I’m a believer in the idea that healthy discussion can take place without cutting off ties or resorting to partisanship. Iron sharpens iron, and I believe those whose faith is tied closest together ought to expect the most from each other. In the spirit of these ideals, I’ve decided to offer a brotherly critique of a recent editorial in The Gospel Advocate, a paper from my own heritage among the churches of Christ.
A recent editorial, titled “Two Different Paths,” discusses the appearance of divergent identities within our fellowship. The article suggests that one identity pertains to faith and another to compromise. However, at the point of application, the editor chooses to offer the following as an example of the faithless path:
“Some churches of Christ, however, have chosen the way of compromise, abandoning the power of truth. This past spring, for example, an increasing number of Progressive congregations observed Ash Wednesday, Lent, Good Friday and Easter. Seduced by the trappings of denominational practices, they have embraced unauthorized holy days in an attempt to be relevant, not content to follow the Bible alone.” (Gregory Tidwell, “Two Different Paths,” Gospel Advocate Vol. 158, No. 12, December 2016.)
To say I am disappointed by this article and this paragraph in particular is an understatement. The Gospel Advocate has a long and storied history among the Churches of Christ for which I am grateful. To see this type of sentiment becoming common place in its pages is disheartening. With all due respect to the editor and author of this piece, I feel obligated to object. You see, I too agree that the church faces a choice of differing paths. I too believe that one is a path of faith and the other a path of compromise. However, when we fail to correctly identify how and where this divide is taking place, we become the ally of sedition rather than its foe. By majoring in minors, we become part of the problem rather than a solution.
Seduced By Denominational Practices
In the paragraph above, the first accusation that concerns me is the phrase “seduced by denominational practices.” Setting aside for a moment that this seems to be a vague catch-all put in the place of actual detail, it is unchristian to assume that another’s motives are the result of “seduction.” Paul describes a kindred spirit to this sort of rhetoric to Timothy: “an unhealthy craving for controversy and for quarrels about words, which produce envy, dissension, slander, evil suspicions, and constant friction” (from 1 Timothy 6:4-5). To be clear, I am not suggesting that anyone at the Advocate is guilty of being this type of person. I am only pointing out that “evil suspicions” are the sort of thing gospel preachers are to steer clear of. In a passage we will discuss later on, Paul mentions some who observe holy days, but he does not accuse them of being victims of seduction, a very real concern in a time when Christian belief was struggling to identify itself apart from traditional Judaism. Rather, he states that they keep holy days “in honor of the Lord” (Romans 14:6). Why can’t this be said of those with whom we might disagree? Why can’t we assume their motives are better than we fear instead of assuming the worst?
Or better yet, maybe read something being written by others on the subject and give it consideration. On the general topic of the calendar, I enjoyed this little piece: “The Christian Calendar Is Growing on Me” by Tim Archer.
The second phrase which bothered me in this paragraph was the descriptor, “progressive congregations.” First, I’ll comment as I have written before that many of these commonly used labels are inaccurate, imprecise, and unhelpful (see “The Ambiguity of Labels”). However, even conceding the point that some congregations self-identify as progressive, going so far as to associate themselves more closely with our post-Christian culture than the ancient faith, the application of “progressive” to describe this particular issue is still inaccurate in the extreme. Given that the earliest extant Easter sermons come from the second century1, observing Easter has not been progressive for about 1800 years. Just ask Everett Ferguson, the Advocate’s favorite authority on church history. Ferguson writes that Easter Sunday had already become the preferred day for baptisms by the second and third century. The process for baptism typically began on the Thursday before Easter, known as Maundy Thursday or Holy Thursday, a day which had also begun to have significance for the church.2 My point is that opposing the observance of holy days is one thing, but let’s not call this a “progressive” stance when better terms might be “traditional,” “old fashioned,” or “paleo-orthodox.”
Nor are these practices being adopted in “an attempt to be relevant.” Celebrating a traditional Christian holiday in a secular world is likely the least relevant thing a church could do short of speaking Latin.
Unauthorized Holy Days
Finally, my last and biggest concern about this paragraph is the assertion that the observance of holy days is “unauthorized” and therefore unheard of among those who are “content to follow the Bible alone.” I would call the Apostle Paul to the witness stand:
One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God. For none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. For if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living. (Romans 14:5–9)
In this context, Paul is discussing matters which ought not to divide brethren (“not to quarrel over opinions,” v. 1). An example of this would be eating meat (v. 2-3). The pronouncement of Paul is that in such matters, no Christian has the right “to pass judgment on the servant of another” (v. 4). As a second example of precisely this sort of topic, Paul addresses holy days in the text quoted above.
In the New Testament, Christians are explicitly authorized to keep or not keep holy days as they please, so long as they do so in honor of the Lord.
In the New Testament, Christians are explicitly forbidden from condemning others on account of them either keeping or not keeping a holy day (see also Colossians 2:16).
This is the view of those who are content to follow the Bible alone. To hold a view more prohibitive than this is to choose the path of compromise, setting aside Biblical authority in favor of human opinions.
As it turns out, I happily belong to a right-of-center Church of Christ, if such labels are of any use. We do not make a lot of fuss about Christmas or Easter. The only Christmas decorations in our building are typically in my office. We don’t smear ashes on our foreheads or proclaim a fast at Lent. The Holy Days of the old church calendar go largely unmarked, except insofar as the sermon will likely relate to the themes of the season. Yes, I’ll be preaching on Isaiah 9:2-7 for Christmas this year: “unto us a child is born.” I find the lectionary and the ancient church calendar to be helpful to me in organizing my Bible reading and sermon preparation. On the whole, we are your typical Church of Christ.
So my objection to this paragraph in the Advocate is not so much offered defensively, as my own church does not keep the festivals mentioned in this article. My concern is more for the principle. If we are to be people of the Book, we may not cast judgment on those who do what Scripture offers them license to do.
Furthermore, I too agree that our church faces an identity crisis, but I believe misrepresenting it only clouds the issue. There is real evil in the world, and too often I see my brethren in league with it or tolerating it quietly. If we are to be God’s people in an age gone mad, we must pick our battles carefully and prayerfully, never confusing liberty with liberalism.