March 1, 2003
A couple of weeks ago I received a challenging email from a reader who lives in upstate New York. She posed a question that most likely is on the minds of several of the readers of these published Reflections. Following is an excerpt from that letter:
I am embarrassed by how the Churches of Christ, my religious heritage, have botched the unity thing, the love thing, and the grace thing. I am disgusted at the negative but well-deserved connotations that go with our name. Knowing how difficult it is for me to stay, I am very curious about why you are staying. I fully expect to leave the denominational Church of Christ (not the REAL church of Christ --- the whole body of Christians worldwide) within the next year. Had we never left the Bible Belt we never would have found freedom in Christ! Thanks for putting your writings on the Internet. We have been very blessed by reading them.
Let me begin my response to this sister from New York by expressing appreciation for her candor as well as her encouragement. Having our thinking challenged, not to mention our cherished convictions, can be quite a shock to our comfort zone. Some tolerate it well, others merely become intolerable and intolerant. I'm thankful this sister falls into the former category.
Change, no matter how well tolerated, can be a traumatic experience. Especially is this true when it pertains to the transformation of one's convictions regarding ultimate Truth. What will my friends and family think? Will I be perceived as an apostate? Will I be shunned for "leaving the faith" of my fathers? Will I be "tossed up on tongues," perhaps even forfeit my credibility in the church? These are all legitimate concerns, and even anxieties, that naturally befall those whose beliefs are beginning to be beset with doubts. It is so much easier to simply retreat into the safety of the religious rut with which we have become so comfortable, and yet our hearts urge us to rise up and move forward .... regardless of the cost.
This sister is currently in the midst of this very personal and life-altering challenge. It affects every aspect of her being. She is faced with decisions that have far-reaching, and even eternal, ramifications. My heart goes out to her, and to her family. She will be in my prayers for a special measure of God's grace to help her face the challenges and changes that lie ahead. Her journey will be difficult, but the destination is well worth the struggle and sacrifice.
I personally share many of the concerns expressed by this dear sister in Christ. There is no question in my mind that the concept of restoring the precise practices of the first century church is fallacious. Sadly, this has devolved into a form of rigid patternism that has resulted in confusion and contention. The patternists cannot even agree among themselves what constitutes that original pattern, thus they have divided into scores of feuding factions. I suppose we could, somewhat tongue in cheek, suggest they have restored at least one congregation of the early church -- Corinth -- with regard to its quarrels and schisms.
Yes, I reject the theology of patternism that motivates too many within our wing of the so-called Restoration Movement in America. It is legalism thinly veiled, and it has led to the "satanic siblings of sectarianism" known as isolation and exclusion. Proponents of patternism withdraw into themselves and exclude all others from their august presence. This is arrogance. It is also an affront to our God and to the sacrifice of His Son, who went to the cross to break down the walls of exclusion and isolation (Ephesians 2:14). Yes, too many of my brethren have "botched the unity thing, the love thing, and the grace thing." I am not only "embarrassed" by such nonsense, but greatly distressed by it. The word our sister chose is "disgusted." That is a fitting term.
Therefore, why stay? Why not just pack up and leave? Why not shake the dust from my feet and move on to more fertile fields ripe unto harvest? Good question. Why did Jesus keep going to the Jews? Why did some of the prophets of old keep working with an obstinate people, some even paying for that determination with their lives? Why do we remain Americans, given some of the abuses in our present society? I guess in many cases it comes down to the fact that, for many of us, these are my people. This is my heritage. By leaving one heritage for another I truly solve nothing, but only exchange one set of conditions for another. The perfect church group does not exist. If we flee from every negative circumstance we encounter, our life will be lived on the run and on the road. I believe in reform, not retreat. Thus, rather than leave them, I will love them.
That sounds simplistic, I know, but it is really that basic. Oh yes, accomplishing this is not easy. It will cost me the rest of my life, there will be times of heartache and hardship, but I can't walk away from those in my religious heritage when I firmly believe they need to be challenged in their thinking and called to responsible reformation. When you love someone you stand by them, even when they are confused and conflicted. You don't abandon the ones you love, even though at times they may seemingly desire it.
A few years ago a former president of a Christian College urged me -- "Get out of my church and go start your own!" I wasn't aware it was his church! Nevertheless, I understand his point. I had dared to challenge his thinking and traditions, thus my presence was no longer desired. I had disturbed his comfort zone, and this is something one does at great personal risk. Just yesterday (in fact, in response to my last Reflections) an editor of a noted Christian publication, who lives in Tennessee, emailed me the following:
The message of the ultra-conservatives has always been, "Parrot the party line, or get out of our church." The reality is that leaving one religious heritage for another accomplishes nothing. One may make a few people more comfortable in their spiritual slumber by leaving, but the person leaving really gains little. No religious group, or faction within a group, is free of problems. If I left the Church of Christ and affiliated with the Independent Christian Church, for example, I would only be exchanging one set of problems for another; one set of traditions for another; one faith-heritage for another. I would have accomplished nothing.
It is not a change of association or affiliation that is called for today .... It is a change of HEART. Do my beloved brethren in the Church of Christ church have a heart problem? Yes, they do. What is my obligation to these brethren within this heritage of mine? I personally believe it is to help them find the grace to heal. Yes, I could walk away and try to find some degree of personal peace and contentment elsewhere, but that would be a failure on my part to rise to the challenge placed before me by our Father -- "Your brothers have lost their way. Help them find the path of grace once again." Will I transform the Church of Christ group single-handedly? Of course not. But I can change hearts one disciple at a time as God provides opportunity. I can't do that by walking away. I can only do it by remaining with my people and showing them the love and grace of our Father. This frenzied flying from one fellowship or faction to another looking for that "perfect fit" is an illusion. It is futile. The true test of faithfulness is to blossom where you are planted and present to those about you the beauty of a Christ-filled, grace-centered life!!
With freedom comes responsibility ..... the responsibility to help others find that freedom as well. Christ Jesus didn't set us free so that we could remove ourselves from those enslaved and bask in our liberty. He set us free so we could become ambassadors of freedom unto those still in captivity. My duty to my God is not to find a quiet place where I am surrounded only by those of similar conviction, but rather to sacrifice my own comfort and enter the darkness to lead others to the Light. Get out of the Church of Christ and leave them alone? Never!! I was raised among these brethren, I am a part of their history (G.C. Brewer was a cousin), I know and love many of their traditions, and I have neither desire nor intention to depart. They're stuck with me. And what's more, they are going to continue to hear my repeated pleas for changed hearts, transformed perceptions and rededicated lives.
I am an agent of change. Not of Church of Christ church traditions. That is largely irrelevant. Rather, I am an agent of my Lord promoting a change of focus, a change of direction, a change in the way we perceive one another, and a change from the bondage of Law to the liberty of Grace. Just as the early disciples began in Jerusalem among their own people, so I shall focus my efforts at responsible reformation "at home." I was born and raised in the faith-heritage known as the Church of Christ. Lord willing, I shall live and die among them, seeking to help these beloved brethren tear down the walls of exclusion and isolation they have erected over the years and cross over into the joys of greater fellowship with their extended family in Christ Jesus our Lord.
From a Reader in Canada:
I started preaching (several decades ago) for the largest "Anti" church in Canada. The first sermon I was asked to preach was a problem for me, and it went downhill fast. I was reading a book by Edward Fudge, who is only 5 years my senior in age, but a lot more on good knowledge. He talked about being under the umbrella of Grace. My father-in-law, the "main elder," forbade me to read that book ... and a few more.
Well, I guess over the years I have become a "change agent." That's one name that describes how they feel about me that I can still print in public. We raised our family in the "Anti" church, and for the most part that is where they want to stay. My sons preach and our girls are married to Christians or preachers who are Christians. All "Anti." That breaks my heart, but not as much as it would if they never went anywhere. I am amazed that they believed in us so much as they were growing up, but now feel we have no integrity at all.
Well Al, keep up the great work. I have so much to read and so small a brain to absorb it all. Oh God, give me time.
From a Reader in Texas:
Dear Al, I appreciate your boldness, yet your charitableness, so very much. I grew up in the ultra-conservative, non-institutional branch of the "one true church" and it was brethren with your spirit who caused me to "really think" ..... not the "debaters" and "editors" who felt they were the sole guardians of "the truth." Your question, "Which faction is the true body of Christ?" is a question that haunted me for years.
It is my earnest prayer not to lead anyone astray, but I do feel that if folks would simply look for the "fruit of the spirit" in other believers, much more good would be accomplished than from the "biting and devouring one another" that's been so characteristic of our branch of Christendom. Keep up the good work!
From a Reader in Alabama:
I am sitting at my computer about to cry. PRAISE GOD!!!! You have put so succinctly the many thoughts I have struggled with.
From a Reader in Tennessee:
I am a member of the Church of Christ, and have been all of my life. I was raised to believe that the Church of Christ is the only "one true church" and that if one is not a member of the Church of Christ they are going to hell. I hate to say this, but it was almost a brainwashing experience. So you can see what I grew up with. I am struggling to break free of such narrow-minded thinking. I am in the process now of studying the Bible for myself and rethinking those things, and I am happy to see that there are others who are doing the same.
I am very happy to be receiving these Reflections from you. I also enjoy Edward Fudge's emails. I am very happy to see that there are other Church of Christ members who are thinking for themselves and reading the Bible for themselves and seeing what God wants us to really focus on. It is not whether we do or do not use instrumental music in worship, and splitting theological hairs, but on our relationship with Him. We should be focusing on Him and how we can help others who are in need, rather than pointing out "errors" in others' beliefs or forms of worship. We are wasting our precious time on earth doing those things.
From a Well-Known Reader in Texas:
Al, I've been "written up" so many times by the "new conservatives." What fascinates me about the Spiritual Sword crowd and the Contentious For The Faith bunch, however, is that they can't see some of their own inconsistencies. At least some of the "Anti" groups tried to be consistent. I led singing for brother Roy Cogdill when I was in college and I know what "real conservatism" is.
For a number of years I had the following saying, "It is the most intellectually arrogant thing for a group of people located primarily in the Southern part of the United States to think that they are the first people since the apostles who understand the truth and whose faith is valid." Another thing I try to tell people as I challenge them to read, listen, and THINK is that, "Real truth doesn't have ANYTHING to fear from honest questions .... my traditions might, my prejudices might, and my interpretations all might have something to fear, but REAL TRUTH doesn't, regardless of who speaks it." I've gotten to where I don't care who hears me say this, and I've found that sometimes when some people hear my name associated with what they've been told are the "change agents" it gives them the personal boldness to seek for that freedom in Christ for which we all hunger.
Forgive me for going on and on, but I just get excited when I see one of my brothers thinking and speaking up! It is so refreshing to see a brother like you challenging people to THINK. It's a unique time in history to be part of the Body and I applaud you and Fudge for using the Internet so effectively.
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