We see two very different strands of thought winding through history — Abraham and Phinehas, Paul and Saul. The disciples of Phinehas attempt to follow him by destroying God’s enemies. They believe God will credit them with righteousness for defending God’s truth — against the Romans, against the Nestorians, Orthodox, Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Consubstantianists, New Lights, Anti-seceders, and Burghers — and against whoever disagrees with today’s editor.
Nowadays, there’s not a print publication in the Churches of Christ that will allow a word to be published contrary to the editor’s beliefs. The Gospel Advocate won’t even print letters to the editor that aren’t effusive in their praise of the publication.
Debates in the 20th Century Churches of Christ were often embarrassingly brutal — filled with invective and ridicule. The attitude was: we’re on God’s side. Therefore, victory should be won at all costs. That attitude hasn’t entirely left us yet.
This attitude is inherited from the Zealots, from the intolerance of Medieval Catholicism, and from the Reformation — when warfare, the Inquisition, and the stake were the preferred means of persuasion. They are not Biblical.
You see, Phinehas killed two idolators were sought to bring Baal worship to the Israelites at a time when the nation was being birthed. And there’s quite a difference between someone advocating idolatry and someone advocating instrumental music. Moreover, when Paul was converted to Christianity, he not only changed doctrine, he changed methods. Rather than seeking to imprison and jail the Jews who rejected Jesus, he contented himself with example and persuasion. Why? Was God not powerful enough to allow him to kill God’s enemies?
The Zealots swore to kill the Romans, and they thought they stood in Phinehas’ shoes. Eventually, the Zealots got their way, rebelled, and God allowed them and the temple to be destroyed. God was not pleased with that kind of zeal.
Luther’s hatred of the Jews fed European anti-Semitism, and over time, created an environment in which the Holocaust could occur.
Just so, the Catholics and Protestants in France were both horrifically sinful toward the other. It seems that neither side had ever read the Sermon on the Mount. The two sides behaved so abominably that their wars led to the French Revolution, which imposed an atheistic state on France — renaming the Cathedral of Notre Dame the “Temple of Reason”!
The history of modern atheism and Deism find their roots not so much in the Enlightenment and science as in the French religious wars, which persuaded many that Christianity is not very Christian.
Of all religions the Christian is without doubt the one which should inspire tolerance most, although up to now the Christians have been the most intolerant of all men.
Needless to say since Christ’s expiation not one single Christian has been known to sin, or die.
— Voltaire (French Enlightenment philosopher and Deist writing at the end of the French religious wars)
Thomas and Alexander Campbell had it right — but the ancient culture of “hate your enemy” and “kill the heretic” was re-absorbed by their Movement, and after their deaths, the Movement became the very thing they set out to destroy.
But the problem is not unique to Churches of Christ. There are brutal, hateful divisions in many other denominations — and the fact that there are so many denominations shows how easily we allow a filioque to divide God’s body. We exaggerate the importance of those things that divide — in order to justify the division and to preserve our institutions. I mean, to re-unite would be to admit a mistake! And some people at the headquarters would lose their jobs! And so we continue to beat the drums for division, pretending that surely this pleases God.
On feeling superior
There is no narcotic quite as powerful as feeling superior to others, and Christianity, done sinfully, gives ample opportunity for just that. Grace, properly understood, makes such an attitude impossible.
(Rom 3:27) Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded. On what principle? On that of observing the law? No, but on that of faith.
(Rom 4:2-3) If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about–but not before God. 3 What does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.”
(Rom 11:17-18) If some of the branches have been broken off, and you [Gentiles], though a wild olive shoot, have been grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing sap from the olive root [the Jews], 18 do not boast over those branches. If you do, consider this: You do not support the root, but the root supports you.
(1 Cor 13:4-6) Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.
(Gal 6:14) May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.
(Eph 2:8-9) For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith–and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God– 9 not by works, so that no one can boast.
(1 John 2:16) For everything in the world–the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does–comes not from the Father but from the world.
I am persuaded that one of most powerful motivators of the persistence of division in the Churches of Christ is that so many of our thought leaders have their egos built on their superior knowledge of the scriptures — and to admit error would be to undermine their entire sense of self-worth. It’s a shame, because our true worth comes from how God sees us, not how we see ourselves. Indeed, the only way to emulate Jesus is through humilty.
(Mat 5:21-22) “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ 22 But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca, ‘ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.”
Jesus’ point isn’t that “fool” and “Raca” are dirty words, so we should say “idiot” instead. Rather, name-calling is the first step toward dehumanizing our opponent. In times of war, soldiers call the enemy “Gooks,” “Krauts,” “Nips,” and much worse to make it easier to live with killing them. And name-calling is an essential step toward tribalism — declaring that the named group is a little less than human.
When we begin speaking of fellow believers in this way, we violate the Sermon on the Mount — and take the first step away from love and toward hatred.
Of course, perfectly acceptable language can, over time, become hateful — depending on how you say it. Those in the Churches of Christ who are against institutions funded out of the church treasury were known as “anti-institutional,” and then “Antis” — and now they prefer (for quite understandable reasons) to be called non-institutional. “Nons” doesn’t have quite the same ring as “Antis” — or lend itself to the same curling of the lip. And we do need a term that distinguishes institutional from non-institutional churches for many entirely legitimate reasons.
So it’s not so much our terms as our tone — but over time, a sinful tone can turn a legitimate term into a “Raca.”
Grace and how we disagree
Because we’re saved by faith, we’re not saved by instrumental music, the filoque, or agreement or disagreement with the 5 points of Calvinism. We’re saved whether or not we get the consubstantiation question right. And therefore we have no excuse for being divided from those who, like us, are wrong about something. Indeed, the work of the Churches of Christ should be restored to the original vision — unity based on faith in Jesus.
And the first step is a return to a Christian level of discourse —
(2 Tim 2:24-26) And the Lord’s servant must not quarrel; instead, he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. 25 Those who oppose him he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, 26 and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will.
Now, Jesus uttered some pretty harsh words toward the Pharisees. Some in our number have taken that as license to speak harshly to our modern opponents. It’s not. You see, we’re not Jesus. We don’t know men’s hearts perfectly. And we are sometimes wrong — even, no, especially when we are sure we are right. And we don’t have Jesus’ moral standing.
Rather, we fit more in the category of: “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7). We are the stone throwers, not the Savior. We don’t stand in his shoes when it comes to judgment. Rather, he’ll be judging us.
Therefore, we do much better to follow Paul’s instructions: don’t quarrel, be kind, teach, don’t be resentful, gently instruct.
And in my book, this means being as willing to listen as to talk — surely the biggest shortcoming the Churches have. And we’ll not really be willing to listen until we’re willing to publish both sides. And until we stop lying about the other side. And until we stop treating the other side unfairly and hatefully. You see, the Sermon on the Mount gives all the guidance we need for Christian discourse.
We in the Churches of Christ have a long history of leaving our Christianity behind when defending the faith. We aren’t the first to have tried this. Others have gone before us, and they’ve paid a dear price for having done so.
Worse yet, in reality, this kind of “defending” attacks true faith. When we defend hatefully, we prove ourselves not to understand our own religion.
God is not happy with us, and our fate is found in the history books if we don’t repent.