Archive for the ‘Proposal for Unity’ Category

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A Proposal For Unity Part 7: Freedom to Grow

September 4, 2007

Both as individuals and as congregations, Christians must give each other the freedom to learn and to grow.

In Thomas Campbell’s twelfth proposition, he laid out what he believed to be the way “to the highest state of perfection and purity of the church upon earth.” To Campbell the way seemed simple: accept everyone who meets the biblical requirements for conversion, and who continue to show evidence of their conversion commitment; and lead the church exactly according to the teachings and pattern of the New Testament church. The fallacy implicit in that approach is the assumption that sincere people under the lordship of Jesus would actually come to agreement upon every detail of that teaching and pattern. The impact of that fallacy is painfully evident in the divided church today.

It is evident that Christian unity will not be attained by calling all believers to immediate and perfect agreement on all subjects. Instead, the path to unity must accommodate sincere differences of understanding. These differences must be explicitly permitted and protected, rather than being rejected and purged. The path to truth is not a straight line. Not all people travel at the same rate, and not all learn truths in the same sequence. The church must be a safe place for a person to change his or her mind, and perhaps to change it back again. Without that safety, real search for truth does not occur. Instead, people seek to comply with the norms of the group, whether those norms are true or not. Errors of the group go unchallenged and even unexamined. Both the truths and the errors of the group become calcified. Real learning is blocked, and unity is thwarted. Instead, factions form, drawing battle lines over every difference.

So, here is the seventh proposal for unity:

Proposal #7: Both as individuals and as congregations, Christians must give each other the freedom to learn and to grow. It is the duty of church leaders to make the local congregation a safe place for people to grow in their understanding truth, recognizing that this growth does not always occur at a steady pace, nor always in a straight line. Likewise, relationships between congregations must accommodate differences in understanding as each community matures in its knowledge of the Word. Only those understandings that are essential to conversion may be held as prerequisites for Christian fellowship.

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A Proposal For Unity Part 6: Accept One Another

August 30, 2007

All who have been adopted as sons of God through faith are obligated to accept one another as brothers.

In his ninth proposition, Thomas Campbell called on all Christians to accept one another “as brethren, children of the same family and father, temples of the same spirit, members of the same body, subjects of the same grace, objects of the same divine love, bought with the same price, and joint heirs of the same inheritance. Whom God hath thus joined together no man should dare to put asunder.

When we fail to accept those whom God accepts, we are dividing the family of God. As Campbell stated in his tenth proposition, division in the church is a direct violation of the Lord’s express command. Paul wrote to the Galatians that those who practice dissension and factions will not inherit the Kingdom of God.

Why, then, is the church characterized by division rather than unity? Campbell, in his eleventh proposition, pointed to two causes. First, he said that divisions are caused by people neglecting parts of the revealed will of God. Second, he pointed to divisions caused by people making their opinions and inventions as terms of fellowship. The difficulty with Campbell’s explanation has become evident in the subsequent two hundred years. Men have not been able to agree on what is an opinion or invention, and what is the revealed will of God. Those disagreements have formed the basis for more divisions than the actual issues that Campbell described.

Perhaps there is a better way to look at division in the church. There are two kinds of division: that which is authorized by scripture, and that which is not. The former divisions are not really divisions within the church, but divisions between the church and that which is not the church. The latter division are not only unauthorized, but contrary to the explicitly revealed will of God. These unauthorized divisions arise because of the deceived, proud and self centered nature of fallen man. They are the work of Satan, and they obstruct the mission of the church to the lost world.

So, here is the sixth proposal for unity:

Proposal #6: All who have been adopted as sons of God through faith are obligated to accept one another as brothers. Failure to accept those whom God has accepted is a violation of a direct command of God. Therefore, no division may take place without explicit authorization from the scriptures. No division may occur based on an inference from scripture.

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A Proposal For Unity Part 5: Authority and the Scriptures

August 20, 2007

The affairs of the Christian church are to be governed by the New Testament, with recognition being given to the fallibility of our understanding.

Thomas Campbell addressed this issue in his sixth, seventh, and eighth propositions

The scriptures teach in several ways: direct commands, approved examples, clearly stated principles, and implied principles. Our understanding of these teachings is affected by our fallible reasoning, our pre-existing misconceptions, our incomplete background knowledge, and sometimes by our past experiences and motives (consciously or unconsciously). While the scriptures themselves are infallible, our understanding of the scriptures is subject to error. No human is immune to these kinds of error. Those who believe they are immune may actually be the most susceptible.

No inferred principles of scripture can be bound upon an individual Christian who has not yet perceived and understood those principles for themselves. Otherwise, that Christian is being called to place his faith in the wisdom and truthfulness of man rather than God. Each Christian must keep his own conscience clear (Rom 14:23), and each will appear before God to give an account (Rom 14:10-12).

Some teachings are more clear and obvious than others. The clearest teachings carry the most obvious authority for the church. Those teachings that are more difficult to understand, or are less clear, or are understood with less certainty, should be approached with a corresponding degree of grace, mercy, and humility. We should never forget that our understanding is subject to error.

Certain teachings may seem clear to one honest, God-fearing person but unclear or even incorrect to another honest, God-fearing person. Inferred principles are inherently less clear than directly stated commands and principles. To assess the clarity of a teaching, do not merely think of how clear it seems to you. Also consider at how clear the teaching is to others. How has the teaching been regarded by various church leaders in the past? Do respected people in the past, or today, have different views on the teaching? If so, perhaps it is not such a clear teaching after all. Remember that no lines of fellowship may be drawn based on disputable matters (Rom 14:1).

So, here is proposal #5:

Proposal #5: The New Testament is the sole source of authority for the Christian church. Recognition must be given to the fallibility of our understanding as we apply the authority of the scriptures. So nothing may be bound on an individual Christian which they have not understood for themselves from the scriptures. And no disputable matter may be made a test of fellowship.

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A Proposal For Unity Part 4: Silence of the Scriptures

August 12, 2007

The only source of divine authority available to the church today is the scriptures. Topics on which the scriptures are silent are inherently disputable matters, since there is no final word from the Lord to settle a dispute on these topics. Therefore no authority can be inferred from the silence of the scriptures.

Thomas Campbell’s fifth proposition addressed the silence of the scriptures. He held that no mortal man is authorized to make rules or to implement requirements in the church which are not found in the scriptures. Further, he insisted that nothing should be accepted into the practice of the church “that is not as old as the New Testament.”

That last part is where the greatest difficulties arise. In effect, he was saying that scriptural authorization is required for every single thing done in the church. Where the scriptures are silent, therefore, the church would be prohibited from acting.

I have written previously here and here and here about the silence of the scriptures. I will not rehash that ground here. Instead, I want to take a historical look at the doctrine of silence.

The notion that silence prohibits did not originate with Campbell. At least as far back as Huldreich Zwingli (1484-1531), in the Swiss Reformation, the prohibitive nature of silence was a fundamental tenet. In contrast to Martin Luther, Zwingli believed that not only the faith but also the practice of the church had become corrupt, and therefore need to be restored. Luther focused on the spiritual realm, particularly on the process for receiving forgiveness of sins. So Luther made relatively few reforms in the outward practices of public worship. Zwingli, on the other hand, removed the statues, relics, pictures, altar equipment, priestly vestments, and audible music (both instrumental and vocal) from the church. He held that Christians were to make melody “in their hearts” and not their mouths. (Discovering Our Roots — The Ancestry of the Churches of Christ, p. 27)

However, Zwingli stopped short on one topic: infant baptism. The relationship between church and state brought with it a relationship between citizenship and church membership, which made it difficult to postpone church membership waiting for an adult believer’s decision. But the Anabaptists, who lacked the state’s sanction, had no conflict of interest on the subject, and challenged Zwingli on his inconsistency. These Anabaptists held an even more fervent commitment to the prohibitive nature of silence, and soon brought their views into America, becoming the Amish and Mennonite churches.

The Puritans found their way into America in the 1600’s, bringing with them their belief in the prohibitive nature of the silence of the scriptures. Here they sought to coerce Baptists, Quakers, and others to conform to Puritan doctrine, by methods including imprisonment and public whippings. These are the same Puritans who, before the end of the century, executed twenty people and imprisoned nearly 200 in the Salem witch trials.

The Baptists emerged from English Puritanism in the early 1600’s, with similar views on silence. They brought those views to America. One important branch of this movement was known as the Separatist Baptists. They sought to restore the New Testament pattern in their worship. They held to

“nine Christian rites”: baptism, the Lord’s Supper, the love feast, the kiss of charity, anointing the sick, laying on of hands, dedicating of children, and the right hand of fellowship. They also appointed elders, deacons, and deaconesses, believing these offices to have precedents in the New Testament. Their writings were filled with appeals to scriptural “precedent” and to the “primitive Christians.” One writer claimed that, upon examination, people would find the Baptist Church “exactly corresponds with the rule and line of the Gospel in every part of it.” (Discovering Our Roots — The Ancestry of the Churches of Christ, p. 67-68).

These Separatist Baptists rejected all creeds, claiming to follow the Bible “without note or comment.”

The Stone-Campbell movement emerged from the same communities where these Separatist Baptists had taught for generations. Many of those early converts came from a Separatist Baptist background. The strong views in the churches of Christ on the silence of the scriptures can be traced through these separatist Baptists, through the Puritans, all the way back to Huldreich Zwingli. Along the way, hundreds if not thousands of well educated, zealous and sincere men have been imprisoned, tortured and burned at the stake rather than renounce their conclusions drawn from the silence of the scriptures. Indeed, these were true believers.

So what is the point of all this historical review? Simply that all these devoted men, who proved that they loved God more than life itself, could not agree on their interpretations of scripture. Zwingli, the Puritans, the Anabaptists, and the Separatist Baptists all came to different conclusions based on the silence of the scriptures. Collectively, they demonstrated that the doctrine that prohibits based on the silence of the scriptures leads to division and strife.

Of all people alive today, surely the churches of Christ ought to understand this point. Has any group in history divided more often, over more doctrinal controversies, with more acrimony, than the churches of Christ? Can this possibly be what Jesus had in mind when he prayed for our unity? Does the world really believe God sent Jesus, because they see our unity? Do they recognize us as disciples of Jesus, by our love for one another?

Five hundred years of history has proven that the doctrine of prohibitive silence is divisive. No wonder the inspired scriptures command us not to pass judgment on disputable matters!

Any proposal for unity among Christians must address a topic that has led to so much division in the past. So here is Proposal #4:

Proposal #4: Topics on which the scriptures are silent are inherently disputable matters. Therefore authority cannot reliably be inferred from the silence of the scriptures. So we must not draw lines of fellowship over such matters, and we must not quarrel over these topics. Instead, “whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the man who does not condemn himself by what he approves.” (Rom 14:22)

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A Proposal For Unity Part 3: The Bible

August 9, 2007

Nothing is required in order to be a Christian that is not explicitly made a condition of salvation in the scriptures.

In Thomas Campbell’s third and fourth propositions, he called all believers in Christ to come together on the standard of the New Testament scriptures. According to Campbell, nothing can be required of a Christian that is not “expressly enjoined upon” the New Testament church in the scriptures, “either in express terms, or by approved precedent.” The fourth proposition in particular limits the application to the New Testament scriptures only.

Certainly, given the absence of modern day revelations directly from God, we must go back to the inspired writings of the past in order to get divinely authoritative instructions. No human wisdom can replace or add to what God has revealed to man. We must go to the scriptures for answers. When the answer is not provided in scripture, we must find a way to be content with not knowing the answer.

One aspect of the third proposition is troublesome. Nearly two hundred years of painful experience should have taught us to be wary of binding approved precedents. Literally, all an approved precedent tells us is that a certain thing done in the past was approved at the time. It does not tell us whether or not alternative practices might also have been approved in the past, or might be approved in the present. One might decide, as an exercise of human wisdom, to limit one’s own practice to those things that are known to have been approved in the first century church. That seems like a safe and conservative approach. But there is no New Testament teaching that requires that approach. We have no clear biblical authority to bind that approach on anyone else.

The New Testament gives many examples of Christians who varied widely in the completeness and accuracy of their understanding. There were Christians who thought Gentiles had to be circumcised to be saved. There were Christians who thought eating meat was sin. There were others who felt obligated to observe special days. There were divisions over preachers. There was competition over spiritual gifts. Some who ought to have been teachers were not even sound in their understanding of the first principles. While all of these were given correction and were urged to move on to maturity, they were still regarded as brothers. In like manner, we must accept as brothers all who have been adopted as sons of God, despite their deficient understanding, even if they have been in the Lord long enough that they should know better.

Salvation is conditional. But we are not at liberty to define the conditions. Where God has drawn a clear and specific line, we can and must speak with corresponding confidence and clarity. Where the line in scripture is less clear or less specifically defined, we must be honest enough to admit that degree of uncertainty. It is not our prerogative to clarify what God has not clearly revealed.

Salvation is one of the most basic principles in the scriptures. God wants everyone to be saved, and has placed salvation within the grasp of even the most simple-minded person. The conditions of salvation are accessible, simple, and clearly defined in scripture. Everyone who meets those basic conditions is a child of God and a member of the church.

So, the third proposal:

Proposal #3: Nothing is required for membership in the Christian church which is not explicitly made a condition of salvation in the scriptures.

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A Proposal For Unity Part 2: Congregational Relationships

August 7, 2007

Separate congregations in the body of Christ should accept one another while respecting congregational boundaries.

In Thomas Campbell’s second proposition, he called for relationships between congregations that are free from “uncharitable divisions,” relationships in which the congregations accept one another, just as Christ accepted each of us. He also pleaded that they “walk by the same rule” and share the same mind and judgment.

Our reality is quite different from that picture. Within the Restoration Movement, we have congregations using instrumental music, and congregations that abhor the practice. We have similar differences over kitchens, communion cups, missionary societies, Sunday school classes, translations of the Bible, the role of women, and more. It requires faith just to believe we can reach a point where the divisions are no longer “uncharitable.” The same mind and judgment seems to be out of reach.

In fact, the reality of the first century church fell short of that standard as well. The Holy Spirit, speaking through Paul, recognized this fact and gave instructions on how to handle these differences (Rom 14:1-15:13) Paul could easily have laid out the plain teaching on eating meat, drinking wine, and observing special days. Instead, he taught how to live peaceably with others who disagree on such matters. The central teaching of the passage is summed up in one verse:

Rom 14:13 Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in your brother’s way.

Sometimes, we must give up our rights to avoid causing someone else to stumble:

Rom 14:21 It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything else that will cause your brother to fall.

In the modern environment, people in the Restoration Movement have organized themselves into separate congregations to accommodate their differing convictions on such subjects. That enables each member to worship in a way that their conscience permits. But it tends to create distrust and disrespect between the congregations.

Remember, we are talking about two congregations of people who were all added to the one body of Christ at their conversion. The issues that separate these congregations are not the core gospel to which members of each congregation were converted. These are all sons of God by faith (Gal 3:26-27). Therefore, they are all to accept on another without passing judgment on disputable matters.

We need to respect the consciences of those brothers and sisters in the other congregation, who see these matters differently from us. Before their God and ours, they need to worship according to their consciences. They must worship according to their consciences. We should not be so arrogant and callous that we feel compelled to change their minds on the disputed matters. We need to keep it between ourselves and God.

Rom 14:22 So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the man who does not condemn himself by what he approves.

We need to respect the boundaries of conscience, giving them the freedom to worship as they must. We also need to regard them as brothers and sisters. So we need to reach out to them and maintain a healthy relationship with them. We need to guard our conversation to be sure we do not speak evil of our brother or sister. And we need to find ways we can work together without threatening their consciences, or ours. Maybe that could be a joint service project, or a vaction Bible school, or a joint a cappella worship service. Maybe it could be a weekly Bible study in one of their homes, or in one of ours. Or maybe it could be a picnic in a park. The choice of activity would depend on the nature of the disputed matters. The important point is that we must not let the relationship be defined by the differences, but rather by the fact that we are all part of the body of Christ.

Based on the above, here is Proposal #2:

Proposal #2: Separate congregations within the body of Christ must love and embrace one another as joint heirs in the family of God, despite disagreements on disputable matters. They must maintain a healthy relationship that respects whatever conscientious differences exist between the congregations.

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A Proposal For Unity Part 1: One Body

August 6, 2007

Christians should be united because we are part of the same body.

In Thomas Campbell’s Declaration and Address, the first proposition affirms that there is but one church. According to Campbell, that church is made up of those who believe in Christ, commit to obey Him, and demonstrate that commitment with their lives. Campbell chose a great place to start his proposal for unity. When the apostle Paul, under inspiration of the Holy Spirit, explained the compelling reason for unity among Christians (Eph 4:3-6), he began by saying “There is one body…” Paul was saying that because we are all part of the same body, we should be united.

At this point we need to pause for a biblical definition of terms. The global church is the body of Christ (Eph 1:22-23, Col 1:18). Jesus built the church (Matt 16:18), and he built only one church. So there is one body; there is one church; and they are the same thing.

So according to Eph 4, we should seek unity with everyone in the church. But how can we know who is in the church? The scriptures show us the answer:

Act 2:36-41 “Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.” When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?”
Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off–for all whom the Lord our God will call.”
With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.

On the day the Christian church began, Peter preached the gospel of salvation through Jesus Christ. Everyone who accepted the gospel message, responding in baptism, was “added to their number.” Because we are told that this promise is to “all whom the Lord our God will call,” we know that all who respond in like manner today are also added to the church.

Today, there are many distinct parts of the Restoration Movement, where new converts respond to the gospel message in exactly this way. Those people may become members of very different “churches” or congregations, with deeply differing convictions on various topics. But regardless of which part of the Restoration Movement they attend, and regardless of where their congregation aligns on those different convictions, because those people responded to the gospel message in the same way as those in Acts 2, they were added by God to the church, the body of Christ.

Someone might protest that people who hold erroneous beliefs on these disputed topics are not truly part of the church, because they do not manifest the required obedience to their Lord. Romans 14:1-15:13 gives us the divine answer to this concern. We are not to pass judgment over one another regarding such matters. If a correct position on the matter is not a requirement for conversion, then it cannot be a requirement for continued membership in the church. As Paul wrote:

Rom 14:4 Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls. And he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand.

It may be uncomfortable to embrace someone as a brother, when he does not agree on some doctrines we hold dear. We should remember that Jesus is not ashamed to call him brother (Heb 2:11). Who are we to be more exclusive than Jesus? Our clear instruction from the Holy Spirit is not to pass judgment over such things.

So, with that background, here is the first proposal for unity:

Proposal #1: There is one body of Christ, which is the global church of Jesus Christ. All who have responded to the gospel message according to the example of the 3000 in Acts 2 are Christians, and have been added to that church. All of these Christians should accept one another as parts of the same body.