The Doc File

The online journal of Luke Dockery

Restorationism and the Very Flawed Church at Corinth

WitheringtonAs I mentioned in my last post, I am currently doing quite a bit of reading on the New Testament Corinthian letters in preparation for a grad school class. One of the commentaries I’m reading is Conflict & Community in Corinth: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on 1 and 2 Corinthians by Ben Witherington III.

I am enjoying much of what Witherington has to say, including the following quotation:

Careful attention to the historical and social matrix of the Pauline communities makes it clear that the early ekklesia [church] was far from perfect. As often as not, Paul was busy exhorting Christians to change their ways. If we believe that the Christian community of today should in some sense be biblically shaped and if we hold up the example of the Pauline communities, then we must say “go and do otherwise” at least as often as we say “go and do likewise.”

One reason we tend to commit the fallacy of idealism when we reflect on the early ekklesia is that we have assumed that the “determining factors of the historical process are ideas and nothing else, and that all developments, conflicts and influences are at bottom developments of, and conflicts and influences between, ideas.” Such a premise too often leads to the false conclusion that if we get our ideas about the faith right or if we emulate “the pattern” of the early ekklesia, then our Christian community will be what it ought to be.

But if we read Paul’s letters carefully, they reveal that right living and proper social interaction both within the Christian community and with the larger world were at least as much of a concern as right thinking, and evidently the early Christians had difficulties with all these matters.

Ben Witherington III, Conflict & Community in Corinth, p. xv

As many readers know already, and as I have written about before, I am a spiritual descendant of the American Restoration Movement, which is based on the premise that Christians should seek unity in God’s church by emulating the teachings of the New Testament and following the example of the early church. I believe that such an approach is fundamentally valid, but I think Witherington provides some important words of caution.

When we read about different congregations of the early church in the pages of Scripture, we come across some like the church at Corinth or some of the seven churches of Asia in the Book of Revelation that serve better as negative examples of what not to do rather than examples that we should try to follow today. So, when we say that we want to be like the church of the New Testament, we need to understand that we don’t exactly mean that, because the various New Testament congregations of which we are aware varied greatly in practice, and not all of them are worth emulating. Because of that, sometimes we might clarify our restorationist goals by saying that we want to be the church of the New Testament as conceptualized and instructed by apostolic teaching. But Witherington provides a caution here too, since having the right ideas and beliefs does not necessarily lead to right practices. And after all, what does it matter what we think if we don’t live right?

To me, none of this discredits the validity of the Restoration principle, but it does mean that we should be careful when we talk about it and as we seek to apply it. For example, rather than seeking to emulate the practices of the early church in wholesale fashion, we should examine biblical texts carefully to see where and how first century congregations were affirmed or reproved for their beliefs and practices, and choose to emulate them accordingly. Furthermore, we need to realize that faithful Christianity is about more than simply believing the right things; it also entails living in a certain way. As Witherington points out, the latter does not necessarily follow the former. At the same time, while it is true that right ideas do not guarantee right practices, it’s also true that wrong ideas make right practices nearly impossible.

God is concerned with both: He wants us to believe certain things, which in turn empower us to live a certain way. And from this perspective, the positive and negative examples of the early church, along with apostolic teachings preserved in the New Testament, are incredibly helpful.

The Shameful and Powerless Death of the Messiah

HaysThis fall, I am taking a graduate school class on the New Testament books of 1 and 2 Corinthians. I am getting to do a significant amount of reading related to those two books, and am really enjoying some of the commentaries which have been picked out for us to read, particularly, the volume on 1 Corinthians by Richard B. Hays.

What follows is the first of what I expect will be many quotations from my reading that I want to share:

“God has chosen to save the world through the cross, through the shameful and powerless death of the crucified Messiah. If that shocking event is the revelation of the deepest truth about the character of God, then our whole way of seeing the world is turned upside down. Everything has to be reevaluated in light of the cross.”

Richard B. Hays, 1 Corinthians, p. 27

Grace, Law, and Salvation: What “Legalism” Does Not Mean

Grace, Law, and Salvation

I confess that I write this post with a little bit of an axe to grind, so I’ll state it up front: it bothers me the way that people cavalierly toss around the word legalism and its variations (legalist, legalistic, etc.) in religious or theological discussions. This is a great example of a word that has been used so imprecisely that it has largely been divorced from its actual meaning.

I don’t know how many times I have heard someone who is very strict on a certain issue—whether or not it is permissible for a Christian to drink alcohol, what the corporate worship of the church should look like, whether or not it is okay to celebrate Christmas as a religious holiday*—be written off as a legalist by someone who is less strict. But that is not what the word means. It is nothing more than an ad hominem attack, and a lazy refusal to actually engage the person’s views on the issue at hand.

I think it is important that we be more careful with our words in this case, because as we will see, the idea of legalism is directly tied to salvation. And that makes it a big deal.

The Definition of Legalism

Put simply, in theology, legalism is works righteousness: it is the idea that we can somehow earn our salvation by the things that we do. To be clear, that idea is heresy. It is false doctrine. It is not what the Bible teaches.

It’s also not something that very many Christians believe. Now, I’m sure that if you look hard enough, there are Christians out there who feel like they earn salvation by their good deeds, whether by abstaining from liquor, worshiping correctly, feeding the poor, reading their Bibles, or whatever else. Really though, this idea is more of a perversion of Christianity as understood by the culture at large (i.e. “Good people go to heaven when they die”), than it is an actual belief of most Christians. The vast majority of Christians are absolutely aware that they are sinners who are incapable of saving themselves, and are saved by God’s grace through faith. This is what the Bible teaches.

Thus, a legalist is someone who believes he or she can earn their salvation through their good behavior; it is not someone who has very strict or rigid views on a particular doctrinal or moral issue.

So, for example, unless the person who strictly believes that it is wrong to eat in a church building actually believes that avoiding that practice saves them, you cannot accurately call that person a legalist. You can disagree with their viewpoint and believe that it is biblically or theologically unsound, but you can’t dismiss it as “legalistic” because that simply is not what the word means. 

Terms Related to Legalism

If you were to imagine a spectrum charting different ideas on grace, keeping God’s law, and salvation (see below), at the opposite end from legalism you would find antinomianism. Antinomianism is the idea that we are saved by grace through faith to the extent that our works have nothing to do with salvation at all: we are not bound to try to keep God’s moral laws (nomos is the Greek word for law, so the word really just refers to the rejection of law-keeping).

This view, the opposite extreme of legalism, is also heresy. It is not what the Bible teaches. Just think of all the passages in the New Testament that provide lists of sinful behaviors that are not in keeping with God’s law and will exclude those who practice them from God’s kingdom (Romans 1.18-31, 1 Corinthians 6.9-10, Galatians 5.19-21, Ephesians 4.17-32, Ephesians 5.3-5, 1 Timothy 1.8-11, and Revelation 21.8, to name a few). Clearly, the things we do matter to God and thus, are related to our salvation as well!

Thankfully, not many Christians are antinomians either (although, extreme proponents of the “Once Saved Always Saved” perspective come pretty close to this, in my opinion).

In between the two extremes of legalism and antinomianism is what the Bible actually teaches, and hopefully what you believe, even if you aren’t familiar with the theological term: covenantal nomism. Covenantal nomism suggests that we enter into God’s covenant and are covered by His grace through faith in Christ, but that we “stay in” that covenant by trying to do God’s will and obey His commands. Grace, Keeping God's Law, and Salvation

Now, certainly we don’t do this perfectly—all of us sin and fall short from time to time. And covenantal nomism does not hold that our attempts to obey God’s commands somehow earn our salvation; salvation is by grace through faith. But covenantal nomism does hold that as Christians who have been saved by God’s grace, we should do our very best to obey His commands and live our lives as He desires. In the words of Dallas Willard, “Grace is opposed to earning, it is not opposed to effort” (emphasis mine).


So what’s the big deal? Why does this even matter, and why would someone spend time writing about it?

First, I think it is good general practice to use words appropriately. We live in a world where texts, tweets, and twenty second sound bites dominate communication, and where people are not particularly inclined to give people with whom they disagree a fair hearing. In that context, I think it is important that we speak with precision, and do our best to be clear and accurate in our communication. That cannot happen when we assume that words mean something other than what they actually mean.

Second, there really is a theological issue here. When you call someone a legalist, you are saying that they believe they can earn their salvation through good works. You are, in essence, calling them a heretic. That is not something to do lightly.

So the next time you encounter someone who seems overly scrupulous about a particular issue, or, from your perspective, makes a mountain of doctrine out of a molehill of opinion, take a moment to get them to explain their viewpoint, and maybe even take some time to study Scripture together on that issue. But whatever you do, please don’t dismissively call them a legalist.

*Throughout this post, I reference as examples different issues which I have heard people associate with legalism. Please understand that in this article, I am making no argument one way or the other about any of these particular issues.

Refusing Offense

Refusing Offense

I would not be the first person to take note of the fact that a trend seems to have developed in our culture where almost everyone is offended by something. Maybe it’s a Confederate flag, maybe it’s a rainbow flag, maybe it’s the notion that some else is offended by a Confederate flag or a rainbow flag, but a lot of people seem to be offended a lot of the time, and in the end, we seem to be a nation of people who are all offended about something. And that’s too bad, because usually offended people struggle with things like treating one another with respect and discussing difficult topics in a civil way (think back to most of the dozens of social media debates you have likely witnessed over the last couple of weeks).

Reflecting on all of this has led me to a conclusion about how I want to live my life as a Christian living in 21st century America: I refuse to allow other people to offend me. Of course there will likely be exceptions to this rule in which I will still take offense at something extraordinary, but as a general principle, I am determined to choose to not be offended in potentially offensive situations. Let me explain that a bit.

(1) When you allow other people to offend you, in a sense, you grant them power over you. People who are prone to taking offense live their lives in reactionary fashion, subject to having their attitude and outlook for the day ruined based on the words of someone else. So in one sense, being prone to offense essentially causes you to become powerless, and I choose instead to exert more control over my reactions.

(2) Being offended is not a pleasant feeling. As quick as some people are to get offended, you would think that it was a fun or pleasurable experience. Maybe I just don’t know how to be offended properly, but it has never been enjoyable for me. Life is too short and there are too many meaningful things to focus on for me to waste time being constantly offended.

(3) Taking offense frequently involves judging the motives of others. A lot of times we get offended when the offending party didn’t even mean to offend us; we simply misread the situation or the other person’s intentions. Judging the intentions of others puts us in dangerous spiritual territory.

(4) I think refusing to be offended is an important part of the admonitions of Scripture. Paul says in Romans 12.18 (cf. Hebrews 12.14):

“If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.”

I used to think that this meant that we shouldn’t be jerks to other people, and certainly, I think that is a huge part of it. Put in the terms of this discussion, we should try to avoid needlessly offending other people with what we say or do. But I think you could plausibly argue that it goes beyond that: be at peace with others by not being so critical of what they say and do to you and taking offense at those things. And even in those (rare) circumstances when people intentionally try to offend us, I think refusing offense is an act of grace, where we deny the urge to harbor negative feelings toward the other person and instead free ourselves to treat them with good will.

So, there you have it: moving forward, I will not allow others to easily offend me (But by all means, don’t feel like you have to try!).

Bruce Jenner and the Multi-Faceted Transgender Discussion

Bruce JennerA lot of (digital) ink has been spilled the last few days concerning the story of Bruce Jenner and his decision to undergo treatments and surgeries in an effort to live life as a woman, and a lot of discussion has been generated.

With so many different voices competing for time and space, it can be a chore to sift through it all. It is also worth mentioning that this is a multi-faceted discussion, and what I mean by that is that it spills over into the arenas of politics, culture, medicine, psychiatry, religion, theology, pastoral care, and probably others which I am not thinking about.

Generally speaking, I don’t like to write a lot about topics of which I am relatively ignorant, and so it is not my intention to try and compose a comprehensive thought essay on this topic. What I would like to do is share some articles I have read which I think shed some light on the issue or should cause some pause for reflection.

From a medical and psychiatric perspective, I thought this was a very helpful piece. Written over ten years ago, it is remarkably relevant, and is written by someone whose training and experience makes him far more qualified to weigh in than many people who have rushed to do so.

From a political and cultural perspective, this article’s discussion on the contradictory messages on gender norms from the political/cultural left was, I thought, enlightening. There really is a point of contention here that a lot of people are ignorantly missing or intentionally blurring: either “gender” matters or it doesn’t; you cannot have it both ways.

And from a pastoral perspective, this very personal (anonymous) article was worth reading. There are people in our churches who are struggling with feelings like this, and they need more than immediate condemnation and more than a hearty approval for them to indulge those feelings. From the author:

As someone who has spent his life wrestling with these feelings, what happens when you chase them and they don’t fill the void? What happens when they don’t take the brokenness away? As followers of Jesus we are supposed to know better, that the solution for the brokenness comes from only one place. It doesn’t come from marriage or children or being able to love whomever we want to love or identify in the way that fits you best. The only hope for our brokenness is Jesus Christ.

I am still looking for an article that I think really nails the issue from a theological perspective, but in the meantime, I recently came across a particular church whose motto was very appropriate to this situation (and many others as well):

“Always the truth. Always in love.”

May we doggedly hold to both standards in this, and every, discussion.

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