“Those with good sense are slow to anger, and it is their glory to overlook an offense” (Pr 19.11, NRSV)
“Where do you think all these appalling wars and quarrels come from? Do you think they just happen? Think again. They come about because you want your own way, and fight for it deep inside yourselves” (James 4.1, The Message)
“I propose to finish my course without ever, even for one moment, engaging in partisan strife with anybody, about anything.” (T. B. Larimore)
“Men have it, hence, in their power to preserve or to destroy unity, but not to impart it.”
Hearing the Counselor Out
Brother Mike deserves to be heard. He has labored in the kingdom for many years with congregations in the Southeast. He has a profitable ministry with God’s family in Lewisburg, TN and we pray the Lord blesses him with many more years of sharing the good news of Jesus. His only fault that we can see is that UK fan club … If he had started out by shouting “Roll Tide” all would be well … Mike’s job, as it appears from the jury box, is to offer closing arguments for the prosecutions case. In a nutshell what I am hearing from my brother is that:
1) Many tried to hold the brotherhood together a hundred years ago but others sought to encourage division
2) Though some things could have been done differently the issues were real and legitimate thus division truly was necessary after all
3) The issues have not changed thus unity today, as desirable as it may be, simply can not be.
4) Those who try to side step the issues are to be opposed even to the point of further division.
This is the essence of what I heard from Mike. If this is inaccurate I am open to correction.
Words of Wisdom from Counselor Mike
As I have reflected on Mike’s closing arguments before the jury, I heard things that made me say “amen” and others that made me squirm. I am sure that he could say the same though of the questions from the jury. For example, I think Mike forces us to ask a very good and productive question. On page 45 he states “many persons from that era worked diligently to hold the body together while others fought just as hard to drive the wedge deeper.” Is this simply an acute observation or is this a question that addresses the authors and readers alike? I have had to ask myself, “Bobby which one are you? Are you the one who seeks to hold the body together or one who seeks to drive the family into further factionalism?” We all need to search our souls deeply on this one … whether intended or not Mike has confronted us with a question of considerable substance. In this age what is my role: do I stand for unity like T. B. Larimore, T. W. Brents and others or do I demand another outcome.
I was delighted to hear the following words flow from Mike, “Unity of God’s people is a foundational goal, a foundational doctrine of the one body of Christ” (p. 46). How true this is. It seems to me that many do not agree with this statement but rather see unity as something that would be nice but is not essential to the faithful church. But it seems to me that a divided church is a fallen church. Thus I confess, paraphrasing Isaiah, “I am a divided person living among a divided people …” therefore I cling to the promised blessing that salvation comes from the Lord rather than myself or my people.
A Procedure for Embracing the Status Quo?
In spite of Brother Mike’s eloquent words about the foundational nature of unity he seems willing to set this essential doctrine aside for other matters. He seeks to add substance to his case by appealing to some brethren in the Christian Church who will also agree that though unity is desirable it not always attainable or he appeals to some stuff from Oprah Winfrey (pp. 48-49). But is it really a just comparison to compare a denial of the exclusive claims of Jesus as the only way to salvation with claiming that instrumental music should not divide the body of Christ? Is it really??
I do doubt that Bob Russell, or Rick Atchley, would have any sympathy for the quoted statement of Oprah Winfrey, “How dare you think that your God and your way is the only way?” Because Russell and Atchley believe that IM is in the realm of opinion rather than doctrine does not mean they are either moral or doctrinal relativists and to imply such surely borders on smoke and mirrors legal maneuvering – and perhaps shear dishonesty! Surely brother Mike knows that the One Cup brothers believe firmly that their position is one of doctrine and not opinion; or that the Non-Institutional Brothers hold the same … I doubt Mike sees himself as a moral or doctrinal relativist simply because he classifies their views as opinion rather than doctrinal … yet he has done exactly (in form and substance) what Atchley and Russell have done with his position. Brother Mike seems to think that unity excludes any kind of diversity. He writes
“We can certainly agree that it is of paramount importance to worship God, tend to the poor, evangelize the world, encourage and uplift one another, etc. But when doctrinal differences still exist, they prevent us from walking together on those points” (p. 50). “But if we are united with Christ at the cross, we will not, or should not have any doctrinal differences” (p. 51).
I must confess my in ability to see the either validity of these statements from a biblical standpoint or from a purely human point of view! I suppose from the outside I would question what some mean by “doctrine.” It seems that some limit doctrine to ecclesiastical concerns (church organization, worship technicalities, etc). This is probably rooted in our polemical history. But from a biblical point of view I would suggest that caring for the poor and the like are in fact doctrinal concerns … indeed sound doctrine in the Pauline sense. My own book with John Mark Hicks, Kingdom Come, elaborates on this (especially pp. 93-109)
But is it the case that if one is united in the Cross of Jesus that there will never be any doctrinal differences? I doubt this has ever been the case with any living breathing gathering of the people of God in any stage of history. This is not the case in the New Testament itself and it is not the case, I am willing to bet, even among our esteemed ensemble of counselors. The assembly of God at Corinth is Exhibit A for a messed up congregation … yet Paul did not suggest removing a single person save the sexual philanderer! And I know deep in his heart that Mike also knows that the church at Corinth was far worse off than either Richland Hills or Southeast Christian Church. So why can we not do for these brothers what Paul did for the Corinthians? I have never received a straight answer to this question.
Mike’s appeal to Amos 3.3 is an accidental case of proof-texting. This text has been put to use by many for the same purposes as brother Mike so I am not picking on him. But what is that text about in its own context? It is a favorite proof text for those who defend unity by conformity, those who claim that all Christians must believe exactly the same thing on all
points in order to have unity is Amos 3.3. They will quote this text only in the King James Version (and that should immediately raise some questions).
Amos 3.3 in the KJV reads: “Can two walk together, except they be agreed?”
The one promoting conformity as the basis of unity will point to this text and say see we cannot walk together (i.e. be united) unless we AGREE! But this is a classic case of proof texting and ignoring the context of the sacred author. Also the King James Version is the only version to render the text this way.
In its literary context Amos 3.3 is a prophetic defense by Amos of his preaching. In vv. 3-6, which are linked poetically, there is a series of things usually associated together in the experience of ancient Israelites. Travelers don’t go together unless they “know” each other; a Lion does not roar without a target (3.4); birds are not snared without a trap (3.5); and city folk tremble at the sound of the trumpet (3.6). As surely as these things are linked inseparably; so Yahweh’s judgment does not come without the voice of his prophet first (3.7).
Amos 3.3 has absolutely nothing to do with doctrinal uniformity. It has to do with travelers on ancient caravan routes in Israel. This is plainly apparent in the context — and from any modern translation. The RSV translates, “Do two walk together unless they have an appointment?” The TEV renders the Hebrew text, “Do two men start traveling together without arranging to meet?” The REB “Do two people travel together unless they have agreed to do so?” The Tanakh translates “Can two walk together without having met?” These create a different impression than those who proof text this verse for their doctrine of uniformity.
The word in the KJV translated as “agreed’ is the Hebrew yada. This word is a word of relationships, not abstract thought. The word literally means “to know.” Will folks walk or travel together unless they know each other? It is the same kind of “knowing” that Adam and Eve shared … relationship. When one sees two traveling on the highway it is a fair assumption that they know each other.
Amos is using a series of common, everyday events in Israel to show that certain things just come in pairs – they are inseparable. God has moved to punish his people, but first he sends his prophet (that is Amos). Amos is declaring he must preach just as surely as two friends travel together or a lion roars in hunt of its prey. On to other things.
So can we be united to Christ and the Cross and still not see “eye to eye?” Absolutely! The Story of Jewish and Gentile disciples in the Book of Acts clearly shows this to be the case.
Unity in Diversity: Book Union, Head Union, Water Union, Fire Union
Diversity is built into nearly every page of the NT. It is not a threat to the people of God. Unity is in fact a foundational doctrine the flows directly from the Gospel itself. The Gospel is a message of reconciliation: God to his world, God to his People, God’s People to each other. Division in whatever form is a mark of the old way of death rather than the new way of life. Christ came to abolish the “dividing wall” between humans …
Not only is diversity knitted into the fabric of the NT it is part of the DNA of the Stone-Campbell Movement. I have highlighted that truth in every response to the prosecution. Our forefathers knew that it was impossible for us to agree on all things … even doctrinal things. They had the wisdom and spiritual foresight to see that biblical unity did not consist cookie cutter Christians. The Freedom to Think automatically ruled such a stance out (and still does)!!
Barton Stone was one of those who asked the question brother Mike forced upon us earlier: he could either attempt to promote unity or side with division. He chose the former. By 1833, Stone had laid his soul on the line for the unity of the People of God. He had led the union of his followers with those of Campbell. He was fiery in what he held was truth and gracious and humble with those who dissented from his interpretations of the one true word. Through exposure to the Word, and through life, Stone saw that unity on a set of doctrines would never happen. Some proposed other kinds of unity.
Some suggested that “book union” was the way to go. They rally to their written creeds and suggest signing off on it and unity can take place. But creeds let us off the hook of thinking for ourselves and no one can agree to everything in the “creed book.” Others suggested that unity is found in what Stone called “head union“. This approach has the value that it points folks back to the Bible. When everyone agrees on what the Bible teaches then unity will take place. But Stone writes that now believers substituted unwritten creeds for the previous written ones. “Each one believes his opinion of certain texts to be the very spirit and meaning of the texts—and that this opinion was absolutely essential to salvation.” Opinions are simply disguised creedal statements! Some further advocate what Stone called “water union.” Water union promoted the point of view that union can only be had with those who have agreement on and experienced a certain taught view of baptism (only those immersed expressly with the understanding of “for the remission of sins). But Stone suggests, ironically, that such a unity is “easily dissolved.”
The only kind of unity that Scripture knows, according to Stone, is “the union of fire.” Fire union is that created and founded by the Holy Spirit of the Almighty God. “Fire effects a perfect union—so does the spirit [sic] of burning, the spirit of Jesus.” Where can we find this unity? “This spirit is obtained through faith, not in a human form or set of opinions, whether written or not written, but in the Lord Jesus Christ, the Savior of sinners; and by cheerful obedience to his known commands … This spirit leads us to love God and his children … This is the very union for which Jesus prayed.” (Barton W. Stone, “The Retrospect,” Christian Messenger 7 [October 1833], 314-316). It is precisely because Stone did not believe that all must agree in order to be united that he was able to unite with Alexander Campbell.
Baby Steps Toward Unity
I am delighted by all the discussion of unity lately (that is much better than silence). I do not believe unity is unattainable simply because I happen to believe that all Christians are already unified in Christ Jesus. Our problem is trying to divide what God by his grace has brought together. Here are a few “baby steps,” if you will, toward maintaining what God has created:
There are ways to stand as a promoter of unity within the body rather than standing for the status quo of division. Personal growth is certainly one way. I have grown and changed my mind on a number of theological matters. My relationship to our loving Abba or his family has not changed by that growth (or decline depending on one’s point of view). For example I once was taught and believed that Christians are not indwelled by the Holy Spirit. I think this is clearly a doctrinal matter. But through study, and God’s grace, I came to see new light on this subject. On the other side I was once a fairly rabid pro-American nationalist. God and the United States were on the same page in my book. But over the years I have, again through study and the grace of God, come to embrace a position that might be called pacifistic. My love for, and my fellowship with, those who have not embraced my journey on these and other issues has not altered an iota. Thus if I change my mind about something that I once thought was doctrine but now I see it as a matter of opinion … or at least not a doctrine that should alienate brothers given the theological importance of unity to the Gospel of Jesus Christ … simply means an embrace of growth not relativism.
I believe another step toward unity to let the Bible set our agenda rather than polemical concerns. By this I mean truly letting what is most important in the story of the Bible be what is most important for us. There is a “spine” to the Bible just like there is in my body. That spine holds my body together … just so in the biblical narrative. One does not have to guess at what Scripture asserts is “most important” for it declares it explicitly. While I am grateful for my tonsils they are hardly my heart. I loose nothing if I loose my “appendix” but I certainly do if I loose my lung or heart. Certainly there is an analogy to Scripture. Perhaps three questions could be asked that could help us all focus on what is truly at the “heart” of the Bible (and thus our life as the body of Christ):
1) What things are mentioned most often in Scripture?
2) What is explicitly highlighted as most important?
3) What things keep showing up at the center of a biblical writer’s message?
If we did this would we not be letting God himself set our agenda? Perhaps our faithfulness as his people would then be seen by how closely we actually mirror what is discovered through those questions … perhaps repentance and reformation would be called for … even as we celebrate His faithfulness to his fallen and divided people.
Let me close with a few practical “Baby Steps” that can facilitate unity in our congregations and in the wider family of God.
1) Our congregational prayers should include regular prayers for the unity of the local church, as well as the church universal;
2) Emphasis should be placed in demonstrating that the Communion is in fact a “sacrament of unity” — unity with God and unity with each other. These two simple things can heighten our awareness of the importance of unity in God’s plan;
3) Unity can be stressed by promoting “gospel meetings” (etc) of congregations that you may or may not particularly like or agree with;
4) Shepherds and ministers can model a “spirit of unity” among the flock by their gentleness and Christ-like spirit on so called controversial subjects and persons and;
5) finally have a Sunday class or Wednesday on a book such as Leonard Allen’s Distant Voices or Doug Foster/Gary Holloway’s Renewing God’s People to get a little unifying history in our blood.
These are “baby steps” but I do believe they can be of help. There are many more baby steps … not the least simply confessing that division is in fact contrary to the will of God and that we thus stand in need of repentance for tolerating it. This is sound doctrine …
May our father, Mike’s and mine, bless us as we seek to honor him. I recall those opening words of Robert Richardson, “Men have it, hence, in their power to preserve or to destroy unity, but not to impart it.”
“Accept life with humility and patience, making allowances for each other because you love each other. Make it your aim to be at one in the Spirit, and you will inevitably be at peace with one another …” (Eph 4.2f, Phillips)