THE CHURCH OF CHRIST: MY RELIGIOUS AUTOBIOGRAPHY PART SIX

lenepveu-martyrs-in-the-catacombs

The search for the ancient order

One of the first, serious, multi-volume tomes I read on the subject of church history wass called, “The Search for the Ancient Order”. It focused on the Restoration movement, which is not to be confused with the Reformation movement. The two should never be confused. Reformation was about reforming the existing church infrastructure to bring it more in line with what it was intended to be. It suggests that the true church just got a little off track and only needed a bit of a course correction. Restoration was about reconstructing the original church from scratch. The existing church structure was so flawed as to no longer be a part of the original, if it ever was. The ancient order no longer existed, and had to be meticulously reconstructed from what original DNA we could find.

This book, however, was ultimately unhelpful as it just ended up promoting the Church of Christ as the ultimate end of the quest. But that could not be the ultimate end for me as I had already discovered that the churches of Christ were fundamentally flawed. To discover the true trail of the ancient order, I would have to expand my search to include other traditions.

Some other doctrine

Paul made it clear to the Galatians that they were to accept no other doctrine than that which they had received from him. The churches of Christ were very clear that the only doctrine was their doctrine, which was Paul’s doctrine. Anyone teaching any other doctrine was to be considered accursed. Just so it was perfectly clear, even if an angel from heaven taught this other doctrine, it was to be ignored. Unfortunately, careful research into the matter left Church of Christ doctrine weighed, and found wanting. For truth, I would have to seek out some other doctrine.

That meant visiting other denominations, which in general, was frowned upon. But once I acknowledged to myself that the Church of Christ was nothing more than a denomination of human origin, flawed just like everyone else, then there was no reason for me not to visit other churches to see what truth they might have to offer. Though I recognized this intellectually, it was still difficult to accept emotionally. Be that as it may, I started branching out, but not by much.

My first explorations were of liberal churches of Christ. You have to understand that conservative churches of Christ viewed most liberal churches of Christ the same as all other denominations. Once I started visiting them, I soon understood why that was. These churches did not hold as many things sacred. They acknowledged the fact that there were Christians in other denominations. Many of them had no ethical problem with using instruments in the worship assembly, though few actually did.

I tried several of these churches and liked them a lot. Unfortunately  they were still churches of Christ. Seldom did they expand their fellowship beyond the traditional churches of Christ. If I wanted to truly explore what religion had to offer I would have to go beyond the Church of Christ. That is precisely what I did. I got a job as the choir director at a United Methodist church. There, I helped revive the choral tradition they once had. I planned the worship assembly. I taught sight reading. I helped plan special events. I did all the things that could never be done in the mainline churches of Christ. Beyond that, I had great conversations with the pastor. You see, I was just an employee, not a member. I never became a member.

When I applied for the job, I made it clear that while I was no longer in agreement with Church of Christ doctrine, I would never become a member of the United Methodist church, or any other denomination for that matter. I let them know that their beliefs were foreign to mine, but that I would give them a heck of a music program. Amazingly, they were cool with that. Tangentially, It was a white church where I was the only black attendee.

There were so many reasons for them not to hire me. The fact that they did changed my life forever. I never imagined that something called church, wrapped in religion, could be so different from what I grew up with. I was amazed at how little friction there was between me and the clergy. I was as much an outsider as you could get. I could write a lengthy post about the experience. Suffice it to say, it was a pivotal moment in my religious development.

I will mention one detail about my time there. It was something that led to my undoing as their music director. It wasn’t long after the choir really started rocking that they wanted to get the old robes out of mothballs. Sound good, look good. I balked at the idea of choir robes. My conservatism reared its ugly head. I felt like robes suggested a form of differentiation between members that was unseemly. My objection was amplified when I saw the robe they insisted I wear. It was Pope-like in its ostentation. To wear it implied that you were not only somebody, but somebody whose ring should be kissed. I was definitely not that person, nor did I want to be. That priestly robe showed me the limits of my ego. I believed in egalitarianism among brothers and sisters in Christ. That Robe represented a pedestal on which I did not wish to stand. I wasn’t even a member. I disagreed with many of their core beliefs. I felt like such a fraud.

I wore the robe anyway for a few weeks. There were people who helped me dress with the appropriate ornamentation. It was everything I feared it to be. When I was a younger, rising star in the churches of Christ, that robe represented everything I hoped to achieve. Once it was thrust upon me, I had changed so much, I couldn’t bear it. I stopped wearing the robe. Religion with a high-church gloss was never going to be a good fit for me.

For a few years, I wondered in the desert of churchlessness. Becoming a foster parent changed all that. I thought raising a child necessitated some time of community grounding. At the time, I still thought that religion offered the best take on morality. So my wife and I decided to start attending a neighborhood church in walking distance of where we lived. It was a Covenant church. I attended for several years before moving on.

Again, I never became a member of that church. But functionally, that only meant that I could not vote in meetings. It didn’t mean that I couldn’t teach, or be on committees. So I taught classes and was on a few committees that also had a profound impact on the rest of my life. I will refrain from writing a volume on that time in my life. The debates and discussions were priceless. I was able to help shape and participate in programs that were meaningful, and resonate to this day. For me, it was the first time that religion was less about doctrine, and more about social consequences. What I believed was less important than what I did. There, I had a chance to join action with faith.

After that, I started a podcast called, Church Visitor, or something like that. Each week, I would visit a different church of a different denomination. I would record the entire service and interviews with members and someone from the leadership. I posted snippets of all that to my website. I wanted to experience all of religion. I took in as much as I could consume. I experienced everything from high-church Catholicism, to low-church slaying in the spirit. Tongues, wild dancing, an hour of silence: I tasted it all. I know religion at its most dignified and undignified. I’ve know the most conservative to the most liberal. I’ve even done Friends and Unitarians. I know religion better than the vast majority of seminary graduates. I have weighed it all, and found it all wanting.

Conclusion

After reading this, you might think my search for the ancient order a miserable failure. In fact, it was a profound success. Like most quests, I ended up in a place I never imagined at the beginning. My great discovery was that there was no ancient order. There never was a first-century church writ large in bold letters. There was never a blueprint for what a proper church should be. There was no apostolic creed. There was no codified set of beliefs that all of the apostles taught to all new converts. There was no leadership structure replicated in all the churches.

What one can find in the Christian scriptures are people who were making it up as they went, and doing the best they could to live out their understanding of what it was to be a follower of Jesus. There were only a handful of people in the world still alive who had ever met Jesus. Consider this: Paul never met Jesus before the crucifixion, and Paul is the one most instrumental in defining modern religion. If not for Paul, the religion of the original apostles would have died out as just another failed Jewish sect. That said, not one of the churches Paul established survived either.

Christianity is a malleable organism that can reshape and reinvent itself for maximum survivability from one generation to the next. There is no ancient order, and never will be. Today’s religion is just as valid as what the Corinthians practiced in the days of Paul. Religious people are doing the best they can to live out what it means to be a follower of Jesus despite the fact that there is no one alive today who has ever met him. Today’s religious complex is a remarkable social achievement. It is also a useless pursuit. It is ultimately the wrong search. It asks the wrong questions. For me, the quest did not end; it changed. I no longer had any interest in finding the ancient order. I cared only about finding God.

David Johnson

Advertisements

THE CHURCH OF CHRIST: MY RELIGIOUS AUTOBIOGRAPHY PART FIVE

jericho

In the Hebrew Scriptures, there is an ancient tale of a fortified city with walls that could not be breached. God had a plan to take that city. So he had his soldiers march around the city seven times. On the final circuit, they would blow trumpets. With that mighty blast, the walls would come atumblin down. I begin this post with this particular story because it was the insistent blast of instrumental music that would bring down the fortified walls of my faith.

You will recall that one of the doctrinal distinctives of the Church of Christ is the exclusive use of non-instrumental music in worship. To put it bluntly, singing in church with instrumental accompaniment will send you to hell faster than being a mass murderer. In fact, if the mass murderer was a member of the Church of Christ, he would have a much better shot at Heaven. I grew up believing in the absolute correctness of that position. As I grew more and studied more, I began to have doubts.

To fully appreciate my quandary, you have to know a little more about me, or at least, the me that was. I was a talented, perhaps even gifted singer. It manifested early, and was quite unambiguous. By the time I was 13, I was something of a celebrity in my church circles which happened to be quite broad. Since we didn’t employ the talents of piano players, we used song leaders to direct the singing of the congregation. I was a champion, award-winning song leader. I mean that literally. I have the trophies to prove it. I was known nationally for my ability. I was heavily invested in the Church of Christ doctrine of singing a cappella.

I was also a burgeoning musician. I played several band instruments, and was becoming proficient at the piano. I would go on to be a published song writer. But that is another story. I had the musical chops to become a church musician. I had the singing voice to be one of the premier song leaders of my time. I had no interest in bringing instruments into the church. I did, however, want to formally introduce the use of choirs into the official worship service. As hard as I tried, I could find nothing wrong with it. Neither command, example, inference, nor silence from the scripture forbad the practice as near as I could tell.

One of our favorite slogans was that we would speak where the bible speaks, and remain silent where the bible was silent. On the matter of choirs, I became increasingly certain that we were making law where there was none for the sake of our comfortable tradition. On that subject, we simply were not right. As I studied the subject of acceptable modes of musical expression in church, I also began to question our stance on instrumental music. That is where the real problems began. While in the church, there was always an undercurrent of debate among liberals and troublemakers about music in church. There were always some who argued that our traditional position was wrong. I lost one or two of those debates growing up. Those counter arguments stayed with me. When it was my turn to take a good, long, independent look into the matter, I had to acknowledge that the Church of Christ position might be wrong. And that was a really big deal.

Understand that I didn’t immediately admit that we were wrong, just that we could be wrong. That was pretty much the same thing. The possibility of not being right about an important religious matter was enough to rock my world. That may sound strange to you. But you are not thinking like a religious conservative. Consider this: A Catholic would never consider the possibility that the Pope could be wrong. In orthodox Catholicism, the Pope can’t be wrong. He is infallible. That would be like saying Jesus or Paul was wrong about a matter of doctrine. The notion is simply preposterous. Though the Church of Christ had no Pope, our unwritten creed was our infallible doctrine. Our beliefs were not right because we thought they were right. Our beliefs were right because they were decreed by God. It was not just that we were right, but that there was no possibility of us being wrong.

To admit the possibility of being wrong was to admit that our doctrine was not the precise dictates of God, but merely our interpretation. If we were acting in accordance to our human interpretation, then we were no better than the Baptists who were clearly going to Hell. Yet as more time past, the more I knew we were wrong. Music was a salvific issue for us. It was not a secondary matter. I had become convinced that we were wrong about a salvific issue. The only way to salvage my faith was to demote music to a secondary issue. As I became more vocal about the matter, I grew out of favor with the leadership. The last thing they needed was an up and coming influencer who would draw people away from the status quo.

I had worked out in my mind that it was okay to be wrong about secondary issues. There was another saying of which we were somewhat less fond: In matters of faith, unity. In matters of opinion, liberty. In all things, charity. The problem is that we hardly credited anything as a matter of opinion. It was all a matter of faith. I soon came to realize that one person’s matter of faith was another person’s matter of opinion. As a hermeneutic, this was untenable. There had to be some way to distinguish the two. I devoted the remainder of my time in the church looking for the delineating factor. I never found it. If we could be wrong about our classifications of faith and opinion, we could be wrong about anything. We could be wrong about everything! That realization shook me to the core, and changed my life forever.

Conclusion: the highest authority

Everything had to be reexamined, and I had to be the one to do it. I couldn’t trust anyone else, not even my father. Everyone I respected as a church leader was painfully and obviously wrong about some fundamental things. It started with music, but didn’t end there. Who could I go to but the liberals and the troublemakers. They were the only ones who could see behind the curtain. They were the only ones not blinded by tradition and personal preference. I sought them out. I read their books. I questioned and debated them. I had to be sure. Never again would I be the victim of another person’s faith. There was only one thing for me to do. I had to reexamine everything I had been taught. And reexamine, I did.

Durring the process of reexamination, I discovered the most unsettling thing of all. I had become the highest authority in my religion. I trusted no one else, for they had all deceived me, with few exceptions. My church was no longer infallible. They could and had gotten things wrong. The only way I could know what was right was to study it for myself, and accept what was revealed by the evidence. I was equipped for the study. I had been preparing all my life for this adventure. I had the resources and the knowledge. What I gained was the conviction that I would believe nothing that I could not understand and prove for myself, at least in the realm of religion.

With that resolve in place, I opened my bible and read it again for the first time. Shocked at what I discovered, I read it again, and again. After some time, I was finally able to acknowledge an unavoidable truth: As a lifetime member of the churches of Christ, I was quite literally wrong about everything I once held dear. And the walls of my Church of Christ Jericho came atumblin down.

David Johnson

THE CHURCH OF CHRIST: MY RELIGIOUS AUTOBIOGRAPHY PART FOUR

preacher-bible

Rightly dividing the word of truth

 Make every effort to present yourself before God as a proven worker who does not need to be ashamed, teaching the message of truth accurately. 2Tim. 2:15 (NET)

This is a much better rendering of the passage I grew up with. The KJV said, “Study to show thyself approved unto God.” Of course, not all of my bible teachers were very conversant with 17th century English. The word, “study” had absolutely nothing to do with reading and becoming informed on a matter. It means to strive, work hard, endeavor, better still, make every effort. To this day, and with maximum irony. The Church of Christ misinterprets that verse as using the modern American word for study. This is the verse we most employ in the mission of provoking members to read their bibles. The passage meant nothing of the sort. There were no bibles on every coffee table to read. There was just an old man encouraging a young apprentice to work hard at his craft. The passage most known for its call to rightly divide the word of truth is wrongly divided.

Comical misinterpretations notwithstanding, a major tentpole of the churches of Christ is their commitment to accurate and infallible transmission of the precise words of God as transmitted through time in the form of the bible. We do like to say that we have the correct interpretation of the bible as much as to say that we understand it correctly. The bible is not open to private interpretation. It does not need to be interpreted, only read with honest eyes. If you are interpreting the bible, you are already doing something wrong. Interpreting is something of a red flag for us.

That is not to say that we, they do not have methods of interpreting the bible. In bible college, students would learn the word, “hermeneutics”. That is nothing more than the art of interpreting a document. We had a particular hermeneutic for interpreting scripture. The following three items guided all of our biblical interpretations:

  • Direct command
  • Approved example
  • Necessary inference

Direct Command

You will notice that each item is preceded by a modifier. It is not just command: “Take a little wine for your stomach’s sake”, but direct command: “Love one another”. The first is indirect and situational. The second is universal, and can be applied to all people in all places at all times. Surely, no hermeneutic could be more clear than this. If God, himself, gives a direct command to you and the entire world, then that should be the last word. Except… God, himself, never gave you and the whole world a direct command. It is all open to interpretation. Consider the following: “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature.” That sounds an awful lot like a direct command. The Church of Christ doctrine of evangelism is partially based on this command. We interpret it as a literal command for every active member of the church.

But was Jesus delivering this edict to every member of his (at the time) nonexistent church? That makes little sense. We assume the apostles dread this teaching as they established the church. We figure that every new convert was given this instruction immediately after their baptism. However, the bible does not support anything like this. There  are many examples of conversion, but none of this instruction to the recently converted. It stands to reason that at the very least, every would-be book of the Christian scriptures would feature this command. That is not the case either.

Since the vast majority of the people living in the first century would never see the writing that features this command, it could not have been intended for them. That means that only Jesus’ disciples gathered around him at that moment, and those who would have a complete copy of the bible much, much later were the recipients of that command. That also seems rather selective. If Jesus gave the command at all, the only thing we can say is that he gave it directly to his disciples that were with him at the time.

It gets even more ridiculous. Every convert is not equipped to sponsor a worldwide mission to preach the gospel to every creature, or even every nation. How many nations have you visited? How many creatures have you preached to? Right. So in what universe  do we suppose that everyone who becomes a Christian is to preach the gospel to every creature and nation? None! That is how much sense that passage makes as a direct command. There are no direct commands. They are all subject to similar interpretation. We are still in search of a consistent hermeneutic.

Approved example

It only gets worse from here. An example is any bit of narrative that illustrates a particular behavior of the protagonist. An approved example is one that carries the weight of command without a specific directive. “On the first day of the week, the disciples came together to break bread.” “Afterward, they sang a hymn and went out.” The first example clearly teaches that we are to take the Lord’s supper every Sunday. In the second example, we are taught that no church meeting can end without a closing song.

Naturally, the bible is full of examples of protagonists doing things that we do not emulate. We really only consider examples approved when they have something to do with the assembly. That is the problem with using this as any sort of hermeneutical principle. Who gets to say which examples have the weight of command and which do not. It also pretends that everything they did represented the perfect and mandatory execution of God’s inviolable will. Even if you want to be like someone you respect, you don’t copy his every action. Most of what a person does is unimportant, personal preference. The Church of Christ has traditionally made no distinction between important behaviors to be copied, and unimportant behaviors that can safely be ignored. Without such fine tuning, the principle is useless.

Necessary inference

This is the slipperiest of all the hermeneutical slopes. How do we know that Sunday is the official day of meeting for the church. Believe it or not, the bible never says. Here’s how it works. We have commands and examples that show the early Christians had a common meal on the first day of the week. We extrapolate that the meal either was, or contained the Lord’s supper. We also know that at least for a brief period of time, a few of the churches collected a charitable donation on the first day of the week. Since Jesus was said to have risen on the First day of the wee, early Christians started keeping that day sacred instead of the traditional Sabbath. From these bits and pieces, we must necessarily infer that Sunday was the day they set aside for worshiping God. This inference bears the weight of infallible, direct command.

You do not have to be very imaginative to see how this can all go awry. The same inference bait that has us meeting on Sunday every week, should also have use sending money to the poor saints in Jerusalem every week. That is what that first day a week collection was all about. It had nothing to do with paying for meeting halls, staff, and church programs. Furthermore, it was only temporary. The same bible tells us that for the most part, assemblies were held in private homes, not corporately funded buildings. What can we infer from that? Just about anything.

And that’s the problem with inference. That is the problem with all of it. The solid hermeneutic on which we hung our faith was about as constant as curdled milk. Like Play Dough, we could bend it, twist it, and shape it into anything we needed it to be. To this day, members of the Church of Christ believe the quicksand of their hermeneutic is solid, unshakable ground. They simply do not understand why you don’t see things their way. With this simple hermeneutic, the bible should read the same to everyone the world over. If you do not understand these simple truths, there must be something wrong with you.

Conclusion.

There were other hermeneutical principles such as the continuity of the testaments, and the silence of scripture, not covered here. The point is that for me and my kind, the bible was not only the absolute word of God, but it was completely understandable with very few grey areas. Not only did we have the truth which was available to everyone, we had the only correct interpretation of the truth. That made us unique. Of course I thought I knew everything. I did know everything that was important. We all did, and I was one of the best of the bunch.

Perhaps you will forgive my arrogance when you understand that for me to admit to anything less than perfect knowledge was the same as me admitting that I didn’t know God’s will. And if I didn’t know God’s will, then I was as hell bound as the rest of the world. Knowledge was power. And perfect knowledge was the gift of our golden hermeneutic. If that hermeneutic were to start showing cracks, the faith would crumble. It would not be long before the first cracks in that slippery surface would start to show. The reverberations continue to this day.

David Johnson

THE CHURCH OF CHRIST: MY RELIGIOUS AUTOBIOGRAPHY PART three

Unknown

The unwritten creed

Most creeds are concerned with the underlying truth claims of a religious worldview. They affirm certain events such as the virgin birth to be historical and true in the literal sense. Some creeds may be more interested in cosmological issues such as the nature and preexistence of Jesus, the human spirit, free will, and sin. The nature of God, the trinity, and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit would also make the list in most creeds. If the church of Christ had a creed, all of that would be relegated to footnotes. What we most cared about was the order of worship. Some traditions care more about the foundational truths of the religion while paying little attention to lifestyle. Some care only about lifestyle and are flexible about esoteric matters. The Church of Christ was primarily interested in what takes place during a worship assembly. That is not to say that esoteric matters and lifestyle issues were unimportant. They were just secondary. Our creed was about how to do church, not how to be church.

This point cannot be stressed too much. When we went into a home on an evangelistic mission to make a convert, we spent most of our time dealing with matters of the assembly. We never wasted effort trying to bring someone to faith in Christ who did not already believe. For us, evangelism was converting a person from their denomination to ours, that is to say, the one true church: the Church of Christ. We did not regard the Baptists and Methodists as Christians. They were lost souls. Their only hope was to convert to our religion. In all fairness, I didn’t know any atheists. I seldom met anyone who didn’t believe in God. In the Deep South, everyone had some experience with a church, even if it wasn’t very good. Even so, we saw the devout Baptist as being no different than the person who never heard of Jesus, assuming there was such a person.

We were really into sets of five. Therefore, there were five acts of worship:

  • singing
  • praying
  • preaching
  • the Lord’s Supper
  • giving

You would be forgiven for mistaking this as a generic list of things that everyone did regardless of denomination. What you are missing is the nuance in each of these acts that make them distinctly authentic. All acts of worship had to be authentic to the first-century worshipers to be considered valid. Do any of these acts in an unauthorized way and you were not really doing them at all. I will give you the list again, this time with its stamp of authentic distinction:

Singing: This is not just an act of opening ones mouth and making musical sounds with lyrics. One had to be singing the proper songs. The bible specified psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. The fact that it was in a hymnbook didn’t make it a hymn. The song had to be in precise accord with the revealed word of God. It also had to be done without the accompaniment of a musical instrument. It is one thing to sing, “Amazing Grace”. It is quite another to sing it with piano accompaniment. That would send you straight to Hell. We believed the bible was very clear that only unaccompanied singing was allowed in worship. Also, everyone had to participate.

We had a strict prohibition against the use of choirs in worship. The main reason is that choirs, by definition, were only a small subset of the assembly singing, while the rest listened in silence. That was not scriptural. There were complications, however, that were sorted out with mental gymnastics. The simple fact was that we loved to sing, and we loved choirs. Many churches of Christ have them, and use them, but not in worship per se. First, we didn’t call them choirs. We called them singing groups. That helped us avoid the stigma of having a choir.

Second, we didn’t use them in the proper assembly. For that, we only used song leaders. We had special, unofficial gatherings where the singing groups could perform. At those gatherings, there was the practice of the five acts of worship. But it was not considered worship. It was very important that we make a clear distinction between official worship services and unofficial gatherings. I’ve already gone too far into the weeds. Just know that singing was strictly regulated. If you were not a member of the Church of Christ, you were not doing it right.

Praying: Mostly, praying is what you think it is. There were a few minor distinctions to watch out for. First, like all acts of worship, only meant could lead prayer in a mixed assembly. Prayers had to be specifically addressed to God the father, and had to be done in the name of Jesus. These things had to be stated during the prayer, not silently assumed. The main prayer was usually a performance piece. It was long and drawn out, using many words to stir the audience, much like a sermon. Other prayers were more to the point.

Preaching: A sermon is a sermon is a sermon. We believed that sermons were always bible-based and filled with many scripture references. Sermons were heavy on quoting book, chapter, and verse. Anecdotes without scripture references were frowned upon. The main distinction was that an appropriate sermon must always end with the recitation of the plan of salvation. This evangelistic push was a fixture of every sermon. In my experience, if a preacher forgot to add it, or didn’t do it sufficiently, someone else would get up after the sermon and tack on the plan of salvation to complete the package.

The Lord’s Supper: You might know it as communion. The Catholics would call it the sacrament of the eucharist. There are three crucial elements: First, you had to be worthy to take it. I never quite knew what that meant. But the bible clearly stated that taking it unworthily would lead to bad things, even death. Second, it had to be the right stuff. It could not just be bread and juice. It had to be unleavened bread and the fruit of the vine. For us, that meant grape juice. Don’t try to get cute and substitute it with tomato juice. Also, it had to be unfermented. These were doctrinal, not personal preferences. Finally, it had to be taken once a week, every week, no exceptions. If you were unable to attend service, there was often a group who would bring the Lord’s Supper to your home, replete with ceremony.

Giving: Make no mistake about it. Giving was not merely a freewill offering or an institutional necessity. It was mandated by God. The amount could be any amount over 10% of your income. This was to be done on the first day of the week just like the Lord’s Supper. Inexplicably, though, it could be done as often as the leaders preferred. There was no limit on how many times the plate could be passed. It could even be passed multiple times a week if there were gatherings. The Sunday morning collection was the only official one. But others were highly encouraged. It was important to never call it a tithe like the members of other churches did. It was very specifically a collection, not a tithe.

Conclusion: the work of the church

I grew up hearing that phrase a lot. It was very important that young men be trained to do the work of the church. When you hear that, you might think of caring for the poor, the orphan, and the widow. You might conjure notions of civic reform, or standing up for the rights of the oppressed. From a Church of Christ perspective, you couldn’t be more off base. For us, the work of the church meant leading songs, public prayers, preaching sermons, officiating over the Lord’s Supper, and handling the collection trays. This was the grand high work of the one true church. These were also considered areas of leadership. Doing these things made you special. Women were not allowed to do these things. They couldn’t even pass the collection trays. Only the men were allowed to do the real work of the church.

When we learned to teach others about Christ, these are the things we presented and defended with all the weight of scripture behind us. When there was a new convert, these are the things we started teaching them to do, provided they were men. Women, we taught to keep quiet and bring tasty dishes to potlucks. Matters of social justice seldom crossed our minds. Real Christians concerned themselves with real assemblies of the church. There is a national competition for young members of the Church of Christ focused on preaching short sermons and leading songs. It is extremely elaborate because those are the critical areas of leadership that need attending. That is the real work of the real church. That was our understanding. That was our creed. Only much later did that become my shame.

David Johnson

THE CHURCH OF CHRIST: MY RELIGIOUS AUTOBIOGRAPHY PART two

campbell04

The saved

I grew up singing an old hymn familiar to everyone who went to church every Sunday during that time. Unbeknownst to me, I was singing a slightly modified version of the song. The first time I heard it the way it was originally written, I couldn’t sing it on doctrinal grounds. You might know the song as, “When we all get to Heaven”. At no point did I ever believe that we were all going to get to Heaven. I have never been in a room of people that I felt confident would all get to Heaven. Even in a room of people who only consisted of members of the Church of Christ. I knew that even only a subset of those would get to Heaven. Growing up, I knew the song as, “When the saved get to Heaven”. That was a much truer sentiment. The white churches would tend to sing it the original way. Even so, they were not espousing an ecumenical message. They were only referring to Church of Christ members when singing that all would get to Heaven. We had plenty of in-house debates. We did not always agree on who was going to Heaven. But we were very much in agreement about who was not. If you were not a member of the Church of Christ, then you are not saved.

Nowadays, this is not a universal sentiment. However, it is still a recognizable doctrinal distinctive of the churches of Christ. There may be some individual pockets of disagreement among individuals. There are even whole congregations that take the minority view. But make no mistake about it; the possibility of salvation outside of the Church of Christ is a minority view. The individuals who feel that way have learned to keep it to themselves. As I stated in the previous post, there is no creed. But if there was a creed, this would be one of the main tenets. There is no salvation outside of the church. There is only one true church, and the Church of Christ is it. All others are mere denominations of man.

The delusion of originality

In Matthew 16, Jesus said, “Upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it.” The non-denominational group known as the Church of Christ sincerely believes that they are that church. That is not to say that they are a part of that church, but that they are that church. That means that no one else is any part of the church. The body of Christ is not divided. It has an unbroken lineage from Jesus to Paul to Alexander Campbell to the present-day members of the Church of Christ. History has not intervened, tampered with, or in any way altered the pristine method of doing church. If the first-century Christians were transported in time, they would find no difference in the Church of Christ today and the church of their day. Of course, this notion that we are the original Christians is a delusion, but it’s our delusion.

Today’s Church of Christ believes that it is an exact replica of the first-century church in every meaningful way. They believe there is a kind of blueprint for recreating the original church of the apostles. That blueprint was dictated right out of the mouth of Jesus and directly to the apostles. Though the bible does not detail the specifics of everything, the stories and narratives of the bible show us how the church was set up, and is therefore, an example of how it is supposed to be for all time. The churches of Christ feel they have fully captured the zeitgeist of the original. The authority of the Church of Christ comes from the idea that they, alone, have recreated the original church in exacting detail. Everyone else has at least one critical aspect of it wrong. By the way, all aspects are critical. That passage in James that says being guilty of one point of the law makes you guilty of all, is particularly applied to church organization.

Alexander Campbell, and the fully restored church

There is a crack in the delusion of originality, and its name is Alexander Campbell. The delusion begs a particular question to be asked: What became of the church between the time of the apostles and today? There is a rich, storied, and well-documented history. The churches of Christ vehemently denied having any part of that history. More to the point, they deny that any part of that history follows the true lineage of the one true church. Denying the history is absolutely essential. To accept the history is to accept that the Catholics have a clear and unbroken line of assention to the apostles. The lineage of the one true church would have to run through the Reformation Movement. We claim no brotherhood with early reformers such as Luther and Calvin. The church those men helped reform was not the right church to begin with. A reformed Catholic tradition is no more valid than the church of Satan.

Therefore, the question remains: What happened to the one true church after the last book of the bible was written? Where exactly is the handoff of the baton from the hallowed pages to the pages of secular history? Like the Tree of Life and the Ark of the Covenant, it seems to have just disappeared leaving no historical trace. Some have tried to solve the mystery by hunting down small bands of believers in various places that might be the remnant of the original church. These efforts are unsuccessful as they are arbitrary and bear no weight of verifiable scholarship. I’ve tried, and followed the efforts of others who’ve tried. It’s all bunk. The other method is to posit that the one true church shrunk to a remnant, never quite dying out altogether. Due to being small and heavily persecuted, the underground remnant was forever lost to history. There was a dark time for humanity between the closing of the canon and the mid-1800s.

Since the one true church was lost to history, it couldn’t be reformed. It had to be completely restored from scratch. Fortunately, the bible provided an indisputable blueprint for being the one true church. Also fortunately, there was a man named Alexander Campbell around to help us rediscover it. It wouldn’t be until 1906 until the churches of Christ were officially recognized. The Church of Christ has both a founder and a birthday. It is not Jesus Christ, and it is definitely not A.D. 33. The church avoids this conundrum by stating that Campbell had nothing to do with founding the Church of Christ. He only helped to rediscover and restore it to the world that had lost its historical thread. That’s their story, and they are sticking to it.

Conclusion

It is very important that you understand how the Church of Christ views itself. It will give you insight into how I viewed myself. The church was not one of many, nor was it a denomination. The Church of Christ stood alone as the first-century church of the apostles, fully restored in our time and untarnished by history. It was Jesus to Paul to me. I was a part of a small but elite group of people who had it all right. The sincerity and good deeds of other groups simply didn’t matter. They were running the race from the outside of the track. Only the racers on the track have a chance to win. There was only one true track, and I was on it. They were not.

That is still true for the majority of mainline Church of Christ members today. I don’t care how nicely they treat you, and how welcome they make you feel in their home. In their heart, they are convinced that if you die without being converted to their religion, you are going to burn in Hell. Neither your good nor evil makes one iota of difference. This kind of elite superiority and unwavering conviction combined with just the right personality is a dangerous combination.

David Johnson

The Church of Christ: my religious autobiography part one

000_0076_0001.11195403

I could write 10,000 words of introduction. I don’t quite know how to start, nor do I have any idea where it will end. This piece is an exploration of my past and present. Like all explorations, there will be many encounters with the unknown and unexpected. How do I separate my critical analysis of religion from the present reality of familial relationships? All of my family is still religious, deeply entrenched in beliefs with which I was raised. I may have moved on, but they didn’t. Every harsh word I have ever said about people of faith apply to my own flesh and blood. I am deeply entangled in the daily workings of my family. Every word I write is hard, and comes at a price. If I refer to religious nut jobs, you might be mildly offended. When I write those words, I have to envision my beloved mother and father who means the world to me. You do not know the half of the emotional struggles I go through when writing this blog. If you follow this series, wherever it leads, I assure you, you will have a much better idea of who I am and where I am coming from.

The Church of Christ, and the world as I knew it

I will start by showing you the shape of the world as I understood it. The religion known as the Church of Christ represented the boundaries of my world. Though mainstream, most people know very little about the religion. It boasts millions of adherents worldwide, and a number of universities of note such as Pepperdine University and Abilene Christian University. Its roots go back to the American Restoration Movement, and it is based mainly in the Southeast. It is not a secret organization. But there are good reasons why it flies mostly under the radar.

Unlike the Southern Baptists, it does not have a centralized organization. There is no one person or committee or assembly that speaks for it. There is no written creed. They say it is because the bible is all the creed that is needed or allowed. However, the more practical reason is that there is no one with the authority to write it. Decentralization means that one preacher’s word is as valid as anthers. Every congregation is autonomous. An official creed would have no power at any congregation. If one person decides that the bible is being interpreted in a way that he does not like, he can just start a new congregation insetting himself as the preacher. His congregation is just as much a Church of Christ church as the largest, most established in the world.

There is also no official ordination process for preachers. You are considered a preacher if you are allowed to preach. If you have the talent and apply yourself, you can be a preacher in the Church of Christ. While large churches tend to prefer their preachers come from a Church of Christ university with a preaching degree, formal education is not required. This is especially true for black churches where formal education was often denied. However, in the black churches, what we lacked in formal education, we made up in experience. We started out young, very young.

As a preacher’s kid, I had the inside perspective on how church was really done. I knew how the sausage was made, and I was destined to be a maker. My church career officially started at age 7 when I was baptized. As I recall, I led the closing hymn that very night, and never looked back. My first public sermon was at age 12 or 13. I preached regularly from that point on. I was not alone. There were many young protégés. I was but one of the recognized future leaders of the church. By the time I was 15, I had more experience for the job of youth minister than the majority of college graduates who studied for the position. In my early twenties, there were few assistant ministers more qualified. If one congregation accepts you as a preacher, you’re a preacher. All other congregations are obliged to accept you in that regard. That is just one of the benefits of having no centralization.

There were also drawbacks. The lack of centralization and a unified voice meant that we lacked political influence. We were not the ones on the news providing soundbites because there were no representatives of the Church of Christ as a whole. No one could speak for all of us. We were all independent. We spoke for ourselves. When someone did presume to speak for us, we tended to shoot down such efforts. We had no bishops, diocese, or popes. National political power requires a national spokesperson, and unity among the people within the organization. The extreme autonomy of the Church of Christ makes that a nonstarter.

We were also isolated by our non-mainstream beliefs. For starters, only members of the Church of Christ in good standing had any hope of going to Heaven. That means that everyone not a member of the Church of Christ was unsaved and destined for Hell. It made little sense to speak of political issues since everyone was going to Hell anyways. Abortion seemed like a pretty silly issue to get all excited about since both the mother and the doctor performing the abortion were bound for Hell. It had little to do with the act of murder. It had to do with the fact they neither would have been a member of the Church of Christ in good standing. That was true with most everything. People didn’t go to Hell because they were on drugs. They went to Hell because they were not members of the Church of Christ. When dealing with outsiders, nothing else really mattered.

We had a high view of scripture. That means we saw it as the perfectly transmitted words of God to be taken literally. It was the only truth worth knowing for all relevant matters of living. The creation versus evolution debate was incomprehensible to us. The bible said we were created by God in six days. Anything that disagreed with that was just stupidly wrong, perhaps even satanic. You bring your evidence. I’ll bring my bible. I win! You don’t believe in God? The bible says that only fools say there is no god. Therefore, you’re a fool. Why are we even talking? Life really was that simple for me. You were either one of us or you were kindling for Hell. I might put forth a little effort to try to save your miserable soul. But I wasn’t going to waste too much time casting my pearls before swines. To be clear, you would have been considered a swine. Don’t judge me too harshly. I was raised to think that way from birth. My parents were taught to raise their children that way. The regression is not infinite. But it’s close.

Other doctrinal quirks included singing a cappella in church. No musical accompaniment was allowed. This was not a matter of preference, but a matter of obeying God’s word. If you had instrumental accompaniment in church, you were clearly an enemy of God. We believed in taking the Lord’s Supper once a week, and collecting money as often as we could. We believed the only official positions in the church were elders and deacons. However, we also saw them as optional, making the preacher the de facto head of the congregation. We believed that church attendance was required every time the doors were opened. There were not really any optional services. It was a sign of spiritual weakness if you chose to be somewhere else when Wednesday night bible class was in session. Marriage was eternal. Divorce was only allowed in cases of infidelity. Formal education, especially secular education, was often disparaged. It should be sufficient to only know Christ, and him crucified, whatever that meant.

…and on it goes.

That is not just what I was raised to believe. That is who I was. That was my whole world. One year, I decided to live out my conviction that it was a sin to wear short pants in public. Don’t laugh. This was a huge issue in many churches back in the day. I was in grade school at the time, and in the athletics program. I was a wrestler. The school required dressing out in short pants, I refused and told them they could flunk me in PE. I made it very clear that I would obey God rather than man. I didn’t dress out. They flunked me in PE. Honor was satisfied. I carried a briefcase not a book satchel. I always had at least one bible with me, and wasn’t afraid to display it. In the fifth grade, I purposely gave religious answers on science tests because I refused to support the lie of evolution. I couldn’t be controlled or manipulated by teachers. I was self-possessed in ways that other students weren’t. Religion was one of the few things that really mattered to me. It was not just a mask I wore, but what I strove to be.

Conclusion

That overview will have to do for now. The important takeaway is that I was not just a church goer. I was a true believer, the truest of believers. I was more than a believer. I was a person of action. I put flesh on those beliefs. I read my bible, and every other religious text book I could get my hands on. I studied the same material read by graduate students. I did what few managed. I excelled in both black churches and white churches. I walked in both worlds as if I belonged, and I did. That was a rare gift. You may think yourself religious, but I was the real deal. I was smart, well placed, driven, and on my way with almost no obstacles in front of me. And that is where my real story begins…

David Johnson

The utter failure of evangelism, and what it says about the religious enterprise

Door-to-Door-Evangelism

For if that first covenant had been faultless, no one would have looked for a second one. But showing its fault, God says to them,

“Look, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will complete a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah.

“It will not be like the covenant that I made with their fathers, on the day when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they did not continue in my covenant and I had no regard for them, says the Lord.

“For this is the covenant that I will establish with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord. I will put my laws in their minds and I will inscribe them on their hearts. And I will be their God and they will be my people.

“And there will be no need at all for each one to teach his countryman or each one to teach his brother saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ since they will all know me, from the least to the greatest.

“For I will be merciful toward their evil deeds, and their sins I will remember no longer.”

When he speaks of a new covenant, he makes the first obsolete. Now what is growing obsolete and aging is about to disappear. Heb. 8:7-12

This passage is an indictment against everything we think we know about religious evangelism. For that reason, it is one of my favorite passages in all the bible. It starts by setting the stage. The old covenant is broken. If it were not, there would be no need for a second one. After that bold declaration, the writer outlines a particular way in which the new covenant is different. Dispensational theology suggests we are living in the second dispensation, under the second covenant right now. The Lord’s return will mark the third. The first was ended at the cross. We also separate the books of the bible along these dispensational lines. We speak of the Old Testament and the New Testament. It is the pre-Jesus, post-Jesus era. The first covenant was with the Jews. The second is with the followers of Christ. My point being that almost all Christians would say that we are living under the new covenant right now.

The writer is focused on the method of revelation. How do we receive God’s word. How do we know it is really him, and what he really wants from us. Acquiring that information is called revelation. Sharing it with someone else is called evangelism. The new covenant was to include a method of revelation that required no evangelism. According to the Lord, he would put his laws in our minds and inscribe them on our hearts. This is a great departure from the days when we were to do the writing and inscribing ourselves. There would be no more transcription errors, or interpretation errors, or transmission errors from one person to the next. From the least to the greatest, everyone would know the Lord. There would be no need for countryman or brethren to teach another about the Lord or his ways. There would be no more evangelism.

So what happened?

Here we are firmly entrenched in the second covenant. Yet the neighborhood sidewalks are dotted with white-shirted pairs going from house to house teaching the good news of the god of Mormons and Jehovah Witnesses. Countrymen and brethren are still enlisting neighbors to attend the revival meeting that will introduce them to Jesus. Pamphleteers are still leaving small booklets about the Lord’s will for you on bus seats across the country. Pastors are desperate to offload some of the evangelistic burden onto their members. Evangelist campaigns range from door knocking to TV ads. One thing is for sure; even though done poorly, evangelism is alive and well.

Apparently, there is still a need to press the flesh, establish fake relationships, and tell strangers how to get to know the Lord. What does this mean. First, it means that the second covenant has failed just as badly as the first. Maybe we disappointed God yet again. Maybe he pulled out of the second covenant. He decided not to write his precious laws on our hearts after all. Perhaps he decided that writing them in an indecipherable book was sufficient. Or perhaps the indecipherable book was our idea, so he took his ball and went home. What ever the case, the evidence for the second covenant has not materialized. We never got the second covenant, and there was no mention of a third.

Second, our evangelistic efforts expose religion as a purely human enterprise. If you have to use the power of persuasion to sway me to your side, then it is you, and you alone who are doing the persuading, and it is wholly your cause. If you tell me about Jesus and I decline, that is not your failure, but God’s. If the message wasn’t compelling to me, then the message is at fault. God’s Spirit can work on my heart or not. It is his choice, and in his hands. If you persist, then you are insinuating yourself into the process. You are trying to persuade me for your purposes, not letting God’s word speak for itself. What if God selected me as a vessel of destruction? Who are you to try to persuade me to his cause? In this new covenant, God is supposed to communicate directly to me. How I respond to that is my business, not yours. No evangelism should be required if you really trusted God to do his business the way he sees fit.

Christians may counter that with the commissioned to go and preach the good news to every nation. That is simply not true. He gave that very specialized message to twelve people who were specifically called and trained for the purpose. You are not the 13th apostle who replaced Judas. Jesus did not spend three years in Arabia grooming you to take over apostle duties for the gentiles. Apostles like Paul and Peter groomed assistants like Mark and Luke. But at no point did they prepare an apostolic line of succession. When the apostles died, so did the office, and the associated power that went with it. There is no chapter in the bible about how to evangelize your neighbor. There is no how-to guide for getting people to come to church with you, or telling people about Christ. This does not exist for the very excellent reason that the new covenant was supposed to have eliminated the need. God has not enlisted you to tell others about him. Believing you are called to do such a thing is arrogant dilution bordering on narcissism. Stop it! Just stop it!

 Conclusion: feeling needed

As a kid, I learned about my calling. I was special. I had talent, and I was meant to do something important with it. God had a mission for me. He had some necessary job I was supposed to do. All I had to do was pay attention and watch for the signs. Obviously, some type of evangelism was a part of that calling. It was only natural that I would go into the preaching business. God needed me, and I felt needed. I didn’t become a salvation salesman because of my secret love of rejection. I did it for Jesus. He needed me, and I felt needed. I approached strangers and friends alike. I brought them to revivals, set up home bible studies, and did the one on ones. I personally baptized a few, and brought others to the point of baptism. I was answering my calling. I was needed, and I felt needed.

Today, I would not worship a god who needed someone like me for anything. I now realize I was working for my organization, not my god. We were concerned about lost members, not lost souls. This fact was brought home to me when I put in for a new position at a church I was attending. The powers that be really seemed to like the idea and were willing to pay me to do it. All I had to do was bring in a minimum of five new families as members. I could have done it. In the end, I refused to pursue it further. I couldn’t get past the dilemma a of evangelizing solely for the purpose of financial gain. For the first time I realized that evangelism was about lost revenue rather than lost souls. I never campaigned for Jesus after that. I no longer felt needed. I felt dirty.

Listen. Put down the pamphlet, the flyer, and the filmstrip you were planning on showing. Do not knock on that door or ask your friend if they would like to get to know your god. They don’t. Their god, or lack thereof is quite sufficient. Growing up, I was taught to believe that many people would burn in hell for all eternity because I didn’t take every opportunistic opening to sell them on the gospel as I knew it. There is a quiet desperation in evangelism that is more like a cry for help. Consider this an intervention.

David Johnson