The Christ-Centered Church (Apr-May 1997)

By Matt Dabbs

by William S Banowsky, delivered at Abilene Christian University, February 21, 1996
April – May, 1997

As we close this 78th Annual Bible Lectureship, we want to thank President Royce Money, Chairman of the Board of Trustees Don Crisp, with whom I worship at Highland Oaks in Dallas, and Director William E Young, with whom I served at the Broadway church in Lubbock 35 years ago. I also salute this faculty, the strongest group of scholars and teachers ever to serve here.

I cannot imagine my life apart from Abilene Christian University. In 12 days, it is 60 years since I was born in Abilene. In 1931, Mother and Dad met on this campus and were married by their Bible teacher, Homer Hailey, in the parlor of Zellner Hall. From 1921 until 1939, Granddad Banowsky enrolled all five of his children in this school and, from 1931 until 1940, Granddad Slater enrolled all four of his. Banowskys and Slaters were gratified when President Teague and this institution honored my parents with the “Christian Service Award” for 1988. The next year we lost my mother. At age 85, Dad is blissfully remarried to the former Lazell Lambert, naturally also an Abilene native.

My only brother graduated in 1956. Still in high school, I’d pick up the phone in Fort Worth and the sober voice would say, “This is John C. Stevens, Dean of Men at ACC. May I talk to your father?” To whom he would say, “Brother Wade, I can’t get Dick out of the pool hall!” Thanks to John, Dr. Richard L. Banowsky is now a highly conservative elder in the Lord’s church. I wanted to come here, too, but we had no baseball team and Lipscomb gave me a full scholarship. President Morris pressured Coach Beauchamp to give me a football scholarship but he stuck to his principles. “We have so few,” he implored, “and this guy’s no good!” Let me assure you, Brother Beauchamp made the right call. Ironically, the entire Highland Oaks’ staff is here tonight under the leadership of my esteemed friend, Dr. Gary R. Beauchamp, beginning his 20th year as minister of this congregation.

Wrestling with the 1968 decision to leave the pulpit for Christian education, I coveted most one man’s counsel. We met in a Midland motel room and talked two hours. The wisdom of Don Morris was pivotal in making possible my presidency at Pepperdine University. My mother always regarded my move from pulpit to presidency as a big step backward. When I moved from a Christian to a state university, she knew I was headed the wrong way. When I left education to go into business, she knew I had hit bottom.

Coming back home to Texas into full-time church work, with people one-on-one in their pain, I find a deeply troubled brotherhood. On Monday night, Mark Henderson said from this pulpit, “We are not in danger of dividing, we are in danger of shattering.” Douglas A Foster of your faculty said in his recent book, subtitled Churches of Christ Face the 21st Century, that six separate schisms now threaten our worst division in a hundred years. No man-made plan can hold us together. The one reality Who can hold us together is the Person who has called us together—the Lord Jesus Christ. Some earlier Abilene lecturers pointed powerfully to this reality. Therefore, aside from the Bible, I will quote only earlier Abilene lecturers as we consider three characteristics of Christ’s church: the mystery of Christ, the universality of Christ, and the indwelling of Christ.

The Mystery of Christ

It is only natural, living as we must with terrifying uncertainty, to make things as simple as we can. But the mystery of Christ is not susceptible to simplification. Paul stresses this mystery in Ephesians 1:9 and Ephesians 3:9, as well as Colossians 1:26 and Colossians 2:2, where he calls it “the mystery of God, even Christ, in whom are all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge hidden.” “Great indeed,” he writes to Timothy, “is the mystery of our religion.” Even after the life of Christ, at the end of the first century John still lived with the mystery, writing at Revelation 10:7: “Not until the days of the trumpet call to be sounded by the seventh angel will the mystery of God, as first announced to the prophets, be finished.”

There is no greater mystery than the Godhead, which Batsell Barrett Baxter tackled at these lectures in 1958. “When we have said that there is but one God, that the Father, Son, and Spirit is each God, but that the Father, Son, and Spirit is each a distinct person, we have stated the doctrine of the Trinity fully and completely.” Yes, perhaps fully and completely, but not transparently. “It is far more important for us to have a right faith in the Godhead,” Brother Baxter conceded, “than for us to be certain we understand all the fine points.”

For most people the virgin birth is preposterously inconceivable. If a woman claims to be pregnant without sexual intercourse—and occasionally one does—nobody believes her. And the mystery of the virgin birth inspires the greater mystery of Christ’s humanity and divinity. That we bow down before Mary’s baby as God Incarnate, accepting something so inconceivable as a virgin birth, is possible only by faith. Such faith does not resolve hard questions. But it certainly enriches their mystery.

There are also many practical mysteries. Why is a fetus monstrously deranged by the misalignment of a single chromosome? Why do accidents of genetics predispose millions more to hideous handicaps? Why do West Texas tornadoes decimate life in 30 straight houses, but leave one house in the middle utterly untouched? What if you had been the mother who dropped off her three-year-old at the Oklahoma City day care center only to pick up her body parts in a plastic bag?

We meet Christ in life’s inexplicable mysteries. Our faith sustains us, not with easy answers, but through agonizing questions, including especially the loneliness of death which is our inescapable fate. The mystery of death is why the world’s most powerful symbol is not a glorious victory flag—it is “an emblem of suffering and shame.” Paul confessed he knew nothing “except Christ and him crucified.” And in the gospel’s most plaintive sentence, Christ finally despaired, “Why hast Thou forsaken me?” Life begins on the other side of despair. Until you come to that fleeting moment when you, too, doubt the meaning of anything, you may not yet have come to the fullest meaning of faith.

Existence itself is the greatest mystery. Christ dumbfounded simplistic Jews declaring, “Before Abraham was, I Am.” When Moses implored the burning bush, “What is your name?” the enigmatic bush answered, “I Am That I Am!” The ultimate mystery is this I Am mystery, the ontological mystery of being itself. The gospel audaciously claims that Eternal Mystery came finally out of the bush inscrutably burning and exposed Himself to us most perfectly in Christ. How can words ever capture the ecstasy of the possibility that Ultimate Being is like this loving Person?

From this Ground of All Being flows the astonishing mystery of your very own life. There has never been another DNA like yours and there never will be. It is possible that you always were and always will be—certainly at least in the mind of God. Never take your unique existence for granted, nor live it out in the beliefs of others. The essential step toward knowing who you are is full appreciation that you are! Existence precedes essence.

This is precisely how Moses got to be Moses. He is revered by three world religions, not because he ever solved the mystery, but because he surrendered to faith. In Hebrews it is written that a thousand years before Christ was born, it was nonetheless the Mystical Christ who inspired Moses “to account the reproach of Christ as greater riches than the treasures of Egypt. By faith Moses endured as seeing him who is invisible.” Then the writer adds: “But no man hath seen God at any time.” So long as we are in the human predicament the best we can do is “see through a glass darkly.” When we seek after God we don’t even “know how to pray as we ought.” Despite our confident Sunday sermons, we haven’t yet figured God out. The closest even a Moses could get was an elusive voice flaming from a quenchless fire. On less symptomatic behavior some men have been diagnosed as clearly schizophrenic. The very best we can say for any man who makes life-defining decisions by seeing someone who is invisible is that he is animated by majestic mystery.

Life literally vibrates with ambiguity. By craving security—as all humans do—and repressing ambiguity—as all humans try—we created a closed system which wraps life up and ties a ribbon around it. But since “faith is the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things unseen,” religion without ambiguity is religion without faith. Let us thank God we are saved by the wondrous mystery of “grace through faith, and that it is a gift of God, not of works lest any man should glory.” Nothing is more compelling than the honest humility which admits very often, “I just don’t know.” Life with unrelieved mystery is, indeed, life with unrelieved tension. But such openness is the only way to be fully alive. In 1920, the historic President of Abilene Christian College, Jesse P. Sewell, pled for openness: “Ours is a plea for progress. The importance of our plea does not consist in the particular truth we now practice, but rather in our attitude toward all truth. If we ever allow ourselves to become satisfied our usefulness will be ended. Our minds must ever be kept open.”

The Universality of Christ

At the ACC Lectureship in 1926, C. M. Stubblefield supported Sewell’s openness by quoting the Restoration Movement motto: “We claim to be Christians only, but we do not claim to be the only Christians.” But two years later, in 1928, Hall L. Calhoun described our closedness: “We are called fundamentalists, Pharisees, literalists, and legalists. Some say we were begotten by egotism, conceived in Bibliolatry, brought forth in ignorance, propagated in bigotry, and our progeny the narrowest of all sectarians. Outsiders describe us as preachers of unity but practicers of division, loving ourselves while despising others.”

Several speakers said we had even closed in on the name of Christ, thereby undermining universality. Paul pictured sectarianism as separated groups shouting: “I am of Paul, I am of Apollos, I am of Cephas, and I am of Christ.” G. C. Brewer said, right here in Abilene, that we are the heirs of that first sect which separated itself from others in the name of Christ. “We have in spite of ourselves,” he said in 1934, “become a sect whose special purpose is to contend against sectarianism.” In the history of our people, G. C. Brewer was the quintessential preacher’s preacher. Quoting virtually the entire New Testament from memory, he was esteemed everywhere. In 1934, Brother Brewer added: “We have sectarianized the name ‘Church of Christ.’ It is so fixed that if we should insert the name ‘Jesus’ it would cause great confusion.”

The problem is not the name. When we broke with the Christian Church in 1906, we had to start calling ourselves something. By great good fortune, nobody else had copyrighted it and we were free to choose the most attractive name in the list of American denominations. But Brewer saw us appropriate this name in his lifetime, right before his eyes. He saw us apply it denominationally. And he saw us exclude other believers. We sectarianize the name, he warned, anytime we use it “to include only a limited number of Christians.” In 1933, Cled E. Wallace, bearer of a legendary family name among our people, said, “first century believers were not distinguished by any name separating them from any of the other people of God.” But as early as 1920, M. C. Kurfees, my wife’s great uncle who wrote the definitive book against instrumental music, said here: “We use the name nowadays to mean only those Christians who believe and worship exactly as we do. We should not exclude other children of God who may make some mistakes in worshipping or working.” As hard as it is to admit, we too make mistakes. E. W. McMillan, who died in Dallas at 101, was for years Chairman of the Bible Department here. With his advanced degree from Baylor, he constantly urged us not to exclude others. In 1934, Brother McMillan warned: “Let us know that we, too, are susceptible to all of the errors religious thinkers have ever made.”

But what about obedience to sound doctrine? As early as 1919 F. L. Young answered at Abilene: “What is sound and what is unsound is hard for us to determine. And who made us the judge? Where did we get the authority to pass on someone else’s soundness? Did not Paul teach, ‘to his own master he stands or falls?’ The man who differs from us because he has learned more than we have we pronounce a heretic. While the man who thinks just as we do is sound, even though he never spent a moment examining the foundation of his faith.” G. C. Brewer agreed: “Even if a man teaches error, it would have to be very heinous to be as great a sin as the sin of division. Those engaged in division always justify it citing doctrinal loyalty. Frequently it is only our opinion that has been disregarded, not the word of God.”

The late Reuel Lemmons started out, as most of us did, with the idea of an identifiably exclusive church. We watched Reuel grow toward the universally inclusive church. Long serving on the ACU Board of Trustees, in his senior years he also served joyfully on Pepperdine University’s interdenominational Board of Regents. Nobody was harder on our sectarianism. Thirty years ago, in 1966, he said here: “When one of us establishes his own code and requires others to subscribe to it, he is guilty of producing a sect. Some have staggered not at carving the body of Christ into ribbons to satisfy an indomitable ego. It is necessary that we stress the exceeding sinful spirit of a man who would split Christ’s church.”

Why, then, has our unity movement been so constantly dogged by division? Because sectarianism is always the result of over-simplification. In our effort to control all of life’s exigencies, we professed to have all truth in perfectly restoring Christ’s church. I know these are attitudes some of you never had, and most of us have outgrown. But we haven’t openly acknowledged our growth. And we haven’t confessed our self-righteousness to our neighbors, which is what the Bible advises. Until we do they may not know our attitudes have improved, and more than a few may continue to think of us when they read the parable of the Pharisee and the publican “which he spake concerning certain who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and set all others at naught.”

Those same egocentric needs, in the guise of racial and national pride, fuel bloody religious wars all over the world. At the core of these conflicts is always the conviction, for which the faithful willingly die, that “God is on our side.” At this moment our planet is gravely threatened as nuclear weapons fall into the hands of religious zealots. Like James and John, narrow fundamentalists always pray: “Lord, wilt thou bid fire to come down from heaven and consume them? But Jesus turned and rebuked them.” Now is the time for the Christ-centered church to exemplify the universal love of God and the brotherhood of all mankind.

The Indwelling Christ

Finally, we must celebrate the personal indwelling of Christ. To know Christ personally, as opposed to knowing about him historically, is to experience Christ in your heart. Our great director, J. D. Thomas, chose this theme in 1957 when Eugene Clevenger opened the Lectures saying, “our greatest need is a deeper realization of what it means for Christ to be in us.” That year many speakers cited Colossians, “even the mystery which had been hid for ages and generations, which is Christ in you the hope of glory.”

But 30 years earlier, in 1927, Hall L. Calhoun, who held a Harvard Ph.D., proclaimed the Christ Spirit present in every son and in every daughter of the earth. Everyone is created in God’s image, Calhoun taught, and since God and Christ are one, everyone is also created in the image of Christ. The Gospel of John anticipates Calhoun: “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was God. All things were made by Him. In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. This was the true light which lighteth every man who cometh into the world.”

In 1942, Jesse P. Sewell defined the Holy Spirit as the Christ Spirit. “Ye know him for he abideth with you and shall be in you.” Brother Sewell took strong issue with those who preached, as he put it, “that the Spirit dwells in Christians through the Bible and only so.” Prayer, he said, “Is one way the Spirit helps our infirmities in a manner which the word cannot.” Brother Sewell did not believe in God because of the Bible. Brother Sewell believed in the Bible because of God.

But growing up in Fort Worth, I remember that our early preachers insisted there was no personal indwelling but that the Spirit was known indirectly only by knowing the Bible. In other ways our faith was militantly personal and experiential. We rejected any intermediary but Christ, and stressed the universal priesthood of believers. But by deifying the letter of the Bible, we placed paper and ink between us and God, thus inventing our own brand of the mediational separation we so condemned in Catholic neighbors.

But later, other preachers started quoting the rest of the Bible, that we ourselves are “the living epistles of Christ, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God. Not of the letter but of the Spirit, for the letter killeth but the Spirit giveth life.” And some even cited the Eternal Word, “that true light which lighteth every man who cometh into the world,” where he plainly said to literalists of every age: “Ye have not this word abiding in you. Ye search the scriptures because ye think in them ye have eternal life. But these are they which bear witness of me. And ye will not come to me that ye may have life.” What may be the Bible’s greatest chapter plainly says, “the Spirit himself beareth witness with our spirit that we are children of God.” Only the Lord “adds to the church those that are being saved.”

We can never know everything. But this resolves the dilemma as to how we should treat other believers. Nobody put it more clearly than Earnest Beam at this podium in 1935: “Whether we like it or not, whoever accepts Christ as Lord and gives evidence he is anxious to obey him is your brother in Christ. And happy are you if you have the Holy Spirit, and its first fruit which is love, and exercise it toward that brother.” But how do we concede that Christ may be enlightening others without opening Pandora’s box? How do we join hands with our committed allies in the fierce fight for cultural morality without being so worried about where they worship? How do we preach freely on Sunday from the sermons of hundreds of evangelicals without knowing how to embrace them in the work place on Monday? And how do we honor leaders like Dr. James Dobson who has done so much to save our families—as this courageous university did when he recently packed this arena for his Godly message—without being so diffident to embrace him as brother?

We fear opening the door even a crack lest we have no place to stop. Let us start and stop with Christ! While we defend our door, He said, “I am the door. If any man enter in by me he shall be saved. I am the good shepherd. I know mine own and mine own know me. And other sheep I have which are not of this fold. Them also must I bring.”

Who are these other sheep? Where is this other fold? In our finitude, we must leave enough room for the magnitude and mystery of Christ. We must be a little less fearful and a little more faithful, and simply let Christ be Christ. Fear is the antithesis of faith. The time has come for the courage of our convictions. “And I, if I be lifted up will draw all men unto myself.” We have nothing to fear but fear itself. We have everything to gain and nothing to lose, except a little pride and our illusion of certitude.

Ours is a highly nationalistic tradition and, in our search for certitude, we have trusted our own reason. As a boy, I remember our ridicule of “Holy Rollers” and the Bible verse painted on signs in front of our buildings: “Come let us reason together.” But faith is more a matter of intuition and feeling than of logic and reason. Nobody felt this more deeply than Paul, who called the gospel “the foolishness of God,” and scolded “Jews who ask for signs and Greeks who seek after wisdom.” Intellectual that he was, Paul still made no bones about it. Faith is a trusting leap away from human reason. Paul’s personal relationship with Christ, which changed the world forever, was not faith and reason. Neither was it faith through reason. It was faith not reason! “You ask me how I know he lives? He lives within my heart!” We can no more convey this living reality to the completely rational mind than we can convey the idea of color to a blind man. Or, in Paul’s words, to a “natural man who receiveth not the things of the Spirit for they are foolishness unto him, and he cannot know them because they are spiritually discerned.”

Even our own brotherhood rationalists, who appear to prefer doctrinal logic, actually end up as we all do in the leap of faith. Beginning with the premise of pure reason, they end up practicing spiritual trust. This is not because of any deficiency in logical acumen, of which they have an abundance, but because their logic presupposes supernaturalism. They do not prove rationally the resurrection of Christ, no matter how many syllogisms they assemble. A man raised from the dead may be central to their practice but it will never work in theory. They receive this mystery, as we all must, as a matter of faith, no matter how much logic they weave around it. Honoring them as brothers, we wish for them enough self-awareness and courage to admit that they, too, are saved by faith. There is no salvation by syllogism. We will not win this fight for faith if we wage it on the basis of reason by the rules of rationalists on their home field. This is the Armageddon battle of irreconcilably opposed world views. In fact, ours is not even a world view. It is an other-world view. Reason sees the seen. Faith sees the unseen.

Pulpits preaching rationalism only magnify hunger in the pews for heart-felt religion. That’s why Pentecostalism is today’s fastest growing movement. And that’s why we currently squabble over the growing numbers of our own people who also hunger for more emotional celebration. Those of us in the majority, who grew up with the stately 19th-century hymns and modulated dignity of the subdued service, should bear the burdens of the weak by conceding that worship style is mostly a matter of not eating meat. Our own personal worship might even improve if we could get out of our heads and open the wells of emotion in our souls. At Highland Oaks, we use both the traditional green song book and an improvised red one with the newer songs. On a recent Sunday, we sang this old song and I let my heart release a floodgate of tears.

Be with me Lord, I cannot live without thee, I dare not try to take one step alone. And when shall come the hour of my departure For worlds unknown, O Lord, be with me then.

No sooner had we finished that than the kids broke the mood with one of their hand-clapping songs. I found that, when I settled down and listened to the lyrics, it too swelled my soul and I actually felt myself swaying just a little.

A tougher question is what to do with all these television preachers. To me they look absurd. But so did Paul to both Jews and Greeks and, on the day of Pentecost, the first Christians looked drunk. Jesus was regarded as an outright nut. Since my religion looks ridiculous to at least half the tenured professors in America, and since I justify it by faith, how do I treat charismatics fairly? Instinctively, I join John: “Master, we saw one casting out demons in thy name and we forbade him, for he followeth not with us. But Jesus said, Forbid him not. For he that is not against you is for you.” One thing is certain: as human beings we are not superior to them. We are all in the human condition, victims of finitude, locked in the limitations of our own flesh. “That which is born of the flesh is flesh. But that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. And the wind bloweth wherever it will. Thou hearest the voice thereof, but knoweth not whence it cometh or whither it goeth.”

Conclusion

A sense of humor helps. In 1934, G. C. Brewer chuckled: “Brethren, I don’t expect you to get this without some suffering, but if we can endure the pain of forcing the needle though the skin by which we get the anti-sectarian serum, our spiritual condition will be better.”

I come tonight, in the spirit of G. C. Brewer, to affirm the Church of Christ. It has given me nothing but love and honor all of my life. An 85-year-old elder, who still teaches the largest Bible class in one of our strongest congregations, listens tonight for the second time. When I practiced on him he sharply disagreed with some but, because he is my father, he took offense at none. The church is my family and, even if we disagree, I sincerely do not wish to offend. I will cherish the church and my family forever, but my relationship with Christ counts most. And the only Christ I can share with you is the one I know. If my experience of Christ is real nothing else is necessary. If it is not, nothing else matters.

We are, indeed, the Church of Christ! But we are not an institution. We are the ecclesia. We are not an organization. We are a relationship. We are not committed to a system. We are committed to a Person. We do not seek to possess Christ. We seek only to be possessed by Christ. We are not a body to be neatly numbered. We are souls all over the earth with Christ in our hearts, brothers and sisters of one another even when we never meet. “We look not at the things that are seen, but at the things that are unseen.” The Christ-centered church is an unseen, living, vital, spiritual reality.

In this hallowed place, down through these decades, an anthem pledging allegiance rang every last full week in February for almost a hundred years, its lyrics quoted by scores of preachers, three of whom in 1938 closed with these words:

All hail the power of Jesus’ name! Let angels prostrate fall. Bring forth the royal diadem And crown him Lord of all!Wineskins Magazine

William S. Banowsky

(Transcribed for the Web from the archived print edition by Neita Dudman)

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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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