The Fork in the Road: Definitions: “Faith,” Part 2

In the last post of this series, I pointed out how the conservative Church of Christ preachers often treat “faith” as including a comprehensive doctrinal system, rather than simply faith in Jesus. Wayne Jackson, in the Christian Courier, gave a string of verses supposedly proving that very point, and yet not a single one teaches what he says it teaches.

And this is critically important. You see, this abuse of “faith” has caused us to repeatedly make some deeply serious mistakes. But before we get there, I want to make another point. The fact is that where the progressives and conservatives disagree, the conservatives routinely cite a long list of verses, and the verses routinely don’t mean what the conservatives say they mean. And when challenged, the conservatives routinely change the subject.

In GraceConversation, Phil Sander posted a piece citing numerous verses to support his view that the “New Testament makes it abundantly clear that doctrinal error can lead to eternal damnation.” I then went through every verse and showed that not a single one stands for what he said it stands for. Not one. See Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3. Phil never responded.

I don’t think Phil is dishonest. I just think that he works in an environment where no one ever checks his citations. And that says a lot about the conservative Churches of Christ. (And this is one reason I rarely moderate comments. If I’m wrong, I want and expect someone to catch me. It keeps me on my toes and makes me a better writer.)

Now, back to the meaning of “faith.” Many conservative Church of Christ arguments hinge on the false definition that Jackson and others insist on.

Faith vs. opinion

For example, the early Restoration Movement leaders taught,

In faith, unity
In opinions, liberty
In all things, charity

Much of my life was spent listening to others argue whether something is faith or opinion. Thus, in the non-institutional controversy, those opposed to supporting orphanages out of the church treasury said that the lack of authority for such support is a question of “faith.” Those permitting support said it’s a question of “opinion.”

Those who see it as a “faith” issue generally conclude that faith is a salvation issue. Those seeing it as an opinion issue generally see it as not a salvation issue (except when emotions are high).

But, obviously enough, neither is about faith in Jesus — other than the fact that those with faith will be penitent and so obey Jesus as they understand him. People on both sides can and do have faith in Jesus. It is, therefore, in the vocabulary of the Restoration leaders, “opinion” — regardless of the side you choose. (For a more thorough discussion, see this three-year old post.)

In fact, nearly every 20th Century split in the Churches of Christ was a disagreement over whether a question is “faith” or “opinion” — all because of a really bad, completely indefensible definition of “faith.”

(Neither side caught the mistake because both sides enjoyed using this preposterous argument to win debates. You see, at times both sides wanted their side to be about “faith” so they could declare the other side damned. That’s how it was.)

Regulative Principle

The Regulative Principle is the notion that anything lacking authority is sin — indeed, damning. One of the classic arguments goes along the lines found on the Fairborn Church of Christ website

Sixth: Is it sinful for Christians to participate in the celebrating of Christmas as a religious holiday?

Christians are to walk by faith. II Cor. 5:7. Faith comes by hearing God’s word. Rom. 10:17. “Whatso­ever is not of faith is sin,” Rom. 14:23. “Without faith it is impossible to please God.” Heb. 11 :6. “If any man speaks let him speak as the oracles of God.” I Pet. 4:11. There is no hint in the Scriptures that would cause us to believe God would permit us to en­gage in this heathen custom and yet please him.

If “faith” means commands, necessary inference, and binding examples, or maybe if it means “a doctrinal system,” then the logic might hold. But that’s not what the word means.

We do need to consider Rom 14:23 very briefly.

(Rom 14:23 ESV) But whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.

What does Paul mean by “proceed from faith”? The Greek is even more obscure: “that which not of faith is sin.” The meaning is found in a deeper understanding of faith. “Faith” is more than intellectual assent. Faith requires commitment. As Paul wrote,

(Rom 10:9)  That if you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.

When we were saved, we repented — that is, we accepted Jesus as Lord. We submitted to the rule of Jesus in our lives. Indeed, the word for faith, pistis in the Greek, also includes the idea of faithfulness, which is how the word is often translated.

And I can’t do what I believe to be sin and be faithful in doing it. The state of my heart matters. If I think I’m being disobedient in my actions, even if I’m mistaken due to my weak faith, in my heart I’m a sinner, and God judges the heart.

This does not mean it’s a sin to honor Christ on Christmas as a religious holiday because it’s not authorized. “Faith” isn’t a system of doctrine, nor is “faith” the Bible. Indeed, if I worship Jesus on December 25, it’s an act of faith — and obviously so. And the heart still matters.

Definitions matters. And when we abuse God’s word just to win a debate, we divide God’s church. Flee such teachers.

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12 Responses

  1. I’d always heard “In essentials, unity; in opinions…”

    I’m curious if the substituting of the word “faith” for “essentials” doesn’t also reflect a shift in meaning.

    Thanks for this series of articles. I’m finding it helpful.

    Grace and peace,
    Tim Archer

  2. Jay

    I commend you for your patience and perserverance in dealing with the conservatives. I have tried for years with some success. Most believe what they want to believe and if you don’t adhere to their parrty lines they have nothing to do with you.

    What I don’t understand is if we are independent congregations why can a collection of preachers ban together, use a monthly paper like the Sword, to trumpet their beliefs and hold captive their congregations, many of which do not have the mental capacity to even remotely understand what they are trying to maintain as a system of laws..

    When you break one of the laws they concoct there is justice in their system. The punishment is not always withdrawal but shunning and silence. You are treated as one with leprosy.

    Bob

  3. Tim,

    “Essentials” is an earlier version of the slogan going back to Rupertus Meldinius in 1627. http://www9.georgetown.edu/faculty/jod/augustine/quote.html. It, of course, begs the question of what is essential.

    In 1809, the Campbells replaced “essentials” with “faith” — meaning “faith in Jesus” — and thus attempted a truly radical change in Christianity. http://www.dabar.org/SemReview/Volume06/issue1/V6I1A2.htm

    The slogan made all but “faith” an opinion and made only faith in Jesus an essential. And that’s what they meant. As a result, they refused to make Calvinism or Arminianism or even orthodox views on the Trinity or substitutionary atonement essential (Barton W. Stone was unorthodox on both doctrines; Aylette Raines was a TULIP Calvinist).

    However, they considered as heretical teachings that wrongly divided the body, such as requiring Baptists to be re-baptized. After all, the rationale for re-baptism was the belief that Baptists are damned until re-immersed, and the Campbells utterly rejected such a view.

    And, it should be emphasized, they considered “faith” to include submission to the Lordship of Jesus. Obedience was repeatedly emphasized — but “obedience” meant obedience to the commands as understood. Otherwise, “obedience” becomes a source of division, as we would tolerate disagreement over doctrine so long as everyone does it the way we insist.

  4. Bob,

    I take great encouragement from the fact that legalism is clearly declining in the Churches and progressive views are on the rise. After all, 20 years ago, there were hardly any progressive churches, and now it’s likely that half or more of our members are in progressive churches.

    The number of progressive churches is far less than half, but they tend to be much larger than conservative congregations.

    These aren’t hard figures — just my impression.

    God’s Spirit in on the move and changing the Churches for the better. And so now is the time to redouble our efforts to make sure every member of every Church is at least exposed to the true gospel.

  5. Jay

    You are right and I rejoice that all our prayers and gentle persuasion have finally born fruit.

    For the last few years from 1972 we have been fortunate to help built congregations like Bammal Road in Houston and Spring-Woodlands in the Woodlands Texas.

    But the real turning point has been our realization of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, unfortunately that has occurred over the last 20 years. Terry Rush, to many of us, pioneered part of that awakening with his book on the holy Spirit. Then We read Dr. Charles Stanley’s fine book and that really lit our fire.

    I am not at all happy with most in the mainstream COC for holding us back for so many years. They had the degrees in Theology, we didn’t,, but on our own, prompted by the Holy Spirit, we became aware.of his power and Fatherly guidance and LOVE(AGAPE)..

    We did not recieve any guidance from the periodicals as they were too busy bashing everything that was silent in the scriptures.

    Keep up the great work because in a few years some of us who pioneered the Holy Spirit will not be around..

    We pass the baton on to you to finish the race.

    Bob

  6. From an email —

    I like what you write about faith and what it isn’t. But in some cases it IS “the faith once for all DELIVERED.” That surely is not in reference to only faith in Jesus, but instead is in reference to the apostles’ doctrine which at first was passed along verbally, but now is available in the writings judged to be canonical.

    Since it’s not spoken in one set of commandments and comments, it’s not known equally by us all. But surely it was known or thought by Jude to be known by mature Christians when that phrase was written. Basic truths are revealed. Our stated goal was to speak authoritatively only where the Bible speaks. Some among us now speak most authoritatively only where the Bible is silent. You urge them to not do so. Good for you!

  7. The reader refers to —

    (Jude 3 ESV) Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.

    “Once for all delivered” means “the faith” has been fully revealed and is now entrusted (as in the NIV) to the church. But I see nothing that changes the meaning of “faith.”

    “Common salvation” surely refers to faith in Jesus.

    (1 Pet 1:9) for you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls.

    (2 Tim 3:15) and how from infancy you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.

    (2 Th 2:13) But we are bound to give thanks alway to God for you, brethren beloved of the Lord, because God hath from the beginning chosen you to salvation through sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the truth:

    (Eph 1:13) And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit,

    The scriptures routinely associate “salvation” (soteria) with faith in Jesus.

  8. Jay, you wrote:

    “Obedience was repeatedly emphasized — but “obedience” meant obedience to the commands as understood. Otherwise, “obedience” becomes a source of division, as we would tolerate disagreement over doctrine so long as everyone does it the way we insist.”

    If we accept this, are we not exchanging “what (we) understand ” for what the writer intended us to understand?

    I am certainly not pushing for a set of law-codes to be followed, but I am pushing for us to follow Jesus on His terms and not just on what we want to make of His terms. Pushing what we understand as the standard of behavior, it seems to me, is exactly what those desiring to establish law-codes are all about.

    So how does ‘what is understood’ differ in any substantial way from ‘what I want to say I understand’?

    I hope this is clear enough.

    Wondering,

    Glenn

  9. Jay,
    In one of your comments above you said: “Aylette Raines was a TULIP Calvinist).”

    You have made this claim in the past and in response I have indicated I thought you were confused about Raines; and I have provided sources in support of the position I stated.

    In Leroy Garrett’s history titled The Stone-Campbell Movement (revised edition 1994) on page 205, Garrett indicates Raines was a Universalist and that Thomas Campbell defended Raines and acknowledged he (T. Campbell) was a Calvinist – which was not the norm in the S-C Movement . As you know, Universalists believe all men w/o exception will be saved and the “L” in TULIP refers to the atonement being limited to the elect – so the two ideas are mutually exclusive.

    Additionally, in the Encyclopedia of the Stone Campbell Movement, on page 625, Aylettte Raines is identified as “well known” for his “universalist opinions.” And again, Thomas Campbell in defending Raines’ lack of orthodoxy is to have stated of himself that “he still held many facets of Calvinism” though he did not preach them. I believe he (T. Campbell) said he held his Calvinism as his “private property.” — don’t you wish I would do that? 😉

    If you are going to continue to identify Aylette Raines as a “TULIP Calvinist” rather than as a Universalist would you please provide a source to support your claim?

    I am not saying there is no source. I am staying that I am not aware of one and I would appreciate it if you were to provide it.
    Thanks for your efforts,
    Randall

  10. Randall,

    I stand corrected. He was indeed a Universalist — which makes the same point. To me, it’s even more remarkable that the Campbells considered Universalism an “opinion” not a matter of faith.

    The key was that Raines held his views as “opinion,” not meaning that he thought his view was unsupported by scripture, but that he didn’t see it as a fellowship/salvation issue.

    By the way, I love this quote from Garrett’s The Stone-Campbell Movement, p. 205 —

    “[Thomas] Campbell went on, according to Rogers’ account, to draw a distinction between matters of faith, which are enjoined upon all in order to the enjoyment of Christian fellowship, and matters of opinion, which may be held as private property. Rogers was impressed that Campbell went so far as to say that he had no hope of ever getting completely rid of his Calvinism, except it be by the slow process of perspiration, for if he attempted to vomit it all up at once it would choke him!”

    Astonishing that Campbell would speak of his own views in such terms.

  11. Jay,
    Thomas Campbell, IMO, was such a Calvinist that he had no intention of ever getting rid of it. I think he viewed the Westminster Confession Of Faith as the greatest theological treatise ever penned by man. Yet, he did not consider it as something that all had to agree on.

    The important thing for his, and his son Alexander, was that Christians unite on the basis of those (few) things that all Christians held in common.
    Peace,
    Randall

  12. Glenn,

    It’s true that God wants us to obey his commands as he intends them, but the fact is that we disagree over what he means. Even the Jews disputed over the meaning of many commands in the Torah. It’s the nature of writings from different languages, cultures, and times.

    If I say you are only saved if you understand all the commands as God intended, what I mean is: you are only saved if you understand all the commands as I understand them — because I think I understand them as God intends. And this leads to division.

    Paul teaches in Rom 14 – 15 that for those with faith, God accepts obedience to a mistaken understanding if that obedience is “to the Lord.” That is, if I’m truly trying to obey God’s command but I misunderstand, if I’m in grace at all, grace covers the mistake.

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