by Al Maxey

Issue #190 ------- May 17, 2005
Every dogma has its day,
but ideals are eternal.

Israel Zangwill (1864-1926)

A Christian Affirmation 2005
"Clarification of our Christian Identity"

A group of men, who are prominent within the Churches of Christ, placed a full-page, paid announcement in the May, 2005 issue of the Christian Chronicle (page 15) that is causing quite a few ripples in our brotherhood pond. For those readers who may not subscribe to this informative and beneficial publication, this article can also be read on the Internet at -- Several readers of these Reflections have written me in recent days asking if I would examine this published affirmation and give my response. In this current article I will seek to do just that, although I am not the first, nor will I likely be the last, to comment publicly on this statement of personal conviction by these leading men in the Churches of Christ. For example, Dr. Leroy Garrett -- in Essay #72 of his series of occasional letters known as "Soldier On!" -- has done a very insightful review of this affirmation by these noted brethren from our faith-heritage. I would strongly encourage each of my readers, even before you read another word by me, to access both the affirmation itself and also Leroy's response. Giving each of these some serious reflection of your own will help place my comments in somewhat better perspective.

Let me begin my reflective analysis of this affirmation by affirming that I find much to commend here, especially with respect to the attitude of many of the writers and signers of this document. Whenever and wherever possible, I believe one should seek to spotlight the positive in any person or circumstance. There are positive elements associated with this published declaration that are worthy of praise. For example, these men have chosen not to pontificate behind barriers; unapproachable and inaccessible to those who may seek to dialogue with them about their convictions. Indeed, on their Internet site (listed above) they have provided a place for anyone who so desires to express their views, either pro or con, regarding this document. These men welcome a response from their brethren, and, indeed, dialogue among differing brethren is professed to be a vital part of the purpose of this published Christian Affirmation. In fact, beginning July 15 (as per the "Christian Affirmation" web site) there will be a moderated email discussion of this document among invited elders, ministers and teachers within the Churches of Christ. This will be a forum where leaders from our faith-heritage will "discuss contested questions openly and substantively without engaging in personal attack." Indeed, the participants must pledge to maintain a Christian demeanor throughout this dialogue. The framers of the Affirmation write, "Please pray that this conversation will increase understanding of our common faith and strengthen the ministry of Christ's church." I applaud their vision; we need such responsible dialogue if we are ever going to break down the barriers that divide us. I will be one of the participants in that dialogue, and I look forward to this opportunity to examine ways in which we may promote greater unity among the children of God.

I further commend these leaders and scholars for promoting in-depth reflection. In other words, they are challenging the people of God to THINK, something else that is long overdue. We must forever abandon this distasteful parroting of party patterns, and return to honest, open, scholarly reflection on the Word of God. Again, in the brief introductory statement, the authors affirm: "The purpose of the statement is to encourage prayerful reflection on the foundational commitments of our churches." Jim Baird (Professor of Biblical Studies at Oklahoma Christian University), in his written explanation as to why he chose to be one of the signers of this document, observed, "Some feel that any reflection on these issues is divisive. But the absence of reflection will not mean no choices will be made, but simply that thoughtless choices will be made." Bro. Baird went on to note: "Blind tradition or overriding cultural pressures are more than able to push unreflective congregations one way or another." The people of God need to make "reasoned choices" regarding their convictions, something that will never be accomplished by blindly following either the traditions of the past or succumbing to the cultural pressures of the present. Doing either of the latter will only result in further extremism (whether to the left or to the right).

In the introductory statement there was evidence of an effort on the part of the signers to be non-judgmental of those who may differ with their affirmed convictions. "The statement affirms the convictions of the signers regarding beliefs and practices ... it does not attempt to articulate the Christian faith in its fullness. We recognize that others think differently about some of the matters treated. We do not speak as their judges, but as fellow servants of Christ who seek only to be fruitful in His service." This is a commendable attitude, and is one we should all seek to imitate. John Mark Hicks (Professor of Theology at David Lipscomb University and Adjunct Professor of Christian Doctrine at Harding Graduate School; also one of the 24 signers of this document) observed, "I did not sign it as a document that sets the parameters of Christian fellowship or to hinder some of the healing initiatives with the Christian Church/Churches of Christ." He further declared, "It concerns me greatly if the document is read as a litmus test for fellowship or if it is read as the 'essence' of Christianity. It is neither in my estimation."

Those who produced this document decried the "legacy of legalism, sectarianism, and divisiveness" that has plagued us far too long, and with which "many in Churches of Christ today are rightly concerned to overcome." I appreciate the tone of the personal statements of many of the signers who seem devoted to seeking to avoid any creedal type affirmation that would only result in greater separation among the people of God. The Christian Affirmation, therefore, was not designed to be a document reflecting "Church of Christ official policy" ... or so its framers would have us all believe. Rather, they profess it to be nothing more than "the convictions of the signers." Had 24 different men penned this document, its content would undoubtedly be somewhat different, perhaps even drastically so. Yet these men would be no less "members in good standing" of the Church of Christ than the previous 24. The reality is: no one document such as this can ever reflect THE "official position and practice" of the Churches of Christ. We are simply much too diverse a group of believers. As Leroy Garrett pointed out in his review of this document, "We can no more see everything alike than we can look alike. But we don't have to! That is the genius of the Stone-Campbell heritage." As I have often stated -- you don't have to be my twin to be my brother.

Yes, there are some areas worthy of commendation with regard to the production of this Christian Affirmation. Most of these laudable areas, however, are with respect to the attitudes of some of the signers, as well as some of the stated purposes for this published document. With respect to the document itself, I personally find less to applaud. Indeed, there is much about this affirmation of conviction that troubles me greatly. I would have to agree with my beloved and highly respected comrade, Dr. Leroy Garrett, when he wrote in his recent Essay #72, "The Affirmation errs as much in what it does not say as in what it does say." For example, one thing that leaped out at me as I studied this document for the first time was: the word "grace" never appears in this affirmation .... not even once. How can one speak of the "core essentials" of our Christian faith and never once mention God's grace?! Add to this, by way of contrast, the fact that in this Christian Affirmation the word "practice(s)" appears a dozen times! This speaks volumes, it seems to me, with regard to where the actual focus of this document truly lies. It is, in point of fact, far more an affirmation of traditional Church of Christ PRACTICES, than it is an affirmation of our Lord's GRACE for all who have FAITH. I found this emphasis rather troubling!

What I found even more troubling, however, is the fact that uniformity with regard to certain practices common to the Churches of Christ is being promoted in this document as essential to the attainment of Christian unity worldwide among all believers in Jesus Christ. This is represented as "the restoration vision" --- "the attempt to recover biblical faith and practice." What is left unsaid here, however, is that few of these restorationists can agree among themselves as to what should/must be restored. They profess that "early Christian practice" has been discovered to be "a norm and a basis for seeking unity" among believers. They declare, "the path to substantive Christian unity is found in returning to the clear teachings of Scripture and practices of the early church." This all sounds good until you press the patternists and restorationists to LIST the essential early church practices that constitute this "norm." One then quickly discovers that these people are horribly divided over what constitutes the "pattern" that needs to be "restored." Such is the ultimate consequence of patternism --- it leads to feuding factions in the church. Why? Because even they can't agree on what constitutes "the pattern." With each new "insight" into the nature of the "original, one true pattern," a new faction is formed ... each of which then arrogantly claims to have "restored" the original practice of the early church, and thus they claim to BE the embodiment of the "one, true church" on planet earth, to the exclusion of all others. No, brethren, the road to unity is NOT paved with patternism and restorationism. These are false pathways that lead only to greater separation among brethren.

Whenever and wherever men begin to insist that unity may only be achieved by "restoring the pattern of practice of the early church," you may count on only one outcome --- division. The doctrine of "restoration" is one of Satan's greatest tools for creating chaos and schism in the church, and yet it is seemingly held up for serious consideration in this Christian Affirmation. I have to agree with Dr. Leroy Garrett, who stated he believed these men who produced this document are "preserving the illusion of restorationism that has been an albatross about our necks in Churches of Christ all these years. If what these leaders call 'The Original Design' of the early church is all that 'clear,' why have we divided into numerous factions over what that design or pattern is?" Exactly!! We need to ask these 24 leaders to specify in detail this elusive "norm" to which all believers must submit in order to acquire global unity. Is it drinking from one cup? Is it the non-Sunday School, KJV-only, a cappella, no fellowship halls, no eating in the building, anti-orphan home perspective that constitutes the "norm" that must be restored? Some think so! Must we submit to their perception of the "pattern" to have unity, or does some other faction have the inspired, infallible insight into the one true "pattern"? Brethren, such thinking is an absurdity. It will never lead to unity, but only to increased separation and schism among disciples. I would encourage the readers to review a couple of my earlier issues of Reflections on this topic of the fallacy of restorationism (the copy-catting of supposed or inferred early church practices):

Time and time again, in this Christian Affirmation, the signers speak of restoring the "practices" of the early church as the basis of unity. This is an impossibility. No man can even speak with certainty as to what those practices were! Which congregation will we choose as the "norm" for our attempts at restoration? Rome? Corinth? Jerusalem? Troas? Antioch? Were they all the same in practice? Of course not!! I have been asking patternists for years to provide me with the definitive list of the practices that must be restored for there to be unity among all believers. I have yet to have a single one of them provide that list!! Indeed, they typically become extremely angry when I press them for this list. Why? The answer is very simple: they know it can't be produced. They don't have a clue what the "norm" was 2000 years ago. No one does! They also know that if any of them tried to formulate such a list, it would immediately be challenged and condemned by the patternist next to them (whose list would substantially differ from theirs), and would also be exposed as little more than a listing of party preferences based on little more than human assumptions, often drawn from nothing more substantive than the silence of the biblical text. Patternism, by its very nature, is highly subjective, thus it can never be taken seriously as the basis for unity. Our unity is in an eternal, objective Person, not in an elusive, subjective pattern, position or practice. The most one can hope to achieve by promoting the latter is a humanly imposed and enforced uniformity --- the very bulwark of sectarianism.

This document, I believe, completely fails to correctly identify the basis of our "Christian identity." Becoming modern day clones of the early church with regard to practice is not the basis of our Christian identity --- CHRIST is the basis of our Christian identity. We are to be transformed into HIS image (Rom. 8:29), not the image of His early followers (who were anything but perfect, in either their practice or faith). Universal unity of all believers is possible when the basis of that unity is Jesus Christ! Such unity is not even remotely possible when we declare the basis of our unity to be conformity to some elusive pattern of early disciples, the exact prescribed parameters of which current disciples can't even agree upon and are hopelessly divided over. There is no more divided and divisive group on the planet than the legalistic patternists. That ought to tell us something! Unity is beyond the grasp of factionists and sectarians; they don't have a clue as to its nature. Their view of "unity" is really just an imposed "uniformity" -- i.e., they will embrace all who submit to their perceived patterns, and only those who submit. This is the basis for creating a faction, not the basis for creating a family! WHY is the church so horrendously divided today? Because, in part, we have bought into this lunacy of restorationism. It is destroying us, and until it is abandoned it will continue to divide us.

The church of our Lord Jesus Christ is not in need of being restored -- it never went away! It is, however, in need of being reformed -- an ongoing, never-ending process of spiritual transformation. 21st century Americans do not need to become clones of 1st century Jews, Greeks and Romans. That is ridiculous. What we do need, however, is to make the message of our Lord just as relevant to our times as the first century Christians did to theirs. The Gospel is relevant to any period of time and any culture. It can be adapted without being corrupted. That is the challenge before us.

The Christian Affirmation that appeared in the Christian Chronicle does us no favors by promoting the perception that if we will all just agree on the "pattern" with regard to such matters as singing in worship, the time and manner of partaking of the Lord's Supper, and the significance of baptism, then the church will finally become united as ONE. What is left unsaid, but strongly implied, is that OUR perception of these select patterns is the "norm," and unity will only be accomplished when all those who differ with us bow to our infallible insight. This is nothing less than sectarianism thinly veiled. The signers of this document, for example, are clearly supportive of the a cappella tradition. If this is their preference, then they should, by all means, practice it. To suggest, however, that this is the "original design" of the early church, and to condition unity among all believers upon bowing to this traditional preference, is unconscionable! They suggest this is the preferred practice of John Calvin, the Puritans, and the Eastern Orthodox churches. Okay ... so what?! Shall we begin to list some of the other doctrines and practices embraced and promoted by these same men and groups?! The reality is that Scripture says absolutely nothing about the a cappella tradition being any kind of "norm" that is the basis for unity. To take a tradition of mere men and suggest it is the "original design" of the early church, and thus divine precept, is to elevate one's personal preferences and perceptions to the level of LAW. To then suggest that unity is only achievable when said LAW is imposed upon and embraced by the rest of our siblings is the spirit of sectarianism at its worst. And we wonder why we're divided?! Wake up, brethren!!

I realize the signers of this document stated they were aware that "others think differently about some of the matters treated." That is good. I also realize they stated, "We do not speak as their judges." That also is good. However, these words will not ring true to many who read this document when said practices, with which many will differ, are nevertheless held up as the "original design" of the Lord's church, and that unity will only be achieved when all men embrace these practices. It is hard to believe, in light of such, that judgment is not being passed! Campbell employed a phrase that aptly describes this scenario -- "the tyranny of opinionism." One of Campbell's close companions, Robert Richardson, correctly identified the true basis of our unity -- "That alone which saves men can unite them." It is JESUS who is redemptive ... not singing a cappella. It is JESUS who saves ... not a list of patternistic practices common to our own faith-heritage. The sooner we realize this truth, the sooner we will begin taking those giant leaps toward the fulfillment of our Lord's prayer for unity and oneness (John 17).

This document also states, "God does not save individuals apart from the body of Christ." Many, unfortunately, will take this to mean (and for some of the signers, perhaps it does mean), "You can't be saved unless you are in the group known as the Church of Christ." Our movement has gained a reputation over the years, not entirely undeserved, that "You think you're the only ones going to heaven." I don't think this document does a whole lot to repudiate that perception. I was in a Christian bookstore yesterday and got into a discussion with the owner. She asked where I preached, and when I told her she said, "Ohhhhh ... Church of Christ .... I know all about you people; my two children married Church of Christers. They tell me regularly I'm going to hell because I don't go to church where they do!" I had a long talk with her and shared a different perspective of our "Christian identity." At the end of our conversation she hugged me and said she was so glad to find out that we were not all "like that." She has promised to come visit us at our congregation!

Brethren, we've got to get away from this "God saves only US" mentality! The reality is, as beautifully stated by my brother Leroy Garrett in his review of this Affirmation, "God will save whom He will, in the church or out." Amen! I'll admit that at "first blush" this sounds almost like "heresy," and some will undoubtedly be attempting to smooth their ruffled feathers about now, but I would hope that we can all get beyond this notion that WE have some kind of rare and privileged monopoly on Truth, and all OTHERS are either deluded by the Devil or servants of Satan or just plain stupid. The apostle John was strongly rebuked by Jesus on one occasion for trying to hinder another disciple "because he does not follow along with us" (Luke 9:49). Following along with US is not what determines "Christian identity." Salvation is not based on being in the right faith-heritage. The gift of everlasting life has to do with God's grace and man's response to such light as is divinely made available to him. This is a point woefully ignored by this document before us. I would encourage the readers to review my following article on this subject:

Concluding Thoughts

Again, let me affirm that I believe it can be a very positive step toward reconciliation within the Family of God when individual men declare their personal convictions, and then open avenues for dialogue concerning those convictions. IF this "Christian Affirmation 2005" is viewed by disciples of Christ as nothing more than a personal statement by 24 men as to their own individual preferences and perceptions, with a view toward facilitating discussion with others of differing convictions for the express purpose of greater understanding and unity in diversity among brethren, then I applaud this effort. I am even convinced that at least a few of the signers did indeed perceive this document this way, and I commend them for their vision.

My concern, however, is that the above is NOT how this document will be perceived by most readers. Rather, it will likely be viewed as yet another sectarian statement that promotes a narrow perspective; one that additionally implies all those who do not embrace the convictions of this Affirmation are thereby in sinful opposition to the "original design" of the early church and the "divine design" for the One Body of Christ. Such a document, so perceived, will do nothing to effect the unity it professes to promote. Frankly, I see little in the document itself that suggests it is not such a narrow drawing of sectarian lines in the sand. Some of the signers themselves even struggled with this concern, as they admitted in written statements as to why they affixed their names to this document. Dr. John Mark Hicks, as noted previously, wrote, "It concerns me greatly if the document is read as a litmus test for fellowship or if it is read as the 'essence' of Christianity. It is neither in my estimation." Sadly, I think this is exactly how it will be read by the majority of disciples. This document, in my estimation, will quickly become the "weapon of choice" of some hard-liners within our faith-heritage, and it will be used against those who may differ with their traditions as "proof" that the "great scholars and minds among us" are agreed that these personal perceptions regarding such "weighty matters" as a cappella singing and Sunday only observance of the Lord's Supper are the eternal "norm" upon which unity among Christians must be forever based. Just watch!!! .... this document will be dragged out and forced into "duty" time and again for the purpose of putting the "digressives" in their place! Thus, the polarization of the people of God will be furthered, not lessened.

It is a very dangerous thing for a group of men to presume to affirm the "Christian identity" of an entire body of believers. It's an impossible task. The Churches of Christ are a diverse group of disciples. No one affirmation of conviction regarding practices and perceptions can possibly represent the group as a whole. Any attempt to do so will only further solidify the rift that already shamefully exists. If a group of 24 scholars from the One Cup wing of the Churches of Christ were to publish their own "Christian Affirmation" in the Christian Chronicle, or some other publication, stating that the use of a single container in the observance of the Lord's Supper is the "original design" of the early church, and constitutes our true "Christian identity," and that "restoration" of this practice is the basis of Christian unity, I can assure you there would be an outcry from all those who have a differing perception and practice. Why would these current 24 signers, therefore, feel their affirmation of their practices would be any less offensive to many of their brethren in Christ?

Bro. Wendell Willis, one of the signers, said that over the past 30 years he has become "increasingly aware of changes in both practices and understandings in churches of Christ, some of which I find troubling." One of these very "troubling" changes, according to Willis, is "the lessening of commitment to a cappella music." Another very "troubling" practice, in the mind of Bro. Willis, is the observance of the Lord's Supper by some disciples at "other times and places than the Sunday gathering for worship." Yes, these differences in perception and practice among many of his fellow believers "trouble" this man, therefore he signed an affirmation expressing what he perceived the "original design" of the early church to be, and calling those who differ with him to, in essence, "see the light" and "come out of the darkness." Unity, in the minds of such men, will obviously only be brought about when all disciples embrace the affirmed view of the "official pattern of practice" of the early church as perceived by these 24 men. This could easily and quickly lead to every faction within the Churches of Christ putting forward their own "24 scholars" to affirm their own "Christian identity" for the purpose of "unity." Dueling affirmations only lead to dueling factions ... leading only to further separation.

Brethren, my fervent plea to the people of God is this -- let's stop publishing public affirmations of narrow personal conviction, suggesting or implying these constitute or convey that "original design" to which all desirous of unity should submit, and instead let's begin publicly proclaiming our personal affirmation of Christ, encouraging all to submit to Him. Let's lift HIM up, rather than ourselves and our views about Him. We are called into fellowship with HIM (1 Cor. 1:9). We must realize that HE, and He alone, is the basis of our fellowship, unity and oneness (1 John 1:3). When we seek to build up the church of Jesus Christ on the feeble foundation of personal conviction, the fall of our spiritual structure is inevitable. We must build upon the solid rock of Jesus. Only then will we stand firmly as one people. There are few, if any, twins within the Family of God, but there are countless brethren. We don't look alike, think alike, or dress alike; we don't even have the same preferences and perceptions. But, we do have the same Father, and therein lies the key to our unity. It's all about paternity, not pattern.

We have barricaded ourselves in our respective little rooms in the household of God too long. For too many years we have surreptitiously slipped our "manifestos" and "affirmations" under the doorways of our shut-in and shut-out siblings (and to what purpose, one wonders?!!). It is time to throw open those locked doors, leave our seclusion, and join our siblings at the Table of our Father. It is time for the Family to assemble. Will you join us at the Table, or will you slip another "manifesto" under the door denouncing the celebration because the plates have the wrong pattern, the table cloth is the wrong color, and the center piece uses pink roses instead of red? The meal is about to be served; the Father and the Son are in attendance; your extended family awaits you; a place is prepared at the Table ... come join us for sweet fellowship; and don't worry that you may not be dressed appropriately or to perfection --- none of us are! Now, as the celebration begins, who wants to "say GRACE?!!" Sister Fanny, you say? Good choice!!

Reflections from Readers

From a Reader in Arkansas:

I found your study of John 21:15-17 to be very interesting. Some years ago I used the same passage in a church bulletin editorial to prick the consciences of our adults. We were in dire need of Bible class teachers. We had many adults perfectly able to teach, but not willing to give up their own Bible class time. We feasted at a banquet and let our little lambs starve! Perhaps Jesus is now asking, "Christian, do you love Me?" "Church, do you truly love Me?" -- "Then feed My lambs." I appreciate so much the weekly lessons from you.

From a Reader in Pennsylvania:

I recently reread your article titled "Grace and the Caveman." I find it to be well-written and insightful. I tend to lean towards the theory of judgment according to available light. I see no other means of interpreting the defense that Gentiles will have as mentioned in Romans 2.

From a Reader in California:

As I read your article on John 21, I saw this passage in a new way. I believe John was giving us an insight into spiritual growth and how it affects us. In the first "fishing" story, the nets started to break. The disciples didn't know how many fish they caught. They were unable to truly appreciate Christ's blessing. In the second incident, the nets didn't break and they had an exact accounting of Christ's blessing. The disciples had grown. I think we are like this in many ways. Early on in our walk we know Christ is blessing us, but we are unable to truly appreciate every aspect of those blessings. Also, with respect to Peter, he had to grow into his love for Christ. If he was to be a leader of God's people, he had some growing up to do. I would love to know if John came by his knowledge of this conversation via Peter, or if he heard it all himself. I guess I'll just have to wait until I get to Heaven and watch God's home movies of the incident! Thank you again for an excellent, practical Reflections.

From a Reader in Florida:

Dear Brother Al, I could not let this pass without complimenting you very highly on one of the very best treatises that you have written so far, at least since I have been reading your treatises. When I was working as a minister, I developed a lesson on John 21:15-17 along some of the same lines that you discuss in "Breakfast on the Beach." However, I must confess, it was not nearly so good as this one of yours. Keep up the good work.

From a Minister/Elder in New Jersey:

Thank you, brother! I think "Breakfast on the Beach" was the best you have done ... until the next one! It is wonderful that as Jesus draws the belt tight on Peter's pride, He also expresses confidence in him. A number of years ago someone introduced the phrase "The Peter Principle." As I recall, the premise was that an individual is often promoted to his level of mediocrity. When we excel, we get promoted; if we continue to excel, we get promoted again. This process continues until we become mediocre at our assignment, and then promotions cease. It seems that Jesus promoted Peter beyond mediocrity -- once Peter's pride was taken out of the way. May we each learn to set aside our pride, get over our failures, and allow Jesus to work in us to His level of excellence: the true Peter Principle!

From a Reader in (Unknown):

Al, I want to thank you for such an interesting and thought-provoking lesson in your latest Reflections about "Breakfast on the Beach." If Jesus can forgive Peter for his thrice denial of Him, and if God can forgive us our sins through prayer if we are truly penitent, why can't we do the same towards our fellow man instead of being so judgmental?

From a Reader in Georgia:

Al, I just want to say thank you for challenging my thinking and providing material for meaningful reflection. Your current issue, "Breakfast on the Beach," is a powerful lesson that I shall continue to dwell on for my own spiritual growth. All of God's sweet children are challenged, as was Peter, to love as did Jesus.

From a New Reader in (Unknown):

Greetings! A friend has just told me of your web site, and I would appreciate receiving your Reflections. Having just read "A Lover's Quarrel" --- Reflections #107 --- I was taken back to many years ago when I was a member of the Church of Christ. As I matured physically, I began searching the Word on my own, and I found freedom and grace that I had not heard much about in the Churches of Christ. Praise Him!! It is such a joy to be His child.

From a Reader in Texas:

Bro. Al, I have been doing more thinking on what your Reflections article says concerning "The Rich Man and Lazarus" -- Issue #28 -- and had a thought concerning a belief one must hold if they claim to believe in an actual state of conscious torture prior to Judgment Day. I have come to the conclusion that a person believing this parable to be a true story must accept that God plans on stopping the torture that has been going on for thousands of years now (those wicked already dead and being tortured) when He resurrects everyone for final judgment. Those wicked dying prior to the 2nd coming would actually receive a punishment much worse, since they would be released from their torture and then be returned to it once again. This would seem to place God in an even more vindictive light. Al, thank you for all you do!

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