We are considering Michael Shank’s book Muscle and a Shovel. And we are at the end (unless I change my mind).
Shank’s theology has several flaws.
1. It greatly de-emphasizes Jesus in order to emphasize baptism. You can’t make both most important.
In fact, there are far, far more lessons here on baptism than on Jesus. He even denies as heretical the possibility of having a personal relationship with Jesus. And he concludes that the Plan of Salvation requires us to believe the Bible, rather than believe in Jesus.
And he declares that the Plan of Salvation — including baptism — is “faith” as “faith” is used in the New Testament.
He says we should believe in Jesus elsewhere, and Shank confessed Jesus in order to be baptized, but faith in Jesus is peripheral to his theology. It’s a step toward obtaining a proper baptism.
This is not for a second to reject or dismiss water baptism or the importance of the scriptures, but to set baptism in its correct place as pointing to Jesus — the proper object of our faith.
That’s the centerpiece of Christianity — and we cannot afford to forget it.
2. Shank’s teaching makes baptism a divider, so that those who fail to believe that baptism saves are damned.
3. The insistence on a specific understanding of baptism is expanded to include many other teachings, such as rejection of instrumental music. Hence, he rejects the salvation of all others — even those denominations with baptismal theology identical to our own. In fact, this aggressive damnation of those we disagree with would have damned the founders of the Restoration Movement, who had differing views on baptism than Randall and Shank.
4. Grace is barely discussed. The grace we receive in baptism is mentioned, but the grace of God for those who’ve been baptized is hardly mentioned at all. We are treated to lessons against “faith only” and “irresistible grace” and about how grace leads us to practice baptism, but nothing about our freedom in Christ.
5. His doctrine of the Spirit is Deistic, that is, Shank believes that the Spirit has had no “direct operation” on the hearts of Christians since the apostolic age. Thus, contrary to the Prophets and the New Testament, the Spirit does not help the Christian remain faithful and gives no gifts to equip us to better serve God. We’re on our own.
6. He adopts the 16th Century Regulative Principle and Command, Example, Necessary Inference hermeneutics — so that those things not authorized are not only sinful, they damn. (Where is this found in the Bible? And what kind of God would hide salvation-essential teachings in the silences of the text?)
Thus, he has bought into the positions of the most conservative segment of the Churches of Christ. He thinks it’s wrong to give to the church on any day other than a Sunday, and he says the “gift of the Holy Spirit” in Acts 2:38 is eternal life, not the personal indwelling.
And, of course, he considers it damnable to teach a personal relationship with Jesus and redefines “believe” in the Five Step Plan of Salvation to mean “believe in the Bible.”
Even most conservative Churches of Christ would find much of this horrifying. This is not even mainstream conservative Church of Christ thought — and yet many congregations are buying this book and passing it around as though it’s all just excellent teaching.
7. Those outside the Churches of Christ are treated as having wicked motives, even believers in Jesus in other denominations. Members of denominations are stereotyped and caricatured as bad people — and this helps justify why God is sending them to hell. It’s false and it’s slander.
8. Shank has a particular mad on for Baptist clergy and Baptist practices. They are all damned in their willful ignorance of the Bible.
9. However, when it suits his needs, he treats C. S. Lewis (Anglican) and John Wesley (Methodist) and several other great Christian authors as authorities whom we should follow — despite being denominational, apostate, and damned in their sins. Thus, he quotes Lewis for his opposition to the Sinner’s Prayer and Wesley for his opposition to instruments in worship — as though the thoughts of the damned should be persuasive.
10. There is just not much here that gives the reader the sense that Shank truly comprehends the heart of Jesus. His crucifixion is mentioned here and there to make other points, but Shank seems not to appreciate that grace is infinitely expensive, that his salvation cost God his Son, and that this means that God’s grace is not tightfisted and withheld from all but the most strictly obedient. That was the view of the Pharisees that Jesus so roundly condemned.
(Luk 11:52 NET) “Woe to you experts in religious law! You have taken away the key to knowledge! You did not go in yourselves, and you hindered those who were going in.”
It was Jesus who forgave people who didn’t even ask for forgiveness (Luke 5)! He was generous with forgiveness, overflowing with grace for all with faith. He looked for opportunities to forgive, not for mistakes that would allow him to damn. Regardless of one’s dispensational theories, he forgave a thief as he died. That’s the nature of the person who hung on the cross for Shank — and Shank’s theology does not reflect that character.
He’s missed the biggest of the big pictures, being deceived by proof texting and 10-page tracts, when he should have poured himself into the scriptures themselves, book at a time, with commentaries by the greatest scholars in history — even the ones from “the denominations.” (We study best when we study with others, especially with those who might disagree with us. Otherwise, if we only study with those we agree with, we’ve predetermined our conclusions.)
While Muscle & Shovel occasionally mentions Jesus’ crucifixion, it’s always to make another point: to explain the nature of baptism, the wrongness of division, etc. But never does Shank stop and ponder what it means that Jesus died for him. I mean, doesn’t that at least allow Jesus to be the object of faith, rather than a plan? Aren’t we in fact saved by faith in Jesus, not faith in the Bible? Isn’t this all because of the crucifixion?
And doesn’t the crucifixion tell us something about how very much both Jesus and God love us.
The crucifixion proves that God is not a cruel proctor hoping that we’ll fail his unfair tests. He gave his Son for us. And we absolutely must exegete the text with that thought in mind. (And that fact by itself destroys the Regulative Principle and Command, Example, Necessary Inference hermeneutics, a theory built on a false perception of the heart of the Living God.)
In short, Shank has missed one of the biggest lessons of all scripture — both testaments and either testament — the character and personality of God. And his teachings are pointing a segment of the Churches of Christ away from a true understanding of God’s love, painting a false picture of his nature and desires, distorting even the definition of “faith” for the sake of finding a rationale to damn everyone outside the Churches of Christ.
And it leaves me with an overwhelming sense of sadness that good people who desperately want to please their God are being denied the great joy of knowing our Abba for who he really is.