First, some introductions. Jay, Mike Campbell is an elder at North Pointe Church of Christ (http://www.northpointecofc.org/) and has used your writings in some classes.
I know I’ll probably get an “I get emails…” thread for this one. 🙂
When the debates and splits regarding congregational support of colleges and orphans’ homes were going on in the 1940s and ’50s, epithets were flung at the side that perceived itself as more conservative (“anti,” “non-cooperation movement”) and from some of the things I read on articles in Wikipedia, there was a noted lack of charity and assumptions of good faith on the part of the “other side,” whichever side you were on. I think there is a better way to handle the controversies that are going on right now within the Churches of Christ, and we can start by respecting each other in the language we use. My question is how can we best do that?
In the debates over congregational support of parachurch organizations, the side that did not support the idea of supporting such organizations chose an adjective–“non-institutional.” This is, I think, a good name and a good way of describing their beliefs. It is neutral in tone, unlike the epithets I mentioned earlier. Is there a set of names or descriptions that can be used by both sides today that are respectful, accurate, and can be used by both sides without belittling the other?
There are problems with the words I’ve seen used recently. Both sides claim the word “grace,” though they mean different things by it. Unfortunately, in our culture, words that are based around strictness, tradition, or obedience have acquired a negative connotation. And both sides claim the word “obey,” as well.
I’ve struggled with this one and thought about it a lot.
First, although the Churches of Christ are clearly divided, the point of division is less than clear. It’s really more accurate to describe us as lining upon along a continuum teaching varying degrees of grace — in this case meaning willingness to accept as brothers those who disagree with us.
Nonetheless, some terminology is inevitable, as it becomes unworkable to speak of complex things without some sort of verbal shortcuts. Some protest on the theory, somewhat justified, that naming the factions tends to solidify them as factions. And yet I’ve experimented with writing without labels, as I share the unease with labeling others or myself, but it’s just not workable to talk about these things without some sort of terminology.
For quite some time now, some writers have chosen to refer to those in my camp as “liberal,” “digressive,” and “change agents.” I actually like the “change agent” term, as I truly intend to bring about change. We need it desperately. It’s no insult (even though often used that way).
But “liberal” in theological circles denotes a denial of the divinity of Jesus and many other doctrines central to Christianity — that is, liberal theology is not Christian because it denies biblical faith in Jesus. “Liberal” is therefore a slander (although the slander has been so often repeated that the sinfulness of the charge is often unknown to the speaker).
“Digressive” is a term that no longer resounds with most people, and merely means someone who digresses from the truth. Obviously, those who disagree with me see me as digressive, and just as obviously, I don’t see myself that way. Therefore, it’s not a particularly useful term, as it means little more than “someone with whom I disagree” and will always be taken as an insult by those at whom it’s aimed.
Now, the name calling goes the other way as well. Those in my camp will often refer to those with a narrower view of grace as “legalists” or “traditionalists.” In my view, both terms are accurate but neither is particularly useful, as the other camp will always deny that they are either — and the terms will always be taken as insults whether or not the insult is intended. I try to avoid both terms, although I’ve probably slipped now and again.
The terms that are now most commonly used are “progressive” and “conservative.” Both present their own problems, but at least neither side finds the label demeaning.
I am in fact a theological conservative, as I accept the authority of the scriptures and the resurrection of Jesus as a historical real space-time event. Therefore, I’m uncomfortable with calling those who have a narrower view of grace than I “conservative,” as it could be taken as implying I’m not conservative in the theological sense. But I’ve yet to come across a better term.
Just so, I answer to “progressive” even though “progressive” has been associated with lots of ideas in a lots of contexts that I disagree with. Then again, there have been plenty of things called “conservative” over the years that the conservative Churches of Christ wouldn’t agree with. But “conservative” in its most general sense means —
in favor of preserving the status quo
And both terms have the essential advantage that they aren’t generally taken as insulting — making it possible to discuss the two views without violating the Sermon on the Mount —
(Mat 5:22) 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.
It seems obvious that Jesus was banning the use of certain dirty words. Rather, he was opposed to names that are intended to hurt the victim.
Now, the scriptures are plain that slander is a serious sin —
(1 Cor 6:9-10) Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders 10 nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.
We can, of course, honestly express our disagreements — and we can be plain-spoken. We just can’t seek to win the argument through name calling.
(1 Cor 5:11) But now I am writing you that you must not associate with anyone who calls himself a brother but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or a slanderer, a drunkard or a swindler. With such a man do not even eat.
Rather, we are taught —
(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.
(Gal 6:1) Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted.
(Eph 4:2) Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.
I take these passages with the utmost seriousness. Jesus spoke very harshly of the Pharisees, but I’m not Jesus. I don’t know the hearts of those I disagree with. Therefore, I try not to use insulting language.
On the other hand, we are told to be “able to teach” and to “gently instruct.” You can’t do this without saying what you believe is true and what you believe is error.
But the Golden Rule teaches me this. I have to be willing to accept the same treatment. Therefore, this blog has a comments feature allowing people to argue their side (and many do), and the comments aren’t moderated. The readers can say anything they like (and many certainly do).
(Well … I’ve moderated three people in nearly 2 1/2 years of blogging — and even then, I let their posts through when they meet the above standards and stay on the subject.)
I’ve actually gotten to the point where I much prefer that those who disagree with me do so in public — it’s a teaching opportunity — either to answer questions that others likely have as well, or to publicly demonstrate how to admit that you’ve been wrong (it happens).
So, anyway, that’s how I see it.