Book Review: Who is My Brother? (Mar-Apr 1998)

By Matt Dabbs

by C. Leonard Allen
March – April, 1998

LaGard Smith, Who is my Brother? Facing a Crisis of Identity and Fellowship (Malibu, CA: Cotswold, 1997). 281 pp.

Most students of restoration history have heard of the question put to Alexander Campbell in 1837 by a follower from Lunenburg County, Virginia. The woman was deeply disturbed by Campbell’s statement that he found Christians in all Protestant groups and wanted to know how Mr. Campbell could consider anyone a Christian who had not been baptized by immersion for remission of sins. “But who is a Christian?” Campbell replied. “Everyone 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.” And he added: “I cannot make any one duty the standard of Christian state or character, not even immersion.”

This reply troubled and shocked many of Campbell’s followers. A whirlwind of controversy ensued for several months, and Campbell felt compelled to write more on the subject. In those further explanations and in years to come, he never rejected the position quoted above, though he did nuance and finesse it.

This book, in a way, reopens this old controversy. The author is troubled that a growing number of people in Churches of Christ today are quietly but quickly coming to acknowledge as fellow Christians all those who have faith in Jesus regardless of how they understand and practice baptism. He calls it a “quiet revolution.” Caught up in a “frenzy of ecumenical fervor,” Churches of Christ are experiencing now a “radical abandonment of settled doctrine” regarding baptism and fellowship. The “faith only” doctrine is replacing the historic insistence on the essentiality of baptism with the result that our “exclusive circle of fellowship” is breaking down.

Part 1 of the book responds to this quietly dangerous revolution. With urgency and deep concern, the author exposes what he sees as the underlying causes of this sea-change: biblical illiteracy, the frenzy for church growth, the recent impact of the Promise Keepers movement, and the retooling of our traditional theology to justify what people have already decided to do.

Part II, which is the heart of the book, lays out and develops a five-fold model of fellowship: (1) Universal fellowship is what we share with all people simply because we are human beings. (2) Faith fellowship is what we share with all those who love God and profess faith in Jesus; but because they have not experienced the new birth according to the biblical pattern, they are “still outside the boundaries of the kingdom.” (3) “In Christ” fellowship is what we share with Christ and with all those who have been baptized as adults for the remission of sins; it does not depend upon complete doctrinal agreement but upon being united with Christ. (4) Conscience fellowship is a subset within “in Christ” fellowship; it recognizes that matters of conscience can and often do create enclaves within the larger body of Christ. Though often formed for legitimate reasons, they usually in fact create unhealthy tensions. (5) Congregational fellowship is the realm in which koinonia is most fully lived out; table fellowship stands at the center, creating an environment where nurture, ministry, and discipline flourish.

The final section, “Rethinking Sacred Cows,” answers three questions: When and how is a member to be disfellowshipped? Who is a false teacher? And, Do believers who are not “in Christ” have any hope of eternal salvation?

In general this book is a restating of the exclusive view of fellowship traditionally held by Churches of Christ in this century. It is done with a style, a grace, and an unpredictability that is pleasantly surprising. On one hand, the author says that “not even Campbell could escape the fellowship enigma” regarding baptism and fellowship, and admits that he—and all of us—are caught in such an enigma. “Even where there are bright lines,” he allows, “the enigma of fellowship remains an enigma.” Yet on the other hand, an either/or polemic runs throughout the book that makes one wonder where the enigma went. But I should quickly add that there also runs through the book a spirit of charity, dialogue, and respect that is usually absent in works of this genre. And in a final chapter the author allows that God in the end will exercise divine mercy and clemency in ways that will most likely surprise us all.

My problem with this author’s restating of the traditional narrow view of fellowship is not its robust polemics or its sharp criticism of the spirit of the times. The basic problem is doctrinal. The author deplores “doctrinal dithering” and calls loudly for doctrinal purity. I agree. And that is, ironically, the deepest problem with this book—doctrinal softness or deficiency. A deficiency the author has received from his doctrinal tradition and here perpetuates. To put it differently, though this book claims that doctrinal slippage is sending us down the slippery slope, it is itself not doctrinal enough. Like many writings in this genre, it has slipped away from the central, anchoring, orienting doctrine of the faith: the Trinity.

This may at first sound like an odd, even outlandish, claim. “Of course we believe in the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Three in one, one in three. What’s the problem?” The problem is not believing in the Father, Son, and Spirit, of course; any biblicist does that. The problem is a Trinitarian theology, a functional doctrine of the Trinity that centers and deeply shapes all of one’s theology: In this sense the doctrine of the Trinity has been in steady recession since the seventeenth century, and that eclipse stands behind the rise of modern Unitarian, rationalistic, Christological, and other heresies. In more subtle forms it lies behind the line of “supernatural rationalism” that runs from the Christian philosopher Jon Locke down through Campbell and other progressive thinkers of his time. To put the problem over-simply, God’s relationality was overshadowed by mechanism. Mystery was eclipsed by method.

As a result, the doctrinal tradition the author so aggressively defends has been badly off-center. Though most have affirmed the Father, Son, and Spirit, we have had a very weak doctrine of the Trinity. Indeed, the doctrine of the Trinity has been in retreat in the modern West until the last couple of decades.

As I have stressed over and over to my theology students over the last decade, the Trinity is not about some strange heavenly arithmetic that theologians like to play with. It is, rather, a kind of shorthand for referring to what we know of God now that Jesus has come and the Spirit has been poured out. Though a deep mystery, the Trinity is a crucially practical doctrine. For the way we understand God’s way of loving and relating to people sets the pattern for how his followers relate to one another and treat one another.

The Trinity provides our pattern or exemplar for unity and fellowship. God leads a relational life as Father, Son, and Spirit. That life is characterized by submissive love, as each member of the Trinity pours his life into the other. In God himself there is an abundant outpouring of life, so abundant that it overflows and creates community with God’s creatures—those outside the relationship within God. Through the sending of his Son and the outpouring of his Spirit, God pours this rich life into his creatures. As Diogenes Allen puts it: “The life of the Trinity is a perfect community for which we long; it satisfies our craving to be loved perfectly and to be attached to others properly.”

We partake of the Trinitarian life in several ways: sacramentally (to use an awkward word) through observing Christ’s ordinances, doxologically as we draw near to God and he to us, charismatically through divine gifts of grace, and pneumatologically through the mystery of the indwelling Spirit. The Trinity is the doctrinal center and fulcrum of the Christian faith. To change the metaphor, it is the prism through which all other doctrinal features of the faith are lighted and put in perspective. Indeed, the Trinitarian doctrine encapsulates and preserves the uniquely Christian view of God’s relational nature.

When this doctrine functionally recedes, as it has done in the modern period and specifically in the doctrinal tradition of Churches of Christ, there are many, often subtle, consequences. One easily falls prey to sectarianism or overly narrow views of God’s Kingdom; to various forms of legalism, all of which misconstrue the nature of God’s relationality; to spiritual triumphalism which downplays the cruciform nature of discipleship; to constricted or mechanical understandings of the role of the ordinances or sacraments in Christian life, and other assorted ills and heresies.

For example, the rancor and division that has so marked this tradition is not simply an unfortunate consequence of garrulous or prideful personalities (one will always have those in good supply) but a theological problem. The author decries all this rancor and earnestly wants it put behind us. “Having decimated our own brothers through years of infighting,” he laments, “We have rendered ourselves unable to fight the real enemy” (154). True. But sadly the theological agenda he promotes may well continue it. This is why I say that the main problem with the present book is a fundamental doctrinal weakness which has the effect of skewing in profound but often subtle ways the basic issues surrounding baptism and fellowship.

Let me focus now on the issue of baptism which usually has been the pivotal issue in the exclusive view of fellowship.

First, a historical issue. Though the author attempts to marshall Campbell and even Stone in support of his position, he either misses or chooses not to mention a key point in Campbell’s view of baptism and fellowship. Early in his career, then again in 1837 and after, Campbell made a subtle but crucial distinction: though Christ’s blood “really washes away” sin, the ordinance of baptism “formally washes” it away. Baptism thus serves as a formal, outward sign and seal of forgiveness, bringing an assurance and joy of salvation that the unimmersed simply cannot experience. “The present salvation,” he concluded, “never can be so fully enjoyed (all things else being equal) by the unimmersed as by the immersed.” Similarly, he also distinguished between “inward and outward Christians,” asserting that it was possible for one who sincerely mistook the outward baptism to possess the inward.

Yes, Campbell emphasized different things at different times, and yes, this distinction often was lost by zealous disciples, but for Campbell, both early and late in his career, this distinction deeply shaped his view of who is a Christian. Among the branch of his heirs that became Churches of Christ this point was entirely lost.

Barton Stone held a more open view than Campbell regarding baptism and fellowship. Campbell excluded the unimmersed from “constitutional membership” in the church but not necessarily from eternal salvation. After 1826 Stone taught and practiced baptism for remission but never made it a condition of Christian fellowship (on this point the author is mistaken, p. 47). And Stone thought it inconsistent of Campbell to exclude from church fellowship any of those whom God had saved.

Second, a point about the meaning and practice of baptism today. The author is certainly correct that baptism is not a mere symbol. As he puts it, “Baptism doesn’t just stand for something; it does something” (p. 238). Yes. Baptism and other Christian ordinances are channels of divine life and grace. They are empowering. They are life-giving. They are dynamic. When one neglects them one is deprived of measures of divine life. As James McClendon puts it, they are performative signs that bring us more and more into the divine life and draw us more and more into the way of Jesus.

Such a high view of the ordinances or sacraments, however, requires a firm rootage in a proper Trinitarian theology (that is, in a proper understanding of God’s relational nature). Otherwise one too easily makes them magical or mechanical. Or one pronounces that the divine life can flow only in this way and in no other way. Yes, baptism is the normal sign of conversion. But as Campbell put it, he that “infers that none are Christians but the immersed, as greatly errs as he that affirms that none are alive but those of clear and full vision.”

The revivalistic milieu of early America, which focused so heavily on the private conversion experience, decimated the role of the ordinances in many Christian traditions. But today some of those traditions are beginning to rediscover believers’ baptism and some are calling for weekly communion. Methodist theologian Stanley Hauerwas says (with tongue only partially in cheek) that one of his goals in his ethics class at Duke is to make Methodist ministers feel guilty for not celebrating the Eucharist every week in their churches.

Today is not a time for preachers and teachers in Churches of Christ to be surrendering or downplaying a high view of baptism and weekly communion. Indeed, our challenge is to deepen and enrich the meaning of these practices by centering them more deeply in the Trinitarian life of God.

Now a few closing reflections. The author contrasts Churches of Christ to the “doctrinally rebellious denominations” (p. 225). But it seems to me that when we examine our own doctrinal history we fit too easily into the same category. Examine our track record on doctrines like the Trinity, the Spirit of God, grace and atonement, the unity of the church, et. al. No doctrine is more foundational than the Trinity; no doctrine nearer the heart of the gospel than grace; and no doctrine more important to an empowered life than the Spirit. We too have good reason to continue doctrinal renewal.

As for the “quiet revolution” that so troubles this author, not all the change stirring and troubling Churches of Christ today is due to secularism, biblical illiteracy, or cultural sellout, as the author seems to think. Some of it is, of course. But some of it is a fitful critique of and move away from earlier (nineteenth century) cultural accommodation. Campbell’s theological “system” was a brilliant response to early nineteenth century revivalism and the new spirit of individualism and liberty set loose in America. But his theology was deeply shaped by the culture of that time, including the bold conviction that one could stand free of culture and “just read the Bible.” The church has always been a cultural church, and some of the present upheaval has come as people have realized that nineteenth-century enculturation is not eternal and perhaps in some respects no longer even healthy.

In our time (call it post-modern, if you like) we are learning that our convictions about “the facts” are always, often unconsciously, schooled by our traditions, that we cannot stand entirely free of those traditions, and that any attempt to do so is bound to fail. The author’s theology is deeply formed by this particular tradition, but the force and import of that reality seems yet needs to temper his perspective.

Let it be said, finally, that this book continues an intramural argument in a small rivulet (the Churches of Christ) of the great stream of God’s Kingdom on earth. Some of the very language and terms of this internecine discussion would sound quite odd to the ears of many of God’s people alive today. Every tradition, of course, has its in-house discussions, its distinctive emphases, and (to the eyes of outsiders) odd practices. That’s OK. Such issues are worth arguing about—up to a point. But it is long past time for us to acknowledge the great stream of historic, Trinitarian Christian faith, a stream often muddy and polluted, to be sure, but a stream that nonetheless has proclaimed the love of the Father, known the grace of the Lord Jesus, and experienced the fellowship of the Spirit.Wineskins Magazine

C. Leonard Allen

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1581 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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