Progressive Churches of Christ: Resolving the Tension, Part 4.1

progressiveI’m not an expert on story theory, but perhaps I can explain myself clearly enough not to waste your time.

We define ourselves by our stories. By “stories” I mean metanarratives, framing stories, and such like. These stories may or may not be true, but we act as though they are true — sometimes contrary to all evidence.

For example, we tell our children that happiness is found in a college education, a career, a family, children, and a large retirement fund. Which sounds really good. What we ignore is that there are plenty of very happy people with none of those things. Evidently, there are other paths to happiness — but we aren’t about to share those other paths with our kids.

We tell ourselves that everyone all over the world covets the American way of life, our freedom of speech and religion, our free enterprise system. And yet we see on TV people who hate those very things. Why? Well, they tell themselves different stories about what the good life is all about.

Christianity is a story. A true story, in fact. But a story. And we tell the story several different ways and so we get several different results. These differing results we call “denominations” or even “sub-denominations.” And we are often completely unaware that where we differ is in the way we tell what should be the very same story.

This is why different churches emphasize different parts of the Bible. In the Churches of Christ, we tell the stories of baptism in Acts of the Apostles, and we’ve been deeply formed by those stories. The Pentecostal churches read the same passages and tell the story of the Spirit’s power to convert the lost and transform and heal people. Baptists read the same passages and find stories about the power of faith and a plea to Jesus to enter one’s heart.

The differences aren’t so much hermeneutical (how we interpret the text) as metanarrative (what we see and don’t see). Humans, being creatures of story, only see those things that reinforce the story they want to hear.

When a nation overthrows a dictator and installs democratic government, we are assured that the American way is best and the envy of the world. When a nation overthrows a dictator and imposes a theocracy even more cruel and restrictive than the previous government, we tell ourselves that the forces of democracy were defeated by foreign interventionists or a lack of American support — even when there really were no forces of democracy because democracy is completely foreign to that nation’s culture.

It’s the “No true Scotsman” fallacy

Person A: “No Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge.”
Person B: “But my uncle Angus likes sugar with his porridge.”
Person A: “Ah yes, but no true Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge.”

Thus, the Churches of Christ dismiss as exceptional those passages that don’t fit their story. The Baptists do the same. The Pentecostals do the same. The passages that really count support our view. The other passages are difficult passages explained away by our easy, obviously true passages.

Now, once we realize how driven we are by stories, church leadership should learn that it becomes extremely important to tell the right stories — true stories that define the church to be the church God wants it to be. But usually we let the stories control us.

A given Church of Christ might see itself as standing courageously against the forces of Postmodernism (the Emerging Church, Situation Ethics, Liberalism, the community church movement, or whatever bogeyman is convenient) and standing for the Truth at great personal cost. The fact that evangelism is failing is explained by the Postmodern age in which we live and the anti-church culture of America. Those denominations that are growing by evangelism do so by compromising with the spirit of the age. If they stood foursquare for the Truth as we do, they’d experience the same poor results and would courageously continue standing for the Truth as their membership declines.

Another Church of Christ might see itself as filled with grace and the Spirit, teaching lessons that other Churches of Christ are afraid to teach for fear of losing control of their members. The beauty of the gospel is plainly taught each Sunday morning in Bible class and from the pulpit, and the truth of this teaching is demonstrated by the transfer of members from other Churches of Christ in town looking for a better, truer gospel. However, there’s no harm in letting a few members continue to believe that those who use instruments to worship God are damned in their sins. And cooperation with only those congregations to our doctrinal right is enough. There’s no need to reach outside the Churches of Christ to demonstrate unity in Jesus. Unity within the Churches of Christ is remarkable enough, and we can be content with that.

Do you get the idea? Now,the great danger is that there are so many false stories being told that you can convince yourself that no story is true. But there’s a cure for that. It’s called “the gospel.” But we in the Churches of Christ do a particularly poor job of telling this story. After all, if we were good at it, we’d be powerful evangelists. And we’re just not.

[Tomorrow: A better way to tell the story.]

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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13 Responses to Progressive Churches of Christ: Resolving the Tension, Part 4.1

  1. This morning at the Lord’s Table, I used Psalm 74. There, Asaph, writing after the destruction of Jerusalem, asked, “How long, O God…?” (v.10), but followed it by saying, “Yet God my King is from of old, working salvation in the midst of the earth” (v. 12). He then reminded himself of Israel’s “story” of deliverance by God (vv. 13-17) before speaking again to God about how the enemy scoffs and calling on Him to “have regard for the covenant.”

    The Table is to be a time of remembering our “story” – as Passover was for Israel. To remember that “God my King is from of old, working salvation in the midst of the earth” – and that He is calling us to join Him in this work as lights and salt in the earth, as people redeemed who share His redeeming story.

    Yet, our meta-narrative of CENI brings us to the Table only to obey a command and follow an example that leads us to an inference that a pinch of unleavened bread and sip of grape juice and private reflection on the physical suffering of Jesus is what this Supper is all about. Little do we look at God’s story of working salvation in the midst of the earth, but only of salvation from the earth, a very Gnostic view.

    I look forward to seeing your take on a better way to tell God’s “Story!”

  2. John says:

    “Little do we look at God’s story of working salvation in the midst of the earth…”.

    Good, Jerry; very good!!

  3. John F says:

    The great commission is (Matthew)
    1. make disciples
    2. baptize in name of . . .
    3. teach all that i have commanded
    4. I am with you (Holy Spirit indwelling)

    Our cofC heritage has too often wanted to go 1-3-2 and ignore 4.

    To emphasize teaching all that I have commanded to those even CONTEMPLATING discipleship is almost certainly doomed to failure. By the time we get all of #3 covered, #1 folks are overwhelmed, and without #4 empowering a spiritual walk . . .

    I hope you get the point — we need gospel (Matt / Mark / Luke / John ) long before we need the exposition of Romans and Revelation. Not that Romans and Revelation are irrelevant, but who cares about worship if they don’t FIRST care about Christ (1 Cor. 15)

  4. Jim H says:

    Jay, excellent post! Very thought provoking! It’s amazing how our denominationally taught metanarritives filter out our ability to see and understand another view even if it has scriptural support. Biblical teaching on grace vs law and the importance of Spirit santification empowerment can be so difficult to accept, especially if it comes from a metanarritive outside our tribe; and if it comes from inside our tribe it is too often viewed as heretical and must be stopped.

  5. Price says:

    I think you’re getting closer to how I see things changing for the better.. not that I’m right.. but the PERSONAL stories seem to have greater impact that THE Story.. THE story seems distant and distorted.. Your PERSONAL story of how The Story has impacted your is far more interesting and far more compelling..

    You say you taught that divorce can only happen according to scripture when sexual compromise happens… until your daughter was getting beat up regularly.. tell me about that.

    You say miracles ceased.. until you saw it with your own eyes.. Tell me about that.

    You say that you went to a service where they used instruments and the people were joyful at times, solemn at times, and there was no great earthquake…tell me about that.

    Thank you for the help with my kids so I can work.. tell me why you started this ministry…

    At least that’s how I see it.. Don’t tell me about what happened 2,000 years ago unless you can tell me how it’s had an impact in your life..

  6. laymond says:

    Price, when we read the “stories” of 2,000 years ago, we should take lessons from them that will affect our “spiritual life” . but you may be right church is more about “my life” than “my education”.
    If you accept Jesus as the “great teacher” we need to accept his “stories” as great teaching. Maybe we should try to explain more fully the lesson contained within the “parable”.

  7. Price says:

    Hey Laymond… I wasn’t really thinking about the “church goer” so much as the one to whom the church goer might attempt to minister to or evangelize, if one wishes to use that term. Of course the meat eating church goer has many uses for the OT and NT but what about the person on the street who couldn’t name 5 of the books in the Bible.. They, IMO, want to know why they should come to your church.. Other than fluff I think it’s the personal testimonies… But, I could be wrong.

  8. Alabama John says:

    Seeing someone in dire circumstances and handling it by looking upward will draw more to Christ and the Church than any fluff.

  9. Dwight says:

    One thing I am really bad about, not that it is bad, but not the intent is reading the scriptures like a manual or play book instead of a story. The narrative is God’s love and reaching out to bring man closer to him.He did it for the Israelites and did it for the world. The impact is why and how He did it. Then it is about us coming to him on His path or not. But it is still laid out in a series of events and not follow step one and then step two and etc.

  10. Mark says:

    There is much that can be learned from the parables. Even in today’s world the parables are relevant if the minister will focus on one at a time. Some of them are short but are still “action-packed.” Someone convinced ministers and people that the Gospel was too simple and was “just giving them milk.” I think if those parables were good enough for Jesus to use while teaching (even the learned Pharisees) they should be good enough to use today.

  11. Monty says:

    “But we in the Churches of Christ do a particularly poor job of telling this story. After all, if we were good at it, we’d be powerful evangelists. And we’re just not”

    That’s what I’ve been trying to share with my brethren where I work. But the concept seems to fall on deaf ears, at least so far. Where does the Bible story and your story intersect or collide as Rick Atchley says? We need to be able to share that with others who need the good news. If it wasn’t good news for us then how can it be good news for them? Most of the flock are 2nd – 4th generation members of the CofC. Many just know always going to church and getting baptized as a teen. Not, I was lost, but now I’m found.

  12. Jay Guin says:

    Well, Price, you’ve messed up everything! I’m trying to write a couple of weeks ahead because I have hiatal hernia surgery coming up Friday — and now I have to write a post about testimonies and personal stories. Because it fits the series too well to skip. And so I’ve got to re-date and re-post everything that comes later.

    It’s a lot of trouble. And it’s entirely your fault.


  13. Price says:

    It’s not the first time I’ve been called a pain in the hernia… 🙂 I really think this series is a fork in the road… Looking forward to your continued reflections.

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