Sunday, January 17, 2016

A Truth that Challenges: The Lens Through Which We Read

One of my mentors for many years has been Doug Foster. When I arrived at ACU to complete my masters degree years ago, Doug first introduced me to the history of our movement. For many years, Doug has taught Restoration History, first at Lipscomb University, then at ACU. Several years ago, Doug was teaching one of his classes at ACU. He began his first lecture, talking about the “Restoration Movement.” He mentioned names like Alexander Campbell and Barton Stone, names which you’ve heard me say more than once! Following that first lecture, a student came up to Doug with this statement: “I don’t care what Barton Stone or Alexander Campbell said. All I care about is what the Bible says.” Doug said he thought about several responses, but he finally said this:

“At least one reason you care only for what the Bible says is that Barton Stone and Alexander Campbell influenced you.”

He was right. The reason we care so much about the Bible is because those who came before us did. And the reason we read the Bible the way we read it is because people in the history of our movement trained us to read it that way. I want to share with you two important tendencies that have been handed down to us. We may not even know that we’ve been given these interpretive tools, but we have! They were given to us as a gift from people like Stone and Campbell and many others. And for over 200 years, people in our movement have used these two tools to read the Bible.

The first tool in our tool box has centered on this phrase: The “New Testament” Church. In a document he titled “Declaration and Address” (1809), Thomas Campbell, Alexander’s father, wrote:
The New Testament is as perfect a constitution for the worship, discipline, and government of the New Testament Church, and as perfect a rule for the particular duties of its members, as the Old Testament was for the worship, discipline, and government of the Old Testament Church, and the particular duties of its members.
The important thing I want you to see in what Campbell wrote has to do with the Old and New Testaments. Since those earliest days, we have relegated the Old Testament to the back burner (at best). Most of the time, we have ignored the Old Testament all together. Alexander followed in his father’s footsteps with his “Sermon on the Law” in 1816. This way of viewing the Old Testament was revolutionary and immediately rejected by nearly everyone. At this point in his life, Campbell was a Baptist, but not for long after this sermon. The Baptists “dis-fellowshipped” both of the Campbells. This position went against all other Christian reformers: Ulrich Zwingli, Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Knox, the Puritans. All of these folks advocated going “back to the Bible,” but none of them believed we should ignore the Old Testament. Here is why this is important folks. One thing that we have done in Churches of Christ that we have inherited from those who came before us is this: We’ve viewed the Old Testament as “really not very important.” What really matters is the New Testament! After all, we are the “New Testament Church,” which, by the way is where that phrase comes from. I’ll just lay my cards on the table and say, I think this was a giant mistake. The Old Testament is Scripture. In fact, for the first 400 years of the church, it was “The” Scripture. Remember that verse in II Timothy?
All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, showing mistakes, for correcting, and for training character. (II Timothy 3:16)
“All” Scripture is inspired. And what’s more, when this was written the “only” Scripture around was our Old Testament. The New Testament wouldn’t surface for more than 300 more years! When the early church read Scripture in their assembly, they read from the Old Testament. It was authoritative then and it is authoritative now.

There is another tendency of biblical interpretation we have inherited from folks who came before us. Have you ever heard the phrase “Command, Example, Necessary Inference”? Wow, if you weren’t asleep before, you might be now! O, but please stay with me, this is so important to hear. Remember that I said last week that in the beginning the people who led our Movement were so concerned about the unity of the church? The way they believed the church could finally have unity was by simply copying the actions of 1st century Christians:
"Let’s set aside creeds."
"Let’s push aside those denominational names."
"Let’s simply be Christians."
"And let’s look in the pages of the New Testament to see what they did."
"If they did it, we’ll do it!"
"If they didn’t do it, neither will we!"
"Surely, we can all agree on that!"
Then, all Christians will unite around that pattern of the church. Now, if they believed that pattern was so important, the key to unity, they needed to have a system to figure out what those earliest Christians did. So, they began to look through the New Testament in order to discern that pattern. If they were commanded to do it, then we’ll do it. If we have an example of them doing it, then we’ll do it. And if we can infer that they were doing it, then so will we. Think of it this way: the earliest Christians were commanded to be baptized, so we practice baptism. We find the example of the earliest Christians meeting on the first day of the week for worship, so, we also meet on the first day of the week for worship. Now, we know they met on the first day and we know that one of the main purposes for their meeting was to take the Lord’s Supper together, so, we infer that we should take the Lord’s Supper every Sunday (and perhaps only on Sunday). We’ve come to view the Bible, and especially the New Testament, as a pattern to follow, a blueprint that gives us the exact model for how the church should act. And that way of reading the Bible has had serious consequences.

If you open up the directory of Churches of Christ in America, you will see on the first page a legend or a key. There are congregations that use only one cup for communion. There are congregations that do not have Sunday school. Congregations that use fermented wine during communion. Congregations that support children’s homes. Congregations that use instrumental music in their worship services. Congregations that oppose the institutional support of other institutions, like colleges, para-church organizations, or children’s homes. We could list many, many others. Now, let me ask, how can a movement that began as an effort to unite all Christians end up with so many divisions? Church, it all comes back to the way we’ve read the Bible. Every division that has ever happened in Churches of Christ goes back to the way we read the Bible. And as long as we continue to read the Bible this way, looking for a pattern to follow, division will continue to be the script of our story.

The Bible was never meant to be read that way for many reasons. For one thing, there was great diversity even among those first century Christians, so, which pattern are we going to follow? History has proven, there is a great deal of speculation involved with trying to discern the pattern. Not everyone agrees on what those earliest Christians did! And as we disagree on that pattern, we divide! No one read the Bible this way for the first 1,200 years of its existence! And since people began to read it that way, division has been commonplace in the church. I don’t know how to say it any more plainly: We must begin reading the Bible differently.

Now listen, and this is so very important! When I say we must read the Bible differently, that does not mean the Bible becomes any less important to us. In fact, I would argue, we belittle the Bible when we treat it as simply a model for Church practice. The Bible is so much more. Above all, the Bible gives us a window into the character and nature of God. And folks, that is of utmost importance, because our mission in life is not to conform more and more into the image of the first century Christians. Our mission in life is to conform more and more into the image of God, and the Bible is the only place we will find a perfect picture of that image. By making the regular reading of Scripture a part of our lives, we, over time, come to understand better the mind of Christ. Paul writes in I Corinthians:
Who has known the mind of the LORD and who will advise him? But we have the mind of Christ. (I Corinthians 2:16 CEB)
Our world does not know God. And this book provides a beautiful, perfect picture of God to them and to us. We read about God to become more like Him. And as we then move into the world, God’s mission and mind come with us. So, together with God, we graciously help a fallen world stand up again!

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