Friday, February 28, 2014

The Bible Says It: Part 2

Last week Zack Hunt posted an article at The American Jesus about bad theology. The article was prompted by the death of Jamie Coots from a snake bite. (If you didn't already know, Jamie Coots was featured on the reality show Snake Salvation on National Geographic Channel.) His death is tragic. I don't plan to criticize Jamie Coots' practices or pretend I'm superior to him in this post. Rather I plan to point out how that "the Bible says it; that settles it" doesn't work for anyone, snake handler or not.

Zack points out that this tragedy is a case where bad theology directly led to death. That's a true point. He goes on to point out that bad theology often leads to harm and death to others, not just those who subscribe to the bad theology. Another true point. A main point of the article is that nobody does just what the Bible says. This summary from the article is spot on and is the point I want to emphasize in this post.
So, never forget that the truth of the matter is you’re not simply doing what the Bible says to do.
You’re doing what you think the Bible says to do.
And that’s a really, really important difference.
This article reminded me that I wrote a post with a similar main point a while back and said I'd write more. As background for the rest of this post, I encourage you to read that post, titled The Bible Says It; That Settles It. I mentioned in that post that I had 30 or so examples of times that many Christians who say they "just do what the Bible says" really don't. Nobody just does what the Bible says. Nobody even just does what the New Testament says. 

We all have times where we say, "The Bible says ..., but that doesn't mean ..." 

So, here are four more examples of "but that doesn't mean". 
  1. Since I began with a reference to Jamie Coots, I'll start with this exception that's invoked by most everyone who isn't a snake handling Pentecostal. The Bible says (Mark 16:17-18) that signs will accompany those who believe, including picking up serpents with their hands, drinking deadly poison without harm, speaking in tongues, and healing the sick. But that doesn't mean that believers can handle snakes, drink poison, speak in tongues, or heal the sick. I'm not arguing for these things. I agree with this exception. I think Jamie Coots is an example that this verse at least did not apply to him. I don't believe it applies to me, either. My point is this: You and I don't just do what the Bible says. (Neither did Jamie Coots; he had his exceptions, too.) An interesting thing about this passage is that in the churches I've been a part of, Mark 16:15-16 applies to everyone for all time (even though it's addressed only to the apostles), but Mark 16:17-18 does not (even though those signs are for believers, not just the apostles). The reasons given that verses 17 and 18 don't apply are complex and nuanced. You have to prove that miraculous powers could only be passed by laying on of apostles hands (impossible to prove). Then, you have to prove that all the apostles are dead and that there were only the original 12 plus Mathias and Paul but no more apostles (not an easy task as we'll see next). You have to prove that the only purpose miracles served was to "confirm the word". And finally, you have to prove that the canon is closed. In short, you need extra-biblical sources to build a complex case that the Bible doesn't mean what it clearly says. And many make this complex argument while claiming the Bible is simple and we "just do what the Bible says." I'm not very familiar with snake handling Pentecostal theology, but it wouldn't surprise me if they more or less ignore verse 16 while building an identity based on verses 17 and 18. The truth is that we pick and choose from the Bible, often choosing some verses while disregarding others in the same immediate context. We all do. You do. I do. As long as a person refuses to admit this, a discussion about interpreting and applying the Bible is a futile waste of time.
  2. The Bible says that Barnabas was an apostle (Acts 14:14), but that doesn't mean Barnabas was an apostle. Some say that there were no more apostles besides the original 12, Mathias, and Paul. Limiting the apostles to these "official apostles" is key to a few anti-charismatic arguments. Some insist that Barnabas was indeed NOT an apostle no matter what Acts 14:14 says. Neither was Titus (2 Cor. 8:23) nor Epaphroditus (Phil. 2:25) nor Timothy nor Silas (1 Thes. 2:6). Even the mention Junia (Rom. 16:7) may get you burned at the stake. There is no way SHE was an apostle. Some insist that there were twelve plus Mathias and Paul and that is all. In these verses that call others apostles, "apostle" doesn't mean "apostle". The Bible calls those people apostles, but it doesn't mean they were apostles. Some deny that these people were apostles while claiming to "just believe what the Bible says." The arguments against these other apostles require some knowledge of Greek, something you'll only learn from a source external to the Bible. When can we admit that we don't "just follow the Bible"?
  3. Another verse that non-charismatics make an exception for is this. The Bible says (1 Cor. 14:39) "do not forbid speaking in tongues" but that doesn't mean we can't forbid speaking in tongues in our assembly. Speaking in tongues is absolutely forbidden in every church where I've been a member based on a dubious interpretation of 1 Cor. 13:8-13. This interpretation does grave injustice to the theme of the resurrection in Paul's writings. To dismiss 1 Cor. 14:39 based on that forced interpretation of 1 Cor. 13:8-18, you have to prove that the canon was under consideration by Paul in 1 Cor 13. You have to prove that the canon is closed, which is impossible to do without extra-biblical sources. Then you run into the problem of when exactly the gifts ceased. Did they cease when there were no more people alive who had received gifts from the apostles (here we are faced with that messy apostle problem again) or was the Spirit involved in preserving and settling the canon? I hear the same people insisting that spiritual gifts ceased after the death of those on whom the apostles laid their hands also insisting that the Spirit guided the selection of the books to be included in the New Testament. I'm sorry, but you can't have it both ways. Either the gifts stopped and men selected the canon or the gifts continued and allowed the Spirit to select the canon. Anyway, some indeed forbid speaking in tongues, flatly disobeying what 1 Cor. 14:39 says, all while claiming to "just do what the Bible says."
  4. And finally for this post and finally on the anti-charismatic theme. (There probably are more on this theme, but these are all I plan to write about.) The Bible says in Acts 2:38 to repent and be baptized for the remission of your sins and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. But that doesn't mean you'll actually receive any gift of the Holy Spirit. This verse is one that is cut in two by so many. The Christians I know who (rightly, I might add) emphasize the role of baptism quote the "repent and be baptized for the remission of sins" more often than almost any other verse in the Bible, but they typically ignore, stutter, say "um, uh, um," about the "gift of the Holy Spirit" part. Unless the gift of the Holy Spirit is just salvation itself they typically have no idea what to do with this last part. According to their theology, if this "gift of the Holy Spirit" means that you'll have anything from the Holy Spirit in any way except for memorizing the Bible, you shouldn't expect it. But the repent and be baptized part of that verse is the centerpiece of soteriology, more often quoted than even John 3:16. On the other hand,  those who are more charismatic take the second part of this verse and lean on it, and sometimes equate a miraculous experience with salvation. These people practically ignore the "repent and be baptized" part. They may even substitute a "sinner's prayer" for baptism while overemphasizing the "gift of the Holy Spirit". Many go so  far as to say that if you haven't had a miraculous experience, then you haven't been saved. (I often wonder who gave them the authority to say who is and who isn't saved.) Not surprisingly, both sides claim to "just do what the Bible says." But neither side really does what the Bible says. Neither side really accepts a plain reading of just this one verse.
I want to be abundantly clear here. I don't subscribe to charismatic theology, especially not charismatic soteriology or liturgy. I'm not saying that the "but that doesn't mean" exceptions in this post are right or wrong. I'm saying that we all sometimes have to say, "But that doesn't mean." I have my own "but that doesn't mean" exceptions. I admit that. I don't "just do what the Bible says". Neither do you, no matter how convinced you are that you do. That's my point. Can we please stop saying that we "just do what the Bible says"? It's an arrogant claim. It leads us to say that anyone who doesn't do exactly what we do just doesn't care what the Bible says. I assure you that I care very deeply what the Bible says and it's insulting and rude for someone to say that I don't. Also, it would be insulting and rude for me to say that you don't care. This "we just do what the Bible says" is a dangerous manifestation of pride.

Several years ago I heard a sermon about fellowship. The preacher said that he was asked about where he draws the line of fellowship, and he said that he doesn't draw lines. He said God draws the lines and he just searches to find where God has drawn the lines. I vehemently disagree. He draws lines because he doesn't fellowship everyone. So, he draws lines where he thinks God has drawn them. We must get this difference. What you believe about the Bible is just that. It's what you believe about the Bible. Your lines are just that. They're your lines. They're not God's lines. My lines are just that; they're my lines. They're not God's lines. For me to claim that my lines are God's lines is dangerously proud.

It's a subtle step to go from "We say what God says," to "What we say, God says." While proudly claiming the first, "We say what God says," I'm afraid many have unconsciously made the step to the second, "What we say, God says." That subtle step makes a HUGE difference, and it can be avoided by understanding that there is a difference between what you think God says and what God actually says.

Don't confuse what you believe about the Bible with what the Bible actually says. They're different. For every single one of us, those two things are different things.

Before two people can have a productive discussion, both must admit that they're interpreting the Bible, not "just reading it". You lean on what others have taught you and so do I. You lean on what you already know, and so do I. You and I lean on the work of scholars, even if we don't think we do. (Who translated the Bible to your language if not scholars? If you can read the original language, who taught you if not scholars? If you lean on a lexicon, who wrote that lexicon if not scholars? Etc.) We come to a better understanding of God by community. I depend on others to help me understand better. I hope that I'm able to help others understand better. This community is a beautiful, God-ordained blessing. Let us never get to the point that we believe that we are the ones helping and not receiving help from others. Let us never think that we are the only source of truth and that we are God's only true mouthpiece.

And by the way, there are many more of these exceptions.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

"Why They Left" Survey

Dr. Brad Harrub and others at Focus Press put together a survey last year to learn more about people who left the churches of Christ and why they chose to do so. They compiled the results and published a summary in the December 2013 issue of Think Magazine. By popular demand, they have made the December 2013 issue available for download for a mere $2.50. It was well worth it to me to purchase and read the results of that survey. I do recommend that you order water instead of a soft drink at your next restaurant meal and take the $2.50 savings and buy this issue.

The survey was quite broad. Focus Press claims that they had the largest sample size ever for a survey of former members of the Church of Christ. Admittedly, the survey ended up being better than I expected. I think the survey could have been better if they had gotten professionals to help them word their questions and then gotten professionals to help them interpret the results. Overall, though, the survey was admirably done and provides some interesting information.

I'm not a professional at writing survey questions and interpreting the results. I have written and interpreted several surveys and I have done so with the help of professionals in the past, so I'm not unfamiliar with the process. This survey really interested me, so I'll share some of my conclusions for what they're worth.

There were 25 questions that were reported in the December issue.  I won't go into all 25 questions, but there are a few that really stood out to me. The three questions that stood out to me the most were questions 17, 20, and 10.

Question number 17: How much Bible training did you get in your home?
Home Bible training of those who left the church of Christ
If the sample is representative of those who left, then over half (51%) of those who left got significant Bible teaching at home. So it's reasonable to conclude that over half of folks who are leaving are not ignorant of the Bible. Further confirming this conclusion is question number 20, which asks how often respondents attended Bible class at the Church of Christ. Nearly 60% (59.8%) always or frequently attended Bible class at the Church of Christ. The folks who are leaving generally are not untrained. Over half know what the Bible says and they know what the Church of Christ teaches.

Now, combine that with question number 10 which says: "Rank in order the things that turned you away from the Church of Christ." Based on the fact that over half who left the Church of Christ had significant Bible training, it should be noteworthy if doctrine is a leading factor in this response. Check it out below.
Higher number means more significant factor in leaving
Hypocrisy is not surprisingly the most significant factor averaging 7.4 out of a possible 10. People leaving other evangelical churches are also citing hypocrisy as a big reason for leaving. This is a problem in churches of every kind and was a problem in Jesus day as well. Hypocrisy is simply a human problem. Leaving church won't separate you from hypocrisy. I'm not saying that we should just accept hypocrisy. It is a problem and we need to acknowledge it and repent. I'm just saying that it is not a problem unique to the Church of Christ.

It caught my attention, however, that the ubiquitous problem of hypocrisy is practically even with the next two reasons, legalism and doctrine that was taught. There isn't a close fourth. Both legalism and doctrine averaged 7.3 out of a possible 10. Legalism is a form of doctrine and an attitude toward doctrine, so the next two are directly related to doctrine. Given that many who left know the Bible, should this not at least give reason to pause and perhaps reexamine the doctrine that is taught?

Most people who know and believe the Bible disagree with the doctrines of the Church of Christ.

There were a couple of more open ended questions that allowed the respondents to answer the question in their own words. Questions like "Why did you leave?" and "How would you describe the church of Christ?" Not surprisingly based on my observations up to this point, many of these responses talk about doctrine. In addition, I noticed that many of the responses not only mention doctrine, but also emphasize the attitude that the Church of Christ has toward doctrine. Here are a few sample responses from those who left. These are not my words. These come directly from the survey.
The legalism snuffed out every ounce of true joy I had in knowing Christ, until I got to the point where I couldn't remember what I loved about Him.
Arrogance of leaders who seemed to not read the entire Bible, yet were quite convinced that they had ultimate knowledge and authority when taking Scripture out of context for their own agenda.
Works oriented. Very poor understanding of grace. 
Self-centered. Harsh. Judgmental. Condemning.
A legalistic law loving church. 
Of all the Christian churches I've been involved in over the years, none preach more divisive hatred than Church of Christ franchises. 
Judgment and hypocrisy. Overall feel was very reminiscent of the Pharisees, very legalistic without the heart of Christ. “In spirit and truth" was quoted, but focus was entirely on truth (black & white rules, God is a well understood box) and lacking in spirit. I also listened to entire sermons on how other groups (Catholics, Baptists, etc) are doing things wrong and going to hell. What happened to worrying about the plank in our own eyes before trying to take out the speck in another's? I also was made to feel like a second class inferior citizen simply because I'm female...and I'm not even a feminist type! I was a 4th generation Church of Christ member, with a grandfather and a dad as an Elder and Deacon. 
Many more like that were published, and I would guess that there were many more that were not published.

The Scottish poet Robert Burns once said, "It would be a gift if God let us see ourselves as others see us." The Church of Christ has now been given this gift. The question is, "What will they do with this gift?"

There are some churches who recognize that the Church of Christ has been guilty of harshness, legalism, and clinging to traditions of men and elevating those traditions to the status of what is written in the Bible. These churches are abandoning their judgmental and condemning ways. They're reexamining many long-held Church of Christ doctrines and changing their positions. I applaud these churches and hope they will continue this change in spite of opposition by other churches. They are using the gift for good.

Many others seem to be choosing instead to blame those who left. I've already heard and read things about those who left like, "They are ignorant of the Bible." (Though I think the survey results show that is not generally true.) I've heard, "They just want to do whatever they want and don't care what's right." I've heard, "So and so left because he's too educated or too smart to accept the truth." Some have said that those who left are just bitter people. Others have quibbled over the definition of legalism, suggesting that "legalism" doesn't really mean anything or suggesting that legalism is a good thing. (About legalism, I may not be able to precisely define it and set exact parameters for what is legalism and what is not, but as Justice Potter Stewart may say, "I know it when I see it.")

Another response to those who left that I've heard is perhaps the worst offense. It is insulting. It is an obvious shift in blame and an obvious trivialization of a person's very real experience. I believe that the people who give this response really do mean well, but the words are harmful. This worst offense is something like this, "Your experience is unfortunate, but it is unique and not all churches of Christ are like that." Or maybe it is said like this, "It's just that church. Westside (or Smith Road or Central or whatever church this person goes to) is not like that." Again, I think the broad sample and the consistency of the responses in the survey show that many churches ARE "like that" and that a negative experience is actually quite common. What this response fails to account for is that people are leaving for the same reasons from churches all over the United States. And more than likely, the church said to be not "like that" is indeed more "like that" than its members realize.

These and other responses of this sort are an attempt to shift blame and exonerate the Church of Christ. Some even take pride in the fact that they're running people off, citing passages about a "remnant" and a "narrow gate". It seems that people leaving and the shrinking numbers in the Church of Christ somehow in their mind validates the "trueness" of the doctrine.

Taking this blame shifting approach demonstrates a belief that the Church of Christ has no need to change what it's doing to run people off. This blame shifting will ensure that it keeps running people off. Are some who left ignorant? Are some who left trusting in man's wisdom over God's wisdom? Are some who left not really concerned with what the Bible says? Are some churches worse than others? Of course the answer to all of those questions is "yes". Some of the survey responses indicate all of these. However, the majority of responses that show that many are leaving because they believe the Church of Christ is guilty of having made-up rules and harsh enforcement of those rules. Among people leaving are preachers, deacons, Bible class teachers, and even some elders. Simply put, the Church of Christ is losing some of its best Bible students and some of its most spiritually minded people.

So what can be done to fix it?

It's obvious that doctrine is a factor for people leaving the Church of Christ. Based on my experience, based on my discussions with people who left or are considering leaving, and based on the responses in this survey, I believe there's another factor. It seems to me that people aren't leaving the Church of Christ primarily because of its doctrine. I think it's the combination of the doctrine and the attitude toward the doctrine. Put another way, people aren't leaving so much because they believe the Church of Christ is wrong. It's more that the Church of Christ is wrong but doesn't believe it's wrong.

My overall observation after reading the results of this survey and after reading some of the findings of Flavil Yeakley from his 2012 book Why They Left: Listening to Those Who Have Left The Church of Christ, is this. The Church of Christ desperately needs to reevaluate its doctrine and its attitude toward its doctrine. Good Bible students and faithful servants of God are leaving because of the way they're treated over doctrinal disagreements. These questions should be asked, "If they're good Bible students and faithful servants, why are they reaching different conclusions? Is it right to be dogmatic about those differences?"

I'm not saying that doctrine should change just to keep people. That's not what I'm saying at all. Not even close. What I'm saying is this. When most of the people who are leaving are very good Bible students and they're citing doctrine and attitude towards doctrine as the reason for leaving, shouldn't that get someone's attention? Shouldn't that be a red flag that the doctrine and the attitude toward the doctrine are possibly wrong?

Is the Church of Christ truly open to the possibility that it is wrong on some things? My experience and the experience of many in this survey show that generally, the Church of Christ is not wiling to admit its own errors, especially doctrinal errors. If they don't admit their errors, how can they ever overcome them and grow to be more like Him?