Tuesday, October 16, 2007

What is "Sound Doctrine?"

I’ve often heard the phrase “sound doctrine” used in church. Typically, “sound” means the opposite of “false.” So it amounts to the age-old right/wrong, true/false dichotomy. Of course, in this context “sound doctrine” equals accepted conservative beliefs on any issue. If you don’t agree, then your beliefs are unsound, wrong, and false. Along with the “law of silence,” this fallacious way of thinking needs to be debunked.

The phrase “sound doctrine” certainly is scriptural, but what does it mean? It is used, most notably, in 2nd Timothy and Titus. “You must teach what is in accord with sound doctrine” (Titus 2:1). The word “sound” comes from the Greek word we usually translate as “hygiene” or “health.” It is a medical term. So sound teaching/doctrine is healthy doctrine. What is the opposite of healthy? Unhealthy! Not false or wrong. The “unsound” doctrine being promoted on Crete was very conservative (Gentiles had to follow the Jewish law), but profoundly unhealthy for the body of believers. Paul’s view was liberal/progressive, but it was healthy or “sound.”

In the modern church, a lot of doctrine is unhealthy. Ultra conservative views about worship, music, marriage and divorce, woman’s role, leadership qualifications, etc. are radically sectarian, divisive, hurtful, and unhealthy for the body. This comes back to the questioned I’ve raised before: Does religion make people better or worse? If a belief or doctrine causes you to act less rational and less kind, then that belief is unhealthy. This is so ironic because some of the most unsound (unhealthy) doctrine I’ve ever come across thrives in church environments where they are constantly defending their “soundness."

Friday, October 12, 2007

The "Law of Silence"

The default hermeneutical position among conservative Churches of Christ is that biblical silence is prohibitive. This is a radical position that holds if God said nothing about some doctrine or practice in the New Testament, then that doctrine or practice is excluded, and to go against this “law of silence" is to sin and risk your salvation.

The obvious example (here I go feeding the fire again), is that there is no direct reference in the New Testament to instruments in a corporate worship setting. Therefore, according to this “law of silence," the use of instruments is sinful – not just a matter of preference, but sinful! The fact that these excluded practices do not dishonor God, or prove to be spiritually harmful to the church, is irrelevant. The only concern is the contention that the scriptures are silent with regard to the practice in question, regardless of the merit or worth of that practice. Period! End of discussion! Biblical silence equates to only one thing: exclusion! I grew up with this hermeneutical stance as my default mode of thinking. But now I repudiate this “law of silence.” It is a deeply flawed way to read the Bible, it is inherently inconsistent, and it is dangerous because it is necessarily divisive. Some people will say I am being argumentative, or calling names, or feeding the fire, but it is time to rise up and challenge the absurdities of this way of thinking. Here’s an example of the inherent inconsistency of this way of thinking – the four cups of wine in the Passover. (I want to thank Al Maxey for a lot of the research on this topic.)

Exodus 12 talks about the establishment of the Passover. After specifying when it would be celebrated, and the various elements of the meal, God said to Moses, “This is how you are to eat it: with your cloak tucked into your belt, your sandals on your feet and your staff in your hand. Eat it in haste; it is the Lord’s Passover” (Exodus 12:11). Just three verses later the people of God are informed that it was to be celebrated “as a lasting ordinance.” God was very specific as to what He wanted included in this memorial feast. However, God never mentioned anything to drink. The Passover was constantly referred to in scripture as a feast during which Israel would eat the meal; they were never urged to drink anything. The Bible is silent about drinking anything during this feast. So, if we were to apply the “law of silence" to this situation, we would have to forbid as sinful any form of drink being added to the Passover feast. After all, I’ve heard it taught that hamburgers and coke are “unauthorized” for inclusion at the Lord's Supper. Would consistency not require the same conclusion regarding the addition of wine to the Passover? In addition to the command of God Himself regarding the Passover, we have several biblical examples of the Passover being celebrated by Israel. In none of these Passover observances is there any mention of wine. Even in 2 Chronicles 30 (in which the people of God “ate the Passover contrary to what was written”) there is still no mention of wine being consumed. There is not a single, solitary word anywhere in the Old Testament that speaks of wine being connected in any way with the Passover.

By the time of Jesus, however, things had changed. Rather than being eaten “in haste” (Exodus 12:11), it had become customary to eat it while reclining at a table. This is how Jesus celebrated it. Another innovation was the addition of drink to the Passover as part of the ritual. Four cups of wine had been added by the rabbis to the Passover celebration. These were not just for the purpose of washing down the food,” these cups of wine were purposefully added for their spiritual significance to the feast itself. The Jews themselves admit that these cups of wine were a rabbinic tradition, and thus were not originally part of the divine commands. The use of four cups of wine during the feast had become mandatory, and crucial to the significance of the feast itself. What exactly is the purpose and significance of these four cups of wine? They symbolize the four activities of God described in Exodus 6:6-7. The four cups represent God's saving activity, one cup for each of God's sovereign acts as He fought against Pharaoh. Clearly, the use of four cups of wine during the Passover celebration was not something that was prescribed by God. It was a human addition to a God-ordained commemorative feast.

If silence prohibits, and constitutes sin, we have a problem! Jesus embraced the practice of the four cups of wine! In the gospels it seems that Jesus instituted the Lord's Supper by associating it with the third cup of wine. It was known as the “cup of redemption,” linked in rabbinic tradition to the third of the fourfold promise in Exodus 6, “I will redeem you.” Jesus associated this cup of wine with His atoning death. If the “law of silence” is valid, then Jesus violated it. If violation constitutes sin, then Jesus sinned by worshipping God in an “unauthorized manner.” Furthermore, Jesus worshipped in synagogues, and celebrated the Feast of Lights – both innovations that are not mentioned in the OT. And yet to this day people will, seriously, not celebrate Christmas as a “religious holiday” because it is not “authorized” in the NT!

Jesus embraced and utilized the four cups of wine, he worshipped in the synagogue, and he celebrated Hanukkah. Jesus demonstrated that innovation and addition are not necessarily wrong if that to which they are added is not negated or replaced or diminished by the addition. In other words, the four cups of wine in no way negated, replaced or diminished what God had prescribed in the Passover. The things which God commanded continued. The same is true with singing. By the addition of musical instruments, one does not, in any way, replace, negate or diminish the heartfelt expressions of devotion by those singing. Singing continues to occur. It still comes from the heart. It is time for this “law of silence” to be cast aside, and for rational minds to approach the task of biblical interpretation and application in a more serious and humble manner.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007


People who really know me will tell you that I hate being called arrogant! I will snap your head off! I am confident, bold, opinionated, headstrong, perhaps stubborn, but not arrogant. I grew up in a culture of arrogance. Apartheid era South Africa was ruled by the worst kind of self-righteous arrogance. The "blacks," "Afs," "kaffirs," "terrorists," and "commies" would NEVER take over "our country." And then before we could say "Botha who?" Nelson Mandela was out of prison and being sworn in as president.

My religious upbringing was seasoned with the same kind of absolute certainty. We Church of Christ folks had ALL the answers and ALL the right doctrine. I had a sense of both implied and explicit superiority that only certainty can bring. Ever since I can remember, I have known we were the only ones going to heaven. I was never proud about it, but I knew it. I was a member of the "Lord's church." What a burden to be so chosen. I, like the zenophobic Jews of old, actually thanked God that I was born into a Church of Christ family!

I don't want this post to turn into a forum to debate instrumental worship, but it is the hinge on which my comments swivel. In the October issue of the Christian Chronicle, a group of Church of Christ preachers calling themselves "NewTestamentChurchToday.org" took out an ad called "A TIME TO SPEAK." It is a statement opposing instrumental worship signed by over 300 preachers. Listen to these excerpts: "We are for a cappella singing because we are CERTAIN it pleases God." "We are for a cappella singing because we are CERTAIN that this was the practice of the early church." "It is right to use a cappella singing in worship. No one questions the practice of a cappella singing. The same CERTAINTY cannot be applied to the use of musical instruments. A cappella music is safe." "We refuse to move from a position of CERTAINTY to a position of UNCERTAINTY."

Here's a parable. (This is a true story) The Godfrey brothers grew up in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. They loved the ocean. The sea was in their blood. They loved to go out in the bay to fish. They knew EVERYTHING about the sea. They knew the tides, the river mouths, the sand banks, the rock shoals, the currents, the way around bird island - these guys had certainty when it came to the sea. They knew it all. You couldn't tell them anything. Well, one day the cod were running out in the bay. So they rushed down to the docks, loaded their boat and took off - not knowing their fate had been sealed! They forgot to put in the 2 small rubber plugs at the back of the boat. While they were cruising, the water couldn't come in, but as soon as they stopped that boat and cut off the motor water poured through those holes and started flooding the boat. Before they knew it, the back was flooded and the motor went under, flipping the boat upright. Not being able to hold on, the 2 brothers decided to swim for shore. No one ever saw them again! Later the police found the tip of their boat bobbing on the ocean, and once it was towed in they soon discovered that a very small and seemingly insignificant oversight had killed these men who KNEW EVERYTHING about boats and fishing and the sea!

The lesson is a biblical one - pride always comes before the fall. Do not trust absolute certainty. Question your religious and political and military leaders who make hubris boasts. Rome would never fall, the Titanic could not sink, America will never lose a war, and we are the only ones going to heaven!