Churches of Christ, Integrity, and Identity

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David Lipscomb (1831-1917) co-founded the Nash...

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Although I am no longer a member of Churches of Christ, I have a deep love for my childhood church. The reason I left is that I could not agree with the Church of Christ’s central tenant of Restoration–the idea that they had “restored” the first century church. I did the honest thing and left–first, for the Disciple of Christ, which were theologically too liberal, and for the last seventeen years I have been a member of the Anglican Catholic Church.

The Churches of Christ separated from the Christian Churches beginning in the late nineteenth century over the issues of mechanical instruments of music in worship and the missionary society. The Christian Church accepted both; the Churches of Christ opposed them. Churches of Christ and the Christian Churches were recognized as separate churches in the 1906 U. S. religious census. Even after that date, there was quite a bit of fluidity, even over names–there are Disciples churches and Christian Churches that still have congregations called “Churches of Christ” today. As late as the 1920s, there was sporadic cooperation between the two churches. There was a third split, between the Disciples and the group later known as Christian Churches and Churches of Christ–de facto this occurred with the 1927 meeting of the North American Christian Convention in Memphis, and de jure after the 1968 centralized reorganization of the Disciples. The chief source of that dispute was the theological liberalism of the Disciples. The Disciples long ago renounced Restorationism. Both the Christian Churches and Churches of Christ and the noninstrumental Churches of Christ accept Restorationism, but differ on its application.

Here’s the problem I have: in a number of Churches of Christ, ministers and some elders openly oppose Restorationism. In Churches of Christ institutions, this is even more common. Now personally I agree with them, but what is bothersome is their attempt to “reform” Churches of Christ in a way that destroys their identity while remaining members of the Church. If these leaders had integrity, they would leave Churches of Christ for some other church. I am Anglican Catholic; if I ever disagreed with one of that church’s fundamental teachings (such as the Real Presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper),  I would leave the ACC. That is the honest thing to do. I remember Tom Holland at David Lipscomb University saying that it is hypocritical for a teacher there to oppose what the founders of the university wished the identity of the school to be–and I agree. I know many well=meaning revisionists in the Churches of Christ would disagree. However, I find it hypocritical to remain in a church and try to subvert its principle doctrines. Better to guide individual members who agree to a different church body or leave oneself.

The same problem exists in Catholicism–Roman Catholics who deny the essential theological and moral teachings of the church should leave instead of trying to subvert it from within. Thus Roman Catholic politicians openly support abortion and homosexuality, and Roman Catholic scholars deny the bodily resurrection of Christ. This, too, is hypocritical. If you don’t agree, leave. Otherwise, shut up and stop sneaking around to destroy an institution’s identity.

The Possibility of Punishment after Death

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Dante and Virgil in Hell

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Joseph Mengele lives a comfortable life in Argentina, even though he tortured Jews in the most hideous ways in his medical “experiments.” He dies quickly in a swimming accident. Controversial jury decisions put people back on the streets who may be murdering psychopaths. A spiteful person full of hatred tells lies that ruin the reputation of a good person, who leaves town and dies a pauper. The spiteful person gets rich and is admired by others in his community. The good suffer, the evil prosper, and so often there is no justice. How can the scales of justice be tipped in favor of justice in a world that fails so much to be just?

The Christian doctrine of punishment after death offers one answer. This is not to deny that other religions, such as Hinduism and Buddhism, have a doctrine of suffering for sins after death in a bad reincarnated state based on their aggregated good or bad karma–but this is not the Christian doctrine of punishment. I also deny the gruesome literal pictures of hell pushed on people in conservative Protestant and in some Roman Catholic Churches and schools in the past. The notion of a person suffering in a literal fire for eternity does count against the goodness of God. But C. S. Lewis‘ notion that hell is people who choose against God and refuse to come to God because they desire to do their own will rather than God’s. God just lets them be and withdraws His presence. An evil person in hell could theoretically leave at any time, but some people are so desperately wicked that they will tell God to leave them alone rather than live under God’s terms in heaven. But such a life inevitably leads to misery and a personality that gets more fragmented over time. Eventually only shards of a person remain. Living apart from God is the worst punishment of all–and given a twisted enough will this can last forever. Thus, the Christian Church has affirmed the possibility of eternal punishment as well as the possibility that hell may be empty with only Purgatory existing. I hope the latter view is correct; but the former view makes more sense of human freedom and makes more sense of psychopathy and sociopathy. Some individuals are permanently twisted–and if they are such good manipulators, with the help of a manipulative lawyer, that they “beat the system” on earth, they will not be able to beat the justice of God. In the end their existence will be miserable–they will have no one else to manipulate or hurt and will live only with their immense egos eating away at their souls. Finally their egos will eat their identity, never wholly destroying it, but making a person as near to nothingness as possible. Perhaps there will be a kernel of goodness (beyond the metaphysical good of existing) that leads all these individuals to repent and turn away from the self to God. Perhaps John Hick is correct in his universalism. If a bad person is temporarily punished to the point of seeing the error of his ways and repenting, that is a good thing. We don’t know, and hope beyond hope that the worst people will repent while finding comfort that they will receive justice after this life is over, justice that they can only avoid by repentance, faith, and love so that they are open to the grace of God. I trust that God knows better than any of us what is in a person’s heart, and He will ensure that the injustices of this life are remedied in the Eschaton.

The Lost Beauty of Christian Worship

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West Heath Mass

One of the worst trends in contemporary Christianity is the destruction of the historic liturgies of the Christian Church. The Roman Catholic Church is slowing returning to a more traditional liturgy, but in most places the post-Vatican II degraded English translations of the Latin Mass live on. I have a St. Andrew’s Missal from the 1950s that contains, along with the Latin Mass, wonderful English translations of the liturgy in King James style English.  It reminds me of the beauty of the pre-1979 Anglican Book of Common Prayer. Not only has the language been bastardized, the beauty of ceremonial has been suppressed in many churches. But even churches with very little ceremonial have taken good order out of their worship services.  The Churches of Christ in which I grew up had a certain beauty in the simplicity and good order of the worship service. Now they are trying to copy the Evangelical’s poor taste, with bad 1970s-style songs projected on a screen along with a free flow of emotion inconsistent with things done “decently and in order,” as St. Paul put it.

As worship becomes bastardized, so does one’s view of God. God is no longer the transcendent (yet immanent) being who created the universe and who inspires awe; God becomes just another beer buddy (without the beer in many Protestant Churches). If any of us saw God the Father, God the Son, or God the Holy Spirit face to face, we would fall to the ground in awe. Yes, God is our friend, but not a friend in the sense of a buddy who watches football with the guys around a big screen television. Traditional worship, including the traditional King James style language of the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, lets us know that God is not man, that God is Holy, set apart from sinful man, even redeemed sinful man. The beauty of order in worship reminds us that “God is not the author of confusion”; He created the world in good form and order. Ceremonial and incense lifts our bodies and souls beyond the ordinary to the Holy. Most contemporary worship does not lift our souls and bodies any more than a large rock on the ground.

Clergy reply, “But we have to keep our young people!” Yet why are traditional Latin masses in the Roman Catholic Church filled with young people? In its bid to become “relevant” in worship, the church has not only lost the dimension of the transcendent; it is not even “relevant.” I think it was Peter Kreeft who said something like “Satan didn’t see a need to give the church atheists, so he gave it liturgists.” I tend to agree.