by Al Maxey

Issue #594 ------- October 17, 2013
I have found you an argument; I am not
obliged to find you an understanding.

Samuel Johnson (1709-1784)

Sectarian Straw Man Strategy
Fleeing From an Inconvenient Truth

If you have ever engaged anyone in a formal (or even informal) debate, you know only too well how frustrating and infuriating it can be when your debate opponent employs what is commonly characterized as "straw man argumentation" (sometimes referred to as a "logical fallacy," and known in the UK as an "Aunt Sally"). Basically, it describes the construction of a logical, yet completely false, position on some matter that one then attributes to one's opponent. Essentially, then, it is a willful misrepresentation of another's position, which then forces one's opponent to defend himself against this charge rather than spend time arguing for his/her true position. It is a form of "misdirection" -- directing the attention of the audience away from the true position of one's opponent and forcing that opponent to waste time fighting "straw men" (false, though seemingly logical, positions willfully fabricated as diversions). "By exaggerating, misrepresenting, or just completely fabricating someone's argument, it is much easier to present your own position as being reasonable, but this kind of dishonesty serves to undermine honest, rational debate." "It can be annoyingly effective because in response you may be lured into clarifying what your position is not instead of talking about what your position is, and studies have shown that when you repeat a lie, even if you are repeating it to refute it, the repetition can reinforce the misinformation in the minds of some people" [S. Vedantum, "The Power of Political Misinformation," The Washington Post, Sept. 15, 2008].

Over the years I have had many, many people fabricate false positions and then attribute them to me. Every now and then I find it somewhat amusing to simply do an Internet search to view the latest listings of strange positions and practices I am accused of embracing! Where people come up with some of these "straw men" is hard to guess, but what is sad is that there are a significant number of people who read these accusations who believe them. I learned many years ago that there is no real way to defend against such nonsense, and so I largely ignore it. Spending all of one's time attacking these many "straw men" simply draws one away from one's true calling and ministry. A perfect example of this is found in Nehemiah 6, where the opponents of those who were rebuilding the wall around Jerusalem constructed a "straw man" in the hope of diverting the workers from their mission. Nehemiah told these evil men, "Nothing like what you are saying is happening; you are just making it up out of your head" (vs. 8). "They were all trying to frighten us, thinking, 'Their hands will get too weak for the work, and it will not be completed'" (vs. 9). Misrepresenting another's teaching for the purpose of subverting their ministry is the strategy of dishonest religionists: men more intent upon elevating themselves and their tradition than Truth. Such people have always existed, and always will. On occasion there is some merit in shining a light upon them and their deeds for the purpose of exposing them to those who might otherwise be misled by their misrepresentations. I shall seek to do just that in this current issue of Reflections.

In the two most recent issues of "Hugh's News & Views" (a publication sent out via email by Hugh Fulford, a Church of Christ minister in Tennessee), this author accuses certain persons (he does not name names, but in private correspondence with him I know that he regards me as one of the key figures in this effort) of seeking to "denominate" the Lord's church. Indeed, the two above mentioned recent articles (parts 1 and 2) are titled "The Move to Bring the Church of Christ to Denominational Status" (the first was mailed on Oct. 8; the second was mailed on Oct. 15 -- as always, I urge you to contact Hugh at and request a copy of both articles so that you may determine for yourselves if I have fairly represented his views in my following analysis). The "straw man" argument here, of course, is that some of us are actively seeking to impose "denominational status" upon the universal One Body of our Lord Jesus Christ. We are seeking to take the One Flock and turn it into a factional fold. This is absolutely FALSE; nothing could be farther from the truth.

For many years I have been disturbed by the practice of those who seek to equate their narrow faction with the universal Family of God. To take any particular named (denominated) group of disciples, with a unique body of tradition and practice, and declare this group, and this group alone, to be, in its entirety upon earth, "the one true church," is the epitome of sectarian arrogance. When such people speak of "the church" or "the Lord's church," what they typically mean, in reality, is "US." WE are the true church; WE are the One Body ... all others are apostates (or "denominations"). Such people readily admit that there is only One Church. But, they are then quick to point out: WE are IT ... YOU are NOT. Hugh writes, "Local assemblies/congregations of this 'one body' are designated as churches of Christ (Romans 16:16)." Yes, that is one of many designations, but "Church of God" appears in the NT writings about a dozen times more often. None of these are "names" of the "one true church," but rather a series of descriptive phrases showing aspects of the nature and character of these called out people of God. Yet, when you hear people quote Romans 16:16 and mention "churches of Christ," you know what is coming. They are NOT referring to the universal One Body which consists of every person on the planet (past, present and future) who is IN HIM, but rather they refer to that listing in the Yellow Pages denominated "Church of Christ." Local congregations and assemblies of the One Body are "designated" (they won't dare say "denominated") "churches of Christ." So, when you go looking for gatherings of those within the universal One Body of Jesus Christ, look no farther than those congregations designated "Church of Christ." After all, WE are IT.

What I find strange and puzzling about Hugh's article is that he, on one hand, shows now and then that he seemingly grasps the concept of the universal One Body of Christ, and that it can never be confined within the parameters of any one group of disciples, and then he turns right around, almost in the same breath, and seeks to do just that -- limit the Lord's church to one particular group, excluding all others who do not embrace the traditional teaching and tenets of this "designated" group. For example, Hugh wrote, "I question the ability of anyone to accurately quantify all who have obeyed the gospel and been added to the spiritual body (church) of Christ." Truly, the Lord knows His own, and no man has the authority, or even the ability, to draw narrow circles of salvation around only those who agree with them on matters of biblical and spiritual perception and practice. The universal One Body of Jesus is certainly much vaster than the parameters of our own party preferences. Yet, in a strange accusation, Hugh claims that "the progressives among us seek to move the church to denominational status. ... professed friends of the church who want to turn it into a denomination of human origin." Really, Hugh?!! Seriously?! In reality, what we oppose, is just the opposite -- the misguided sectarian assumption that any one group of disciples IS the One Body of Christ in its entirety upon planet earth, and that all who are outside this "designated" group of disciples are lost. Hugh's "straw man" is utterly fallacious: a complete misrepresentation of our actual belief on the matter. One may as well characterize black as white, or night as day, or up as down!

What drives people like Hugh Fulford crazy (leading to such crazy accusations against us) is that we "progressives" absolutely refuse to equate the group "designated" in the Yellow Pages as "Church of Christ" with the universal One Body itself. Yes, individual disciples of Christ within that universal One Body are undoubtedly to be found within this religious faith-heritage, but they are to be found within a host of other heritages as well. My spiritual "membership" (if I may use such a term) is within the One Body, but my physical "association" is with that wing of the Stone-Campbell Movement "designated" (denominated) "Church of Christ." This latter group is my religious heritage; the former is my spiritual hearth/home. I can associate with those of the latter group (as well as with brethren in other groups) without declaring that this latter group, and it alone, constitutes the former group in its fullness. Thus, Hugh Fulford could not be more wrong -- we do NOT "seek to move the church to denominational status." Indeed, we refuse to allow ANY designated or denominated group to proclaim itself "the one true church." The Family of God is much larger than any feuding faction or separated sect. It is composed solely and simply of ALL those men and women who are IN HIM by grace through faith. Period. It is the legalists and patternists and sectarians and factionists who seek to impose "denominational status" upon the church of our Lord Jesus by defining the parameters of its fellowship according to their own personal and party perceptions, preferences and practices. The universal One Body is NOT the Baptist Church, nor is it the Methodist Church, nor the Church of God, nor the Church of Christ. NONE of these denominated (designated) groups constitute the One Body. Individual disciples of Christ, who may associate with one or more of these groups (in work and worship), will certainly be found within the One Body, but their inclusion in the latter in no way is determined by their association with the former (nor is their inclusion in the One Body negated by their association with like-minded disciples in one or more of those gatherings of believers).

Notice the following statement by Hugh: "By characterizing the church as a denomination, the progressives among us can move comfortably among the people of all denominations, freely switch denominations when they perceive it in their best interest to do so, and feel no remorse of conscience when their children or grandchildren leave the church for a denomination" (emphasis mine -- AM). Although what Hugh has done here is subtle, it nevertheless speaks volumes -- "the church" is US, the "denominations" are THEM. In other words, the Lord's "one true church" is here understood to mean the group "designated" (i.e., "denominated") "Church of Christ." All other gatherings of disciples are "denominations" ... and thus LOST. Only WE are saved. Thus, if our kids or grandkids leave "the one true church" (OUR group), and associate with disciples of Christ in some OTHER group (a "denomination"), we should fear for their salvation! After all, as everyone knows, only WE are going to heaven; only WE have perfect perception of how to worship God acceptably inside a church building on Sunday morning; only WE truly grasp Truth. ALL others are headed straight for hell. But, those horrid "progressives," by trying to make THE CHURCH into a "denomination," have eased their consciences so they can hop and skip among the sects with impunity. Balderdash! We freely associate with our brothers and sisters wherever they may be found, rather than limiting fellowship to one small faction that some seek to equate with the universal One Body. In truth, brethren, I ask you: WHO is the one truly seeking "to move the church to denominational status"? MY goal, brethren, is to destroy the divisiveness of dogmatic distinctives imposed as salvific markers and promote unity among ALL God's children. This doesn't mean we can't continue to cherish our traditions and meet with like-minded disciples. What it means is that we cease castigating those who differ with us, and instead extend to them the right hand of fellowship. We be brethren!! It's time to start behaving as such!

I do not personally believe that God has selected one small group of disciples from a particular faith-heritage and then declared, "These few constitute the entirety of My church!" Rather, He gathers diverse individuals from far and wide, adding them to the Lord and numbering them together with all other believers in that One Body universal. Therefore, I have brothers and sisters "in Christ" who are not congregating in buildings marked "Church of Christ," but who nevertheless are part of that great, universal, spiritual Family of God in Christ Jesus. As Carl Ketcherside once said, "Wherever God has a son, I have a brother." Patrick Henry, in a speech at the First Continental Congress (Philadelphia, October 14, 1774), stated, "I am not a Virginian, but an American." What was he saying here? Yes, Patrick Henry was indeed a Virginian; he was from Virginia, after all. However, he wanted people to know that his citizenship was broader than just one particular part of the whole. He was not just a Virginian, he was an American.

Brethren, my association is with the historical group known as "Churches of Christ." This is my religious heritage, and I am very much in love with my brothers and sisters in this fellowship of believers. However, my true membership is in a Body much vaster than any particular group sharing a particular history and certain traditional practices. My real residence is in the One Body universal; the One Church of our Lord Jesus Christ. Yes, I am a member of the One Body, but I labor with that segment of Christendom, that faith-heritage, known as the "Church of Christ." I do not equate the latter with the former, as some do. Some in the latter may be a part of the whole, but they do not constitute the whole exclusively. Virginia is not America; Virginia is rather a part of America. Similarly, the group denominated in the Yellow Pages as "Churches of Christ" is not exclusively and completely the One Body universal. To make such an arrogant claim is to practice sectarian denominationalism -- this I do NOT do, in spite of the "straw man" constructed by Hugh Fulford. It is those who declare that some small part of the whole is exclusively the whole who are truly promoting that which is condemned by this preacher from Tennessee. May God help us all to abandon such arrogant exclusivism, and to begin embracing our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. Again, we be brethren!! Let's start acting like it!

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Readers' Reflections

From a Reader in California:

I just read your latest Reflections ("One Large Tree, Many Little Nests") -- Oh, how true! What good does it do any of us to obey every command in Scripture and all the teachings of the apostles if we willfully ignore, disregard and/or disobey what Christ Jesus Himself said was the greatest command of all?! -- LOVE. To truly love someone, you must accept them as they are -- warts and all. While that doesn't mean you must embrace or approve of everything they do, or make those things your own personal preferences or practices, it does mean you are willing to overlook faults, cover a multitude of failings, and show courtesy, respect and compassion for those who are different from you. I know that after nearly 30 years of marriage there are things my wife surely does not like about me: perhaps some habit or trait that irritates her. But, she loves me enough to overlook them. She makes the conscious choice to see and believe that there are enough good and positive things about me to outweigh the negative. She has practiced what you and Scripture have preached -- LOVE! The example you gave in your article of your own family, by the way, is a perfect analogy.

From a Native Evangelist in India:

Thank you so much, brother, for your study: "One Large Tree, Many Little Nests." It was a wonderful encouragement for us here! God bless you, sir!

From a Professor at Texas A&M:

A few years ago I obtained a copy of a small book titled "What Paul Really Said About Women," in which the author (John Bristow) provided many ideas on how to view Paul's references about women, including Greek word meanings and context. I had intended before now to recommend that book to you, but simply had not gotten around to sending you the information. Your Reflections article "Challenging a Christian Quotation: Paul's Powerful Refutation of Church Sexism" (Issue #592), however, reminded me again to get the job done! Needless to say, I have dramatically changed my own views on the role of women in the church over the last 20 years, as it seems to me that our traditional views do not hold up under close evaluation, and we are not consistent in any way in the traditional application of the Bible passages.

From a Minister/D.Min. in Mississippi:

Thanks, Al, for your very sane, reasonable, and biblical approach to unity in your article "One Large Tree, Many Little Nests." I truly grow weary of our brothers and sisters who write one another off over the myriad of opinions, beliefs and views that differ from their own. I am particularly troubled by those who seemingly urge unity, yet who are in practice about as divisive as those about whom they complain. One of the things I like about focusing attention on those in the church struggling with this issue, though, is that you are moving us all toward a loving acceptance of one another despite our differences. Blessings, brother!

From a Reader in Texas:

If Jesus was really speaking of His sheep being located in many "folds," He would not have prayed for a unity that would be impossible with His sheep separated into various human institutions. There is only one flock and one fold. Do you believe the hundreds of different denominations compose His one flock? What possible connection can any human institution have with that one flock?

From a Reader in Georgia:

Al, I found it so encouraging to read the subscriber comments section at the end of your Reflections article! You really encouraged a LOT of people with your previous article on women in the church. Good stuff!! This week's article on one tree with many nests caused me to remember the teaching of C. S. Lewis, who used the illustration of a single building with many rooms. People would move between the rooms, yet they all remain in the same building. But, what you really brought to my attention in your article is that the only way to be truly unified is "in Him." There is no way that we could all be united in anything unless it is IN HIM. What keeps us united is the bond of LOVE, not our personal preferences. Wow! That was a real "refreshment" to me! Thank you!

From a Reader in Arkansas:

Al, please say a special prayer for us at -------- Church of Christ in -------, Arkansas. We are having a gospel meeting this week with the theme of encouraging people to think and study for themselves. We are in the heart of "legalist" country, and have been taking some criticism from other congregations. This meeting will give us even more criticism from them, but, to steal another's quote, "All it takes for legalism to triumph is for good Christians to say nothing." God bless you and your work, Al. You have been a true inspiration to me as I have challenged my own religious convictions!

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