Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Pattern or Passion?

I grew up in Churches of Christ. I have followed the restoration principle all my life. I have learned the “pattern” from childhood. But I can’t defend it! It is a deeply flawed way to read the Bible, it is inherently inconsistent, and inevitably divisive. In February I had one of those hinge moments – a small thing that changed how I think. I was teaching a class, and asked the question, “How does this ancient teaching manifest itself in the modern church?” I was hit with a barrage of objections to the phrase “modern church.” It’s not one of our authorized code words. They wanted me to say “New Testament church.” My answer was, “look around the room. There’s the modern church.” But we were talking on two different levels. The “NT church” is code for a church that has restored the pattern of worship, doctrine, and life precisely as outlined in the NT. I no longer believe we can do that. I still believe in faithfulness to scripture of course, but the history of restoration movements is so full of disunity, sectarianism, anger, and contention that I don’t want to perpetuate it. Anyway, common sense dictates that restoring the NT church in the 21st century is impossible! Which church should we restore? Jerusalem? Antioch? Corinth? Rome? Those are all different expression of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. What about churches not listed in the NT record?

Thanks to Bobby Valentine for this research, here is a brief overview of the quest for the pattern among various Christians and what that pattern looked like to them. I think it is instructive to ask the specific questions of how and why the pattern they perceived has been different from what we have claimed the pattern to be.

Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531) was the great Swiss Reformer who sought to return to the purity of apostolic Christianity. Beginning in 1519 he announced that he would only be preaching from the New Testament. Zwingli soon became focused on the notion of "the law of Christ." With this in his mind he rejected vestments, images, mass, and introduced the primary motif for the Lords Supper that Churches of Christ still cling to – a strict memorial only. Zwingli introduced a hermeneutical principle that has had far reaching effects: the Regulative Principle. As used by Zwingli this principle simply states that whatever scripture does not explicitly command is forbidden. To illustrate how serious Zwingli was about this we need only look at his views on singing in worship. According to Zwingli the divine pattern only explicitly directs three acts of worship: preaching, prayer and the Lords Supper. But what of singing? Audible singing was to be rejected in worship on the same principle instrumental music was rejected - there was no authority in the divine pattern for it. After all, Zwingli argued, Paul commanded us to admonish one another "in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs" but he specified that the only music was to be "in your hearts." Zwingli felt that the pattern forbade public singing.

The New England Puritans were on a restorationist crusade. John Cotton (1584-1652) a leading figure in colonial American history was an ardent pattern seeker. His quest for the divine pattern was as strict as any in history. He wrote: “No new traditions must be thrust upon us but that which we have had from the beginning. True Antiquity is that which fetches its original from the beginning. If they have no higher rise than the patristic Fathers, it is too young a device. Live ancient lives; your obedience must be swayed by an old rule, walk in the old ways." (John Cotton, The Whole Booke of Psalmes Faithfully Translated Into English Meter, 1640) Cotton was committed to finding and reproducing the biblical pattern. So great was his quest for doing it exactly as they did it in "true Antiquity" that he agonized over whether Christians were to partake of the Lord’s Supper in the morning or in the evening. In 1611 he published, "A Short Discourse of Mr. John Cotton touchinge the time when the Lordes day beginneth whether at the Eveninge or in the Morninge." In this volume Cotton argued that evening is the truest observance for the Lord’s Day and the Supper because it had been set forth in "the first institution of time" and thus was the “old and good way.” Moving to a morning observance was to innovate and to depart from the "practice and judgment of the primitive Church." Cotton finally states, "I see no footstep of Christ or his disciples . . . that go before us in this path." That is the path of morning to morning rather than evening to evening. It is clear that Cotton was a devoted restorationist in an honest quest for the pattern of the church. In Cotton's pattern a group of men would test each other for doctrinal soundness and relate their conversions before starting a local church. Then they entered a covenant pledging to uphold the laws of God and the purity of the congregation. The gathered church selected a teaching pastor; ruling elders and deacons. Future members would be examined by the ruling elders then asked to profess their faith publicly and sign the church covenant. One more example of Cotton’s understanding of the pattern is his understanding of singing. Cotton, like Zwingli, rejected instrumental music though not congregational singing as did Zwingli. Instead, Cotton rejected any song written in post-biblical times. The only "authorized" singing in worship was that of the Psalms. Man had no authority to lift up his own tainted and unholy words to the throne, for Paul had commanded that we sing Psalms. To go beyond what was written was dangerous, it was to depart from the pattern. John Cotton was convinced that the churches formed under his leadership in New England were in fact identical to the New Testament churches. He writes that the churches are exactly as they would be if "Jesus were here himselfe in person."

The Baptists grew out of the Puritan movement because they felt the Puritans did not go far enough in the quest for God’s pattern. The New England Puritans still accepted infant baptism but the Baptists rejected this as against the pattern. Two Baptist theologians wrote treatises to demonstrate the true marks of the true church: Morgan Edwards (1722-1795) and James R. Graves (1822-1893). Edwards book was entitled "Customs of Primitive Churches" outlining what he viewed as the unassailable Baptist position as being the true New Testament church. Graves engaged in mortal combat with Alexander Campbell, whom he believed to be a Bible denying liberal! For Graves the true pattern was found in the Jerusalem church. He wrote, "The Church which Christ himself organized in Jerusalem is an authoritative model to be patterned after until the end of time. The Catholic and various Protestant sects were originated and set up many ages after the ascension of Christ. They are therefore not divine but human institutions." Graves sought to confront all, "human traditions, and mutilated and profane ordinances, and those who impiously presume to enact laws in place of Christ, and to change the order of his church." Graves claimed that his brotherhood was the one true church and that they alone were Christians. Graves stressed that each element of the pattern was of equal importance. Thus if a congregation fell short in only one area it was no longer a true church.

In our own movement (Churches of Christ/Disciples of Christ) Barton Stone was a primitivist, but Alexander Campbell had a different reason for restoring the pattern of the NT church. Campbell was an ardent postmillennialist (the view that human progress would usher in a utopian era that would lead to Christ’s return). That is almost a uniquely American view. Campbell believed that the church had to be restored before Christ could return. This extreme, motivated, argumentative patternism got out of hand a generation or two later. No one embodies this better than Daniel Sommer (1850-1940). He is responsible for the rabid, ultra-conservative, combative tenor and reputation of Churches of Christ since the split was recognized in 1906 – actually this man’s movement led to the split. In 1889 he held a meeting in Sand Creek Illinois, and issued a document called the Address and Declaration. It stated: “It is therefore, with the view, if possible, of counteracting the usages and practices that have crept into the church, that this effort on the part of the congregations hereafter named is made. And now, in closing up this address and declaration, we state that we are impelled from a sense of duty to say, that all such as are guilty of teaching, or allowing and practicing the many innovations to which we have referred, that after being admonished and having had sufficient time for reflection, if they do not turn away from such abominations, that we can not and will not regard them as brethren.”

How do we account for these radical differences? How do we evaluate one reconstructed pattern against the other? Should we be dogmatic like Cotton and Graves? Or should we dismiss these and others on the quest as dishonest? Should we claim they did not believe in Bible authority? What makes our pattern right and theirs wrong? What makes some things a mark of the church and other things not? Perhaps the pattern does not concern itself over the organization of the church but rather following the way of the cross in discipleship. Perhaps we should learn that often the pattern we recognize is more a mirror of the person reconstructing it than scripture itself. One lesson is that the quest for the pattern should teach us the virtue of humility. The quest for the pattern has resulted in harsh judgementalism rather than the love of Christ, which is the one pattern we must follow.


mike holder said...

I loved the line, "the quest for the pattern should teach us the virtue of humility."

If only it were so! Our quests are always tainted with the stain of our own importance. Our search for patterns, likes and dislikes, liberal or conservative, music or no music, womens role, length of the service, rear end slapping or no rear end slapping almost always centers on our desire to be in control.

How do we continually get caught up in binding what we have somehow convinced ourselves is right in our own feeble human minds on other people.

I sometimes long to be like the apostles who so often asked the stupid question of Jesus, once again showing how little they understood. Instead I (we), act like we are smarter than the average bear and have the answers.

What would the church look like if we loved like we are supposed to love, taught the resurrected Jesus, and admitted we know very little about the "pattern" of the First Century Church.

Brian England said...

[slow clapping]

Charles, good post. Mike, good comment.

Charles North said...

Mike - we would, ironically, look like the NT church! You may have stumbled on the true pattern by accident.

The Journeyman said...

Shouldn't we all be on the quest? I mean, isn't that part of the problem? Some have never even ventured out the front door. They are all too happy to follow the collections and writings of someone else's quest. Is it because they are scared to journey toward the cross, or are they just too lazy? Are they afriad of the truth they may find at the foot of the cross, or are they afraid of what they may discover within themselves?

Honestly, when will we each participate in the quest for truth? When we will preach the truth because it is the truth that we have discovered in the Word of God which he has written on our hearts, rather than recite the opinions that someone has inscribed on our minds for fear that we might actually attempt to encounter God on our own, in our own way?

Bill Jordan said...

I had my "hinge moment" about three years ago.

Call me dumb. Call me crazy. But I went wondering into the eye of the storm (on purpose) just to get a better understanding of how and why those who cling to patternism believe and think the way they do. I frankly wanted to hear "the other side." I really wanted to be objective and listen.

I sat listening from 9:00 a.m. to well past 2:00 p.m. and only twice heard the name "Jesus" or "Christ" used by any speaker. I heard it a few other times, but it was in the words of a song that was being sung. I heard the words "the church" over and over and over.

The theme of the day was, "Where we are now." The message was basically that churches of Christ were being led off in a "liberal" direction by "change agents" who have set up shop to please themselves and "destroy the church."

I wish I could tell you that something positive was said during those five hours. I wish I could tell you that someone said something encouraging during those five LONG hours. But the truth is it was five hours of grown men talking with such passion against people they were calling "brothers" that their faces were contorted and their veins were popping out.

The "amens" were endless. But every "amen" was the response to an endless defense of "the church" as an institution. There never was any indication that "the church" had any connection to Jesus or to God. After five hours I'd had more than enough and got up and left. I'd found my answer to "Where we are now."

Where we are is in two very different camps. One camp worships the institution they call "the church." The other camp is searching for a way to build a relationship between themselves and God and they use Jesus as their bridge.

What I witnessed that day made it clear to me that those who did the speaking and sent up all those "amens" had placed their faith in "the church." And as hard as I've tried, I've still not found a scripture in the Bible that assures me "the church" ever was, or ever will be, worthy of my faith. This thing we call "church" is just a bunch of people like me who mess up, sin, can't be counted on and generally won't sacrifice much more than the cash we have in our pockets.

I didn't so much witness a pep rally for "paternism" (even though that was their cover) as I witnessed a pep rally against anyone who would dare question the institution they worship. And believe me the cheerleaders had the troops pretty lathered up by the time I left.

I don't really believe there are that many of the "paternism" troops who subscribe whole-hog to their pattern protection plan anymore. As a group they are more intense on winning the battle with anyone who's not a defender of the institution. A lot of them can't tell you what they are "for" but they can sure tell you what they are "against."

I'm sorry, but that just doesn't sound like what Jesus called us to be.

Charles North said...

Welcome aboard "Journeyman" (cool name BTW). I was having a conversation with someone and I said, "well at . . . such and such church they do it this way . . ." The person stopped me and then these words actually came out of their mouth, "We should stop trying to copy other churches and get back to being the church of the NT." Irony defined!!!

Brian England said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Brian England said...

Welcome to the forum. I do have a couple of questions in response to your comment. Forgive me, I'm just trying to figure out exactly what you're saying. Are you suggesting that there is nothing we can learn about God from the men/women of faith that have come before us? Are you suggesting that none of us need help in reading/interpreting scripture (or do you believe that the only help we need is the Spirit?)? Or, are you simply suggesting that each of us might encounter God in different ways?

Bill Jordan said...

I hope we won't throw all the babies out with the bathwater. We should also be ready to acknowledge that some good things came from the teachings of Stone, Campbell and others with strong ties to the restoration movement. As Charles pointed out, some of the real problems or things we disagree with came from a second and third generation of preachers / teachers associated with the movement.

Rather than rail on and on, what are some of those "good things" in your opinion?

Joe D said...

I have some real ambivalent feelings about all of this. I agree with you 100% that the idea of searching for a pattern is almost fantasy-like. However I am so uncomfortable even discussing the subject on a public forum. And even the fact that I feel uncomfortable at the thought of publicly discussing these issues makes me all the more uncomfortable. My soul has never been quieted by the thought of searching for a specific pattern within the text of the bible on how to do things based upon what was done in the 1st century. You might be able to pull bits and pieces out of context of how things were done at that time, however clearly there is no explicit and expressed full pattern from which to copy. Yet we search for one as if it is hidden like something akin to the Da Vinci Code. Why would something so important be so obscure and incomplete that would require us to fill in the blanks and be subject to wild interpretation. And why would something so important be so equivocal that it would naturally lead to conflict, divisiveness, anger, ego and the splitting of God’s church? The answer seems so simple, yet we continue to search as if there is going to be some epiphany reached and we will all be enlightened. It doesn’t even make good common sense if you take a step away from your entrenched teachings and think about it.

I have often wondered if it boils down somehow to assurance. Follow me here--- In the churches of Christ, we have, in our past, preached and taught against assurance (even though it seems pretty clear that you can have assurance). I suppose that it has been our fear that we might say something that will sound like “once saved, always saved”, but we have EMPHASIZED the notion that you CAN fall from Grace and that you simply can not know that you are saved at any point in time. I have never had comfort in that notion myself. It is clear to me that you CAN KNOW that you are in the grace of God and safely within the confines of salvation. However in our quest to FIND assurance (and I would think that it is our innate desire to find this assurance) we have created a “false” assurance in DOING right and FOLLOWING the pattern set before us in the 1st century. We may have ascribed to the notion that if we follow the pattern, we will garner assurance, thus salvation. However taken to the extreme, we also use ‘the pattern theology’ to decide who is and who is not within of the pattern and we judge harshly and accordingly. We find our assurance in not only doing right, but also deciding who is in and who is outside of the “straight and narrow”. And as long as decide and convince ourselves that we are doing right and that we are OBVIOUSLY better than those who violate the pattern, we find assurance--- even though we can’t say it out loud. I know it is a bit of a stretch, however it is a thought I have had for a long time and in my mind it has been confirmed many times over by poor theology and teaching.

I grew up in the churches of Christ and I have never been comfortable in the pattern theology. Moreover, I have always cringed when hearing someone say anything like the churches of Christ were the only New Testament church, or that we were somehow the only ones going to heaven, or that we were the only ones that taught the truth. It makes my blood boil just typing the words. I wrote in some response n the last couple of days to another blog that we have been about the business of excluding rather than including in my life time. This is another stark example of that.

Anyway, I have debated in my mind for several minutes whether to publish this or not. It’s only my opinion and my raving anyway. I am not normally fearful to speak my mind or state my thoughts, however we are treading on hallowed and sacred ground and saying these things out loud—and in written fashion—can be disastrous. I WOULD like to say that I am proud of most parts of my heritage. I know that many good things have happened and occurred as a result of restoration and the history of the churches of Christ. We have always been convicted at least, we have been studiers of the word, we have expected a lot out of our people (mostly a good thing) and the list goes on. I am grateful for the teaching I received from parents, grandmother, Bible school teachers, mentors and leaders, however the subject of this blog has always given me some heartburn along the way.

Charles North said...

Here are some very good things. The restoration movement was born out of a desire for Christian unity and recognition of our common humanity across denominational lines. We were not born to segregate ourselves from other Christians; we were born to call all Christians together to celebrate the one Lord, one faith, and one baptism we all share. But our movement quickly grew into rebellious adolescence, and alternate voices sprung up. People began preaching that we got it right and the others have it all wrong; we have finally reestablish the first century church in the modern day. This rebellious, arrogant voice grew and grew until the rebellion seemed to be the norm. But this has never been the only voice in Churches of Christ. We were born with a different spirit, and that spirit of unity has continued to live on. Though our movement has never been perfect, we have always been very diverse. The voices that discourage us are not, and have never been, the only voices. Though one could tell the history of Churches of Christ by telling stories of fights, debates, withdrawals of fellowship, name-calling, church splitting and other forms of divisiveness, this is only one side of our history. Since the beginning our movement has been a voice of hope.

The Journeyman said...


Thanks for the questions! There are plenty of "good things" that we can learn from the men and women of faith that have come before us. I wouldn't even be where I am today in my faith had it not been for the "help" I received in learning to study and appreciate Scripture. What I am saying is that I am sick of hearing the same answer every time change begins to happen in a church. I am sick of hearing the same answer every time we even begin to hint at making the slightest changes to "tradition." I am sick of hearing, "That is just the way we've always done it. That is the way my grandfather did. That's the way he told my daddy to do it. And that is the way my daddy told me to do it." Then when you ask why? "I don't know, that is just the way we've always done it."

I just long for the day when every member deeply desires to be a part of the quest. I would like to know that everyone is diving into Scripture, studying, and searching for God's truth. Will they need help along the way? Certainly, we all do. But I would like to think that they are not going to adopt a point of view just because someone else wrote it. Hopefully, they will read it, absorb it, and contemplate on it before they just "run" with it.

Maybe it is all wishful thinking, but I do know of some who have changed their views on long-standing traditions of the church. When I asked how they adopted a different perspective, they said, "I finally stopped accepting everything I have been spoon-fed all my life and opened the book!" That is my point!

Brian England said...

Thanks Journeyman. I'm a little slow at times--thanks for the clarification.

Joe, I think your reluctance to discuss matters such as these is a good example of bearing the "pain of leadership" in our tradition. As someone who is not an elder, it is much easier to talk about such things on a public forum. It is a shame that leaders such as yourself cannot be more transparent in discussions like this for fear of retribution from the "brotherhood mafia." The people who have taught me the most over the last 7-8 years were people that I have had serious disagreements with on matters such as this. Theological diversity should be embraced, even amongst our leaders.

Charles North said...

The "Brotherhood Mafia!" I haven't heard that phrase since Jeff Walling coined it at the 1996 Tulsa Workshop!

Ryan said...

Great post again Charles. I'm liking your blog more now that you are free post your thoughts on important Christian issues.

I have thoughts on this but as I am at work I'll just say very insightful.

Charles North said...

Thanks bro!