Wesley’s primitivist elucidation

Today, another quotation from E.H. Broadbent (The Pilgrim Church, p. 294):

[John] Wesley’s determined adherence to the Established Church prevented him from seeing those principles which are taught in Scripture regarding the churches of God, and he never attempted to follow up his Gospel preaching by forming churches, on the New Testament pattern, of whose who believed.  Yet in 1746 he wrote, “On the road I read over Lord King’s account of the Primitive Church.  In spite of the vehement prejudice of my education, I was ready to believe … that originally every Christian congregation was a church independent of all others!”

Dear John, why, if you were indeed ready to believe, did you not continue along the path of restoration?  What caused you to retain all the peripheral “stuff” of Christianity?

A piercing voice is heard, through the millennia, above Wesley’s sincere, yet ultimately short-falling, question:  why, oh why, do we continue to depend on man-made church structures?  Why do we hold so tenaciously to a-biblical and even un-biblical hierarchies?  It doesn’t matter whether it’s the Anglican Church within which Wesley was working, or the United Methodist Church that he spawned, or the Roman Catholic institution, or the Church of Christ, or “River of Grace Ministries,” a stereotypical nondenominational church where Joe Jones, “founding pastor,” calls the shots.  They are all man-made structures.

It’s been said that

  1. When the early church “moved” to Greece, it became a philosophy.
  2. When it moved to Rome, it became an institution.
  3. When it moved to Europe, it became a culture.
  4. When it moved to America, it became a business.

However, this is not the end of the story.  God, help us.  Move us backward in principle as we move forward in time.

Unity and restoration

Unity and restoration were both key goals of the American Restoration Movement, and of many of the more serious Christian thinkers and practicers throughout history.  These goals are often found in opposition to one another.  In other words, if one is asserted, the other suffers.

James O'Kelly

For example, James O’Kelly led a division among American Methodists in 1793, apparently largely in opposition to the religious tyranny of the circuit-riding “bishop” Francis J. Asbury.

Francis J. Asbury

Inasmuch as O’Kelly was presumably restoring, disunity resulted.  If he had opted to accede, to resign himself to something not purely biblical, restoratory goals would have suffered.

A slogan of old was “Let Christian unity be our polar star.”  Such a galactic berth for unity may be a mite too high, in the grand scheme, but certainly the Lord’s Prayer (John 17) calls for unity with passion and conviction, and we should, too.

As I bring this series to a close, I would like to reiterate what Paul said to the Christians in Corinth (a loose paraphrase of some of 1 Cor. 1:11-17):

  • separate, named groupings within a Christian body are divisive
  • even Jesus’ name may be used to divide, and divisions among Christians are not good

By extension, the denominational situation in the world today is decidedly not a good thing.  Sectarianism and denominationalism are not to be accepted without question as the approved, natural outgrowth of the spread of the gospel and of human nature; rather, these denominations are to be worked in and worked through, to the end that all sectarian names, ideologies, and creeds should be abolished, giving way to the pure messages of the scriptures, and unity based on those messages.  I wish the words of the Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery were soulfully, intentionally applied to every denomination:

We will, that this body die, be dissolved,
and sink into union with the Body of Christ at large;
for there is but one body, and one Spirit, even as we are called in one hope of our calling.

May restoration continue to occur, and may unity grow alongside it.  May unity be found in scriptural truth and in the truth of Jesus the Living Word.

Models for unity

Continuing from the past few days, I’ll add a few more points and will soon leave this matter of Christian unity.

Unity based on single doctrinal points (or families of related points) may be difficult to achieve, if not completely fallacious.  Water unity isn’t even attainable within the circles of the Baptist denomination(s) or the Church of  Christ, for instance.¹  Calvinistic unity, too, is elusive, as may be observed in a casual glance at the Presbyterian Church (either of them), the Christian Reformed Church, and the Lutheran Church (either of them).

Head unity is based on reasoned understandings and was stressed by Alexander Campbell and Disciples of Christ in the 19C,² but it depends on conformity of human brain activity and is not likely to occur.  Still, it probably does us good to narrow the sense of core Christian doctrine down to the facts upon which more/most of us may unite.  Many of us can agree on such facts as Jesus’ birth to the virgin Mary, His atoning, sacrificial death, His miraculous resurrection, etc.  Opinions about the facts are other matters altogether.  Never can two thinking Christians unite on every peripheral opinion, induction, or deduction about a biblical fact, but the facts themselves deserve much consideration in this arena.

False unity results when a charismatic leader describes unity and asserts it where it does not exist.  Gregarious pastor-types may seek popularity by means of downplaying differences and making things appear more unified than they are.  Glistening or syrupy sermons do not create unity.

Leroy Garrett highlights what Barton Stone called fire unity–the gift of the Holy Spirit.  Inasmuch as this means the unity given by the Spirit that we are merely to maintain (Eph. 4), it warrants attention.  It’s not a goal so much as it is a reality:   we don’t need to achieve it; it’s already achieved.  But if “fire unity” means some supra-natural manifestation of the Holy Spirit–or even vaguely refers to something like “the Pentecostal fire of Christ’s presence”–as a marker of unity, it’s clearly not very unifying and is bound to fail.

Sunday-only unity can be more difficult for some, and less difficult for others.  Whether it works depends, in part, on one’s ecclesiology in terms of the assembly–how prominently corporate Sunday activities figure into the scheme or worldview.

  • If one thinks that what is done on Sundays is central and non-negotiable, agreement on those things is necessary for peace, as it were.  By conscience, some insist on conformity in all things observable during the Christian assembly.³  This scenario may be difficult to imagine in reality (or it may almost be assumed by those who by personality or conviction are bandwagon believers), but I have found it to exist commonly in the churches of the ARM.  It may be experienced rather shallowly in suburban and urban areas, but it is experienced nonetheless, and a measure of conformist peace may be reassuring.  On the other hand, this kind of unity is at once elusive and illusive.  A false “blueprint” conception of the New Covenant writings may be at the foundation.  The scriptures were not written to provide a precise pattern for church behaviors, although they do provide many guiding principles — and certain specifics — for all aspects of living.
  • If one thinks more relationally, i.e., how I believe in relation to the sister or brother sitting in front of me or beside me, then corporate activities take a back seat.  Large-scale aspects may be agreed on, or not, and the relationships will continue to be primary.  As the ultra-rightist, Reaganite, Commie-hating character Alex Keaton (Michael J. Fox, Family Ties) once articulated it when considering a Russian chess opponent, “It’s easier to hate a country than a person.”  Stated in the positive, it’s also easier to love and accept a sincere, individual believer, than an entire, off-base denomination or a large-scale corporate practice not based in scripture.

Perhaps a blend of extroversion and introversion is in order here:  thinking soberly and biblically about what is done when Christians gather together, yes, but also emphasizing individual relationships and the discipleship of individual souls alongside the large-scale stuff.

One more installment, tomorrow:  Unity and Restoration–a plea


¹ I understand that a Baptist forbear, John Smyth, immersed himself.  If he did that for the sake of church membership, as many Baptists today call for it, I’d be shocked.

² The Barton W. Stone “side” of the ARM does not seem to have emphasized rationalism as much as the Campbell side.

³ Further in the Sunday-unity model, there may be implications for discussions in lobbies and in Bible classes:  agreement on a list of items is either assumed or inflicted.  Dissent is either absent or kept under wraps.

Names (2) — nondenominationalism everywhere?

I once delivered a full-length sermon on the topic “the denominationalism within us”—to the horror of several siblings who had some wool shreds near their chins and noses (the wool’s having been pulled down from above).  Born ‘n bred as nondenominational Christians, they were more than offended to be accused of being denominational.

Now, most church groups don’t fear denominationalism at all and in fact find the denomination “nest” quite homey.  Leaving alone the issue of that false comfort for now, I merely want to say that the Church of Christ has for decades employed a set of terminologies that discourage honesty about structure and identity.  Disingenuously, it has in some circles used a lower-case “c” on “church,” as if to say, “we’re not a denomination,” all the while using the oddly fashioned term “church of Christ” in precisely the same way as the Methodists use the initials “UMC,” Baptists use the term “Baptist,” and Catholics use the pretentious label “The Church.”

Yes, Virginia, there is denominationalism within the Church of Christ.  There is no doubt about this.  Despite not having an earthly headquarters (a plus in many respects), any real system of ordination (a plus in most respects), a general conference (a plus in all respects), etc., “we” are a Yellow-pages-identifiable religious group that has a name.  That makes us a denomination, period.

Leroy Garrett tells of the early concerns with naming in the Restoration Movement:

Once the Stone and Campbell movements united and became one church, a story I shall be relating, they settled the name issue by calling themselves by both names, Christians and Disciples, and their congregations were variously known as Disciples of Christ, Christian Churches, and Churches of Christ. It was unusual — a church with three names! The cruel irony is that once this unity movement betrayed its own heritage and divided into three churches, a sad story that I will also relate, each of the churches ended up wearing one of the three names, and for the most part only that name.

I still heartily reject “Methodist,” “Catholic,” “Baptist,” “Lutheran,” etc., as having anything to do with anything eternally significant (although they are in some contexts valid, helpful descriptors).  In the last case:  I find it patently irreverent to name with a human’s name a group that purports to claim allegiance to Jesus as Messiah, so “Lutheran” and “Wesleyan” and “Swedenborgian” are right out.  The epithet “Methodist” speaks of a way of Christian living, and as many believe to have been the case with the first use of the term “Christian,” it was originally derogatory.  “Baptist” is much more biblically based but also belies a sectarian, human philosophy or set of practices.  “Catholic” is, etymologically speaking, less provincial than all the rest in this paragraph, but that label, of course, carries with it centuries of apostasy, strongly suggests the Roman hierarchy, and gathers with it whole nationalities, ethnicities, perversities of both living and doctrine, not to mention weird habits like Bingo nights.  A trunk full of junk like this represents major baggage that no one should carry.  Better never to use the common adjective “catholic” without clearly explaining it as meaning “universal.”

I perpetually find myself with mouth agape when I see evidence that human allegiance can still be paid to these human labels, or to any like them.  Although denominational loyalties seem far weaker than they were years ago, they are still with us.  People consider themselves “Methodists” and “Episcopals” and “Assembly of God” more than “Christians.”  Not being one for mob mentalities, I don’t get it.

But again:  what is it to be Christian?  I grew up thinking it meant “Christ-like.”  I don’t think that’s as helpful a definition anymore, though.  In the sermon referred to above, I defined “Christian” as I would define “Bostonian”:  the suffix “-ian” designates one who is of something, possessed by something, belongs to something.  A Bostonian is of Boston and in some sense belongs to Boston.  A Christian, likewise, is of Christ, possessed by Christ.

The definition of “Christian” is infinitely more important than affiliation with any denominated subgroup within Christendom.

Next:  ecumenism

Ekklesia values 5a (nondenominational, nonsectarian)

To return to the original church “value”: my church is not sectarian and is not part of a denomination or franchise. I will often criticize denominational trappings, but I do not condemn the people within the denominations simply for being named. What I oppose on a larger scale is divisive sectarianism, and for myself, I would much prefer to be part of a group that didn’t even come close to using a title—ANY title—even the name or title of Jesus Christ—divisively.

Further, on the matter of affiliation . . . for a local congregation to be affiliated with a denomination is for me problematic–not absolutely necessarily so, but so frequently so that I am compelled to comment. The affiliation with a broader network can so readily compromise commitment to biblical truth, to authenticity of local mission, and to personal conviction that it must be challenged. Those who are naturally phlegmatic and/or submissive may be able to sit in the pews passively, disagreeing but not caring to make a fuss. Those of us with other temperaments and biblically based convictions cannot always sit idly by when affiliation leads to compromise. I care so much less about what the organization says than about what the Bible says, and, secondarily, what my conscience leads me to. My church, in the ideal, will not be affiliated to the degree that scruples and biblically based consciences will be threatened. My church will not be sectarian.

However, my ideal church will not intentionally wear blinders. It will be aware of its own set of backgrounds, seeking to be informed about the impact of various tenets and practices of the past on the present. And my church will—because I’m involved with it, if for no other reason, be particularly informed by the strengths and weaknesses, ideals and objectives of the American Restoration movement led by, among others, Alexander Campbell and Barton Stone.

I close with words of David Lipscomb (courtesy of Bobby Valentine’s Stoned-Campbell Disciple blog), first on fellowship and withdrawal of it for doctrinal reasons:

So long as a man really desires to do right, to serve the Lord, to obey His commands, we cannot withdraw from him. We are willing to accept him as a brother, no matter how ignorant he may be, or how far short of the perfect standard his life may fall from his ignorance…We will maintain the truth, press the truth upon him, compromise not one word or iota of that truth, yet forbear with the ignorance, the weakness of our brother who is anxious, but not yet able to see the truth …Why should I not, when I fall so far short of perfect knowledge myself? How do I know that the line beyond which ignorance damns, is behind me, not before me? If I have no forbearance with his ignorance, how can I expect God to forbear with mine? …So long then as a man exhibits a teachable disposition, is willing to hear, to learn and obey the truth of God, I care not how far he may be, how ignorant he is, I am willing to recognize him as a brother. (David Lipscomb, Gospel Advocate, April 22, 1875).

Again from Lipscomb, on the difference between seeking truth and being a party-spirit Christian or sectarian:

A sectarian is one who defends everything his party holds or that will help his party, and opposes all that his party opposes. This partisan takes it for granted that everything his party holds is right, and everything the other party holds to be wrong and is to be opposed. Hence the party line defines his faith and teaching. He sees no good in the other party. He sees no wrong in his own party . . . A truth lover and seeker always looks into whatever party he comes in contact with, and will first look to see what truth the party holds … The love of truth is a spirit of kindness and love toward all, even to the holder of error. He loves the holder of truth because he receives truth and strength from him, (David Lipscomb, “A Sectarian and a Truth Seeker,” Gospel Advocate. June 27, 1907, p. 409.)

Next (sometime this week): leadership and hierarchy

Ekklesia values 5 (nondenominational, nonsectarian)

In the context of the church sign a couple of weeks ago, Sarah commented on the passage in 1 Cor. 1:

Paul chastises the believers in Corinth for following evangelists of different name and using their names to cause divisions in the church.

It’s alarmingly amusing, or ironically distressing, or something, that I once found myself in a hotbed of disunity and trouble because I pointed out the same thing in 1 Corinthians. Here’s the setting. . . .

After I returned as an adult to the church of my youth, it seemed to me that things were going pretty well. We were moving in ways of worship, the mission team was functioning with heart, the newer elders were shepherding, our fairly new preacher was going in-depth with Pauline passages, we were having reasonably good Bible studies, good times of togetherness, good plans, etc. And then I was asked to fill in as preacher on a Sunday night. I spoke on the church universal and the denominationalism within us. This suggestion, in Church of Christ setting, was tantamount to an act of terrorism.

I exaggerate, of course. And I do regret saying a few things the way I said them–needlessly provocatively. But quite a few people were visibly upset at the very suggestion that we could be using the name/title of Christ divisively. Yet in fact that can be, and often is, precisely the situation. It is the height of hypocrisy to do something covertly — with a huge tapestry of wool over the collective eye — that we accuse everyone else of doing to the detriment of Jesus and His cause. The name “Church of Christ” is no different from the name “Jehovah’s Witness” or “Methodist” or “Roman Catholic” if it is employed in the same way. And something along these lines was even happening in the 1st century, or Paul wouldn’t have warned against being divisive with Jesus’ name.

God’s church is

==> Nonsectarian and non-franchise

  • Affiliated with no denomination, yet not isolated from the larger Christian community
  • Aware of, and informed by, history and tradition
    • focused on the 1st century
    • particularly attentive to the frontier American Restoration Movement (a/k/a Stone-Campbell Movement)
    • conversant with the strengths, foibles, and idiosyncrasies of diverse religious traditions

At a peak in my campaign for nonsectarian Christianity, even I passed on a bumper sticker that proclaimed the driver a “Generic Christian.” That seemed a little chincy to me. But Christianity in its purest form is not attached to marketable “brand” or to the ownership and control of a franchise that’s attached to a larger organization.

It may be helpful here to offer a brief treatment of terms and concepts.

To denominate = to name; denomination = named thing or group (not necessarily a bad thing)

The general progression from movement to sect to denomination is fairly well documented. In a movement, at least a few aspects are likely purposeful, germinal. But given human nature, this will likely change over time. A developing sect is presumed to be countercultural, to some degree; this is a progression from “purposeful and germinal”–the tenets become more locked-in, more rabidly held, and it becomes an us-them mentality. But later … a denomination, which has much less excited sense of purpose, is a crystallization of a sect or movement.

These are of course insufficiently simplistic descriptions, but they give some linguistic context to my belief that a denomination is not in itself in the wrong for being denominated. The mere use of a word to name or identify is not necessarily divisive.

To be part of a movement is to be passionate, to be incendiary, to be progressive. To be part of a sect may be ill-advised, because the sect’s counterculturalism may be either cultish or off-putting. But “secting” may also be exactly what we’re supposed to do—“in the world but not of the world,” or, if you prefer, not “conformed to the world.” The problem is when “sectarian” becomes divisive. As I hear the word “divisive,” in no case should a Christian be in that camp. A divisive person causes division. This divisiveness differs from merely being separate from the world; to be divisive is to create sharp lines of fellowship within the body of Christ … to divide those that Jesus died for … those who accept Him on some level.

I’ll be quick to point out that practical divisions are a necessity for those who have standards. I have walked out of churches, and will do so again, because they believe and practice things I find to run counter to the scriptures. But I must leave the theological, eschatological (ultimate, final) dividing lines to God alone. I may not be able to worship or study with this group or that, but it is not mine to assign them to hell.  Further, it is not necessarily divisive to decide to split, or merely to be elsewhere on Sundays. These are natural outgrowths of convictions and study. One may be sincerely convicted that he cannot conscientiously be in this or that group of Christ-followers on Sundays, without having a divisive, contentious spirit.

(To be concluded)

In the community of faith

A few weeks ago, I questioned the idea that scripture is safely interpreted “in the community of faith.” This popular position had been verbalized, among other places, in the United Methodist Church’s official statement on the inspiration of scripture.

While I didn’t intend to suggest that a sincere heart interpreting alone will always be “righter” than a sincere group of Christians, I did intend to suggest that the mere existence of a “community of faith” in no way guarantees correct interpretations. This principle extends far and wide—well past the borders of my own fellowship, but certainly including it, so I’ll say it again: a denomination or congregation (or “fellowship of churches”) is fairly likely to be off-base on this or that. The community of faith is a spiritual necessity, but neither its presence nor its proximity ensures right doctrine.

A relatively minor example of what I consider an errant “community of faith” decision or teaching is what I’ve come, not so affectionately, to recall as “the sign debacle.” Several years ago, when I was a good deal more whippersnapperish, my church in DE was about to build a new sign for passers-by to see. After months of hint-dropping and conversations with the elders and others, I believed I had a really fine consensus for constructing and installing some kind of changeable sign.

The sign I had in roughly mind would have been classy — not neon or cheap-looking. It would have provided opportunities for great advertising, and even some teaching, as it were: a sign that said “God’s Church” on Monday and “The Cedars Family of Jesus meets here” on Friday might have made some Rt. 41 drivers think. Again, I believe all the primary leaders — shepherds/elders of the church — were in agreement with my idea, in principle and in most specifics.

But then a few others in the congregation got wind of the idea. And the narrow sectarians (whoa! I’m only catching my egregious labeling on final proofing, but I’ll leave it in as exhibit A) took over. The church was then effectively being led by a few naysayers and not by the leaders. This sign could have even had our fellowship’s well-known title still on it somewhere, for all I cared. As long as the opportunity existed to show that a scriptures-based Christian church was not to be pigeonholed by one exclusive name, we were doing something productive in the arena of nondenominational discipleship and witness to the surrounding community. I was motivated by principles of non-sectarian, unifying Christianity, and I still believe I was on the right path.

The new sign ended up looking nice. “Real nice, Clark,” in the words of Eddie from the “Christmas Vacation” movie. But it said essentially the same thing as the previous sign had said for 25 years, and we went nowhere as a church. This kind of thing, I suspect, happens a lot in churches. And it’s just one reason that congregational consensus, a/k/a “interpretation by the community of faith,” is not always to be trusted.

For a bit more on sign-ifying and the church, see here.

Referential prominence

The sign outside the healthcare facility used to read “Brandywine Convalescent Home.” When the fancy new conglomerate bought the place, the sign was revamped to advertise something different:

Accord Health Services

at Brandywine Rehabilitation Center

Today I saw another sign:

America’s Best Value

by Vantage

The second one seems a more apt signifier, doesn’t it? Doesn’t it advertise more clearly the thing that’s significant to those who see the sign?  If I’m looking for my motel and I know it’s “America’s Best Value,” I could find it when I see the sign.  Conversely, when one is looking for the Brandywine Nursing Home to visit great aunt Millie, she could easily pass over “Accord Health Services.” Who really cares that it’s Accord Health that runs the nursing home?  That’s not what I need to see on the sign.

What needs to be “signed” is the thing that people who see the sign need to know. The attention should be placed on the right thing, or entity, or person.

In my way of thinking, it is highly inappropriate to name a church or church building after a human. “Johnson Memorial Baptist Church” and “Thomas E. and Margaret Weatherford Chapel” are spiritually bothersome, if not irreverent. (I don’t even like the naming rights guaranteed to large-scale donors at institutions of higher learning, but at least there’s no deity to upstage there.) “Methodist” or “Baptist” by themselves may be shades more apt than “Lutheran” or “Wesleyan,” but the hue is the same.

It should be recalled that neither Luther nor Wesley wanted a denomination named after him.  And, in my time, I haven’t known of Lutherans or Wesleyans bent on using those names with the purposes of  dividing, but the effect of erecting walls still warrants mention.  Denominating itself can be neutral, harmless … but it also can result in insidious divisiveness.

Rubel Shelly, in I Just Want To Be a Christian, begins a fair-sized shoring-up of restorative nondenominational Christianity:

The first reason I favor the attempt to practice undenominational Christianity is that it is Christ-honoring. Sectarian versions of Christianity are hardly in position to give the glory to Christ which He alone should have. Instead they tend to give honor to human leaders, human opinions, and even human creedal formulations of beliefs rather than simply centering their faith on Christ and the cross. (p. 35)

Agreed — anything in the church universal, including naming rights, that takes honor from Jesus is to be avoided.

It’s even possible to use His name divisively, as Paul mentioned in a letter to the Corinthian church (1 Cor. 1:12). In this context, Paul’s, Apollos’s, Cephas’s, and Jesus’ names were being used divisively. (And I got spirito-emotionally smacked around by my own church about 15 years ago for suggesting we were doing just that.) May we never be guilty of sectarian exclusiveness, and, on a more positive note, may we advertise to the world — in our signage and by our lives — precisely what Jesus would want broadcast.

For comment:

Words can make a lot of difference. Please share how you define, use, or differentiate among …

  • denominational
  • cultish
  • exclusive
  • sectarian
  • narrow-minded

More on denominating and capitalizing

Thanks so much to Bobby Ross, Managing Editor of the Christian Chronicle, for chiming in and correcting me on his newspaper’s policy when I referred to it the other day. This led me to search some more archives. . . .

I once wrote to the editor of Newsweek to complain about what I considered careless (or at least unthinking) capitalization. The problem there was not calling a church the “Main St. church of Christ,” which most non-CofCers (and some within the fold) would find silly and errant. In this case, the issue was a reference to the Catholic Church.

To the Editor:

In my religious affiliation, some have difficulty perceiving the difference between the universal (Christian) church and a particular subdivision/sect. It has been common to use a lower-case “c” in the word “church” when referring to our subgroup, which is clearly a proper-name, Yellow-Pages-identifiable institution.

If your 2/28/05 article “Precious Suffering” had capitalized “church” in referring to that entity ruled by the Pope, it would have reduced the possibility of offense to all those millions who see the Catholic
institution and hierarchy as a presumably sincere, yet decidedly misdirected, branch of Christendom. The Catholic Church is not equivalent to the church for many readers; it would seem appropriate to identify the former as a proper-name institution–which, last time I checked the rules, means a capital letter is indicated.

Thank you, though, for the 3/7 sequel on the Pope–which more aptly attributed verbal expressions of religious position and scruple to this world leader rather than presuming that all the readership subscribes to the notions of the Catholic order.

What do you think about this capitalization stuff?  I’d rather not just be expend too much energy on something merely about big/little letters.  Thing is, though, I think this really does indicate substantive assumption under the surface of people’s thought.