Another reader asked for my thoughts on Conviction vs. Mercy by Gardner Hall. (I bought the Kindle edition for $0.99!)
Hall works with Hispanic congregations of the Churches of Christ in the New York City area and is, as is clear from his Facebook page, very active in foreign missions. He writes from within the non-institutional Churches of Christ.
The non-institutional Churches of Christ separated from the institutional or “mainstream” Churches of Christ in the mid-20th Century over “institutionalism,” that is, whether congregations may support non-congregational institutions (orphans homes, the Herald of Truth radio or TV broadcast, Christian colleges) from the congregational treasury.
If you’ve ever heard an older Church of Christ member speak of “Antis,” he is speaking of the non-institutional Churches (in language not intended to be merciful and kind).
I’ve had occasion to speak and correspond with a number of folks from within the non-institutional (henceforth, “NI”) Churches, and interestingly enough, they often perceive themselves as less legalistic than many of the conservative, mainstream Churches. I think they are often right.
This is not always true, but there is definitely a fresh wind blowing through the NI Churches. Praise God!
Conviction vs. Mercy is well-written and edited. And it’s a serious effort to move the Churches more toward mercy. Hall decries much of the mean-spirited debate and contentiousness of the past as un-Christian. Amen.
The following is from chapter 3 —
Those who have very little concept of mercy often allow their exchanges over religious differences to deteriorate to sarcastic queries as to whether those who disagree will “go to hell.” Unfortunately discussions of difficult texts like 1 Corinthians 11: 2-16 often seem to quickly reach this level, “Do you mean to tell me that every woman who doesn’t wear a hat to services is going to hell?” Just yesterday as I write, I observed an exchange over baptism for the remission of sins on Facebook that quickly deteriorated to challenges about who was going to the final abode of the wicked.
For hyper-rationalists, all scriptures are so easy to understand, that even fools “could not err therein” (Isaiah 37: 8 KJV). They apply that prophesy even to difficult texts like 1 Corinthians 11: 2-16, ignoring other passages like 2 Peter 3: 16 which refers to the difficulty of understanding some of Paul’s writings. Therefore if someone disagrees with them, even on difficult issues like the covering when praying, it’s because they’re just plain stubborn and don’t love the truth.
While such characterizations might be true in some circumstances, scriptures speak continually about God’s patience and mercy with those seeking him and growing in their understanding of his will. Yes, he punishes those who are blatantly disobedient towards his authority or who reach a point in their rebellion where no reconciliation is possible (Israel’s captivity, Nadab and Abihu, Ananias and Saphira, etc.). However he is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Ps. 86: 15) when his followers are seeking him with a penitent heart, though they are often clumsy in their efforts.
(Kindle Locations 389-402).
Amen! Hall and I differ on a number of issues — CENI hermeneutics, the necessity to sing a cappella, the sinfulness of clapping in church, the present work of the Spirit, for example — but who can argue with the above quotation, which reflects the general theme of his book?
It’s unfortunate that Hall spends considerable space arguing his position on these subsidiary issues, because it could leave the impression that he considers them to be salvation issues. But I don’t think that he ultimately comes to that conclusion.
And so, where does he draw salvation or fellowship lines?
I’m sometimes asked, “Is that a sound congregation?” Twenty-five years ago that question meant, “Does it reject church support of institutionalism?” Or perhaps, “Is it well taught regarding the ‘new hermeneutic?'” Almost never am I asked, “Is that congregation sound in love or prayer?” It is so easy to be an issue-oriented congregation, to the neglect of being a Christ-oriented congregation.
Of course, if a congregation is totally dedicated to Christ, it is going to educate itself regarding issues and dangerous doctrines that may threaten that focus. … However, our primary focus as congregations of the Lord should not be upon various issues of the day with a secondary focus upon Jesus Christ as the Son of God, but rather the other way around. May God help us to focus primarily on his Son, and as a result of that love for him, may he help us to educate ourselves about issues that may affect that relationship.
(Kindle Locations 489-497).
Again, I’m in hearty agreement.
Certainly an emphasis on God’s mercy should keep us from pronouncing final judgment on those who may disagree with us on this and of course other issues. We can even admire some things about people like the kind man who used his guitar in his efforts to reach out to others and talk to them about Jesus.
(Kindle Locations 1445-1449).
Hmm … Okay, I agree that we should be slow to pronounce judgment on others. And I entirely agree that admitting that someone might be saved does not mean I must participate in everything he participates in if doing so would violate my conscience. Amen.
But surely the Bible gives us more definite guidance regarding who is my brother than that. Where is the scriptural standard for who is and isn’t saved?
I agree that, because we can’t know someone’s heart as well as God, we will often struggle to know whether a particular person is truly saved (whether he sits in pew next to me or in a pew in a church building across town). But surely there’s an answer as to what the standard is!
Kudos to Hall for daring to attempt an answer to that question — a question that most in the conservative, mainstream Churches refuse to address.
Imitators of Jesus will also simultaneously be characterized by conviction and mercy. One quality or the other may be more evident in some circumstances than in the other. Jude acknowledged this in Jude 22, 23 when discussing three types of situations that saints might have to deal with . “And have mercy on some, who are doubting; save others, snatching them out of the fire; and on some have mercy with fear, hating even the garment polluted by the flesh.”
Notice the three categories in Jude 22,23: (1) The doubting need to be treated with mercy, (2) those in immediate spiritual danger need to be “snatched from the fire” and (3) those with contaminating sin need to be treated with a mixture of mercy and fear.
(Kindle Locations 1078-1084).
Hall takes us very close to an answer but he doesn’t quite get there. I think Jude does answer the question, though (and I’m excited at the opportunity to exegete Jude for, perhaps, the first time in this blog).
(Jude 3-5 ESV) 3 Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints. 4 For certain people have crept in unnoticed who long ago were designated for this condemnation, ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.
5 Now I want to remind you, although you once fully knew it, that Jesus, who saved a people out of the land of Egypt, afterward destroyed those who did not believe.
Jude starts his letter drawing a line between those with faith and those without faith. Those “designated for condemnation” for denying Jesus in v. 4 are those destroyed for not believing in v. 5. “Faith” clearly is faith in Jesus, because the ones condemned in v. 4 are condemned for denial of Jesus.
Hence, Jude draws the line at faith in Jesus. Those without faith in Jesus are damned; those with faith are saved.
(Jud 1:20-21 ESV) 20 But you, beloved, building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit, 21 keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life.
Who are those that should expect to receive God’s mercy — to be saved despite their sins? Those building themselves up in faith and praying.
(Jud 1:22 ESV) 22 And have mercy on those who doubt;
To have doubt requires that you first have faith. And all who have faith have times of doubt. Those times of doubt don’t, by themselves, damn, because the whole point of grace is to overlook our weakness.
Therefore, when we see someone who is struggling with his faith, often because of great personal tragedy or perhaps purely for intellectual reasons, we should show mercy — and treat that person as a brother or sister, with the greatest of tenderness and love.
Many have said that “Christians shoot their wounded,” and it’s often sadly true. Jude counsels us to show mercy.
(Jud 1:23a ESV) 23 save others by snatching them out of the fire;
It’s possible, of course, to fall away. In my view, this happens when we lose our faith in Jesus entirely (1 John 4:2-3); when we so rebel against God that our decision making is about our own desires and not about God’s — even when we know God disagrees with our choices (Heb 10:26 ff); or when we rely on our works rather than faith in Jesus to be saved (Gal 5:1-7).
That is, the Greek word for faith, pistis, has three senses —
- belief (in this case, belief in Jesus)
- faithfulness (that we commit ourselves to obedience and loyalty to Jesus — also called “repentance”)
- trust (that God will save us because of our faith in Jesus, by his grace, not because of our works)
You need all three elements to become saved. Lose any one of them, you are no longer saved. But mere weakness or imperfection in any of the three does not damn.
Hence, when a sister is living a life of rebellion, she’s on the fringe of hellfire. We need to pull her back — with love, but with conviction that rebellion against the known will of God will eventually damn.
(Jud 1:23b ESV) to others show mercy with fear, hating even the garment stained by the flesh.
Of course, for those sufficiently distant from Jesus, well, they can present temptations to the faithful. We can’t let our love for the sinner cause us to accept his sin — either by yielding to temptation ourselves or else by declaring his outright, conscious rebellion as acceptable.
Sometimes our great love for the love or the struggling can blind us to how very dangerous and hurtful sin can be.
[Baptism, of course, raises it own host of questions. The key, I believe, is to not assume that we must apply the same rules to baptism as to all other doctrinal issues. Baptism is plainly associated with our admission into the Kingdom. Therefore, we may well expect God to apply the standards for baptism more strictly than say institutionalism, hats in the building, or instrumental music, which are questions about how to conduct ourselves now that we’ve been saved — unlike baptism. In fact, I believe one of the fundamental logical errors within the Churches of Christ is to say: (A) baptism is essential, therefore (B) all rules for worship, church organization, etc. are essential. And that leads to a doctrinal perfectionism and a distinct lack of mercy.]
And so, Hall has written a valuable exploration of a timely and important topic. He has not yet answered some of the key questions, but he unquestionably writes with the right spirit and heart — and that by itself will carry him and his readers a very long way.
Like many in the Churches of Christ, he’s struggling to escape the miseries of legalism — mean-spiritedness toward others, easy condemnation of brothers, insisting on strict adherence to externalities while ignoring our hearts and even our tongues.
I pray that God gives Bro. Hall many years and that the Spirit reveals God’s will and word more and more clearly to him every day — and that God gives him many readers and listeners.