Reader-Requested Review: “Conviction vs. Mercy”

convictionvmercyAnother 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 —

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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.

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(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?

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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.

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(Kindle Locations 489-497).

Again, I’m in hearty agreement.

He adds,

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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.

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(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.

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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.

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(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.

Profile photo of Jay Guin

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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11 Responses to Reader-Requested Review: “Conviction vs. Mercy”

  1. Price says:

    It’s difficult for anyone that has a legalistic upbringing to totally discard it. Usually they advocate for their own form of it but hope he keeps headed in that direction!! That book you posted about yesterday seemed like cult fiction.

  2. John says:

    The new spirit that is moving across the nation, and the world, is affecting more than a few. One of the great struggles of the soul is to boast “I shall not be moved”, while hearing the gentle whisper, “Do not stay here”. Once it starts, it does not leave you alone. When the apostle Paul was on the road to Damascus, he definitely saw Jesus. But like many before, and since, I believe the gentle whisper kept nibbling at his “inner ear” until the perfect time.

    The whisper is being heard by many in all wings of the CoC; from the one cup congregations to those that see themselves as progressive. The disturbing wisdom of “We can’t stay here” is making many battles of the past seem trite and, not to be disrespectful, sometimes ridiculous. One of the most humorous episodes of ALL IN THE FAMILY was the one in which Archie became upset when he noticed Mike, Meathead as Archie called him, putting on his shoes and socks in the order of “sock and Shoe, sock and shoe”, as opposed to the order of “sock and sock, shoe and shoe”. To Archie, “sock and sock, shoe and shoe” was the way it HAD to be. When I look back at many of the past battle of the CoC, and that includes many things that I personally argued for, most of them were of the “sock and shoe” nature, and it embarrasses me greatly to think of the ones I participated in.

    Most of us who grew up in the CoC believed we were being carried on the back of a giant that made the religious world tremble; only to find out that most of the religious world saw no giant, and with a bit of a nod and a chuckle, passed us by. The legalists would say that to stand for truth is not to keep up with everyone else. That is partly true. However, to stand for what is true is to also listen. And when we do we will hear, more than once, the gentle whisper “Do not stay here”.

  3. Gary says:

    I believe every movement in time develops its own right and left wings but there was always a moderate group among noninstitutional Churches of Christ. Homer Hailey was so highly regarded that Pepperdine bestowed an honorary doctorate on him. A surprising number of wellknown persons in mainline Churches of Christ had noninstitutional backgrounds or allegiances at one time including Edward Fudge, F. Lagard Smith, Harold Hazelip and George Pepperdine. One of the mysteries in our history to me was why Foy Wallace, Jr. did not side with the noninstitutional brethren after whipping so many of them into a frenzy with his inflammatory writings in his paper, the Gospel Guardian in the early 1950’s. Dr. Robert Hooper explained it to me that Wallace’s constituency, the churches and members whom he preached among the most, remained in the mainline and effectively kept Wallace from leaving. Many noninstitutional leaders expected Wallace to eventually join them and were bitterly disappointed that he never did. B.C. Goodpasture was a moderate and powerful figure among mainline Churches of Christ as the editor of the Gospel Advocate in the mid 20th century. His imposition of a quarantine on noninstitutional churches and preachers pretty much stopped the growth of the noninstitutional movement and made them a separate church for all practical purposes. The rightness or wrongness of Goodpasture’s quarantine can be debated but I believe it set the stage for the emergence of a progressive movement in mainline churches in the 1960’s with the publication of Voices of Concern and the launching of Mission Magazine. Ironically Goodpasture bitterly opposed the progressives and had a bitter conservative edge in many of his articles in the Gospel Advocate by the early 70’s.He even attacked the Highland church in Abilene which was the sponsoring church for Herald of Truth. This dynamic of moderates bitterly opposing the progressives who have moved past them has played itself out over and over again among Churches of Christ. The Bible professor at Lipscomb in the ’70’s who was considered to be the most controversial and cutting edge one (to the point that the Romans class he had taught for many years was taken from him) had by the ’90’s sided with William Woodson and the conservatives at Lipscomb. The division among the Bible faculty was so pronouced that they ate at separate tables in the faculty dining room. Eventually the division ended through retirements of the older, more conservative professors. The noninstitutional division of the 1950’s, however, set the stage for the continuing leftward drift of Churches of Christ. It is ironic that those churches are themselves continuing to moderate and become more open.

  4. John says:

    Good history lesson Gary. I enjoyed it. It brought back many of the conversations I heard as a child and teen at church and the dinner table with relatives and visiting Gospel Meeting preachers. I truly enjoyed Mission Journal. Many younger ones today probably do not remember it. The last few years of its publication was edited by Bobbie Lee Holley, one of the most stand-out scholarly women of the CoC. I found it to be very intelligent, and, with the prose and poetry it included, creative. It is sad it has not been put on line.

  5. Gary says:

    John, the first mention I ever heard of Mission was when I heard Jack Evans preach at Lipscomb’s Winter Lectures. I can still hear him bellow, “The mission of Mission is to destroy the church!” As a questioning 18 year old that was all I needed to get me to Crisman Library to check out this heretical literature. I still remember a portion of one parody in Mission of the stultifying sameness of so many CoC services, “Take a card from the back of the rack of the pew in front of you….” This was well before the advent of Rap music! I read the copy of Voices of Concern that was there in the Crisman Library. In those days of course you could look on the library card to see who had checked out the book before you. Batsell Barrett Baxter had read that very copy of Voices of Concern. I have always wondered what he thought of it. He went out of his way to make many moderate and openminded comments in the Bible classes I had with him. But in his latter years I heard a tape of an address he gave at the Blue Ridge Encampment and I couldn’t believe how conservative he was. I think he was another lifelong CoC moderate who became dismayed and alarmed by the progressives who had gone far beyond the limits of his comfort zone.

  6. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    John and Gary,

    Great comments.

    John, I’ve never seen the sock, sock, shoe, shoe episode but will have to go looking for it.

    Gary, we do have a fascinating history, that’s never been objectively written. Most Restoration Movement histories stop around WWI or 1906. The few that cover the 20th Century tend to be highly romanticized — extolling our growth and ignoring the bitterness of so many divisions generated by a theology gone badly wrong.

    I had Batsell Barrett Baxter at Lipscomb for “Apostolic Church” — very traditional but with just enough of an open mind to encourage me to think a bit for myself — and “Christian Evidences,” in which BBB very clearly rejected young-earth creationism.

    I questioned him on this, and he responded by saying that he’d ridden a mule down the side of the Grand Canyon and seen the geological layers for himself. There was no way these all came from a single global flood. Clearly, he said, the earth is ancient and we must read Genesis accordingly.

    Today, many in the Apologetics Press circle would damn him and say that he calls Jesus and God liars.

  7. R.J. says:

    I’m wondering, did he believe the Earth briefly became perfected on the Seventh Day before being subjected to the curse(decay) thereafter because of sin?

  8. mark says:

    I am not nearly old enough to have seen the old battles, only the last vestiges and remnants of them and the stories about them. However, we all have to remember that they were fought in a time where newsletters were the method of communication and rebuttals were likely not published by the editor. Today, the old guard are now in the grave and the younger generations do not wish to fight these battles.

    Now, once a congregation begins moving toward becoming progressive, there are some who start moving it back to the right. An example of this is that on the Sunday before Christmas, John ch 1, Hebrews ch 1, and the birth of christ were read. The next year on the Sunday before Christmas, there was none of that. That is a move backwards in my opinion.

  9. Gardner Hall says:

    Brother Guinn,
    Thanks for reading my little book and for your kind comments about it. I think I could have predicted that you would look more favorably at the emphasis on mercy and a little more askance at the sections emphasizing convictions.

    You’re right about my not trying to answer all the related questions, but that’s because I don’t have all the answers. I don’t think God intends us to have all the answers regarding His mercy. That’s his prerogative! You’re also right in your analysis of Jude that those who are in spiritual danger are those who deny our Lord and Master, but when in the process of apostasy did some in Laodicea and Sardis reach that point of rejection? When in the process of apostasy do individuals reach that point today? Only God knows and I don’t think it’s wrong to leave that up to Him.

    I think that in practice, in our fellowship in local congregations, we have no alternative but to consider as brothers those who have been born again of water and the Spirit (John 3:5), those who are children of God by faith in Christ Jesus (Gal. 3:26,27), However, I remember that God’s mercy is great and I pray that it will be extended to those who in seeking God have not understood some important elements of the new birth.

    Our biggest divergence, of course, is about issues you consider “subsidiary.” I sincerely believe that the denominational concept of church that is behind the machinery of institutionalism, the entertainment-oriented worship trends, the “social gospel” and other human fads gradually take people away from Jesus. We should not be oblivious to developments among known Christians in the third and fourth centuries after Christ as well as those 100-150 years ago. I fear that many brethren I love today are well down the same path that led to Romanism 1800 years ago and to watered-down modernism 100 years ago. We seem to agree that there has been carnality in many of those old battles. I still believe that we need to fight them, but whenever possible with the gentleness of 2 Timothy 2:24-26. That’s the point of the book! Thanks again.

  10. joshua dickey says:

    Gardner,
    I smiled when I saw your name on here! Jay has covered such a broad range of topics with so many insightful cross-referencs. Yours sounds like a good book… Have a great day!

  11. Gardner Hall says:

    Hey Joshua, Glad to see you here too. Jay has evidently gone far afield to find my little book, but appreciate his willingness to check a number of different perspectives.

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