We are considering Michael Shank’s book Muscle and a Shovel.
Shank becomes upset with the divisions resulting from “denominationalism.”
Each denomination teaches an opposing set of practices and beliefs. Their idea of unity is to keep their individual beliefs, practices, and doctrines, while accepting all other differing – even conflicting beliefs, practices and doctrines. That’s not unity. That’s tolerance. Tolerance is not Christ’s teaching of unity.
(Kindle Locations 4437-4444).
But what about —
(Rom 14:3-6 ESV) 3 Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him. 4 Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand. 5 One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. 6 The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God.
Paul seems to preach tolerance brother to brother. All those considered in Romans 14 have faith in Jesus, but they disagree over whether to celebrate certain days and whether to eat meat (either due to kosher laws or because of meat being sacrificed to idols, most likely). To those who considered these matters prohibited by God himself, this was a doctrinal dispute — and yet Paul insists on tolerance.
Why tolerance? Because both sides are saved only by the grace of God and both sides do what they do to honor God — even if under a mistaken impression as to God’s will — and God judges the heart.
And so we’re going to obtain unity by agreeing on all beliefs, practices, and doctrines? All? Then the Churches of Christ aren’t united either. Neither are most Bible classes and elderships! We really need to find a better standard than agreement on everything. Maybe Paul knew what he was talking about.
Now, I am as unhappy about the division reflected in denominationalism as Shank. I just don’t think that we can quite so easily declare all denominations but mine damned. The sin of division needs to be defeated, but we don’t defeat it by removing all sinners from the church. No one will be left.
Moreover, the practice of “uniting” by damning all others has been tried for centuries, and it does not lead to unity or any healing at all. It just causes each generation to draw more and more and darker and darker lines of separation.
It’s a shame that Randall never introduces Shank to the teachings of Barton Stone and Thomas and Alexander Campbell, the founders of our Restoration Movement. They have a very different approach to unity — treating all with true, saving faith in Jesus as brothers and sisters in Christ (sounds suspiciously like the Bible). And they had great success for decades in bringing people together. Only after they died and the Churches bought into Landmarkism did the Churches of Christ begin to damn over countless points of disagreement.
Randall soon shows up ready to produce the original, one, true church of the Lord.
“It’s time for you and me to talk about the gospel and the church of the Lord. Did you know that His church still exists today?”
(Kindle Locations 4480-4481). Shank agrees to five further Bible study sessions with Randall.
Now, I have to pause and note that for some reason Shank’s experience with non-Church of Christ denominations is very different from mine. It seems that every non-Church of Christ member he meets is biblically ignorant or utterly insincere. He finds nothing positive or holy in any of his encounters with the non-Church of Christ world.
This is certainly consistent with some conservative Church of Christ teaching, but it’s utterly foreign to my own experience — and the experience of countless other members of the Churches of Christ I know. Reading Muscle & Shovel is, to me, like seeing the world once again through the lenses of the old tract racks that so often assumed all outside the Churches of Christ to be insincere people violating the known will of God just to gain the acceptance of “the denominations.”
But my friends who are Baptists, Methodists, Episcopalians, and Presbyterians are often deeply devoted to Bible study. The great conservative scholars whose commentaries and other books fill the shelves of Church of Christ preachers are often not members of the Churches of Christ.
Of course, there are biblically ignorant, pompous, and uncaring ministers in all denominations — including the Churches of Christ. But in Shank’s recollection, it’s all very black and white — the denominational folk are just awful and the Church of Christ people are Jesus reborn. And it just doesn’t ring true.
I’d be delighted to take Shank around Tuscaloosa and introduce him to all sorts of “denominational” preachers and church members who are nothing like the caricatures that fill his book.
Shank and his wife happily leave their Baptist Church when their pastor — whom they call “Pastor Pompous” — calls asking for money and then hangs up on them when they mention that they’re in a Bible study with a member of the Churches of Christ.
I’m sure it happened, but this is not typical Baptist pastoral behavior. (I’ve heard similar stories about Church of Christ families who were in studies with a less conservative Church of Christ member.)
Shank reflects on all the lies he’d been taught in the Baptist Church.
Randall begins his first Bible study with Shank —
“Mr. Mike,” he began with his Bible open, “let’s start with the church.”
(Kindle Location 5047). I was so hoping that he’d begin with Jesus. Or the grand narrative of the Bible. Or grace. The church is truly very important, but I don’t know how you understand the church if you’ve not sorted out other, prior doctrines.
“Were you taught that you had to be faithful to the church to go to Heaven?”
(Kindle Location 5057). Uh … are you sure you don’t mean “faithful to Jesus”?
Randall and Shank then have a discussion about being added to “the church,” which is all saved people (which is true), but Randall turns the conversation so that although God adds us to “the church” — a verse Randall quotes — “the church” becomes the denomination that baptizes correctly and gets everything else right, too.
It’s a subtle logical trick. Had Randall started with Jesus, then he’d soon have to talk about faith in Jesus, following Jesus, being a disciple of Jesus, and similar equivalent terms. Then salvation would be associated with our relationship with Jesus, rather than whether we attend the right denomination’s congregation.
And I keep thinking how different things would be if Shank would stop letting Randall toss him one proof text after another and instead read Matthew or John or Romans or 1 John from front to back. The Bible teaches some very different lessons when read book at a time rather than highly selective proof text at a time. I mean, it just drives me nuts that, when he gets frustrated and needs guidance, he turns to a verse rather than a book. He misses so much of the big picture.
For example, as fun as it is to debate the meaning of John 3:5’s reference to being born of water and the Spirit, if you actually read John from front to back, you see how very central faith in Jesus is and how very little the book says about baptism — and while that doesn’t remove baptism from the list of important doctrines, it does bump it off the top of the list.
Just so, read 1 John front to back, and you learn about faith in Jesus, to love like Jesus, to obey as Jesus obeyed, the Spirit — and not much about water baptism — even though it was written to convince its readers that they’re saved. He doesn’t even mention the baptism of his readers (chapter 5 does mention the baptism of Jesus)!
Acts comes closest to being a book that focuses on baptism, and yet it is much more focused on the work of the Spirit to lead people to faith in Jesus. When Paul finds a church in Ephesus that he has doubts about, he doesn’t ask about their baptism. Rather, in Acts 19, he asks whether they’ve received the Spirit!
And in Muscle & Shovel, the Spirit so far has no role to play in a Christian’s life other than to inspire the scriptures. But if Shank were to read his New Testament book by book, he’d find that the Spirit is a very important part of our salvation and our lives after our baptism (and during baptism!).
This is the problem with tract rack, proof text theology. If I weren’t following along with Shank’s book chapter by chapter, I’d love to take Shank and his readers through these books and show how they describe a very different, much better kind of Christianity.
Randall explains that the Churches of Christ are not a “denomination” —
“That’s right. It’s not a denomination. Denominations are divisions from the original. The church of Christ is the original that began on the Day of Pentecost around 33AD.
Secondly, denominations have an earthly head , an association, a committee, a board of directors, conventions, etc.
(Kindle Locations 5243-5247). Both arguments are false. First, on what basis does the Church of Christ, as an institution, claim to have existed continuously since AD 33? Well, it’s a circular argument:
* We’re the only saved people.
* Therefore, we’re the true church.
* The true church was founded AD 33.
* Because we’re the true church, we’re the only saved people.
The Landmark Baptists make the same claim, and it’s equally contrary to recorded history.
Just so, there are countless denominations other than the Churches of Christ with autonomous congregations — including, believe it or not, the Baptists. The Churches of Christ often argue that the Baptist convention is somehow in authority over the individual churches, but it’s decisions are advisory only and very often disregarded by individual congregations, and there is no enforcement mechanism. The Baptists teach and practice congregational autonomy — regardless of what you might read in a tract.
In short, it’s bad history compounded with a lack of knowledge about the other denominations — all used to prove that the Churches of Christ are the only ones going to heaven — a decidedly weak strategy. I mean, how do you argue that you are the true church when you don’t bother to argue from the truth?