We're each entitled to our own opinions, but not our own dictionaries.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Matthew 5 - Rules and Regulations For The Church

One passage of scripture in Matthew 5 has been substantially misinterpreted by the Stanton churches, in my opinion, and I think it will be useful to provide an alternative point of view here.

Matthew 5:23-24 - Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.

Stanton teaches that one must "take care of sin" (meaning confess it privately and/or publicly) prior to partaking in the Lord's supper based partly on this passage, and partly on their out-of-context teaching about taking the Lord's supper unworthily.

The passage in question was preached by Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount (Matthew chapters 5 through 7), obviously prior to there being any "Sunday church services," or Lord's supper, or any other common practice in our Christian assemblies. There was no established Christian faith or church at this time, only the Law of Moses plus the traditional synagogue assembly on the Sabbath. (I think it's important to understand that Jesus fully participated in these synagogue traditions, even though they were not part of the Law of Moses--they were purely traditions developed during the period of time between the Old and New Covenant scriptures.)

Whatever Jesus is saying to his audience assembled before him, we have to be careful not to interpret it as being a one-to-one application to us. We can draw some principles from it, which I believe is all Jesus was trying to teach in the first place--principles that would undermine the Pharisaic practice of relying on external law-keeping for one's righteousness. It is absurd to suggest Jesus was intending to lay down a new set of laws and regulations for the church on how to properly "take care of sin," to use Stanton's terminology.

The context of the Sermon on the Mount

Let's start off with the context of the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus' main method of teaching in this sermon is "you have heard this, but I say this." The examples he used were hyperbolic ones meant only to illustrate the New Covenant's focus on the heart rather than external law-keeping.

Thus:
  • You have heard that you shall not murder, but I say not to even be angry with your brother. Does this mean it will never be appropriate to be angry with a brother? Of course not, sometimes it's both possible and necessary to "be angry and sin not."
  • You have heard not to commit adultery, but I say don't even think lustfully after another woman in your heart. if your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away.
  • You have heard that it was said 'an eye for an eye,' but I say don't resist an evil person.
  • Etc.
I contend that it's abundantly clear, if we read the full context of this sermon, that Jesus was not intending to create the Matthew 5 Chapter of Rules and Regulations For The Church. Instead, he was making hard-hitting points to the Jews of his day and their Pharisee leaders about how hypocritical they were in their external law-keeping. He is hammering home the point that God is more interested in the heart than the external keeping of commands, and consequently, that one must surpass this form of superficial righteousness of the Pharisees in order to see the Kingdom of Heaven.

Thus he's not laying down new laws about gouging out one's eye, or cutting off one's hand, not resisting an evil person, or marriage and divorce; but bringing the listener to the understanding that abiding by the rules we think God has in mind for mankind is not the measure of righteousness we are to be striving for. Hear me carefully: God wants our hearts in the right place. Then and only then will we (a) understand God's laws in the first place, and (b) bring our external actions into alignment with God's nature in a meaningful way.

So with that as the backdrop, let's look at what the verses in question actually say. Jesus said that if you're on the way to bring your gift to the altar, but remember that your brother has something against you, first reconcile with your brother before offering your gift.

It's important to note that Jesus said "if your brother has something against you." He did not say "if you think someone MAY have seen you break a rule of the church by going into a movie theater," or "if your brother MAY have possibly been aware that you sinned," or "if someone, somewhere COULD have misunderstood you to be sinning or breaking a Church rule." This is how Stanton interprets this portion of the verse, and this is completely foreign to what Jesus is teaching.

By contrast, he's talking about an actual rift between you and a brother; hence the need to be "reconciled" with that brother. If there is no break in the relationship, there is no need for reconciliation. Calling someone on Saturday night to confess a supposed sin that the other person didn't even know about or doesn't even believe to be sin is not reconciling with a brother, because there was no break in the relationship. In Jesus' example, you have genuinely wronged your brother.

To understand this fully, we need to understand the Greatest Commands..."love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself." The Greatest Commands are made up of a vertical expression of love: that between man and God; and the horizontal expression of it: that between fellow human beings. Clearly, what Jesus is REALLY saying here is that worship is not purely a matter of our vertical relationship to God, as the Pharisees interpreted the law, i.e., performing all the commands just as we think God has prescribed them. The additional component is that God cares about our horizontal relationships with our fellow man, our brothers and neighbors. If those our broken, our relationship with Him is therefore also broken.

Maybe making the analogy as parents is easier for some to understand. If one of my kids has really sinned against another one and broken that relationship with his or her sibling, but continues to try to pretend that their relationship is perfectly fine with me, I'm not going to buy it. I want my kids to get along and to love each other. I'm going to tell the one, "go and be reconciled with your brother or sister," then we'll talk about all the fun things you want to do.

Jesus is simply pointing out how hypocritical it is for us to approach God in worship as if everything is just fine, knowing that there is a rift in our relationship with our brother that needs to be mended. THAT's the real point Jesus is making here.

What does it mean to bring our gift to the altar?

The only other point I'll add here is that it's completely inconsistent to pick out the Lord's supper as the only analogous "act of worship" to equate to Jesus' phrase "bringing your gift to the altar." I believe "bringing our gift to the altar" is a 24/7 action on our part involving virtually anything we do in expressing our love for God. We "bring our gift to the altar" when we pray, sing, serve orphans and widows, or do anything else that proceeds out of our love for God.

There is no reasonable way to interpret "bringing our gift to the altar" as simply taking the Lord's supper.  The principle Jesus is teaching is that we are not to pretend we're justified by all of the external acts of worship we may engage in--even if those things are good things--while our relationship with our brother is broken. Said another way, we cannot justify an estranged relationship with our brother by the fact that we have a pristine record in all of these other external acts of worship. As soon as we recognize that our relationship with our brother is strained or broken, we need to stop what we're doing, reconcile with our brother, and THEN "bring our gift to the altar."

The major irony here is that Stanton appeals to this passage to justify its rules, yet their rules-based righteousness is exactly what Jesus was preaching against in the Sermon on the Mount.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The doctrine on doctrine

March Week 2014 delegates: Reaching what you believe to be wise conclusions on the questions you're considering is great. But don't heap error upon error and proceed to bind your opinions, no matter how wise you think they are, on others. This is no different than the Pharisees "teaching for doctrines the commandments of men."

doc·trine:
  • a set of ideas or beliefs that are taught or believed to be true
  • teaching, instruction
  • something that is taught
Perhaps it's time to consider the Bible's doctrine on doctrine. Before we can teach anything, we should give thought to what can and can't be taught, right? What the Bible teaches about teaching should be what we teach about teaching, should it not?

"Doctrine" as used in the Bible is just a synonym for "teaching." There is no separate meaning of "doctrine" as distinguished from "teaching" or "judgment." Whenever something is taught, whether that's a private opinion or supposed "judgment" of the church, it is a doctrine. The fact that it's taught is what makes it a doctrine, not the fact that it was run up the flagpole and approved by superiors at a previous May/March Week.

Of course, the corollary of this is that any doctrines that have been taught in error--whether personal opinions or "judgments"--were erroneous doctrines. If they were taught by someone who wasn't fully convinced of their veracity, then I believe that is the Biblical definition of "false teaching," which is "disingenuous teaching." Even more problematic for the church is the inevitable conclusion that the church, via its various spokespersons through the years, has in fact taught certain false (incorrect) doctrines. To argue that it hasn't, is to argue for the infallibility of the church on those doctrines, which I don't believe anyone is prepared to defend.

So what is the proper Biblical teaching about teaching? The meeting's stated goals can be spun all they want to put lipstick on the pig, but it seems that any fair analysis would conclude that May/March Week is really about individuals discussing their private opinions, and bringing them back to the local congregations with the expectation that they will be adopted as the new "official doctrines."

This line between private and "official" doctrine is not really Biblically supported, though. I believe there is no such thing as "official church doctrine," Biblically speaking. We only have personal opinions--i.e. the beliefs we personally hold, as we individually understand them--and we are individually accountable for their truth and merit. We can't slip responsibility for the veracity of what we believe or teach to "the church," or "tradition," or "our teachers," or "May Week 1986." Our opinions are ours alone, and if we choose to teach them, the buck stops there.

Because private opinions are fallible, they have no guarantee of being true. They may be true, of course, but they may not be. We arrive at various conclusions in life by adding to our knowledge, experience and maturity--physically, intellectually and spiritually.

This is a really important point. Since our opinions change throughout our lifetime (at least they should, if we are growing intellectually and spiritually), we can know that our private opinions have not always been true. We can therefore project into the future with a high degree of certainty that our opinions will never be 100% true. As long as we are encased in human flesh, we are likely to hold incorrect opinions.

However, each of us obviously believes that the opinions we currently hold true right now are in fact true, or we wouldn't believe them. What are we to make of these two seemingly contradictory conclusions? We know we're wrong on some things, but we're not certain which things are wrong. We also believe and teach those things we think we're right on.

What we need, then, is a proper sense of humility. We should not think so highly of our own opinions, believing them so strongly to be true that we take outlandish risks and preach them as if they were proven, verifiable fact. We have to acknowledge the possibility that we may grow in our opinions next week, next month, next year, or ten years from now, as long as we are not speaking infallibly directly from the Holy Spirit (and I know no one in the church who claims this).

We may have numerous logical or interpretational roadblocks in our path to apprehending what is actually true on a particular point, and this is true whether one has the Holy Spirit or not. As evidence, we just need to look at the sect's history and see a series of many changed doctrines and opinions over time. These same people are believed to have had the Holy Spirit, so how did they arrive at different conclusions in 1978 vs. 1998? Because they're human, that's why.

Our opinions should not be forced on other people as a condition of fellowship. What my conscience allows or does not allow is not my job to enforce on my brothers. We can hold opinions, of course, but we must hold them as our own private property, as Alexander Campbell once said.

So at what point do our private opinions become doctrines? They become doctrines precisely at the time we teach them. This is true whether the "church" agreed that this opinion is the correct doctrine, or whether outside counsel was sought and approved it. The minute I take my opinion on, shall we say, whether a Christian may share a prescription contrary to the laws of the land, and teach it as the "official doctrine" of the church circa March Week 2014, I have made my opinions into my doctrine.

Instead, what Christians ought to do more of is share their opinions for the consideration and investigation of their brothers, and let their own consciences apprehend their truth (or not). "Let every man be convinced in his own mind," right? But as soon as they go about teaching it, they are "teaching for doctrines the commandments of men."

The reality is that we may believe our opinions are true with all our heart, but that doesn't make them true or infallible. The whole concept of "official church doctrines" is impossible to define without making a creed of some sort, whether that's a written statement of faith, or a body of "official thought" that is passed down verbally through teachers, evangelists, and May/March Weeks.

Does the church have a creed--a body of "official doctrines" outside of the Bible alone? I would suggest it does. It is embodied in 45 years of tape recordings, notes, May/March Week conclusions, judgements, and teachers' counsel. It is, therefore, a house of cards:

Matthew 15:9 They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.
Colossians 2:22 - These rules, which have to do with things that are all destined to perish with use, are based on merely human commands and teachings.
It's much better to build our doctrines on a solid foundation of the Bible alone. We've always told other religious organizations to do that. Stanton, remember the Suitcase of Books?

Thursday, February 27, 2014

The problem with May Week

The annual May Week (or sometimes March Week, as in 2014) is the third rail of church politics. Touch it, and you are toast. Criticize it, or question its similarity to the Baptist Convention or any other religious body's annual doctrinal meeting, and you'll be promptly corrected, rebuked and/or withdrawn from--and perhaps all three. If your name is respected enough in the "brotherhood," history shows you probably won't even get a chance to defend yourself.

One would think that May Week, if the attempt is to truly follow the example of Acts 15, should be reserved for weighty subjects of earth-shattering importance to the unity of the brotherhood, i.e. the brotherhood is literally divided (separating from one another) over this issue, so we need to figure out what the Bible says about it. But here are some of the weighty doctrines discussed at past May Weeks:
  • Whether women can wear pants with a zippered fly in the front
  • What constitutes a Christian's own "personal time" vs. the time he's obligated to do "the work" (usually this means personal work/knocking on doors, but this phrase can be a catch-all to mean any church function).
  • Under what circumstances does a Christian traveling to another town where there is a church have to "keep the calendar" of that local church instead of his own church's "calendar" of "work." In other words, if you drive to another town on a Friday to pick up a trailer for business (because your local church doesn't have an obligation for you on Friday, but the congregation in the town your visiting does), do you have to join with them in their church function? Must you tell them you're in town, or can you pick up the trailer and slip out of town with no one knowing?
  • Must a woman wear nylons with a dress on Sunday or when door knocking?
  • Are there 2 types of punishments the church can implement on disobedient members or just one. Withdrawal/ mark and avoid... are they the same thing or separate punishments.
  • Should Christians be allowed to attend 4 year colleges or should their children be allowed to attend a 4 year college?
  • When is a divorced person free to remarry?
  • Where does the Church stand on spacing children/birth control?
  • Should preachers use electronic devises while preaching? ie: laptop, iPad, etc.
  • Should Christians have Facebook accounts?
  • What is the most acceptable way to make confessions- face to face, by letter, by text, by email. 
  • Is it allowable in scripture to break the bread of the Lord's supper more than once? (to break it into smaller pieces)
  • Is is acceptable to use gluten free flour for the unleavened bread of the Lord's supper? Can the Church use two different types of bread at the same time? (one wheat the other gluten free?) Can a gluten free christian take only the grape juice and not the bread?
  • Is it acceptable to use grape juice that has vitamin C added to it? (for the Lord's supper?)
Is it OK to discuss our opinions on these and other questions? I suppose, as long as we speak only where the Bible speaks and truly remain silent where it's silent. But is it wise to attribute such importance to matters of personal opinion, and to do so on an annual basis? Not at all. Sometimes wisdom is in not doing what one has the right to do.

I'll be the first to acknowledge we don't need a Biblical precedent for gathering together as individuals to study and discuss any subject. It's the binding of those conclusions on the "brotherhood" under the assumption that unanimous agreement is necessary and equals unity in the first place. That, and the ongoing annual nature of it give me a scriptural problem with. The honest truth is there is a tremendous social pressure to swallow the doctrines "brought back" from May Week, and the event has achieved near sacred status in the minds of followers.

The congregations listen to the recordings of the "proceedings" each year when the delegates get back, and discusses the subjects as a congregation. Each congregation is expected to come into agreement with the conclusions reached each year. There is intense pressure to agree with those conclusions, because everyone knows the consequences of disagreement. Depending on whom one disagrees with, and how vocally that dissent is expressed, one could end up withdrawn from easily.

May Week is an unscriptural tradition. That's not so say it's wrong in and of itself, I'm just saying it's not in the Bible as a regular event the church is supposed to hold. Take from that what you will, but the tradition of holding this unity meeting every year to solidify the church's stance on often downright silly questions is yet another tradition of men.

It's one thing to randomly get together to discuss a pressing question. But the habit of doing it every year and funneling all doctrinal questions through it makes it take on a life of its own. It underscores the idea that May Week is "the place" where doctrine is decided. May Week reinforces the unscriptural belief that unanimity of opinion is necessary to the unity of the church, and that any change in doctrine, should individuals reform their opinions during the course of the year, needs to wait for yet another May Week to "legitimize" them.

One of the most oppressing things about May Week is that people who have concluded that certain doctrines of the Stanton churches are wrong feel they must wait years, sometimes decades, for more influential teachers to change their minds and bring the subject up at a future May Week. Until then, it seems, the conscientious objector must continue violating his conscience, remaining silent when unscriptural doctrines are taught and preached in his local church, for fear of being cast out for dissenting too strongly with what was previously concluded at May Week.

If the conscientious person is an official teacher, he is in even more of a moral quandary. Should he teach a doctrine which he believes is incorrect? If he does, he's violating his conscience. This is the scriptural meaning of false teaching which really means disingenuous teaching. Yet if he doesn't teach what came back from May Week, he's not toeing the official line and can come under scrutiny and distrust from the "brotherhood."

What's a guy to do? Either continue teaching disingenuously, or step down from teaching. Hence, you find many older teachers no longer teaching, because they've tarnished their reputation, perhaps, by questioning various teachings for too long. They could never get enough momentum to persuade others of their changed opinion, so they've had to resort to keeping it to themselves for fear of being withdrawn from. Thus the teachers who remain are the "true believers" who accept the May Week conclusions and teach them wholeheartedly.

The antidote for May Week is to make sure the leadership of the local congregation is a scriptural eldership, as directed by Paul in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. Under scriptural leadership, the congregation can function as intended as a local body of believers in unity with other believers, whether they agree with all the opinions of those believers or not. Unanimity of opinion is not a requirement of unity.

Thoughts on Acts 15

If Acts 15 is supposed to authorize church meetings (councils) for the purpose of establishing unanimity and doctrine, then it is only fair to notice a few important points:

  1. In Acts 15, delegates from multiple churches were NOT sent to a meeting to decide the correct doctrine. The May Week practice is to send delegates from all congregations to discuss and agree upon doctrine, and bring those doctrines back to their home congregations. This is clearly NOT what happened in Acts 15. The attendees were the Jerusalem apostles and elders, possibly (but not definitely) the rest of the church at Jerusalem, and Paul and Barnabus from Antioch. That's it. There were no delegates from the churches in Seleucia, Salamis, Paphos, Perga, Iconium, Lystra, Derbe, or Attalia, which all were in existence after Paul's first missionary journey in the previous two chapters of Acts.
  2. Antioch sent Paul and Barnabus to talk to the apostles and elders at Jerusalem. Merie taught that the whole congregation was present and participated in the deliberations in Jerusalem, and that we have as much authority and guidance from the Holy Spirit to decide doctrine as they did. However, this is making some assumptions that are not at all clear by a plain reading of the scriptures. What we do know is that the Antioch church appointed Paul and Barnabus to go see the apostles and elders at Jerusalem about the dispute.
  3. Paul and Barnabus conferred with the apostles and elders in Jerusalem to solve the dispute. Acts records that they met with the apostles and elders. Yes, they probably addressed the whole church at some point as well, but there is no evidence that the whole Jerusalem church was involved in deliberating about this question.
  4. The letter sent to the brotherhood was from the apostles and elders. It's true that the whole church authorized their spokesmen (Judas and Silas) to deliver the letter to the other churches, but the letter itself was FROM the apostles and elders.
In conclusion, while I do believe that the church at Jerusalem was probably, though not definitely, present for some or all of the deliberations, it seems abundantly clear that the authority behind the doctrinal "proclamation" that went out from Jerusalem was the apostles and elders, not the supposed "church council." If this was a church council, any two congregations can get together and issue their doctrines to the rest of the brotherhood, because that's exactly what happened here if you don't add the apostles and elders into the equation as the authoritative figures.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Telling your story

We all have stories to tell. Outside of the Church of Christ culture, people call it your "testimony." I like that. My testimony has been largely told here on these pages, and others have undertaken to tell their own stories of how this sect has affected their lives, and how they've found their way to a closer relationship with the loving and forgiving God of Scripture.

Please use the comment section of this page to share how God is working in your life today. You can tell us how God has brought you out of legalistic thinking, or how you've come to have a deeper relationship with God, or any aspect of your story that you feel will be uplifting to those still struggling with the "doctrines and commandments of men" that have consumed the sect for the past 45 years.

I just ask that if your story involves other people, please refrain from using names where it would be hurtful, even if those people have hurt you. I believe the people who have hurt others through their abusive teachings and discipline methods know who they are, and my sincere hope is that they may one day change their hearts and work to make things right with those they've hurt. If ever there was a proper application of Matthew 5:23-24, it would be this: If you've hurt your brother by abusive teaching or improper church discipline, go and reconcile with your brother before another minute passes.

Not sure what to write? Try answering one of these questions:
  • How did you first come to realize that the sect's teachings were wrong?
  • What caused you to realize that God is alive and well outside the sect?
  • How have you sought fellowship with other believers after leaving the sect?
For some, you may not be ready to share your story. It may be too painful and too personal for a public forum like this. For others, sharing your story may be the perfect way to stand up and be counted. You can say to the world fearlessly "I belong to Jesus."

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Prove it, friends

Stanton has altered the meaning of so many words, it's hard to keep track; hence the new glossary. One of the terms that has been severely misused is the word "prove," as in "prove all things." I'm not saying that the word is always misused, because I'm not there to know. But it's apparent that it's at least misused when it's convenient. The following is a portion of a talk at the Labor Day 2013 meeting:
"We put a lot of stock in you brethren that are very, very young in faith. Very young in faith. We put a lot of hope in you, that not only are you going to be able to carry the mantle, you're going to turn around and you're going to improve what it is that you have learned. Not disprove, and not try to challenge it, or turn around and make it so where it is you find that it's false, and its flaws and its errors, but to where it is that you prove it, and strengthen it and strengthen it and strengthen it. You hear in my voice I'm passionate about this. I'm very passionate about it."
Not Ready For An Answer - Labor Day 2013 - 22:00 
The speaker goes on to talk about how young Christians would be tested by challenges to things they've been taught (by this blog, perhaps?), but they are apparently not supposed to subject their teachings to any sort of test at all, not even to the point of getting answers "to their own satisfaction." They are to accept whatever level of understanding God has granted them and put aside the rest:
"It's got to be what God has granted you to understand, to his satisfaction, and he may only give you just so much. And so much, that you must develop a faith around what it is that he reveals and conveys to be able to sustain you and how you may be able to endure as well as how you may be able to continue to respond."
Not Ready For An Answer - Labor Day 2013 - 25:45
This teaching is downright dangerous, because it teaches new converts and old to set aside their own critical thinking that God gave them, and let others do their thinking for them. I would suggest that subjecting what we're taught to the scriptures "to our own satisfaction" is exactly what God asks and demands. In fact, to accept something that is not "to our own satisfaction" is a violation of our conscience.

Doing this repeatedly sears our conscience and trains us to rely on our teachers' regurgitation of the Word rather than our own processing of it. How is that any better than Christians who rely on whatever their pastor says in the sermon on Sunday morning? Short answer: it's not. It's accepting the doctrines of men based on their own human authority. By contrast, testing what we're taught against our understanding of scripture is exactly what the Bereans were commended for.

With that in mind, let's look at Paul's instruction to "prove all things:"
1 Thessalonians 5:20-21 - Despise not prophesyings. 21 Prove all things; hold fast that which is good.
In proper 17th century usage (when the King James translation was published), "to prove" meant "to test." If you were to prove a horse, it was not to offer an irrefutable argument as to why the horse was a horse, so that no one could deny it, but to test the horse to find out its capabilities. If it didn't meet up to your requirements as a beast of burden, for instance, you could decide not to buy it.

It's with this meaning of the word in mind that King James' translators correctly chose the word "prove" to translate 1 Thessalonians 5:21. To set the stage even further, we have to understand that some in the first century had a spiritual gift of prophesysing—in other words, a gift of publicly speaking the words, or at minimum the ideas, given to them by the Holy Spirit. The tricky thing was that not everyone who had the gift of prophesying also had the ability to perform miracles to "prove" (modern usage, to offer convincing arguments) they were speaking by the Spirit. Therefore, some might claim they had the gift who really did not.

Paul's instruction, interestingly enough, was to ask the hearer, not the teacher, to "prove all things." Test it. See if what this person is saying holds up to scriptural scrutiny. The burden of "proof" (modern usage) may have been upon the teacher, but the responsibility to "prove" the teaching (archaic usage, to test) was upon the hearer.

This is simply a case of words changing meanings over time. Yet the correct meaning of the verse is still very apparent. Paul is saying to "test" all things and hold onto the good parts. This necessarily means discarding the bad parts. By this we know that some of what they would be taught would be good, and some of it would be bad. That's why they were supposed to test it, discard the bad, and keep the good.

So let me ask you: if the first century church was expected to evaluate the teachings they were hearing, and they had people walking around who were able to prophesy miraculously by the Spirit, shouldn't we all—Stanton members included—be expected to do the same? Is it too much to ask that every believer prove, i.e. test, the teachings they hear against the Word itself? Or are Stanton's teachings somehow exempt from scrutiny?

It makes a mockery of Paul's words if we distort them as if he's saying to "prove" the teachings of the church to oneself, repeatedly trying to offer yourself convincing arguments to keep yourself on board with the prevailing teaching du jour. That's the opposite of critical thinking. It's the opposite of proving all things and holding fast that which is good. Paul was not interested in producing a crop of young Christians trained to blindly follow their leaders. He wanted young Christians who were willing to think for themselves critically and discard erroneous teaching before it could establish itself in the first century church.

I've never asked anyone to accept my opinions without scrutiny. All I've ever done on this blog is ask my readers to test what they read here, and discard what they can't find in scripture. May Stanton's teachers one day be bold enough to do the same.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Love and marriage, love and marriage

Note: The "a-ha" moment I describe in Turning the Tables on Legalism about what it would feel like to receive legalistic love from my kids first clicked in my mind regarding marriage. This article is the true story of when I first made that connection.
I'm thankful for the love of my wife, in part because she exhibits her love for me in ways I neither deserve nor ask for. That makes me feel privileged and honored to be her husband. I know without a doubt that I have her loyalty and affections.

I could argue that most everything good in my life flows from the fact that I feel such security in our relationship. That's because love is inherently inspiring, motivating, and empowering, whether it's poured out by God himself, or through the loving actions of my friends, my family, or my wife. This prompted an inspiring thought: The reason my wife knows how to love as well as she does is that love comes from God, and everyone who loves is born of God. I guess she learns from the best.

So in the middle of thanking God one night for the love of my wife, my thoughts wandered down a neat little road. Prayer unfinished, this powerful idea consumed me. If she learned how to love from God, who is the definition of love, then as the recipient of her love, what if I could learn something about how God wants to be loved?

It immediately dawned on me that love stands in stark contrast to legalism. What if my wife was a legalist in her desire to please me? What if her goal in life was to try to "follow my commands," and she nervously wondered if she had succeeded or angered me every day? What if she refused to do anything for me that I didn't clearly, specifically ask for? What a drag that would be! That would totally remove heartfelt spontaneity from the relationship, wouldn't it?

I could speculate that if she loved me legalistically, wanting only to follow all my commands precisely, at least I'd know her intentions were good. But really, that may not even be the case. What if she wanted to "follow all my commands" just so she could get something she wanted out of the relationship? I'd sort of feel used, I think.

Perhaps I could rationalize that at least she doesn't want to anger me by doing something I might not like. But the feeling I'd be left with at the end of each day would be a bit cold and empty. Don't I do plenty of good things for her that she doesn't expect or request? Why doesn't she want do the same for me? Am I really so volatile that she thinks I'm going to blow up if she misunderstands my desires?

I pondered the implications of such a legalistic marriage. Besides feeling very unloving—maybe even a little like a tyrant—I wouldn't feel nearly as loved, either. If she loved me legalistically, her actions, I realized, would seem hollow and lifeless to me. I might not even want her gifts at all if I thought they were just intended to be checked off her list, and were really all about getting what she wanted from me. My mind racing and my prayer long forgotten, the obvious truth sank in. If I don't want a legalistic love from my wife, why would God want that from me?

You see, the need to be loved is part of the human condition, so all of us who have experienced love are capable of some insight into how God wants to be loved, whether we know and acknowledge our Creator or not. When we are loved with abandon—and I mean truly loved, not just complied with—isn't it true that we must feel something like God must feel when he is loved with abandon? The Golden Rule perhaps becomes the Platinum Rule, vividly three dimensional, in this light. We should love God like we want to be loved by others.

This is truly exciting, isn't it? It means we as humans can feel how God feels when he is (or is not) loved from the heart. Weren't we crafted in his likeness? Isn't divine empathy the basis for Jesus' coming to earth to live like one of his creation? Our relationship with The Divine is framed in scripture with rich metaphors based on human relationships we can understand much better: God is not only said to be our God, but our father, brother, spouse, and friend.

It's no surprise, then, that our divine relationship can be impaired with our all-too-human relationship problems. Imagine a marriage where neither partner will bless the other with an act of love unless it has been clearly and specifically requested. Or a son who is so fearful of doing the wrong thing, and receiving his father's wrath, that he feels it's safer to do nothing to try to please his father. Sadly, I've approached God in that way, and perhaps you have, too.

Kids, by contrast, do things of their own accord to express their love for us. (I suspect that's why Jesus told us to be more like children.) One day, I came home to see posters taped all over the house with artwork and notes of appreciation. They had honored me by christening the day "D.A.D." (Dad Appreciation Day). Just think how I could have crushed my kids if I had been angry at them for this attempt to honor me like this. Worse, how would I feel if my children lived in fear of honoring me so spontaneously? Instead, their love comes across as more genuine to me when they express it from their own hearts, rather than simply "command-following." Our service to God must be so much more appreciated when our lives overflow with it from our own hearts.

After all, aren't acts of love most meaningful when they come without being commanded, or even specified? How many times have husbands heard their wives say "It doesn't mean as much because I had to ask you to do it?" By merely seeking to obey God's commands, I realize now that I have been guilty of cheapening love. I have taken the very simple concept of godly love that even children understand, and made it into something so conditioned by rules, regulations and exceptions, that its divine nature has become unrecognizable.

In this moment of clarity, I suddenly understood why Jesus and the New Testament writers were so unwilling to provide a list of all the commands we needed to follow in order to please God. Christianity isn't a sick joke—God's little obstacle course for us, to make us decipher all the rules before we can follow them—because it's not the command-following at all that he wants, but our hearts.

Under the New Covenant, where God's laws are to be written on our hearts, God is most honored by freewill offerings of love from the heart, not our lawyerly attempts to do what our feeble intellect says that God wants, using legal precedents of "command, example, and necessary inference." Thankfully, the legal framework of the Old Covenant, which involved a lengthy and complex body of laws and exceptions, was nailed to the cross. I don't want my wife to show her love to me by complying with a list of demands any more than God wants that from me.

Here's the cool part. As I better appreciate my wife's heartfelt expressions of love for me, I find myself desiring to lift her up and bless her with every ounce of my being. Then another sacred thought dawns on me: I desire to do for her, in response to her heartfelt love, what God desires to do for me in response to mine. Wow. This "love" topic just gets deeper and deeper, doesn't it? No wonder love is the greatest.
1 John 4:7 - Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Love is the Greatest

Awhile back an anonymous commenter on this blog mentioned that they had prepared a one year study on the subject of love for their congregation after leaving the Stanton sect. I want to thank them publicly and provide the download for others to enjoy as well. I wasn't sure whether I had permission to post it, but was assured in the comments that I did. So to the author: thank you so much for your efforts in writing this, and thank you for your kind words in the handwritten note that was attached.

I know nothing about the writer, other than the love that flows from the pages of this study. I received the study in hard copy format after providing my mailing address by email to someone who contacted me by email.

I don't know when the author left the sect, or how long it took them after leaving to arrive at this much more Biblical understanding of love than the sect ever taught. I don't know any of the author's history, if we've ever met (if so, it was probably when I was a young child), or what sort of pain was endured during their time in the group. I just know that the author has chosen to reject bitterness and anger, and has chosen instead to follow diligently Jesus' commands.

As the study so clearly shows, the author found their way to a deep understanding of the unconditional nature of Christlike love and forgiveness. It has blessed me, and I hope it blesses you as well. Perhaps you'll be able to use this study to stimulate new ways of thinking about love that you hadn't before considered. Maybe you'll even be able to use this study to spur conversations and studies in your own congregations.

Not convinced? Think this whole topic of love is "soft" and smacks of "feel good religion" that is too good to be true? Try turning the tables on legalism. Take the Clean Bible Challenge and see "whether these things are so" for yourself.

As I posted in the comment thread that led to me receiving this study, if anyone doubts whether a one-year study of love is overkill, consider the words of this old hymn that you have no doubt sung many times:
The Love of God 
Verse 1 
The love of God is greater far
Than tongue or pen can ever tell;
It goes beyond the highest star,
And reaches to the lowest hell;
The guilty pair, bowed down with care,
God gave His Son to win;
His erring child He reconciled,
And pardoned from his sin.  
Refrain 
Oh, love of God, how rich and pure!
How measureless and strong!
It shall forevermore endure—
The saints’ and angels’ song.  
Verse 2 
When hoary time shall pass away,
And earthly thrones and kingdoms fall,
When men who here refuse to pray,
On rocks and hills and mountains call,
God’s love so sure, shall still endure,
All measureless and strong;
Redeeming grace to Adam’s race—
The saints’ and angels’ song. 
Verse 3 
Could we with ink the ocean fill,
And were the skies of parchment made,
Were every stalk on earth a quill,
And every man a scribe by trade;
To write the love of God above
Would drain the ocean dry;
Nor could the scroll contain the whole,
Though stretched from sky to sky. 
If the love of God is truly "greater far than tongue or pen can ever tell," and if we could not write it upon the sky, even if the sky were made of parchment and "every man a scribe by trade," then I suggest a one year study is the bare minimum one ought to devote it. In fact, you could study this subject every day, all day, for an entire year, and still not exhaust more than a tiny fraction of all there is to know and comprehend about God's amazing love and its implications for our life.

Learn it and live it, my friends. Waste no time, download this awesome study for yourself, and share your thoughts below!

Monday, September 23, 2013

Reclaiming the doctrine of Christ

I've realized over the course of writing this blog that the phrase "Doctrine of Christ" has been redefined by Stanton with meanings and connotations that the Bible never gives it. A church member at some point even felt compelled to write an anonymous blog entitled "What Is The Doctrine of Christ?," taking it down after I linked to it. Perhaps you'll find the true meaning of the term rather shocking in its simplicity, as I once did a number of years ago.

So let's explore what John was really was saying in this passage:
2 John 9 - Whosoever transgresseth, and abideth not in the doctrine of Christ, hath not God. He that abideth in the doctrine of Christ, he hath both the Father and the Son.
Sounds pretty serious, so we better figure this out. If we abide in this doctrine--this teaching--we have both the Father and the Son. If we transgress, and choose not to abide in this teaching, we don't have God. We even find out in the next verse that if anyone comes and does not bring this teaching, we're not to "bid him godspeed" or even invite him into our house. So John is pretty passionate about this Doctrine of Christ, whatever it is. Hmmm. Perhaps that's our first clue. But let's proceed.

To unravel the mystery, let's back up the truck and point out that John begs--that's what beseech means--he begs that his readers follow the commands he wrote about from the very beginning. What were those commands?
2 John 5-6 - And now I beseech thee, lady [I beg you], not as though I wrote a new commandment unto thee, but that which we had from the beginning, that we love one another. 6 And this is love, that we walk after his commandments. This is the commandment, That, as ye have heard from the beginning, ye should walk in it.
His argument is curiously circular, but don't get thrown off track by that. To John, love is "walking in his commandments," and "walking in his commandments" is love. This is how John writes about love, over and over again, passionately, beautifully, and yes, redundantly. It is why many students of the Bible (outside of Stanton, at least) call the Apostle John the "Apostle of Love."

If you read all of John's writings in one or two sittings, you'll easily see that love was his passion. He made every effort to make sure Jesus' message of love did not get lost on us by bringing it up incessantly every chance he got. John was no doubt one of those preachers that--you know--"always talks about love." What a soft preacher, eh? To him, Love = Jesus' Commands and Jesus' Commands = Love.

Not convinced of this circular proposition? Let's look back at how John records Jesus' commands:
John 14:15 - [Jesus speaking] "If you love me, you will obey what I command."
John 14:20-24 - [Jesus speaking] "On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you. 21 Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love them and show myself to them." 22 Then Judas (not Judas Iscariot) said, "But, Lord, why do you intend to show yourself to us and not to the world?" 23 Jesus replied, "Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching [doctrine]. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. 24 Anyone who does not love me will not obey my teaching [doctrine]. These words you hear are not my own; they belong to the Father who sent me." 
John 15:10 - [Jesus speaking] "If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father's commands and remain in his love."
1 John 2:5 - But if anyone obeys his word, God's love is truly made complete in him. This is how we know we are in him. 
1 John 5:2-3 - This is how we know that we love the children of God: by loving God and carrying out his commands. This is love for God: to obey his commands. And his commands are not burdensome
These verses taken by themselves might give us the impression that Jesus' Commands are comprised of some obscure list of rules and regulations that we have to deduce and induce, like lawyers, from the sum total of New Testament Scripture. But is that what he really meant?

Seriously, this isn't a rhetorical question: What are Jesus' commands? Have you ever thought about that? Do we really think Jesus' commands included things like "don't eat in a church building that I never even said to meet in in the first place?" (Yeah, that's right, they met in homes.) Or "don't buy wine, because that's an appearance of evil," when Jesus himself made it and drank it? (I think that's a little slanderous of our Savior, myself.)

No, I suggest re-reading the gospels--the "authorized" history of Jesus' life on Earth--to find out what Jesus' commands are. Grab a notepad and write down all the commands you find from Jesus. This will clear your mind of the teachings of men. Let the Word speak for itself. I'll let you draw your own conclusion, but I can tell you what the Apostle John understood to be Jesus' primary commands, worth repeating time and again:
John 13:34-35 - [Jesus speaking] "A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another."
John 15:12 - [Jesus speaking] "My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you."
John 15:17 - [Jesus speaking] "This is my command: Love each other."
1 John 3:11 - [John recounting Jesus' teaching] This is the message you heard from the beginning: We should love one another
1 John 3:23 - [John recounting Jesus' teaching] And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us
1 John 4:16-17 - [John putting Jesus' teaching into his own words] And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives [abides] in love lives in God, and God in him. In this way, love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment, because in this world we are like him.
1 John 4:21 - [John recounting Jesus' teaching] And he has given us this command: Whoever loves God must also love his brother
2 John 1:5-6 - [John recounting Jesus' teaching] And now, dear lady, I am not writing you a new command but one we have had from the beginning. I ask that we love one another. And this is love: that we walk in obedience to his commands. As you have heard from the beginning, his command is that you walk in love.
Do you really think we need a law degree to deduce and induce all of Jesus' Commands from Scriptures (that were not even compiled into one volume for centuries), when John so clearly lays them out for us in so many different ways? If Jesus' Commands were intended to be so clear to us that John would exort us over and over to follow them, walk in them, abide in them, don't turn from them; shouldn't we take notice that the only crystal-clear summary of them is Jesus' Commands to love, expressed in various ways to various audiences? This Doctrine of Christ, my dear Watson--the teachings of Jesus Christ, that John was so adamant that we ought to abide in--looks an awful lot like love.

Upon more examination, the following passages exhorting us to "abide in love," "walk in the light," and "abide in the light" look suspiciously parallel to the 2 John 9 passage we are looking at:
John 15:9-10 - As the Father hath loved me, so have I loved you: continue [abide] ye in my love. 10 If ye keep my commandments, ye shall abide in my love; even as I have kept my Father's commandments, and abide in his love
1 John 1:7 - But if we walk [abide] in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin. 
1 John 2:10 - He that loveth his brother abideth in the light, and there is none occasion of stumbling in him.
Which brings us full circle:
2 John 9-11 Whosoever transgresseth, and abideth not in the doctrine of Christ [i.e., whoever abides not in love, the central teaching of Jesus Christ], hath not God. He that abideth in the doctrine of Christ [i.e., whoever does abide/live/walk in love], he hath both the Father and the Son. 10 If there come any unto you, and bring not this doctrine [teaching], receive him not into your house, neither bid him God speed: 11 For he that biddeth him God speed is partaker of his evil deeds.
John sheds new light on this Doctrine of Christ, doesn't he? Actually, it's not new at all. As John so aptly points out, it's just the same old command we heard from the beginning, that we love one another, restated for emphasis.

How many times have we sung the words of the great old hymn "While his love burns true and bright, we are walking in light" without comprehending its meaning? I have to confess that I've become a little jealous that Laurene Highfield, who wrote that hymn, understood the centrality of the Doctrine of Love way back in 1916. To the Apostle John, "walking in the light" (1 John 1:7) was in fact synonymous with "walking in love" (1 John 2:10), and Laurene got it. And that, my friends, is the shocking, life-changing Doctrine of Christ.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Teachers in lieu of elders

One of the most far-reaching mistakes of church history in the last 2000 years was when the church started giving bishops influence over multiple congregations rather than over a single congregation, as Paul originally established. Bishops are just another word for elders, presbyters, or overseers. Whatever you want to call these local shepherds, they were a God-given form of church oversight to help keep wolves out of the flock. Paul outlined the qualifications for them, and instructed both Timothy and Titus about those qualifications.

The only problem was that human logic--and a well-intentioned desire for control, perhaps--got in the way. Rome wanted more influence, and the best way to get it was for its bishops to assert authority over the elders in nearby congregations. There became an established hierarchy of bishop preeminence over elders.

Eventually, regional control wasn't enough, and Rome's bishops would claim preeminence among the entire body of bishops. In a classic case of the frog in the hot water, it wasn't a big step from there for a single bishop to be lifted to preeminence as the "first among equals," the pope.

Control the bishops, you control the churches. Hierarchical authority structures are so much easier to control for those at the top, but not so much for the peasants under their authority. The hierarchical structure is great for building an empire, but it's not how God designed the Kingdom:
1 Peter 5:1-4 - To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder and a witness of Christ’s sufferings who also will share in the glory to be revealed: 2 Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; 3 not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. 4 And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away.
Fast forward in history, and we find that the First Council of Nicaea was a gathering of bishops sent as delegates from the local churches for the purpose of ironing out various issues of disagreement among the churches. Sound familiar? Commenced on May 20, 325 A.D, it was, appropriately enough, the first May Meeting. It was justified using the same premises Stanton uses to authorize their May Meetings: the need for unanimity in doctrine, and the example of Acts 15 for how to get it.

However, I'm not as interested in the May Meeting angle of this right now as I am the Teacher > Bishop > Elder angle. Why? Because the Stanton churches, through ignorance of history and the Scriptures, perhaps, have followed the same mistake of the early Catholic Church by granting individuals control (or unbiblical influence, if you prefer) over multiple congregations.

How is it that we have clear Biblical qualifications for Elders (husband of one wife, leads his family well, etc.), yet they are over only a single a congregation in Paul's day and are absent in the Stanton churches. Main Teachers, on the other hand, oversee all the congregations, yet are entirely absent in Scripture? Hmmm. How many times do we see a Local Teacher in Scripture sending for Outside Counsel from a Main Teacher at another church? Zip, zero, nada. Not once.

In fact, "Main Teacher," "Local Teacher," and "Outside Counsel" are terms found nowhere in Scripture. If we follow the maxim to use Bible words for Bible things, perhaps the absence of Bible words for this concept of authority should clue us in to the fact that it is--let's go out on a limb,  here--unbiblical.

Local Teachers have clearly taken the place of Biblical Elders, for all intents and purposes, yet how many of them are husbands of one wife, or even have "faithful children," as elders are required to have, for that matter? After all, if you can't lead your own home, Paul says, what business do you have leading the church?

And Local Teachers are expected to ask Outside Counsel of Main Teachers, are they not? So whatever lip service is given to congregational autonomy, in practice we have Main Teachers over Local Teachers over the Congregation. It appears that Local Teachers are the new Elder, and Main Teachers, the new Bishop.

Forgive me if I'm not getting the exact nuances of terminology just right, but can we at least be honest that this is the way the Stanton churches function in realty? I know for a fact that Local Teachers have come under suspicion for simply not asking the Main Teachers for enough Outside Counsel, so there are clear expectations for deference to perceived authority in the pecking order.

I'm not suggesting these Local Teachers or Main Teachers are bad people, or ill-intentioned, by any means. I assume they have the best of intentions, and I sincerely hope to sit around over coffee and fellowship with some of them someday as brothers and sisters in Christ. I just believe they are currently exercising influence or power or authority (however you want to describe it) that is not granted by Scripture. That's all. Nothing personal.

Local Teachers, in practice if not by intent, have usurped the authority given to Biblical Elders (perhaps exceeding it, even), and Main Teachers have taken the place, not just of the Biblical Elders as described by Paul, but worse, of the unbiblical second and third century Bishops. For those who have been in the sect for decades, it should be easy to see how this system of church government arose a little bit at a time, like the frog in the hot water. But beware, because those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it.

Congregations need to reign it back in and assert local control, as it was in the first century, to avoid the mistakes of the second and third centuries. But who am I to offer any advice? I'm just a peasant with a Bible. I guess that's the point, though. Aren't we all just peasants with Bibles who answer to our King, and not to any man? May it ever be so.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Breaking News: Only sin will be forbidden by the church

Spring Valley, Calif.  - In breaking news from the Spring Valley congregation, evangelist Gary Preman has announced that only sin will be forbidden by the church in the future.

At the Labor Day Meeting 2013, Preman said "Our admonition is not to forbid anyone from doing anything, unless it's a sin."

The author of the Stanton Church of Christ blog says that this is a significant change from past teachings of the church, which are largely based on 45 years of church tradition.

"Church traditions and the opinions of church teachers are not properly called 'doctrines' in church nomenclature," according to the author of this blog, "but are called 'judgments.' So it remains to be seen if this new 'judgment' will work its way through the church into next year's March Meeting to establish the following year's church doctrines."

In any case, he says church watchers have nothing but commendation for the new policy.

"Many people inside and outside of the church are excited by this change in policy, because it means hundreds of unbiblical church prohibitions, like wearing blue jeans to Bible class, men wearing shorts, or traveling out of town over a Sunday without permission from a teacher, will be scrapped in favor of purely Biblical teachings on sin," he says.

He notes that there are hundreds of church members waiting for further information on this new teaching to learn whether it was misspoken or represents a permanent change of direction.

"It is unclear whether Mr. Preman will be reprimanded for this public departure from church policy, or even whether the church noticed it."

This story will be updated as new information arrives.

Update: The following lists of rules, among others, are expected to be reviewed for compliance with the new policy. A full report will be expected in March 2014.


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