I would recommend you consider the points raised in “The Empty Church: The Suicide of Liberal Christianity.” Thomas C. Reeves, a member of a major Protestant denomination, chronicles the demise of his and other liberal groups.
Except for a vague ecumenical aspiration, and a shared disdain for traditional Church of Christism, I find very little around which my Progressive friends can coalesce. You message almost seems to be, “You don’t believe very much, and we don’t believe very much, so why don’t we all get together and share our lack of convictions together.”
I love comments that disagree with me, because they force me to clarify either my thinking or my explanation of my thinking. Both are good. I need to take a couple of steps back and explain more carefully where I’m coming from — and writing this post has forced me to think through some things I really hadn’t thought through as well as I should have. I really do love critical comments (the thoughtful ones, that is, like this one).
“You[r] message almost seems to be, ‘You don’t believe very much, and we don’t believe very much …'”
First, my views are very similar to those of Stone, the Campbells, Walter Scott, and Robert Richardson. They are not the same, but they are similar in that I agree with the founders of the Restoration Movement that Christian fellowship is based on faith in Jesus as Messiah and Lord and obedience to him (not perfect obedience, of course).
And I agree with Alexander Campbell, who wrote,
The case is this: When I see a person who would die for Christ whose brotherly kindness, sympathy, and active benevolence know no bounds but his circumstances; whose seat in the Christian assembly is never empty; whose inward piety and devotion are attested by punctual obedience to every known duty; whose family is educated in the fear of the Lord; whose constant companion is the Bible: I say, when I see such a one ranked among the heathen men and publicans, because he never happened to inquire, but always took it for granted that he had been scripturally baptized; and that, too, by one greatly destitute for all these public and private virtues, whose chief or exclusive recommendation is that he has been immersed, and that he holds a scriptural theory of the gospel: I feel no disposition to flatter such a one; but rather to disabuse him or his error. And while I would not lead the most excellent professor in any sect to disparage the least of all the commandments of Jesus, I would say to my immersed brother as Paul said to his Jewish brother who gloried in a system which he did not adorn: “Sir, will not his uncircumcision, or unbaptism, be counted to him for baptism? and will he not condemn you, who, though having the literal and true baptism, yet dost transgress or neglect the statutes of your King?”
Now, I reached these conclusions independently of my studies of Restoration Movement history, based on my reading of the scriptures. My thinking is laid out several places, including the “Amazing Grace” series of lessons.
Is it fair to characterize my views (or those of Stone, the Campbells, etc.) as “we don’t believe very much”? I don’t think so. But I think I know where Greg is coming from. (Please correct me if I’m wrong.)
You see, a mistake commonly made among the conservative Churches of Christ is to assume that doctrines only truly matter, are only truly “believed,” if they are salvation issues. After all, if my salvation doesn’t depend on obedience to the doctrine, then there’s no reason to obey it. And many among the conservative Churches believe many things indeed — as they make many things salvation issues.
But that line of thinking errs in several respects. For reasons laid out in the “Amazing Grace” series and at GraceConversation, this is simply not a scriptural understanding. For reasons laid out in the last post of this series, neither is this position true to the Restoration Plea. But rather than critiquing that view, I need to pause just a moment to explain how I think it really works.
We don’t need the threat of damnation to be motivated. Rather, perfect love drives out fear.
(1 John 4:18) There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.
This is not to suggest the impossibility of falling away, only that saved people should be sufficiently confident of their salvation that they can serve out of love rather than fear. You see, it works because of God’s work in the heart of the Christian through the Spirit.The Spirit transforms us so that we want to obey God’s teachings. Indeed, doing so gives us joy.
(Rom 5:5) And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.
(Rom 8:1-2) Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, 2 because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death.
(2 Cor 3:18) And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.
(Gal 5:16) So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature.
(Gal 5:22-23) But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.
And there are many more passages to similar effect. And so perhaps the biggest flaw in conservative Church of Christ theology is the absence of the work of the Spirit in the heart of the Christian. That doctrine, which suffuses the New Testament, is essential to understanding how God can save us based on faith, not works, and yet expect us to work in his Kingdom —
(Eph 2:8-10) 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. 10 For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
(Phil 2:12-13) Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed — not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence — continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, 13 for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.
(Heb 8:10) This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time, declares the Lord. I will put my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.
Now, if we accept the Restoration view of salvation, and if we accept the work of the Spirit in Christians, then we see that it’s quite possible to hold that faith saves, as the Bible so often declares.
(John 3:18) Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.
It all fits together and it all makes sense.
Now, if faith in Jesus is enough to save, what else is there to believe? Why not be like the demons?
(James 2:19) You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that–and shudder.
The demons believe but they’ve not submitted to Jesus as Lord. And except in James, where a demonic, false faith is in mind, “faith” includes submission to Jesus as Lord.
(Rom 10:9) That if you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.
And so, no, it’s not fair to characterize my views (or the views of Campbell) as you “don’t believe very much.” First, believing that Jesus is the Messiah, Lord, and Savior is quite a lot.
Second, it’s not necessary to make something a salvation issue to believe it. I’ve posted about 1,500 words for 3 years running regarding what I believe. I don’t lack for positions and beliefs. I just try to be very careful not to impose my views as salvation issues. I believe that good, Spirit-filled Christians need only be persuaded, not threatened with condemnation, to be motivated to obey. And my 55 years on this earth have only proven how much more powerful the Spirit is than fear of hell. (I have stories.)
Third, God’s commands are much more about participating in God’s mission than getting the rules of how to worship or organize right.
(Mat 5:16) In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.
(1 Pet 2:12) Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.
(Eph 4:11-12) It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, 12 to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up …
(Gal 5:6) For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.
Therefore, I agree with the Campbells and Stone that we should call Christians out of the division that so characterizes modern Christianity, into a single, unity communion. To quote Alexander Campbell —
Nothing is essential to the conversion of the world but the union and co-operation of Christians.
(emphasis in original). Obviously enough, Campbell is arguing that the Christians in the denominations should unite. Amen. He is not arguing that the people in the denominations are damned and will be saved if they leave.
“I would recommend you consider the points raised in ‘The Empty Church: The Suicide of Liberal Christianity.’”
I own The Empty Church: The Suicide of Liberal Christianity. I bought and read it when it first came out. It’s a good, eye-opening book. It explains just how very far removed from the scriptures the United Presbyterian Church leadership has become and how very many members the mainline denominations have lost because of their theological liberalism. We should not emulate their bad example.
But things aren’t so simple as “the Presbyterian Church is liberal and so they’re all going to hell.” We shouldn’t confuse the views of their national leadership with the views of their members. For example, in my hometown, a major Presbyterian Church has left the Presbyterian Church (USA) (PCUSA) denomination and joined the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) denomination to flee the errors of the PCUSA. They are actually quite conservative.
Meanwhile, despite the liberalism of the national office of the United Methodist Church, many of their congregations are extremely conservative. Indeed, in my hometown, there’s a Methodist congregation that is as theologically conservative as any church in town — having a deep devotion to the scriptures and to living as the scriptures teach.
When the Episcopal Church in Boston ordained Gene Robinson, the local Episcopal Church lost many members, who found the notion of ordaining a non-celibate gay man to the episcopacy contrary to the scriptures. The congregation continues to wrestle with whether to leave the Episcopal Church to join the Anglican Church of North America.
In short, the fact that the national headquarters of a denomination has no respect for the scriptures does not mean that all members or all congregations feel the same way.
We cannot judge salvation and damnation by denominational membership. God neither damns nor saves denominations. He damns and saves individuals.
(1 John 4:6) We are from God, and whoever knows God listens to us; but whoever is not from God does not listen to us. This is how we recognize the Spirit of truth and the spirit of falsehood.
Saved people necessarily respect apostolic authority, although saved people may well disagree on how to interpret the scriptures. It is certainly true that some denominations have leaders (and some members) who do not listen to the apostles, and they are not saved. That doesn’t mean we should therefore damn the entire denomination.
It does mean that the traditional approach to ecumenical unity — discussions among denominational leaders — is futile. But there are other ways to seek unity across denominational lines.
One approach, the one Alexander Campbell proposed, was to invite people to leave the denominations and join a Restoration Movement church. It worked for a while, but it hasn’t worked for over a century. I don’t think it’s an approach likely to work today. In fact, I’m not aware of a single place where such an effort is succeeding.
Therefore, I’m going to propose another approach. But it’s not time yet to put it on the table. Stick with me.
“Except for a vague ecumenical aspiration, and a shared disdain for traditional Church of Christism, I find very little around which my Progressive friends can coalesce.”
I agree. Not entirely. But I agree a lot.
I believe it’s time for the progressive Churches to have a discussion about where we go from here. It’s not nearly enough to reject the legalism of the 20th Century. We have to have a vision that goes beyond that. No movement can survive long simply by being against something. We have to be for something that justifies our continued existence as a fellowship.
And as I said earlier, I think traditional approaches to ecumenical unity are a waste of time. They don’t work, and as the national leadership of many denominations becomes less and less respectful of the scriptures, working through such people becomes a really bad idea.
Which leaves us looking for a direction forward. And so I’ll present some ideas on that as the series continues.
(I may be biting off more than I can chew, but it’s a discussion that needs to happen.)