by Al Maxey

Issue #561 ------- January 18, 2013
Tradition by itself is not enough; it must be
perpetually criticized and brought up to date
under the supervision of what I call orthodoxy.

T. S. Eliot (1888-1965)

Confused Circling of Cups
A Concern Caused by Reversing the
Inner & Outer Circles of the Cups Tray

Every religion, whether ancient or modern, is preserved and perpetuated, at least to some degree, by its cherished traditions. The true foundation of any religion, to be sure, is the truth it perceives and proclaims, but what makes such truth resonate with the religious are the various sacred traditions practiced and performed in the daily lives of the common people. They become points of connection and reference with a higher Cause and Presence. This is one of the reasons that devotees often tolerate with greater patience and equanimity an assault upon their perceived truths than their practiced traditions, allowing truth to evolve along with their changing cultures, societies and circumstances, but resisting change with respect to their traditions and religious rituals. If you want to incite someone to a heated debate, challenge not that disciple's perception of truth, but rather challenge his or her practice of their religious tradition. Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche (1844-1900), a German scholar whose work I became quite familiar with in my studies in graduate school of existentialist philosophy, observed in 1878, in his work Human, All Too Human, "Every tradition grows ever more venerable -- the more remote is its origin, the more confused that origin is. The reverence due to it increases from generation to generation. The tradition finally becomes holy and inspires awe." I think we can each relate, in our own personal religious experience, to this observation. I have known many religionists, even within (and especially within) our own Stone-Campbell heritage, who would become quite upset when any of their beloved traditions were challenged or changed, and yet who could not even begin to explain the source and significance of that tradition as it related to eternal truth. "That's just the way we've always done it," and that was justification enough, in their minds, for its unaltered perpetuation ad infinitum.

The reality, however, is that eternal truth remains constant; it is, rather, our cultural, societal and traditional expressions of that eternal truth in our various acts and rituals that can, and even should, evolve so as to be more relevant to a people's circumstances with respect to time and place. Truth is constant; traditions change. This is one of the reasons I am so strongly opposed to the concept, popular among many within my faith-heritage, of "restoring the first century church." These people are not talking about restoring truth, they are advocating a restoration of the practices of disciples of Christ who lived 2000 years ago in another part of the world and in an entirely different culture and under vastly different circumstances. Such a restoration is not only impossible, it is not even desirable. I dealt with this at some length a couple of years ago in Reflections #479 -- The Great Restoration Fallacy: Moving Forward Toward The Distant Past. Nevertheless, some continue to perpetuate this fallacious thinking, which is little more than a blind obsession with tradition over truth; with form over faith. Yes, we may legitimately seek to restore to the hearts and minds of present day disciples the faith and devotion of our forefathers, which often does grow cold and sterile over time, but seeking to restore the procedures and forms by which they expressed said faith and devotion within their own time and place misses the point of the universality of Christian faith, which can be expressed acceptably in innumerable ways and forms depending upon one's own time and place. That is the beauty of it. It is not frozen in time and place, but is a vital, vibrant force in any society or culture, whether primitive or modern. This is a truth many missionaries tragically failed to perceive as they sought to convert "the savages" to a more modern cultural expression of faith of these missionaries' own time and place. It proved to be an elevation and veneration of culture over Christ, and it made a mockery of the message of truth they sought to convey.

Yes, truth is constant, but traditions change. One of the areas of our Christian faith and expression where this is quite evident is in the observance of The Lord's Supper. The truth that Jesus suffered and died on the cross, shedding His precious blood on our behalf, is constant. The fact that He has asked His disciples to remember this sacred event in a memorial meal is also an enduring truth. The specifics as to how and when this remembrance takes place, however, have been left by the Lord to His disciples. His only command was: as often as you partake of these emblems, do so in remembrance of Me. Disciples of Jesus have honored this request for the past 2000 years, although the frequency and the form of this remembrance have varied greatly according to time, place and culture. Unfortunately, as Nietzsche astutely observed, over time these various forms calcified into holy traditions, and any deviation came to be regarded as heresy. I wrote a book documenting this rise of sacramentalism with respect to this event, and how men have lost sight of the original beauty and simplicity of what Christ instituted. The name of that book is "One Bread, One Body: An Examination of Eucharistic Expectation, Evolution and Extremism." If you haven't read this, I think you will find it fascinating and enlightening. The past two millennia have been very interesting indeed with regard to the battles waged over the Eucharist.

Traditions, in and of themselves, are neither good nor bad; they are largely neutral, and may even prove quite useful. How one perceives and promotes a tradition, however, is another matter, and will determine whether said tradition is either beneficial or harmful. The latter often occurs when a tradition is elevated to the status of eternal truth, and thus regarded as divine precept. As cultural and spiritual points of connection and reference with a higher Cause and Presence, however, they can be extremely valuable to a particular people in any given time and place. It is when we seek to impose such upon other peoples, in other times and places, perceiving our way to be the only way, that we err. Yes, cherish your own traditions; they have value; they are of worth. At the same time, respect and accept your fellow believers who may have differing traditions, and who may cherish theirs just as much as you cherish yours. The fact of our varying traditions does not negate the fact of our unity as One Body under the banner of eternal Truth! Unity in diversity is a reality, although much maligned by those preaching uniformity of practice over unity of the Spirit. Be sensitive to one another; don't be judgmental. Show consideration to those whose faith-expressions differ from your own. In so doing, you show the love of Christ Jesus. This can be challenging, and it may take some thought and effort, but the results are well worth it.

Let me give a practical illustration of how our personal preferences and perceptions (and traditions) with respect to the observance of the Lord's Supper can be a source of both confusion and concern when diverse disciples gather together in the same place to remember this blessed event. I received the following email from an American military officer in Afghanistan the other day. This brother is a dear friend and a supporter of my Reflections ministry. He also encountered a situation that troubled him, and, as a result, sought my advice. By the way, he also authorized me to use this email in a Reflections, writing: "I have no problem at all with you using the question as a subject for your Reflections. If other people can have their hearts put at ease in the same way, all the better." In his original email he wrote:

This officer in the army has come a long way in his understanding, for he stated he is aware that varying traditions in our worshipful expression are not a reason for conflict among believers. It is okay to be different in our practice, for relationship with the Father is based on faith not form. On the other hand, the reality is that believers do have differing ways of expressing their faith and devotion, and we each have our own "comfort zones" when it comes to those traditions. The challenge, of course, is to respect the traditions of others while cherishing our own, and, even more importantly, to love and accept those who express their faith and worship differently. That being said, this army officer is also dealing with a matter of personal conviction. He has chosen to abstain from alcohol, which means that some Communion traditions will, by using wine, be in conflict with his conviction. Yes, we can get into a huge theological debate on whether the contents of the cup should be fermented or not. Such conflicts have been waged for centuries, with sincere disciples on both sides of the issue. That is not the issue here, though. This brother is not opposed to some using wine in their observance, just as he is not opposed to others using unfermented fruit of the vine. He is not seeking to impose any tradition as though it were divine law. Rather, this, for him, is a matter of personal conviction which, although it does involve his participation in the Lord's Supper, transcends this one event. It is a life choice that he has made before his God, and he seeks to honor the Father with that choice. For this he is to be commended, just as we should commend all people who practice various forms of self-sacrifice to the glory of their Lord.

I applaud the chapel officials in Afghanistan who have chosen to arrange the cups in the Communion trays in such a way as to make a distinction between fermented and unfermented fruit of the vine. This shows a spirit of sensitivity to the varying traditions and understandings of those disciples participating in this event. It also reflects the spirit of what Paul wrote to the Roman brethren: "The kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. For he who in this way serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men. So then let us pursue the things which make for peace and the building up of one another" (Rom. 14:16-19). In this chapter we find a number of different points of conviction about which some were arguing. Paul does not take sides on the issues, but rather tells the brethren to accept one another in spite of these varying matters of faith, just as God has accepted each of them. Accommodating both convictions by using inner and outer circles of cups in the tray is commendable. But, even with the best of intentions, sometimes mistakes are made. For whatever reason, there was confusion in the announcement prior to the Communion, and my friend drank from the wrong cup, thus consuming wine, which greatly concerned him.

To my friend and brother I would say this: your action does NOT constitute a sinful violation of your conscience. You did not willfully act contrary to your conviction, and thus there was no culpability on your part. You acted in good faith on the information provided to you, thus you chose the cup that you believed held the unfermented drink. God judges hearts, and in your heart you made the choice that honored Him by remaining true to your convictions. James, the brother of our Lord, informs us that "sin is accomplished" when a person is "carried away and enticed by his own lust," and then willfully acts upon that lust (James 1:14-15). None of this describes your experience that morning as you sought to remember the Lord in partaking of the elements of the Eucharist. Yes, a mistake was made that morning that resulted in a confusing of the cups, but the mistake was not yours; you were merely the victim of it. That in no way constitutes a violation of your convictions, nor is it a violation of the spirit and sanctity of the Lord's Table. On the other hand, if you honestly believe that dipping the wafer in the wine and then consuming it would be a violation of your conscience, you should refrain from that act. Paul deals with this principle in the final verse of Romans 14 -- "He who doubts is condemned if he eats, because his eating is not from faith; and whatever is not from faith is sin" (vs. 23). You must live by those convictions you personally have adopted before your God, unless your understanding grows and matures to the point where you acknowledge before your God that you now have a deeper appreciation for the freedoms He has granted you. Paul wrote, "I know and am convinced in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but to him who thinks anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean" (Rom. 14:14). "The faith which you have, have as your own conviction before God. Happy is he who does not condemn himself in what he approves" (vs. 22). This principle, as well as our obligation to others who may have a somewhat unsettled faith, is further dealt with by Paul in 1 Corinthians 8. As for refraining from observing the Lord's Supper, I would not go that far. Speak with the chaplain and convey your concerns. He or she will most likely find some way to accommodate your personal convictions and tradition in this matter.

Just a final note to this dear brother whom I have known for a number of years. Your strong stand over the years for Jesus has been an inspiration to me, and your love, faith and devotion is an example to many. You and your family are in my daily prayers as you face the spiritual journey ahead of you. May the Spirit fill you and guide you and enlighten you with an ever increasing appreciate for His marvelous grace. Also, I want to thank you personally for your love of country and devotion to the cause of freedom. Your service to our nation, and the fact you are willing to place yourself in harm's way for others, is a testimony to your character! You, my brother, are truly one of our nation's heroes! May our Father keep you safe and bring you home quickly.

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Readers' Reflections

From a Minister/Elder in Texas:

Greetings to you and yours in the Lord. I appreciate so much what you do in the ministry God has given you. You have provoked me to think more than anyone else ever has. I look forward to your Reflections each week. I serve as a preaching elder for a congregation here in Texas, and have been here almost 20 years now. I would like to order the following items from you: (1) the special Reflections: First Decade Collection, (2) your CD on the Study of Revelation, and (3) a signed copy of your new book Immersed By One Spirit. My check is enclosed. I have met and spoken with you at The Tulsa Workshop a couple of times. Once again, I want you to know how much I appreciate you and your work. I also appreciate your wife, because I know how valuable a supportive spouse is in the work of ministry. I am definitely looking forward to receiving the materials I have ordered from you, and I am sure you will hear from me again in the future. God bless you, and keep up the good work.

From a Reader in Tennessee:

You have just completed another wonderful year of your Reflections, and they get better every year! Please send me your 2012 Reflections CD. My check is enclosed. Thank you!

From a New Reader in Trinidad, West Indies:

Good Morning Bro. Maxey, Would you please add me to your mailing list for your weekly Reflections. Thank you.

From a Minister in Tennessee:

I was looking through some of my back issues of Bulletin Digest. In the February 1996 issue, I found an article bearing your name. The article was "Night, With Ebon Pinion, Brooded O'er The Vale." Brother Al, that is the best article I have ever read on this subject. Each time I sing that song from now on, it will have a much deeper meaning for me. I plan to use your article in our church bulletin. Thank you!

From a Minister in Kentucky:

Your Reflections article on "Prideful Partisan Narrowness" was excellent. It really describes what I have been dealing with here in Kentucky (and beyond). I recently wrote to you about what has been happening with me since I have joined the crusade against legalism. I just thought you might like to check out my writings for yourself on my blog site: To Proclaim Wondrous Deeds. I had asked you not to share this blog site in my previous email to you, but I don't see that it would do any harm now. I have a number of younger people reading and thinking. There is where the hope for the future lies. In these articles you can see for yourself what I have been writing that has gotten a whole bunch of the hardline CENI folks pretty out-of-sorts with me (I am also on Facebook). Please read also my Disclaimer and Explanation, which I posted on December 20, 2012. Keep up the good work, Al. I remain your brother and ally.

From a Minister in California:

"Prideful Partisan Narrowness" was one of your absolute best, brother!! The day will soon be upon us in the Western world when believers of all stripes and patterns will finally come to realize that our real enemies are not the Catholics, or the Baptists, or the Presbyterians, or the Mormons, or the Lutherans, or the charismatics, instrumentalists, or fundamentalists. They will realize, in fact, that we have far more in common with each other than we ever dreamed. They will realize that the real enemy is Satan himself, who has been incarnated in evil men bent on their own absolute power, and on the destruction of all who see things differently. Roll on, brother!

From a Reader in Georgia:

Great message! Very timely at the beginning of a new year. I couldn't help but think, as I was reading "Prideful Partisan Narrowness," of Paul as he chastised the group in Corinth for being of Paul, of Cephas, of Apollos, etc. He definitely rebuked them for breaking down the fellowship into smaller loyalties. Happy New Year, brother, and don't forget to duck!

From a Minister in New Mexico:

Are you familiar with the name Joseph Ratzinger? He's better known as Pope Benedict XVI. The "prideful partisan narrowness" of too many of us has erected a wall through the middle of the church, dividing East from West and Protestants from Roman Catholics. Too often, we make assumptions about the beliefs of others that just won't stand up to serious examination. I mention this because the writings of Joseph Ratzinger will dispel a lot of misunderstanding. We, in various Protestant camps, need to peek over the wall long enough to read Bro. Ratzinger's trilogy about Jesus. He is a very capable exegete who knows and loves expository preaching. His depth of knowledge and understanding of the Old Testament, as well as the New, is -- what's the current word? -- awesome. If he came to town, I'd love to hear him speak from the pulpit in our local Church of Christ. Down with the walls we've built between our siblings in Christ. Let's accept one another (Romans 14) and leave the examination of hearts to God.

From a Reader in [Unknown]:

I have appreciated your writings so much, and have a question for you. One of the points our preacher made in his sermon recently was that Acts 22:16 indicates that Paul still "had sins" AFTER the road to Damascus experience. His point was that if forgiveness happened at the point of belief, his sins should have been gone by then. I see the point somewhat, but I believe that contradicts too much else. I was wondering if you had a perspective on this. I really enjoy your articles. I have not had good experiences with the Church of Christ, but I would not be opposed to attending yours if I lived in New Mexico.

From a Reader in Connecticut:

I just read "Prideful Partisan Narrowness." What a fantastic way to start the New Year! Instead of fearing we will be struck dead for breaking bread with those "not of our group," we should take heed to Christ's own words to those who practice such divisiveness! The rewards are many. Al, as you have so aptly taught me, one really doesn't have to be my twin to be my brother. I am reminded of one of your earlier Reflections articles (Issue #420 -- A Rose By Any Other Name: Is the Scent of a Disciple Determined by Denominational Distinction?) in which you used the analogy of many flowers in God's garden and they each have their own beauty. Allies are so much better than enemies. We have enough of the latter arrayed against the cause of Christ. Such do not need any more help. BRAVO on your first article for 2013.

From a Reader in [Unknown]:

In your article titled "Clocking the Crucifixion: Reflecting on the Conflict in Time between the Gospels of John & Mark" (Reflections #541) you quoted a blogger at one point and prefaced your quote from his blog site by saying: "Let me just share with you a view I stumbled across online (and, sadly, I can't even remember the web site now, although I have gone back and done several searches trying to find it)." Following is the link to the referenced blog site which you sought, but were unable to locate: I really appreciated your article, by the way, and shared it with friends. Never have I seen the topic presented in such a clear and informative way!

From an Elder in Virginia:

I have been a reader of your Reflections over the years, as well as your books and debates. Currently, I am really enjoying listening to your series of lessons on The Nature of Man and His Eternal Destiny. Thank you, and blessings to you!

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