Thursday, March 01, 2007

Unity, Our Polar Star?

Whoever wrote "The Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery" included a statement indicating that the presbytery's members should "sink into union with the body of Christ at large." Some segments of the Restoration Movement are well on the way to attaining that goal. There is little left to distinguishing many of "our" mega churches with the principles of the Restoration Movement. They are becoming identical with the contemporary evangelical church. You want evidence? Well, okay!

1. Insistence on the use of titles elevating and distinguishing "the clergy." Barton W. Stone and his followers had a more elevated view of the ministry than the Disciples. (I use the term Disciple in the same way Alexander Campbell used it. I am not using it in the way the Disciples of Christ denomination uses it.) The Kentucky Christians believed only ordained clergy could baptize or preside at the Lord's Supper. Campbell held to the "priesthood of all believers" insisting anyone could preach, baptize, or preside at the table. That difference created tension in the Kentucky congregations where the two movements first united. It took some time before Campbell's view won out. As it did, the use of unscriptural titles such as Doctor or Reverend or Pastor disappeared replaced by Elder, Bishop, or, in the case of aged leaders such as Thomas Campbell, Father. The term Father, however, never carried with it the Roman Catholic concept inherent in it. Today "our" churches are almost universally using the title Pastor to denote the clergy and it is done without concern for the biblical meaning of the term. The poimene in Scripture simply denotes one elder in a plurality of elders. Furthermore, the use of the title Doctor is also emphasized. I don't mind the use of that term for someone who has an "earned doctorate" when used in academic circles. There it applies to academic achievements. It is interesting, though, that most of those I've known over the years who have earned Ph.D. or D.Min. degrees haven't flaunted their degrees. Contemporary preachers, however, flaunt those degrees for the prestige they provide and the measure of separation from the average member that comes with it.

2. The insistence on a supernatural call to the ministry. While early leaders in the Restoration Movement certainly believed in the activity of the Holy Spirit, few, if any, held to the idea that God specially called individuals to ministry. Some who did hold that view left it in the dust when they bailed out of their Calvinist denominations. In the last score of years, however, there is a resurgence of the idea of a special call. I grew up in Christ being taught that "a call to ministry" involved the individual seeing a need and moving to meet it. There was no special call. This was an evangelical idea tied to Calvinism's idea of the direct impact of the Holy Spirit.

Alexander Campbell rightly taught, in my view, that the Holy Spirit works through the Word for salvation and sanctification. Campbell never taught that the Holy Spirit did not work in other ways, but he always worked through Scripture to bring a person to faith. Calvinism taught that man, without the direct action of the Holy Spirit, was incapable of belief. It took regeneration and a special "gift of faith" to lead to conversion. The Holy Spirit's call through Scripture to become a disciple was a call to ministry. God calls all believers to ministry. There is no special supernatural call to ministry.

It is my conviction that God gifts his people in various ways. God gifts some to teach and some to proclaim (gift of prophecy). But all Christians are called to ministry.

It is sheer evangelical subjectivism that claims a special call to ministry. Leaders in the movement are back to using "the special call" as another way to position themselves as a special clergy.

3. The use of creeds for the purpose of maintaining unity. These creeds aren't called creeds any more, they are called Statements of Faith. Thomas Campbell said creeds were sometimes useful. In fact, he said, the more complete they are the better they are. The genius of the Restoration Movement, however, was the idea that individuals could exist in community with a diversity of ideas or views as long as they were united on the lordship of Christ and the authority of Scripture. Today, however, most of our mega churches have a written Statement of Faith and they are used "to make sure everyone is on the same page."

The purpose of creeds, whether the Apostle's Creed, Nicene Creed, or even the Westminster Confession of Faith was to assure that all orthodox Christians "were on the same page." What those creeds actually did was create division with those who disagreed with part or all of the creedal statements. There was only one creed in the first century church: I believe Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. That's it! There was room for discussion, for debate, and speculation was not made an issue. Take the case of Aylette Raines, or example. Raines held the view that in time God would save the entire human race. He was a Universalist. He wasn't liberal nor did he deny Scripture or the lordship of Christ. He simply thought God would save all men. This upset a lot of those in the movement, but the Campbells defended him. Eventually Raines surrendered his speculation on this. Or, take the case of Barton W. Stone. Stone was, from start to finish, an Arian in his view of Christ. He and Campbell debated the nature of Christ in their journals but Stone eventually gave up his public speculation while privately retaining his views.

Most mega churches, and others, too, require members to sign a membership covenant. I see some value to this, particularly in our day when lawsuits are so prevalent, but there is an inherent danger in such statements. Perhaps if we required biblical morality and practiced biblical discipline such statements would be unnecessary. Why do more than Scripture requires? Hold to the biblical standard, let members know they will be held to the biblical standard, and then do it!

4. The deemphasis of the Lord's Supper. The Christian Standard recently reported that congregations are no longer emphasizing the centrality of the Lord's Supper in worship. Following the lead of Willowcreek Community Church, the Lord's Day gathering has become an evangelistic outreach rather than a time of worship. It may still be called worship, but it isn't! How can you expect unbelieving "seekers" to worship what they don't believe or understand? You can't! Okay, so some of those who come together on the Lord's Day are believers, but they are seeking a church home. Then why relegate the Lord's Supper to a place of unimportance? Let's admt it, those who come from the world out of curiosity can't and don't worship. They may sing the words and listen to the preaching, but that isn't worship! Worship isn't a "service" any way. Worship occurs in the heart and is dedicated to glorifying God. I believe the Lord's Supper is part of that process. By the way, I think that's why the eary church observed the Lord's Supper daily and that's why the Roman Catholic Church continues that tradition its daily Mass.

Some of you may wonder why I've made such an issue out of this. Central Christian Church in Henderson, Nevada, is just one mega church that has relegated the Lord's Supper to something secondary and unimportant. Oh, if you believe it is important, you can still observe the Supper in another room after a service. That makes the gathering in the main auditorium less offensive to the seeker (the unbeliever). Technically it is still there, but it isn't in the service. If there is nothing special about the Lord's Supper, then why bother? Observe it monthly or quarterly or annually and make sure only believers partake by quizzing them prior to the observance and give them a token to present so an unbeliever isn't mistakenly served!

If you attend a gathering at Central Christian Church, then, there is nothing that indicates it is anything by an average evangelical church. A large one, to be sure, but it is indistinguishable from Willowcreek (maybe that's why Gene Appel could go there), Saddleback, or Ginghamsburg.

5. The rejection of baptism for the remission of sins. The Republican Methodists and the New England Christians never quite bought into the idea that baptism was for the remission of sins. The Republican Methodists -- later the Christian Church -- remained sprinklers. William Guirey challenged that view but O'Kelly drove him out. The New England Christians immersed. After all, both Smith and Jones came out of a Baptist heritage. While they immersed, however, they never got the idea it was for the remission of sins. The Kentucky Christians didn't get it either for a while. Stone and others continued the Presbyterian "anxious seat" for some time even after they began practicing immersion. The Campbells didn't start out teaching this biblical doctrine either. In fact, it wasn't until the MacCalla debate that Campbell enunciated the biblical statement found in Acts 2:38 that "baptism was unto the remission of sins." After the union of the Kentucky Christians and Disciples the Kentucky Christians began preaching this thanks to the work of John Rogers and B.F. Hall. That baptism was for the remission of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit was normal until the beginning of the 1980s.

In the 1980s, one of "our" congregations was well on its way to attaining mega church status. Southeast Christian Church had moved from one structure on Hikes Lane to its second building just a few blocks away. Coincidental with that move, the Southern Baptist Convention was undergoing controversy over the issue of biblical inerrancy. Southern Baptists by the thousands left their Baptist Churches in Louisville and throughout the country. Southeast Christian Church experienced an influx of new members from the Baptist churches in Louiville. Bob Russell, believing he needed to do some teaching on "our views," designed a series of sermons for that purpose. He spoke about avoiding denominationalism, the doctrine of once saved always saved, and the plan of salvation. Rather than teaching that baptism was unto the remission of sins, Russell approached the subject more as Campbell did in "The Lunenburg Letter" correspondence in the Millennial Harbinger. He emphasized that baptism provided the assurance of salvation avoiding the idea that it was the time of formal salvation. He used an analogy of a wedding. He asked, when is one married? Is a couple married when the become engaged, when they express their vows, when they exchange rings, when the minister proclaims them husband and wife, or in the marriage bed. Russell said that we normally don't worry about it, we simply rejoice with the couple in their marriage. So it ought to be with salvation. Does it occur when a person believes, repents, confesses, or is baptized? It doesn't matter. We rejoice in the new birth of an individual.

From that time on, baptism became "part of the process of salvation." Because the process concept is innocuous and isn't offensive, preachers adopted it as their approach to the baptism question. The Statement of Faith at Christ's Church of the Valley simply includes baptism as part of the process and "has something to do with salvation." I did a survey after last year's listing of "our" mega churches in the Christian Standard and that is the approach of a majority of the mega churhes listed.

Frankly, I don't have a problem with the statement that baptism is part of a process. It is! But I do object to the tendency to avoid teaching that baptism is unto the remission of sins. No matter what the evangelical world thinks, Acts 2:38 is still found in Scripture. It is so inconvenient to try to explain the difference between real and formal washing away of sins. It is also inconvenient to have to explain that we don't know what God intends to do with the pious unimmersed. I have an opinion about it, but I simply don't know because Scripture doesn't say. Just because something is inconvenient, however, is no reason not to teach the fullness of biblical truth!

6. The development of the corporate leadership model. Restoration Movement churches traditionally followed the American legislative model with two houses -- elders and deacons. Alexander Campbell defended this organizational structure primarily because he as an immigrant was enamored with the government's bicameral legislative model. Thus, early restorationists opted for a congregational, almost republican structure, with elected representatives. Campbell's myopia caused him to forget the church is a kingdom, not a representative democracy. It is a kingdom with delegated responsibility to elders with servants or ministers known as deacons. Over the years, this has taken a variety of expressions until the elders and deacons, and sometimes trustees, combined to form a board. The church board finalized decisions.

While some congregations today have returned to elder leadership, they have done so with the elders constituted as a virtual advisory board rather than the overseers or superintendents God's Word requires. The minister has become the congregational equivalent of the Chief Executive Officer. This, too, is unscriptural and has gone a long way toward separating the "clergy" and "laity."

Nearly every evangelical denomination has moved in this direction. Francis A. Schaeffer taught in the mid-1970s that for a church to be a biblical church it needed to be an elder led congregation. He is right. The idea, however, that the elders are merely advisors who make five percent of the decisions and leave the other 95 percent to the "clergy" is simply not biblical.

Over the last 20 years or so, the Christian Churches and Churches of Christ have "merged into the church at large" more than ever before. They have done so, however, by giving up major portions of the goals of the Restoration Movement. It has come by compromise rather than conviction. No longer do our leaders speak of "doing Bible things in Bible ways," or "using Bible terms to describe Bible things." As a result, we are now "speaking the language of Ashdod."

Campbell had no vision of all the denominations melting into one super church. In fact, he envisioned the opposite. He thought the denominations would meander on their merry way in their sectarian and unscriptural directions maintained by their creeds and their clergy.

By the time Pardee Butler roamed Kansas, however, he believed that in time all the denominations would indeed melt together. Butler was a second generation evangelist and abolitionist in Kansas.

The melting (or melding) process is well underway, but it is at the price of compromising a heritage that called for unity based on biblical authority. Biblical authority is today sacrifice for evangelical acceptance. And, quite frankly, that is a shame!