Introduction: ....words by our brother Rubel Shelly, minister of Woodmont Hills church of Christ in Nashville, TN. And, incidently, who has interesting competition going on campus at the same time with George W. Bush addressing the student body, I think, in another few minutes. But please don't get up and rush out at 11 o'clock. (Laughter) Some say "Trust me, we won't do that." But we look forward to hearing Rubel this morning. "Call to Action" is indeed what needs to take place. We discuss fellowship. We discuss who we are, where we are, and perhaps, what we now need to do is the first order of importance. Before Rubel comes, let's all pause in a word of prayer. (Prayer not transcribed.)
Thank you Chris. Some of you have been leafing through the notebook trying to find my speech. I read Doug's letter requesting a manuscript about a week after the deadline. It is in manuscript and copies of it will be at the back as you are leaving if you care to have one. I decided not to distribute them before reading the paper because I hate to read a paper when everyone else has a copy of it. And, you know, you're three lines ahead of me. And where I grimace, or where I smile, or where I put an emphasis, you never catch that part. So I will have the advantage of having the only copy, at least for now. But if you care to have one, Doug, I think will have them at the back door just on tables on both sides.
We live in a post-denominational world. The Protestant majority, in terms of identified church preference in America, slipped from 67% in 1967 to 56% in 1991. And the category of people with no religious preference, during that same period, grew from 2% to 11%. The same Gallop information that produced the figures I've just cited also shows that nearly one adult in four, twenty-three percent, has left the church of his or her family's heritage. Robert Worthnow (spell ?) uses an even larger statistic. He claims that fully thirty-three percent of Americans have switched from one religious affiliation to another. At the beginning of this decade, Robert Bella (spell ?) insisted that "it's unrealistic to assume that Christians today will stay where they were brought up. Both the Protestant principle of voluntarism and the modern respect for autonomous decision make it natural for adults to choose their own religious affiliation." Now you'd think that's a world ideal for those of us who've assembled at the 12th Restoration Forum. You'd think it's a world ideal for what we're about. Our churches must be crowded. And our message must be attracting attention. Because in a post-denominational, non-denominational, no longer affiliated to traditional denominational ties, those folks are bound to be, at least, giving us a close look. We must be leading huge numbers of people to the experience of Christ in salvation. Irony of ironies, though, most of the congregations I know about in the church of Christ or the independent Christian Churches, or the conservative Christians Churches cannot capitalize on the fact that we are in a post-denominational world. Even with our in-house rhetoric of non-denominational Christianity, people on the outside don't see us as post-denominational or non-denominational. In fact, we don't act very non-denominational, either. We tend to preach more about the church than about Christ, more about our Restorationist issues than about the atonement, couching too much of what we say, I'm afraid, in historical context rather than just standing up and speaking a bold word for the Lord. Most who come into our assemblies can't even translate what they hear because they don't know what familiar-to-us terms such as "Restoration plea, or "Old Paths," or even "plan of salvation," or "church autonomy" mean. Those are coded words us, people, and they don't communicate very well with folks who didn't start where we started. Much less do they care to know about our fratricidal wars over the authority of elders, instrumental music, whether to be having unity forums like this, or versions of the Bible. Walking into an assembly where such issues are the topic of instruction or discussion must leave those people in the same state of mind as those, who, in the first century, stumbled into an assembly where tongue-speaking was going on. They left without being edified. They didn't know where to say the "amen" and there was no spiritual profit. People who are not already immersed in our American Restoration Movement tradition typically come to our assemblies or open themselves to conversation with one with one of us because of a situation of need in their lives and they know we're religious. Perhaps there's moral confusion, maybe there's brokenness. But these people are wanting to hear gospel, "good news," that will give them hope. They want compassionate ministry to their needs and hurts. Only if they hear a message of God's presence, and deal with people whose interest in them is genuine, will they believe that they're in touch with the spiritual body of Christ.
The burden of my presentation this morning is to call those of us who have come from different groups within a shared tradition to Biblical action that will extend beyond a three day conference, that's rich in fellowship among people who've come to respect one another in the Lord. My primary concern is to challenge us to be about things that are Biblical. I would betray both my personal commitment and our shared heritage to offer an agenda that is incompatible with the New Testament teaching that has been given to chart our course.
My comments here will be based on Romans 14:1 through 15:13. This section of Paul's most sublime epistle deals with doctrinal difference among baptized believers. Before attempting to apply anything from this block of text to our situation, I'll probably need to defend using it at all. Some of us have been told that these verses relate to issues of taste and personal judgment and speculation. The things Paul had in mind here, we've been told, were mere matters of opinion. A cursory reading of the verses without prejudice leads to a very different conclusion. Mere matters of opinion are things that all parties concerned admit are still up for grabs. They are open to a variety of views and interpretations. They are matters on which we have no particularly strong position to stake out. Matters of opinion are the ones where I don't really care what you think about that, 'cause, that's just a matter of opinion with me. Matters of opinion for most of us would be things like the authorship of Hebrews, or whether to have Bible classes or worship first on Sunday morning, or how many prayers to have during Sunday's assembly. These are issues on which we would agree that we're expressing personal points of view that don't have anything to do with affecting our relationship with God. So long as you're civil in expressing them, say what you want to, argue whatever case you wish. Just a matter of opinion. Who cares?
The three issues named by Paul in these verses from Romans 14 and 15 were most definitely not issues on which people felt free to leave each other to their private opinion. Neither were they matters about which Paul said there's no definitive answer. He will say, "I give my judgment" so and so. There was a truth. There was a right and a wrong on each of those issues. The very reason he writes about them is, the folks in the church at Rome had been judging, and trying to coerce one another. Boy, you bet they mattered. An ancient version of our liberalism versus legalism controversy had taken shape at Rome. The terms "liberal, conservative and legalist" are banded about too freely and without clear definition among us. The best and most appropriate use of the terms is to indicate an attitude toward the authority of the Bible. Conservatives are people who believe that the Bible must be our final norm concerning both doctrine and practice in following Christ. Liberals don't share that conviction and believe that the Bible is something less than the infallible word of God to which we must be obedient. Legalists believe that they have the right to judge and exclude others based on their interpretations of complex matters. The common and inappropriate use of the terms falls out this way. A liberal is somebody who does something the speaker doesn't do, doesn't like, or opposes. A conservative is someone who does, likes and approves the same list as his own. And a legalist, therefore, is someone who objects to something the speaker does, likes or approves. In larger Evangelical circles, the distinction between a conservative and a liberal is typically made in relation to five issues: the inspiration, by which is meant the infallibility of the Bible; the deity of Christ; the substitutionary atonement of Christ; Christ's bodily resurrection; and his bodily return, second coming. Conservatives affirm all five, while liberals deny one or more of them. Within our Restoration heritage, these five doctrines would likely be adequate to define the distinction between conservatives and liberals, but we've never used that list of five. We'd probably offer Ephesians 4:4-6 as our list of distinctives so that we can be tied directly to the Biblical text.
Returning now to Romans, some weak brothers were advocating a no meat (verse 2), no holiday, holy day (verse 5), no wine (verse 21) position. And insisting that everyone embrace their understanding and practice. And that the whole church must adopt a policy of eating no meat, observing no holiday (holy day), drinking no wine. And they passed harsh judgment on those who viewed any of those issues differently. What Paul calls the strong brothers, on the other hand, could eat meat, celebrate holidays (holy days) and drink wine without offending their consciences. Frankly, it's a bit difficult to be sure where these points of view originated. I don't think we know. Were the "weak" Jewish believers who were offended by the Greek majority? Or were the "weak" Gentile Christians whose philosophies had led them to some extreme ascetic type positions? We just don't know. That's a matter of opinion. Mere matter of opinion. Whatever the origin of their points of view, though, the problem's clear. They'd taken some doctrinal stances. And it's also clear that both groups were wrong and had sinned against each other. The weak had tended toward legalism: judgment and condemnation. The strong had tended toward an air of superiority: judgment and condemnation. The doctrine, I repeat, doctrine, held by either group was tolerable to Paul. Paul said, "Now, there's a right on each of these. But it's okay for you to hold whichever position you're committed to." The doctrine held by either group was tolerable to him, but the attitude displayed by both groups was intolerable to him. Thus, Paul was grieved that harsh feelings over these non-fundamental issues were causing a rift in the church. So, he reminded them that Jesus is the Lord over all believers (verse 9), and told them that they had no right, no right, to sit in judgment on each other (verses 10 and 11).
These same issues are still matters of doctrine, not opinion, among people in our churches. We don't have many who press for vegetarianism. I've met a few. They wear fake fur coats. (laughter) I can take you to some who argue vehemently about the appropriateness of Christians observing Passover or Christmas, or Earth Day. And I guarantee that I can cause a church fight in your congregation by putting the question, "Can a Christian drink alcoholic beverages?" on the floor. And the disputants will not be content to say their point of view is a mere matter of opinion, either, and "It's fine with me, brother, if you do otherwise." Either side will appeal to the Bible and believe that it's case is right and the other's wrong. Now maybe, hearing these verses that I'm going to dwell on from a fresh, contemporary translation paraphrase will make them emphatic to all of us. They may make us all uncomfortable. They may make us blush. They might even lead us to some repentance. Listen to them as I read from Eugene Peterson's translation paraphrase the message.
"Welcome with open arms fellow believers who don't see things the way you do. And don't jump all over them every time they do or say something you don't agree with, even when it seems that they are strong on opinions but weak in the faith department. Remember, they have their own history to deal with. Treat them gently. None of us are permitted to insist on our own way in these matters. It's God we're answerable to, all the way from life to death and everything in between, not each other. That's why Jesus lived and died and then lived again, so that He could be our Master, across the entire range of life and death, and free us from the petty tyrannies of each other. So where does that leave you when you criticize a brother? And where does that leave you when you condescend to a sister? I'd say it leaves you looking pretty silly, or worse. Eventually, we're all going to end up kneeling side by side in the place of judgment facing God. Your critical and condescending ways aren't going to improve your position there one bit. Cultivate your own relationship with God, but don't impose it on others. You're fortunate if your behavior and your belief are coherent. But if you're not sure, if you notice that you're acting in ways inconsistent with what you believe, some days trying to impose your opinions on others, other days just trying to please them, then you know that you're out of line. If the way you live isn't consistent with what you believe, then it's wrong. So, reach out and welcome one another to God's glory. Jesus did it. Now, you do it."
I think that's a powerful translation. Because of these appeals from the word of God, there are three Biblical actions that I believe men and women of good will within our two groups are obligated to take. These three Biblical actions are deeds of acceptance, reconciliation and unity.
First, I believe we must accept one another as brothers beloved of God. "Accept one another, then," pleaded Paul. And now I'm reading from a real Bible (laughter), the New International Version (laughter). "Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you in order to bring praise to God" (Romans 15:7). We have believed on the same Christ and confessed that faith in the same symbolic act of baptism. We've been put into his one body, the church in that process. Like it or not, we're brothers and sisters in Christ. That brothers differ on the millennium, the work of the Holy Spirit, church organization, instrumental music, having a glass of wine, the role of women in church leadership, and a dozen, dozen other issues does not change the fact that they're all children of God.
Second, I believe we must not only acknowledge one another to be brothers in Christ, but be reconciled to one another. Without abandoning or compromising the first order truths of the gospel, that is, issues that relate directly to the meaning of Christ and his atoning death, we must stop labeling as apostate and withholding or withdrawing fellowship over second and third order truths. For me, a second order truth in the New Testament includes those discipleship issues such as drinking wine versus teetotal. And third order truths would be group distinctives such as instrumental versus acappella music. First, second, third order truths, and then I might even acknowledge a fourth order of truth. A fourth order of truth is those mere matters of opinion. And of course, the truth on each of those is each of those as I see them. But to stay with first, second, third order, that's not to say that some things in the Bible are true and some are false. It's to say that everything in the Bible is true, but some of those truths are more important than other truths. Paul, in Romans 14 and 15, said, "Look, there's an absolute bottom line, fact of the matter about the right and wrong of each of these. But," he says, "back off and leave each other alone to draw some conclusions that aren't the same. Draw your conclusion in good conscience. Live with it consistently. Don't try to coerce your brother. Don't condescend to your brother."
First order truth, that's truth that's critical truth. That's core truth about how one comes to know Christ. The second and third order truths, one need never come to a view on in order to be a Christian. On Pentecost, those people understood enough first order truth to accept Christ. They didn't have a position that day on whether to support Herald of Truth out of the treasury. They hadn't had time yet to debate whether or not now that we are Christians we can ever have a glass of wine with dinner. Wouldn't have occurred to them to bring up the matter of what kind of music we're going to have when we go to church Sunday. This means that people on both sides of these issues who have judged and condemned each other, whether from a legalistic or superiority posture must repent of our past behaviors and be willing to admit that we've both been wrong. And consciously undertake a more Christlike treatment of one another. We're free to hold and practice our points of view but we are not free to judge one another any longer.
Third, I believe we must begin to practice unity within our long-fractured fellowship. My appeal here is not for organizational unity but for mutual respect and understanding. We can converse, worship, pray, and minister together. We can encourage one another. We can be each other's confidants and counsellors. We can practice hospitality. Why, within our common commitment to congregational autonomy, no one could even propose a meaningful form of organizational unity for us to adopt. For people who've watched these Restoration Forums with the fear that we're trying to create such an organizational unity, let those fears forever cease. I'm pleading for nothing more than the sort of unity one Church of Christ (non-instrumental) has with another Church of Christ (non-instrumental). Nothing more than what one independent Christian Church has with another independent Christian Church. Frankly, the Woodmont Hills Church of Christ has more in common with the Donnelson Church of Christ in Nashville than with, say, the Jackson Park Church of Christ in the same city. I mean no more disrespect by telling you that than by telling you that the Highland Church of Christ in Abilene has more in common with the Preston Road church in Dallas than with the First Christian Church in Nashville. I'm just talking about, what in business, we call "networking." Yet in terms of actual shared experience and networking, the Woodmont Hills Church of Christ has more in common with First Christian Church in Nashville than with the Jackson Park Church of Christ in Nashville. Just as congregations within the framework of our two brotherhoods have greater or lesser fellowship with each other at a purely practical level, so many congregations may, across those boundaries, have greater or lesser fellowship with each other. We need not reject God-given opportunities for fellowship out of the fear that some schismatic brother or paper might attack us for accepting them.
Now, lest those three issues of acceptance, reconciliation and unity be left too vague to be helpful, I'll dare to define some specific behaviors, projects and interactions that are possible within such a framework.
First, many of us pray, both individually and with one another for God to show us a way out of division into unity. We believe it can't possibly be wrong for us to pray for the same thing Jesus prayed for in John 17:20, 21.
Second, we can have conversations with each other. Some of these conversations may deal with points of concern and disagreement. Many more of them, though, need to deal with the even larger points of agreement and joint affirmation. Although our history contains many more of the former than the latter, (history of conversations about our disagreements, getting together to debate instrumental music, for example, rather than getting together to talk about some things we might do on the mission field, or to better communicate the Restoration ideal in this culture), I think that's a mistake that needs to be corrected. As in marriage counseling, a pair'll have better success in dealing with its points of tension if there's first a deep and unifying appreciation of its commonalities. If a couple comes into my office warring, I don't start in by saying, "Give me the list and let's duke it out." I say, "Can you tell me how you met? Can you tell me why you fell in love? Can you tell me about your wedding day? Tell me about the birth of your children." It seems to me there's a great deal of common sense in that, that we've not applied in our family discussions.
Third, we can engage in joint ministry with each other. We've been speaking at each other's conferences and lectureships on a limited scale and that practice seems not only to have been generally well received but to be growing. Frankly, more of us have been invited out of the acappella churches to be a part of lectureships and teaching settings at Christian Church schools and congregations than the reverse. You have to understand where the two groups are, I suppose, even politically, to understand why that's so, but that's beginning to change. We're teaching at each other's schools now, we're doing guest lecturing and offering courses. That's good. We've written for each other's publications. Several of us in this room have written for, say, "One Body," or "The Christian Standard." And some of you have written for "Image" or for "Wineskins." We're writing a New Testament commentary series together. Under the leadership that Don DeWelt gave to that project in a generous financial endowment that was provided to it, we're doing the New Testament commentary series together now, with about fifty-fifty authorship. The books are already being produced. They're coming out and that has to be good for both of us. The Woodmont Hills Church of Christ, the church were I preach in Nashville, and First Christian Church of Nashville are sharing a worship facility. Some of you already know that. Others of you, perhaps, would be shocked to learn that about three and a half months ago, the acappella Woodmont Hills Church of Christ sold its building. And we had to give possession of it about 45 days later. And we were not just the church of the homeless, we were the homeless church. And we started looking around for possible places to have assemblies for 18 to 24 months, the length of time we suspect it's going to take us to draw plans that are only now being started, to build on a property that we're not even due to close on until 12 days from today. This is not going to be just a two or three week deal. We looked at about 37 different options. As it turned out, the most practical option that was received warmly by both churches was a shared use of the facility of an independent Christian Church on Franklin Road. They'd accommodated us by moving their Sunday evening service a bit later and we have use of that building on Sunday from 1 to 6 and we have a 1:30 and 4:15 repeat of the same worship hour and Sunday school in between at 3. We do our mid-week assemblies in there on Thursday. But not only that, we're sharing and exchanging the uses of personnel. We co-hosted a seminar by Lyle Shower (spell ?). We will do some things together in the immediate future with regard to hosting other events of spiritual significance for our two churches that will allow us to affirm our relationship to be a positive one. We intend for these 18 to 24 months not simply to be a time of landlord and tenant relationship, but a time of healing between these two congregations, so that we can henceforth work together in productive ways and not be obstacles to each other. We believe that's against the will of God.
Fourth, we can link arms to stand against the real enemy of the body of Christ. To my brothers and sisters who use instrumental music, let me tell you to your faces that I don't regard you as my enemy. Satan is our common enemy. He's the bad guy. And I refuse any longer to allow him to divert me from confronting him by fighting with you. It's been a great diversionary tactic that he's used. I'm looking for ways to affirm and fellowship and glorify God in company with his children wherever they are found. And I know where a big block of you are.
Fifth, we can model non-denominational Christianity as a witness to the larger religious world. In this post-denominational era, the implementation of our rhetoric about unity in the gospel, liberty in matters of interpretation, and charity in all things should get a sympathetic, even an excited hearing. The reason it's not is simply that our rhetoric is not matched by the way we actually treat each other. Neither of us is willing to affirm as brothers and sisters in Christ people who've not been born anew of the water and the Spirit. Neither of us is willing to consider some sort of open fellowship policy toward the larger religious world. And neither of us is willing to pursue a merely pragmatic unity that owes no allegiance to the absolutes of the Christian faith. We both have rock solid convictions about the gospel and we are united in the intellectual and existential affirmation of that gospel. It's time for us to proclaim that gospel boldly while simultaneously living a unity in Christ that honors and preserves our historical distinctives, minus the judgments and condemnations. I need the experience of living in healthy tension with people around me whose points of view challenge my own, whose thinking is not a carbon copy of my own, but whose love for God and scripture is equally as emphatic as my own. I need brothers and sisters who challenge me on my views about divorce and remarriage, instrumental music, the role of women, and the value of programs such as Christian Jubilee or the North American Christian Convention. As iron sharpens iron, our vigorous and respectful challenges of one another's points of view will keep us intellectually honest and spiritually sensitive. As groups of people gravitate to leaders in churches that have particular emphases about one or more of these subjects, they will be known, at least in part, not only for their faith in Christ, but also for their free or restricted use of females in church life, or for their use or non-use of instrumental music, or for their primary or non-primary emphasis on compassion ministries. The distinctiveness of the resulting congregations need not make them ineffective as witnesses to Christ. Our congregations no more have to look alike and act alike than individual Christians have to look alike and act alike. Neither do they have to alienate themselves from each other. As surely as the latter happens, though, that alienation, our witness to Christ both separately as congregations and collectively as a fellowship seeking unity, it is diminished significantly, because, people, we are as sectarian as anybody dared to be if we let something like instrumental music make us into what we have been, a totally fractured fellowship.
In our quest to recapture the ground the American Restoration Movement originally staked out for itself, may God help us to learn four things. Number one: Respect without reorganization. Both our brotherhoods stand firmly on the doctrines of historic orthodox Christianity and our congregations are filled with people who simply want to know Christ, honor him in daily living and live with him in Heaven forever. We can affirm that much about each other and live out the practical implications of such an affirmation. That sort of respect says nothing about needing to create a denominational type organization that would represent an organizational form of unity. We have histories, and we carry baggage, and we have wounds. We are who we are and there's no reason for either of us to try to manipulate or coerce the other to a point of view that is not authentic to our sincerely held convictions. So, Romans 14:13: "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."
Number two: May God help us to learn cooperation without compromise. Both our brotherhoods are firmly opposed to unbelief and compromise of the gospel. We've separated from each other over second and third order issues because we've not kept the cross as our primary focus. In that, we had been guilty of idolatry. I know that's a strong charge, but I believe it's correct. It is nothing less than idolatry to let something other than the cross define our relationship to one another in Christ. It is nothing short of idolatry to let something other than the cross be the basis of our passing any form of judgment against one another. Give me the freedom to follow scripture to the best of my understanding...to the best of my understanding...to the best of my understanding. My understanding is not infallible. The conclusions I'm going to come to are not incorrigible. But give me the freedom to do the best I can. And please don't judge me as a legalist because I prefer not to adopt a practice that you embrace. Give me the freedom to follow scripture to the best of my understanding. Please don't judge me a liberal because I can embrace a practice that you prefer not to adopt. Romans 14:10: "You then, why do you judge your brother? Or why do you look down on your brother? For we will all stand before God's judgment seat."
Number Three: May God help us to learn appreciation without antagonism. No two persons agree on everything. Even my wife's wrong about a few things. But all of us tend to feel threatened when somebody disagrees with us, and to get defensive. Those two facts, that we don't all see everything alike and that we all tend to feel threatened when we are disagreed with, those two facts, set up the potential for serious conflict. Spiritual immaturity will embrace conflict and see victory as the goal. Spiritual maturity can allow honest disagreement and see preserving the unity of the body of Christ in love as the goal. Romans 14:14, 15: "As one who is in the Lord Jesus, I am fully convinced that no food is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, for him it is unclean. If your brother is distressed because of what you eat, you're no longer acting in love. Do not by your eating, destroy your brother for whom Christ died." Appreciation without antagonism.
And then Number Four: May God help us to learn fellowship without fear. Acknowledgement, cooperation and unity must always rest on our mutual commitment to the core doctrines of the Bible. A core doctrine is one that relates directly to Christ, his substitutionary death on the cross and our acknowledgement of him in obedient faith. Although we have no basis for spiritual fellowship with unbelievers in actions that are distinctly Christian, such as the Lord's supper. What in the world would it mean for me to eat the Lord's supper with an unbeliever? That's a distinctly Christian act of fellowship. Or evangelistic outreach? That's a distinctly Christian behavior that I can only participate in with someone else who is also part of the body. Well, while we have no basis for spiritual fellowship with unbelievers in actions like that, we do have the basis for such fellowship with each other. And we can learn, not only to eat the bread and drink the wine together as the affirmation of our being one body, but we can put missionaries in settings together. I have, in foreign settings, off the soil of the United States, sat with groups where people from acappella, instrumental and non-Sunday school churches work together in such unity that unless you saw the pay checks that they got from back in the States to support their work, you'd never know that they were from different traditions. There is something about being in an environment where the enemy is a little bit clearer than where over here we have the luxury of parsing the nuances and fighting about some things that are ultimately irrelevancies. There is something about being in that setting that clarifies a lot of this junk. And we wept together that day, that if we were back in Texas or Tennessee or Arkansas, we couldn't be doing what we were doing there, in sharing the gospel together with unbelievers. So Romans 14:5, 6: "May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you a spirit of unity among yourselves as you follow Christ Jesus so that with one heart and one mouth you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ."
Our post-denominational world is waiting for someone to offer what we've always claimed to preach. Our post-denominational world is waiting for someone to step up and offer them a real, live, working model of what we've always claimed to preach. My question is, "Will we serve it, or will God have to raise up somebody else to take the message that we once claimed as our own?" But I guess the larger and more important question is, "Will we honor Christ, by offering them that lived model?"
Tape transcribed by Tom Roberts