My Spiritual Roots Untangled (May-Aug 2004)

By Matt Dabbs

by Richard T. Hughes
May – August, 2004

When one is raised in a religious tradition that claims to be the one true church outside of which there can be no salvation, one takes that tradition seriously. Indeed, one can do no other. And when that tradition insists on perfection—both moral perfection and religious perfection—and when as an adolescent one continually falls short of those expectations—the psychic pressure is palpable. This is the way my story begins, for I was raised in the Church of Christ at a time before the Church of Christ at large either heard or proclaimed the good news of God’s grace.

In fairness, I must say that it is entirely possible—even probable—that the preachers of my youth proclaimed the good news of grace. I was raised at the feet of some extraordinary preachers—Norvel Young, John Bannister, Harrison Mathews, and Stanley Lockhart—but if these men preached the gospel of grace, that message fell on the deaf ears of an adolescent too preoccupied with duty and right to hear much of anything else.

The truth is, I experienced an enormous sense of guilt when I consistently fell short of the perfection I felt my church required. That guilt, coupled with my conviction that my church was the one true church outside of which there could be no salvation, finally drove me to accomplish two tasks.

The first was the task of self-understanding. I knew I could never understand myself unless I understood the religious tradition that formed and shaped me. This is precisely why I undertook the study of Christian history and why I finally felt driven to make that study both my vocation and my career. This is also why I have devoted so much of my career to researching and writing the history of the Churches of Christ.

The second task I had to accomplish was to find some way to escape the burden of perfectionism that was so much a part of my religious upbringing. I did this in two ways.

First, by the grace of God, I discovered the good news of God’s grace. The good news of the gospel points in two directions. On the one hand, it frees us to be human and to accept at an existential level our brokenness, our finitude, and the fact that we inevitably sin and make mistakes. On the other, it points to God’s unmerited favor.

My mother freed me to come to the first of these realizations when I was probably a junior in high school. In those days, I brought my high school buddies home with me after school so that I could show them a set of filmstrips designed to convert them to the Church of Christ. My friends were mainly Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians. One day my mother said to me, “Son, if you want to convert your friends to the Church of Christ, that’s fine with me. However, if you discover that they’re right and you’re wrong, then you need to be the one who is willing to make the change.” Her comment that day freed me to admit that I could be wrong, an admission I have since come to believe is the first step toward hearing—really hearing—the gospel of grace.

But it wasn’t until I was a sophomore at Harding College that I really heard the gospel of grace for the very first time. This wondrous event occurred in the midst of a course on the book of Romans taught by Jimmy Allen. When Allen came to Romans 8:1—“For there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus”—he waxed warm and eloquent. In truth, he began to preach. We are saved, he said, not because we are good or right or perfect, but only through the unmerited grace and favor of God who loves us and accepts us in spite of our sin and rebellion. Those words set me on the road toward freedom—freedom from self-reliance, freedom from perfectionism, and freedom from the compulsion always to be right.

In the midst of my doctoral program six years later, I heard much the same thing in a class on “The Theology of Martin Luther” at the University of Iowa. There I discovered that Luther offered the most powerful insights into the meaning of the gospel of grace that I had heard. I was so drawn to Luther and the way he framed this gospel that in a very real sense, I became a Lutheran, at least in my heart of hearts, and it is safe to say that I have been a Lutheran in that sense from that time on. Recently, a friend of mine who wrote a history of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod—Mary Todd—gave me a copy of her book and inscribed it, “To Richard—honorary Lutheran that you are.” Deeply honored by that inscription, I felt that she knew me well.

To this point, I had escaped the burden of perfectionism by discovering the gospel of grace. But there was still more to be done. I was not prepared to leave the Churches of Christ, but I desperately wanted to find a way to translate its perfectionistic demands into categories that seemed more meaningful than the legalism with which I was raised. I began to take that step as a graduate student at Abilene Christian University, for there I discovered another sixteenth-century Christian tradition—the tradition of the Anabaptists, often known as the “radicals of the Reformation.”

The Churches of Christ have always been concerned with the restoration of primitive Christianity, but have translated that concern into a passion to recover forms and structures, many of which have seemed to me almost completely unrelated to the gospel. How, for example, would the rejection of instrumental music in the worship of the church, or the rejection of multiple communion cups, connect with the story of God’s self-giving love and grace?

The sixteenth-century Anabaptists, however, gave me a way to reclaim my own tradition. They also spoke of the restoration of the primitive Christian faith. But instead of finding the blueprint for restoration in the Book of Acts as we had in Churches of Christ, Anabaptists found the mandate for restoration in the Gospels and in the person of Jesus Christ. Their message struck me as a holistic, seamless web. If God has extended grace to us, they argued, then we must extend grace to the neighbor. On this ground, they rejected the pursuit of materialism, gave their goods to the poor, rejected violence and the sword, and sought to create communities inspired by the model of Jesus—communities whose one purpose was to glorify God by extending grace to the neighbor.

These radicals had caught a vision of the Upside-Down Kingdom—a Kingdom ruled by grace from start to finish. Thanks to the way these sixteenth-century Anabaptists witnessed in my own life, I finally began to discern what I now regard as the fullness of the gospel: by grace we are saved, and by grace we reach out to the neighbor.

Over the years, I have so internalized this Anabaptist vision that when I once delivered a chapel address at Goshen College, the flagship Mennonite institution, a dear friend who knows me well—Theron Schlabach—introduced me to the students as an “honorary Mennonite.” So now I was both an “honorary Mennonite” and an “honorary Lutheran.”

As far as a sense of vocation went, my problem now was that I continued as a member of Churches of Christ, whose theology I found inadequate, while I identified most fully with Luther, on the one hand, and the Anabaptists, on the other. Put another way, I found myself plunging deeper and deeper into religious and vocational schizophrenia.

Then I signed a contract to write a history of the Churches of Christ. That project was a Godsend, for through it I discovered an entire side of the Churches of Christ that I had never known—a strand of my own tradition that looked much like the sixteenth-century Anabaptists, that lived by the grace of God, that sought to extend that grace to the neighbor, and that in all these ways sought to realize a vision of the Upside-Down Kingdom. Better still, this was not a minor strand but a major defining dimension of Churches of Christ in their early years—people who sold their goods and gave to the poor, people who embraced non-violence and refused to take up the sword, and people who sought to live their lives in the context of the kingdom of God where grace is the dominant reality.

That discovery was a Godsend since it allowed me to reclaim my heritage in the Churches of Christ and to find that heritage fully consistent with my commitment to the gospel of grace and to the Anabaptist vision of extending that grace to the neighbor. Better yet, since the 1960s, Churches of Christ themselves have recovered the gospel in powerful ways, and because of that recovery, I find myself more and more at home in the heritage of my youth.

This story has everything to do with my own sense of vocation, since the story of God’s grace is the reason I get up every morning. Put another way, it is precisely in this story that I find my sense of self-hood and precisely here that I find meaning in my life.

It will not surprise you, then, when I tell you that the theme of grace—the grace God extends to me and the grace I must extend to the neighbor—informs at a fundamental level everything I teach and everything I write as a professor at Pepperdine University. Indeed, the gospel of Christ has defined my sense of vocation in very powerful ways.

As a result, I am grateful for three Christian traditions that have led me to drink from the gospel fountain—the tradition of Martin Luther who taught me much about the grace of God, the tradition of the Anabaptists who helped me to see that the call to extend grace to the neighbor is an essential part of the Christian story, and the tradition of the Upside-Down Kingdom that I finally discovered in my own heritage of the Churches of Christ.

Two of those traditions are rooted in sixteenth-century Europe. One—the one in which I was raised—is rooted in the nineteenth-century American frontier. Yet, in spite of their particularity in time and space—or perhaps I should say, because of that particularity—these three traditions have pointed me, consistently and unmistakably, to the gospel that was proclaimed in the primitive church—the gospel of the good news of God’s unmerited grace.New Wineskins

Pepperdine University recently received a grant from the Lilly Endowment to allow the university to lead its students and its faculty in a “theological exploration of vocation.” The question of one’s “vocation” is really the question of one’s deepest sense of identity and, as a result, one’s sense of calling. In a recent faculty seminar on this theme, faculty members presented their own vocational statements. Richard T. Hughes, author of Reviving the Ancient Faith and, more recently, of Reclaiming a Heritage, has consented to share the statement he presented to his Pepperdine colleagues with the readers of New Wineskins.

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1584 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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