concern of God. Nowhere are any of the methodologies employed in these passages elevated to the status of universal, eternal, binding LAW, to the exclusion of all other possible methodologies. The principles are indeed eternal ... we are to be a giving people ... but the methodologies are not! I challenge anyone to demonstrate otherwise from these biblical texts!
This brother writes, "I must enter this issue from the perspective of my opinion. I must draw conclusions from all that I have quoted ... as you must also do. Either all of these passages are irrelevant to how God would have His people conduct themselves, or they are not. You must decide what you will do with the commands and examples laid before you." I observe that he admits his conclusions are his opinion. That is a critical admission. He has made assumptions from the text, and he has chosen to order his own life according to those personal convictions. "The faith which you have, have as your own conviction before God" (Romans 14:22). I respect this brother's convictions. That doesn't mean I have to agree with them, nor does it mean his convictions are more representative of ultimate Truth than mine. He has concluded that these passages are relevant to establishing methodology, and that this methodology is binding upon all people everywhere until the end of time. I find that to be an unwarranted conclusion; one totally unsubstantiated by the text and context. Further, keep in mind that it is hermeneutically inappropriate to bind as LAW that which must be ASSUMED by mere fallible men. If God has never actually anywhere DECLARED it, but I have simply DEDUCED it instead, I may rightfully order my own life by such a conviction, but I may not order yours. By his own admission, his conviction from these passages is "the perspective of my opinion." Such is woefully insufficient as a basis to establish binding law for the church universal with respect to methodology. It is only sufficient for limiting oneself.
The reader from Mississippi asserts, and rightfully so, that God expects His people to be givers, not takers. He further asserts, and correctly, that God is our great Provider, and we in the church should not rely upon the world to provide our needs to accomplish the mission for which He has commissioned us. This reader strongly believes that taking any money from unbelievers (the world) to fund the work of believers (the church) is a practice forbidden by God. "Contrast that to God's people 'selling cookies outside Wal-Mart to fund mission trips.' God's people (people of the covenant) begging money from the lost (people not yet in the covenant)? God's people clinging to their possessions, but asking the world to sacrifice? Is this the impression God would have us leave with the world? When the church engages in a fundraiser in the community what signals are we sending?"
I don't personally perceive a youth group having a bake sale outside Wal-Mart as "begging." There are several "bums" in our city that sit on the corner outside Wal-Mart with cardboard signs pleading for money. These are the beggars. There is a vast difference. What signals are the young people sending with their bake sale? What impression are they leaving with the world? Perhaps the impression that here are some devoted young people more interested in sharing grace than smoking grass; in going to a third world nation and building an orphanage, than in going to a rock concert or building a CD collection. Also, when one makes something with one's own hands and offers it for sale, that is not "begging." Are the baked goods perhaps overpriced? Most likely. But, I am more than happy to give a little more for a cupcake when the girl handing it to me is taking the money not for herself, but to enable her to minister to others. Should Christians decline money from someone whose theology we may not know? I think not. If they know our purpose, and are willing to help ... then God bless them! Someone once said, "Satan's had that dollar long enough, now let's put it to God's use!"
Look at the early disciples in Jerusalem -- "...and they began selling their property and possessions, and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need" (Acts 2:45). To whom did they sell these possessions? Did they only sell them to other Christians? Is it just possible some of this money came from unbelievers? ... money which then went to help believers? Is that possible? Is it possible some of the funds raised even helped those outside the household of faith? "So then, while we have opportunity, let us do good to all men, and especially to those who are of the household of the faith" (Galatians 6:10). May individuals outside the church be helped? May this include the giving of money under certain circumstances? Did some of this money perhaps come from the sale of personal possessions? Is it possible some of that money came from unbelievers who purchased those items? Did God ever express displeasure with any of this methodology? No! So why do WE?! Jesus said, "Sell your possessions and give to charity" (Luke 12:33). Did He say to whom we are to sell these possessions? Did He specify what the possessions sold are to be? Could they be baked goods? Could some of those who buy them be unbelievers? Is this "begging"? Is this asking the "world" to fund Christian benevolence? Of course not!
The brother from Mississippi concluded his letter with this thought -- "Higher Principles: That's what I search the pattern to find. I believe they are there to be uncovered. I believe it to be an important part of the faith journey. If examples have no faith merit, and commands are all we acknowledge, then have we not gone back under the law?"
I could easily devote an entire issue of Reflections just to these final comments alone!! First, I don't "search the pattern" in order to find God's "higher principles" ... I examine The Word! And "higher principles" are just that --- Principles that are from above; divine principles that transcend the nitpicky particulars of partisan patterns that we have far too frequently sought to elevate to universal, everlasting LAW. The statement of my brother makes it sound like he believes the Scriptures are little more than a patternistic book of law where one must "search" to "uncover" the binding rules that are hidden within it. If "rules" have to be hunted down and uncovered, then I would question their validity just on that basis alone. God is very, very clear with regard to what He desires from His people; one has to be virtually blind to miss it. His expectations are not hidden away in volumes of law, requiring intricate deduction from teams of legal analysts to bring them to light. God's will is visible even to a child. Indeed, they sometimes perceive it more clearly than we!
I must admit some confusion as to the thinking of this brother in his final sentence. He seems to suggest that by refusing to elevate mere examples to the status of LAW that we have somehow "gone back under law." It seems to me we have done just the opposite! I will bind upon no man what God has not bound. If my God has commanded some action or inaction, then I will readily proclaim that reality to all men everywhere. However, if some action or inaction is merely the assumption or inference or deduction of mere men, I feel no obligation whatsoever to proclaim such as binding LAW. I will respect those who have arrived, via their study and reflection, at a differing conviction, and I will seek to put no stumbling block in their path. I ask only in return that they afford me the same liberty and consideration. I will accept them as my beloved brethren, and pray they will regard me as the same.
"God bless you, Al, as you consider these thoughts. I do gratefully appreciate all that you do for the kingdom of our Lord." And may God's richest blessings be upon you, as well, dear brother. May His grace and peace accompany you in your daily service to Him!
From a Minister in (Unknown):
Al, would it be OK if I copied your Reflections article "The Collection for the Saints" -- Issue #100 -- for distribution in a Bible class? I've already shared it with a few of our young and middle-aged adults who I knew had an interest in the subject. Now they've asked me to teach a class on the subject using your article as the starting point. It may be of interest to you that we are a Non-Institutional group. We'd be considered "conservative" by most folk. But we have a good number of folk who are beginning to "see the light" with regard to the holes in many of the Church of Christ traditional views.
From a Reader in Mississippi:
Al, as usual, A Woman Caught In Adultery is another good article ... and, as usual, I have another request. I found several parts of your article that would make perfect quotes in my next book: A Servant's Heart. May I have your permission to do so? Thanks, brother, and keep up the great work!
From a Reader in Texas:
I enjoyed your Reflection on the hateful Pharisees. I thought your comment about the missing man was interesting. No one knows, of course, what Jesus wrote, but years ago, my guess was, "Where's the man?" Please continue your good work. It is blessing us all.
From a Reader in Tennessee:
I have been in the Lord's church for over 60 years (among the non-institutionals several decades) and have never met a man or woman who did not practice "unity in diversity." Make your opposition FIRST prove they do not practice "unity in diversity" in any form. (P.S. -- I do not now limit my fellowship to the NI's. I always read your Reflections with great interest.)
From a New Reader in Tennessee:
I am of the opinion that the greatest problem facing the Church today is our unwillingness to challenge and address issues "we teach as truth." I consider myself rather conservative with a desire to question and confirm what is Truth! I am looking forward to reading Reflections.
From a Reader in Kentucky:
I have just finished reading your book Down, But Not Out and have found it to be the most comprehensive and most easily understood analysis in the Lord's church today of this most troubling issue. I was raised all my life with the traditional viewpoint (in the most strict sense) and taught it with all the fervor it was taught to me. Still, for years I had nagging doubts and unresolved issues with the "issue," but dutifully plowed on in ignorance. I had a friend convince me to read Olan Hick's books (who wrote the Foreword for your book), which I really resisted at first, but have been studying for the last several years. I have slowly been coming over to God's side of this issue despite my deeply ingrained teaching of the past. But it wasn't until I read your explanation of it that it "all makes sense." Even with Olan's fine work of laying out the case, I was still having problems "getting it" in some areas. Thank you so much for your work and dedication in helping the, here-to-for, helpless and hopeless. Also, please add my wife and me to your Reflections email list.
From a Reader in Virginia:
Your articles are great! Your interpretations are clear and understanding; rightly dividing the Word of Truth!
From a New Reader in (Unknown):
I just intently read your lesson Why Was Stephen Stoned? -- Issue #61. It wasn't until reading the readers' comments after the story that I knew that you are a Church of Christ preacher. I was raised in the Church of Christ and my husband of 30 years wasn't. He was baptized before we were married. He is the one I have actually learned more from in realizing we are not "the only ones." I thank God daily for sending him to me. My heart is even more compassionate and open now than it ever was before I met him. I want to receive your Reflections. Also, please send me the one entitled One Flock, Many Folds. Thank you. God has truly blessed you with wisdom and grace in getting your thoughts out through your words. May we all be as bold. Your lessons have been an encouragement to me!
From a New Reader (and Theology Professor)
at Oklahoma Christian University:
Dear Al, Two friends of mine are already on your Reflections list and finding it very helpful. I took a look at four of your previous articles and was excited to see how thoughtful they are, and how widely read you are. May God bless you in this ministry. We need good resources made available to ministers.
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