Regarding Responsible Reformation
Al Maxey

Issue #8
January 12, 2003


From Whence Cometh Contentions?

Factions, schisms and divisions are not limited to either "liberals" or "conservatives." There are "liberal" factionists, just as there are "conservative" factionists .... and "middle of the road" factionists. It is not one's theology, necessarily, it is rather one's mindset that determines if one's position is going to be made a point of contention and separation between brethren. I have known some very, very conservative individuals who nevertheless will not allow their convictions to become points of contention leading to division. I have known others, however, who will make their convictions points of contention leading to division. The same can be said for those some might classify as "liberal."

It is not really where one finds himself or herself on that scale between ultra conservatism and ultra liberalism that determines factionalism. It is rather the mindset of the individual. If a group of disciples view their perspective as the only genuine one, the only godly one, and if they are militant about it, they will likely become steadfast in preaching their dogma to the "enemy" and purging the "loyal church" of all who stand in opposition to their "enlightened" perspectives and "infallible" preferences. Wherever and whenever such "militant ignorance & insensitivity" expresses itself, and by whomever, there will be factions .... and, as a result, the One Body will be fragmented into warring camps of angry, arrogant extremists.

Do ALL of our problems in the church come from the "conservative" quarter? No. Of course not. But, let's be honest with ourselves. I believe most would have to agree that it is from this quarter that the majority of problems do arise. It is simply a fact, whether it be socially, politically or theologically, that the fundamentalists have always tended to be the most militant and aggressive. This has been demonstrated repeatedly throughout history, and is even being evidenced right now with the extreme fundamentalist factions of the Islamic faith. It is estimated that only 10-15% of those who follow the teachings of Islam are fundamentalists and extremists, and yet almost 100% of the chaos and destruction is coming from that quarter. Fundamentalism and militancy, frankly, are much too frequently "willing bed-mates." As a rule, the farther one moves away from the fundamentalist (or ultra conservative) end of the spectrum, and toward the opposite (liberal) end of the spectrum, the more accepting one tends to become of others, and also of differing points of view --- an openness of mind which is viewed with abhorrence by the fundamentalists, by the way.

No, we cannot honestly declare that ALL problems within the churches of Christ arise from the "ultra conservative" wing of that group. But, the reality is --- most DO!! It should be quickly noted, however, that this has nothing to do with the convictions themselves which are held by these people .... rather, it has to do with their attitudes toward them, and also toward those who don't hold to those cherished convictions. It is, as one Christian psychiatrist characterized it: "militant ignorance" --- a "my way or no way" attitude which is willing to fuss, fight & fragment over one's personal perceptions and preferences. All those who differ with me are the "enemy," and the church must be purged of these apostates. "Destroy the infidel" is the cry of extremists, and they will launch their "jihads" with smiles on their faces, assuming they are glorifying their God by their "holy wars" against all who do not share their narrow convictions. Of course, the blame is always shifted and placed upon those whom they attack. If these "apostates" would just bow to their every whim, they rationalize, then division would never occur. Thus, it is the "liberals" who are responsible for the division in the church .... just as it was America's fault the Trade Center towers and Pentegon were attacked. If we weren't such "infidels" such action would never have been necessary!! Thus, it's our fault, they reason. Again, "militant ignorance" raises its ugly head!!! ..... and the innocent lovers of freedom are to blame (or, so the extremists contend).

A militant conservative recently wrote me:

Is this not the very same irrational "rationale" that led Osama and his cowering cave-dwellers to declare that it was the United States who was actually responsible for the downing of the Trade Center towers?!! It was OUR fault for having views which differ from HIS. If we would just bow before the teachings of the fundamentalist Islamics, then we would not need to be terrorized by these "God-fearers." We could all have lived in peace and harmony. Daring to differ, however, generated the need for our destruction. This is viewed as a "holy purging" of the Great Satan for the purpose of maintaining the purity of "the faith" upon earth. Thus, although THEY attacked .... it was actually OUR fault. Such is the lunacy of extremist "logic."

I think you will find very, very few "forward thinking progressives" who desire to impose their beliefs upon others. VERY few!! Those "forward thinking progressives" who do enter a more conservative or traditional congregation and seek to recreate it in their own image ARE WRONG. That is indeed divisive. Just as it is also divisive for an ultra conservative person or persons to enter a more progressive congregation and seek to impose their will upon the group. Either is divisive. I would oppose both. And I have seen both happen.

Most "progressive" disciples, however, are simply content to enjoy their freedom in Christ and to allow others to enjoy the same. I have seen very, very few "progressives" who feel "called of God" to interfere with and "mark" and seek to undermine or destroy all congregations around them (and throughout the world) who don't think as they do. Most of these so-called "liberal" congregations with which I have had dealings are content to "live and let live." They are not on some "holy crusade" to rid the world of those who feel more comfortable with a traditional or conservative mode of worship. Indeed, they will usually gladly try to fellowship with these other congregations, will refer to them as brethren, and will even encourage members to worship with them if they are uncomfortable with the more progressive style.

However, I have rarely seen the opposite occur. The more conservative congregations would almost literally DIE before encouraging someone to worship with a "progressive" (or "digressive," as they more frequently call them) congregation. They "write them up" constantly in their yellow journals, bash them publicly, seek to undermine them, take out full-page ads in local papers trying to turn the community against them, and other such godless tactics.

No, it is not the "liberals" who are "Contentious For the Faith" .... not by a long shot!!!

This same person wrote me:

By way of example, with respect to the above assertion, let's look at the One Cup issue. Do the "liberals" or "progressives" consider the One Cup disciples to be their brethren? They certainly DO!!! I do not know of a single "liberal" who would not worship with a One Cup disciple. Most all would show them the utmost respect and love. But, will the One Cup disciples worship with US? Will they even regard us as brethren? Most do NOT. At best, they will call us "erring brethren." This is a strange characterization, is it not? Who among us is not an erring brother or sister?!

Look at the Internet Bible discussion lists of these ultra conservatives. What is one of the questions which pops up almost every single week on those lists?! They write, "I will be in such and such a place next weekend .... Where can I find a FAITHFUL church of Christ?" I have seen it countless times. What are they really asking for? They are actually asking, "Where can I find one of OUR little congregations that holds to OUR conservative viewpoints, because I won't go anywhere NEAR those 'apostates' in the 'liberal' groups." I have NEVER, EVER seen this question asked on the "progressive" Internet lists. Never! Do you know why? Because we are not into fracturing fellowship over opinions and traditions. We will worship anywhere our fellow disciples gather, no matter what differences we may have with one another theologically. Fellowship is not based on uniformity of personal preferences or practices. It is based on a Person, not a perception.

Who are the exclusivists? Who are the isolationists? Who are the factionists? Who are the sectarians? WHO? Is it those who are OPEN to their brethren, regardless of perceptual differences? Or, is it those who are CLOSED to all but those "faithful few" who see everything just as they do? WHO is being divisive here? Is it MY fault division exists? .... MY fault because I won't bow to another's opinions? Or, is it the fault of the opinionist for insisting I must .... and then separating from me if I won't?!

THIS is what has tragically occurred throughout much of our Restoration Movement history. We have fussed and fought over countless "weighty matters." And yet they're all about as significant as a hill of beans. Nevertheless, they HAVE been the cause of division. WHY? Because some have insisted that unless another prohibits Sunday Schools, for example, that person will go to hell. EVERYONE must believe Sunday Schools are wrong, or they are NOT in the "true, loyal church." Not everyone agrees to such narrow-mindedness and attempts at legalistic imposition, however, thus there is division. And whose fault is it? Why, it is obviously the fault of those who will not agree that Sunday Schools are sinful. It is their fault, of course!!! If these "liberals" would just bow to the whims of the legalists, all would be well. It's no different than the Islamic fundamentalists blaming the terror and destruction of September 11th on America. What insanity!

The better solution --- the solution of the "liberals" and "progressives" --- is: let's allow each person the freedom of his or her personal convictions .... and let's remain brothers!! Meeting in two separate locations, for example, one with a Sunday School and one without, IS NOT DIVISION. We can still be in full fellowship with one another, regarding one another as precious brethren, but simply meeting separately so as to allow for the freedom to express differing convictions about some practice. That is still UNITY OF THE SPIRIT. It is when one group begins attacking the convictions of the other, refusing to even regard the other as part of the "true, loyal church," that sinful division occurs.

And WHO is most often guilty of doing this? That's right! The ultra conservatives; the fundamentalist extremists ..... NOT the "forward thinking progressives." The latter will continue to embrace others as brethren and seek to maintain the unity of the Spirit. The former typically will NOT. This principle is even being seen played out in the present world situation. We in America are more than willing for the Islamic people to remain free to practice their beliefs as they desire. We won't attack them simply because their faith differs from ours. They are our human brothers. But their extremist leaders feel differently. They feel we are so wrong in our thinking that we must be destroyed. And when terror and destruction rain down upon us, who is to blame? That's right! We are! Why? Because we differ with them, and differences can never be tolerated by extremists and factionists!

Sadly, it is the same in the church of our Lord and Savior. From whence cometh contentions? The answer is painfully obvious. It is time for those who yearn for unity and harmony to stand up and speak up. We can afford to be silent no longer.


Reflections from Readers

From a University Psychology Professor in Washington:
(The following is an excerpt from a three page letter)

Al, with regard to your challenge to figure out some of the CofC idiosyncrasies, I would suggest that examining the process of acculturation and traditioning would be a major part of any attempt. Acculturation within a society can split off sub groups from the main stream of life. Sub groups tend to be "ghetto-like" with regard to acculturation practices in order to preserve group identity. The development of strong "taboos" with regard to certain ideas and behaviors are important in preserving group identity and continuity. As a result, sub cultures within any society, constituted by a "set of convictions," tend to develop what is labeled in current literary studies a reading community with its own particular way of understanding a given text.

I think contemporary understanding of human development and intellectual development would suggest that removing our acculturated spectacles is a difficult task. It is the dream of our Education establishment to do just that and to expose us to various ways of looking at our experiences. Education attempts to assist in the task described by Alexander Campbell of "escaping the smoke of our own chimney." In other words, in the 1830's Campbell knew about acculturation and its effect on our perception, including our understanding of Scripture. Actually, Campbell spoke of reading the Bible anew prior to F. LeGard Smith.

In any event, contemporary literary criticism does have some relevance for unraveling the puzzles which you raise. Our "peculiarities" are not unexplainable. Historians who specialize in "intellectual history" would be interested in such phenomena from the standpoint of ferreting out the originating ideas and leaders behind a given set of beliefs, or our conviction set. One major problem is that many among our literary leaders who serve as our mentors tend to think a-historically about our beliefs and imagine that our conviction set sprang whole cloth from the Bible (especially the NT) and mirrors a sub group which could be identified as "the pure NT church" in the first century. It will generally involve an assumption that by the end of something called the apostolic era, all the main "doctrinal issues" had been resolved into a "unified core of beliefs" accepted by everyone in the "supposed" true NT church. This critter (the pure NT church) has proved almost as elusive as the abominable snowman.

Al, I appreciate your new series of writings which call for us to look closely at what we believe and practice to sort out the traditioning of ideas in hopes of bringing these more in line with Scripture. Traditioning of ideas and practices harden and stultify, so we must constantly re-examine them to see if these things are according to the Scriptures. Thanks for your efforts in this direction.

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