Sunday, March 30, 2008

Challenges facing Christadelphians (1)


Sometime in the early 1990s I was asked to speak at a combined study day in Sydney on the subject “Christadelphians - Where are We Headed?” Some of the material used on that occasion subsequently appeared in an Australian magazine Christadelphian Forum in 1992 - 1993 as a series of articles under the same title. Since then those articles have been reproduced and re-published in various formats, sometimes updated or modified. It's probably time for a complete revision. In the meantime, I have been thinking recently about the main issues which are currently challenging the Christadelphian community and wanted to write a brief series of messages about these challenges as I perceive them.

Christadelphians have always stressed the importance of getting doctrine right. A common lecture title used to be "Sincerity without Truth cannot save" (and perhaps still is in some circles), and Christadelphian teaching has focused on defining these 'saving truths'. Many Christadelphians would argue that sometimes this emphasis on establishing "the Truth to be believed" is pushed a little too far. For example, ecclesias (and the Christadelphian community in general) have divided over such matters as whether the dead will be raised mortal or immortal, whether the Kingdom will be over the whole earth or only the land of Israel, whether sinlessness is theoretically possible, whether Jesus in the wilderness was tempted by an internal or external tempter, whether the judgment will be at Mt Sinai or Jerusalem, and whether the bread for communion should be leavened or unleavened. All these things have seemed very important at the time to the people involved, yet subsequent generations and others not involved in the immediate conflict often see these questions as trifling differences. They might be interesting to discuss, but certainly not important enough to divide over, or to exclude anyone from fellowship.

A question we should ask which helps to put such issues into some kind of perspective is: what practical difference does it make? Some doctrines are of the type that they affect our whole worldview, or the theological framework within which we think and reason. There is probably no doubt in the mind of any Christadelphian that whether the Kingdom of God will be
on earth after the return of Christ or will be enjoyed in heaven immediately after death affects the whole way one thinks about the after-life and the future, and it's therefore important to have consistent teaching on this 'foundation' doctrine. Similarly, whether we think of God as 'one person' or as 'three persons' affects the way we understand God, Jesus Christ and the way of salvation.

With both these doctrines it's relatively easy to understand why they are regarded as 'fundamental' and how they might affect the way we do things. But it's much harder to see what practical difference it would make if we believed the dead are raised mortal or immortal, or whether the Kingdom will be in Israel (with the rest of the earth being 'territories of the kingdom') or over the whole earth.

Perhaps most Christadelphians these days would agree that such theological hair-splitting should not divide the community. I am fairly confident that a sizable majority within the Christadelphian brotherhood wouldn't waste their time arguing such points, let alone dividing over them.

Yet I feel that generations of debating doctrinal fine points for well over a century has left a legacy amongst Christadelphians of thinking in doctrinal and theoretical terms rather than practical ones. Ask any Christadelphian to write a summary of their faith and they will almost certainly begin with a propositional truth: usually some kind of statement about the nature of God, or the inspiration of the Bible. Rarely would someone begin with a statement about what kind of people we should be, or how we should live. I'm not suggesting that it's wrong to begin with a 'propositional truth' - however, I think there is a tendency to think ONLY in these terms and to separate these 'truths' from the practical impact they have on our lives.

When discussing the Trinity for example I have often asked Christadelphians what practical difference it makes whether someone is a trinitarian or a unitarian. There is usually first a stunned silence, followed by "I don't know" or further questions about why it matters if there is a practical impact or not. What I'm really asking by the question is this: if it makes absolutely no difference to the way we live whether we are trinitarian or unitarian, where do trinitarians and unitarians stand in relation to each other at the Judgment? Imagine two people - one a trinitarian and the other a Christadelphian - who both attend church/meetings regularly, both read their Bibles daily, both pray 'without ceasing', both are generous and charitable, both are honest and ethical, both live according to the commandments, and by their lifestyles they are almost indistinguishable. The only difference between them is that one is trinitarian and the other is a Christadelphian. At the Judgment, do you personally think it is likely that God will accept one and reject the other simply because of this doctrinal difference? I guess Christadelphians would be divided about how they answer that. Let's take it a step further then and imagine that both these people are Christadelphians and the only difference between them is that one believes the dead are raised mortal and the other believes they are raised immortal. Do you think God will accept one and reject the other simply because of how they have understood this matter?

I am NOT suggesting that doctrine doesn't matter, and that what we believe about anything is unimportant. However, I AM suggesting that important doctrines should affect our conduct, and that if some thing has no practical affect on the way we live then it's either unimportant or we have failed to understand the practical implications and put them into effect.

There is a good example of this which has recently received quite a bit of media attention. N.T. (Tom) Wright, the Bishop of Durham, has recently written a book titled "Surprised by Hope" which challenges how we
think about heaven, hell, purgatory and eternal life. Christadelphians would agree with him on many of his conclusions about heaven-going and the resurrection. Wright critiques many of the accepted views of heaven, especially the assumption of the continuance of the soul after death in a sort of blissful non-bodily existence. "This is simply not Christian teaching", Wright insists. The New Testament's clear witness is to the resurrection of the body, not the migration of the soul, and then only when Jesus returns in judgment and glory. (There was an interesting interview with Wright about this on abc news. Also see my message about an article in TIME magazine).

But according to Wright Christian teaching of life after death should really be an emphasis on "life after life-after-death". He argues that what we believe about life-after-death should affect the way we live now. Wright wants Christians to focus on how their final destination will affect their lives in the here and now. In other words, if we believe in the restoration of the earth in a future Kingdom of God, then we should live in the light of that belief. He said in the interview: "because I believe in God's Kingdom of justice and peace this gives me the energy and the focus to work for the kingdom of God in the present".

Now that is challenging!

In an earlier message I quoted Catholic theologian Albert Nolan who was writing on the same subject and I suggested that the really great part of the quote, in my opinion, is that Nolan has picked up that Jesus did not come simply to say "the Kingdom of God is coming", but rather "the Kingdom of God is coming for the poor, the oppressed, the rejected, the mistreated, the disenfranchised, and those who don't measure-up to the standards imposed by the religious". We need to live in the light of that knowledge and work today for justice and equity for the poor, the oppressed, the mistreated and those for whom the Kingdom is coming.

Jesus told more than 100 parables or sayings about the Kingdom. Most of these relate to our behaviour, our character, and how we are to live in the world where we find ourselves. Jesus’ main emphasis is on the inner character that underlies the outward conduct. Conduct is an outward sign of character. "The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For out of the overflow of his heart his mouth speaks" (Luke 6:45). "Likewise every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit" (Matthew 7:17). Jesus also told several stories about how our lives now are preparing us for something to come. In the parable of the talents the master said to his good servants "'Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master's happiness!'" (Matthew 25:23). In the parable of the sheep and goats the King says to those on his right: "'Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.'" (Matthew 25:34-36).

The emphasis of these stories, and others like them, is that we are being prepared for a greater work in the future and our Master is giving us tasks to do today that will build our characters and equip us for the work to be done in the future. The stories which end with some sort of picture of judgment (like these two above) are not so much about being rewarded for work well done, as much as they are about entering in to the work for which we are now being fully prepared.

We need to focus on the characteristics needed for 'Kingdom-people' who will "live and reign" with Him. What traits will He be looking for when choosing people to work with Him in the restoration of all things? I imagine that the restoration of our wounded world will need people who are nurturers, healers, builders, and encouragers more than it will need theologians or experts in doctrinal fine points. The tasks we are called to do today are those things that will prepare us for the greater work to be done in the future.

As a community of people who believe in the coming Kingdom of God Christadelphians need to focus more on the practical impact of the Gospel, and live today in the light of that Kingdom - not just believing that the Kingdom will come, but in nurturing, healing and encouraging those for whom it is coming and to model the Kingdom-values of justice and equity for all.


Anonymous said...

Hi Steve,

Of all your articles you have written to date, [and all of them have been terrific, soul searching and enlightening], this article now is the “Jewel in the Crown”, so to speak.

I too, have been involved in a past life, splitting Doctrinal hairs, and dividing families asunder over theological fine points... for what?

My ego!

That's what!

You see, I had invested time and energy and personal resources into establishing a conclusion ["conclusion" = the point I arrived at when I became too tired to think], which I could not then allow to be challenged.

For if challenged and shown to be dodgy in my Theology, then I had to conclude two things.

(1) All of the emotional/spiritual energy I had invested may have been channelled into something that could not ultimately be sustained.

(2) The group I had joined which had "The Truth" might not actually have "the Truth that Saves" after all!

My ego?

Well, how does one explain to others, who I have been in "spiritual combat" with, that I have been led to change my mind over something [or someone] that/who I was formerly prepared to withdraw my fellowship over. To do that would be an admission of failure. But how could I be a failure? The Truth I believed was "Right/Correct/Sustained by Clear Scripture".... and the scriptures cannot be wrong, so then how could I be so wrong? That was how my ego thought.

So rather than admit that I might have come to certain conclusions [then set them in concrete] without allowing the Spirit of God to lead me into new understanding, I would rather have stuck my head in the sand, and pretended to all that the problem did not exist.

Or I might have continued the combat, because that proves [to my ego] that these issues are actually vitally important to my salvation.

Or I might have moved for an individuals removal from the meeting, so as to not be "seen by others" to be condoning a point of view that might be challenging to myself... even if that view was not really a salvation issue.

This is just what Cain did. His "perfect world" could not be happy whilst Abel was allowed to live in it, so to make his world "happy", Cain "disfellowshipped" Abel in the most monstrous way. [Dis-fellowship within churches/ecclesias/meetings today is just as monstrous... like an execution, but usually committed without spilling actual blood! But the end result is just as damaging in it's far reaching effects on the individual/family/meeting/Ecclesia that is the recipient of this most "anti-Christ-like" action.

Have you ever wondered why the Bible has so much to say about Cain? Especially in the writings of John... the apostle who best exposed the God of Love. To act like Cain is to act exactly the opposite of the God whose children we profess to be.

What is the motivation or fear behind any of the actions I have just described?

It is the fear of what "others" might think or say about me. In other words, the actions springing out of ego that I have just described, are energised by what "other men think" rather than being motivated by “where the Spirit has led me”.

Which brings me now briefly to the second point mentioned above... namely, that my ego could not admit that perhaps “the group” in which I found my identity, might actually not be "right"!

Steve, I believe that this "Salvation by group" concept is a major flaw in our spiritual thinking. In saying this, I am not saying that the theological understandings of Christadelphians over the past 150 years is not correct. I believe, with you, that there is an importance in understanding correctly the Unity of God and the issue of conditional immortality etc.

However, the mentality that says I MUST believe [certain things] simply because the "group" says I must believe them [or face dis-membership/dis-fellowship myself] is heinous... and is addressed by Jesus Himself in Matthew 7.

"…Knowing the correct password… saying 'Master, Master,' for instance... isn't going to get you anywhere with me”, says Jesus. “What is required is serious obedience... doing what my Father wills. I can see it now... at the Final Judgment thousands strutting up to me and saying, 'Master, WE preached the Message, WE purged the church/Ecclesia, WE kept your Truth pure, OUR God-sponsored projects had everyone talking.' [ie. “Lord, surely OUR group did not get it wrong, did it Lord? Lord?] And do you know what I am going to say? 'You guys have missed the boat. All you did was use my name to make a big name for yourselves. You don't impress me one bit. I warned you before, that what you have done to others, I am now going to do you. You're out of here. I cannot see my Father’s DNA in any of you. You never belonged to my family… and you don’t now. You "withdrew" from others... I now command YOU to withdraw from my presence. Depart… now!' ”

So, in summary Steve, most of the issues that have been "fellowship" issues within our sad little community over the past 160 years have been centred [mainly] on personalities... not salvation issues as seen from the Father's perspective.

The tragedy is seen in the young ones [and many older ones too] who, looking on, and either observing, or feeling the effects of such immature and vindictive behaviours, say “If this is how Jesus acts… then I would rather not know Jesus.” And so they end up walking away from a “church family” that could nourish them and heal their hurts… to try to walk through life without Jesus at their side.

Personality and ego... they have combined to fracture God's family time after time... right down through the ages.

When are we going to learn the lesson Steve, and let Jesus clearly and freely walk in the midst of His family... leading them, guiding them, protecting them and nurturing them?

Your call for Healers and Nourishers at this time is… well, timely!

Let the Sonshine in
Cliff York

Steve said...


Thanks for the positive feedback, and for telling us openly and honestly about your own experiences.

Over on the Truth Alive forum Robin Todd made some great comments, especially this one which I really loved: "The core "umbrella" doctrines are very important for healing and restoration. The question isn’t so much about who will be "saved" and who won’t. It’s about which teachings will help people, and which ones have a tendency to hold us back and even hurt us."

Sometimes it's easier to get bogged down with the details of how, where and when the kingdom will be established rather than to bring healing and restoration through the proper teaching of the message. You must have noticed that when Jesus sent out His disciples that "he sent them out to preach the kingdom of God and to heal the sick" (Luke 9:2. See also Matt 4:23; 9:35; Lk 9:11; 10:9). If we preach the kingdom without bringing healing and restoration we have only carried out half our mission - in fact, we probably haven't really preached the kingdom at all.

Anonymous said...

>>I imagine that the restoration of our wounded world will need people who are nurturers, healers, builders, and encouragers more than it will need theologians or experts in doctrinal fine points.<<

That is what we need! All those people - we need the builders, not the destroyers. We need them now as well as in the future.
Love Linda

Anonymous said...

Good point, Steve.
>>If we preach the kingdom without bringing healing and restoration we have only carried out half our mission - in fact, we probably haven't really preached the kingdom at all.<<

Maybe that's a sign that the gospel has actually been preached -healing and restoration follows. The opposite would be true too. Where there is no healing and restoration, whatever it is that is being preached, isn't the kingdom.

Love Linda