Thursday, September 09, 2004

We must not permit peripheral issues to divide us.

Walking a Tightrope

We in the Restoration Movement walk a tightrope between legalism and license, between evangelicalism and sacramentalism, and between being a denomination and Christians only. Walking a tight rope is not the same as "walking the fence" or, to use a long gone political epithet, being a "mugwump."

Those of us on the tightrope try to maintain a balance. While holding onto Restoration values, we try very hard to accept people and question theology. It is difficult to express brotherhood without seemingly rejecting those with whome we differ on one hand or being seen as compromisers on the other. No matter what you do, someone will question your motives and your commitment to Christ. It is much easier to choose up sides. What is often misunderstood is the fact that one can, on the basis of one's own study, take a position and hold it with conviction without condemning or rejecting those who differ.

I have a strong conviction about what the Bible teaches regarding Christ's return. I teach it without compunction or regret, but I still believe those who accept other views love the Lord and are brothers or sisters in Christ. I admit to being impatient on occasion with those who hold a differing position as if it were the only way to understand the biblical data. I also admit to getting a bit feisty when brotherhood publications present a one-sided view without balancing it with alternatives. The Christian Standard, for example, published "Why I Am a Premillennial" by my brother David Reagan. The author of a companion article in the Standard spoke of how eschatological views affect foreign policy and how the USA is seen by others. The author wrote from an amillennial perspective, that was clear, but it was not a "Why I Am an Amillennial" presentation. Not long ago, David Reagan spoke at the NACC but there was no presentation that presented the amillennial, postmillennial, or the various dispensational views.

I also hold strong convictions about the doctrine of inerrancy. Yet when I express the belief that Scripture is inerrant, the hackles go up. When the controversy was smoldering in the late 1970s and the 1980s, a mention of inerrancy or a challenge of those who rejected it was tantamount to excommunication. Of course there were those on both sides of the issue ready to excommunicate the other. Dr. Jack Cottrell, who in my mind, presented strong convincing arguments for the doctrine was villified as one who wanted to divide the brotherhood and a (shudder) Calvinist. I strongly disagree with my brothers and sisters who take a different view of inerrancy. In my opinion, I think their view of Scripture and biblical authority is weak and anemic. but they are still fellow Christians and I can fellowship with them, work with them, and, with good nature, argue with them.

I hold strong convictions about the purpose and nature of baptism. I believe the Bible teaches "baptism for (the purpose) of the remission of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit" (Acts 2:38). I won't teach or preach anything else. I'm a bit perplexed by brothers who have weakened, at least in print and sermon, weakened that view. I'm not always sure how much their view has actually changed and how much is marketing spin. On this issue, even Alexander Campbell found it difficult to "walk the tightrope." I don't think anyone would argue that Campbell did not believe baptism was immersion in water for the remission of sins. At the same time, he would not make it absolutely essential for salvation. You see, Campbell taught that it was his opinion that God would save those of genuine faith who obeyed to the extent of their understanding. In illustration and written word, he taught that God held people accountable for what they knew and comprehended. On the one hand, it is dangerous to water down the purpose of immersion for marketing. On the other hand, it is equally dangerous to be condemning and unkind to those who don't understand the biblical teaching. It is a tightrope one must walk, however, to be faithful to the Word of God and Restoration values.

I could go on, but suffice it to say that loving the brotherhood is often misunderstood for condoning error or becoming a narrow exclusivist. I don't want to be identified as either. You see, I am not the only Christian but I do want to be a Christian only.

Tuesday, September 07, 2004

Shoving it under the rug!

Perhaps it's because the Restoration Movement talks about Christian unity! Maybe there are other subtle forces at work. I'm never sure, but when issues of concern arise one of two things often happens. Voices become shrill and antagonistic or the whole issue gets shoved under the rug and ignored. Let me explain.

One illustration of what I'm talking about occurred about 20 years ago when Harold Lindsell wrote Battle for the Bible. Not long after the book appeared, Christianity Today published articles relating to biblical inerrancy and the evangelical world was caught up in turmoil. Dr. Jack Cottrell wrote a little book on biblical authority and inerrancy not long after. The Christian Standard published excerpts from it. These articles resulted in loud and often unkind diatribes as well as equally shrill defenses. I know because I wrote some of those defenses. Letters accused Dr. Cottrell of introducing a "new doctrine," seeking to "divide the brotherhood," and being an "evangelical." During a "debate" at the North American Christian Convention, Myron Taylor called Cottrell a Calvinist and suggested you could expect nothing less from a man who was educated at Princeton Theological Seminary. The interchanges lasted a couple of years then more or less petered out.

At the same time, concerns arose over the denial of inerrancy at one of our three seminaries. Dr. Joe Carson Smith and a group of concerned individuals documented the school's denial of inerrancy and sent that documentation to each congregation in the Restoration Movement. I still have my copy of that information in my files. What the documentation reveals is a consistent effort on the part of the seminary to sweep the whole issue under the rug. The school's reaction ranged from, "How could you possibly suspect us of being unfaithful to the Word?" to "The Restoration Movement doesn't get involved in such theological hairsplitting." Interestly enough, however, the school's president used language more consistent with evangelicalism than did those who questioned the school's stand. The tactics employed were designed to leave the impression that the charges were essentially the result of a "war of words" between sister schools in the Restoration Movement. With that said, the issue of inerrancy was successfully swept under the rug and the whole thing died out.

In the days, months, and years since, any discussion of inerrancy evokes memories of the shrill accusations and the issue is once again ignored leaving only suspicion and distrust in the wake.

A glance at our history reveals this same thing has happened numerous times. In the 1800s when Liberalism began creeping into movement schools individuals began recognizing that professors at the historic College of the Bible in Kentucky were advocating the Liberal line. When challenged, the school utilized the same tactics employed more recently and the issue of Liberalism was ignored. College of the Bible eventually was lost to Liberalism.

In the 1920s and 30s, the issue of Open Membership arose as a challenge to the brotherhood. Concerned voices became shrill and tension increased. Brotherhood officials, in an attempt to sweep the issue under the rug, assured the more conservative voices that Open Membership would not be practiced but congregations and missions continued to receive the "pious unimmersed" into membership. The lack of concerted and honest discussion led to separation and the fracture became more or less permanent when the Disciples formalized themselves into a denomination in the 1960s.

About 20 years ago, David Filbeck and John Greenlee were warning us that the twin issues of evangelical creep and questions of the purpose of baptism would arise. The Christian Standard printed their articles and shrill voices responded. Eventually, however, the whole issue was swept under the rug. We are reaping the result of that today. Congregations are now identifying themselves with the evangelical mainstream and baptism has been separated from remission of sins and is now seen in many places as "the first step of obedience after salvation."

The way we resolve tensions in the Restoration Movement is hampered by our lack of connections. We have no structure in which to discuss and resolve issues that create tension. Our educational institutions tend to increase the tensions because they take one position or another and positions become hardened and motives questioned. The Christian Standard was once an "open forum" for discussion on troubling issues but it has become a "leadership journal" with few, if any, articles discussing biblical doctrine or truth. There is no place to discuss such issues and even if we had one, our congregations remain fully independent with the ability to choose whatever path they wish.

Because of this, some have argued that the North American Christian Convention should become a delegate convention where we can discuss such issues. Most of us, I hope, realize that in this case the cure would be worse than the disease. While our independent nature creates numerous problems for us, it has also resulted in tremendous freedom and multiple blessings. Perhaps the best that we can do is to recognize the flaws in the "system" and work with it. In doing so, we must recognize that we will "lose" some to theologically and biblically indefensible systems and practices. In other words, let's love one another and live with it.

It has ever been so in the Restoration Movement. We lost Dr. John Thomas who later formed the Christadelphians. We lost Sidney Rigdon who was crucial to the formation of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. We lost the College of the Bible and other schools to Liberalism. We lost churches in Washington and California, among others, to evangelicalism. We are going to win some and lose some. I hate it, but I'm not sure there is any way out of the predicament. We can, however, learn to love one another and when the opportunity arises, discuss issues openly and honestly with civility. Perhaps avoiding the shrill accusations will result in more open discussion. Then again, maybe not!