The Future of the Progressive Churches of Christ: Our Attitude Toward the Conservative Leaders, Part 1

cooperation.jpgI get emails —

Dear Jay:

For the past year I have been meditating and restudying over long held positions of belief. I have changed my mind about several things, mostly due to abandoning the CENI and “pattern”  hermeneutics which kept me from being able to understand and apply many Bible passages. Along the way I have run across your web pages; also those of Alan Maxey, Dallas Burdette, Edward Fudge and others and find myself in agreement with much of what I find there because it is based on scripture.

I am a graduate of the [school of preaching]. I had great respect for [the founder of the school] and loved him very much. I thought he was a wonderful Bible student. I fancy that had he been given the opportunity to study with someone like you that he would have re-examined many of his beliefs and begun to implement changes in his theology. Of course, that is just my opinion and some might call it wishful thinking; but I hold that idea because I knew him well enough to know that he was a very studious and very sincere Christian. I hold no ill will toward him or the teachers of the school of preaching for teaching me what I now believe to be an abbreviated gospel. They were doing their very best. And when I, as a young student, wanted to be overly strict on others they cautioned me in kindness- a lesson I wish had taken to heart more at the time.

However, now that you and others are trying to gently pry the scales from our eyes I find that I am beginning to harbor a resentment for people like [certain prominent conservative preachers] and others who seem to be doing everything they can to “crazy glue’ the scales back onto the eyes of people searching the scriptures. Some of their Biblical arguments seem so simple minded I wonder at how I could have taken them seriously for so long. I have a decent mind, but I know that many of them are really much smarter and more learned than am I. And this knowledge gives rise in me to a resentment towards them for trying to keep me in the darkness to which they seem to have grown very accustomed.  My concern is that their legalism is soiling the gospel in the minds of Christians and others who might otherwise accept the grace of the Lord. —-and that might actually be one of those ‘salvation issues’ which they like to talk about.

I know that I will have little opportunity to affect the thinking or preaching of the main stream guys who are holding back Christians from better Bible study. What I am concerned about is my own attitude toward these men. I pray for them. I ask God to help me have a kind heart. I remind myself that everyone will not come to the same understanding at the same time (just as I did not). I remind myself that I certainly have not arrived to a complete understanding of scripture either.  But when I read some of their stuff, it just burns me. —so I try not to read it. I am reading from the more progressive teachers as I do my Bible study.

Have you got any thoughts that may help me “calm my butt down” as my Dad used to say?

Thanks for your blog and the wonderful teaching there. God bless you and your family.

I thank you this email, because the questions you pose are questions I wrestle with every day — with varying degrees of success. And it’s good for me to have to articulate a theory of how to cope with this divide. Maybe it will help me do better.

I want to take this on in two parts. First, I need to repeat some thoughts I shared a while back about how many (not all) of us transitioned from legalism to grace. For me, it was like this —

1. I was raised in legalism and therefore felt superior to the “denominations” and “liberals,” but never felt entirely comfortable in my legalist skin. It just didn’t quite make sense, you know, but I couldn’t find my way out on my own.

2. While I was in school at Lipscomb, I had some classes under Dr. Harvey Floyd that cracked the door to grace open, but didn’t give me the whole story. But they gave me the tools to dig more deeply. Later on, I sorted through the issues, with great difficulty, and eventually came to reject legalism.

3. This led to a time of arrogance. My arrogant condescension toward the “denominations” and “liberals” was replaced with arrogance toward the conservatives. I celebrate the grace I’d discovered, taught it as best I could, and looked down on those still trapped in legalism.

4. But there was also a streak of anger. I mean, it made me angry when I began to see the misery being imposed on good people. Over and over I had students in my classes tearfully share with me how miserable they had been, never able to believe themselves saved. So it was a huge ego boost to have helped them, and angering to hear how awful they’d felt for decades and how they grieved for family members still trapped in legalism.

Arrogance and anger can be very unattractive, you know. In fact, some my writing from that time is quite hostile, and some of my classes were very caustic toward the conservatives.

5. Over time, however, I began to feel a great sorrow for those trapped in this awful theology and felt a calling to do more about it than teach my Bible class. Somewhere in all that, the anger was (largely) replaced by compassion for the victims of legalism. Moreover, grace eventually led me to realize that I have to respond to God’s grace with … grace.

But it’s not easy for me. I still get angry, and anger can be entirely justified — but it’s not a very effective means of persuasion. When you come across as angry, even your allies stop listening to you. The anger has to be channeled into passion.

If you’ve read this blog for a while, you can see that some readers are still at the anger stage. They can be very dismissive of the conservative Churches, arguing that we shouldn’t even waste our effort to persuade them of their error. And, trust me, I understand. But I disagree.

Although we aren’t all called to teach grace to the conservative Churches, some of us have to take on that task or else we doom a million people to misery — and even damnation. After all, many of the children of the most conservative Churches are leaving Christianity altogether. And I really think that legalism can be the “different gospel” Paul condemns in Galatians. It’s a deeply scary thought to me.

Advertisements

15 Responses

  1. This is amazingly close to the exact expression of my heart and where I have been and am now (I am not a preacher though). But I do feel as if I am a teacher – since we are all told to ‘go and tell’, ‘make disciples’ – and I also have 3 young children who I instruct in the Word every day.

    I am thankful for God’s deliverance from legalism for the preacher who wrote this email – especially after sitting under that level of indoctrination. I too wanted to run away, but as God would have it -we are still at our church – where deception reigns (our preacher also graduated from the Sunset school of preaching).

    I have tried to subtly and some times slightly aggressively approach this MONSTER in our Bible classes – to no, or little avail. I have asked God to bless it to His glory so one never really knows if what we say will bear any fruit – only time and eternity will reveal this.

    Unfortunately, we have concluded that we must leave the CoC because of our children. You wrote above:

    1. I was raised in legalism and therefore felt superior to the “denominations” and “liberals,” but never felt entirely comfortable in my legalist skin. It just didn’t quite make sense, you know, but I couldn’t find my way out on my own.

    Therein lies our concern – “I couldn’t find my way out”. I can’t take that risk with my kids. If it were just the ‘instrumental music’ issue or other peripheral issues, we could except that (as we know there is no perfect church). But I agree with the author of the email – this actually IS a salvation issue.

    I will continue to pray for my beloved brothers and sisters in Christ and the CoC in general.

  2. My biggest criticism of cofC folks (including myself) is the inability to respect those with whom we disagree. This is a major Christian character flaw in my opinion (one for which I must work to overcome).

    I understand that Alexander Campbell mastered this so well even sometimes to the point of confusing his followers on what he actually believed.

    At this stage in my own spiritual journey, I see much good in the recent discussion pertaining to grace but I don’t see it as really correcting our flaws. I see the progressive view of grace as a way to instantly agree with more people. This alters ones position on doctrines but does not address the root issue of respect for those with differing views.

    I was baptized as a teenager in a congregation that was of the “no eating in the building” and “KJV only” nature. As an adult, I could no longer routinely worship with them ( I chose another congregation in town) but I still have very fond memories and greatly respect how they taught me to always have the utmost regard for God’s Word.

  3. Very thought provoking…thanks for sharing.

  4. I struggle with this, too. A lot. It’s especially difficult to turn the unsmitten cheek when one’s own faith, perceptions, fealty to Christ and motivations are questioned … or even judged and condemned outright. It’s even harder when the target is someone you love and respect – even if it’s someone you don’t completely agree with!

    Our natural tendency is to return blow for blow (by fist or hot air!) and not to love and pray for those who spitefully abuse.

    I still believe that many people who have been schooled in a singular approach to scripture and faith and grace – in schools of thought now many generations old – can still speak and act passionately out of good-hearted wrong-headedness. But when zeal leads to judgment, condemnation, and even persecution, then SOMETHING is wrong.

  5. Keith – I agree with you on sooooo many levels. But there is one area that I struggle with. Maybe you could offer some advice.

    I think I have been patient and long suffering with my heart cries at the CoC (in the last 12 years). On occasion I step out and attempt to confront what I believe are errors in interpretation (I have not done this often as my husband feels that there in no value in doing so. When one of our elders decided it was prudent to teach Sunday morning class on F. Laguard Smith’s book ‘Who is My Brother’, we just didn’t go.) But I know that I do have an edge in my voice when I speak out and I am very passionate about defending God (giving Him the glory instead of taking some of it for ourselves).

    I liken it to the following analogy:

    If my son were standing in the road and I saw a car coming about 1/2 mile away, I might say “come on son, lets get out of the road” in a very calm voice. If he does not respond to me, or obey me and the car proceeds to get closer, I might increase my volume and alter the command a little. And yet still he does not follow – this would continue until I was either at a full scream, expressing no further patience with him – or I would physically have to grab him and pull him out of the road. Why? because I love him and I don’t want him to get hurt or die in his folly.

    I understand that this is not a perfect fit since one could say ‘ who are you to assume such absolute knowledge of the scripture that you would liken yourself to the mother who clearly sees the unquestionable danger and rescues the boy’? But I think it is still a ‘good’ illustration for those of us who err on the side of grace.

    We have become very thin skinned and ‘let’ our feelings get hurt at the first sign of disagreement – even when said in love and gentleness.

    But the truth is – I want to walk into church on Sunday and stand in the middle of the sanctuary and scream at the top of my lungs “IT IS FINISHED – Jesus finished it – not you, or you, or you, or me.” (actually I wish my husband would do that, not me). Why? because I love them – and I love God.

    It may not produce much fruit or any for that matter – but what if we just continue to keep the peace and continue Sunday after Sunday to ‘just get along’ – which is better?

    Is there ever a time to stand on tables and shout? Not in pride or boasting – but in the truest humility of all. With an outstretched hand – begging those we love to come – now while there is still time.

    Seeking Him and godly wisdom – got any to spare?

  6. You’re asking the wrong guy, Tammy. As I confessed, I struggle with this A LOT. Most of the time, my inclination would be to encourage you to stand in the middle of the sanctuary and shout.

    (And wear a snood, just to be scriptural.)

    I stand on tables and shout at my blog. And I generally scare people away when I do.

  7. God often speaks to us when we want to speak to others. It is quite possible that He is telling *you* to get out of the road.

    I – and many of us here – used to walk into battle on Sundays, rather than fellowship. When you leave the former and find the latter, you will launch into a new place. You’ll have to make some trades, though:

    fear for faith
    arguments for agreements
    embarrassment for evangelization
    suspicion for support
    questions for answers
    death for life

    Sometimes you don’t know how tired you are until you stop what you’re doing. Right now, you know church is a battle, but when you stop battling, you’ll find out just how much it is a distraction from the Kingdom, and your purpose therein. It’s in the enemy’s best interest to keep you there.

    That’s not a judgment on where you are, it just sounds like that you’re an “eye” in a “nose” congregation. That’s ok. God made us for certain purposes. Let that congregation serve its purpose while you peacefully move on, no matter how hard that may seem right now.

    Talk to your husband about these things, and ask him to carefully consider them. Don’t try to twist his arm, just pray and believe that God longs to put you where you belong. But He wants you to participate in the process, as well, in a way that honors God and your husband.

    It’s a gift and an honor to be handed an opportunity by the living God to step out in faith! May we all find our place, and may we all be effective.

  8. Tammy,

    We (I) should never take false teaching as a personal affront. It is though an affront to the person of Jesus Christ and his saving work.

    In my view we either lovingly and gently confront false teaching, or keep silent and stayi in the place where it is happening and become enablers.

    We have the option of voting with our feet, quietly going some place else. Or, you can ask for a meeting and express your concerns in the most charitable way possible and then leave. Either way you will likely have to leave to find a Christ centered, grace oriented fellowship.

    Jay, and many, many men and women I have spoken with who were once legalists and are now standing in grace have one thing in common. It was years, not months, not weeks, but several years in making the transition. I’m sure that is true in your case too if you were ever under the bondage of traditionalism/legalism.

    Don’t allow your emotions to out pace your mind and heart as you seek to worship and serve in peace.

    Royce

  9. I’m really not trying to be funny or factious here, but genuinely curious … have any readers of this blog ever encountered a person who held a grace-filled view of Christianity but “converted” to a law-oriented view?

  10. My son’s pschologist told him to be carefull of CofC people. They are full of anger and resentment caused by their inability to love and tolerate anyone different than them.

  11. Keith,

    If grace-filled means more personal choice and law-oriented means less personal choice then the majority will always choose the more personal choice. That’s human nature.

    With that being said, I personally know people who have moved in the less personal choice direction. I know individuals who have moved from conservative cofC to German Baptist. I know of individuals who have moved from mainstream cofC to non-institutional. In all cases, the motives were to associate with those who took stronger stands on moral values/issues.

    I also understand the Orthodox church has experienced recent growth.

  12. I do know a family who went from conservative CofC to cult-level CofC by choice. But it may not count: at the end of the story (so far), the husband now plays guitar in the band of a Baptist church.

  13. There are grace-filled churches that have many excellent programs to help people have better morals, while there are legalistic churches that give people with real struggles the cold shoulder.

  14. I doubt that there is a Christian group anywhere that would exactly agree with me! Therefore I must choose something that I can work with and seek understanding on differences. I doubt that Jesus on ascention was perfectly happy with the ones He left behind. Probably left thinking “I tried, the Spirit will have to finish”.
    Evangelism begins where you are. Paul probably had a love/hate relationship with the Jews. Each new city he went to the synagogue, to usually be rejected or worse. Really that’s the same as anyone from a ultraconservative background. Chances are you will not face arrest and death warnings.
    The email writer had respect for those who taught him, and those who really loved the scriptures. To me that’s a much better place to start than someone who thinks the Bible is fairy tales. The trick is to find who loves the Word or legalism. The former are worth your time. All are worth His love.

  15. Not I.

    “You can check in anytime you want, but you can never leave.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: