My favorite conservative preacher and newly minted editor of the Gospel Advocate, posted a comment that prompted a response from me too long for the comment section.
Greg describes a visit to a progressive congregation 30 years ago.
“Just a minute,” cried a voice from the back of the room. “I don’t think we should say that.” It was one of the elders of the congregation. “Many of us have come to believe in the grace of God, and who am I to say that a Jew or Hindu or Muslim is not right with God.”
I, of course, readily agree that Christians cannot treat those who lack faith in Jesus as saved or as in any sense right with God. Yes, Hindus and Muslims and unbelieving Jews are not saved, not Christians, and not part of Christ’s church. I think my views are very representative of progressive Church of Christ thought.
I have the great pleasure of speaking and corresponding with members of the Churches of Christ from across the globe on a daily basis. My church is in the process of interviewing preacher candidates, and as a result, I’ve participated in interviews with many progressive Church of Christ ministers from across the country. And I attend and sometimes speak at lectureships from coast to coast. I think I have a better knowledge base than most from which to evaluate the progressive Churches.
The view you heard expressed is not remotely representative of the progressive Churches of Christ. Indeed, I find the movement to be moving in a deeply Christ-centered direction. The overall direction is evangelical, that is, gospel- and Christ-centered, rather than universalist.
This travesty, in my view, is the end result of “unity at any cost.”
Why is “unity at any cost” in quotations? No one here has ever said such a thing. Nor is it a fair characterization of what is preached from the pulpits of the progressive Churches. I know, because in our preacher search, I’ve listened to a lot of sermons! (If sermons can make one holy, I’m among the holiest people on the planet, having heard so very many sermons these last few months!) What we do teach is “unity in Jesus.”
The comment you heard is, however, the natural consequence of what some scientists call “liminality.” Liminality is about how people react to dramatic change in their lives. When a man loses his wife of many years, he’s in a “liminal” state, that is, he’s lost his bearings and looking for a new grounding, a new way to be. And people in a liminal state often find themselves veering between extremes, searching for a new grounding.
This is from Wikipedia –
The liminal state is characterized by ambiguity, openness, and indeterminacy. One’s sense of identity dissolves to some extent, bringing about disorientation. Liminality is a period of transition where normal limits to thought, self-understanding, and behavior are relaxed – a situation which can lead to new perspectives.
Thirty years ago, many in the Churches of Christ found themselves unhappy with 20th Century Church of Christ theology and went looking for a better, truer gospel. Some leaders went in unfortunate directions. Many headed into Pentecostalism. Many headed into the ICOC. A very few experimented with universalism. But that was then.
A generation later, the progressive movement has appeared, and it is much less liminal and much more Christ-centered. I believe that after experimenting with the Church Growth Movement, with secular politics, and other mistaken directions, the progressive Churches are, on the whole, finally finding themselves and their long-term direction.
And so, yes, it’s a disturbing, sad anecdote, but it’s not representative of today’s progressive Churches. Indeed, you see me as an outlier, but I find that I can talk to preachers across the country and immediately share vast amounts of common ground. I see the Spirit as alive, well, and thriving in many Churches of Christ and the progressive Churches moving in a healthy, Christ-centered direction. I’m excited about what I’m learning about our sister congregations across the country.
You also wrote,
We are, as Jay has noted, at a “Fork in the Road.” I have taken the right turn that seeks “precision obedience” (realizing all the way I will never live up to the absolute ideal of the Gospel). My Progressive friends have chosen the left turn. But look down the road and ask, “Where will we be when we get where we are going?”
“Precision obedience” is a new term to me, but “obedience” is not. We differ little in our desire to be obedient. Rather, our differences are in our understandings as to what obedience truly entails. I would argue that my views lead to a much more difficult kind of obedience, a kind of obedience that can only be accomplished by the power of God’s Spirit within us.
Anyone can refuse to sing with an instrument. It’s not hard. However, if you’ll recall my recent sermon, the standard I urge — and that I hear being urged across the country in progressive pulpits — is the service, submission, and sacrifice of Jesus. And the goal, therefore, is to focus our preaching and teaching on what that really means, which is a standard vastly different from Five Acts of Worship.
Now, one can certainly do both, and I’m sure you feel that you do both, but you can’t preach both as essentials. You can’t simultaneously contend that boundaries of the Kingdom are defined by Five Acts of Worship and by conformity to the image of Christ. The church can’t go but in one direction at a time, and many will choose the easy path — Five Acts of Worship.
And the truth of that is evident from observation. If you were to consider the local congregations here in West Alabama, the ones with the reputations for serving the needy and caring for the unfortunate are Jesus focused. The congregations with the reputations for arrogance and condemnation are CENI/Five Acts focused.
We’ve been effectively disfellowshipped by another Church of Christ in town because we clap. The preacher complimented us on our community service and hearts for the needy, but said, “95% right isn’t right.” In short, regardless of how Christ-centered we are, how much good God does through us, clapping damns us. And yet he obviously considers himself and his church among the 100% — those who get everything exactly right. You see, they measure themselves, not by Christ on the cross, but by the Regulative Principle, and they find themselves in 100% compliance.
It’s not that avoiding instrumental music makes one arrogant. My own church remains a cappella. No, it’s taking those kinds of things and turning them into the very definition of Christianity and of obedience. When we define our relationship to God by whether or not we use an instrument, clap, or refuse to re-affirm elders, we cheapen the gospel and, all too often, take pride in our supposedly superior obedience — substituting the cheap and easy for the challenge of the cross.
When the cross is held up as the exclusive standard, well, that attitude evaporates, because no one can feel all that superior in the shadow of the cross.
Thus, central verses — preaching verses — become such passages as —
(Eph 5:1-2 ESV) Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. 2 And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
(2Co 3:17-18 ESV) 17 Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. 18 And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.
Therefore, yes, I’m entirely for precision obedience, but I define obedience as being submission to the image of God as revealed in Jesus — and most fully revealed on the cross. I don’t need the Regulative Principle or CENI to understand and teach this. And where this is taught, I find the Spirit acts powerfully on God’s people to lift them into incredible acts of sacrificial service.
Good God things happen.
But the challenge of the cross is so great that the Christian walk requires Divine assistance.
(Phi 2:12-13 ESV) 12 Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, 13 for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
This is not license. It’s not liberalism. It’s not disobedience. Rather, it’s precision obedience viewed through a lens that I believe is much truer to the Scriptures.
This approach to Scripture imposes no obligation to use an instrument, but it does require that we view one another as brothers even if one of us does. After all, the goal is not to adhere to a Calvinist abstraction found in the silences … but to Jesus, the Messiah. And so we gain the freedom and inestimable joy of seeing Jesus in each other — because of our shared faith and commitment to Jesus and his Kingdom. It’s a wondrous, glorious thing to experience.
But, as I began, there are boundaries, and the boundary is faith, that is, a genuine, penitent faith in Jesus as Lord and Son of the Living God.