A couple of readers have written extensive, thoughtful comments regarding my last few posts. I’ve addressed many of the comments in yesterday’s post, but not all. This is a comment from reader Zackary —
But I really think this is a naive position to believe that “we can just love them so much that they couldn’t treat us as separate.” As Monty mentioned in an earlier comment, the early restoration leaders learned very quickly that melting together with the denominations would not be possible. Why would it be different today?
I really can’t buy the assumption that although unity is commanded, having tried it once and failed, we are now excused to never try again. Things have changed. The Baptists, Presbyterians, and many other denominations are not nearly as sectarian as they were 200 years ago.
And so it would be different today because the Spirit has been busy changing hearts to make the plea for unity much more realistic today than 200 years ago. Indeed, according to Bradley Wright in his Christians Are Hate-Filled Hypocrites … and Other Lies You’ve Been Told: A Sociologist Shatters Myths From the Secular and Christian Media(mandatory reading!) —
In particular, an increasing number of Evangelical Christians now describe themselves in general terms such as nondenominational, born again, or just Christian instead of using denominational labels such as Baptist or Evangelical Free. Reflecting this change, in 1990, only about 200,000 Americans described themselves as nondenominational Christians, but in 2008, 8 million did so.
In a mere 18 years, the Spirit persuaded 7.2 million Americans of the virtues of nondenominational Christianity — all while many in the Churches of Christ deny that “the denominations” would be willing to respond to the plea!
I have absolutely no idea how it would be possible to have a “missional alliance” where various denominations recruit and train evangelists.
It’s already happening. Churches are crossing denominational lines across the country to do exactly this. As Lesslie Newbigin famously teaches, we should look to see what God is already doing and join God in his mission!
The only way it would be possible is if you stop preaching the good news and telling people how to respond to the good news. Then maybe they will accept you.
“Good news” is the gospel. The gospel is defined by Paul at the beginning of Romans —
(Rom 1:1–6 ESV) 1 Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, 2 which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, 3 concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh 4 and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, 5 through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations, 6 including you who are called to belong to Jesus Christ,
What part of the gospel is not taught by the Baptists? The Presbyterians? I assume you are not really speaking of gospel but of baptism — which I addressed in yesterday’s post. But Jesus died to bring about salvation by faith in Jesus, not faith in baptism.
I believe our traditional teaching on baptism to be correct; I just also believe that those not properly baptized despite having faith in Jesus will be saved because God repeatedly promises that everyone with faith in Jesus will be saved, and I believe those promises.
I don’t see another way than to return focus on being Christians only rather than the only Christians, being welcoming in areas where there is no contradiction to God’s will, and a call to become nondenominational with us.
I deny that we are in any sense “nondenominational.” We walk, talk, waddle, and quack just like a denominational duck. We are a duck. The only way we can even claim not to be a denomination is to redefine “denomination” as “those people who are not going to heaven” and so damning all others. And that’s just as wrong as can be and utterly contradictory to our Restoration heritage.
“Denomination” means, according to Merriam-Webster —
a religious organization whose congregations are united in their adherence to its beliefs and practices
How are we not that? How is that even wrong? The sin is in being sectarian, that is, in finding salvation in a denomination rather than in Jesus.
It seems like the underlying assumption of many “progressives” today is that we are no different than they. I’m sure in some ways that’s true, but in some ways and important ways it’s not.
The scriptural test is whether we have faith that Jesus is the Messiah.
(Matt 16:16–18 ESV) 16 Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” 17 And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. 18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”
(Rom 10:9–13 ESV) 9 because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. 11 For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.” 12 For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. 13 For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
I believe those passages with all my heart.
Will you merge with the Episcopalians, who embrace homosexuality? Will you merge with Catholics, who pray to saints? Will you merge with the hardcore Calvinists who will kick you out faster than you can blink. Will you merge with those whose creeds and affections will never allow you to merge?
“Merge”? What an odd concept to introduce into this discussion. There is no “merge.” There is no not-merge. Rather, we recognize as joined together those whom God has joined together. Unity is a gift from God, not an accomplishment of man.
(Eph 4:1–6 ESV) 1 I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, 2 with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, 3 eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. 4 There is one body and one Spirit —just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call — 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.
Our task is not to create unity but to “maintain the unity of the Spirit.” We do not create “one body” because there is but one body. There is but “one faith.” And on and on. Paul’s point is that, because we have been united by God himself, we should start acting like it. To “walk in a manner worthy of the calling” is to live the unity that God himself has already created.
Therefore, it’s not about institutional mergers. It’s about each one of us changing his perceptions to recognize what God has already done — and living accordingly.
Now, is there sin in the other denominations. Most certainly. Is there sin in the Churches of Christ. Most certainly. Why are our sins forgiven and theirs damning? What makes us forgiven and them not? Don’t we all have faith in Jesus as Messiah? And doesn’t that mean that we’re all saved?
As I said yesterday, there is a boundary, which is faith in Jesus — understood as including trust in his promises and a penitent faithfulness to his commands. And you cannot with a straight face tell me that the only people on the planet who meet this standard are found in the Church of Christ. It’s just not true.
Look at it this way. Imagine you visit a Church of Christ, and presiding over the Lord’s Table is a man who is divorced and remarried in a way that you believe means he’s living in adultery. What does God require that you do? Do you treat the entire congregation as damned? (Some so teach.) Do you make a display of refusing to take the cup and the bread so that all know you don’t condone this man’s marriage or the teachings of his elders? (Some so teach.) Or do you figure that the holiness of the communion does not derive from the holiness of the man presiding — but from the holiness of the man who died on the cross — and so take the Eucharist in thanksgiving?
The fact that the Lord’s Supper is served by a sinner who believes himself right with God, when I do not, does not make the Lord’s Supper any less the Lord’s Supper. And if it’s offered, I take it — because it’s not my job to test the doctrinal purity of all present at the meal. Rather, I take communion to proclaim the death of Messiah Jesus — and in so doing, I proclaim his gospel. And why would I not want to do that?
Moreover, I will not stoop to stereotyping to preserve my denomination’s claim of superiority. Certainly there are Episcopalians who condone homosexual conduct that I do not. And there are Episcopalians who are just as opposed to homosexual conduct as I am. Do I damn the entire denomination for the sins of a few?
There are Calvinists who treat me as damned for teaching a non-Calvinist doctrine. But most do not. Do I damn all Calvinists because a handful damn me?
It’s easy to find error in the other denominations, but our Church of Christ holier-than-thou sectarianism is deeply sinful and contrary to the teachings of Galatians. Why do we excuse adding works to faith — which Paul says is damning — and refuse to excuse a misunderstanding of the meaning of the Greek preposition eis in Acts 2:38?
We have to remove a plank or two from our own eyes before we can even begin to criticize “the denominations.” Indeed, we should pray that, in our unity efforts, the other denominations don’t judge us as harshly as we judge them.
I am thinking the early restorationists had it right in essentially saying: ‘we tried to meld with you, we would if we could, now you come meld with us. We’re repenting, now you repent.’
The early Restorationists did indeed announce their repentance, but they did not give up and declare all others damned because most denominations refused to join with us. Here are the words of Alexander Campbell —
From “Letters to England-No. 1,” The Millennial Harbinger (June 1837)
We would, indeed, have no objections to co-operate in these matters with all Christians, and raise contributions for all such purposes as, in our judgment, are promotive of the Divine glory or of human happiness, whether or not they belong to our churches: for we find in all Protestant parties Christians as exemplary as ourselves according to their and our relative knowledge and opportunities … .
(pp. 271-273; emphasis added)
Campbell’s reply to the Lunenburg letter —
In reply to this conscientious sister, I observe, that if there be no Christians in the Protestant sects, there are certainly none among the Romanists, none among the Jews, Turks, Pagans; and therefore no Christians in the world except ourselves, or such of us as keep, or strive to keep, all the commandments of Jesus. Therefore, for many centuries there has been no church of Christ, no Christians in the world; and the promises concerning the everlasting kingdom of Messiah have failed, and the gates of hell have prevailed against his church! This cannot be; and therefore there are Christians among the sects.
But who is a Christian? I answer, Every one that believes in his heart that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah, the son of God; repents of his sins, and obeys him in all things according to his measure of knowledge of his will. A perfect man in Christ, or a perfect Christian, is one thing; and “a babe in Christ,”a stripling in the faith, or an imperfect Christian, is another. The New Testament recognizes both the perfect man and the imperfect man in Christ. The former, indeed, implies the latter. Paul commands the imperfect Christians to “be perfect,” (2 Cor. iii. 11.) and says he wishes the perfection of Christians. “And this also we wish” for you saints in Corinth, “even your perfection:” and again he says, “We speak wisdom among the perfect,” (1 Cor. ii. 6.) and he commands them to be “perfect in understanding,” (1 Cor. xiv. 20.) and in many other places implies or speaks the same things. Now there is perfection of will, of temper, and of behaviors. There is a perfect state and a perfect character. And hence it is possible for Christians to be imperfect in some respects without an absolute forfeiture of the Christian state and character. Paul speaks of “carnal” Christians, of “weak” and “strong” Christians; and the Lord Jesus admits that some of the good and honest-hearted bring forth only thirty fold, while others bring forth sixty, and some a hundred fold increase of the fruits of righteousness.
But every one is wont to condemn others in that in which he is more intelligent than they; while, on the other hand, he is condemned for his Pharisaism or his immodesty and rash judgment of others, by those that excel in the things in which he is deficient. I cannot, therefore, make any one duty the standard of Christian state or character, not even immersion into the name of the father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and in my heart regard all that have been sprinkled in infancy without their own knowledge and consent, as aliens from Christ and the well-grounded hope of heaven. “Salvation was of the Jews,” acknowledged the Messiah; and yet he said of a foreigner, an alien from the commonwealth of Israel, a Syro-Phenician, “I have not found so great faith—no, not in Israel.”
Should I find a Pedobaptist more intelligent in the Christian Scriptures, more spiritually-minded and more devoted to the Lord than a Baptist, or one immersed on a profession of the ancient faith, I could not hesitate a moment in giving the preference of my heart to him that loveth most. Did I act otherwise, I would be a pure sectarian, a Pharisee among Christians. Still I will be asked, How do I know that any one loves my Master but by his obedience to his commandments? I answer, In no other way. But mark, I do not substitute obedience to one commandment, for universal or even for general obedience. And should I see a sectarian Baptist or a Pedobaptist more spiritually-minded, more generally conformed to the requisitions of the Messiah, than one who precisely acquiesces with me in the theory or practice of immersion as I teach, doubtless the former rather than the latter, would have my cordial approbation and love as a Christian. So I judge, and so I feel. It is the image of Christ the Christian looks for and loves; and this does not consist in being exact in a few items, but in general devotion to the whole truth as far as known.
With me mistakes of the understanding and errors of the affections are not to be confounded. They are as distant as the poles. An angel may mistake the meaning of a commandment, but he will obey it in the sense in which he understands it. John Bunyan and John Newton were very different persons, and had very different views of baptism, and of some other things; yet they were both disposed to obey, and to the extent of their knowledge did obey the Lord in every thing.
There are mistakes with, and without depravity. There are wilful errors which all the world must condemn, and unavoidable mistakes which every one will pity. The Apostles mistook the Saviour when he said concerning John, “What if I will that John tarry till I come;” but the Jews perverted his words when they alleged that Abraham had died, in proof that he spake falsely when he said, “If a man keep my word he shall never see death.”
Many a good man has been mistaken. Mistakes are to be regarded as culpable and as declarative of a corrupt heart only when they proceed from a wilful neglect of the means of knowing what is commanded. Ignorance is always a crime when it is voluntary; and innocent when it is involuntary. Now, unless I could prove that all who neglect the positive institutions of Christ and have substituted for them something else of human authority, do it knowingly, or, if not knowingly, are voluntarily ignorant of what is written, I could not, I dare not say that their mistakes are such as unchristianize all their professions.
True, indeed, that it is always a misfortune to be ignorant of any thing in the Bible, and very generally it is criminal. But how many are there who cannot read; and of those who can read, how many are so deficient in education; and of those educated, how many are ruled by the authority of those whom they regard as superiors in knowledge and piety, that they never can escape out of the dust and smoke of their own chimney, where they happened to be born and educated! These all suffer many privations and many perplexities, from which the more intelligent are exempt.
The preachers of “essentials,” as well as the preachers of “nonessentials,” frequently err. The Essentialist may disparage the heart, while the Non-essentialist despises the institution. The latter makes void the institutions of Heaven, while the former appreciates not the mental bias on which God looketh most. My correspondent may belong to a class who think that we detract from the authority and value of an institution the moment we admit the bare possibility of any one being saved without it. But we choose rather to associate with those who think that they do not undervalue either seeing or hearing, by affirming that neither of them, nor both of them together, are essential to life. I would not sell one of my eyes for all the gold on earth; yet I could live without it.
There is no occasion, then, for making immersion, on a profession of faith, absolutely essential to a Christian—though it may be greatly essential to his sanctification and comfort. My right hand and my right eye are greatly essential to my usefulness and happiness, but not to my life; and as I could not be a perfect man without them, so I cannot be a perfect Christian without a right understanding and a cordial reception of immersion in its true and scriptural meaning and design. But he that thence infers that none are Christians but the immersed, as greatly errs as he who affirms that none are alive but those of clear and full vision.
I do not formally answer all the queries proposed knowing the one point to which they all aim. To that point only I direct these remarks. And while I would unhesitatingly say that I think that every man who despises any ordinance of Christ or who is willingly ignorant of it, cannot be a Christian; still I should sin against my own convictions, should I teach any one to think that if he mistook the meaning of any institution while in his soul he desired to know the whole will of God he must perish forever. But to conclude for the present–he that claims for himself a license to neglect the least of all the commandments of Jesus because it is possible for some to be saved who through insuperable ignorance or involuntary mistake, do neglect or transgress it; or he that wilfully neglects to ascertain the will of the Lord to the whole extent of his means and opportunities because some who are defective in that knowledge may be Christians, is not possessed of the spirit of Christ and cannot be registered among the Lord’s people. So I reason; and I think in so reasoning I am sustained by all the Prophets and Apostles of both Testaments.
That was Campbell’s announced, published position. I repeat this classic and important line:
Should I find a Pedobaptist [baptizer of infants] more intelligent in the Christian Scriptures, more spiritually-minded and more devoted to the Lord than a Baptist [one who baptizes only believers], or one immersed on a profession of the ancient faith [as in the RM], I could not hesitate a moment in giving the preference of my heart to him that loveth most. Did I act otherwise, I would be a pure sectarian, a Pharisee among Christians.
Campbell himself insisted that we not allow our doctrine of baptism to divide us from other believers in Messiah Jesus. What I teach is entirely consistent with the teachings of the great Restorers of the 19th Century. I’m calling for a return to Restoration principles and away from the sectarian corruptions of the 20th Century.
I believe if we consistently made the plea to come be Christians only rather than remain sectarian on the one hand or just melt away into a weak evangelical Christianity on the other then Christians “out there” would respond.
We are not remotely “Christians only,” and we would be gross hypocrites if we were to pretend otherwise. What makes a Christian only? What is required to be saved only? Well, in my experience, in the Churches of Christ, we ask but one question: “Do you believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God?” When the answer is “yes,” we happily baptize such a person. We treat them as saved — as a Christian only.
But when someone makes the same confession in a Baptist Church, we treat them as damned and write volumes and volumes on why we must do so.
We admit people as Christians only, and then we insist that they be Christians who practice five and only five acts of worship, who attend a congregation that is autonomous, that has a plurality of elders, that has a “scriptural name,” and we pile on more and more requirements until they are a Christian of our denomination. Because if we didn’t do this, we’d have to recognize as fellow Christians all with faith (properly defined) in Jesus as the Messiah. And then we couldn’t as easily look down on others.
To be Christians only we must accept as saved all who’ve made the Good Confession and attempt to be faithful to the confession they’ve made. When we deny their salvation because they believe in, say, predestination in the Calvinist sense, we are adding to faith in Jesus additional requirements to be saved, and then we are no longer Christians only.
And yes, if there are opportunities to work with whole congregations who are seriously willing to seek God’s will and unity rather than just pretend to be unified, take advantage of those as well.
Again: we are unified. God has united us. The crucifixion of Jesus did it. Our place is to recognize the unity we’ve been given. And it’s a command, not a suggestion.