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Was It Something I Said?

Was it something I said?

I guess it was, because last week – just between Thursday and Monday – nearly 16,000 people visited this site. What’s more, last Thursday’s post generated blog posts responses, Facebook discussions, Facebook notes, and hosts of other conversations. I was not privy to most of these conversations and did not want to be. From what others tell me, some conversations were healthy and good, while others, were, um, less so. Either way, I’m glad so many people are talking about the challenges facing my tribe (Churches of Christ), and many of these conversations will result in positive movement. At least, I hope that’s the case.

There is a strange, strange feeling that accompanies the knowledge that 16,000 people are talking about you. As a friend of mine said, “That’s about as Church of Christ viral as it gets.” The feeling is not what you think. I never felt offended or criticized or even popular.

I felt shocked.

I felt shocked because all the fuss and fervor were revelatory to me about the state of Churches of Christ. I figured these conversations were happening every week across the country. I clearly have no gauge about what’s controversial or not. Through all the fuss, I learned a great deal and perhaps, what I think I’ve learned is of deeper concern than those I spoke of last Thursday.

Here’s what I learned:

1. We’re A Deeply Divided Movement. The reaction, on all sides, to Thursday’s post was swift and passionate. This past weekend, in Churches of Christ, people were worshipping with instrumental music and in churches where women participate in public, exercising vocal leadership. At the same time, there were other Churches of Christ where such practices are believed to be a test of both faithfulness and fellowship. What’s more, there remain Christians in some Churches of Christ for whom the Church (or “church”) of Christ is the only faithful community and other Christians who reject that view as faithless sectarianism. All sides, and the believers in those congregations, believe these practices (women and instruments) reflect a faithful reading of the scriptures.

Here is the difficulty: As I said in Thursday’s post, both sides conclude that their arguments from the scriptures are the best arguments from the scriptures. Some – again on both sides- imagine their conclusions are the only faithful conclusions. Such being the case, when others arrive at conflicting decisions, we quickly jump to calling those who disagree with us stupid or false teachers. After all, if I’ve got the right decision and other people have the same Bible yet come to differing conclusions, they must be either idiotic or faithless. Years ago a friend told me, “Churches of Christ have already had a split, it’s just not been formalized.” Perhaps this is the case. What is evident is that there is a vast gulf in belief and practice and a sign that reads “Church of Christ” will tell you very little about what to expect on the inside a building.

2. We’re Spoiling For A Fight. Well, let me clarify, some of us are spoiling for a fight. Thursday’s post was my report concerning what I hear from ministers who are thinking about leaving ministry in Churches of Christ. It was not “99 Theses On What Your Church Should Do.” Tellingly, hardly anyone replied to my question about what they were hearing regarding ministers leaving ministry, yet hundreds of people responded to the “church issues” young ministers raise to me and whether they were right or wrong for doing so. As a group we skipped over the heart of the post and hurdled into a debate about the issues. At my church, the worship is instrumental and women participate publicly, but at no time did Thursday’s post advocate any other church do so. I’m a radical believer in the autonomy of churches. In fact, you might be interested to learn this: At least once a month, I’m asked by church leaders about adding instrumental services or “going instrumental” at their church. I have never once advocated they should. Ask around.

Yet just bringing up the issue, along with gender-justice, cut our more combative brothers and sisters loose. Also telling was the fact that once the issues were on the table, many brothers and sisters quickly ran to quarters. We huddled together on blog responses and Facebook groups and pages with the people we already knew agreed with us to lambast the other side, question their faith, name-call, and spew venom. I think, though I cannot be sure, that there are some people on all sides of these questions that don’t want to be associated with folks on the other side. It seems there are a number of people, regardless of whether they are traditional or not, who are just ready to have it out once and for all; a Church of Christ Civil War of sorts. We shoot scripture at one another as if those who disagree with us don’t own Bibles. Regardless of your position I can guarantee you this, those who take issue with your position do have Bibles and read them. They simply differ with you about the weight and meaning of certain passages.

3. We Have Differing Views About The Activities of Love. In some of the few posts I did see, I was charged with not “loving” the church. This is an easy branch for critics to grab a hold of, but is as fragile as it is easy. People who don’t love the church aren’t in the church. They aren’t serving the church nor interested in church. The most gracious interpretation I can muster is that when people say, “Sean doesn’t love the church,” they mean “Sean doesn’t love what I love about the church.” I can’t be certain, but I’m hoping that’s what they mean. I truly hope they don’t mean that anyone who is vocally critical of the church doesn’t love the church.

I’m  sure Jesus loved Judaism and loved the ways God called the Jews to worship. In the Lord’s life, He participated in worship and in His teaching and death He reformed it. Likewise, I’m sure the Apostle Paul loved the church. He both loved it and simultaneously refined it. I suspect Martin Luther, Alexander Campbell, and Martin Luther King Jr. loved the church; they all refused, however, to be silent about the inconsistencies and sin they saw inside the church. Silence cannot equal love. “Love it or leave it” is the flimsy refuge of those more fearful of change than in possession of an argument.

For those who disagree with someone else’s view on gender and/or worship practice, I can see how a potential change in those regards might be construed as unloving. But at best, gender-justice and worship styles are practices of the church and not actually the church. What’s more, regardless of your church’s present practices, you participate in something different than what Christians did centuries ago. In short, the practices, as beloved as they are to you, have not always been practiced. The practices of the church cannot be the church or equated with the church itself. If so, please sell your church building, learn Greek, and start greeting one another with a holy kiss.

Silence as love seems an untenable way to live. For instance, think about governmental systems. When you disagree with a policy, candidate or official and speak out and/ or work against it, is that “not loving America?” I think you’d say, it’s loving America. When your children have to be redirected away from people and behaviors that will hurt them is that “not loving your children?” Again, you’d say that’s loving your children. If your company is about to go under unless a serious corrective is undertaken, if you remain silent is that you “not loving your job?” Of course not. From the Hebrew prophets on down, silence concerning things that matter is far more likely to be the result of cowardice than a lack of love.

I’m glad that our fellowship of churches is talking about things that matter. Plus, I believe it is healthy for there to be robust debate, but the debate must also be fair. To the degree I was not fair in Thursday’s post, I apologize. I genuinely tried to be and those that know me well, I think, will testify to my spirit of openness and reconciliation. To the degree I upset you because you disagreed with the voices that pepper my ears with their words of distress, I offer all sides an opportunity to be a part of a passionate, open-minded, and fair debate.

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  • Yvonne

    Great follow up post. Starting the conversation is a way of showing your love for the church since we can only find unity by acknowledging our differences.

  • davidhimes

    An interesting sub-text to this post is how we use the Text as proof of our respective points of view. The fact that we can cite different references (and sometimes even the same reference) to support our interpretation suggests that we have not yet discovered how to properly utilize the Text.

    • Agreed David. One of the hard truths we all have to learn is that when we say, “The Bible says….” what we are really saying is “My interpretation of what the Bible says is….” Until everyone admits that, we will always be fighting. Unity begins with humility. A trait we all struggle with, I suspect.

    • SW

      Yes, this is very much the heart of the matter. In many ways, we have declared the NT writers (mostly Paul) as “new lawgivers” – something that I believe would horrify them. Paul spoke at length against reconstituting law when freedom was the very thing that Christ died for (not freedom to sin and not freedom to trample others – but freedom from the burden on law).

      God knows how to write detailed law, but that language is conspicuously missing in the NT. Why then do we think we need to hunt through the various writings to find it and piece it together from limited instructions given in a specific time and place? If these truly are immutable instructions, then Paul was guilty of violating his own law at times! David, I like how you used the term Text. A great reminder that Jesus is the Word. Yes, we need a different perspective on the purpose of the Text.

  • Mike Crow

    Although I don’t know (except for what I read), I hear your “heart” in your posts. I was interested to read and follow the comments from Thursday’s post. It’s been said, “Those in the Church will hurt those in the Church the most.” Perhaps that’s right.
    A few thoughts: 1) “…so far as it depends on you…” – not everyone wants peace; 2) I learn the most when I listen to others – especially those of differing opinions. Although we can agree to disagree, I can still learn. I’m commissioned to make disciples, not clones. BTW, I’m not part of a non-instrumental church and I learn much here; 3) We must agree on the essentials. But why choose to argue, fight, and spit nails over things that are non-essential? I realize a “Fellowship Test” would be different for many. But doesn’t it come down to love and grace?; 4) I think you’re right. The conversation is essential. And communication makes us a stronger tribe/community/whatever. Taking our toys and going home – never to speak again – isn’t doing the Body any good. Calling someone unloving, a false teacher, etc. simply because they disagree with you, isn’t helpful. In fact, it’s harmful. As Paul wrote, “Give no opportunity to the devil.” Jesus prayed for unity for a reason!
    I trust you’ll continue to lead the conversation.

  • Ron Dunagan

    Sean,
    Questions make people think. Don’t stop asking questions, they illuminate the real issues in any discussion. Until people can see the real issues there can not be any real resolution. It’s been my experience that God expects us to be loving to Christ’s body. I don’t think that a few questions are going to injure anybody and may even cause someone, like myself, to reassess previous beliefs. I may be wrong… but I don’t think so. Keep up the good work, Sean.

  • Maybe this falls under the sub-heading of “spoiling for a fight” but I sense many of us hearing bits of pieces of what is said that we don’t like, then completely blanking out on the rest so we can climb atop our pre-formed soapboxes and start the shouting and spittle flying. I agree that it seemed that so many heard “issues” more than they heard “ministers are wrestling”. I went to a Christian high school and my entire senior Bible class was about marriage. My teacher said a minimum of a thousand times: “Communication is very fragile.” I think that has increased ten-fold as we try to accurately express ourselves through screens and keyboards, skimming articles before we spew our mind.

  • Tim

    Sean, It was that post about why Church of Christ ministers are leaving spreading around that allowed me to find this blog. I’m thankful for it. I agree with your insight. I just can’t articulate it as well! I’ve often thought about leaving. Still do because of all the things you mention. What you say in this post is spot on! But ultimately, I just don’t get caught up in the issues. But my heart breaks at times for all the unchurched who are driving past us because we’re just not relevant. I’m grateful the congregation I’m involved in is growing more missional. And for that I’m thankful.

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