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Friday, October 14, 2005

The Spiritual Discipline of Love

The past couple weeks have been really hard. This job in New Orleans is all about long hours and stressful days. I enjoy the work, but the “higher ups” don’t make it very easy to do your job around here. Files come in and then are taken away, you get a hard copy of a claim but no electronic – which means you can’t write anything…which means that you can inspect the house but can’t turn in a report, and thus can’t get paid. And then there is the really frustrating “paying your dues” aspect. I’ve been humbled by going from positions of management (running this stuff down here is kinda like running a youth ministry or an extended work camp…its certainly not as hectic as Kids Corp!) to being treated like a worthless nothing. The “supervisors” don’t necessarily have any supervisor training…they’ve just been adjusters for a long time. So they ask for my help fixing their computers, learning new programs and even sending emails – but then refer to me as “little boy” or ceremoniously pretend I’m not in the room…or tell me to leave the room so that the grown-ups can talk. I don’t mind doing menial tasks as the low man on the pole, but I’m reaching the limit of ability to keep my very well-sharpened tongue in its cage.

In the midst of all this I have been reading some exchanges between early leaders in the Stone/Campbell Restoration movement for my Restoration History class at ACU (last class…comps next week…graduation in December!!!) This past week I stumbled across a series of essays over the concept of unity and how to treat others who profess Christ and yet have different understandings of what that means.

I also found a modern-day version of this debate between a friend of mine and a website of “Watch Dogs”…protectors of the Faith. "Watch Dogs"...what a conundrum of a name! I visited their site and it was sadly familiar. I greatly respect the desire of these folks to protect the Church they love. However, like we often experience with adolescents, love must mature beyond insecurity or it isn't actually love at all. When teenagers (and immature adults) are “in love” their relationship is often characterized by insecurity and jealousy. This is often viewed as protection of the beloved. However, in truth the motives here are more self-centered than other-focused. I don’t mean this in a defamatory way, but rather to point out the natural need for an intentional and continued maturation process. Love does not envy. When true love is present, fear is driven out and we can act and react from a standpoint of patience, compassion, peace and trust rather than suspicion or anger.

This love should drive us to protect, but only when an intruder is threatening our loved ones. The problem we run into with our situation is that “Watch Dogs” seem to begin from an assumption that “everyone” is an intruder and should be treated with suspicion…you have to earn the right (through agreement to a certain party-line, proper doctrinal stance, etc) to be called family. But family (supposedly loved ones) are still family even if don’t agree with them, so treating them like an intruder because you don’t like what they say is not love. It is, at best, an immature infatuation.

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Sidebar: You’ll notice that I’m not using any specific references to names or websites. This is not because I’m afraid or want to shout critiques from the corners. However, my goal is not to debate, confront or offend any specific person or group of people. My goal with this blog is to engage ISSUES that relate to Spiritual Formation and/or Youth Ministry. Like everyone, this is a learning process for me. One thing I have learned is that people expect critiques to be leveled at an individual and it is very hard to convince them that you are attempting otherwise. I don’t want to fight with anyone! This is not about individuals…it is about the larger ideas behind our individual actions.

Please note: words that are italicized, in bold or underlined do not suggest anger or aggression – these highlighting tools help important points to stand out from the rest of the text. Okay back to the Watch Dogs...
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These "Dogs" view it as their Christian duty to police the actions of others and report back to everyone else on just how wrong these bad/dumb/evil/etc people are…and why they should be reprimanded. While there may be a comment (which can often come across as offhand or insincere) about the imperfection of the Watch Dogs, a basic assumption is that they have a grasp on the height and width and depth of God’s nature, His Church and other humans’ actions. This to me seems wrong on so many levels. (Even the choice of "Watch Dogs" as a title...in Scripture, is it ever a good thing to be described as a dog?)

Interestingly, the Dogs seem to often espouse the rhetoric of unity. Unity seems often to be synonymous with ascribing to everything they believe. I stumbled across the blogs of some of these Watch Dogs just yesterday and, as always, I wish I’d just navigated away from the page as soon as I realized what it was. However, like a motorist on 635 craning my neck to see an overturned car in the other lane, I read on. A sour mood hung like a cloud over the rest of my evening.

The Unity movement - one of the fundamental tenets of the Stone-Campbell Restoration movement - seeks the unity of all believers under the banner of Christ. The Watch Dogs have shown me how dangerous it is to seek this unity on the basis of doctrine rather than behavior; of creeds (even the creed of anti-creedalism as in my own corner of the family tree) instead of conduct.

This doesn’t mean that doctrine or statements of belief are not important. Rather we should seek our unity based on the faith and following of Christ, and work out the other differences within the confines of a mutual love and respect shared between brothers/sisters.

Interestingly, these comments are probably enough to place me on the "bad list" with several of my brothers/sisters who are most ardent about unity.

I don’t intend to estrange or attack – though I admit my patience is tried by this subject. Neither would I ever suggest that everything is relative and that we should just chuck our convictions to the wind. However, I believe quite strongly that if I, or anyone else on this earth (Watch Dogs included) were judged on the basis of right doctrine and freedom from error, we would be undone. I hope that my understanding of God’s Law is maturing and developing along with my spiritual growth. With that said, I must then acknowledge the probability that there are things I am ignorant of or erroneous on at any given time which will require God’s grace.

It is much easier to find fault, raise defenses and circle the wagons than to truly seek "as much as it is up to us, to live at peace with everyone." As you pointed out Nate, we can easily come to believe that we are appointed by God to do the "guarding" and elevate our opinion to that of Sage and Prophet. The pride and seclusion that come along with believing we are our own ambassadors is difficult to combat. I’ve definitely seen that at work here in Louisiana. Without structure there will be strong ones who rise up and take a position like that of Watch Dog – without the necessary accountability or integrity. It is, to say the least, a stretch to think that if we all go our separate ways and study that we’ll all come to the same conclusions and consensus will be achieved. This is often described as trusting in the Holy Spirit or the Scriptures to clearly communicate the message of the Gospel with no “iffy” sections. However, this manner of discernment does not promote faith in God so much as faith in human ability and reason…we just don’t call it that. You can put religious or faith language on it, but we’re still talking about our ability to discern. The Unity movement, if based on human ability and reason, should be abandoned. If, rather, it is based on faith and hope in Christ’s interaction with humanity then it should be revisited, strengthened and supported with all that we are and all that we have. And then it should be proclaimed that there is indeed Good News for the oppressed, that it is Christ and not reason, doctrine or ability that will provide salvation.

16 comments:

Katie Morgan said...

i really really really really really miss you... and could seriously use a lunch date. church is insane... as i imagine your life is right now... im sorry your being put down, but remember that servitude is a really important part of christianity... even though it sounds like they are just abusing you. (they = the man). hopefully you will come back and visit soon... or else i may be forced to drive to wherever you are and make you picknick with me. jk i wouldnt do that... but a conversation would be nice. things are getting pretty discouraginng. pity really. hope to talk to you soon. - Katie

Seth said...

Bret,
As I read this post I was struck by something interesting. It wasn't really anything specific that you said, just the overall topic. I know that this subject is clse to your heart and, like me, you revel in the realm of the abstract and the theorhetical. However, you do also enjoy discovering those places where our thinking sinks deep enough to move our hands and feet. It is in this spirit that I pose a question to you. Is it possible to reach out to those who so recklessly guard that which they were never commissioned to guard in a Christ-like manner? If so, how do you do it? Or are they, as sad as this thought is, beyond the reach of our arms (though not beyond God's)? What thought might you have on the practical side of this coin?

Scott Hill said...

Seth, we have been commissioned to guard against several things, but mainly false teachers. The problem arises when some people ask questions such as "well how do you know they are false teachers?" or "why would you be so arrogant as to think your the only one right?"

This is the very thinking that has allowed heresies into the church throughout its history. The strange thing to me is that almost all heresies began out of good motives. We are told to guard against those who attack the gospel. That is usually those from in our own camp. Bret said even if we disagree we are still family. I say we are only family if we have the same Father.

At Fide-O we are not out to kick things for the sake of kicking, and Fide-O is not a church it is a blog. We have seen people taking this blogging thing way to serious, escpecially since 99.9% of those reading these blogs already claim to be Christians.

Bret if you want to know what we are about go here--> http://fide-o.blogspot.com/2005/10/why-we-blog.html

One of my favorite quotes is from Johnathan Edwards. Any given theologian is only 80% right. Now if Edwards can say that what does that say about the rest of us. I recognize that I will get to heaven and be found wrong on some issues, but I will defend what I consider to be biblical truth.

Kc said...

Bret I think Seth made an excellent point but it will take persistant patience as does anything worth doing. I pray God will strengthen you in your trials both in this and in your work. ;-)

Bret Wells said...

Katie,

I'm sorry things are going so rough for you guys right now. And I'm sorry that I'm not really around to be much help. Just remember that joy comes in the morning, and that I am thinking about you guys constantly.

I hope you know that conversation you, Seth and I had before all this happened - where I challenged you regarding your calling - is not something that I've forgotten. While that whole scenario won't play out quite like we discussed, I still hope that you are considering how you can redirect your time and considerable talents.

I still pray for you regularly.
-bret

Bret Wells said...

Seth,

I think that what you're asking is very important. However, there is a very real danger lurking between the lines. It is easy to begin adopting a stance, not unlike that which we are now critiquing, which assumes too much. It becomes almost natural to play the martyr role and believe that we are like Jesus, crying out for Jerusalem to be gathered under our protective wings. This is where the "tolerance" versus "conviction" debate takes off...This is sad because both of these are essential pieces to a faithful guarding of anything. We must have compassion mixed with resolve...justice tempered with mercy.

If we can somehow begin to live in such a way then I believe, as did the early leaders of the Restoration movement, that we will be more successful in creating a unified fellowship of believers...across denominational barriers.

Bret Wells said...

Scott,

I think your comments to Seth have much merit. In addition to heresies beginning with good motives, I would also add that often the "institutionalized" and even "fundamentalist" aspects of religion were at one time "radical" or even considered heretical. (For instance it was at one time considered an extremely liberal and un-biblical to be calling for the emancipation of slaves.)

I do not deny our calling to guard against heresy...and again I applaud the desire of those at Fide-O to protect the Church we love. However, I would say that we should be very cautious when declaring that someone else has a different Father. This can easily become a matter of the "eye saying to the hand, 'I don't need you!" 1 Cor. 12:21.

This is not to say that we should not have convictions, or that we shouldn't confront one another (IN LOVE). But lets not forget (and this is directed at least as much to myself as anyone else) that it was precisely those who felt confident in their roles as "protectors" of the true faith that Jesus rejected.

I appreciate your comments and yes I have read the above mentioned post regarding your blog's intent. I can't say that I fully agree with your approach but I appreciate your intention...assuming of course that intentions matter.

I agree wholeheartedly with your assertion that the web is not the ideal medium for evangelism...I don't think you should feel obligated to make that your primary intention. I also admire the desire for "becoming better men and being on the front lines of Biblical thought."

I'm not convinced as to the efficacy of focusing on "who is in error and who is leading the charge against truth." Someone recently on another blog asked about focusing instead on the issues that those "in error" are preaching. In doing so, it may be that people who were previously on the defensive may seek to engage the issue. I realize that my mentioning Fide-O in my post was an example of not doing this myself. I apologize.

As a large (225lb...dang Mexican food) naturally aggressive and opinionated male I can relate to your disdain for people getting "their feelings hurt" and demanding that you be more nice. However, I've really struggled a lot lately with the admonition to, as much as it is up to me, live at peace with everyone. I used to think that this didn't really mean I had to choose my words carefully...I just spoke the truth (or what I perceived to be truth) and if someone else didn't like the truth then that wasn't really up to me, now was it?

However, as I reread the text I am convicted that there is something very Christlike in choosing my words carefully. I'm not really good at it yet - there is still just so much natural aggression I have to contend with. But I'm learning that while the truth can at times have a bit of a "bite" to it, this "bite" can also become a crutch. I can use harsh language to shame my interlocutor into silence. I can use my sarcasm, wit or even anger to unconsciously stroke my own ego and sense of self-worth.

Those who read this blog regularly will remember a recent post of mine that could probably be described in that very way. While I know that I've learned a lot since then, I haven't exactly figured out the way to proceed. For the most part we are used to 3 camps in these matters - either we're going to be a spineless panzy with no opinion, an egotistical jerk with nothing but an opinion, or that guy who doesn't have a computer specifically so that he doesn't have to share his opinion with anyone! Therefore when something gets written down, we naturally try to squeeze it into basically 1 of 2 molds. That, like our affinity for debates and "winning" people to Christ, may have outlived its usefullness.

Jon Finger said...

Brett you are a man of wisdom and I pray and know that you are doing amazing. Also I am sure your family is well also. Keep up the brains and when you come to Abilene call me up so you can hit me.

Finger

Scott Hill said...

Bret thanks for the comment. I do agree that if Paul did nothing else it was to encourage us to live in unity among one another as believers. I am one of the worst about putting my foot in my mouth even when I am really trying to help.

My main concern is really for what I see as an assault against the Gospel itself. I believe according to Galatians 1:6-10 that we are perfectly justified in drawing lines in the sand when it comes to a defense of the true Gospel.

I do not handle my church members like I handle our blog. We have a lot of readers at Fide-O and they just sometimes get to read my latest rant. As I have said 99% of them are already believers and I presuppose that they know a little bit of theology going into this thing.

One of my greatest fears is that under the label of unity we will somehow allow the Pharisees and Judiasers to lead those astray who are not yet secure in thier doctrine. I believe this is the good fight Paul talks about in 2 Tim. If we are going to be soldiers of the cross I believe it is necessary to protect the Gospel. Trust me I am not going around looking for a fight, but recently I feel like certian groups have brought the fight to us.

Scott Hill said...

Oh, by the way I've got you by about 15 pounds, and I grew up in Mississippi so I have a true redneck attitude problem.

Seth said...

Perhaps I am merely ignorant about this, but I have a question. Where exactly are we encouraged to defend/guard the Gospel? I understand that we are to hold to the Gospel and enter into covenant with other Christians that we might encourage/guard one another. It seems as though "defense of the Gospel" leads only to isolationg (antithetical to the reconciliation of GOD through Christ). Is the Gospel itself needful of our protection? These questions come truly out of a desire to know this subject and how to navigate it faithfully.

Katie Morgan said...

heyoh!
hey... good to hear from you. i most def think about ways to redirect my time but since you left i really have no idea where to begin. pity really. billy and i have started talking and i think we are going to be spiritual check in buddies... hopefully with us talking about classes and their effects on us we will be able to come up with some helpful hints for charme. i still miss you though... and i do take comfort in the fact that you are praying for us all. i hope nawlins is getting better for you, cuz im prayin for ya too. Peace be with you, bret breterson.

Nate said...

Wow! Bret I am impressed! You got Scott of Fide-O to say more than "Woof!" to you. I guess I must have ticked him off. He sounds pretty interesting on your blog.

But seriously: Sorry to hear things are tough in New Orleans. But politics and pettyness is everywhere. My ordination track is rife with similar issues right now... so I empathize. I was told recently by the person one of the people in charge of my ordination process that all 12 years of professional youth ministry and social work experience is precisely as important as working at Starbucks. That was a little disheartening... But I digress...

You are constantly in my prayers, especially your wife. How is she doing? Is the pregnancy going OK?

Lastly, a substantive comment on your blog: You state that we make up a family even if we disagree. The way that one becomes part of a family is by birth or adoption. I think we both agree that we become a Christian by a baptismal "re-birth" which is the seal of our adoption into God's family.

So, here's the question: if we are members of the Church by nature of baptism, then what basis is there to ever separate from other baptized Christians? At what point does someone "leave the family"?

Bret Wells said...

Nate,

Thanks for asking about Rachel. I think she's feeling the strain of being pregnant, at home alone with a 2-year-old and not seeing her husband everyday for the first time in 5 years of marriage. Please keep praying for her.

The frustration definately continues around here, but I really do like the job. I think I'm out ahead of the learning curve and my goal is to keep it that way.

On to theological matters...

This question regarding the separation of members from the body is a really old one, as you well know. In addition to its role in the early Church, this conversation was at the forefront of conversations early in the Restoration movement. Can the Church divide? How much diversity is possible within orthodox (as we defined it) faith?

I think that some of our friends on other blogs would have a very simple straightforward answer - if someone is preaching a Gospel other than the one we initialy received then they are not a part of the family, they are a wolf. This is, for all intents and purposes a biblically supported stance. However it can easily become a default response to anyone with whom we disagree and it has led to what I believe is a terribly weak argument regarding the nature of these "wolves'" initial salvation. Perhaps for our own peace of mind and need to tie up loose ends, it has been purported that these folks were never really a part of the family to begin with - that they only seemed to accept Christ's rule. I think that this stance is very lacking.

Not everyone knows this, but I was adopted. My "step-father" adopted me when I was 18 (my sister was 14 and my brother was 12). He is my Dad. His name is now on my birth certificate. I am a part of his family. By necessity, I am no longer a part of my biological father's family. So with our adoption we enter into a family and are grafted into a new family tree. It is possible that I could later decide that I wanted my "old family" back (not going to happen, just an example). I could go the courthouse and arrange for my name to be changed once again, assuming that all parties were in agreement. I would then be regrafted...

So the language of family and adoption does leave room for someone to leave the family - only in an unnatural way and by their own volition. Contrary to my simplistic rendering, the process to reverse my adoption or enter into a new one would be extremely difficult, time consuming, painful, etc. I couldn't just say, "Okay, I'm changing back." and it be settled. Nor could my Dad say, "That's it, I changed my mind, I don't want you anymore." It doesn't work that way. So while I am willing to concede that it is possible for someone to enter the unholy and unnatural process of being adopted into yet another family, I must say that I believe it is much more difficult to enact than we sometimes seem to believe. It is not something we should be quick to assume about a brother or sister - odds are that what we're dealing with is a full-fledged family member in an identity crisis, in need of a loving confrontation, or (dare I say) possibly engaging in prophetic imagination that makes us uncomfortable to the point of wanting them to leave.

Responding to a substantive response with a metaphor is not really my style...well maybe it is, I don't know.

Nate said...

Bret,

Thanks for the response and the self disclosure... You and your wife and your baby are in my prayers almost daily...

Did someone tell you that a metaphor is not substantive? Hrrmp! All of theology is a metaphor... an analogy connecting two things that are radically different yet radically similar: the Creator and his creation.

I thought your metaphor was completely substantive and pretty well thought out too. I tend to have a more Augustinian-Calvinist stance on the whole "loosing salvation" thing (bad terminology, I know... but let's go with it for now). But my Calvinism comes through some Eastern Orthodox routes and heads out toward Karl Barth, so I actually have hopes that in the end we will all find ourselves elected, adopted, and in the family... not without scar, pruning, and discipline... but I have this not-so-secret hope that the power of the Resurrection and the stubborness of God's Love will bring about a destiny better than anyone could have imagined for all of us.

God bless you! And remember: if logic were so much better at presenting Divine realities, why did God incarnate use metaphors so much?

Alan said...

Hello everyone,

I'm a new poster here... I've been doing a lot of thinking lately about unity and how to pursue it. I understand the feeling that pursuing unity based on doctrine seems like a bad idea based on the historical record. However I have a hard time visualizing what unity means if it doesn't include consensus on at least a core set of beliefs. The difficulty is keeping that core from growing too large. I think the Bible itself tells us what the core beliefs are. Passages like Eph 4 and 1 Cor 15 come to mind. Perhaps the problem is that we often aren't satisfied with just those things being in the core, but want to put our own distinctive beliefs into the core also.

Another way to look at the question: God adopted me as a son when I was baptized. Everyone else he has adopted as a son is my brother. (forgive the gender specific pronouns ;-> ) I need to be united with everyone God has adopted as a son or daughter. One of Thomas Campbell's 13 propositions stated (in more verbose terms f course!) that the requirement for fellowship [unity] should be no more extensive than the requirement for conversion. I think there is some wisdom in that.

It appears to me that God designed the Bible to be understood gradually. If he wanted to spell everything out in checklist form he certainly could have done it. I think he gave us these questions to wrestle with for a reason. It wasn't an accident. We learn at different rates. We don't all learn the same lessons in the same sequence. So we all have different portions of the truth, and different areas where we haven't learned the truth yet. We need to be humble enough to recognize that the truth we know is not *necessarily* more crucial than the truth we have not yet learned.

I certainly don't have all the answers. But I want to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem.

Alan