by Al Maxey

Issue #290 ------- February 26, 2007
So long as I am acting from duty and
conviction, I am indifferent to taunts
and jeers. I think they will probably
do me much more good than harm.

Winston Churchill {1874-1965}

Shameful Sectarian Scrutiny
Narrow-Minded Nit-Picking

There is an ancient Arabic maxim that states a grand truth -- "The dogs bark, but the caravan moves on." If a caravan halted its forward progress every time some mangy critter stood off to the side yipping and yapping, it would never reach its destination. Dogs bark at what they don't like or understand; that is their nature. Caravans have valuable people and products to deliver, and they move forward with purpose; that is their nature. Critics of forward progress in the church are much like the desert dogs. They snip and snarl, bark and howl, foam at the mouth, and in general make a nuisance of themselves when they encounter that which perplexes and perturbs them, but they will never deter a determined caravan (a congregation of believers with a priceless product to deliver) from moving on. La Rochefoucauld (1613-1680), in his famous Maxims, astutely observed, "Second-rate minds usually condemn everything beyond their grasp." Sectarianism, frankly, is the inevitable consequence of such second-rate contemplation and condemnation. When differences among disciples become defining, the tragic result is division -- the dismemberment and disemboweling of the Body of Christ.

This fragmentation of the Family of God is visible in virtually any location on the planet where men and women professing faith in Christ may be found. It is not unusual to find places of worship located within sight of one another, under whose separate roofs assemble disciples who will not even acknowledge one another as spiritual siblings. In our nation alone we have more denominations than we can count, and within each of these denominations there are scores of warring factions, fussing and fighting over a host of issues so utterly insignificant that God never bothered to utter a single, solitary syllable in the sacred Scriptures about the vast majority of them. Such divine silence does not even begin to deter these combatants, however; indeed, it seems to spur them on. To our eternal shame, those of us who are descendants of the Stone-Campbell faith-heritage are perhaps among the worst at this sectarian nit-picking and hair-splitting. Even our factions have factions!

Must the "fruit of the vine" within the cup at the Lord's Table be from a grape? What color? Must it be fermented or unfermented? How many cups should there be? What about the bread we use? Must it be broken at the Table and distributed, or must it be broken by each participant in turn? Do you pray over it before or after it is broken? Must it be made of wheat, or will some other grain suffice? May the grain be processed, or must the flour come from unprocessed grain? Must one "lay by in store" only on Sunday, or may one take a collection on other days of the week as well? What version of the Bible is "authorized" for use in the Bible classes and collective worship of the saints? Are Bible classes even permitted? May we share a meal together in the church building? May the building have a kitchen? May we even have a building? Are women sinning if they trim their hair? Must all singing of spiritual hymns within the public assembly be a cappella only? Is instrumental accompaniment to our singing a sin? What about PowerPoint accompaniment to our preaching? Okay, boys and girls, all together now, loud and clear, can you say NIT-PICKING?!

A gentleman by the name of Alan Townend, in an article I just happened to come across on the Internet fairly recently (titled "Are You A Nit-Picker?"), made the following observation: "There are several words to describe people who insist on telling you when you've got something wrong, and make a big hoo-ha over it to such an extent that the interruption completely destroys what you are trying to say or do. They become obsessed with 'persnickety detail' and 'pettifogging minutiae.' The other thing about them is that they never seem to be embarrassed when they're doing it, and any criticism of them seems to be like water off a duck's back. We have words for people like that: nit-pickers, fusspots, pettifoggers." Such people are not the product of a recent genetic mutation. They have always been around. Jesus dealt with them on a daily basis during His earthly ministry. They were known as the Pharisees; a group that had almost perfected the art of legalistic, narrow-minded nit-picking. They could strain gnats and swallow camels with the best of them!

Unfortunately, such people are utterly clueless. Jesus Christ our Savior pronounces woe after woe upon them; declaring that publicans and prostitutes will enter the kingdom ahead of them. Yet, they persisted in promoting the tedious tenets of their pernicious partyism, and in so doing only succeeded in making their proselytes twice as much "sons of hell" as they were [Matt. 23:15]. They were white-washed tombs, hypocrites, blind guides, fools, serpents, and a brood of vipers [Matthew 23]. No, Jesus didn't mince words with these rigid religionists. He called it just like He saw it. So did the apostle Paul. Like Jesus, Paul recognized the tremendous threat such legalistic nit-picking posed to the church of our Lord Jesus Christ. Thus, he refused to yield in subjection to such people for even an hour [Gal. 2:5]. He called them "false brethren" [vs. 4], and even suggested they castrate themselves [Gal. 5:12]. Harsh words, but sometimes it takes nothing less to warn the unwary and to mark the malicious.

For those who have the stomach for it, there are countless opportunities on the Internet to witness such nefarious niggling in action. It is a sad, pathetic spectacle, but I think sometimes we all need to watch Satan at work so that we will appreciate all the more the true nature of the global warfare we wage as soldiers of the cross. Know your enemy, and what better way than to see that enemy up close and in action. There are a good many ultra-conservative, legalistic, patternistic "discussion" groups that one may join, and then just lurk and learn. Two that immediately come to mind are Contending for the Faith and Mars-List [and its highly secretive, restrictive offshoot: The Village Gate, established quietly to exclude even some of their own on Mars-List who were evidencing signs of independent thought and honest reflection on God's Word], if you are interested in examining the more radical factions of the Churches of Christ, but there are thousands more such groups representing other denominations and traditions. After just a short period of time watching the mindless wranglings of these Pharisaical religionists (all of which one will truly find almost impossible to believe), one will feel that he or she has just come back from a long day at the zoo: watching the monkeys and apes picking at one another looking for lice (aka: nits) to feast upon. It's a disgusting display ... but educational.

Nit-picking is perhaps best observed within the context of religious sectarianism and factionalism. Indeed, it thrives there! The more rigid a group tends to be, the more likely it is that its adherents will subject all others around them to intense scrutiny. And be assured, few will measure up in their sight. In short order, they will confidently declare most to be bound straight for the fires of hell. They may not be overly scholarly, but they are true collegiates -- after all, they have majored in minors for years! True introspection is not their strong suit, but when it comes to intense examination of others, they are masterful and meticulous in their inspection and inquisition. Jesus referred to them as speck hunters. "Why do you look at the speck in your brother's eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, 'Let me remove the speck from your eye;' yet look, a plank is in your own eye? Hypocrite!" [Matt. 7:3-5a]. Such people are great at finding the smallest speck in another's life, but when it comes to perceiving the planks in their own lives, they are blind as bats.

What these sectarian speck inspectors don't realize, however, and which will prove eternally fatal to them, is that there is a divine principle of reciprocity that they will one day experience [I would encourage the reader to study Reflections #172 -- The Principle of Reciprocity]. What a fearful day that will be. For, in the words of Jesus just prior to His above comments about speck hunting, "With what judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you" [Matt. 7:2]. In Matt. 6:14-15 Jesus makes it clear that whether or not we receive forgiveness from our Father will depend greatly upon whether or not we have extended forgiveness to our brethren. "For judgment will be merciless to one who has shown no mercy" [James 2:13]. These should be sobering words to us all, and yet many mouth the words from the model prayer, "forgive us our debts, AS we forgive our debtors" [Matt. 6:12], with no clue that they are petitioning God to display toward them the same degree of mercy and forgiveness they display toward others. Indeed, by their own standard of measure, they will be measured. I'd hate to be a speck hunter standing before the One from whom no speck is hidden, inviting that One to deal with me as I had dealt with others. Anyone care to speculate as to the eternal outcome of such divine scrutiny? Needless to say, it wouldn't be pleasant.

Perhaps the literary giant William Shakespeare [1564-1616] summed up best the malicious mindset of those engaged in sectarian speck hunting and nit-picking when he spoke of the following actions of one man against another -- "All his faults observed, set in a notebook, learned, and condemned by rote" [from the play Julius Caesar]. The pitiful reality is, "There's not the least thing can be said or done, but people will talk and find fault" [Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1616), Don Quixote]. In the year 1694, La Fontaine [1621-1695], in his work "The Miller, His Son, and the Donkey," observed, "Take wife or cowl; ride you or walk: doubt not but tongues will have their talk." Human nature, being what it is, genuinely loves the dirt in others' lives. We seek out those nasty little specks, and then magnify them. That is, until the Holy Spirit enters our hearts and begins His work of transformation. The more we become like Christ, the less we display the actions and attitudes of the fleshly nature. What may we infer from this, brethren? I believe we may infer the following: those who dwell upon specks, are not indwelt by the Spirit. Or, if they are, they are resisting Him like the devil and his minions, grieving Him in the process. In time, if their hearts don't soften, He will give them up to their passions, and their destruction will thereby be assured.

The apostle Paul had the following to say about this sorry lot of sectarian nit-pickers -- "When they measure themselves by themselves, and compare themselves with themselves, they are without understanding" [2 Cor. 10:12]. In other words, the standard one uses to evaluate others is critical. Is it your own, or is it God's?! I believe you will very quickly discover, if you simply take the time to do so, that most of the nit-picking and speck hunting in the church has absolutely no objective standard whatsoever other than petty personal or party perceptions and preferences. Those who pick at their brethren generally do so in areas where God has said nothing whatsoever. Therefore, these legalists fill that divine silence with such a din of dogma and racket of regulation that this cacophony of credalism sounds forth like a sectarian tsunami throughout the earth. What a wave of hogwash; what a swelling of swill. Tragically, many will be swept away in this flood of factional folly.

Brethren, take great care around nit-pickers and speck hunters. Not only can you quickly become the target of their scrutiny, but a greater danger is that you might be influenced in some way by their harsh judgments against others. They can be most convincing in their caustic condemnation of others. That is why Paul warned the young evangelist Timothy, "Pay no attention to an accusation against an elder unless it is supported by two or three witnesses" [1 Tim. 5:19]. When one is in a position of spiritual leadership, rest assured that he will attract in short order a swarm of speck hunters. They will pick over and pick apart every aspect of his daily life and teaching, looking for anything that might justify a declaration of no confidence. Paul himself attracted such a cadre of critics. He was determined, however, not to let such people destroy his effective ministry. "To me it is a very small thing that I should be examined by you, or by any man's judgment" [1 Cor. 4:3]. "The One who examines me is the Lord" [vs. 4]. Men may pick us to death, but the Lord will pick us up unto life! I think I prefer the latter.

In His Sermon on the Plain, our Lord Jesus gave some marvelous advice for us all -- "Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. And do not judge and you will not be judged; and do not condemn, and you will not be condemned; pardon, and you will be pardoned. ... For by your standard of measure it will be measured to you in return" [Luke 6:36-38]. It hurts to be on the receiving end of harsh judgmentalism. I know -- I've been there, and still am! It hurts to be unfairly and unjustly criticized and condemned; to be told to your face, and by those you count as dear, that you are not worthy of their trust because they differ with your focus, or with some point about which Scripture says absolutely nothing. It hurts to have your name dragged publicly through the mud; to have your motives questioned and your ministry maligned. It hurts to hear ugly remarks being made about your family, simply because these critics don't happen to like your theology. Yet, "consider Him who has endured such hostility by sinners against Himself, so that you may not grow weary and lose heart" [Heb. 12:3], "for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you" [Matt. 5:12]. No servant is above his Master [Matt. 10:24], thus we too shall experience in our daily walk with the Lord that weariness of soul which comes from wagging tongues. Lord, give us all the strength to endure and remain faithful to our calling, trusting in Your deliverance and vindication. May we learn to "leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, 'Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,' sayeth the Lord" [Rom. 12:19].

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Readers' Reflections

From a Reader in Texas:

Brother Al, Today I finished reading the book "Beyond the Silence: The Role of Silence in Determining Authority" by John Carroll Brown (published in 1999 by Candlewood Press -- ISBN: 1-928736-00-9). I commend and recommend this book to you. I suspect that you are already aware of it, and probably have read it, but I just wanted to call it to your attention anyway. Two questions Bro. Brown posed in this book just jumped off the page at me: (One) Does the principle "Silence is Prohibitive" prohibit itself? and (Two) What great truth has God ever communicated to His people by saying absolutely nothing whatsoever about it? Keep on keeping on, Bro. Al.

From a Minister in California:

Dear Bro. Al, I just wanted you to know how much your studies have helped me, and to say, once again, thank you for your commitment to the Word and Truth, and for your willingness to share it with others. Your studies have led me so much farther down the road in my own studies. I love and respect you, brother, and feel quite indebted to you. By the way, when are you going to come out to the Pepperdine lectures? I'd love to meet you personally.

From a Reader in Oklahoma:

Bro. Al, I have started dating a woman who is a member of one of the very legalistic Churches of Christ here. She has given me a number of tracts to read which I find to be quite poor where sound logic is concerned. This has led me to wonder if there is a need in our brotherhood for tracts on various subjects like you cover in your weekly Reflections. You are doing such a great service to the brotherhood in your writings, but so many who need to hear these truths don't use the Internet. If converted to tracts, your biblical reflections could be made available at special events like the Soul Winning Workshop in Tulsa, or even mailed to each member of a local congregation.

From a New Reader in Oregon:

Bro. Al, May I please request that I be added to your distribution list for your weekly Reflections newsletter? My Dad, who preaches in Missouri, turned me on to your web site and, more specifically, to your Reflections. I find them challenging, and enjoy the fact that you have an easy, but very in-depth, style to these writings. I also appreciate the readers' comments, and your responses to them show a good, honest heart and personal integrity. Thanks in advance for adding me to your list, and I look forward to receiving your Reflections.

From a Minister in Arkansas:

Brother Al, I really appreciated what you had to say about the prophetic calling of Simeon. May I humbly add just a few thoughts of my own, for whatever they may be worth? Simeon was no doubt familiar with the Messianic prophecies of Isaiah. It is my opinion that he, along with Zacharias, anticipated the restoration of Israel. I also conclude from their one-time only prophecies that they anticipated the coming Kingdom of God. As is the case with most prophets, they did not fully understand the words that they were delivering. I am further of the opinion that the prophecies of Zacharias [Luke 1] and Simeon [Luke 2] ought to be understood in connection with each other. They each prophesied to a specific period of time when the Davidic Covenant [1 Chron. 17:14] was being fully realized and accomplished in Jesus. What they each anticipate was the age when God would again reign, and Israel would be redeemed or restored. Did these two men fully understand the magnitude of their prophecies? Probably not. Nonetheless, they provided hope for a people who were oppressed. This was just something I thought about as I read your most recent Reflections. Great stuff, Al. Keep up the good work.

From a Reader in Texas:

Bro. Al, May I ask you a question? Is the "John" in Acts 12:12 the same person who wrote the Gospel of John, or is he John Mark who wrote the Gospel of Mark? Also, is the "Mary" mentioned there the mother of Jesus? I have asked this question at my church, and some say the answer to both is Yes.

From a New Reader in Indiana:

Dear Bro. Al, I had heard much about your Reflections from one of the members of the church here, but I had not checked you out until he forwarded one of your articles to me last week. Thank you for acting upon my subsequent request and signing me up to receive your teachings. From what I have seen so far you must be one of those "change agents" I hear so much about!! It also appears to me that you have great insight, and that you are a genius. I can clearly see all of this because your thoughts mirror mine so closely!! Actually, you are much more articulate and scholarly than I am, but I am so much enjoying reading your Reflections. This is sorely needed in our brotherhood! Keep up the good work.

From a Reader in California:

Brother Al, I enjoy reading your Reflections so much!! The story about the great hymn writer, P. P. Bliss [Issue #283], was very moving, to say the least! What a talent he had. When the train was crossing that 75' ravine and the bridge gave way, plunging them to the depths below, and the fire broke out, and Philip Bliss chose to perish with his beloved wife, it was hard for me to read those words through my tears!! Thank you, Al, for your Reflections, and for your love of God's people.

From a Reader in Florida:

Dear Bro. Al, Thank you so much for mailing to me the two CD's [vol. 4 -- the 2006 Reflections CD and the Debates of Al Maxey CD] which I received last week. Your thoughtfulness and generosity in sending me free of charge the debate CD was heart-touching and very much appreciated. I am sorry it took me so long to mail this "Thank You" note. However, I wanted to take the time to make a very special hand-painted card and bookmarks expressing my gratitude for your kindness, as well as to again thank you for your inspiring, uplifting, informative ministry through Reflections. Through you, God blesses and enriches so many lives -- including mine. So, for all that you are and all that you do for the kingdom of God, thank you. Also, I realize that without the love and support of Shelly you would not be able to minister to the degree that you do. Please pass on to her my thanks for her part in enabling you to be so effective in helping others!

From a Minister in Florida:

Dear Bro. Al, I am a reader and subscriber to your Reflections, and I have come to appreciate your wisdom and insight. I have been a minister for an a cappella congregation here in Florida for the past 13 years, and I suppose I would classify us as "progressive." We have certainly managed to escape the gravitational pull of much of the legalism that has accumulated around us over the years. We have a very good relationship with a couple of the Christian Churches in our town, and I have spoken at their congregations and they have spoken at ours. Our congregations have also held joint Ladies' Days and Men's Breakfasts. Apparently the many messages about unity have worked, for one of these Christian Churches approached us a few weeks ago and proposed a merger of our congregations. There are, of course, many logistical issues to solve and pieces to integrate before we could accomplish this, but we have met several times with them and have had wonderful success in resolving potential problems. There is extraordinary acceptance, and even enthusiasm, about this merger, and the elders are feeling like this is absolutely "God-led." We feel compelled to continue with this direction. We also believe that any merger at this point would certainly necessitate two services (one instrumental and one a cappella) for a time, although I actually think many of our members will go to the instrumental service. Although we believe God is truly leading us to do this, the leaders still have this nagging thought that some will feel that we have misled them (since statements had been made in the past that this congregation would not pursue a course toward the use of instrumental music). That could prove to be rather haunting. I guess I wish we had a clear biblical illustration that authorized leaders to change their minds in the face of greater enlightenment or changed circumstances. Your thoughts would be appreciated.

From a Deacon in Oklahoma:

Bro. Maxey, I serve as a deacon with a Church of Christ in Oklahoma, and just discovered your Reflections this evening, which was, I'm sure, via the providence of God. I am a kindred spirit with you, and am finding that a great many brothers and sisters in Christ are working toward the very same goal of unification in answer to Jesus' prayer to the Father in John 17. I would invite you to visit my web blog Theology of Nuance, where I have decided to become engaged in storming the adversary's stronghold in order to free as many captives as I can reach. I must admit, I was originally somewhat fearful of the repercussions that might come through my provocative sharing of faith, so I started the blog with an online pseudonym. But, as I began digging into my faith, I saw that I was being fearful, and that being safe was not necessarily being faithful. In your article "Why Was Stephen Stoned?" [Issue #61] you wrote, "Had he chosen to do as many do today -- stay home and stay safe; attend to his duties and 'mind his own business' -- he likely would have continued to enjoy the good favor of the populace." I was allowing my fear to hold me back. So, I dropped the online pseudonym and put my true identity in my profile. It is just as you wrote about Stephen: "He mingled; he positioned himself visibly among the people of Jerusalem." By becoming transparent online, I found that I was having more personal interaction with people at work. I started engaging associates in discussion about Christ, and initiating service activities at our congregation. I have found that my focus is more on others than ever before. Bro. Maxey, you have been a blessing to me, and you have brought honor to the Lord. Thank you.

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