And this affects our theology. We like to think that we’re rational, scientific, unbiased, scholarly people — and sometimes we are — but we are also often deeply emotional and influenced far more by our feelings than we wish to admit.
When the Restoration Movement was caught up in disputes over instrumental music and missionary societies after the Civil War, both sides turned to the scriptures to find arguments for their side and against the other. For a time, both sides treated the other as fellow Christians, although in error. But as churches were split and suits filed over the ownership of buildings, many leaders began to press CENI as not only the proper means of finding authority but the way of finding salvation.
Soon many were damning the opposite side over issues only a few years after the same people considered the same issues not to govern salvation. You see, as our emotions rose, we raised the stakes. Making our positions salvation issues was a last, desperate attempt to force agreement. It failed. It always will. It was, you see, avoidance behavior — attempting to make the unpleasantness of the controversy as far removed as possible.
Reading the literature of the period, you won’t find rational, scientific, unbiased, scholarly arguments for why these errors damn. Rather, it was simply assumed that errors damn. Or it was assumed that the other side was acting in willful disregard for God’s will, and thus was surely damned. Good faith could not be credited to the opponent, because the opponent was dividing the church and taking buildings from good, loyal, sound Christians.
Now, it’s important to realize just how deeply this thinking affected us. In the aftermath of the 2006 reunification efforts with the Christian Churches, conservative Church of Christ members wrote articles condemning the instrumental Christian Churches for dividing congregations and stealing buildings — as though we were still fighting with the same people! It was a remarkable demonstration of how these traumatic events have affected our group psychology. But, of course, the people who did this — right or wrong, saved or damned — are long dead. And yet some wish to go on holding the grudge. It’s truly astonishing.
Here’s the point. Doctrine that is forged in the midst of an internal fight is almost always wrong. When we are pulling out our Bibles trying to damn our opponents with some clever argument, well, that’s hardly the mindset that leads to truth. We quite naturally tend to overreact, to push too hard, and to overlook the arguments that go the other way.
Worse yet, when we divide our branch of the Restoration Movement based on our battle-forged arguments, we feel obliged to defend that decision against all dissent. Indeed, I still sometimes see people argue: of course, we’re right about instrumental music! If we weren’t right, we never would have split from the Christian Churches! — as though the decisions made by our great, great grandparents are wise and good beyond all dispute.
We see the marks of this thinking in our doctrine of apostasy. Ask most preachers in the conservative Churches of Christ what doctrines lead to apostasy, and you’ll quickly see a list made up largely of instrumental music, missionary societies, institutionalism (often combined with missionary societies), and false teaching on the present work of the Holy Spirit. These, of course, reflect the best-remembered splits — over instrumental music and missionary societies in 1906, over institutionalism in the 1950s, and over Pentecostalism in the 1970s.
More recently, the role of women has become a genuine issue in the Churches of Christ. Therefore, the issue has been elevated to “salvation issue” status. 100 years ago, David Lipscomb allowed women to teach men in Bible class and many of our leaders spoke in favor of female deacons without being damned. But very few churches actually followed this counsel. Now that churches are beginning to actually do this, the issue raises fear and so becomes a matter of apostasy.
Ask a preachers in the one-cup branch or no-Sunday school branch, and he’ll list those controversies as damning issues. They remember those fights, although many in the “mainstream” churches do not — or more precisely, we in the mainstream no longer fear disagreement over those issues, whereas the conservative churches very much fear “false teaching” over their pet issues. And so whatever issue remains controversial within our branch of the Restoration Movement is declared a salvation issue.
And, of course, each of these issues tends to be argued along the lines of CENI. That is the hermeneutic — so much so that CENI is reshaped and redefined as needed to fit the needs of the controversy.
Unfortunately, for reasons I’ll explain, it’s a severely incomplete hermeneutic, and therefore incapable of bringing agreement. Indeed, while the early years of the Restoration Movement were characterized by dramatic unification of churches across the American frontier, as CENI became the dominant approach to scripture, the Movement fractured over and over — and is finally about to fracture over that very doctrine, as many within the more progressive congregations have rejected CENI (as applied by the conservatives) altogether.
To our conservative brothers, this sounds like utter nonsense, as we quite obviously must respect the scriptures’ commands and examples and properly drawn inferences. But it’s not that simple, as I’ll try to explain as we go forward.
Stick with me. I’m getting there.