The Doc File

The online journal of Luke Dockery

Category: Restoration Movement (page 1 of 2)

(Not) Praying in the Garden

On the night Jesus was arrested, the Gospels tell a familiar story (Matthew 26.36-46; Mark 14.32-42; Luke 22.39-46). Jesus, in great distress about what He knows will soon happen to him, takes Peter, James, and John with Him into the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus asks them to be in prayer and then withdraws to pray by Himself.

Jesus’ prayer is famously filled with agony and desperation: “Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” He comes back to check on his friends, and finds them all asleep. He rebukes them, and withdraws again, praying the same prayer. Then He returns to find them asleep again, and the pattern repeats again a third time.

After the third time, a mob arrives and arrests Jesus, and as He predicted, His disciples flee in fear.

Conjecture: might it be that Jesus was strengthened by His night in prayer with the Father, and was thus now steeled to face the ordeal of mockery, torture, and death that loomed before Him? And as the same time, could it be that in their slumber, the disciples deprived themselves of the means to remain faithful to Jesus during the hour of trial?

As Christians, we pray to change circumstances and events around us, but we also pray (or maybe even, we primarily pray) to change us. Prayer helps to bring our wills in line with God’s will, to strengthen our resolve, and to quiet our fears. I have a hunch that if Peter, James, and John had heeded Jesus’s request to pray with Him on that fateful night, their behavior during the trying times that followed might have been very different.

James A. Harding once said, “[Prayer] is an enormous power, the mightiest that can be used by a mortal, that few of us use as we could and should.”[1] When we sleep (literally or metaphorically) instead of pray, what transformation do we miss out on? In what moments of trial do we desert our Lord because our resolve has not been strengthened in prayer as it could be?


[1] James A. Harding, “Does God Answer Prayer?” Christian Leader and the Way 19 (September 19, 1905), 8.

Abolition & the Stone-Campbell Movement: James O’Kelly’s Essay on Negro-Slavery

I have written before about the unfortunate fact that there were some Christians in the antebellum South who used the Bible to justify the practice of slavery. I argued that they were wrong to do so on at least two grounds:

  1. They failed to see a distinction between the ancient slavery described and regulated in the bible and the race-based chattel slavery of the U.S. colonies and Southern states that was basically “man-stealing,” something the Bible expressly forbade (Exodus 21.16).
  2. They failed to see the profound argument set forth by Paul in the Letter to Philemon. Here, he does not seek to abolish all slavery in the Roman Empire, but instead seeks to get one man to understand the radical implications of the Christian message: slave owners should view their slaves as Christian brothers and sisters (or at least, as potential brothers and sisters) in the family of God, and to treat them accordingly. In such a family where all are equally servants of God, there is no place for slavery.

Thankfully, many Christians were not wrong on these points, and were actually at the forefront of the fight for the abolition of slavery. One prominent abolitionist (in fact, he was one of the first clergymen to write an anti-slavery publication) was James O’Kelly (1735-1826), who is of particular interest to me (and many of my readers) because of his connection to the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement.

O’Kelly was a circuit-riding Methodist preacher in North Carolina in the 1770s and 1780s. O’Kelly withdrew from the Methodist Church in 1792 over matters of church polity, and founded the Republican Methodist Church, which later became a part of the Christian Connexion. Some of the members of this group later became a part of the Stone-Campbell Movement (though O’Kelly himself died before the Stone and Campbell groups united). You can read more about him here.

In 1789, O’Kelly wrote Essay on Negro-Slavery, in which he published his strong anti-slavery views. Abilene Christian University has a digital scan of this work available for free download, and I enjoyed reading this short publication last summer. O’Kelly writes forcefully and well. I have included some quotations from the work below, along with some of my own thoughts.

First, O’Kelly didn’t actually desire to write about such a topic, but felt compelled to do so:

“Not that I looked upon it as difficult to prove the injustice of slavery, for a man of half sense can see that; but I was reluctant to become an author. Yet the word of the Lord, whenever I thought of declining, would burn like fire in my bones, and rob me of my sleep.” [“To the Reader”]

He seeks to help his audience feel empathy, as he describes the horrible practice of the breaking up of families in slave markets, and the inhumane treatment that slaves at times received from their masters:

“O husbands, who have tender wives and precious children, can you acquiesce with a law that tolerates a practices so inhuman, which enslaves human creatures who have as much right to their natural liberty as to their common air?” [9]

“A master who drank to excess, one morning, lately, took his man-slave, and hoisted and weighed him by a tobacco-beam fixed between his legs, another standing on the beam to increase the pain; beat, cut, and lashed him, till the blood poured down in streams: the slave begged for mercy, but in vain; then spake in a soft manner to the tyrant, saying, master, you have killed me. He then lifted up his eyes to Heaven and expired.” [9]

Beyond an emotional level, O’Kelly addresses the issue of slavery from a theological perspective:

“When GOD called Abraham (Gen. xii) he preached the gospel to him, saying, “In thy seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed,”—Africa not excepted.” [15]

“The Son of GOD did not come to destroy lives, but to save. Neither did he come to enslave men’s persons, but to preach the great jubilee. Involuntary slavery directly opposes the benevolent purposes of the Christian religion. The Christian religion is the pure undefiled religion, gathering proselytes from every nation into one fold. The Christian, who through the Spirit hath received a divine nature, even the mind of Christ, hath learned of his great master to be meek to his countrymen, neighbors and brethren, and the inhabitants of the remotest regions as well as of the nearest. He calls no man common or unclean. He is like his Father and his Master, whose sun shines upon the evil and the good, and who sends rain on the just and the unjust.” [17]

O’Kelly also does not shy away from the difficult issue of the practical consequences of emancipation. With blacks subjugated for so long and deprived of education and a means of building up personal wealth, what would happen to them if they were suddenly freed? O’Kelly acknowledges this problem and suggests that a gradual emancipation would be best, but with the clear understanding that the very people who have created this problem through enslaving others need to be involved in helping former slaves to live as independent, self-sufficient free people:

“You say, “they are poor and having to begin upon, how can they live, if free?” This objection is stronger than all. They are the poorest people that mine eyes ever saw. you shall take every rag of clothing that is on a thousand, and put them in the road as free plunder, and hardly a free-man would alight from his horse to pick them up! But why such poverty? Where is all their labour that you have got? Your objections make your injustice only more glaring. You are the cause of their poverty. Will you rob a man of his all, and then out of pity make a slave of him, because he has nothing to begin upon? Perhaps the grand objection lies here. “What shall we do?” Only let a gradual emancipation commence, from the pure love of GOD and man in our christian brethren, and that glorious example will influence the civil powers. Reward them for their labour; encourage good behaviour; subject them to your laws; let them have interest to study, and our country will not want hands to till the earth with comfort; their minds will be no longer so contracted: the activity of the magistrates will suppress the flagitiousness of white and black. The natural genius of the people will soon appear.” [26]

“If your present situation is such that you cannot liberate your captives without defrauding your creditors, or reducing your family into deep distress; acknowledge the wrong detention, converse with your dear preachers who feel for you, and emancipate them in a more gradual manner; and we shall rejoice in your sincerity, and acknowledge you as dear brethren in Christ.” [31]

 

In many ways this was not an enjoyable read, as it described and decried a terrible practice in a dark period of our national history. However, it was inspiring to read the thoughts of someone like O’Kelly who, thoroughly infused with the principles of the Gospel, was willing to buck the trends of his time and take a stand for justice and righteousness. Furthermore, the knowledge that he was in some sense a spiritual ancestor of mine was a simultaneous source of pride and hope.

Radical Conversion(?)

I recently finished reading Radical Restoration by F. LaGard Smith, and found it to be an endearing combination of brilliant insights and prolonged axe-grinding. However, one quotation in particular really struck me:

The pernicious effects of a spiritual body composed mostly of second-generation Christians whose early-youth baptisms were, in the main, more convention than conversion are more spiritually devastating than we might ever imagine. Why are we not more evangelistic? Because we ourselves were never radically converted. Why do spiritual matters not hold center place in our busy, work-a-day lives? Because a merely “mentalized” faith can too easily become a compartmentalized faith. Why are we just as materialistic, worldly, and secular as our irreligious (or religious!) next-door neighbors? Because we have been duly initiated into a worldly church, but never properly introduced to an other-worldly Kingdom.

(p.42)

I have had discussions before about how adult converts perceive a lot of things differently than those who have “grown up in the church,” but never before had I really considered the effect of having churches comprised largely of second (or third, or fourth) generation Christians who became Christians largely as a matter of convention: it was just what they were raised to do.

Before I go any further, I should point out what a tremendous blessing it is to be raised in the church, and to have Christian parents who are devoted to the idea of passing faith on to their kids. So please do not hear me as saying that it is a bad thing to be raised in the church. It is not. But at the same time, I think there is a lot of validity to what Smith suggests above. In biblical examples of conversion (think, for example, of Saul of Tarsus), we see a radical change in people when they come to know Jesus. Their lives are very different than they were previously.

When I look at my own life, I see a very different story. I can never remember a time when I didn’t know Jesus. I was a good kid who tried to do good things. To be sure, I had sin in my life, but becoming a Christian didn’t entail a massive lifestyle change. In fact, the main difference in my life that I can remember is that following my baptism and commitment to Christ, I began taking Communion on Sundays! The point that I’m trying to make here is not that partaking of the Lord’s Supper is not important (it is), but rather, to underscore that my life was not significantly different than it had been previously: my life course was not radically altered by my decision to become a Christian.

Last fall, I attended a youth conference where the speaker did an excellent job of making the point that before you are prepared to share the Story of Jesus, you need to understand and be able to articulate how the Story has impacted your own life. A helpful way to verbalize this is simply by completing the statement, “Before Jesus, I was ____________; now I am ____________.” The problem is, based on my conversations with a lot of students raised in the church, they are unable to determine any difference! They can’t tell how their lives changed after they became Christians. This is a big problem.

This problem is further underscored by my conversations with young people prior to their baptism. Especially with younger kids, I always want to ask something like, “How will your life change once you are a Christian?” Generally, they have no idea!

Truly, I think Smith has hit upon a major issue, and I think the implications of this issue are, perhaps, as significant as he makes them out to be. The reality of “Christians” who look entirely too much like the world is pervasive in American Christianity, and maybe this is the root of the problem: people are not truly being converted.

That necessarily leads to the question, what should we do about it? Honestly, I am not sure, but here are three tentative suggestions:

Talk to kids about the cost of discipleship before they make a commitment to Christ. Becoming a Christian is not about joining a social club, or slightly cleaning up your spiritual self. It constitutes a radical change of dying to self and following Jesus instead. Increasingly, I try to have these sorts of conversations with children and teens who express a desire to be baptized in an order to get them to see (even in a limited way) the magnitude of the commitment they are making.

As the Church, do a better job of embodying the radical expectations of Jesus. How are young people going to figure out how to live as salt and light in the world if older Christians are not modeling this sort of lifestyle for them? If we have long-time Christians…and elders…and ministers who are markedly worldly in their thinking and practice, how will our children move beyond that. Read the Sermon on the Mount: Jesus demands radical living. Isn’t it about time that we hold ourselves up to the standards that Jesus sets for following Him?

Make the conversion experience more of an event. If becoming a Christian is the most important decision that one makes (and I absolutely believe it is), shouldn’t we make a really big deal about it? People go through great time and expense planning weddings, birthday parties, retirement parties, etc., because we recognize that these are significant milestones that deserve to be celebrated. I realize that because of the nature of conversion (people make a commitment in the moment), the same sort of upfront planning might not be possible, but couldn’t churches plan celebrations after the fact? Couldn’t we eat together and sing and talk and laugh and celebrate the new birth that has happened, and talk about the reality that everything has now changed? Couldn’t we, at least within our church fellowships, pay more attention to celebrating baptismal birthdays than physical birthdays?

Perhaps these are helpful suggestions; perhaps not. For my part, I am convinced that Smith has struck upon a legitimate problem, so certainly something needs to be done.

Answering Jesus’ Prayer: Unity Among Christians

When you write a blog that is primarily about ministry, biblical studies, and theology, you know from the beginning that you are really writing for a niche audience, as a lot of people are simply not interested in these topics. Today’s post perhaps may seem to be of even narrower focus, because I am going to address my own religious fellowship, but I would like to think that there are some worthy principles here whether you are a part of Churches of Christ or not.

In John 13-17, we have what is typically called the “Farewell Discourse” of Jesus. Knowing that He will soon be betrayed, arrested, and crucified, Jesus lays out some central teachings that He wants His disciples to hold onto after He is gone.

In one section in John 17, Jesus emphasizes the importance of unity among His followers, and prays to that effect:

“I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.”

(John 17.20-23)

It is worth pointing out that in this section, Jesus suggests that unity among His followers is a key ingredient in the world believing that Jesus is who He says He is. The reality is that there is considerable disunity in the world today among those who claim to be followers of Jesus, and that, in fact, this is one reason that many nonbelievers do not believe.

As I have written about many times in this space, I work and worship within the context of Churches of Christ, which have historical roots in the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement of the early 1800s. I will not digress too far into history right now, but I will note that the Restoration Movement came about as a means to achieve unity amongst believers in Jesus, and that it sought to do so by emphasizing the beliefs and practices of the early church as revealed in the pages of the New Testament. I think this is a laudable effort, and it resonates strongly with me.

What saddens me deeply, though, is how little I see the desire for unity in my religious fellowship today. I dislike using labels, but for the sake of ease, from the most conservative branch of our fellowship, I see little desire for unity at all. I see a great amount of concern for doctrinal accuracy (which is important and praiseworthy), but virtually no concern at all for working for unity with those who disagree. The basic attitude seems to be, “We can have unity if you change everything you believe and agree with me.” This is a problem.

On the other hand, from the most progressive branch of our fellowship, I see a great desire for unity with believers of other religious fellowships* (sometimes with very little regard for the beliefs and practices of those groups), but at the same time, from those same people, I see little desire for unity with their own brothers and sisters who are more conservative. Instead, what I frequently witness (in online discussion groups and blogs, primarily) is a thinly veiled disdain and condescension toward people whom they consider to be too stupid or too ignorant to really understand what Christianity is all about. The basic attitude seems to be, “We can have unity if you become more enlightened like me and shed your backward and childish beliefs.” This, too, is a problem.

As I have written before, I find myself somewhere in the middle: frustrated and uncomfortable with both extremes, and increasingly, feeling isolated from both. At times, it feels like a very lonely place to be.

But here is the deal: if Jesus prayed for unity among His followers, it must be pretty important, right? At many times and in many ways, we want God to answer our prayers; it seems remarkable to me that, here, we have the opportunity to answer His. Could it be any more clear that this is something we should give greater attention to?

I am not claiming that this is an easy process, but it at least has to start with my own desire to carry out Jesus’ prayer, and in my own life, to seek unity with other believers with whom I disagree, whether they are theologically to my right or to my left.


*I keep using the word “fellowship” to tacitly acknowledge the debate that continues to rage within Churches of Christ about whether or not “we” are a denomination, or simply the church that belongs to Christ. I do not intend to wade into that debate here; I will just acknowledge that “we” do a lot of things that look and sound very denominational, but that at the same time, most of “us” do not desire to be a man-made denomination, and are simply wanting to be the church we read about in the Bible.

Book Review: The Need for College Ministry

Last week, I read Neil Reynolds’ brand new eBook, The Need for College Ministry: Awakening the Church to One of the Most Receptive Mission Fields in the World. Neil is the campus minister at the Church of Christ Student Center (CCSC) at Arkansas Tech University in Russellville, AR, and also has a good blog, where he writes frequently about discipleship and campus ministry.

I am a youth minister, and my primary goal in working with young people is to help them develop a faith that will stick with them throughout their college years and, indeed, their entire lives. Because of that, I have been a fan of campus ministry for several years, because research shows that for students who do not attend a Christian university, getting plugged into a campus ministry is a vital part of their remaining faithful during their college years (and beyond).

So Neil did not have to do any heavy lifting to convince me that college ministry is important. However, The Need for College Ministry was a major eye opener for me in its emphasis on the college campus as a particularly receptive field for sharing the gospel and making disciples. In other words, college ministry isn’t important just because it helps “our” kids stay faithful during college (although it does); it is also vitally important because it is a particularly effective means of spreading the borders of the kingdom, and doing so among a generation that is typically considered to be hard to reach.

Here are some of my favorite quotations from the book:

But, there’s more to my love for the restoration movement than relational connections. I love what we stand for…I love the we have a high view of God’s word. I love that we’re a unity movement. I love that we’re a restoration movement, partnering with God to restore something he’s already done. Our focus on restoring the New Testament church is great. But, as a lifelong participant in the restoration movement, I’d love to see the missionary spirit of the New Testament church restored. (17-18; emphasis is the original)

No generation should be evaluated while they’re still in their twenties. (25)

[Donald] McGavran discovered that people are open to new ideas, including the gospel, in newly developed areas. College campuses aren’t exactly new settlements. But the school year rhythm creates a sense of newness each fall especially when you consider that 25% of the campus is new every school year. (36; emphasis is the original)

I believe that we could change the course of an entire generation, reach the nations with the gospel, and revitalize the Churches of Christ simply by prioritizing ministry to college students. (47)

In our campus ministry efforts, the goal is to make fully devoted followers of Jesus. I’m not suggesting that we compromise our convictions in order to attract students. We have one task: make disciples that make disciples that make disciples. (58; emphasis is the original)

The whole “I love Jesus but not the church” sentiment isn’t new but it’s just as wrongheaded now as it’s ever been. (58)

During college, most students will decide, consciously or unconsciously, what their priorities will be for the rest of their lives. (61)

Simply put: in order to start new ministries on many campuses, we’ll have to start new churches, too. If there were healthy, vibrant communities of faith in these university towns, they would already be reaching students. (80)

Here’s a simple litmus test. If you aren’t reaching students and you aren’t willing to change anything you’re doing as a church, you won’t reach students. It’s that simple. (81)

The Need for College Ministry is a quick and easy read, it is affordable, and for me, it was very convicting. If you are a minister or church leader in or near a college town, or just someone who is interested in reaching young people with the gospel, this is a must read.

Older posts

© 2017 The Doc File

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑