by Al Maxey

Issue #384 ------- February 2, 2009
For Modes of Faith, let graceless zealots fight;
His can't be wrong whose life is in the right.

Alexander Pope {1688-1744}
An Essay on Man

Checklist Churchianity
Securing Our Sectarian Separation
for Future Fratricidal Factionists

Paul Johannes Tillich (1886-1965), who was a great German-American theologian and Christian existentialist philosopher, and felt by many to be one of the four most influential theologians of the twentieth century (Niebuhr, Barth and Bultmann being the other three), wisely observed, in an article titled The Lost Dimension in Religion, that "the first step toward the nonreligion of the Western world was made by religion itself." This was done when religionists, under the guise of proclaiming Truth and contending for the Faith, chose to "defend its great symbols, not as symbols," and to defend its traditions, not as traditions, but as divine, objective Truth itself. Thus, Tillich correctly declared that when "religion did this, it had already lost the battle" [The Saturday Evening Post, June 14, 1958]. I believe that Tillich has made an extremely valid point, the reality of which haunts the Family of God to this very day. Whenever disciples fail to perceive the critical distinction between Tradition and Truth, Symbol and Substance, elevating the former above the latter, and/or arrogantly proclaiming the former to be the latter, a state of division among the disciples of the Lord is absolutely assured, as well as the inevitable sad decline of a movement into irrelevance and obscurity. To put it another way: Christianity devolves into mere Churchianity.

To borrow the phrase used in the quotation at the top of this article by Alexander Pope, there are far too many "graceless zealots" within the church who are determined to wage war with their spiritual siblings. And most of these skirmishes are simply over silly sectarian shibboleths; matters about which our Lord never spoke a single syllable, but about which mere men have spoken volumes for Him. Some have taken their personal preferences and perceptions, and their petty party patterns, and have elevated them to the level of eternal LAW, seeking to bind them upon all the rest of humanity until the end of time, with both fellowship and salvation at stake for those who dare to differ with them. The pitiful result, of course, which is abundantly obvious to any who still have the ability to perceive the distinction between faith and form, is that the Body of Christ has been systematically dismembered by these foolish factionists, thus rendering the precious blood-bought Body incapable of functioning as it should, not to mention making it a source of mockery to the malicious minions of darkness. Honest, loving, responsible contending for the Faith has thus been forfeited in favor of contentious conflict over Form. Dear brethren, we ought to be ashamed of ourselves (1) for being involved in such [if we are] and/or (2) not speaking out against it more.

This factional, fratricidal mindset has been painfully evident throughout the 2000 years of Christian history. It's evidenced, for example, in the almost endless number of denominations that have formed themselves around various charismatic individuals and their theologies. It is further witnessed within these various denominations when differing personal preferences generate a spirit of partyism. Each of these sub-groups within a denomination then divides into additional factions. And, yes, the Stone-Campbell Movement is not exempt from such woeful splintering. Indeed, by some accounts, we have virtually perfected the process! Within our movement, or faith-heritage, one may find a wide variety of doctrine and practice. In a word, we're a diverse people, even though, relatively speaking, our movement is of fairly recent origin. Nevertheless, we've wasted no time in following the pattern of separating ourselves from one another over every little "issue" that comes along. Thus, we find disciples who insist only the King James Version may be used in the worship and teaching of the congregation. We have brethren who believe it is a sin to have a Sunday School (the assembly should not be "divided" into "separate" groups for Bible study ... and, ironically, these disciples will not hesitate to "divide" and "separate" from any brethren who feel differently). We also have those who believe that only one cup should be employed in the Lord's Supper, and that the use of multiple cups is a sin (a departure from the "pattern"). There are several factions that have formed around how the bread in the Lord's Supper is to be broken and distributed. And it goes on and on! There are Non-Institutional congregations, One Cup congregations, and Mutual Edification congregations, as well as many other distinct sub-groups within our movement. We've argued and split over whether congregations may cooperate in doing good works, over how to do mission work (may groups larger than the individual congregation be involved), over how to do benevolence, over the Holy Spirit, women's roles, and the acceptability of various aids to our work and worship.

Within the Churches of Christ over the decades there has been a concerted effort by the vast majority of disciples within the mainstream congregations to extend the hand of fellowship to those segments of our movement who tend to be far more conservative in perspective and practice. The latter are often invited to events sponsored by the former (gospel meetings, singings, etc.). However, our history has demonstrated that the more conservative a group is, the less likely they are to actually attend or participate with these "liberal" (in their view) congregations. In directories like Where The Saints Meet, and the more recent version -- Churches of Christ in the United States, the various conservative factions of our faith-heritage have always been included. These more conservative groups, however, have produced their very own directories -- leaving out every other group within the Churches of Christ that disagrees with them. Thus, again, the more conservative one becomes (dare we say "legalistic"), the more exclusive and isolated they tend to become. The Non-Institutional wing of our movement has their own directory. The One Cup wing has theirs. And if you ain't one of them, you ain't in it!! Period!! End of story!! I have always applauded the editors and compilers of the above mentioned mainstream directory, though, for their spirit of gracious inclusiveness and their willingness to embrace within their directory those disciples of differing theological preferences and practices within Churches of Christ, and for doing so without passing judgment on these differences. In so doing, I truly believe they were evidencing the spirit of Christ Jesus.

Therefore, I must admit that I was extremely disappointed and saddened when I received my copy of the 2009 edition of Churches of Christ in the United States this past week, and I am not alone in this disappointment. The voices of concern are building into a vast chorus. This new directory (over 700 pages long, compiled by Carl H. Royster, published by 21st Century Christian) has made a choice that, in the view of a growing number of leaders in our faith-heritage, myself included, has set the cause of Christ, and unity within our movement, back decades. They have chosen to begin evidencing a harsh spirit of exclusion with regard to a single practice with which they take personal exception -- the use of instrumental music as an aid or accompaniment to singing within a corporate worship assembly. If a congregation DARES to use an instrument in even one of its assemblies (even though it may continue to practice a cappella singing in all its other assemblies), that congregation will be banished from their directory. Indeed, twenty-one congregations have been cast from this new directory, including the Richland Hills Church of Christ in Texas, which has an attendance on Sunday mornings of around 4200.

This past week I have heard from elders, ministers and members throughout the nation who are not happy with the direction taken by those in charge of producing this directory. In a troubling article titled Richland Hills Among Churches Removed From Directory, which appeared in the noted brotherhood periodical The Christian Chronicle, the author, Erik Tryggestad, expressed quite well the extent of the frustration and disappointment that is being felt across the brotherhood [date of article: Jan. 22, 2009]. "The directory's original compiler, Mac Lynn, ... who turned compilation duties over to Nashville, Tennessee-based 21st Century Christian after the 2003 edition, and is no longer officially involved with the publication, ... said, 'The exclusion of instrumental churches has not been on theological grounds.'" I'm sorry, but (as the old saying goes) "that dog won't hunt." Even a child can see through the fallacy of that statement.

One of the valuable features of this particular directory has always been its various "Character Codes." These are codes that designate the character, or the unique makeup, of the congregations within our movement. These "designations provide the user with some indication as to the nature of the congregation and its services. ... The character designations are largely self-described by the congregation itself and they carry no negative connotations" [Churches of Christ in the United States, p. xii]. In other words, One Cup (OC) congregations will simply be noted as such without any attempt whatsoever to judge them one way or the other over their specific theological preferences and practices. Non-Class (NC) congregations likewise. Etc. Although the theology of these groups may differ from that of the compilers of the directory, these groups will be included with no questions or criticisms cast their way. However, NOT SO for those congregations who dare to use an instrument, even if only in one of their many assemblies (with the others remaining a cappella). Such wayward congregations will be unceremoniously cast from the directory (as, indeed, twenty-one were). The message this sends is abundantly clear to all: These congregations are NOT "one of US." It's a not too subtle warning (intimidation) to other congregations who may be considering the use of instrumental accompaniment -- "You do, and you'll pay."

The compilers of the directory were even willing to embrace as brethren (and keep their listing in the directory) those congregations choosing to change their name, or to drop "Church of Christ" altogether (like Oak Tree Church). In explaining this, it was stated, "The changes represent a fresh effort to be non-denominational and do not necessarily express a desire to disassociate from the body known as the Churches of Christ" [p. xiii]. Well, it seems to me that the very same could be said for those who have chosen, after much study of the issue, to add an instrumental service. Mike Washburn, one of the ministers at Richland Hills Church of Christ, said that "the Richland Hills' elders have not broken ties with Churches of Christ, nor did they ask to be excluded from the 2009 directory" [The Christian Chronicle]. Washburn went on to observe, "We're a part of a huge movement in our fellowship who do not believe a cappella worship is the sole way of defining who Churches of Christ are" [ibid]. "Washburn said he's concerned that church members will see Richland Hills' exclusion as a sign that the church has broken ties with its fellowship. That's not the case, he said, noting his congregation's involvement with a cappella churches, ministries and schools associated with Churches of Christ. 'We have a great love for the people in our heritage,' he said. 'We want to be a part of this fellowship'" [ibid]. Well, Richland Hills, that's just too bad, now isn't it? Because it has been determined that "One Cuppers" and "No Classers" will enter into the kingdom (or the directory) ahead of you. You have committed the unpardonable sin -- you've come down on the wrong side of THE issue that the "powers" who have compiled this directory have determined to be THE issue that defines who is and who isn't a part of the group known as "Church of Christ." What arrogance!! You can drop "the name," get rid of your paid, located preacher, cancel all Bible classes, tear down your fellowship hall, ban all versions but the KJV from your buildings, and refuse to eat in the building, and you will be listed in the directory with no negative comments. But, if you DARE to use an instrument ... God help you!! You are erased from the book of life!!

Brethren, I'll be very honest with you -- such hypocritical hubris infuriates me!! It's no wonder our numbers are declining. In fact, the statistics show that in the six years between the 2003 directory and the 2009 directory, Churches of Christ have seen the loss of 526 congregations and 78,436 members. This really ought to tell you something!! Bobby Ross, Jr. has dealt well with this matter in a very powerful article for The Christian Chronicle titled Church in America Marked by Decline [January 22, 2009]. I would also urge you to read Danny Dodd's blog about this article -- Anybody Alarmed Yet? If you are not yet alarmed, you should be! We're like that poor frog who is slowly being boiled to death. If we don't wake up, and soon, we're cooked!!

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Readers' Reflections

From a Minister in New Jersey:

Bro. Al, "Neither Could They Blush" was another interesting Reflections. You express chagrin (and rightfully so) over the devouring of one another in the church. I understand exactly where you are coming from, and agree that the infighting is deplorable and worthy of the Lord's condemnation. May I offer a little bright spot for you? First, allow me to make a distinction here. The problem you admirably continue to fight head-on is within "our" brotherhood. I believe, however, that there is a growing spirit of fellowship among the "Lord's" brotherhood, at least that is the case in the small corner of the world where I am now privileged to minister. In a little over an hour I will be leaving to drive down the street to the First Presbyterian Church. There I will join ministers and clergy for an ecumenical service for the community. This will be our third annual service together to celebrate the National Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. The ministers from seven different houses of worship will participate. I'm really looking forward to being uplifted and strengthened by this service, and by the fellowship that follows. While we don't know or understand all the differences in our traditions and doctrines, we meet to share in the fellowship of Jesus, the Savior of each of us. Don't give up, brother! There is a light that is brighter than all the darkness spread by the blind!!

From a Reader in California:

Brother Al, As the parent of only one child (internationally adopted), I would certainly hope that the Lord would see fit, were I to prove fit, to have me serve within His kingdom as an elder. I only hope the Lord molds me and moves me in a direction where such a work of service to His flock would be one that I could perform. I feel sickened to think that this desire to serve God in this way as an elder would be thrown aside by some in the church simply because my beautiful, God-loving, God-fearing daughter is my only child and adopted. Through the legalistic eyes of those in bondage, I suppose such makes "perfect sense." But, through the eyes of a gracious and merciful Father, it is surely ridiculous in the extreme! Thus, I shall await the Lord's calling on this matter, and shall ignore man's caterwauling on it. Thank you once again for your willingness to boldly proclaim an unpopular, but hope-affirming, Truth!!

From a New Reader in New Mexico:

Dear Brother Al, Please add us to your Reflections mailing list. Now that we have more time, my husband and I have been examining whether he is qualified to be a deacon because of the "parent of one child" issue. One of the members here mailed us your recent article: "Overseer Offspring Quota," and your thoughts therein were most helpful. I especially appreciate you verbalizing that parents of an only child also have something valuable to offer. Thank you!

From a Reader in [Unknown]:

Brother Al, In our faith-heritage we use only two Scriptures in determining who is qualified to be an elder. But, did Paul have a broader understanding, having been raised in a culture and religion that gave elders (older, wiser men) roles that included guiding communities: pronouncing judgments to resolve civil and legal disputes? I'm just wondering if perhaps we work from too narrow a focus in trying to understand the true role of elders in their society! We seem to restrict our elders to just a church function. Also, in my experience in Churches of Christ, it seems the most important issue to us is marital history, rather than spiritual maturity.

From a Reader in Texas:

Brother Al, "Neither Could They Blush" was another excellent study: evidence of much thought and even research! I think you are "spot on" in your analysis of both our nation and the church!

From a Reader in Mississippi:

Dear Brother Al, Your recent article on blushing was absolutely excellent (as always). The Bible mentions things we should not even speak of, and these very things are now being forced upon us by our very own government. Almost every program on television glamorizes the very things we should not even speak of, and many "Christians" watch this garbage while condemning to torment anyone who has a piano in their church building or who sings during the Lord's Supper. We are sitting here with eyes that will not see and ears that will not hear, arguing about absolutely irrelevant matters instead of uniting with one another in order to press the fight to the real enemies of Christ and take the gospel to the lost. My heart breaks as all this unfolds. Where I live, the Church of Christ will not associate or participate with Save-A-Life, or Rally Round the Flag Pole (for prayer), or with any other group (civic or religious) that is simply seeking to take a stand against those things bringing decline and destruction to America. I just don't understand it.

From a Reader in Texas:

Bro. Al, After many attempts to be a brother to those men in the Contending for the Faith crowd, and to reach out to them, I have decided to distance myself from them. The thing I really don't understand is what they hope to gain by continually vilifying you and others with whom they differ. I just don't understand!! They are completely unwilling to discuss matters of any real spiritual importance. Instead, they are firmly fixed in their trenches, and are absolutely giddy at the prospect of going to war over trivial matters. So sad!! Thank you for all your encouragement, brother!

From a Minister in India:

Beloved Brother Maxey, I had struggled with doubts about the singular/plural issue over children for elders and deacons for the last three decades! Thank you very much for clarifying this matter for me through your recent Reflections.

From a Reader in Louisiana:

Bro. Al, Thanks for standing up and expressing the views of so many of us within the church. You might want to read my blog -- Grace Digest -- when you have the time. It includes a link to my comment on Carl H. Royster's feeble defense of this silly decision to remove those congregations from the directory. Thank you for your faithfulness in pointing people to Jesus, who alone can give a sinner eternal life, and for making people aware of God's offer of grace!

From an Elder in Texas:

Brother Maxey, I have been personally touched by your last two articles: "Overseer Offspring Quota" and "Neither Could They Blush." I had been a deacon in the church, and, while serving as a deacon, my only child (aged 26, and somewhat mentally and physically handicapped) was killed in an auto accident. No one asked me to resign as a deacon when she was killed. However, when I was later approached and asked to serve as an elder, there were some (though only a very few) within our congregation of almost 400 who objected because I had no living children, and because I had never had children plural. Yet, I was installed as an elder over the objections of these very few, with the leaders essentially "agreeing to disagree" with them. I take very seriously my spiritual responsibility as a shepherd for those individuals who believe I am not qualified. They are strong Christians whom I love dearly, and I do not question their love for me. Nor has their commitment to service for Christ in our congregation diminished in any way, and, indeed, I'm working closely alongside one of those persons in a specific ministry. The point is: Christians can disagree agreeably IF we love one another as we should. I am writing this to encourage you in the knowledge that not all within Christ's church are obstinately refusing to embrace one another in love and fellowship just because they differ. Brother, your Reflections are such a blessing! I read every one of them, and thank you for your efforts and the insights you offer.

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