Issue #242 -------
March 31, 2006
To make good the cause of
Freedom against Slavery you must be
Declarations of Independence walking.
Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882)
I get quite a lot of email on a daily basis. Obviously, I can't respond to them all, but I do make an effort. Also, every so often one of my Reflections readers will choose to send me something they have written, and will ask if I might give them some editorial advice prior to publication of the piece. At other times, they just want to share with me something that may be on their heart, or a matter about which they have been reflecting. Frankly, I really do appreciate these personal glimpses into the thinking and challenges of these brothers and sisters in Christ. They edify and encourage me. Thus, I sincerely hope the readers will always feel comfortable in sending such materials my way. I truly benefit from them, even if I'm not able to respond to them all as I would like.
Sometimes one of these many emails from the keyboard of a particularly reflective reader will catch my eye; truly touching my heart in a moving and dramatic way. I received one such letter this past week from a doctor in the beautiful state of Alabama. He had written to share some of what he had been pondering upon with respect to the whole issue of patternism, and the obvious reluctance of the proponents of this rigid theology to actually produce the particulars and parameters of their precious pattern. I was so impressed by this brother's very practical and spiritual insights that I immediately wrote to him and requested permission to send his thoughts out as a special edition. Although he readily and graciously gave me permission to share his thoughts with all of you, he did request, however, that he remain anonymous, as he had absolutely no desire for any personal acclaim. I assured him that I would honor that request.
The following reflections, therefore, are not from my keyboard, but come from the very heart and soul of a dear brother who has clearly done some careful, prayerful consideration of the issue before us. His insights are stunning, and I knew as soon as I read his thoughts that I had to share them with each of you. I pray that the following will bless you as much as they blessed me. Thank God for people in the One Body like this brother. May their number increase!
Reflections from Alabama
Brother Al, thanks for the documents you emailed me last week. They were both quite interesting. I was thinking about the whole issue of "patternism" this morning, and it occurred to me that it really involves five separate (though closely connected) issues:
Each of these issues is vitally important, and needs to be addressed. But the "legalistic patternists" don't want to treat these as five separate issues. Rather, they want to fold issues 2-5 into issue 1. They constantly harp on the first issue as if it is the only issue in question. (Which seems odd, since issue 1 is the least controversial of the five -- most believers accept that there is a pattern in the NT; they just disagree about the other four issues.) The legalists focus all of their attention on arguing that the NT really does contain a pattern that God wants us to follow. They assume that if we accept this, then we must also accept all of their personal views about the pattern, namely: that salvation is conditional on adherence to the pattern, that it is a pattern of specific rules rather than general principles, that the pattern should be obvious to any sincere believer who reads the Scriptures, and that those who don't follow the ("correct") pattern are apostates who must be utterly rejected as false brethren. They have been so indoctrinated in this legalistic mindset that they can't understand how anyone could accept that there is a pattern in the NT, but reject their views about the pattern.
So, if you agree with them on the first four issues, but challenge them on issue 5 -- fellowship with those who understand the pattern differently than they do -- the legalists will go right back to issue 1, and try to convince you that there is a pattern in the NT, and that we ought to adhere to the pattern. Even if you protest until you're blue in the face that you already agree with them that there is a pattern, but disagree only on the issue of fellowship, they will insist on treating you as if you completely reject the very idea that Scripture presents a pattern that God wants us to follow. For them, the existence of a pattern implies that you cannot have fellowship with those who "reject" the pattern. They seem to feel that if you are willing to fellowship with those who don't follow the pattern, then you must not fully grasp the importance of the pattern. And they actually seem to think that, if they can just prove to you that there is a pattern that God wants us to follow, they will have proved that it's wrong to have fellowship with those who don't see the pattern as we do.
Or, even if you agree with the legalists on every point except for one specific detail of the pattern (perhaps the appropriateness of fellowship halls, or the number of cups you should use when serving communion), instead of providing you with a Scriptural argument for why their understanding of the pattern is correct and yours is incorrect, they will once again go back to issue 1 and stress the importance of doing things "according to the pattern" of Scripture. Listening to the legalistic patternists speak on just about any issue, you'd think that the two most important men in the entire Bible were Nadab and Abihu. Whether we're talking about instrumental music, located preachers, Sunday school classes, orphans' homes, the role of women in the church, or any of the thousands of other issues that have divided the body of Christ over the years, somebody is bound to invoke Nadab and Abihu as "proof" that we must do things "according to the pattern" or else suffer the wrath of God. And, of course, "according to the pattern" means according to their particular interpretation of the pattern. For one legalist, doing things "according to the pattern" automatically excludes located preachers; while, for another legalist, there is nothing about having a paid preacher that contradicts the "clear teachings" of Scripture. Each assumes that he understands the pattern correctly, and that the other must, therefore, be apostate.
I think I'm beginning to understand why no one will specify for you what the pattern is. First of all, legalistic patternists seem to believe that the pattern ought to be obvious to any sincere believer who reads the Scriptures. If you read the Scriptures and come to a different conclusion about the pattern than they do, they will conclude that you must not be a sincere believer. So, they say, "read it and figure it out for yourself." If you understand it as they do, they will accept you as a brother. If you come to a different understanding, they will condemn you as an apostate who was never sincere in his desire to follow the Lord. If you ask them to specify the pattern, they will automatically question your motives. In their view, if you were a sincere believer, then the pattern would be obvious to you from reading the Scriptures. So, by asking for the pattern, you are "proving" that you are not a sincere believer. In fact, I don't think they believe that anyone ever really misunderstands the Scriptures. I think they assume that anyone who takes a different position than they do on any doctrinal issue must be doing so out of willful rebellion against God rather than out of an honest misunderstanding of God's Word. If you ever listen to legalists talking about "error," it's as if it is the worst sin that anyone could possibly commit. For them, error is itself a sin, requiring repentance; not just a mistake, requiring correction. There is no such thing, in their mind, as an honest mistake when it comes to understanding God's will. In their view, error is willful disobedience. It is rebellion against God's revealed Truth. The legalists don't condemn murder with as much vehemence as they condemn error. So I guess it should be no surprise that they take offense when you ask them to specify the pattern. They believe that you already know the pattern, but that you are rebelling against it, and are trying to convince others to join in your rebellion.
For the legalists, the existence of a pattern is the one and only issue. In their view, if there is a pattern at all, it necessarily follows that a proper understanding of and faithful adherence to the pattern is both a salvation issue and a fellowship issue. Also, they are convinced that, if there is a pattern at all, it must be one of specific rules rather than general principles (since general principles allow too much "wiggle room" for individual differences; whereas specific rules promote uniformity). And, they are convinced that the pattern ought to be obvious to any sincere believer who simply reads the Scriptures in search of God's will. There can be no "honest mistakes" or "sincere differences of opinion" about the pattern, only willful, rebellious error. Thus, inquiring about the specifics of the pattern is a sure way of being labeled an apostate and false teacher. I'm afraid that by challenging the legalistic patternists to reveal the pattern one walks right into the trap of their twisted logic. (But, on the bright side, it has made the trap visible so that others can see just how twisted the logic of the legalists really is.)
It is vital that people come to realize that the pattern issue is not just a simple black and white, all or nothing, issue. It's not just a question of whether there is a pattern in the NT (most Christians accept that there is). The real debates are over the nature and specifics of this pattern, over the extent to which our salvation depends on how well we follow the pattern, and over whether we ought to extend fellowship to those who see the pattern differently than we do. The hardcore legalists may be so set in their thinking that they will be unable to see any perspective beyond their own. There are many out there, however, who are living under the bondage of legalism, who are not satisfied with the specious arguments that the legalists use to shore up their flimsy positions. These people are reachable. They need to be shown the faulty logic of the legalists, and why their arguments won't hold water. They need to see that the patternism issue is a far more complex one than the legalists would have them believe. They need to understand that the existence of a NT pattern is really not what's at issue. What's at issue is the nature and particulars of the pattern, whether pattern-keeping is a salvation issue, and whether agreement about the specifics of the pattern ought to be a fellowship issue.
From a New Reader in Nigeria, West Africa:
Dear Bro. Maxey, Greetings from Nigeria. Thank you for your letter and for adding me to your mailing list. I will be very much interested in communicating with you. I belong to a small Church of Christ (about 100 members) in a small village called Betem in the south eastern part of Nigeria. The church is a progressive one, but we stick to what the Bible says. We have been having a few visitors from the U.S. We run a small secondary school called Karl Peterson Memorial Academy (named after an American who helped us to set up the school; he died two years ago). We are looking for brethren like you to visit here and preach to the people here. I shall be happy to hear from you again.
From a Minister in Missouri:
Greetings Bro. Al, Today I am mailing you a copy of the One Cup Church of Christ Directory for the United States. It is filled with email addresses, so this will be a good way for you to introduce them to your Reflections. Al, when are you going to be in the state of Missouri again? My wife and I want to arrange our schedule so that when you return to Missouri we can come to meet and worship with you. We love you and appreciate you! Thanks for helping us get free. Al, please pray for me, because I have a very bad taste in my mouth about all the time I wasted in this far right, conservative segment (One Cup) of the Church of Christ, and I don't want Satan to take advantage of me. Thus, I must rid myself of this bitterness. Keep us in your prayers!
From a Reader in North Carolina:
Bro. Al, I just finished reading the response from the doctor in Alabama to you in the last Readers' Reflections section, and I would like to add a double "DITTO" to what he wrote to you there. I too listen to and watch as many as I can of Bro. Rick Atchley's sermons online, and would love to have your sermons available online also!!! I really appreciate your Reflections, and I want you to know that they have helped me very much in my change of worship attitude toward God and His disciples worldwide. I am really beginning to enjoy my freedom in Christ more and more every day now!!! Thank you very much!
From a Reader in Indiana:
Dear Al, Thank you for doing this analysis of what a "cloud of witnesses" means. I read it over and can see your point. It is really helpful the way your web site is designed so that I can tell which ones I've already printed off and read. I'm getting quite a collection of ones that I've saved after printing off. I even got a file box to hold them all. It was also really helpful for me to read your further comments about what it means to be "missional-minded," the ones you wrote to the reader from Oklahoma in your last readers' section. I do believe if we are benevolent, gracious and loving it will open a door to share our faith with others. I told my husband today that I was thankful for you, and for all you've done for me.
From a Reader in Montana:
Hi Al, Isn't it strange that when something is brought to mind, no matter how long ago, you remember it as if it happened last week. When the title "Cloud of Witnesses" appeared, when your email opened, I instantly thought back to a Sunday morning, the year was around 1965. Without any previous notice, I was asked to give the lesson that morning. Shocked is the right word! My mind kinda went on the blink, not having a clue what to talk on, but I quickly opened my Bible and within a few minutes this passage in Hebrews was to be my subject. That, by the way, was the first time that I really ever deeply read those verses, grasping a truth I had never noticed before, and it was downloaded forever onto the hard-drive of my memory. Today I can only shake my head in shame, realizing that I have never really "competed in the game" as those witnesses who stayed the course no matter how tired, or how difficult the going, or how much sacrifice they were called upon to make.
From a Reader in Texas:
Hi, brother! I haven't sent a note in a while, and am thinking this would be a good time. I just finished reading your comments from Hebrews 12 -- the great cloud of witnesses -- with which I agree and which I appreciate! I also read the letter from "A Reader in Michigan" (the first and longer one -- there were two). He had just discovered Carl Ketcherside, and was writing about being "touched" by Carl's "humility and eloquence." And I thought: Yes, brother Carl is also one of my great witnesses that cloud my every day walk with the Lord --- along with Jesus, Paul, Polycarp, Martin Luther, the Campbells, Barton W. Stone, K. C. Moser, Leroy Garrett, Edward Fudge, and Al Maxey. Thanks.
From a Reader in Michigan:
Dear Al, Virtually every point Rick Atchley made on his DVD I made in class over the last few years, including the "function over form" point, which I used to defend church rummage sales in my article: A Fresh Look at Acts 4:32-37. The idea that what the church does will vary from culture and time to culture and time didn't sit all that well back then, but I think people are coming around to see the point better these days. When I show Atchley's DVD here in a couple of weeks I expect it will be received better than my class was a few years ago. Those are good signs of growth, I think.
From a Reader in Nevada:
Al, We have witnesses living among us today, and I am thankful to God, and to you, that you are a witness to us on a collective and individual basis. Thank you. You are an inspiration to us. We "old dogs" learn much from you.
From a Reader in Florida:
Dear Al, I plan to share with others the DVD of Rick Atchley's sermon "Learning Division," which I viewed yesterday. Thanks so much for introducing it to your Reflections readers! The much needed message came across lovingly -- and "loud and clear." Abundant good is being accomplished through that avenue! Al, your messages enlighten and enrich my life, as does the information obtained from the web links posted within your articles and within the letters from Reflections readers! You are great at clearly addressing complex subjects! This past evening I followed a link mentioned by a Reflections reader to Carl Ketcherside's "According To The Pattern," which then led me to www.unity-in-diversity.org.
What a great site! Even though Carl and I never met in person, he was a wonderful friend and a great encouragement to me during the 10+ years we communicated by mail. He was such a knowledgeable, wise, gentle, caring, humble servant of the Lord. The last letter I received from him was written early in 1989. He mentioned that he and his daughter had been to visit the grave of his beloved wife, Nell -- that it was hard for him to realize that she had been called away "from us," but that he must become reconciled to that fact. He spoke of God's grace, kindness, longsuffering, and patience. I was always delighted and amazed that he would answer letters so quickly. However, I didn't receive a reply to the last letter I wrote to him, and assumed he must have passed away. Later, I heard that he had indeed died, but didn't discover until reading on the web site last evening that he did die in 1989 -- the year following Nell's death. Al, I join with others in again thanking you for your dedication to so caringly spreading the good news of Jesus -- and so capably sharing other aspects of God's Word with so many!
From a New Reader in Texas:
Bro. Al, First, let me say a sincere "thank you" for the articles of yours that I have read. A friend of mine gave me last week's issue of your Reflections after the worship service this morning, and I read it with interest and appreciation. I came home and immediately went to your web site and looked up several things that, I am sorry to say, are controversial. Almost without exception, I agreed with your views. I only wish my next-door neighbor, an elder at a "patternist" congregation, would read your writings with an open mind. We have been members at Oak Hills in San Antonio for 37 years, since long before Max Lucado became our preacher. Our experience at Oak Hills has been wonderful and life changing for my wife and me, even though we have struggled with some things. Please add me to your email list for Reflections, and may God bless you and your ministry.
From a Minister in California:
Brother Al, In the ministry that my wife and I lead, which helps those who are suffering from drug and alcohol addiction, one of the key components of it is that each participant has a partner. This partner has no other role except to be there with them, and to provide support, prayer, and encouragement. They are not expected to know everything there is to know about helping addicts, just be willing to be there for them. We give them very specific direction on how to help them, and they come through. Week after week! One does not need to be an expert in reaching out to be part of a missional church. One just needs to make oneself available to the Master for His use. The wonderful people who volunteer to help these folks are average, everyday folks, but they play an indispensable role in helping those suffering from the sin of addiction. We could not function in this ministry without them. It's not about what we know, but WHO we know. I hope this note can be of encouragement to some who may be despairing of how they can be used by God to reach a lost and dying world. Just pray and let God know that you're available, and He will do great things with your life.
From a Reader in Alabama:
Greetings, Brother Al. I want to thank you for your wonderful work. Every Reflections article challenges me to think and to examine what the Scriptures say. Two nights ago I watched Rick Atchley's sermon about "Learning Division." I agree with your assessment. He's a dynamic speaker, and I found myself in agreement with most of what he said, however there is something I can't quite come to grips with. I was raised in a theologically conservative congregation of the Church of Christ. My own thought processes tend to be more liberal than most, but I still try very hard to see things as God commanded, not just as we've always taught them. I don't want to exclude people based upon whether they believe in supporting orphans' homes or not, or whether they use one cup or multiple cups in observing the Lord's Supper, or any of the other divisive things that have created so much rancor in the brotherhood. My concern, though, is: Where do we draw the line?! If we embrace the instrumental folks, for example (and I have NO problem with that), then what do we say to the folks in other faith-heritages who deny that baptism is an essential part of salvation? It seems to me that if we accept one thing, we almost have to accept anything and everything, which seems to me to negate any "thus saith the Lord." This has become something of a struggle for me in my quest to accept someone as my brother, even though he's not my twin, versus drawing the line that God's Word would have me to draw. Can you help?!
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