Issue #195 -------
June 12, 2005
To doubt everything and to believe everything
are two equally convenient solutions;
both free us from the necessity of reflection.
Henri Poincaré (1854-1912)
"Science and Hypothesis"
In the May, 2005 issue of Christian Chronicle there appeared a full page declaration of faith signed by twenty-four leaders within the Churches of Christ. This published document was titled A Christian Affirmation 2005. I did a rather extensive review of that Affirmation on May 17 in Reflections #190. Several others have also written critical reviews of this published declaration of conviction, including Dr. Leroy Garrett in Essay #72 of his series of occasional letters known as "Soldier On!" Both my written evaluation and Bro. Garrett's have been copied and passed around rather extensively, and have generated both commendation and condemnation. Some agreed with our concerns regarding this Affirmation; some did not. Both of our articles were seen by some of the signers, but neither were allowed to be published on their "Christian Affirmation" web site, and I was informed by one of the signers that not even a link to our articles would be allowed on their web site. This seemed rather strange since this Affirmation was supposedly designed, at least in part, to open lines of communication between brethren. Odd, then, that doors were being quickly slammed shut when some sought to communicate concern. Several readers of these Reflections wrote to inform me that they had sought to become part of the upcoming discussion of this document, and were informed by one of the signers that they were not welcome to participate. Needless to say, this has raised some serious questions in the minds of some as to the motivation behind this document; questions raised by both Leroy and me several weeks back.
Bro. Mike Cope, from Abilene, Texas (who serves as one of the two Senior Editors of Wineskins magazine; Rubel Shelly being the other), on his web site -- Mike Cope's Blog -- wrote the following on May 12: "By now, many of you have read the Christian Affirmation that was plastered all over a full-page ad in the Christian Chronicle. I already mentioned how proud I am of many of my friends who are scholars who refused to sign the ad -- friends at ACU, Pepperdine, Harding, and Lipscomb. I'm sure there are others who decided not to sign, but these are the ones I know of."
Recently, Jeff Peterson, who is Associate Professor of New Testament at Austin Graduate School of Theology, and who is also one of the signers of the Affirmation, as well as the person who seems to be overseeing the web site, wrote a response to Leroy Garrett's evaluation. Bro. Peterson sent me a copy of that written response and said he felt it probably addressed many of my own concerns in my Reflections article as well. Thus, this response by one of the signers was apparently designed to "answer" not only Leroy's review, but mine, and perhaps the reviews of others, also. The final statement made by Jeff in his response was, "I look forward to the prospect of further conversation with him and other reflective readers." Jeff has placed his own Reply to Leroy Garrett on the Christian Affirmation web site, and I would strongly encourage all readers to go and evaluate that reply prior to continuing with my own current response to his statement. It would not be fair to Bro. Peterson for you to read my remarks below without first giving his statement a fair evaluation. On the other hand, none of my remarks, or Leroy's either, for that matter, will apparently ever appear on that web site; nor will there be any link to where my remarks might be found and examined by the visitors to that site. This, again, raises some very serious questions regarding motive and intent with respect to this document, and just how committed its framers are to bringing about responsible dialogue among differing brethren.
Reflecting on Peterson's Reply
As with my review of the Christian Affirmation itself, I would like to begin by making some positive statements regarding the reply written by Bro. Jeff Peterson to Dr. Leroy Garrett (and, by extension, to others of us who also had expressed concerns about the published Affirmation). There are indeed some assertions and insights worthy of commendation, and, in fairness to him, these should be noted. Bro. Peterson had some very kind words to say about Leroy, and about the latter's tremendous impact upon the Body of Christ. As a result of previous meetings with Bro. Leroy Garrett, Jeff stated, "I was impressed with his passionate commitment to opposing sectarianism in Churches of Christ." If any man has stood boldly against the evils of sectarianism in the Family of God today, it is Dr. Leroy Garrett, and I appreciate Jeff's recognition of this fact. For more insight into Dr. Garrett's contribution to the One Body, I would refer the readers to Reflections #107 ... "A Lover's Quarrel" -- A Reflective Review of a Recent Reformer's Retrospection.
I was also impressed by Jeff's insightful comments regarding the church of our Lord Jesus Christ. For example, he wrote, "the first full gathering of God's universal church will be 'the assembly of the first-born who are enrolled in heaven' (Heb. 12:23), and all meetings of the church before that time are only partial and hopeful anticipations of that eschatological congregation." In other words, no one congregation, or even group of congregations, can promote themselves as anything more than partial gatherings or assemblings of a greater whole. The universal assembly of the One Body is yet future; our gatherings today are, at best, only small gatherings of a few of a much vaster spiritual family. Thus, for any sect or faction or denomination to assume for itself the designation "One True Church," to the exclusion of other true believers who may not assemble in their group, is arrogance! For a foot or an eye to proclaim itself The Body is an absurdity; equally so would be for any part of the universal church to proclaim itself the whole.
Bro. Peterson further observed in his reply, "I have no quarrel with the definition of a Christian that Dr. Garrett quotes from Alexander Campbell: 'one who believes that Jesus is the Christ, repents of his sins, and obeys him in all things according to his understanding.' This definition would include the Society of Friends, which offers an interesting test case for the question of fellowship that Dr. Garrett presses." Jeff correctly points out that the Quakers confess Jesus as Lord, but do not share some of our own convictions with regard to such practices as immersion, the Lord's Supper, and congregational singing. Bro. Peterson then states, "Will there be any Quakers in God's eschatological assembly? It is not ours to 'judge the servant of another' (Rom. 14:4), but it would be surprising indeed if the God who declares 'I desire mercy and not sacrifice' should deny so graced a life as John Woolman's an abode among the saints because of a misunderstanding of baptism and the supper." The same could be said for someone like Mother Teresa. This is certainly an elevated view of God's grace with which brother Garrett, I presume, and I would completely agree. God will extend grace to whom He will, and I am confident that the extending of this grace will be far broader and more generous than many of our brethren might assume. Such an action on the part of our Father would not trouble me in the least. What troubles me is that it troubles some of my brethren!!
Nevertheless, there are still aspects of Bro. Peterson's reply to Dr. Garrett that have not put to rest certain legitimate concerns regarding the original Christian Affirmation. Indeed, if anything, those concerns are intensified. Jeff, for example, does not perceive any sectarian slant within the Affirmation he signed along with 23 others. Indeed, he suggests perhaps Dr. Garrett has seen sectarianism "where it isn't present." He declares that such a sectarian spirit is "explicitly repudiated in the Affirmation's closing paragraphs." He adds, "I would ask Dr. Garrett and other readers who find sectarianism endorsed by the Affirmation to consider whether they have not read this into the statement rather than out of it."
I suppose I must be seeing those "closing paragraphs" in a much different light than Jeff. Yes, one does indeed find the following statement in the first of those two paragraphs: "Many in Churches of Christ today are rightly concerned to overcome a legacy of legalism, sectarianism, and divisiveness." I don't think any of us would disagree with that insight. We are concerned about this legacy within our faith-heritage ... and should be. If this was the defining statement of the closing paragraphs, indeed of the Affirmation itself, I would have no problem with it, and doubt most others would either. However, in the very next sentence we find this startling statement -- "It is easy to suppose that opposition to these scandalous realities means that we must relax our commitment to practices that have been characteristic of our churches."
I fear there is nothing within the Affirmation, or the closing paragraphs, that would lead the reader to believe the former position was being promoted over the latter. Indeed, just the opposite. Those final two paragraphs, for example, are captioned: "A Word of Concern." What is the concern? That some might dare to "relax" their "commitment" to these traditional practices in Churches of Christ. God forbid we ever consider relaxing a tradition for the sake of Christian unity with previously shunned brethren!! The advice of the final paragraph is that we lift high the "restoration vision" and take as "the indispensable guide to life" the "faith and practice" of "the earliest Christians," which "early Christian practice was rediscovered" in the 20th century "as a norm and a basis for seeking unity." The solution to sectarianism, therefore, is for all Christians to embrace the "norm" of restored early Christian practice, and conform to same! These "normative" practices of the early church are, of course, just coincidentally the very same ones found within Churches of Christ, certainly not those found within any other faith-heritage. This is the solution to sectarianism?! Brethren, this IS sectarianism!!
Jeff states in his published reply to Dr. Garrett, "The Affirmation does not address the question, 'Who is a Christian?' The question it addresses, as I understand it, is what the orientation and practice of Churches of Christ should be as we emerge from a century of relative isolation from other Christian communions and enter into meaningful conversation with them." In other words, as we come out from behind our walls of exclusion, and as we emerge from our cloistered isolation from the rest of Christendom, we need to come to some consensus, as a community of believers sharing a common faith-heritage, as to the nature of our identity. The appeal of the Affirmation, Jeff feels, is to clothe ourselves with a "Restorationist frame of reference, and to specifically maintain certain characteristic beliefs and practices." The question answered by the Affirmation, then, is not "Who is a Christian?," but rather "Who is a Church of Christer?" The answer seems to be that we are Restorationists who seek to maintain specific "characteristic" (i.e., Church of Christ) beliefs and practices. Jeff then specifies what some of these are, which include "weekly observance of the Lord's Supper" and "a cappella singing as an element of the church's worship."
Bro. Peterson then states, "The statement pronounces no anathemas on those who conclude or practice differently, nor does it excommunicate anyone; it simply commends the convictions expressed to the conscience of other Christians." If in fact this was the case, few of us would have any concerns regarding this Affirmation. True, the Affirmation pronounces no direct anathemas on anyone, but the implication of error on the part of those who embrace differing convictions and practices is implicit throughout. When one promotes specific practices as the "norm" and "basis" and "indispensable guide" to the attainment of Christian unity, the "message" is not lost on those who have differing practices. No, those who use instruments to aid singing in worship are not specifically condemned in the Affirmation; they are just informed, by implication, that they, by clinging to a practice that differs from ours, are an impediment to Christian unity. Thus, such persons are called to enter dialogue with us that we may convince them of the error of their ways and thus, in so doing, promote unity. This is still sectarianism, albeit a subtle form! It is dressed up in finery, but is still the same old: "We're right, you're wrong" mantra of militant ignorance!
Brethren, we can do better than this! I applaud the fact that the signers seek to "emerge from a century of relative isolation from other Christian communions and enter into meaningful conversation with them." Such is long past due! What we dare NOT do, however, is emerge from this isolation armed to the teeth and prepared to engage the enemy in battle. As we expect others to place their beliefs and practices on the conference table for in-depth examination from the Word, so must WE. If something happens to be shown to be more tradition than Truth, then let's be big enough to recognize this fact and not let our cherished notions stand in the way of responsible reconciliation with long-estranged brethren in Christ. Family unity is far more important than factional uniformity. I will readily sacrifice the latter for the former.
Does this mean differing brethren, and differing faith-heritages within Christendom, must compromise their convictions or abandon their preferred practices? Of course not. We don't have to be clones or twins to be brethren. What it means is that we cease making these preferences and practices tests of fellowship and conditions of salvation. We learn to love one another in spite of our differences, and respect one another as brethren even though our personal convictions may not always allow us to assemble together. We can assemble separately (physically) without necessarily being separate (spiritually). It comes down to attitude of heart. Brethren, this endless publishing of public "Affirmations" of party preferences needs to cease, no matter how loudly they are professed to be "well-intentioned." Far better would be a few more public affirmations by differing disciples of their LOVE one for another. Therein, brethren, lies the key that will throw open the doors to a joyous, much anticipated, and eagerly awaited celebration of fellowship with and acceptance of our extended Family.
From a Minister/Elder in New Jersey:
Al, I appreciated your recent article on "Barrier Busting" (Issue #191) -- but then what is new?! What can I say, I am just a Maxey groupie!! It came at a convenient time, as I was starting a series on 1 Corinthians and was able to tie it in. While your application was to those barriers "within our brotherhood," I was raising questions in a broader Christian neighborhood. As I have mentioned to you in the past, I am trying to open doors in a broader ecumenical sense here. I asked the question, "If Paul had written his letter to 'my home town,' or to Alamogordo, NM, what building would it have been read in?"
From a Well-Known Minister/Author in the Church:
Brother Al, Although we don't know each other, a friend recently shared with me a copy of your Reflections on the Christian Affirmation (Issue #190). I just wanted to thank you for your thoughts. You stated my concerns well. Even though it is done under the guise of scholarship, and with a seemingly sweeter spirit, "kinder and gentler" patternism is still patternism, and will lead to the same disastrous results we've already seen it produce. I appreciate your willingness to call it what it is. God bless you!
From an Elder/Author in Texas:
Al, Thanks for this very thorough study in the ancient prophecy of Zechariah, and for your most practical and much-needed application! You continue to sow good seed that exalts Christ and advances the kingdom of God.
From a Reader in South Carolina:
Al, I so look forward to each and every issue of your Reflections. Thanks so much for "being there" for me. I recently found an interesting web site on Primitive Baptists. I found their discussion of "Foot Washing During Communion" very interesting -- they are true "patternists," and continue foot washing today because it was given by the Lord as an example with instruction to "do as I have done unto you." BEHOLD THE PATTERN! On another topic, I have challenged some of my patternistic brethren as to why they do not follow the COMMAND to "Greet one another with a holy kiss." This command is specifically stated five times by Paul and Peter (Rom. 16:16; 1 Cor. 16:20; 2 Cor. 13:12; 1 Thess. 5: 26; 1 Pet. 5:14), more times than singing is mentioned! One response I got was, "What is a holy kiss?" I guess if you can't define "holy kiss" you don't have to obey the specific command!!
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