Monday, June 18, 2007

The Place

These go to eleven! -- Nigel Tufnel

My post on my twisty path grew out of control; but I think I finally got to my goal: discussing The Place. In the end, my contention against the de facto teaching of The Place is almost symbolic (typical?) of all my beefs with Brethrenism. That is, to me the teachings and discussions of The Place epitomize how Brethrenism grew into a sectarian system, out of a very Scriptural set of propositions.

Frankly, discussing this with "brethren" is almost a waste of time. Much like discussing amplifiers with Nigel Tufnel, if the truth were told. And that's because "brethren" have fallen into the same error as Roman Catholics: by proclaiming a group as The Place, we've removed any meaningful discussion about what The Place is. Let me attempt to elucidate a little on that. At the risk of over-simplifying somewhat (and honestly, no straw man is intended here), the Roman Catholic Church pays lip service to the idea that the Bible is infallible and inerrant; but it emasculates it, in that it gives the Church two things: 1. the exclusive right to determine what's Scripture, and 2. the exclusive right to explain Scripture. With these two claims, any question of whether the "mother church" is valid inevitably falls to the ground. Similarly, "Brethren" have built a foundation of extremely shaky logic to support the idea that they have The One Place. And, they built it on one verse, Matthew 18:20.
"For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them." Matthew 18:20, KJV
"For where two or three are gathered together unto my name, there am I in the midst of them." Matthew 18:20, Darby
"For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst." Matthew 18:20, NSAB
"for where there are two or three gathered together -- to my name, there am I in the midst of them." Matthew 18:20, YLT
This one verse has become the foundation for all Brethrenism. I've given it from a few different translations, in order to get a well-rounded look at it. "Brethren" prefer to read this verse from the Darby Translation, apparently for two reasons: 1. it uses the older conjugation of "to gather"; and 2. it transliterates eis "unto", rather than rendering it in correct English as "in". Let's consider these in some detail.

In older English (not "Old English", but "two hundred years ago English"), verbs expressing motion were frequently conjugated with "to be" as an auxiliary. This follows the German and French grammars: ich gehe becomes ich bin gegangen in the present perfect tense. As Darby points out in his margin note for Romans 3:23, the correct conjugation is "are come", not "have come". This distinction is important there, as it clarifies that "All have sinned and come short" is in two tenses: "have sinned" is present perfect, "come" is present. But some "brethren" have equivocated on the very point Darby made so clearly, and have taken "are gathered" to be a passive. Thus, their gathering is an act of God, not of men. "We haven't gathered, we've been gathered". It's foolishness atop ignorance, but there you have it.

Thankfully, this teaching (if one can call such an appalling ignorance of English "teaching") is not common among the "brethren" I gather with. But I have no doubt it is coming. It's common among other groups we seem so determined to imitate.

The fact is, the NASB gets it right: in present-day colloquial English, we use "have" as the auxiliary verbs for all present perfect forms: we no longer say "are gathered", but "have gathered".

The second reason "brethren" seem to prefer Darby's translation is, the transliteration of the word eis. Anyone who's spent any time in any translation work at all knows: prepositions are the hardest thing to translate. For example, "at home" in German is zu Hause (literally "to home"), while you would never go "to home" in German, but must go nach Hause, or "towards home". In Greek, eis to emon onoma "unto my name" should be translated "in my name". Just like in English we say "open in the name of the law!", we would say "gather in my name".

But "brethren" steadfastly refuse to acknowledge this, and insist on replacing "in" in their KJV Bibles with "unto". Why?

I think the reason is something like this: it changes the gathering from an act to a place. Where gathering "in my name" is clearly something we do (the "in my name" implying authority to do so from the Son of God Himself); gathering "to my name" can be seen as somewhere we go ("to" implying there is a place where Christ has placed His Name). Thus, we can conclude there is a Place, and it is the responsibility of all Christians to find it.

In the more cult-like extremes of "brethren", this is unashamedly taught: "This is the One Place the Lord has put His Name". I gather with more moderate "exclusives": a few years ago, claiming The Place would have seemed unthinkable, but as time goes on; I've heard bolder and bolder claims, all progressing toward the claim of The Place. And, I've heard the claim itself. Interestingly, I hear more and more statements that nowhere else is The Place: I think that's a subtle way to claim we are it.

Now here's where it gets to be like an interview with Nigel Tufnel. Once we claim we are The Place, then everything else becomes sin. If we're The Place, then regardless how much evil we tolerate, it's wrong to not gather with us. Or to put it in "scriptural" terms, we have the Lord's Table, and everyone else has the Table of Demons (1 Corinthians 10:20--21). So far as I know, no one in the "exclusives" I meet with has made this claim; but I know of others in different "exclusive" groups that have made this very statement. And I hear more and more arrogance in the statements that are made. We've started down that path, and we seem to be picking up speed.

But back to the point: if the gathering is "to my name", then it's not a moral gathering. But when it's "in my name", it becomes a moral thing: the gathering can cease to be "in my name" through sin, corruption, or moral failure. If we fail to obey the Lord Jesus, or if we gather with any other authority to justify our gathering, we're not gathering "in my name". "In my name" judges hearts and motives, not just forms and outward appearance.

But there's more. Once we establish a given assembly/sect/denomination/group as the True Church (or The Place), then we can very easily condemn everyone else. Because regardless of how bad things are in the sect we have chosen, it is still the only Place we can obey the Lord in gathering "unto" His Name. Everyone else might live better than I do, but their church amounts to idolatry, since it's not The Place.

Again, I think very few in the "exclusives" I meet with actually would come out and say something like that; but they are starting to say things that infer it. Where a statement like that would have once been stomped on, it seems we are getting more and more tolerant of that sort of arrogance. I've actually been surprised by some of the things I've heard over the last couple years: it seems the meetings are more and more characterized by smug complacency.

So regardless of how bad things are here; regardless of how many problems there are; the comment is "well, we gather to the Lord's name". And then we hear the oft-repeated "there's weakness everywhere". The implication is, The Place matters more than moral purity or correct doctrine.

I heard a telling sermon recently on MP3 from a fairly well-known speaker in "open brethren". Now, "open brethren" pretty much deny the One Place teachings of "exclusives": while I consider them less Biblical in many ways, they've done a much better job than we in that area. Nevertheless, this speaker was talking about the exodus of people from certain assemblies into more mainline denominations. He made the statement "A bad assembly is a good school": then he gave several encouraging anecdotes and left me with the impression "There's no good reason to leave an 'assembly'."

Sadly, when we get into this style of thought, we get into a place where we're willing to tolerate anything, except leaving the group. Of course, the irony is that the "open brethren" speaker I was listening to would probably encourage me to leave "exclusive brethren". His definition of "assembly" and ours is very different.

But the danger is the same error the Roman Catholics generally fall into: rather than discerning whether a gathering is a biblical assembly or not based on the Word of God, we pick the group we're in, and use it to define exactly what an assembly should look like. We get our test of fellowship backward, because we start with the assumption that our group is correct. Worse, we declare ourselves to have the Lord's Presence, then use that to excuse all the corruption and sin we see. Is the priest molesting the altar boys? don't worry, just trust in the Mother Church! In our own circles, we're told that all the problems we see are "weakness". The fact that we condemn other churches for the same things is irrelevant, because we gather to the Lord's Name and they don't.

"Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy" (Luke 12:1, NASB)

But if we can think past the assumption that this is where the Lord has put His name, then we can ask the question: at what point does a gathering of Christians fail to qualify as a biblical assembly? This is an important question, because it is a two-edged sword. The more we allow in our definition of "assembly", the more churches "out there" we need to acknowledge. On the other hand, the less we allow, the more "assemblies" we currently recognize will be excluded. Does a clergyman mean an assembly is disqualified? Then many or most "brethren assemblies" are disqualified. See the problem is, "brethren" fail the very tests they set up for everyone else. The very statements "brethren" make about others in order to prove they aren't legitimate, also demonstrate "brethren" aren't legitimate.

Sadly, I think that too many in "exclusive brethren" fail to gather "in my name", because they see their legitimacy as coming from the group, rather than from the Lord. When we look to the group to give us a legitimacy, then we fundamentally fail to gather in His name: we are gathering under the authority of the group, not the Lord.

The other alternative, of course, is to accept that "in my name" means "Because I said so, and that's all you need". If we take that assumption (which "open brethren" do), then we can be content that our meetings are graced by the Lord's presence. Of course, that also means there are a whole lot of gatherings out there we know nothing about, that are recognized by the Lord.

That's what Darby et al. did. They gathered because the Lord said so, and they knew their only license to gather was His command. They weren't perfect---far from it!---but they got this one thing right. We ought not to gather around a doctrine, a sect, a title, or a man. There's one Man that ought to be the center. To the extent He's the center of a mainline church down the street, they are as legitimate as we. To the extent we're not content to gather solely because He said so; but prop up our legitimacy with sectarian titles, doctrinal "distinctives", and other man-made ideas; we're no different from any other sect.


KingJaymz said...

Wow, Mark. I'm impressed. At the same time, I admire your courage. I know that you could take a ton of fire for this. I pray the Lord will honor your desire to conform to His Truth, as opposed to man's.

You're starting to sound dangerous...almost like a post-modern or post-evangelical/traditionalist...I won't put words in your mouth, but I'm really encouraged by your boldness to speak the Truth.

I look forward to hearing more from you as we sojourn together this journey of faith. Thanks for all the encouragement over at my blog. You are a true Brother to me.

Word Verification: hhvrrdi
Cheese anyone?

clumsy ox said...

Thanks, bro. But honestly, all I'm arguing for here is exactly what the books on every "brethren" bookshelf say.

There's another post I want to write, but I think the "brethren" stuff is almost over here. I think we're running out of things to say. And to be blunt, I think "brethren" get a lot more right than they get wrong, but we've allowed ourselves to be goaded into some real problems. We're failing the tests badly at the moment.

I suspect I might be the only person to publicly discuss "exclusive brethren" doctrines with an analogy from Spinal Tap, though. That's got to be worth something.