Thursday, January 17, 2008

Everyone else is doing it...

I got this comment on an older post this week:
If we get our eyes of [sic] our own needs and what we expect from others and go to the meeting for the LORD and Him alone then God will bless. We gather together for His glory don't we?. Our motives for going to the meeting shouldn't be the people or the speaker. Is not the Lord's presence good enough for us?

The comment was with respect to some comments I had made on a meeting I attended last summer. It was posted anonymously: I have no idea who wrote it, and I'm fine with that. But I wanted to make some points about it. I have no idea where or with whom the commenter meets to worship, but for the sake of argument, I'm going to pretend it was written by someone in an assembly much like the one I left. So you see, I'm not really replying to Anonymous, I'm using this comment as a basis for a discussion. Let me re-iterate that: I've no idea what Anonymous had in mind when s/he wrote that comment; but it resonates very well with many comments I heard in my time among "brethren," and I want to comment on some of those things.

Ten years ago, I might have written the exact same paragraph. But ten years have passed, and I've thought a lot about this stuff in those ten years. And in that time, some things have changed. With that in mind, let's look at this in some depth.

The first thing I notice is the phrase "If we... then God will bless." This indicates that God's blessing is something we earn. Someone else has already said, "God blesses because He is good, not because we are." The Scripture is full of example after example where God blesses those who are not obedient: isn't that the essence of the Gospel? "while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us" (Romans 5:8).

We can't manipulate God. I'm not saying that God's sovereignty infers our actions don't matter: I'm saying that we can't bribe God with our good behaviour. God blesses those He loves, regardless of their deserving to be blessed. God blesses out of grace, not obligation.

My dad used to always tell me, "Clumsy, don't forget that Moses was wrong to strike the rock, but water still came out." There is nothing more common in Scripture than God blessing people who don't deserve it. There's nothing more common than God blessing in spite of the ones receiving the blessing. Ecclesiastes says the race is not to the swift, the battle is not to the strong (Ecclesiastes 10:11). Blessing doesn't come to those who deserve it any more than brimstone rains down on sinners. God blesses out of His overflowing heart.

The day will come when God will judge---brimstone really will fall down on sinners eventually---, but that day is not yet. The goodness of God leads to repentance (Romans 2:4), it doesn't flow from it.

The second thing I notice is the implicit assumption that the Lord is present: "Is not the Lord's presence good enough for us?" This is one of the very points that eventually drove me from the "brethren". The verse that underlies the "brethren" movement is Matthew 18:20, "For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them" (KJV). The "brethren" are confident that the Lord is present in their meetings, because He is wherever "two or three are gathered unto His name."

I've spent some time discussing this elsewhere, but the whole "the Lord is present" thing becomes a rabbit-hole very quickly. The question that really needs to be asked is, how do we know whether there are two or three gathered in the Lord's name? This becomes the crux of the question. If gathering in the Lord's name is a moral thing, then it may be difficult or impossible to determine whether that's really going on. And if it's individual, then it becomes that much harder.

"Brethren" more or less evade the question by reducing it to one of format: gathering "unto His name" essentially reduces to gathering "in the same format as us." If you ask "brethren" what it looks like, they inevitably bring up whether a group has a pastor/priest/clergyman and wether they have a denominational title. In either of those cases, the gathering is "to a man's name" rather than "to the Lord's name." Now, the significance of this is overwhelming. What it essentially infers is, regardless of moral failings or even outright sin in the group, the only real test is format. As long as the meetings are conducted a certain way, then the Lord is present... regardless of how much sin or impurity is tolerated in the group.

Please understand I'm not accusing anyone of immorality here: it's not my contention that "brethren" tolerate evil. It is my contention that their test of the Lord's presence in the group is merely one of format.

But I realized in the last few years that the whole issue of whether the Lord is present really gets turned upside-down when we consider the "gathered in my name" as a moral test. If it really means "because I said so and that's enough for you" (and I believe it does), then there are any number of true believers in any number of places that are gathering "in His name." And as surely as I find a church---any church---where there are two or three such people, then I have found a place where the Lord is present. But by the same token, as surely as I find a place where the format is correct but the moral test fails, then I can no longer rest on this verse as proof of His presence.

Notice I haven't even touched on the issue of whether the verse was ever intended to be the test of where to fellowship. I'm not at all convinced this is true... although it might be.

The third thing I notice is built on the second: the idea that the Lord's presence is "good enough," that I ought to be content to go to the meetings and just be faithful there.

The problem is this: the idea that I can just go to meeting to meet the Lord, regardless of the others there sounds good; but it breaks down under any scrutiny at all. Let's start with the obvious: suppose I just go to the Kingdom Hall to meet the Lord, and because I've gotten "[my] eyes off [my] own needs and what [I] expect from others," is that valid? Can I be sure the Lord is pleased with that?

See, the problem with the line of thinking that says "I don't need to be critical, I just need to go with a right heart myself" is, the logical conclusion must be that any church will do. If what I need to do is "be faithful where I am," then I might as well just go where I like the music or the youth program and be faithful there. It doesn't matter whether it's a Roman Catholic or Lutheran church, whether it's "an assembly" or a cult---so long as I am personally faithful, everything's all right. There is no other conclusion that can logically be drawn from that line of thinking.

In fact---and this applies specifically to "brethren"---"brethren" left the Church of England because they had serious problems with what was happening there. But if the right thing to do is to get my eyes off the other people and be content to meet the Lord, then the "brethren" were wrong to leave. And if I view that through my "exclusive" glasses, then the only right thing for "brethren" to do is to return to the point of departure: they all need to confess their schismatic actions and come back into the Anglican fold.

See, "brethrenism" breaks down as soon as the same tests are applied to it as to everyone else. The double standard is glaring.

Now, the comment Anonymous left wasn't necessarily wrong. In fact, there's a lot of truth there... but there is a certain level of over-simplification. At some point, it matters very much indeed what the others in a meeting are doing. This is not the Old Testament: we don't have a physical place where we've been called to gather three times a year. In those days, this comment would have been right-on. Hannah's faithfulness in praying at Shiloh was not affected by Phineas' and Hophni's immorality. But in the New Testament, the tests we use are moral. We aren't called to gather to a place, but to a Person: that's a moral action. And under those conditions, the moral state of the group matters very much.

One thing we have to deal with these days is, we have multiple options in terms of where we gather. The Old Testament saints had no such options: they were to gather where the altar was. The New Testament saints didn't have this problem either, there was "the church in Ephesus," not "the churches in Ephesus." The Scripture only ever uses "churches" when it discusses a wide geographical area: there is no concept in Scripture that there would be more than a single church in a city or town. But apostasy has set in, the church is in ruin. We now have to discern where we are to gather.

The idea that we gather to meet the Lord, and can just sort of ignore the problems there doesn't hold water any more. It ignores the apostasy and the days we live in. It ignores the moral condition of the church. It ignores everything that's happened since the Apostles. It ignores the fact that there is a corporate identity in the Church: we're not just individuals. And it undercuts the very existence of the assemblies where these statements have been made. If individual faithfulness is really what counts, then there ought not to be any "assemblies" at all: they ought to have been content to be faithful in the Anglican church, rather than starting something new.

Now here's the kicker: I made the vast majority of my comments on "brethren" as an insider. It was not actually my intention to leave, but that's what eventually happened. And now that I've left, I am not in any way saying I won't go back. Yeah, going back would be painful: this blog has already been quoted to me, it would certainly cause me some trouble. There would be a lot of comments made to me, a lot of people would want some sort of public confession and retraction.

I left because I was looking for what guys like JND and JBS were looking for, and I eventually realized "brethrenism" has grown into something else entirely. The vast majority of people there are genuinely looking for the Lord... but I have concluded that we've built up a system that gets in the way of that.

More recently, I've been learning to worship the Lord---to gather in the Lord's name---in an Anglican church. Now that's a move that has prompted a few to question my sanity. And there's been the predictable responses: "Clumsy's got to find himself," "Clumsy's on a spiritual journey"---that sort of thing. And those statements might actually be true. But they fail to acknowledge the larger picture: I started this spiritual journey 20 years ago. I invested a lot of time into "brethrenism," I thought I had found what I was looking for there. But more and more, it became obvious that I hadn't. I've learned a lot of stuff along the way, and there's a lot more to learn. I'm not even close to the end of this one.

One thing I have realized is, what I'm looking for is not to be found in a system: it's to be found in a Person. It's not something I can find in Anglicanism or Brethrenism or Lutheranism. I can't put my trust in a church---any church. I need to put my faith and trust in the Son of God.

The Son of God has come here to die for me. And He's coming back to get me and take me to be with Him: that changes everything.

So I appreciate people who care enough to look in on me and pray for me from time to time. And I really appreciate people who have emailed, called, or discussed this over coffee with me. And Anonymous, I appreciate your commenting.


Shan said...

The goodness of God leads to repentance (Romans 2:4), it doesn't flow from it.

Amen, preach it grandpa.

See, I agree with you, but that doesn't mean you should shut down AQ.

Chuck Hicks said...

Two quick comments (not criticisms by any stretch):

1) Matthew 18:20 is sorta the magna carta for the brethren assemblies. It seems though, that in context this has to do with church discipline, not what constitutes a gathering particularly.

2) I'm no longer convinced the "church at Ephesus" necessarily consisted of one, specific gathering. At Jerusalem they met "house to house." This by no means discounts the reality that the church is, indeed, in a degree of ruin, but I do believe it undergirds your underlying point that Christ is honored and glorified in several gatherings within one city or locale.

Ox, this article was superb. PLEASE don't stop writing.

Ames said...

As long as you are presenting Christ, keep AQ running.

You have an awesome way of breaking things down and getting to the point of a matter.

Stace' said...

What they said...

clumsy ox said...

Chuck, with you on both counts, bro. As I've thought over the whole Matt. 18:20 over the last few years, I've come to think it was never intended as the basis for declaring an assembly legitimate.

On the one hand, I think it dreadfully important for us to recognize the necessity of people like Luther or the brethren to see what's going on and start meeting somewhere else. On the other hand, there is such a terrible danger in the let's-just-start-over mentality that has so visibly fractured the church.

One thing I have been happy with in my brief (so far) dabbling in Anglicanism is, a sense of reconnecting with the historical church. I'm of two minds on this: Anglicans seem too impressed by anything old, seeming to care more about how far back something can be traced in church history, rather than how scriptural an idea or practice is. On the other hand, I question the value in the constant revolution in the western church for the last 600 years.

There are some non-negotiables: justification by faith alone in Christ alone is something I cannot compromise, for example. But I see mainline evangelicalism as a sort of stripped-down Christianity. And while "brethren" have avoided a lot of that trap (moreso on the "exclusive" side of the house), there is still a certain minimalist view of Christianity that gives me pause.

Interestingly, it was largely reading JND that led me into the idea that Christianity is not just a [fairly small] set of propositions. While JND was not sacramentalist, he openly acknowledged there is more involved in things like the Lord's Supper or baptism than our rationalist evangelical friends want to admit.

I'm not sacramentalist by any stretch, but as I've studied and mulled these things over for the last decade or so, I've come more and more in line with Darby's (or even Cranmer's) ideas on the subject.