Atonement and the Stone-Campbell churches

This last week our class focused on inspecting the atonement theories we grew up with and then how those theories effect our ministries today. Since all of us have grown up in the United States in the last half of the twentieth it was not a shock that everyone had the primary theory of penal substitutionary atonement as central to their understanding of the cross. For some of us, as we went to some form religious undergraduate work, the idea of King Jesus’ victory over the demonic power and authorities has become more pronounced. And for a smaller number, the concept of theosis, or divination, has begun to play an important role in our understanding of God’s atoning work. I was surprised how often a singular teaching on atonement was stressed for many who had been raised in a local church. As I thought back on my childhood in my home church I began to recognize some distinctive characteristics about atonement in my own context of the Stone-Campbell churches I’ve come to appreciate.

First and foremost, the primacy of studying the Scriptures meant every one of the theories I have studied in this class was something I recognized. While we never identified 1st John 3:8 as a Christus Victor text, we certainly believed that King Jesus had triumphed over the demonic powers of Satan in this world. While we never called Galatians 3:13 a penal substitution text, we believed King Jesus took our place of punishment under the curse of sin and made us right with God. There could be other examples, but the point is that in our church’s dedication to the study of the Scriptures we simply accepted the text was telling us the truth no matter how many different metaphors the text used. While I don’t remember even the word “atonement” being used in my growing up years, we accepted that the cross was a multifaceted reality that had to be expressed in multiple ways for us to even begin to understand the work God had done through and in King Jesus for us.

The second thing I noticed was how the Stone-Campbell dedication to the sacraments of baptism and communion had the effect of rooting our understanding of salvation into community, history, and the physical world. While there was no doubt we wanted to go to heaven, especially when there were those suffering in sickness or heartache among us, there was a dedication to recognizing that King Jesus was ruling over this physical world and the outcome would be for the people of God to resurrect together to be with our King and God for eternity. This focus toward the world was often, sadly, warped into dispensationalism where God was acting in the world through end times prophecies and political action, such as elections and wars. But still, there was a “creational earthiness” as I grew up that challenged the evangelical escapism of heaven so common in American Christian culture that I can only attribute to the redemption of our bodies with and through the physical sacraments.

Lastly, the Stone-Campbell churches have always stressed obedience to King Jesus as the highest form of holiness. While some traditions of Christianity stress dedication to the liturgy or the importance of existential “Spirit” experiences, our churches have always held to the study of the Scriptures for purpose of learning to obey King Jesus. Comedic in its own way, the churches can easily fall into strange mixture of anti-intellectual and Gnosticism. They see knowledge of the Scriptures as bringing the person closer to God (“The more you know, the higher you go!” and proof texting in the worst ways) but they are also weary of academia as they wisely sense education is used by many to subvert the call to faithful, holy life.

The Stone-Campbell churches’ Scriptural saturation, sacramental “earthiness”, and stress on faithful obedience to the life of the people of God as revealed through King Jesus create an understanding and expectation for atonement to be something participated in by Christians rather than simply done on behalf of Christians. The cross forms a people, a kingdom, and the churches themselves. The atonement is seen as the work of King Jesus that results in our lives being able to express his presence in our lives. While there’s plenty of tweaks that need to be made in the area of theological language and cohesive teaching, these will only add a depth to the wide heritage of faithful participation in the atonement completed in the body of King Jesus on the cross and then poured in his kingdom-churches, his body in the world.

This idea of atonement deeply shaped my own teaching and ministry. My whole teaching career in ministry I’ve stressed participation with King Jesus, the presence of the Spirit, and graciousness in the constant call for obedience to the faith. While in undergraduate studies the Spirit gave me the gift of leading an intentional community of faith as one of my ministries. I can only describe this period of my life as a veritable Garden of Eden. There were plenty of challenges over the seven years of our community’s life, but the presence of the Spirit through our communal study of the Scriptures, the partaking of the sacraments, and the constant striving to obey King Jesus in life together created something that I cannot really begin to describe. What I can say is that every family and person connected to that community was fundamentally reshaped to become more like King Jesus than they were before. The Spirit has worked through our lives in amazing ways that simply would not have been possible if we did not live that communal adventure together, an adventure highly impacted and shaped by my own inheritance provided by my life in the Stone-Campbell churches. I would not say I grew up learning an atonement “theology”, rather I would say I grew up with an atonement way of life, and for that I’m grateful.

Book Review of Larry Hurtado’s “Destroyer of the gods”

The week before classes I chose to read through a book on my shelf I’ve been waiting to have time for just to get the academic juices pumping again before the semester began. The book was Destroyer of the gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness by Larry Hurtado. It has been a number of years since I had read Hurtado’s book How on earth did Jesus become a god? back in undergrad, but the enjoyment of that book prompted my excitement for this one. Destroyer of the gods did not disappoint me. The clear prose of the sections, the lack of literary or academic fluff, the rigorous notes for further readings, and the quality of the summaries on ancient social or religious practices were phenomenal.

The premise of the books lies in the reality that non-Christians, both Jews and “pagans”, deemed Christian belief and practice as dubious as best and societally dangerous at worst. Hurtado gives a number of examples of how Christianity was not something that was seen as a religion in the ancient context. These were beliefs that overrode ethnic ties to gods, nations or citizenships, and even common behavioral norms. The intent of Christians was to include people, any and all people, into a community of beliefs and practices that placed demands on those newly converted that would reshape what it meant for them to exist in ancient society.

Hurtado’s examples of this intentionally crafted counter-cultural behavior begins with the Christian emphasis on translocal, transethnic inclusivity as a part of what it means to be religiously affiliated with Christianity. Hurtado posits that there was no such idea as voluntary religious identity. A person’s religious identity was subsumed within their ethnic identity and more personally, the family ancestors. Beyond the expectation that a person worship their ancestral spirits or ethnic gods, there were expectations that a person would worship the gods of the locality in which they resided. Polytheism did not demand any form of exclusivity. Even Jews were caught in this perspective since it was their ethnicity that gave them the pass of being strangely against worshiping other gods than their own. Christians took their Jewish heritage and expanded it to into radical new territory, inviting any ethnicity to join but demanding they reject participation in any other form of religious practice or event. In such a way Christian created the distinctive idea of religious identity separate from ethnic or social identity.

The next major focus of Hurtado is on the bookish nature of Christianity. The early Christians were prolific compared the ancient people around them. Their works of literature and their religious letters were far larger than anything except the most celebrated ancient texts. Christians were dedicated to teaching one another through the written word as read in the communal meetings. Christians didn’t just distinguish themselves from groups in the ancient world by their content alone, they also separated themselves from the surrounding cultural and society by the form of their bookishness. They began to use the codex bookform in much higher frequency, in fact seeming to prefer this looked-down-upon bookform almost exclusively for the Scripture readings in the churches. As they focused on codex technology they also developed liturgical reading styles that were evident in the reading of the texts, such as abbreviations and emphases.

The last area of Christian distinctiveness Hurtado focuses on is the social behaviors of Christians. Christian groups put considerable effort into creating language and concepts that reshaped the behavioral life of the new convert. The particular areas of this is seen in the honor and dignity given to infants and children, a rejection of violence as entertainment, and strict sexual behavior, specifically expected of males. Pagan religion did not concern itself with the person’s ethical life but was focused on the rituals and practices expected to be adhered to because of traditions, ethnicity, and locality. Christian obsession with the lives of their participants was distinct and unusual.

My personal take away from this book is the unbelievable willingness for early Christians to purposefully craft a way of communal life that stood in direct opposition to the prevailing culture of the Greco-Roman world. They were radically inclusive in their invitation to any and all peoples, but at the same time this radical inclusivity was meant with a radically exclusivity in order to distinguish themselves from Jews who did not follow King Jesus and pagans. How might Christians in this contemporary period learn from the first few centuries how to be as clear about the boundaries of Christian identity, yet still lovingly offer to never withhold entrance into that communal identity?

I think particularly of the sexual issues plaguing American Christianity in the twenty-first century. Might Christians learn against to make unbelievably strict, and even “immoral” to the American society, demands on the sexual behavior of those who desire to participate in our communities of faith? Christians must again begin to craft purposefully insider language that will seem strange and distinct from those outside of the Christianity. The culture of America must become unpalatable for Christian identity to reside within, though we may live beside it in a way that condemns it by our own loving and holy behavior.

I easily recommend reading Hurtado’s Destroyer of the gods for the education of the early churches found in it, but I highly encourage reading this for the conviction it brings about in the Christian reader. May we honor this tradition of inclusive exclusivity as essential to Christian identity. Even more than honor, may we begin to live it again.

Book Review of David Fitch’s “Faithful Presence: Seven Disciplines that Shape the Church for Mission”

Dr. Fitch is a mission focused academic, and there is a lot of confusion, in my opinion, about the relationship between the church’s identity and its mission in most missiological studies, but this book is less about the concept of mission as such. Rather Dr. Fitch works through seven practices he believes should begin to be understood again as sacramental: Eucharist (referred to as the Lord’s Table), Reconciliation (historically called Confession), Proclaiming the Gospel, Being with the “Least of These,” Being with Children, the Fivefold Gifting (APEST), and Kingdom Prayer. Faithful Presence is an exploration of these practices as a way to empower the local community of faith with the presence of King Jesus to fulfill the mission given to the kingdom of God.

Key to Dr. Fitch’s idea of these disciplines is that they are social sacraments. It is less about physical quality of being and more about the space actively created in the participation of these moments in the relationships of those involved. This space, Dr. Fitch contends, brings in the presence of King Jesus, and this is what changes all of creation and empowers the local church to fulfill its mission.

Coupled with this idea of being social sacraments, Dr. Fitch proposes there are three modes of expressing these sacraments in our relationships: close circle (church family), dotted circle (Christians living together in neighborhoods inviting non-believers), and the half-circle (Christians in non-Christian contexts). He believes that the presence of King Jesus is just as present in the community potluck and the conversation at a bar as it is at Eucharist. This is possible because of the quality of the sacrament resting in its social element between the believer and the other person.

There are many stories and exegetical explanations, both cultural and scriptural, throughout the book to help these points which must be read to get the full grasp of Dr. Fitch’s arguments. There were slight historical and textual issues I had with a handful of sections, as should be expected, but overall the argument of the book, that the local church must understand and use communal practices to open up a space for the presence of King Jesus to be empowered to complete the mission, is vitally important and true.

The most powerful chapters for me had to be those over the Lord’s Table (chapter 3), the practice of reconciliation in the relationships of those in the community of faith (chapter 4), and understanding preaching as distinct from teaching (chapter 5). The case for being with children (chapter 7) lacked any real substance to me other than the history of the church demands that we catechize children because they are raised in Christian families (and in many traditions already baptized as infants or very young children). The idea that being with the “least of these” (chapter 6) is a powerful idea that needs to be worked out more as a reality of sacramental being before I am comfortable to connecting, what many would assume, general social justice work as a sacrament.

There are some major issues from my perspective with associating the Fivefold Gifting (chapter 8), or more generally called APEST as taught by Alan Hirsh, and prayer (chapter 9) as sacraments. There is no doubt that exercising one’s gifting and prayer can be sacramental moments that God uses to be with the Christian, but these are just not places where such moments are promised. I believe this is key to understanding sacraments.

My working definition of sacrament for the last number of years has been intentional participatory moments with King Jesus which he has promised to his kingdom. There are a number of texts in the New Testament pointing out that not all prayer to God is heard, even if in the name of King Jesus,[1] let alone always bring in his presence. The same is to be said for the idea of APEST gifting. Personally, there are too many contemporary issues reading back into Ephesians 4 for me to be academically comfortable with the way many use the idea of gifting in APEST. There are also exegetical issues with the rendering of the distinctions and how they function as authority and leadership in the community of faith. All that to say, I see no promise that the exercise of a gift denotes the presence of King Jesus. If anything, Paul seems to critique the Corinthians on issues of the presence of pride and disorder in their gifting rather than the sacramental presence.[2] In my understanding of sacraments, I can’t grant such status to the use of spiritual gifts or prayer, even if they are both often a sacramental moment in Christian life.

As an interested student of the work of Rene Girard, the idea of the sacrament’s social dimension of being is something I can easily get behind. Andrew McGowan also references the social focus of early Christian practices, particularly the importance of the community’s participation in Eucharist.[3] But I would point out that the early Christians’ had a deep emphasis on the real presence of King Jesus in a way that can only be given contemporary language as biological (whatever that might mean for us must be worked out).[4] Is it enough to simply have relationship or are we saying the Christian is sacramentally the very body of Jesus, not figuratively, but actually is the biological expression of the Spirit of King Jesus? From my studies the social and biological aspects of human being (and therefore human presence) cannot be separated. Space by and in the sacraments must be space for both elements of presence.

Faithful Presence is an exciting exploration into some of the practices of the local church seeking to bring in the presence of King Jesus. This conversation is deeply needed in free church Protestantism. Dr. Fitch lays a necessary foundation for these free churches to begin developing a perspective about their practices which views them as spiritually invested, and not simply “from the bible” and common sense. As American culture continues to become more disagreeable to Christian life, these communal practices of the presence of King Jesus will become the anchors of Christian life and be vital to the kingdom’s existence in our context.

[1] Mt. 7:21; 1st Pt. 3:7; James 5:16

[2] 1st Cor. 12-14

[3] Andrew Brian McGowan, Ancient Christian Worship: Early Church Practices in Social, Historical, and Theological Perspective (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, a division of Baker Publishing Group, 2014), 32.

[4] Ibid., 47.

Book Review of Stuart Murray Williams’ “Post-Christendom: Church and Mission in a Strange New World”

In our class, Mission-Shaped Church with Dr. Fitch, the first book we read was Post-Christendom: Church in Mission in a Strange New World by Stuart Murray (Williams). Since our class focuses on culture, church practice, and mission this was a good first resource for many to begin to understand the conversation. Murray writes in an extremely accessible way, providing a good amount of information while not bogging the reader down with too much academic conversation.

Murray is surely at his best when he explains contemporary cultural trends he is experiencing in the cities of Britain. Americans tend to view Europe as ahead of the curve on issues of religious degradation and so treat such statements as near fortune telling about the coming American context. I tend to think this a perspective that should not be taken, but I can see the appeal of Murray to this mind set.

Related to his cultural exegesis is Murray’s questions and statements about what church life should be like within such a post-Christendom culture. Here is the fruit of Murray’s book. He believes churches must become more intentional in all parts of church life and practice. Particularly the areas of relationship between politics, money, other religions, care for the poor, and attempts at creating space for those who have been rejected by the majority of society and live as the marginalized in our Western contexts. Murray is spot on when it comes to the issues that must be addressed, but this less innovation and more identifying the same issues King Jesus addressed (which I think Murray would happily agree with).

Yet, most of what Murray writes in Post-Christendom is presented as a history lesson. The book becomes an evaluation of the changes that occurred in the Church when Constantine stopped the Great Persecution, funded the Council of Nicene, and the empire became Christianized. The development of Catholicism in relation to the empire is seen as highly scandalous to Murray and he seeks to show how there was always some true Christians who fought the system.

But it is precisely here in the arena of history that Murray goes astray so often. Murray presents a highly bias approach to historical events. While this is understandable to a certain degree, often his account of historical situations reaches into the intentions of the people rather than what can actually be known. I will give just two quick examples. The first example is Murray’s conversation about infant baptism.[1] Here he essentially devalues the theological conversation that took Augustine decades to work through to a simple rationalization for churches to provide a citizen ritual for the empire.

Augustine’s conclusions about infant baptism was born out of deep philosophical, exegetical, and pastoral work that convinced him that humans were passive recipients of both sin from parents and then saving grace from God. It was this passive human nature in relation to spiritual reality which led him to teach that infants could receive the sacrament of baptism because grace is never bargained for it is always received gratuitously. I have not been able to find any indication that Augustine was concerned about imperial citizen practices in this conversation, and there was no obvious collusion between Constantine’s desire for a unified Christian empire with Augustine’s theology of grace and baptism one hundred years later.

The second example is Murray’s praise of the Donatists as faithful Christians who didn’t want to collude with the empire and their new imperial civil religion (Catholicism).[2] But this was not the real issue at all with the Donatists. During the Great Persecution under Diocletian there were some bishops who denied the faith. There began to be an argument, particularly in Africa, that the sacraments became invalid if the bishop who presided over them denied the faith later. So then people would have to become re-baptized or re-married or confess sins again because their bishop left the faith. The majority of the bishops around the Roman world came to the conclusion that the sacraments are promises of King Jesus and are valid no matter the personal situation of the person presiding over them. They also forgave some of the bishops who had denied the faith and allowed them to teach again. This is when the Donatists left the majority of the church and claimed the Catholic church was wrong and sacraments had to be done by the right people.

The Donatist controversy is important because it helped us understand the objective reality of the sacraments as promises from God through King Jesus. They are not defendant on the purity or integrity of church leaders because King Jesus promises to be near to those seeking his presence. Being with God through the church is based on the purity and promises of King Jesus. This is important theological truth and the heart of the issue when remembering the Donatists.

Over a hundred years after the controversy began, Augustine forced the Donatists to return to the Catholic church by using force to shut down their churches. Yes, the Donatists didn’t like the empire because the historical issues were rooted in the Great Persecution, but the foundational opposition of the Donatists was not as an anti-empire movement. Rather the Donatists were a church division based on wrong theology of the sacraments and church authority. They should not be used to prove the point Murray is trying to make, in this case “anti-imperialism” by faithful protest movement, because the Donatists were most basically religious legalists. They were willing to separate from empire mainly because the empire wasn’t on their side of the theological and authoritarian argument.

My take away is that Murray brings up interesting points about contemporary culture and possible practices in local churches. The book felt over ten years old when I read it. There have been a lot of changes in European and American contexts since 2004 because of the Great Recession and the resurgence of nationalism throughout the West. Applying Post-Christendom to the American context is also problematic in that America is so large. There are many, many places were Christendom has not fallen and other places where the idea of post-Christendom is being rejected and a different form of progressive Christendom is being created. While not a bad read for those interested in the subject of post-Christendom mission, there are likely newer texts that evaluate our current cultural situation and how the church’s mission should address it.

[1] pp. 88-89, 91.

[2] pp. 97-99