|What Makes Us Who We Are (2 of 7)
A Post-Biblical Heritage
June 13, 1999
Not everyone needs to be a professional historian, but everyone does need a minimal sense of historical perspective. It helps explain why some things are as they are. It may also give a sense of how things could be better. Let me explain.
Ever know a family with a "secret"? Oh, every family has its private information about subjects that are no one else’s business. How much does he weigh? Did she have liposuction? How can they afford that house? The answers to questions like those are simply private information to which the rest of us are not entitled. What I am calling family secrets are something quite different. The secrets I have in mind are fatal deceptions. They are secrets capable of killing whole families and their individual members.
Why does she have so many "accidents" and bruises on her face? Why does he change jobs so frequently? Why can no one here acknowledge all the lies that get told so easily in the family? Why are we all so angry? Why can’t we talk about the things going on in this family? Why can’t we be honest with our feelings within this family?
In the movie Hope Floats, its closing scene has Sandra Bullock’s character saying: "Childhood is what you spend the rest of your life trying to overcome." For families who live with horrible secrets like abuse, drunkenness, drug addiction, infidelities, or criminal behavior, that line is insightful beyond a fun night at the movies. It is a definition of how dysfunctional families affect their individual members.
In these nuclear families, a minimal sense of historical perspective helps their members recover from "The Secret." How did we learn the rules by which we live? Why are we so closed off from one another? Why are we having such a hard time creating healthy relationships out in the larger world? It helps explain why some things are as they are. It may also give a sense of how things could be better. The same thing is true of churches, groups of believers, spiritual families.
We Are Historically Conditioned
I have a sense that most conservative Christians naively assume their personal beliefs and church identities exist in historical vacuums. That is, those beliefs and identities are purely biblical — pristine, undisturbed by historical blunders, and just as they should be. The truth of the matter is that we are deeply affected by everything that has gone before us and that is going on around us even now. The old Ship of Zion on which we have booked passage has picked up barnacles, accumulated rust, and taken on both passengers and crew who have affected its ability to navigate the sea of history.
Yes, I believe the Word was made flesh and dwelled among us (John 1:14). Jesus is the Son of God and captain of our salvation. And I also believe God has given us an inscripturated (i.e., written) word by which to chart our voyage and navigate the ship (2 Tim. 3:16-17). But our obvious inadequacies as map-readers and navigators, deck hands and riggers make for a perilous trip. That the ship is still afloat is altogether a testimony to its divine helmsman rather than to its inept crew!
Across twenty centuries, people have taken the tiny little slice of spiritual experience they have had, put the label "church" on it, and judged all previous history by that experience. That is why there are so many generational tensions even among people of the same Christian tradition in our own day. Each generation tends to take its own experience as definitive for the church’s identity and to reckon not only those of other traditions to be deviations from the norm but also to resent new generations within its own tradition who might dare to ask troubling questions about the map, suggest altering the ship’s course by even a few degrees, or simply rearrange the deck chairs.
Our Historical Movement
Churches of Christ — along with the Independent Christian Church and Disciples of Christ — arose from a nineteenth-century historical phenomenon called the American Restoration Movement. Against a naivete that says our identity derives directly from the New Testament without influence from post-biblical events, the truth of the matter is that we are necessarily conditioned by them. Like dysfunctional nuclear families, we have carried our family secrets so long that we don’t even notice them anymore. They are like stinking skunks in the family room — that we accommodate by looking away, sitting in the far corner with our backs turned, and wearing gas masks! And we pretend things are normal and just as they ought to be!
Thoroughly disillusioned with the warring sects of his day, Thomas Campbell published his Declaration and Address in 1809 and laid down certain principles by which he thought Christian unity could be achieved. He and his historical heirs — Alexander Campbell, Barton W. Stone, Walter Scott, F.G. Allen, David Lipscomb, N.B. Hardeman, Foy E. Wallace Jr., G.C. Brewer, and many others — have navigated a relatively small stream in the much larger history of Christendom. Some days there was progress. There have been occasional storms blowing the boat off course. A few have jumped ship. There have been navigational errors that have taken us off course. And there have been constant attempts to reorient to our original heading.
That original heading has for its navigational North Star Christian unity and took Holy Scripture as its exclusive guide to safe harbor. Themes of non-sectarian faith and the "restoration of the ancient order" were heard again and again. In the earlier days of our movement, the issues of Christian liberty and the conversion of the world to Jesus Christ were prominent — but came to be practically non-existent at any practical level.
Our Central Mottoes
There are a few frequently heard slogans or mottoes that have survived from the nineteenth century that capture these central tenets.1 Some of them were carried over whole from the larger Protestant Reformation. Others emerged from the struggles of time and place by those early people in our history.
Union in Truth. In the Declaration and Address, Thomas Campbell wrote: "Union in truth has been, and ever must be, the desire and prayer of all [real Christians of every denomination]; ‘Union in Truth’ is our motto." From the context of that statement and from what Campbell went on to say about the interpretation of the Bible, it is clear that the motto called for unity in the confession of Jesus as Lord and not on uniformity of understanding and opinions.
Where the Scriptures speak, we speak; where the Scriptures are silent, we are silent. Another motto coined by Campbell, its purpose was to affirm the Bible over against human creeds and to say that human leaders and teachers must not have the weight of authority attached to their words and interpretations that we attach to the Bible itself. Explicit biblical statements are "binding" in a way that our inferences, judgments, and opinions are not. This slogan says we look for a "Thus says the Lord" to guide our way and refuse to bind anything less than God’s explicit words as essential to salvation.
In matters of faith, unity; in matters of opinion, liberty; in all things, love. This is an old Reformation saying that most Protestant movements preserve. It is also the one we most frequently violate. Because each of us is prone to make anything about which he or she has a strong feeling into a "matter of faith," we are tempted to be unloving with one another and to allow very few things to be left as one’s opinion or best effort at understanding a difficult subject.
We are Christians only, but not the only Christians. At the Ryman Auditorium in this city back in 1928, N.B. Hardeman could preach this: "I have never been so egotistic as to say that my brethren with whom I commune on the first day of the week are the only Christians on this earth. I never said that in my life. I do make the claim that we are Christians only. But there is a vast difference between that expression and the one formerly made."2 Indeed, what a "vast difference" there is between the claim to be Christ-followers only — as opposed to being man-followers or creed-followers — and the claim that those in his group are the only ones who follow Christ, belong to Christ, or honor Christ in their lives. Yet a man from our fellowship had the effrontery to stand before his peers only a few days ago to say that the Church of Christ must learn to emphasize its "exclusive position" as the body of Christ. What arrogance. What ignorance of even our historical heritage — as well as Scripture.
We are free to differ but not to divide. This motto traces to W.T. Moore and summarizes what was once considered the genius of the nineteenth-century Restoration Movement. With great embarrassment, we must admit that such a spirit has not been characteristic of us in the twentieth century.
There is so much that is biblical, noble, and healthy in my Church of Christ heritage. Slogans and sentiments like those I have reviewed for you today are nothing to be ashamed of. To the contrary, they are worth reclaiming and reaffirming in this generation. It is only those periods in my personal life and in the larger history of the American Restoration Movement during we have lost sight of these wholesome ideals that have caused us embarrassment and made us unattractive to our Christian and non-Christian neighbors.
Those disastrously negative times have most often resulted from our internal abandonment of Christian liberty and the resulting neglect of true evangelistic outreach. They happen whenever we lose a clear vision of Jesus himself and focus instead on articulating and defending a certain view of the church. It is from these negative things that many of our contemporaries know us. For some of us, this simply means — to quote from Hope Floats again — that we are trying to overcome some of our dysfunctional family background, to come to grips with the debilitating "secret" of our inglorious narrowness and judgmental spirit, to grow up enough to overcome the childhood that has helped make us who we are.
Finally, it is not the commitment of my life to be a Restorationist but simply a Christian. The former has been the means to the latter for some of us but is certainly not necessary to it. Restoration is a process that must be ongoing in every generation.
As I understand the principles of our movement as summarized in slogans like the ones above, one would be disloyal to this heritage to become dogmatic, defensive, and divisive as member of it. While I am grateful to certain human forerunners like Campbell, Lipscomb, or Hardeman, I feel no more obligation to defend them than myself. I am only obligated to defend Christ and Scripture — and I place my full hope there.
1 See Leroy Garrett, "They Said It With Mottoes," Wineskins, Vol. 4, No. 2, pp26-27.
2 N.B. Hardeman, Hardeman’s Tabernacle Sermons, Vol. 3 (Nashville: Gospel Advocate Co., 1928), p. 125.
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