A Passion for Non-Sectarian Faith (Jan-Feb 1993)

By Matt Dabbs

Editorial by Rubel Shelly
January – February, 1993

9It has been a decade since I wrote a book titled I Just Want to Be a Christian. The book set off a tiny firestorm of reaction that confirmed my fear of an entrenched sectarianism within the Church of Christ. It was my attempt to articulate an emerging concern for a faith in Christ that is larger than (and often contrary to) mere denominational loyalty.

Strange as it may sound to those who have observed us from the outside, our history in the American religious heritage is rooted in an appeal for religious unity based on nonsectarian Christianity. Nothing could be more incongruous than that a unity movement has become so divided, that an appeal for non-sectarianism could have become so sectarian. But it is the history of every reform movement in religious history: reformations quickly need reforming!

Wineskins, as declared unambiguously in the editorial statements of our first issue, is intended to be a catalyst for reform (i.e., bold and responsible change) within a heritage of reformers. The goal of “restoring the ancient faith and order” will always, when properly understood commit its adherents to an ongoing process. The restoration of New Testament Christianity will always be a goal to be sought and never an accomplishment to be applauded and defended.

As I sat down to write my editorial for this issue, I remembered the original version of the preface I wrote for I Just Want to Be a Christian. At the request of its publisher, I deleted the part of it that was most personal to me. I choose to share it here – essentially unedited and therefore “dated” in some of its chronological references – as an introduction to what others will write in this issue about undenominational Christianity.

Anyone who has ever written a book knows what an intensely personal experience it is. This even makes the task at hand something of a love-hat relationship; there is something the writer wants to say, but there are always hurdles in the path. Research on complex topics is a hurdle; time for writing is another; the sheer challenge of expression is still another. I have experienced and dealt with all these several times before in writing books on a variety of topics. But this book is different from the ones which have gone before in my experience.

As a matter of fact, this book has been such an intensely personal experience that the “Author’s Preface” to it takes the form of an autobiographical statement.

This book has been written in pain and with a sense of danger.

The pain of writing relates to several factors – some theological and some too personal for full expression in words. Yet I feel compelled to try to verbalize something of both sorts of pain.

This book offers criticism of something I love. It is not a pleasant thing to be involved in such a process. Some who hear the criticism will attribute my criticisms to hatred and attack my devotion to the fellowship of believers with wom I am associated. They would as legitimately castigate my love for my children in view of criticism I have made of their behavior at certain times.

Some criticism is surely destructive and motivated by unworthy sentiments. There have been epithets hurled and books written by people leaving our brotherhood. They sounded bitter and cynical. They offered nothing positive as an alternative for what they criticized. They were simply waving goodbye in frustration and despair. Some might have been kept or reclaimed if we had been gentler in dealing with them. Even when duty calls for correction and rebuke, there must still be “great patience and careful instruction” (2 Timothy 4:2) rather than castigation and harshness. When we are so prone to begin our rebuke with public “exposure,” threats, or even excommunication, let no one be surprised that outsiders do not see us as the modern-day extensions of Jesus’ ministry (e.g., his treatment of Peter) or the restoration work done by Paul (e.g., handling doctrinal and moral problems at Corinth).

On the other hand, criticism can be offered which is designed to be constructive and which has been motivated by love. Even if one loves his children more than his own life, there are times when their behavior must be challenged. The child may not perceive the parent’s love, but the parent must speak and act in the child’s best interest and be misunderstood for a time.

The criticisms I have offered of our brotherhood are most often self-criticisms. I once moved among and was applauded by the people who are now my most violent critics. Though not a fortune teller, I looked ahead before speaking or writing on these matters and foresaw the men, papers, and geographical areas from which quick and severe reaction would come. There have been few surprises either in the persons or positions which have surfaced. I have sat in their council meetins; I know the strategy of attacking and defaming. I, too, have refused to hear, hurled my theological missiles, and thought myself “contending for the faith” all the while. I deserve the fate I have suffered at their hands, for it is right for one to reap as he has sowed.

Though many of the things I have had to say about a sectarian spirit, smug self-righteousness, and the like are primarily self-criticisms, they have been taken as personal attacks by many of those from whose company I have sought to sever myself. Perhaps it could be no other way – either for them or me.

There has been no small amount of pain involved in thinking through a number of topics which others had been allowed (by my intellectual lethargy) to decide for me. Working from uninformed dogma to personal conviction, from traditional posture to informed faith requires more openness, integrity, and humility than I am accustomed to having. To question the predominant sentiment of one’s subculture is not an easy thing for a Jew, Roman Catholic, Buddhist, or me.

I grew up more interested at times in the party line than in the truth. A few preachers had more influence on me than the Word of God on certain issues. It was my fault more than theirs! I learned to think as they thought, believe as they believed, and preach as they preached. I advanced beyond many of my own age and background. I spoke in-house jargon to the appreciation of those who already believed as I did. The applause was heady.

Finally it dawned on me that preaching on the small range of issues important to my own kind in the coded language we used and with harsh manner toward all who dared disagree – even within our own brotherhood – was wrong. Even if I was right on every topic, the spirit of “setting all others at naught” and considering only those like me “the faithful church” was ungodly.

As I looked at the larger world of needy humanity outside my own fellowship, it began to dawn on me why they weren’t hearing what we were saying. It was the spirit of Pharasaical smugness with which I was going to them that made it impossible for them to hear. The fault was mine rather than theirs!

Even to speak of the sort of spiritual struggle I have been going through smacks of a new form of arrogance. It may come across as simply shifting ground and now setting at naught the ones who set others at naught. After all, nothing is more inconsistent than the person who is trying to show tolerance to everyone except the intolerant. Nothing of the sort is intended, for such is not the spirit in which the book is written. In fact, over the past year an inordinate amount of my time has been spent in trying to go to, talk with, and clarify positions for those who stand to the theological right of me. I tell of the personal struggle only to help the reader who is unaware of it to understand how one who has been so sectarian in spirit can presume to speak against what he once exemplified to many.

The attacks from a few on the far right have been painful to bear. Worse still has been for some to read their attacks and to think their distortions and misrepresentations of my views are correct statements of them. For example, not one of these statements represents my view, yet all have been attributed to me: “He says anyone who is a member of any denomination is a Christian,” “He holds that one church is as good as another,” “He doesn’t believe one has to be baptized to be saved,” “He advocates instrumental music and premillennialism,” “He thinks denominationalism is all right and that people can be parties to sectarian division without sinning in the process,” etc.

A final element of pain involved in writing this book has been the recent death of my father. Shortly after I had completed the second of three drafts of this volume, he entered the hospital, had exploratory surgery, and was found to have cancer of the pancreas. He lived three and one-half weeks. I spent as many of those precious days with him as possible. My mother, two brothers, and I were beside his bed in rotation or together for every moment during those three and one-half weeks. His mind was clear and sharp, and his concerns were for the needs of his wife and children before himself.

We spent several hours going over the manuscript of this book. I discussed every major point in it with him. he taught me, encouraged me, and challenged me. Nothing in this book startled him, for he had grown up at the feet of A.G. Freed and N.B. Hardeman. He attended three years of high school and two years of college under them from 1921-1926. He met my mother during her two years of college under the same teachers in 1924-26.

Daddy’s only chagrin over the points made in this book was in the realization of how far our brotherhood had strayed in his lifetime. His final request of me was that I complete and publish this book without being intimidated by the opposition it would generate among a few. Thus the dedication of this volume to him.

I also spoke of a sense of danger in the writing of this book. What does that imply?

There is certainly the danger that the destructive critics of the church I love may use my criticisms for their purpose. While this is a danger, it is not a prohibitive one. A far greater danger, it seems to me, would be to allow a situation to develop where people must choose between prejudiced loyalty to the status quo in this brotherhood and the destructive criticisms which usually end up in “bailing out” on the thesis of restorationism.

I would like for this book to represent a third option. While looking back over our theological and historical heritage, we need not think blind loyalty or total repudiation exhaust the possibilities for this generation. We have another course of action open to us: We can build on our strengths, engage in honest self-examination, learn where we have been ignorant, humble ourselves before God and men, and move confidently toward that unity and harmony of faith encouraged in the New Testament … [Note: Material beginning at this point is published as “Author’s Preface” in I Just Want to Be a Christian.]

I have no desire to be a “maverick” or to lead a movement. Although I have spoken above of the negative reaction from a few on the right, the overwhelming reaction of my brethren has been positive and encouraging. But I am not looking for anyone to follow me – only to think about these matters for himself. I certainly have no longing for martyrdom either!

A lot has happened in a decade. Most of it has been positive, and many have rallied to a renewal of commitment to the experiment of undenominational Christianity. But the process of renewal – and we must never forget that it is a process rather than an accomplishment – must always be stimulated. Reformation movements must always be reformed. A restoration movement can no more be started than it must be restored itself. Such is the nature of history, reality, and humankind.

In the pages that follow, you will be challenged to catch the dream of unity in Christ. You will be warned of the unsettling risks involved in doing so. And you will be thrilled to read of other efforts toward the same goal.

Since no weaker word can capture the depth of commitment required for such a task, I can only pray that God will give us a passion for nonsectarian faith.Wineskins Magazine

Rubel Shelly

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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