Wineskins Archive

February 6, 2014

Book Review: “The CRUX of the Matter: Crisis, Tradition and the Future of Churches of Christ” (Jan-Feb 2001)

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by John York
January – February, 2001

With the stated desire of both honoring their heritage in Churches of Christ and, more importantly, honoring God with their work, three Bible professors from Abilene Christian University have provided us with the most useful dialogue partner yet in the ongoing debate about the future of Churches of Christ in the 21st Century. It is clear from the opening words of the foreward by ACU President Royce Money that the intent of the book is to make ACU a “player” in the identity crisis debate among Churches of Christ. That is an interesting twist on a conversation that now has been in progress for at least thirty years. At a time when other sister institutions are writing orthodoxy statements to demonstrate their “soundness,” ACU has commissioned a series of books to address the underlying reasons for the growing distance and strife in our fellowship.

The authors argue that far more is at stake than the surface issues of worship styles or the form-and-function debate. The questions being raised in our churches about a capella music and the role of women and leadership style, the mounting losses of those leaving our fellowship for community churches that address the heart more than the head, the clashes of will over clapping and the singing of praise songs rather than Stamps-Baxter – none of these can be adequately addressed without looking at history, being consciously aware of our social and historical location. We are living in the midst of nothing less than a cataclysmic world-view shift. The days of Enlightenment rationalism (the “modern” era) that so strongly shaped our founding in the early 19th century are giving way to the “post-modern.” The right answers that promoted growth and stability and a strong sense of uniformity in the 1950s and ’60s no longer provide enough glue to hold our churches together. It is not that particular “change agents” are destroying our unity, or that people have stopped reading and preaching the Bible. Rather, the answers “once for all delivered to the saints,” in the minds of many in our churches today, no longer match the questions.

So Childers, Foster, and Reese wade into the muddy waters of discontent and insecurity and internal struggle in our fellowship. They consciously use the word “crux” in three different senses: (1) to describe their concern for the central issues of scripture, recognizing that there is a core gosel with related primary, secondary, and peripheral issues to be addressed; (2) to indicate that our fellowship stands at a particular crossroads in time, with an unsettled future; (3) with the word’s etymology very much in mind. Crux and its adjective form, crucial, are anglicized forms of “Cross.” The heart of the matter, which the authors repeatedly draw us to, is the Cross event – the death and resurrection of Jesus Messiah. “Such focus will help us avoid trivial things,” they write in the introduction. “It will cause us to place our doctrines and practices in appropriate relation to the center – to the heart of God in the person of Christ empowered by his Spirit. Moreover, putting the cross at the core will enable us to live more kindly and sacrificially. The future of our churches will depend on how our words and behavior reflect the cross of Christ.”

What makes this book different from its predecessors is not that recognition; others have successfully made that point in the past. Indeed, others have taken us through church history lessons (chapters 3-6), and others have suggested that changing times are upon us (chapters 1-2). This book is not the first to suggest that “how” we read scripture is critical to our understanding of scripture. Others have called into question our “common sense” notion that everyone can read and understand the Bible and come to the same conclusion. Other writers among us have recognized the lack of preaching on the cross in our heritage and history and pleaded for a more Christ-centered focus in our worship and in our lives. Others have distinguished between tradition and traditionalism, or pointed out our faulty uses of the terms “liberal” and “conservative.” But make no mistake: this book is different from its predecessors, and it is must reading for all of us who genuinely love and respect our heritage.

What distinguishes this work is the clear articulation of our historical roots in the context of the reformation and enlightenment and our current setting in the midst of world-view upheaval. More is at stake than “right-brain, left-brain” worship. How we humans perceive truth and translate it in our lives (not just our minds) is up for grabs. Childers takes a lead role in writing the chapters that deal with how we read scripture (chapters 7-8). These chapters are profoundly important in helping us to understand why there is such tension among us regarding subjects that we once assumed were unassailable. In particular, the discussion of the role of silence in our determination of church practice is worth the price of the book and the time it takes to read it. Many will find the discussion of “patternism” to be fresh and insightful (doubtless, others will just find it insightful!). The authors articulate a model for overhearing scripture in our time, using the Pastoral Epistles and I Corinthians, that calls for community reading and reflection and congregational decision making (but not democratic voting!).

They also are steadfast in their conviction that being Christian is about the whole person and all of one’s life, not just a segment defined by doing church. They are deeply concerned that the materialist values of American culture have clouded our identity and vision of our true calling.

In the last two chapters of the book the authors turn specifically to the crux of the matter – Christ crucified – and make a plea for Churches of Christ to find renewal and direction in that core gospel. All matters of faith and practice should be judged on the basis of their relationship to the core. Thus, baptism and the Lord’s Supper are seen to be practices at the core; a capella music, while being historically and theologically rooted and supported by the authors, is not at the core. Doubtless because of some concern that their work will not be received in the spirit and love of Jesus, they set forth a series of convictions designed to reassure the uneasy reader of their orthodoxy. Included in their discussion are commitments to the essentiality of baptism for the remission of sins, weekly observance of the Lord’s Supper – to be expected. Significantly, the other affirmations have to do with broader life issues: “encounter with the Cross in baptism leads to changed lives in the world … our commitment to be Christ-like and holy in every thought and action both grows out of and feeds our yearning for God in such things as yearning, study, and prayer … we believe the implications of the cross are most visible in the community of believers – the church.”

There is no doubt that the authors assume a “Christians only – not the only Christians” stance in relationship to the larger Christian faith community. At the same time, they are convinced that Churches of Christ have much to offer as conversation partners with our evangelical neighbors. Thus, the conversation the authors (and the leadership at ACU) hope to evoke with this book is at least three sided: (1) between leaders and congregants in local congregations struggling to make sense of the diversity within; (2) among the growingly diverse segments of our fellowship still close enough to each other on the continuum to actually talk to one another; and (3) among Churches of Christ and our religious neighbors who are also going through the same world-view upheavals we find ourselves in.

If I have a quarrel with this book, it is a minor one. I wish that the discussion of the Core Gospel – the cross of Christ – had been more encompassing of the Cross Event: death, burial, resurrection, and ascension. Our own participation in the cross through baptism is not just about dying but about rising to new life empowered by the Spirit. There is little talk about the role of the Spirit in our communal or individual lives (there is some, but not enough in my opinion), nor is there much discussion of the role of such empowerment in living out the Christ-centered life as community. “Life” defined by Spirit presence (no, not Pentecostalism) is a major issue for those hungering for change in our worship. Particularly as we try to address the world-view shift to a more experiential apprehension of truth and as we seek to understand our whole lives as a response to the Cross, the “empowering Spirit” deserves more attention. I trust that one of the ensuing volumes will address this long neglected aspect of scripture. Having said that, I am deeply grateful to our authors (and ACU) for jumping into the discussion with both feet. This is a terrific beginning to a promising series.

Should you buy and read this book? Absolutely! Read it through carefully, though. Be prepared to agree and disagree, but never doubt the sincerity and love of Childers, Foster, and Reese for our heritage and our future as Churches of Christ.Wineskins Magazine

John York


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