A Reply to Leroy Garrett

by Jeff Peterson
Austin Graduate School of Theology
peterson@austingrad.edu

      It’s been my pleasure to hear Leroy Garrett lecture and then sit down for discussion with him on two occasions, once at the Liberty Street Church in Trenton, New Jersey, and once at Austin Graduate School of Theology. Both times I was impressed with his passionate commitment to opposing sectarianism in Churches of Christ. Reading his comments on “A Christian Affirmation,” however, I was led to wonder whether his passion sometimes leads him to see sectarianism where it isn’t present. Anyone familiar with the work of such teachers as Tom Olbricht, Jerry Rushford, Carl Holladay, Jim Roberts, and John Mark Hicks will recognize how implausible it is to charge them with a sectarian spirit, which is in fact explicitly repudiated in the Affirmation’s closing paragraphs.
       In fact, Dr. Garrett embraces the substance of the Affirmation when he says that it “rightly urges that we [Churches of Christ] preserve such practices as weekly Communion and baptism by immersion for remission of sins, and we may urge these as reflective of ‘the common faith and practice of the earliest Christians.’” That is precisely what I understand the Affirmation to urge, and I regret any faults in its wording that would lead a reader to think otherwise; by the same token, I would ask Dr. Garrett and other readers who find sectarianism endorsed by the Affirmation to consider whether they have not read this into the statement rather than out of it.
       If he endorses its fundamental appeal, to what does Dr. Garrett object? He protests that the signers “make our interpretation and practice tests of fellowship” and so deny salvation to all those who do not share our interpretation of early Christian faith and practice. But the Affirmation does not address the question, “Who is a Christian?” The question it addresses (as I understand it) is what the orientation and practice of Churches of Christ should be as we emerge from a century of relative isolation from other Christian communions and enter into meaningful conversation with them. The signers appeal to Churches of Christ to retain a broadly Restorationist frame of reference and specifically to maintain certain characteristic beliefs and practices — the Gospel of God’s grace intended for all, extended through Christ, and experienced in the formation of the church; believers’ baptism by immersion as the initial means of saving grace and our entry into Christian fellowship; weekly observance of the Lord’s Supper as constitutive of the Christian community and as a continuing means of grace; and a cappella singing as an element of the church’s worship. The statement pronounces no anathemas on those who conclude or practice differently, nor does it excommunicate anyone; it simply commends the convictions expressed to the conscience of other Christians.
       The crucial line that Dr. Garrett quotes to show the statement’s sectarian bent — “God does not save individuals apart from the body of Christ” — only does so if “body of Christ” means what it did in (say) Leroy Brownlow’s Why I Am a Member of the Church of Christ. In the context of the Affirmation, which summarizes Paul’s teaching on the significance of baptism, the term naturally refers instead to the risen body of Christ, the last Adam, of which we are made members by God’s saving grace. That is, the background to the Affirmation’s statements about the body of Christ is supplied by the New Testament’s teaching that “by one Spirit we all were baptized into one body” (1 Cor. 12:13); that “we, though many, are one body in Christ” (Rom. 12:5); that in his death and resurrection Christ embraced all people (Jew and gentile) and “created one new person in him” (Eph. 2:15), “the [universal] church, which is [Christ’s] body” (Eph. 1:22–23). Indeed, the word “church” finds its logically primary sense in a passage like Heb. 12:23; the first full gathering of God’s universal church will be the “the assembly of the first-born who are enrolled in heaven,” and all meetings of the church before that time are only partial and hopeful anticipations of that eschatological congregation. Paul and Hebrews treat the earthly church as the proleptic gathering of all those whom God will ultimately redeem from human history, and they present baptism as the normative way in which God admits people to this gathering; if Paul and Hebrews aren’t sectarian in this, it is difficult to see how the Affirmation is.
       Dr. Garrett’s suggestion that “Jesus is Lord” is the sum total of apostolic proclamation and a sufficient basis for Christian communion today needs some qualification. “Jesus [Christ] is Lord” is one very early summary of the Gospel (Rom. 10:9–10; 2 Cor. 4:5; 1 Cor. 12:3; Col. 2:6), but in the Pauline letters alone, the basic claims of the gospel which converts accept when they enter the Christian community are said also to include the following:
            1) the one true and living God, whom we must forsake idols to serve and whose
                risen Son we await to deliver us from God’s coming wrath (1 Thess. 1:9–10);
            2) Jesus’ birth as David’s heir to the title Messiah and his resurrection as the Son
                of God in fulfillment of Old Testament promise (Rom. 1:3–5; cf. 2 Cor. 1:19–20);
            3) the Messiah’s death for our sins, burial, resurrection on the third day, and
                appearances to disciples, whom he commissioned as his apostles (1 Cor
                15:1–11; cf. 1 Thess. 4:14; Rom. 8:34);
            4) baptism in Christ’s name into his one crucified and resurrected body as the
                means by which God initially bestows his saving grace (Rom. 6:3–4; 1 Cor. 1:13,
                12:13; Gal. 3:27–28);
            5) fellowship at Christ’s table as an ongoing communion in the life of his resurrected
                 body and a continuing proclamation of the risen Lord’s death (1 Cor. 11:23–26;
                10:16–17);
            6) the obligation of baptized persons to shun the various vices they once practiced
                and to be led by the Spirit in the virtues of Christ (1 Cor 6:9–11; Gal. 5:16–25;
                Eph. 4:20–24; Col. 2:6–7; 1 Thess. 4:1–2) so as to be kept blameless for the day
                of the Lord (1 Cor. 1:8; 1 Thess. 3:12–13).
       None of these passages presents new instruction offered for the first time in Paul’s letters; they rather remind Christians of the basics of the Gospel as they had previously learned and embraced it. All of this teaching can be understood as unpacking what’s involved in the confession “Jesus Christ is Lord,” but it also shows that that bare formula wasn’t sufficient to constitute and sustain the church in its first generation. Indeed, within the pages of the New Testament the confession “Jesus is Lord” is itself more precisely defined to guard against misunderstanding that arose a generation after Paul’s time. In 1 John 4:2–3 and 2 John 7, John explains that true confession of Jesus includes his appearance in the flesh, and he maintains that any other interpretation of the term “Jesus” (e.g., as a being who appeared to be human but didn’t have a body subject to physical death) is a spiritually fatal misunderstanding of the faith. If we were to insist on nothing beyond “Jesus is Lord” as the entire basis for Christian communion, we would find ourselves obliged to embrace the Docetist heresy should it reappear in modern dress.
       I have no quarrel with the definition of a Christian that Dr. Garrett quotes from
Alexander Campbell: “one who believes that Jesus is the Christ, repents of his sins, and obeys him in all things according to his understanding.” This definition would include the Society of Friends, which offers an interesting test case for the question of fellowship that Dr. Garrett presses. Friends (Quakers) confess Jesus as Lord but reject all outward forms of worship, including baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and congregational singing. They are noteworthy for their simplicity, egalitarianism, rejection of violence, and willingness to suffer for the sake of justice. Will there be any Quakers in God’s eschatological assembly? It is not ours to “judge the servant of another” (Rom. 14:4), but it would be surprising indeed if the God who declares “I desire mercy and not sacrifice” should deny so graced a life as John Woolman’s an abode among the saints because of a misunderstanding of baptism and the supper. It is regrettable that Woolman and other Quakers have denied themselves the visible means of grace and neglected to proclaim the death of the risen Lord at his table; but then, we who have benefited from baptism and the table yet have done so much less than Woolman to oppose injustice have more reason for regret.
       Thankfully, we may be content to leave final judgment (our own and others’) in the hands of our gracious God, but in the meantime Christians who baptize and celebrate the supper and who think it important to do so must decide how we will relate to any Quakers that cross our path. Dr. Garrett counsels “unity in diversity” and criticizes our statement for failing to pursue this aim, but what would this formula mean when applied to Quakers? Should Churches of Christ receive Quakers as members without requesting that they receive baptism, or seek to hold joint services with them, or abandon our forms of worship for their services of silent waiting on God? Should we not rather recognize that while we both claim Jesus as Lord, our understanding of how best to honor God in public worship differs so much from the Quakers’ that the integrity of our discipleship (and of theirs) is best preserved by meeting apart, by praying for one another, by discussing what we share and where we differ as opportunity presents itself, and by co-operating in such good works as we feel we can? (I would suppose this means, for example, yes to joint benevolence but no to common mission.) Should we not trust God to lead us to unity in the life of his Son, when we stand before his throne if not sooner, rather than insisting on visible unity now in ways that violate our own limited understanding of the obligations of discipleship, and the limited understanding of Quaker disciples as well?
       There are, of course, far fewer Quakers than evangelicals or Catholics, and only a few Churches of Christ in a handful of states face the practical question of how to relate to them, but the same issues are involved when churches decide whether and how to relate to any other communion, whether Baptist or Presbyterian or Orthodox. The Affirmation does not specifically address that question but deals with a more elementary one. Every congregation of God’s people, no matter how open and irenic, must decide what beliefs it will regard as central and what practices it will regularly observe. The Restoration tradition encourages us to look to the churches that the apostles established as our primary models for the life of the church today, and the Affirmation reaffirms this orientation with specific reference to a few contested beliefs and practices. It is my conviction that Churches of Christ can best engage other Christian churches (and the unchurched as well) by embodying the Restorationist way of being Christian to the best of our ability rather than abandoning it at the first sign that not everyone agrees.
       Like some other readers, Dr. Garrett is especially critical of our affirmation of a cappella singing as an element of the church’s worship worthy of cultivating and preserving, but his sketch of the present situation is incomplete. While it is true, as he writes, that some churches are resolving that music should not be made a test of fellowship, he fails to note that some churches are also making the decision to abandon the a cappella practice. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that within the next decade every urban and suburban Church of Christ will face a decision whether to continue worshiping a cappella or adopt instruments. If one applauds current efforts to recognize that, as Jeff Walling put it at Pepperdine recently, Christian Churches and Churches of Christ are brothers and sisters in Christ who worship differently, but one also thinks that singing a cappella is a more appropriate way for the church to honor God and edify one another, then it’s not clear what one would say to commend the practice except just what the Affirmation says. It’s unclear how a person of such convictions could satisfy Dr. Garrett’s concern except by keeping silent about the music of the church altogether.
       We might usefully compare a cappella singing as treated in the Affirmation with the practice of reading Scripture in public worship. No New Testament passage definitely requires Scripture reading in church, but 1 Tim. 4:13 encourages it, and Christian churches have practiced it since at least the second century; today several Protestant denominations as well as the Roman Catholic Church prescribe four different Scripture passages to be read every Sunday, following this ancient practice. If one of our congregations adopts an explicit policy of reading Scripture in every worship service (or even of following a lectionary, as some now do), would we say that by that act they have condemned churches that have not adopted this practice? If a ministry staff or eldership becomes convinced that the lectionary is the best way to edify the church and advocates its use at regional gatherings and lectureships, would we think of charging them with fostering a sectarian spirit? If not, it seems unjustified to charge the signers of the Affirmation with sectarianism for commending a longstanding practice that is not explicitly required by any New Testament passage but is encouraged in several (e.g., Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16) and remained for centuries the practice of the ancient church.
       Dr. Garrett criticizes such an approach to evaluating our faith and practice as “preserving the illusion of restorationism that has been an albatross about our necks in Churches of Christ all these years.” Like some other readers, he seems to find the “Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery” a more adequate charter for our movement than Thomas Campbell’s “Declaration and Address.” The irony, noted in the Affirmation, is that this surrender comes just as leaders in many other churches have begun to take an approach to seeking increased unity that has much in common with Restorationism. In recent years, Lutherans and Roman Catholics have come to agreement on justification by faith through common study of Scripture; a number of communions have found common ground on baptism, eucharist, and ministry (including recognition that “baptism upon personal profession of faith is the most clearly attested pattern in the New Testament documents” and that the Lord’s Supper “should take place at least every Sunday”); evangelicals and Catholics have begun a substantive unofficial dialogue on issues including soteriology, Scripture, fellowship, and sanctification; and Thomas Oden has discerned a new, popular ecumenism taking its bearings from the New Testament and ancient teaching and practice. It is a new day for conversation between different churches, and viewed within this context, Dr. Garrett’s concerns about communion cups and Sunday schools may seem a bit parochial.
       Churches of the Restoration tradition have much to learn from conversation with evangelical Christians and with others, but our heritage also gives us valuable insights to contribute to that discussion. I signed the Affirmation because I understand it as an appeal not to throw out the Restorationist baby along with the legalist/sectarian bathwater when our re-engagement with other Christian traditions has scarcely begun. Leroy Garrett’s opposition to sectarianism and his determination not to introduce unnecessary impediments to fellowship with other Christians are exemplary, but I respectfully suggest that he has not yet heard what the Affirmation commends to Churches of Christ. I look forward to the prospect of further conversation with him and other reflective readers.

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