The Doc File

The online journal of Luke Dockery

Tag: Churches of Christ (page 1 of 5)

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.

Mooresville Church of Christ and President James Garfield

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I am a little late in posting this, but over Thanksgiving break, I was able to visit the tiny village of Mooresville in North Central Alabama. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, many pre-Civil War buildings are still preserved in Mooresville.

I was interested in stopping there to pay a visit to the Mooresville Church of Christ, which has been meeting here since 1854. Even more interesting, James Garfield, who would go on to be President of the United States, preached here in 1861, while he was serving as a general in the Union Army. Many people are unaware that Garfield was a gospel preacher in the Restoration Movement.

To read more about the history of the Mooresville church, click here.

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Jesus, Christmas, and Hanukkah

Jesus, Christmas, and Hanukkah

Christmas can be a controversial subject in Christian circles.

In our modern climate of culture wars, the battle of Christmas creeps up every year. You know what I’m talking about: the debate between “Merry Christmas” and “Happy Holidays” as the appropriate seasonal greeting. Secular extremists claim that being wished “Merry Christmas” forces Christianity upon them, and Christian extremists claim to be persecuted by political correctness if any other greeting is used. As I have written before, I refuse to take offense about such things, so this particular controversy is not a great concern to me. I sympathize with the “Keep Christ in Christmas” crowd, but it is not a banner I regularly wave. I cheerfully wish “Merry Christmas” to people without a second thought or any ulterior motive.

If you are not part of the fellowship of Churches of Christ, you might be unaware that some Christians actually have the opposite concern: they want to keep Christ out of Christmas. At first glance this may seem unbelievable, but traditionally, members of Churches of Christ have been uncomfortable with celebrating Christmas as a religious holiday (i.e. the birth of Jesus). To my knowledge, there are three reasons for this.

First, historically, Jesus was almost certainly not born on December 25. The Bible does not tell us exactly when Jesus was born. He was born at a time when shepherds were out in the fields with their sheep, and although it is possible that sheep would be grazing in the outskirts of Bethlehem in the middle of winter, it is not prime sheep-grazing time. Since we don’t know when Jesus was born but do know that he most likely was not born on December 25, some people are uncomfortable with seeming to support a factual error. I understand that concern, but I think it is possible to observe the holiday while also maintaining historical accuracy.

Second, many people claim that Christmas has pagan origins. This is a common and generally-accepted claim, but it is also historically inaccurate. As far as I can tell, there may be specific aspects of the ways that people celebrate Christmas that have some pagan connections, but the origins of the holiday itself are not pagan. And even if they were, the reality is that there are a lot of things in our culture that have roots in paganism that don’t bother us today. For example, the names of many of our months and days have roots in paganism, but I don’t ever remember anyone rising up in arms about how terrible it is that we celebrate the god Thor every Thursday. Regardless, the historical reality that Christmas was not co-opted from pagan celebrations should render this argument irrelevant.

Third, and perhaps most important, is the argument that the Scriptures do not command us to celebrate the birth of Jesus and thus, do not authorize us to do so. We do celebrate the death and the resurrection of Jesus through the Lord’s Supper and are commanded to do so, but we have no similar command to observe Jesus’ birth, so the argument goes.

Here’s the problem with that third argument: Jesus’ own behavior illustrates that it is permissible to observe religious holidays that are not prescribed in Scripture.

In the Gospel of John, one of the recurring themes that John uses to describe the life of Jesus is Jewish religious feasts. Frequently he will describe how Jesus went up to Jerusalem to attend one feast or another, and when He does, exciting things tend to happen:

  • In John 2.13ff., Jesus goes to Jerusalem to attend the Passover and cleanses the temple.
  • In John 5, Jesus goes up to Jerusalem to observe an (unnamed) “feast of the Jews” and heals an invalid on the Sabbath.
  • In John 6, while the Passover is at hand, Jesus feeds the 5,000.
  • In John 7, Jesus goes up to Jerusalem to for the Feast of Tabernacles and begins teaching in the temple, leading to sharp arguments about who He is and where He comes from.

In this list of feasts that Jesus attends, we should also include John 10.22-23:

“At that time the Feast of Dedication took place at Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the colonnade of Solomon.”

Again, His appearance at a Jewish religious feast leads to excitement: Jesus tells the Jews who gather around Him, “I and the Father are one,” and as a result, they want to stone Him to death. But what I really want to emphasize is the part about the “Feast of Dedication”. You won’t find that feast described and commanded in the Old Testament along with Passover, Tabernacles, and Pentecost.

The Feast of Dedication came about many years later, and we know it better by a different name: Hanukkah, or the Festival of Lights. It was instituted during the Maccabean revolt in 164/163 B.C. and celebrates the rededication of the temple after it had been defiled under Antiochus IV Epiphanes of the Seleucid Empire.

So John 10 tells us that Jesus was in Jerusalem, walking in the temple, during a holiday celebrating the rededication of the temple. In other words, Jesus was celebrating a religious holiday that was not commanded by the Hebrew Bible. Based on His example, I think we are on safe grounds to do the same thing today. 

I am certainly not arguing that the birth of Jesus is more important than His death or resurrection, but it is significant: it was God putting on flesh and becoming a human, and fully identifying with the trials and temptation of the human experience. It was the beginning stage of the prerequisite process that enabled Jesus to be the perfect sacrifice for our sins. It was God establishing a beachhead in the realm of Satan and beginning the frontal assault that would ultimately result in the defeat of sin and death.

And thus, it is worth celebrating. The Bible doesn’t command that we do so, but the example of Jesus certainly shows that the Bible doesn’t forbid us from doing so, either. Besides, as Christians, we should celebrate Jesus—His birth, life, teachings, miracles, death, resurrection, ascension—each and every day of the year, Christmas included.

Ultimately, I think this whole discussion falls squarely into Romans 14.1-12, where Paul talks about how Christian brothers and sisters should avoid passing judgment on one another over disputable matters.

At the end of the day, if a Christian brother or sister wants to celebrate the birth of Jesus and what it represents as a part of Christmas, you are not to pass judgment that person. And if a Christian brother or sister decides that it is inappropriate to celebrate Christmas in a religious fashion, you are not to pass judgment on that person either. In matters such as these, Paul says that we are to respect the beliefs of one another, rather than forcing our beliefs on others in a way that causes them to stumble.

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.

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