Traumatic Winds of Renewal (Aug 1992)

By Matt Dabbs

by Mike Cope
August, 1992

“Before we let you come, we need to know something,” the administrator insisted. “Are you associated with the new hermeneutic?”

While 99.99% of the American public would think he was speaking in tongues (which I feel certain he’d deny!), many members of Churches of Christ have almost grown accustomed to the phrase “new hermeneutic.”

What he was asking wasn’t really what he wanted to know. “New hermeneutic” literally means a new way of reading or interpreting (in this case) Scripture. He was asking a much larger question. Just as “Rodney King” has stood for gigantic issues bigger than one man, “new hermeneutic” is a code phrase for much of the tension we’re feeling in Churches of Christ right now: TENSION that has brought forced resignations in some of our colleges and churches; TENSION that led one editor to invite readers to send in proof of apostasy in their own congregations; TENSION that has families in religious conflict, so that some have found it easier not to discuss spiritual concerns.

“Yes,” I replied, “I guess by what you probably mean I am associated with it.” I believe that the winds of change we feel are gusts of spiritual renewal; that the sound we hear is the sound of wineskins expanding from the new wine of the gospel. I believe that we are again returning to some strengths of the Restoration Movement: a deep commitment to the authority of Scripture, a focus on central issues of faith, and a commitment to unity within diversity.

And this return isn’t being led by scholars, as Tom Olbricht has pointed out. Rather, the leadership springs from Spirit-filled Christians who are led of God. What does the renewal entail?

A Healthier View of God

Many of us grew up believing that God is just a heavenly prosecutor who winces with pain and anger when Christians veer one iota from some supposed exact pattern of worship.

Followers of Jesus who are attentive to the winds of renewal believe in a God who is our defender – a God who is so much for us that he died for us in Jesus Christ. While not wanting to leave off one word about holiness, discipleship, and healthy doctrine, they underscore mercy, atonement, and grace.

They place the emphasis of salvation on what God has already done, believing that we are saved in spite of our failures because of what God has accomplished at the cross. They believe that if he grants grace with moral imperfections, he’ll surely offer grace for doctrinal imperfections as well.

These God-intoxicated believers cling to the truth of 2 Corinthians 5:19: “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them.” What a difference: a God of love who is for us rather than a scornful magistrate who’s got it out for us!

A Healthier View of Scripture

Christians caught up in this renewal movement also seek a healthier view of God’s word in Scripture. It makes us nervous when someone removes our security blanket of absolute doctrinal precision. There’s great comfort in believing that we’re through searching, that we’ve fully arrived in our understanding of Scripture. No wonder many are alarmed!

We are rediscovering the central issues of Scripture. The “domino theory,” that all doctrine is equal height and if one falls they all fall, doesn’t jibe with the many times when Scripture speaks of “weightier matters.” (See 1 Corinthians 15:1ff; Matthew 22:34-40; Romans 13:8-10; Matthew 23:23; Romans 14:17.)

This revival in Churches of Christ is also putting greater emphasis on the full Bible – realizing that the books of the Old Testament were not “nailed to the cross.” Reclamation of these 39 books will continue to help reshape us with those words that Paul said were “useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17).

It also sees in Scripture a vibrant pattern for our lives, but not an exact blueprint that is to be copiously and slavishly followed. it understands, for example, that Paul’s letters didn’t come together as a systematic theology so we could analyze them together and make arguments from silence. Rather, they were written one by one to struggling Christians and churches to help them understand the implications of what God had done in Jesus Christ.

The “new hermeneutic” seems to be based upon a thorough appreciation for the authority of Scripture. Its proponents may come to some different conclusions but it isn’t because they have any less desire to be guided by God’s word.

A healthier View of the Church

The trauma also stems from a changing view of the church. Some beg for a few of the old sermons on “identity marks of the church” – usually meaning distinctive identity that sets us apart from other religious groups. But the result of this preaching has been a narrow, reactionary, divisive theology. One can peek at Matthew 23 for what groups look like when they have the wrong agenda. Not a pretty sight!

As Leonard Allen and Richard Hughes point out in Illusions of Innocence, a great irony is that when restoration groups narrow their focus to begin firing upon “the denominations,” they tend to become even more denominational!

The “new hermeneutic” includes an appreciation for what God is doing among other groups of believers. Earlier this summer I saw in Christianity Today an article on “The Restoration Movement.” I tore open to that page, eager to read about “us.” What a shock to find out that it wasn’t even about us – it was about another group. And they stole our name!

The longing of many today is just to be the people of God: sinners redeemed by God who have been baptized into his new community of faith. The body of Christ. The family of God.

Two Great Enemies

During this time of transition and renewal we face two dreaded enemies.

The first is pride. Some show their pride by asking, “Could what we’ve always believed be wrong?” Others show their pride by implying that “we” (a younger generation) are more God-loving than “they” (an older generation). In either case, the answer for pride is confession. We have all fallen short and are saved by God’s faithfulness.

The second is fear. When someone asks me, “Where is this leading us?” I have to say, “I’m not sure.” Then when they ask, “Is it safe?” I have to respond, “Probably not! But it’s the direction God is leading us as we continue learning to trust him.” The answer to fear is faith – faith in the Sovereign God who has called us to him in Jesus Christ.Wineskins Magazine

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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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