Muscle & Shovel”: Chapters 22 – 25 (the One True Church)

muscleshovelWe are considering Michael Shank’s book Muscle and a Shovel.

Chapter 22

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.

Chapter 23

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.)

Chapter 24

Shank reflects on all the lies he’d been taught in the Baptist Church.

Chapter 25

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.

Randall asks,

“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?

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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8 Responses to Muscle & Shovel”: Chapters 22 – 25 (the One True Church)

  1. Price says:

    I don’t know if my experience is similar to anyone’s but the people I know and love that are in various “denominations” don’t know everything that the particular “denomination” is supposed to represent. They go there because of their friends, neighbors, kids programs, types and familiarity with the songs, a preacher they like, a teacher that engages them in class…. Most aren’t theological experts.. they love Jesus… They want to be good and moral people…

    Jesus made this statement…. [Mar 9:38-40 ESV] 38 John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” 39 But Jesus said, “Do not stop him, for no one who does a mighty work in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. 40 For the one who is not against us is for us.” This says to me that Jesus recognized that God was working through men/women outside of His immediate group…and that He wasn’t threatened by that..and practically encouraged it.. Why should we be any different ? Those that do good in Jesus’ name should be appreciated rather than condemned and bashed… At least that is what I see Jesus saying here…

  2. My understanding is that this is a broad novelization of Shank’s personal experience. Is it just me, or does this book sound less and less “real” as we move along? What is supposed to be conversation does not sound like real conversation. It sounds like, “If I could tell ’em, this is what I would say,” with Randall speaking not with Shank, but as Shank’s true voice. It sounds more like the old pulpit device of a simulated discussion where I always prove to be wiser than my interlocutor. (Do you notice that Randall never has a single point refuted? Not one!) The further along Shank goes, the less this sounds like a personal narrative and the more it sounds like a sermon outline with personalized illustrations tossed in at intervals. The chapters read less and less like the experience of a questioning soul and more like a series of doctrinal errors being refuted. And as Jay notes, Shank’s story is curiously Jesus-free.

    As one who HAS traveled through this path of the questioning believer, and who has moved from certain ironclad views to different ones, and from my original fellowship to new ones, I find little in Shank’s narrative that sounds like what I and so many of my friends have experienced. What I hear instead is a series of sermon points, in traditional CoC style –which is multiple bullet point scriptures concatenated to a conclusion.

    Shank’s writing is starting to sound very familiar. This may be mere literary criticism, and I may be wrong. But Shank’s book sounds more and more like a re-formatted sermon series. I don’t mind novelization as a device, as long as the writer acknowledges that this is what it is. Even Jesus let parables be parables, and analogies be analogies. But let us not say “I personally found a treasure in a field” if it did not really happen quite that way.

  3. Ray Downen says:

    It’s good that some learn from history and even more from apostolic writings. No person ever has been saved from sin by faith alone, if we can believe the Bible. James points out that faith alone is dead. Has it suddenly sprung into life in our generation? We need to recognize the faith of those who as we do believe Jesus has all power on earth and in Heaven. And we need to love everyone who trusts Jesus as Lord and Savior. We have not always done so. We are not perfect.

    But we also need to teach truth and resist false teaching wherever it’s found. Anyone who teaches salvation by faith alone is teaching error. We do not do well to say they’re teaching truth. It’s the truth about Jesus which saves us who believe He is Lord. And Christians in Churches of Christ/Christian Churches generally teach truth. It’s true that those who are not baptized are not “in Christ.” Paul makes this clear in many passages, and especially clear in Galatians 3:27.

    Galatians 3:26 [English Standard Version] for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God,
    through faith. 27 For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.

    Paul knows that we are BAPTIZED INTO CHRIST (after believing in Him as Lord and turning to Him AS Lord) and makes clear that we “put on Christ” by accepting the baptism in water He commands. Those are still outside of Christ (outside the church, outside Christ’s kingdom) who have not been immersed as He commands all NEW believers are to be immersed. We do not do well to ignore what Jesus and His apostles teach! They teach baptism INTO CHRIST. Many today claim to be teaching truth when they claim sinners are “in Christ” if they have believed that Jesus is Lord. We need to trust that Jesus and His apostles told the truth. They require baptism “into Christ.” Those who teach otherwise are not honoring and obeying Jesus. No Christian should ever be baptized! It’s those OUTSIDE of Christ who are baptized INTO Christ.

  4. Skip says:

    Perhaps a name change is in order. Instead of Church of Christ, perhaps it should be the Church of Correct Baptisms or the Church of Doctrinal Purity.

  5. Alabama John says:

    There is a difference in saved from sin and forgiven by grace. You don’t sin for doing something you did not know was sin. Thank God!!!!

    We all agree that is true with a mentally incapable person but deny that in many cases to an ignorant person.

    I’ll bet we will all agree on that if at judgment day we find out we didn’t have SOMETHING right in our beliefs or understanding so we failed to do or not do something just right..

    We’ll beg to forget the law and beg for more grace.

  6. rich constant says:

    how much longer is this book!
    i for one hate this much self reflection.
    The week before last, this ex-posy put my psychological disposition (by way of reflection) at best what i would consider “self disgust ” to the point of depression.
    i was spun out for at least a week,and most likely will carry the burden of the abuse of the stone Campbell tradition that not only deceived myself and almost all my family,
    for the rest of my life.
    i remind myself of the phrase we use with a computer “garbage in ,garbage out”
    praise God that i was led out of the sin of pride,in being “right with god”.
    last week i found new meaning for the words,
    Although this “Knee Jerk swing back direction into GRACE has me a bit miffed,to put it kindly.

    gal.5:19-21…and similar things. I am warning you, as I had warned you before: Those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God!
    eph. 5:1-
    5:5 For you can be confident of this one thing: that no person who is immoral, impure, or greedy (such a person is an idolater) has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God.

    10:1 Brothers and sisters,1 my heart’s desire and prayer to God on behalf of my fellow Israelites2 is for their salvation. 10:2 For I can testify that they are zealous for God,3 but their zeal is not in line with the truth.4 10:3 For ignoring the righteousness that comes from God, and seeking instead to establish their own righteousness, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. 10:4 For Christ is the end of the law, with the result that there is righteousness for everyone who believes.

    10:5 For Moses writes about the righteousness that is by the law: “The one who does these things will live by them.”5 10:6 But the righteousness that is by faith says: “Do not say in your heart,6 ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’”7 (that is, to bring Christ down) 10:7 or “Who will descend into the abyss?”8 (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead).


    4:1 Hear the word of the Lord, you Israelites!1

    For the Lord has a covenant lawsuit2 against the people of Israel.3

    For there is neither faithfulness nor loyalty in the land,

    nor do they acknowledge God.4

    4:2 There is only cursing, lying, murder, stealing, and adultery.

    They resort to violence and bloodshed.5

    4:3 Therefore the land will mourn,

    and all its inhabitants will perish.6

    The wild animals,7 the birds of the sky,

    and even the fish in the sea will perish.

    The Lord’s Dispute against the Sinful Priesthood

    4:4 Do not let anyone accuse or contend against anyone else:8

    for my case is against you priests!9

    4:5 You stumble day and night,

    and the false prophets stumble with you;

    You have destroyed your own people!10

    4:6 You have destroyed11 my people

    by failing to acknowledge me!

    Because you refuse to acknowledge me,12

    I will reject you as my priests.

    Because you reject13 the law of your God,

    I will reject14 your descendants.

    4:7 The more the priests increased in numbers,

    the more they rebelled against me.

    They have turned15 their glorious calling

    into a shameful disgrace!

    4:8 They feed on the sin offerings of my people;

    their appetites long for their iniquity!

    4:9 I will deal with the people and priests together:16

    I will punish them both for their ways,

    and I will repay them for their deeds.

    4:10 They will eat, but not be satisfied;

    they will engage in prostitution, but not increase in numbers;

    because they have abandoned the Lord

    by pursuing other gods.17

  7. Jay Guin says:


    It’s 40 chapters long, but you’ll notice I’m covered as many as 5 chapters at a time. Shank writes very short chapters (no complaint). There are 7 more posts. If it’s affecting your mental health to read this much from the ultra-conservative camp, read some older posts for a week. (And Wineskins is putting up some excellent, positive material.) But there are some elements of this book that just have to be addressed that we’ve not gotten to.

  8. Adam Legler says:

    You are right on about other tribes studying the scripture. They are not ignorant at all. That was the first thing I noticed when I went to bible studies outside of the C of C.

    N.T. Wrights’ interview in the latest Christian Chronicle edition is a good observation from an outsiders point of view of what happens when churches claim all of the others are false. They simply become another denomination whether they admit it or not.

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