Soaring Beyond Our Shibboleths (Aug 2012)

By Matt Dabbs

By Al Maxey

John Heywood (1497-1580) was an English playwright who was very well-known in his time for his poems, plays, and vast collection of proverbs. One of those proverbs voices this rather bold assertion: “The nearer to the church, the farther from God.” Over the centuries Christianity has become increasingly institutionalized, causing some to suggest a better descriptive might be Churchianity. Systematized religion has supplanted spiritual relationship. In short: we have lost our way! The Father seeks children, and we offer Him a corporation. He wants sons, and we give Him sects; He desires daughters, and we deliver denominations; He hopes for Family, and all we have to offer Him are feuding factions. His Body is dismembered; His Family is fractured. Oh, how we must grieve Him at times by our attitudes and actions! Is there any hope for us? Have we digressed too far? Can we change course? Is it possible for squabbling siblings to set aside their “sacred shibboleths” and seek spiritual unity? Can we ever truly achieve the divinely desired reality of One Body? One that is fully functional, rather than dysfunctional? Can we move beyond the institutional? It is my personal conviction that there is still hope for us, but becoming what our Father seeks will not come easily.

So, we ask in all seriousness, and with hopeful hearts, What Must the Church of Christ Do to be Saved? This, by the way, is the title of a marvelous new book by Dr. Leroy Garrett, a devoted disciple of Jesus, now in his 90’s, who has been a great encouragement to me personally in my ministry. At the very beginning of his work, Leroy explains what he means by his title —

“I am asking what the Church of Christ as a church or as a denomination … must do in order to be ‘saved’ as a viable witness to the Christian faith in today’s world. What must it do to escape extinction in the decades ahead, or if not extinction, relegated to an insignificant southern or Tennessee-Texas sect? What must it do to save its own people from boredom, mediocrity, and irrelevance? What must it do to escape from its legalistic, sectarian, and isolationist past … and become a meaningful part of the larger Christian world?” (p. 6).

In these several probing questions we are forced to face ourselves as we are often perceived by others within the One Body. Although, clearly, these assessments are not true of all those within the Churches of Christ, they are nevertheless disturbingly reflective of a mindset with which we are all very familiar. Yes, thank God, many within our movement are making the necessary changes to move away from this deadly dysfunction, to move beyond the institutional and to shed our shibboleths, but we still have a long way to go. Some things are required of us if we are to be “saved,” and we must act without delay.

Confessing Exclusivism

First, and perhaps one of the most important things we must do, is — “We must confess that we have been wrong about some things” (p. 7). This is hard to do for a religious group that has bought into the premise that we, of all people on earth, are the privileged few who have God’s Word all figured out, and that all other disciples are either ignorant or willfully insubordinate to the Truth that we alone possess in all its fullness. We are the “one true church,” the only ones going to heaven, the only faithful Christians; thus, when one differs with our perceptions and practices, one differs with God Himself. As a result, we have nothing to do with other churches and other Christians; we became exclusivists and isolationists. “The Lord’s church,” we declare, has reference only to us; if you worship in any building other than ours, you are bound straight for hell. We can never be saved as a viable part of the One Body unless we repent of such arrogance! The reality is: we have been terribly wrong about some things, and we need to confess them to our people and our communities, and we need to repent of them publicly.

We must repent of a narrow, petty sectarianism (p. 12). We must repent of condemning other disciples of Christ to hell for daring to differ with our customs and traditions. We must become “intolerant and disgusted” with what we have become (p. 17), and we must let others know we are sickened by what we see. “We must confess that we have been wrong in making instrumental music a test of fellowship and for saying it is sinful for others to use instruments. It is of course right and proper that we should sing a cappella if that is our preference and conviction, but it is wrong for us to make our position a command of God for all others. … We have made a law where God has not made one, and this is wrong. Let us say it, loud and clear!” (p. 19). In reality, we have made many such laws for God, where He has made none. By seeking to impose our religious rigidity upon the rest of humanity, we have only succeeded in inflicting untold harm upon the Body of Christ and hampering His cause. It is time for us to publicly confess “our sin of being one of the most divided, sectarian churches in America” (p. 21).

“To be saved as a witnessing church we must show the world how we love one another. No more debating and fussing and dividing. Like Thomas Campbell, we must become sick and tired of the whole sectarian mess” (p. 22).

“Because of our deplorable partyism and all the legalisms that go with it we have for decades been going to church more and enjoying it less” (p. 24). We must move beyond this joyless institutionalism if we are to be saved.

Transcending GenderLeroy quotes the powerful passage penned by Paul in Galatians 3:28 (“In Christ there is neither male nor female”), and then declares, “The Church of Christ must take steps to demonstrate that it really believes that oneness in Christ transcends gender” (p. 50). Dr. Garrett says that if our movement is to be saved, we must immediately begin correcting “what might well be our most besetting sin: the way we treat our sisters in Christ” (ibid). We can do this by calling for “an end to some of our traditions that have no validity” (ibid). For example, what’s wrong with women serving the Lord’s Supper? What’s wrong with women praying in the presence of men? “Let the little girls take up and pass out the cards. Little boys can pass out the cards but not the little girls. It only shows that we start male-domination early” (p. 53). “We don’t deserve to be saved if we don’t shrug off such nonsense” (ibid). In chapter 9, Leroy makes a great appeal to our movement to reconsider our male-dominated dogma. We would do well to give his assessment some prayerful consideration if we desire to be relevant in the 21st century, rather than relegated to obscurity.

Comprehending Grace
Another thing that must change about us is our view of grace. “We don’t really believe in the grace of God. While we deny it, we really believe in works-salvation. We are saved by being baptized (exactly the right way, mind you!), by taking Communion regularly (it has to be the right day!), and by studying our Bibles (the doctrine has to be exactly right!)” (p. 59). “We must start believing in the gospel of the grace of God, the basis of which is that salvation is His free gift to us. There is no work that we can perform to attain it” (p. 60). “By grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9). This means we must repent of our obsession with rushing people to the baptistery as though this act of immersion were a sacrament. Even our early leaders in the Stone-Campbell Movement didn’t preach such a doctrine. Alexander Campbell, for example, taught that baptism is “a pardon-certifying act rather than a pardon-procuring act. That is, we do not ‘gain’ or ‘procure’ salvation by being baptized” (p. 61-62). In reviewing his own ministry of many decades, Leroy Garrett reflects that he has “sought to free our people of a legalistic view of baptism and to give them a nonsectarian view of who is a Christian. We have insisted that while we hold to everything the Bible says about baptism, we reject some of the deductions drawn from what the Bible says” (p. 118). “Oddly enough, our pioneers were never hard-liners when it came to baptism” (p. 119). Although they preached baptism, and “defended the ordinance on the polemic platform, … they did not make it ‘absolutely essential,’ as Campbell put it” (p. 119). The reality is: we have made baptism a sacrament, the precise point in time when God confers grace, and if we are to be “saved,” we need to repent of this digression from the proclamation of the Gospel, for it shifts our focus from a Savior to a sacrament, which is undoubtedly what Paul had in mind, at least in part, when he wrote, “Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel” (1 Corinthians 1:17). “Haven’t we been guilty of preaching an ordinance more than a Person?” (p. 85).

Repenting of Legalistic Hermeneutics
I am also in total agreement with Leroy, and I have been proclaiming this for many, many years, when he pleads with our people to abandon the CENI (command, example, necessary inference) hermeneutic, with its ridiculous “law of silence,” which is an approach to biblical interpretation guaranteed to bring about nothing but division. This hermeneutic has led to the theology and practice of “Patternism,” and has caused us to seek to “restore” the first century church in its every particular (something that is not only impossible, but an absurdity). “We have an unchanging gospel that transcends all time. But means and methods will change, as will traditions” (p. 65). “We have erred in our claim that there is a uniform pattern of organization and worship in the New Testament churches and that we have duly ‘restored’ that pattern. This is evident in the fact that we can’t even agree among ourselves as to what that pattern requires. We have not only differed but divided over almost every aspect of the life of the church, whether it has to do with using instruments of music, missionary and benevolent societies, Sunday schools, the manner of serving Communion, cooperative efforts, work of elders and preachers, etc., etc. Are we to conclude that God has given us a prescribed norm or pattern that is so obscure that we ourselves cannot make head or tail of it? Or is it that we have erred in making the New Testament something that it never has been and was never intended to be?!” (p. 64). Perhaps nothing has served to institutionalize us more than this insidious hermeneutical approach.

Abandoning Absolutism
If we are to be saved, so as to be relevant in our societies today, we must repent of our sin of absolutism. This perception that we are right about everything, and everybody else is wrong, is the epitome of arrogance, and it drives people away (as it rightly should). “We must abandon our claim to exclusive truth in order to be an authentic people. We have no right to exist believing that we and we only have the truth. We must admit that we are both fallible and finite, that we, like everyone else, are wrong about some things and ignorant about other things” (p. 70). I love this statement by Leroy: “Truth is absolute, our grasp of truth is relative” (ibid). Yet, we have gained a reputation over the years as a rather self-righteous group, and if there was anything the other Christians in the community could count on it was that we could not be counted on to participate with them in anything. Take part in a community prayer service with all those denominationalists and apostates? God forbid!! Work alongside them in feeding the hungry? Heavens NO!!

Brethren, if we are to be saved, we must repent … and, frankly, we need to announce this repentance to our fellow Christians throughout our communities. It’s time our neighbors saw us as something other than that “weird little institutional sect” off by itself in a corner of the city. We must move beyond this.

“If the Church of Christ is to be saved for a meaningful ministry in the 21st century, it must come to terms with its status as a distinct religious body, to wit, that it is at worst a sect, at best a denomination. This is imperative for one vital reason: self-authenticity. If we are to be a redemptive people in a troubled world we must be an honest people. We can’t play such games as ‘They are all denominations (or sects), but we are not’ and have any viable impact upon a lost world” (p. 74).

“A sect presumes to be the whole of the Body of Christ, exclusive of all other believers, while a denomination recognizes that it is only part of the whole” (p. 77).

If we’re honest with ourselves, we must admit that those within the Churches of Christ DO NOT constitute the universal One Body of Christ in its entirety upon the face of the earth. We are a “named group” of believers with traditions and practices that have evolved over the years. There is nothing wrong with this as long as we grant other believers the same privilege of grace, and as long as we embrace them as brethren,  and work alongside them to reach those who are still separate from God. It is okay to be different; it is not okay to be divisive about it. When we become the latter, we become sectarian. My association is with the “named historical group” known in the Yellow Pages as the “Churches of Christ.” My membership (if I may used that term) is in the universal One Body of Christ Jesus, which makes me a brother to every other person who is also within that One Body …regardless of their various associations with differing historical groups. Our oneness is in a Person, not a Party, and our unity is of the Spirit, whereas uniformity is the goal of a sect.

Eschewing Churchism

“At the heart of our problem (and this is true of other churches as well) is that we are caught in the trappings of our own institutionalism — or churchism might be the word. …Our Achilles heel is the System. The System resists change, except occasional cosmetic change. Nothing real or substantial. The System demands conformity, and the System is uneasy with thinking people around, especially a thinking preacher or a preacher that says something. The System must maintain the status quo, and it must preserve itself at all cost. Most significantly, the System is tied to the building. Regular church attendance, along with generous giving, is the essence of ‘faithfulness'” (p. 90).

“We need to realize what we have allowed the System to do to us” (p. 91)

Dr. Garrett suggests that one of the ways we can save ourselves from this institutional system of religion is to abandon our “edifice-complex.” We spend too much time “going to the church” (a building, where the “five acts” are performed), instead of actually “being the church” (a Spirit-filled people reflecting Jesus in their daily lives as they interact with their friends, family and neighbors).

Leroy Garrett has correctly pointed out in this fabulous little book that “the Churches of Christ are dying for change!” (p. 106). There is a thirst among our people for significant responsible change, and a growing awareness among many of our leaders that without this change we are destined to perish as a group. If we are trying to be a 1st century church in a 21st century world, we will fail. “Any institution that survives the centuries must change as the world around it changes, or it will be ineffective. This is especially true of the church” (p. 107). That doesn’t mean that Truth changes; Truth is absolute. It doesn’t mean the Good News changes; that gospel message transcends the confines of time and place. But our methods must change, our ways of expressing Truth must change, our ways of demonstrating our love and joy and faith must change, so as to be relevant to the times and places in which we live. If not, we will be little more than an oddity to our neighbors, rather than compelling ambassadors of God’s grace.

“This can never be realized until the leadership takes the initiative and works for change” (p. 109). Fellow leaders, I challenge you — like my dear brother Leroy Garrett — to have the courage of conviction to take the lead in bringing about the responsible changes necessary to our “salvation.” You will be met with resistance; you will be vilified, perhaps even by friends and family; it will not be pleasant. However, if we are to be a force for grace in the 21st century we must gird our loins and “get with it.” The vast majority of our people are waiting for bold leadership. It’s time to provide it! It’s time to soar beyond our shibboleths!

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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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