[Click here for a table of contents to all my posts regarding Muscle & Shovel.]
We are considering Michael Shank’s book Muscle and a Shovel. As I’ve said before, Shank has an obvious talent for story telling, and it’s a nicely told tale.
The story begins with the author as a nominal Christian. He grew up in a Baptist Church, and although he’d said the “sinner’s prayer,” he’d never truly committed himself to Jesus. Nonetheless, he considered himself saved.
As the story proceeds, he ultimately converts and joins a Church of Christ and finds a new dedication and level of commitment. And each chapter describes his discussions with others about Christianity and the superiority of the (conservative or mainline) Church of Christ point of view over the views of “the denominations.”
Definitions and grammar
A couple of notes on my vocabulary.
First, for reasons that should become clear, I’m going to break the grammatical rule on starting sentences with a capital letter, fully aware that this would have cost me a letter grade in Ms. Brittain’s sixth grade class.
“Church of Christ” or “Churches of Christ” means the Yellow Pages Churches of Christ, a product of the American Restoration Movement or Stone-Campbell Movement. Many congregations prefer to use “church of Christ,” violating elementary rules of grammar to claim not to be a denomination, but I use the capital “C” because Ms. Brittain insisted that proper nouns should be capitalized.
I prefer the plural because the Bible uses “church” to refer to individual congregations and to the church-universal, but not to any other subset of the church-universal. That is, a denomination should not be called a “church.” (The Baptist Church is no church at all, but a collection of Baptist churches.) It’s not a big deal until we start trying to apply scriptural texts to our present reality. Then it becomes very important to use Bible words in Bible ways, or else we get just all kinds of confused.
“church of Christ” means the church universal, that is, all saved people everywhere of whatever congregational affiliation, and it’s not the same thing as Church of Christ, which I consider a subset of the church of Christ. This is the nearly universal meaning of that phrase in standard English usage. On a good day, even a member of the most conservative Churches of Christ will admit that there are saved people not in the Churches of Christ (although they may intend to include only those few independent churches theoretically in existence that teach and practice identically to the conservative Churches of Christ with no knowledge of their history or institutions).
“denomination” means a denomination in the conventional, conversational sense of the word, that is, according to Google —
a recognized autonomous branch of the Christian Church
Dictionary.com says —
a religious group, usually including many local churches, often larger than a sect
Collins English Dictionary says,
a group having a distinctive interpretation of a religious faith and usually its own organization
That’s us. We even have a listing in the Handbook of Denominations, to which we contributed information! And which Church of Christ is listed in the Yellow Pages under anything other than “Church of Christ” and not “Nondenominational.” We quack, walk, and swim like a denomination, and we are one.
The Churches of Christ often disdain being referred to a denomination (I really never have understood why), and so they sometimes define “denomination” as a religious organization that lacks congregational autonomy, assuming the Churches of Christ to be uniquely autonomous, which is not even close to true. Other times, “denomination” is defined as “a subset of the entire church,” whereas the Churches of Christ consider themselves to be the entire church (implying, of course, that everyone else is damned).
I think it’s both scripturally and factually wrong (bad theology), not to mention offensive, to claim to be the only ones going to heaven — and therefore I refuse to call non-Church of Christ denominations “the denominations” as though the Churches of Christ are not a denomination. Rather, as I learned in the sixth grade, I try to use words as the dictionary defines them or else tell my readers that I’m using a word in a special way.
“conservative Churches of Christ” means those Churches of Christ that consider issues such as instrumental music in worship to be salvation issues.
“progressive Churches of Christ” means the other Churches of Christ.
I’m not thrilled with either term. Both sets of churches are “conservative” in the normal theological use of the word in that they both accept the Bible as inspired by God, believe in the virgin birth and resurrection of Jesus, believe the miracles of the Bible to have happened, etc. But I can’t find better words.
Just so, in some other contexts, “progressive” can refer to all sorts of crazy beliefs, and so it’s a word with some unfortunate associations. But I just can’t find a better word. The use of “liberal” to refer to progressive Churches of Christ is simply false because, in church jargon, “liberal” generally describes someone not conservative (i.e., someone who denies miracles, inspiration, etc.), and by that definition, the progressives are conservative, not “liberal.” So it’s a little confusing, and so I’m very open to serious suggestions that show proper respect and love.
Chapter 1 serves as an introduction, describing the scene of his and his wife’s baptism at a Church of Christ, preparing the reader for the story of how he came to that decision.
How in the world did a young, white, small-town, materialistic, ambitious, partying, not too religious but members of a big denomination married couple get the top of these steps?
You’re about to find out.
Just consider yourself forewarned. It’s a crazy story… and entirely true.
(Kindle Locations 339-346).
Before we proceed to the next chapter, it’s important to realize that all denominations have “materialistic, ambitious, partying, not too religious” members. The Churches of Christ sure do.
I have a good friend who grew up Methodist. His wife insisted that they attend her congregation, and over time, he went from being a very nominal Christian to a very convicted Christian. In fact, he considers himself to have been lost while a Methodist. He found penitence and true commitment to Jesus at his wife’s Baptist Church.
There are plenty of Church of Christ members who grew up with a nominal commitment to Jesus who found the real Jesus and real commitment, and even salvation, at a community church, Baptist Church, or other non-Church of Christ.
It’s important that we not read this, or any, book with the assumption that everyone outside the Churches of Christ has a nominal or even false commitment to Jesus. That would be plainly false, and if you doubt me, get out and meet some people who aren’t members of your own congregation.
I certainly think Shank speaks the truth about himself. I’m sure that his conversion truly changed him. In fact, I doubt that I’ll question any of the events that he describes. I’m confident that he’s an honest man. My disagreements will be with his understanding of the Bible.
In chapter 2, Shank describes meeting a “young, African-American man” with “a natural confidence and an award winning smile that could set an executioner at ease.” There was something different about him. And he gave Shank some doughnuts.
Two hot Krispy Kremes trumped a Shell station bear-claw any day of the week and the sugar rush made me totally forget the red-neck salute flung at me earlier that morning. But what did Randall mean, “I might even have something better for you a little later?” We’d just met. We didn’t know each other.
I hadn’t yet developed any latent skepticism of humanity, nor did I possess any suspicions about the possibility of ulterior motives, so I went about the day.
However, Randall had an ulterior motive.
(Kindle Locations 489-495).
Chapter 3 describes Randall’s initiating a series of spiritual conversations with Shank. Evidently, Randall had memorized his Bible from the King James Version, because Shank always quotes from the KJV.
(I find this odd, because the KJV uses language from 400 years ago, poor Greek manuscripts, and is difficult for many readers to understand. There are some elements in the Churches of Christ that continue to insist on the KJV, but most have moved on long ago to more modern, more readable, more accurate translations, such as the ESV (the NIV remains popular in many progressive circles). I used to read King James-ese pretty well, having grown up on it, but I’m decades out of practice and now find it annoying to have to translate a translation from Jacobean English to contemporary English just to understand the flow of Shank’s narrative. Oh, well.)
Randall soon asks Shank how he was saved. Shank explains that he said the Sinner’s Prayer and then, some time later, was baptized as “an outward show of an inward change.” Randall replied,
“Mr. Mike, saying the Sinner’s Prayer is not obeying the gospel of Christ. Secondly, no one in the Bible has ever been saved in that way.”
(Kindle Locations 599-601). Now, I’m no fan of the Sinner’s Prayer myself. In fact, many Baptists are starting to question the legitimacy of the practice. But I couldn’t help but notice the complete absence of any reference to “faith in Jesus” or even “Jesus.” The discussion about Shank’s salvation turned entirely on the Sinner’s Prayer vs. baptism, not whether Shank had faith or had repented.
Every gospel sermon in Acts is about Jesus, not baptism. Baptism may be mentioned (as in Peter’s sermon at Pentecost recorded in Acts 2), but it’s never the focus or center of the discussion. If Shank was in fact not saved, he needed to be taught about Jesus, his Savior. Or, at least, you’d think Randall would have asked about his relationship with Jesus long before he got around to asking about baptism. Isn’t the Great Confession about Jesus and not baptism? Aren’t we to make disciples of Jesus, not baptism? Didn’t Paul preach Jesus and the cross?
(1Co 1:17-18 ESV) 17 For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. 18 For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.
(1Co 1:21-24 ESV) 21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. 22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.
I do not at all object to Randall teaching baptism, but only after he teaches Jesus and the cross. True gospel preaching is about Jesus. Remember, Shank characterizes himself as not committed to Jesus — as “materialistic, ambitious, partying, not too religious.” And yet the path to salvation is evidently fear of hell (Randall had read Shank a passage threatening hell to the lost) and a good baptism. Maybe we’ll get to Jesus in a later chapter.
Moreover, Randall equates “obey the gospel” with “baptism,” which is a very suspect bit of theology.
(Rom 10:16-17 ESV) 16 But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?” 17 So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.
In Romans 10, Paul uses “obey the gospel” to mean to believe the gospel.
(2Th 1:5-10 ESV) 5 This is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you may be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are also suffering — 6 since indeed God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, 7 and to grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels 8 in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. 9 They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, 10 when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at among all who have believed, because our testimony to you was believed.
And 2 Thess 1:8 contrasts “do not obey the gospel” with “all who have believed.” Plainly, Paul uses “obey the gospel” to mean “believe in Jesus.”
1 Pet 4:17 does not define the phrase, but does not use it in the context of baptism.
To equate “obey the gospel” with water baptism is sheer presumption. It’s just not the biblical meaning of the phrase.
This gets dangerously close to being saved by faith in baptism, rather than faith in Jesus (who is surely going to turn up at some point in the book).
Read the sermons in Acts. Note the subjects of them. Then compare the gospel preaching of Acts to this kind of conversion teaching. You’ll find that the apostles preached Jesus. In Ephesians 19, Paul asked a group of believers whether they’d received the Spirit to determine whether they’d truly been saved. Never is baptism the first question asked.
Baptism is often the result of their preaching, but never is baptism their starting point, because the apostles understood that the gospel is the gospel of Jesus, as Messiah, not the gospel of baptism.