I Tried to Stay… (May 2012)

By Matt Dabbs

By Tim Alexander

I currently work with the Tennessee Chapter of Children’s Advocacy Centers. They are wonderful people. They call me a “Prevention Specialist.” Helping churches walk through the trauma of child sexual abuse prepared me to enter the world of child advocacy. God opened this door and I walked through it. I hope to continually improve.

I was fired by a Church of Christ.

I will allow a few sentences to clear the air because, after all, I told you I was fired. No scandal. No immorality. No laziness. Not attempting to dial back in by bringing it up now. I had prayed for years. Being fired just wasn’t the answer for which I was hoping. Enough about that.

Years ago I began to seriously study the Bible. I saw a number of our identity markers were, at best, matters of judgment. Except they weren’t. Historically we had a penchant for conflating opinion with orthodoxy. We thought the other people were dishonest.

“How can those people honestly read the Bible andfill in the blank.”

We knew we read the Bible. Others said they read it, too. But they could never get over their denominational biases. We had our biases, too. But we were right. Or at least we were safely sure. Our biases were formed from exhaustive study while theirs … well … had to match their denominational conclusions. We were different. “True Christians with just an open Bible to guide us.” Or so we convinced ourselves.

I was taught to study the Bible for myself. This was encouraged as long as the conclusions fell within our own denominational norms. Using a cappella singing as an example is too easy. I’ll use something of actual theological significance. Before reading a single word from Calvin, Spurgeon, Carson or Keller I came to ‘different’ conclusions about the Sovereignty of God in personal salvation. I didn’t even know to call it “Reformed.” But that’s where my Bible study landed me.

Over time a few convictions crystallized. First, if I really believed God was Sovereign in all things then, for reasons pleasing to Him, God had placed me within a fellowship historically antagonistic to what I had come to believe. It behooved me to tread wisely. The grass is not greener on the other side. Changing denominations … and I looked very closely … was not the sure-fire solution. I needed to do my best in the field God had given me to tend. It is not good to simply run from. I needed to be able to run to. It needed to be “better.” From what I could tell, none of the other denominations were “better.”

Second, I could always preach the Cross of Christ. I could always advocate for thoughtful Worship. This could be done regardless of the name on the building. Also, I could always love the people. Be with them. Counsel. Serve. Mentor. Challenge to a life of discipleship. In other words, there was much good to do within the field God had given me. Focus on the good within the local church. Keep my head low. Avoid denominational kerfuffle.

Funny thing, though. The Bible had a way of being a wrench in those spokes. For example, reading through the Psalms during worship, responsively, even if only a little at a time, raised hackles. Too much like the Presbyterians. Too Episcopalian.

Suggesting, much less teaching, the minister of the Word had any spiritual authority distinct from the Elders was taboo. Didn’t matter if it wasn’t an authority over the Elders. Saying something like, “Paul wrote his letters to Timothy and Titus … to Timothy and Titus.” That opened up way too big a door. Spiritual authority resides within the Elders. Any authority for the Minister is delegated to him by them. There’s no such thing as “calling.” “We’re not Baptists, you know.”

I started to change around 1990-92. I was fired in 2011. That’s over 20 years. I really did try to stay. Along the way, I have no doubt, I’d probably been a pain in the a– to a few elderships. Some kind and decent men didn’t know what to do with me. I didn’t fit their mold.

On the other hand, increasingly over time, they didn’t fit mine. In my desire to keep my head low and cherish the local church I grew passionate about that which I had hoped all could agree. The Cross. Worship. Pastoral spiritual leadership arising from Bible study, prayer and care for the people.

I was wrong. We could not agree.

I liken it to a rubber band. It will stretch to a natural breaking point. Then it will either snap or return to its resting shape. My presence placed tension upon the denominational rubber band. It was not what I would say or do as much as what I would not. For example, I preached baptism as essential in the life of the Christian. I repeatedly called upon men and women to repent, call upon the Lord Jesus and confess Christ in baptism. I pleaded with sinners to be born again. But I did not offer an invitation with every sermon. I did not equate baptism with the moment of personal salvation.

That turbulent water is now spilled over the dam. It flows on in other directions.

I am uncomfortable with the direction of the progressive wing of the Churches of Christ. Graduate work at a truly liberal Divinity School convinced me liberal theology is harmful to the church. Admittedly, saying you’re a liberal in the Churches of Christ is like saying you’re the tenth tallest man in Japan. It doesn’t take much. How tall do you have to be? How liberal do you have to be in the Churches of Christ until you’re called liberal? Not much.

I am beyond uncomfortable with the never-ending retrenchment among the conservative wing. They’re like a snake eating itself. Toxic. Spiritually abusive. Sectarian.

I found it amusing when the Christian Chronicle reported on the recent youth gatherings in Gatlinburg. Close to 20,000 young people attended two different events over successive weekends. This large number was testimony to the future health of the Churches of Christ.

Suppose both the Republican and Democratic parties held their conventions this summer in Nashville over two successive weekends. Would any observer conclude, “The future health of our government looks good,”? No, they would not. They would say, “Two different parties, two different identities, two different visions. Both seek control. Looks like more bickering and gridlock.”

I have not totally left the Churches of Christ. Too much history. Born into it and served 27 years as a preacher. But I do not hold out a lot of hope.

Progressives seem headed to embrace a vacuous theology. They end with their feet planted firmly in the air.

Conservatives seem willing to keep digging deeper holes in which to stick their heads.

I advocate the following:

The schools among the Churches of Christ function as quasi-denominational authorities. They credential ministers, informally (but firmly!) enforce denominational policy and always have their fingers to the wind for coming trends. I feel much honest good would come if at least two of the schools would agree to finally hire faculty from beyond the Churches of Christ. Hire them and promote them. In their Bible departments. Needs to be two of the larger schools. One school alone will get mauled to death.

Such a move would be revelatory. Other faculty members would have the freedom to become productive members at churches about which they could be passionate. They could do this rather than continue as so-so attenders at a place safe enough to keep them employed. The schools could be boldly confident to cultivate a broader base of financial support. A robust discussion about what makes a Christian school “Christian” AND non-denominational would be invigorating.

I am not holding my breath. What I advocate would force a serious assessment of denominational identity. I do not feel this is a bad thing.

I tried to stay. God moved me on. God has given me a different field. I will try to serve Him in it.

To God be the glory.

Tim Alexander … well, you know quite a bit about him from his article above. On submitting this, he wrote (republished by his permission): “I did not initiate this article. It has been quite some time since I either wrote for or was published in Wineskins. I can never remember being on the mailing list before for any article solicitation. Obviously, I’m glad it happened and stand by what I wrote. I was fired on May 1st of last year. I felt it was just too much beyond a coincidence you called for articles on this theme at this time, a year later, of special meaning for me. Your call for articles was, at least for me, a ‘God thing.’” His online profile says that he is “married to the wonderful Miss Polly since 1983. Father of Abby and Ethan. Kept by grace. Walk by faith.” He posts at [http://lookingforaland.com/]

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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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