Monday, March 10, 2008


I started posting on this blog more than a year ago. I was then "in fellowship" with a group of "exclusive brethren" I had been with (more or less) for about ten years. Yeah, there was a division in there, and I was in fellowship first with one side, then the other. But I really consider that as one block of time. My frustration a year ago was, what we said and what we did weren't lining up.  We talked about not believing in denominational lines, but we had very clear denominational lines ourselves. We said we didn't believe in clergy, but there are any number of people we'd never contradict. We said we believed in the Holy Spirit leading the meetings, but He seemed to do things the same way, using the same people, all the time.

My concern a year ago was hypocrisy. 

Then I left, which I think was the right thing to do... but the next question is, "now what?"

So we spent a few months in a traditional Anglican church. There's a lot to be said for the traditional Anglicans, but there are some serious problems there as well. Those problems have been working their way into focus from the periphery, and we've finally concluded they're deal-breakers. We're not happy about that: we've really enjoyed a lot of things about the Anglican church. But what can we do?

So I know I've already made a couple lists of what I'm looking for, but I'm going to make another one. See, a lot of this blog is me articulating things in such a way that my poor mind can start to understand them. This blog is largely a story I tell myself to try and make sense of my walk down here until He comes to get me.

The first thing I'm looking for in a church/assembly/gathering is core doctrine. By "core" I mean things that are really very important. Ideally I would like a place where I am in 100% agreement with everything said and taught. That will probably never happen, so I'm going to have to make some judgment calls about what's "fundamental" and what's something I can allow some latitude on. I'm pre-trib, pre-mil dispensationalist. I'm willing to compromise on a lot of that: in fact, the characteristic Anglican ambiguity on a lot of this is all right with me. That's not to say I'm not sure I'm right, it's just that I see no reason I can't have genuine Christian fellowship with an amillenialist. But some things are non-negotiable. Jesus Christ is Man and God: He is the consubstantial Son, He is a real Man. This is non-negotiable. All men are born sinners, without Christ all perish eternally. This is also non-negotiable.

The second thing I'm looking for is worship-centered gathering. I know a couple pre-trib, pre-mil dispensationalist churches in this town, but the meetings are basically just lectures. I shall probably visit them at least once; but it's my honest conviction that gathering more or less just to hear teaching---no matter how good it is---fundamentally misses the point. Intellectual stimulation is not worship (although the intellect is inarguably mixed in with true worship). I have literally hundreds of books I can read, if sound teaching is what I'm after. The gathering ought to be much more than just getting "the truth".  It's telling that I hung out with Anglicans for a few months, despite doctrinal differences, because the liturgy is all about worship. I finally realized that some of those doctrinal differences were bigger than I had realized, but I'll tolerate a lot to be in a place where worship is the main event.

The third thing I want is a biblical foundation. It's taken some time to hammer this out very solidly: the one resource we have is the Word of God. I have said that many times over the last 20 years, but it's really been brought to mind very clearly over the last 12 months. One of my main gripes with Anglicanism is precisely that they pay much more attention to patristic commentary than the Word of God. There are all sorts of arguments on why that's valid, but as far as I can determine, they all fail. If we can't trust Scripture, we sure can't trust patristic commentary. If we can trust Scripture, we don't need patristic commentary. Again, commentary from godly men and women is helpful in its place. Its place is not unquestioned authority.

I would say those are the three big things I'm looking for.  But there are some smaller things too.

One point I've been willing to compromise on has been the idea of priesthood.  I completely (100%) buy into the "brethren" idea that all believers are priests, and we ought not to have clergy. I've been willing to compromise on it for a couple reasons, maybe not all of them are good. First, I've been willing to compromise because I've very rarely seen it work out in real life. Second, I've been willing to compromise because I've been learning the somewhat painful lesson of being quiet. I need to learn to shut up: I have a big mouth, and when I get it going, I can run on forever. The worst is, I can sound really wise and godly when I do it. But it's still me being the center of attention. I've been willing to become "laity" (even though I think that's an unscriptural idea), because I personally need to learn to sit down and shut up. There are probably more reasons, those two came to mind pretty quickly.

If I have a choice, I would really like to be in a situation where there is no clergy/laity division; but that's frankly not as important to me as it once was.

I'd love to find a gathering where there are only one or two meetings a week, but people actually see each other outside of Sunday morning. Real friendship is so much more than sharing a pew... and it seems so hard to cultivate with other Christians. Is it just me? Am I just a terrible friend? Maybe it's my fault, but I have so much trouble getting meaningful relationships going with other Christians. This ought not to be, but it's been my experience. Maybe I just have a serious social disability. 

I am really looking for interactive worship. While the Anglican liturgy is very much "run" by the celebrant, there is also a strong sense that the congregation is worshipping, rather than watching someone else do it. I miss that about "brethren" too. I'm not willing to try a Charismatic gathering, but I think they get this part right: they're involved in the meetings, not jsut spectators.

I suppose the question is, why don't you just eat some crow and go back to "brethren?"  That's actually a good question.  I won't answer it very well in public, because some of my concerns with "brethren" center on some things that I really don't want to publicly discuss. Despite my generally negative tone, I've been holding things back (really!), and I am not interested in being the accuser of "brethren" in a public forum. But in general terms, it was the upside-down priorities that drove me away. It was the consistent attitude that the worst sin someone could commit was going to another church... the casual, instinctive enforcing of sectarian lines and differences.

Are all "brethren" like that? Of course not! Probably the vast majority aren't. But I began to realize that we'd built up a system that allowed that sort of thing to ferment and grow, and eventually dominate.

Will I ever consider gathering with "brethren" again? Of course! I might well end up breaking bread in an "assembly" again. I am not at all disallowing it. But I'm trying to follow the Lord and Scripture right now, not my comfort level. 

So I'm going to do something I've never done before. I'm going to actually invite comment. If you have advice for me, or even some sort of answer... or even if you feel like telling me "Ox, you're a waste of human skin," I am asking you to tell me. Comment on the blog, or comment via email (my email address is at the bottom of the page).


Ian said...

You have about 38,000 Christian denominations to choose from, so it may take you some time. Many years ago the Consumers Association published a survey of religions in its Which Magazine, which left me feeling there was something curiously incongruous about treating your decision like a shopping trip, and treating Churches as any other service industry.

The solid biblical foundation that you are looking for is not quite so easy to identify when you find it. In my experience the churches that make the strongest claims to being based on Scripture are the very ones that are not.

Then, so much depends on deciding which scriptures apply to us and which ones do not. For example the Exclusive Brethren think the Great Commission does not apply today, and J. N. Darby, during his dispute with Newton, said the Sermon on the Mount was intended for the Jews. But when it suits them, many Christians will dredge up verses from Leviticus and apply them literally. Some say Paul’s injunctions to the Corinthians were intended for the Corinthians in the First Century, not for anyone else in any other century.

Then you have the problem of distorted meanings. I have heard Exclusive Brethren giving a meaning to the parable of the mustard seed that seems exactly the opposite of what Jesus probably intended, and a meaning to Amos 3:3 that is very far from the meaning perceived by most translators and very far from the meaning suggested by the context.

It’s not easy. But God bless you in your quest anyway.

clumsy ox said...

The incongruity of shopping for a church is precisely what I'm wanting to avoid, and yet it seems to be the very thing I end up flirting with.

If I recall correctly, Darby talks about looking for the Church: he wasn't looking for a church he was comfortable in, or one that had the programs he wanted. He was looking for something that expressed the Church as seen in Scripture.

Catholic friends have no problem: they believe the Church is expressed perfectly only in a single entity: they do not see there can be a difference between "the Church" as an organization and "the Body of Christ."

But if we take the Protestant idea that there is the Body of Christ that is occasionally seen in history, then we need to consider where it's appearing right now.

The catch is, I don't necessarily believe there is only one place where the Church is demonstrated or represented at any given time.

I tend to think your Amos 3:3 comment is right on: it is certainly not the context of the passage to suggest it's a ban on walking together without agreeing. Rather, it's a rhetorical question whether two people can actually go on a trip together without agreeing where to start.

"Brethrenism" still represents to me a genuine attempt to walk it out down here. But my experiences there weren't necessarily positive.

And we appreciate your prayers.

Chuck Hicks said...

"In my experience the churches that make the strongest claims to being based on Scripture are the very ones that are not."

I love a good empiricist when I see one.

Excellent discussion all around.

clumsy ox said...

I'm with the Dawg...

One thing that has started to raise a red flag with me is doctrines/theologies/teachings that appear to have been created simply to excuse inconsistencies between doctrine and practice. I've seen those in almost every group of Christians I've known.