by Al Maxey

Issue #87 ------- November 22, 2003
Shallow understanding from people of
good will is more frustrating than absolute
misunderstanding from people of ill will.

--- Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968)
Letter From Birmingham Jail --- 16 April 1963


On The Firing Line
Response to a Reader's Requests

A subscriber to these Reflections from the great state of Texas, the homeland of my paternal ancestors, recently asked if I would respond to a series of questions posed to me, some of which were rather personal in nature. I assured him I would do so in a future issue of this publication. Although these Reflections are not intended as a forum for extended and extensive dialogue or debate between myself and the public, nevertheless I welcome requests from the readers for clarification regarding my teaching or for further reflection upon some biblical topic or area of concern. It is through sharing our perceptions with honest seekers that we truly grow in understanding and appreciation for one another ... and also for God's Word. "As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another" (Proverbs 27:17).

Just for the record, I do welcome opportunities, outside of this present format or forum, for in-depth and unrestricted dialogue with those who may differ with my reflections and observations from God's inspired Word. Such examination of Scripture for the purpose of better perceiving Truth is a profitable endeavor, and I will never refuse any legitimate offer to "plumb the depths" of the biblical revelation for greater insight into the Lord's will. What I will reject is any effort to limit or restrict or regulate such a study. For example, the editor of a well-known conservative Church of Christ journal, which has been in publication for many generations, invited me this past week to debate him on the "law of silence" issue. I was, and still am, willing and ready to dialogue with him on this or any issue. The problem, however, was that he insisted I limit and restrict my remarks to a specified (by him) and rather small number of words. Naturally, I declined such an offer. In matters of eternal import, when life or death hang in the balance, when the unity of brethren is on the line, those proclaiming Truth should never be bound and gagged by such restrictions. It is unconscionable!! Truth deserves better! Thus, if anyone is interested in genuine, respectful, in-depth dialogue with an open Bible between us, and no limitations other than love for God, His Word, and the brethren, then I'm your man. Regulated argumentation among partyists, however, simply to win a victory for "our team" over the "dreaded opposition," does not interest me.

An Inquiry Into Intolerance

In a previous article I had written, "Patternism and Legalism are first cousins! In fact, they are probably closer than that -- most likely brothers!" The subscriber from Texas, whose letter has generated this current response, wrote, "I agree, having once been a legalist who was always looking for patterns I was willing to keep, while ignoring those I didn't want to keep." With regard to my comment: "Patternism is just Legalism thinly veiled. To follow either of them will leave one severed from Christ and fallen from grace!" -- he wrote, "Again, I agree with you, but I need help with these thoughts: Why does the blood of Christ cover our moral sins, but not certain doctrinal sins, such as being a legalist? What is the answer to the charge that we grace-centered people can tolerate anything but intolerance?"

It almost seems paradoxical, doesn't it? Intolerant of intolerance! Hating hatred! However, there is a legitimate rationale to such. Our Father is a God of absolute love, for example, and yet He "hates" and regards as "an abomination" that person "who spreads strife among brothers" (Proverbs 6:16-19). He who is perfect love finds in one given over to hatred the embodiment of all that is abhorrent. He who is centered with all of his being upon grace finds lack of grace an abomination and an affront to the Father's love. There are some things we must never tolerate, and some forms of intolerance fall into that category, as paradoxical as that may seem. Those who shun a brother or sister because they don't "toe the party line" are practitioners of godless, self-centered intolerance .... and such persons, and their insidious doctrine of exclusion, must never be tolerated by those devoted to freedom in Christ and the proclamation of grace. There was probably no greater advocate of grace than the apostle Paul. He preached acceptance of those with whom one may differ over matters of personal conviction (Romans 14). Nevertheless, he refused to tolerate for even a moment those who preached and promoted religious intolerance of others with whom they differed (Galatians 2:4-5, 11f).

It is because we are "grace-centered" disciples of our Lord Jesus that we cannot ... and must not ... tolerate attitudes and actions that would undermine that grace. An intolerant spirit, with regard to those who may differ with one's own personal preferences, perceptions and practices, is entirely inconsistent with GRACE. Thus, we must never tolerate within the One Body such self-centered intolerance. Our Father will certainly not tolerate such intolerance, a fact which the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant (Matthew 18:21f) clearly portrays, and He expects no less of us.

Does the blood of Christ cover both moral and doctrinal sins? Absolutely. When we walk in the light in sweet fellowship with our Lord, "the blood of Jesus cleanses us from ALL sin" (1 John 1:7). If perfect doctrinal understanding and practice is required for salvation, we are all lost! If absolute uniformity of perception and practice is required for fellowship within the church, there will only be fellowship among factionists .... and even they will fracture that fellowship repeatedly with each new divergent view (as indeed they have done for generations). Unity is in Christ; so also is the washing away of ALL sin, whether it be moral or doctrinal.

Brethren, it's time .... indeed, past time .... for a religious reality check! "Ain't NONE of us has arrived!!" There is doctrinal error in the best of us, both individually and collectively. We are ALL flawed and lack insight. No one particular religious group is the sole embodiment of TRUTH. Yes, some are indeed much closer than others, but none is the standard by which all others may be measured and judged. NO group serves as the sole repository of all the saved on planet Earth. Thus, it is the epitome of godless arrogance for anyone to assert exclusive rights to doctrinal purity, and to further assert that the blood of Christ will not cleanse those who have failed to attain to their state of perceived perfection. That is pure nonsense, and thinking disciples of Christ need to forever abandon such factional folly. We had better also be very careful of declaring that the blood of Christ will not cleanse honest seekers of Truth of doctrinal error, for in such a declaration we include ourselves!!

Should Legalism Be Ignored?

The subscriber from Texas further wrote: "In a class I used to teach, I was constantly being challenged by some in the class who felt that legalism was just 'a bad idea,' but not a salvation issue. Is it really something that will sever us from Christ and keep us from the grace of God? I truly think that it is, but I would love your input." I can only restate the chilling words of the apostle Paul to those who sought justification by law-keeping and compliance with religious regulation -- "You have been severed from Christ ... you have fallen from grace" (Galatians 5:4). In verse 2 he affirms that "Christ will be of no benefit to you." Such words, unless I have greatly missed the point, make this a salvation issue! Thus, legalism is far more than just a small area of doctrinal misunderstanding that our God may be expected to "overlook" or tolerate. It is a basic lack of trust in Jesus to save, and an effort to acquire that salvation by one's own personal effort or merit. It is an elevation of LAW over LORD, and such will prove eternally fatal.

This brother continues: "I know several legalists who are proud of the fact that they are legalists. They think everyone should be a legalist, because they think it proves their sincerity in practicing their religion." Herein lies part of the deadly danger of such legalistic thinking -- a works-based salvation can easily lead to feelings of personal pride and boasting. "God owes me salvation; I earned it." When we feel salvation or justification is the wages paid for services rendered, we have reason to look with pride upon our accomplishment. This reader from Texas spoke of a preacher he had heard some years earlier who delivered a sermon on the topic of Grace. "He went on to show how the grace of God is not really undeserved for those who are saved since they do everything the way God desires it to be done." If we can just DO enough, if we can just be GOOD enough, if we can get all the rules right, and if we don't mess up the rituals of the "worship service," we will have EARNED God's GRACE! Paul recognized the danger of such thinking and addressed it specifically --- "For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, that no one should boast" (Ephesians 2:8-9). Yes, there may well be reason to boast if one's salvation is by works of law (any law), but there is no reason for personal pride when we realize our salvation is a gift received by grace through faith.

The reader from Texas asks some very important questions at this point: "Is it ever wise to ignore the legalists? Is there any proof text which will convince any legalist of the error of their ways? What is the most effective way of reaching them?" I believe this reader has touched on the answer to his final question in a statement he made to me in a separate email. He wrote, "Oh, how I wish I could open some eyes to see Jesus as our Savior, and not a lawgiver." The solution, as suggested, is simply to show them a different Jesus living within us .... the Jesus of grace and love!

I have been reaching out to my law-bound brethren for many, many years, seeking to bring them to a better appreciation of the Father's GRACE. It is difficult work, and often very frustrating and painful. It hurts to be called names and to be shunned by those you love and seek only to help. But, on the other hand, it is also very rewarding to see precious men and women come out of the darkness of bondage and into the light of liberty. One thing I have learned the hard way is that arguing and debating with those of this mindset rarely brings about the needed transformation. The pathway to bringing the enslaved to freedom in Christ is the pathway of LOVE! Show them a better way! Seeking to "out proof-text" a "proof-texter" is futile. You won't win that battle. When they demand debate, you must lead them toward loving dialogue. When you lift high love and grace and mercy and acceptance, when you evidence the joys of unity and harmony among brethren, when you LIVE JESUS before them, hearts will soften and minds will open. No, you will not eradicate legalism from the face of the earth. It has always been here, and it always will be. Nor will you convert all legalists and patternists. Some are simply determined to live and die under LAW; you won't change that reality. BUT, here and there, one disciple at a time, precious saints will be liberated. It is for these few that we keep on keeping on!

Ignore them? Never! They are too precious to simply give up on or abandon. Their theology is also too dangerous to the faith of genuine seekers of Truth to be ignored. We must continue loving them and showing them the real Jesus, but we must also continue exposing and refuting their deadly legalistic, patternistic thinking that is severing people from Christ and causing them to fall from grace. "Pursue peace with all men ... and see to it that no one comes short of the grace of God" (Hebrews 12:14-15).

Elder-Minister Relationships & Responsibilities

The subscriber to these Reflections from Texas also had some questions of a more personal nature. He wrote: "Your article implied that you are an elder. Wonderful. Are you not also the pulpit minister? I am confused over church organization. The Scriptures seem to indicate to me that elders and ministers are one and the same people, but in most Churches of Christ I am familiar with, the minister "reports to" the elders, and yet the elders seldom teach anything. They function more as business managers, and sometimes prayer leaders in special situations. Am I way off base here, or are we much too often incorrectly organized?"

I have long felt that there are some serious misunderstandings with regard to the duties and responsibilities of elders, deacons and evangelists, and their relationships with one another. I will be presenting studies in each of these areas of ministry and leadership in future issues of Reflections, thus will not go into a lot of depth at this point. I served for several years as a deacon in the 1980's, have served as a preacher or minister or evangelist (whichever term you favor) for almost three decades, and have been serving as an elder for close to three years now. Thus, I have some degree of "insider insight" into all three areas of service.

Yes, I believe elders and preachers, as well as deacons and preachers, can be "one and the same person." I see nothing contrary to biblical teaching in a disciple of Christ "wearing several hats." Simon Peter, after all, was an apostle and an evangelist and a writer and an elder all at the same time (1 Peter 5:1). It makes for a heavier workload, but there is certainly nothing "unscriptural" about it. Each area of service to the Lord definitely has its own special focus, but they can easily be merged into a unified effort.

The reader spoke of his concern that many elders are not teaching, but rather serving as corporate executives and administrators. I have long been troubled by this tendency among too many so-called leaders in the church. Elders are to be spiritual guides and examples to the flock. Their primary duty is to feed and nourish and guard the flock entrusted to their watchful care. An elder who does not teach is not an elder. Any shepherd incapable of feeding and nourishing a flock of sheep should not be a shepherd. "Good old boy" networks may prevail in board rooms and pool halls, but they have no place in the church. When I was just a child I used to think the "job" of the elders was to make up rules for the church, have secret meetings about the members, say the prayers, sign the checks, oversee the deacons, and hire and fire the preachers. Deacons were just "elders in training," and essentially the servants of the elders, carrying out the menial chores associated with "running a church." Preachers were .... well .... preachers were the hired help; the outsiders; the expendable element of leadership. They were kept around as long as they didn't rock the boat too badly and kept everyone "in the old paths." It was their job to do the teaching and preaching, counsel the members, visit the sick, and encourage the faint-hearted and drifting. In short, the preacher was to do everything the elder was supposed to be doing, but didn't have time to do because they were too busy keeping track of the deacons (who weren't quite sure what they were supposed to be doing).

Okay, okay .... maybe that is too cynical a portrayal, and few congregations (I hope) are likely that far astray from the Lord's intent for leadership within the One Body, but let's be honest here -- we have all seen and experienced what I'm talking about. It exists. And it needs to be addressed with some strong teaching from God's Word. Are there congregations of believers who are "incorrectly organized"? Yes, I believe there are! Thus, I shall seek to draw our attention back to what I believe, based upon my study and personal experience, to be the biblical "better way" with regard to servant-leaders within the church of our Lord Jesus Christ. Again, I shall do this in upcoming issues of these Reflections, so be on the lookout for them in the months to come.

What Is Your Testimony?

The final thing this reader asked was: "I would love to read your autobiography as an article. Just how did you arrive where you are, and what were some of the trials that you faced? What is your testimony? John MacArthur, Jr. once said, 'Only desperate people truly come to God.' I've seen the truthfulness of that many times. Is it true with you?"

Some wit once observed, "Only preachers who are independently wealthy ever dare to give their personal testimonies!" The story was told some years ago of a congregation where it was decided all the members would confess their personal struggles to one another and then pray for each other. Sister Bessie bared her soul and they all hugged her and prayed for her. Brother Kenny bared his soul and they all hugged him and prayed for him. The preacher bared his soul .... and they fired him! There is this perception among too many that the preacher and his family are to be "above" personal struggle. We put preachers on pedestals in glass houses and watch them like hawks, and when they topple from their perch, as inevitably they will, we gut them and drag off the bodies. Thus, many preachers feel somewhat hesitant to "bare their souls" before others. Thankfully, that has begun to change dramatically in recent years. As members of the One Body of Christ become increasingly loving, accepting, and grace oriented, preachers are feeling more confident about finally acknowledging they are, in fact, human!

I can assure you: Al Maxey is very human!! If anyone does not deserve a place on a pedestal, it is me! I have made more than my share of mistakes, have at times shown extremely poor judgment, and have often failed my God and those who depended on me. I know me all too well, and I have more than once felt a real kindredness to the heart of Paul when, after a time of self-evaluation, he lamented, "What a wretched man I am!" (Romans 7:24). Thus, I can relate to some extent to the above observation by John MacArthur, Jr. -- "Only desperate people truly come to God." I knew that justification and salvation were beyond my own efforts. Thus, my desperation led me to JESUS. It is only by God's grace, and my own faith in His love and mercy, that I am what I am today .... and that is: a sinner saved, a transgressor justified.

I suppose my trials and temptations were no different than most people's. I left home, went to college for a year, then joined the military, where I spent two tours in Vietnam, and in the process turned my back on God. I wasted a lot of time drinking and "behaving badly" and living the life of a prodigal. After four years of military service I returned to college where I met a young girl who saw something worth saving in me. She, along with a beloved professor (Dr. Stephen D. Eckstein), brought me out of my spiritual stupor and set me back on the right path. My relationship with Stephen led to BS and MA degrees, and my relationship with that young girl (Shelly) led to three wonderful sons and four precious grandchildren. She and I celebrated 30 years of marriage this past July.

Perhaps my greatest trials, however, have come from my quest, in just the past 20+ years, to validate my faith through intensive and extensive reexamination of the Word of God. I have placed everything I believe and practice and hold dear on the table for fresh evaluation. That journey of discovery has changed my life. I discovered that much of what I had always believed to be true was indeed God's Truth. My convictions were validated. However, I also discovered, much to my shock, that some of the things I had always regarded as absolute Truth were only Traditions of men and elevated inferences, assumptions and deductions of my forefathers in my faith-heritage. When I began to mention this to some of my close companions in the faith, I was warned, in no uncertain terms, that I should never "speak of these things" to the brethren. "It's suicide," they told me, for a preacher to ever question or challenge "the way things have always been understood and practiced."

Nevertheless, I could not remain silent. I suppose that has always been my greatest burden to bear ... I simply cannot remain silent when I believe so many of my beloved brethren are on a pathway leading to further enslavement to legalism, and thus traveling away from the glorious freedom that can be ours in Christ. By proclaiming His grace, and elevating Truth over tradition, I have made enemies, and yet the joy I feel when I see precious souls liberated is well worth the pain. I determined many years ago that I would never compromise my convictions, that I would never be silenced by my critics and detractors, and that I would face whatever consequences came upon me for that resolve, even if it meant the loss of everything I have. My life is committed to bringing God's people beyond the rigid parameters of a legalistic religion and into the joys of a liberating relationship with the Father and His Son and His people. I refuse to be bound by sectarian or factional thinking; rather, I will embrace as my beloved siblings ALL who are genuinely "in Christ Jesus" our Lord! We may differ on any number of matters of personal conviction, interpretation and practice, but wherever my Father has a child, I have a brother or sister.

For this conviction I have often been viciously vilified. I have been "written up" by some and "written off" by others. I am either "pitifully deceived" or the "deceiver from the pit." I have been receiving such attacks for years, as have members of my family, but even though such harsh pejoratives leave a sting in one's heart at times, nevertheless I realize they are the price one must be willing to pay in order to speak boldly the message of God's grace. The church, in many ways, is a family of dysfunctional siblings who need a firm hand to lead them back into the joys of brotherly love and harmony. Brethren have fussed, fought and fragmented into feuding factions for so long that many seem to know no other way to demonstrate their discipleship. This is unfortunate, but it is not unfixable! These Reflections are just one small effort, in a sea of many such efforts, to gain the attention of God's children and refocus them upon what is truly essential to their unity and salvation. Brick by brick we shall dismantle the barriers that divide brethren, and section by section we shall tear down that wall that keeps God's people apart from the glorious liberty that is offered by grace through faith in Jesus Christ.

Reflections from Readers

From a Reader in Texas:

Thanks, Al. Excellent paper. But, why don't you now examine all the mistakes in the KJV?

From a Reader in Washington:

Brother, I see Satan and the Pope in that picture, but who is the third guy? Is that a Baptist? Or is that supposed to be Rubel Shelly? ;-) The only thing missing from the cartoon is Hitler (per the ultra-legalist website we all know and faux-love). Anyway ... I appreciate your unbiased look at the NIV. I heard a quote from a guy, can't remember who, who when asked which version is the best replied, "Whichever version you will read." We have to remember that it is more important to read our Bibles than it is to pick on versions ... especially versions that are pretty true to the original documents. If you like the KJV, great! Make sure you are reading it, though. Same for NIV, NKJV, ASV, NASB, etc. Again, thanks for the article!

From a Reader in Kentucky:

Al, Sorry I have not had the time to write you recently. I have been keeping up with all the new Reflections articles and you have done a nice job, as usual. I very much appreciated "The Doctrine of Christ" issue. I agree with you. Further, whether you interpret it as subjective genitive or objective genitive, that is still a far cry from the patternistic interpretation that has forbidden instruments, cups, classes, and a host of other things.

I have been having an email dialogue with a Non-Institutional brother who, though very much entrenched in the NI doctrines, has not been quite as rude to me as some of the others have been. He brought up Hebrews 7:14 and the issue of "silence," though he calls it "lack of positive authority" (a difference without a distinction, in my opinion). Anyway, I feel well prepared to deal with these issues thanks to personal study, your work, and others who have written on this hermeneutic. Thanks!

From a Reader in Ohio:

Al, You had written in your previous article, "The NIV has attempted to steer a middle course between excessive literalness and excessive paraphrase. They have employed the principle of Dynamic Equivalence, which emphasizes faithfulness to the message of the text rather than to the structural form." The comment you make here shows the worthlessness of this so-called translation. The ONLY "steering" the NIV does is leading men away from God. If a bible is NOT a word for word translation, then it is not a translation at all, but just another paraphrase. And that is exactly what the NIV is ... a paraphrase. What a joke! But, be of good cheer, this liberal so-called translation fits perfectly with YOUR liberal views on just about everything.

From a Reader at Texas Tech University:

I appreciate your work and usually agree with your conclusions. On a recent note, you excoriate patternism and legalism, and I am generally in agreement with you. But I always wonder, when I hear condemnations of pattern theology, if even the critics of patterns are free from the things to which they object. When are we to follow a biblical pattern and when not? Granted, in many cases men make their own interpretations a law for others, and I won't defend that. My sense is that the problem is not when we attempt to follow the apostles' example, but when we attempt to legalistically bind others to our deductions. I know that you may be talking about legalistic searching for rules and practices to bind on others, but I am unhappy that the good word "pattern" is getting a bad rap. It is not patternism to insist on following a clear teaching of the New Testament (such as immersion for the remission of sins), but it is legalistic patternism to bind our interpretations of ambiguous passages on others. Perhaps it is the "--ism" that is objectionable. Just some thoughts for clarification.

From a Minister in Colorado:

I usually use the NASB, but thought I would write about one of its failings in case you had not seen it yet. There are others, of course, but this one is glaring! In Romans 10:9-10 the preposition EIS is translated "resulting in." The same is true in Romans 5:16; 6:16, 19, 22; 15:18. It should, of course, be "into, unto, or toward" ... as would be best in Acts 2:38 also. Obviously, the translators did not translate EIS as "resulting in" in Acts 2:38 because it opposed their beliefs. I am more conservative than you are, and sometimes disagree with you, but I also like for all to know the strengths and weaknesses of various translations. Honesty is always a virtue ... and my NASB sometimes gets it wrong too. By the way, don't you wonder how the "KJV ONLY" guys think people got saved pre-1611?!

From a Reader in Michigan:

I've been using the NIV for almost 20 years now, and I think it's always a good idea to compare various translations, especially with difficult passages, to try and get different perspectives. But, I primarily use the NIV. One passage that bothers me with it, though, is 1 Corinthians 7:27, where the NIV reads, "Are you unmarried?" That is too general. The Greek apoluo is more specific, referring to a divorce (one of three different types of being in an "unmarried" state -- never married, divorced, or widowed). Here the KJV and other translations are better, so I've written a note in the margin of my Bible about that.

From a Reader in (Unknown):

I just found your web site and wanted to write and say how much I enjoyed reading about the translations. It sure is nice to see someone with a balanced approach. I have a lot of questions concerning "The Church of Christ." Is there any material that is available explaining your doctrine? What hymn book do you sing out of? I watch a Church of Christ Minister on the program "In Search of the Lord's Way." The singing is so Scriptural and beautiful. I am interested in The Church of Christ, and want to know more.

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