Update: The original posting of this article erroneously listed Mr. Harris as the editor of the Christian Standard. Mr. Harris is not the editor of the Christian Standard, but rather its publisher. Appropriate changes to the content of this piece now reflect that reality. Apologies for this factual error. 08/08/17 12:57 pm PST.
One of the staple arguments from several high profile pastors in the Restoration Movement from Gene Appel to Tim Harlow, from the NACC directorate to the Christian Standard’s Jerry Harris, is that most doctrinal disagreements should be made subservient to evangelistic appeals. This New Breed of pastors are realists, demographers, industry chiefs – they only care about what works. Theologians, and anyone believing that such distinctions can significantly harm or enhance one’s relationship with God, on the other hand, are extremists, dogmatists or just plain, unloving legalists who are enslaved by doctrinal purity.
The truth is, presenting yourself as someone only concerned with results, while characterizing your opponents as philosophical extremists is a very old technique that goes all the way back to the French Revolution. It was pioneered by post-Enlightenment demagogues who were every bit as ideological as the critics they sought to demonize and silence.
In 2015, the RM’s New Breed offered up their own version of an idea first developed by William James in 1870 – Pragmatism. Pragmatism, as a matter of philosophical principle, rejected social or religious ideologies. James concluded that beliefs should not be judged as right or wrong but by whether or not they worked – according to James, beliefs had cash value.
Many RM pastors today have inherited this pose. They disingenuously claim not to be hung-up by entrenched doctrinal frameworks and only concerned with measurable, material results. Their radical plea for unity is employed to deflect criticism away from the unorthodox doctrinal positions they now promote through our national convention, shared periodical, and network of well-meaning enablers.
It is important, at this point, to stop and humbly realize that all of us have benefited eternally from the doctrinal framework passed down to us by the generations of Christians who came before us. And while it is self-evident that nothing is healthier than honest scrutiny, what is equally self-evident is that throughout our development, certain immutable truths have been revealed and rediscovered and the value of these truths are not limited to time and space.
Therefore, it seems to me, we must spend our greatest efforts in preserving them.
We must never allow ourselves to be characterized as legalists defined only by what we are against. We must remain confident that we have the most vibrant and positive of agendas: the retention of apostolic doctrines given by the Holy Spirit, which animated the spiritual and physical growth of the first century church to the glory of Jesus Christ.
This ancient framework, even today, supports our most effective congregations and is what makes Christianity, itself, an oasis of deliverance. It is the most enlightened and biblical of missions.
Yet if Jerry Harris, Chairman of The Solomon Foundation financial group and current publisher of the Christian Standard, has right on his side, many of our churches operating today should abandon their efforts, become passive supporters, or, better yet, just “hand over the keys” to their buildings. After all, he reasons, they, by virtue of their devotion to truth, only promise to introduce into the next generation divisiveness and dis-unifying influences. He advocates this, of course, with eloquent reassurances of the love and loyalty he has for this – his RM “tribe.” But, the very use of that word suggests that while he may love the RM, he sees her as no better and no worse than any other group.
Imagine a man who relishes going out of his way to point out how his wife isn’t all that special. At some point you begin to think that he isn’t wholly committed to her – his reassurances notwithstanding.
“Do we fight for unity with the same enthusiasm we fight for truth?” asks Tyler McKenzie as he cross-examines the reader in his online piece. “Why is this?” . . . “Perhaps theologians elevate” . . . “doctrines to the level of being absolutely essential.”
Question: what, exactly, is inessential doctrine? And how does such confused thinking get published in a professional periodical with such a storied past?
McKenzie goes on to suggest that those who promote “exhaustive lists” of sound doctrine, those who refuse “peaceful disagreement” with advocates of different doctrines are conceited and lacking in humility.
One wonders how McKenzie harmonizes his judgement with Paul’s words to Timothy: “If anyone advocates a different doctrine” . . . “he is conceited and understands nothing;” -1 Tim 6:3-4
Don’t get me wrong, “Systematizing” a list of doctrines, as CS contributor Rubel Shelly alludes to, is not the objective. No one is appealing to (or calling for) Official Church Doctrine – a quintessentially denominational phrase. To be sure, as RM Christians we promote the sufficiency of Scripture and empower local churches to work out their own stands on: salvation, spiritual gifts, communion, and the like. It just so happened that, in the past, when we came together for our national gatherings, the theological hue of each convention was simply a reflection of an informal consensus of shared beliefs.
That consensus-based unity no longer exists.
The blue-nose universalists of Church Development Fund and The Solomon Foundation, while claiming to be impartial, suddenly became caped crusaders for a more liberal theology. And while it’s true these doctrines may have had marginal support, this enlightened minority, with their sacrosanct will, have labored mightily to make them the new standard.
Which brings me to the CS’s Jeff Faull who writes a reasonably coherent and fairly exhaustive article, but then curiously concludes, “However, we cannot force everyone to agree with us.” To be fair, it’s not clear to whom this comment is directed. But it’s an interesting statement considering he is writing for a publisher who forces upon our movement positions which run counter to a century of commonly held beliefs – and for a brotherhood he claims to love and represent.
So tact and clarity do not seem to be among the editorial gifts of those running the periodical.
To be sure, a great deal of Christians, elders, ministers, and theologians in our movement simply don’t agree that sound doctrine as a-basis-for-unity is necessarily divisive, un-evangelistic, or socially in-cohesive. They are not particularly concerned to foster the sort of unity Mr. Harris and his financial institution is interested in. In short, they want to know why Mr. Harris, his Solomon Foundation, and the pragmatists at Church Development Fund are dismantling our movement’s doctrinal framework – especially since the record is clear that this framework, in spite of occasional setbacks and self-corrections, continues to make striking contributions to God’s Kingdom.
To understand Mr. Harris, it does not help to read the Christian Standard. All of us agree that truth and unity are critical components to every healthy, biblical congregation – while, perhaps, rejecting Mr. Harris’ frequent intimations that truth and unity are, somehow, dichotomously in tension with one other. According to the Christian Standard, establishing any truth beyond the declaration that “Jesus Saves” is an encroachment on Jesus’ prayer for a unified Church.
At the heart of the matter, then, the enemies of sound doctrine, the champions of so-called doctrinal freedom, don’t want to think through the implications of truth. Whereas Mr. Harris constantly talks about “rock-solid spiritual truth,” he and his contributors refuse to face the consequences of finding truth.
We must ask ourselves, what is the doctrine of sound doctrine? Or more simply, what are the implications of finding truth?
Presumably, they are twofold: the truth must be embraced and the opposite must be scorned. Paul encourages all Christians in general, and leaders in particular, to recognize and honor truth, and to reject and battle its opposite.
Again we must ask: How do we know when we have discovered truth, or when we have, at least, discovered the nearest thing available to truth?
The answer is that we can only know after canvassing the alternatives and bringing our reflective faculties to bear on them. Once we have selected our truths – and every church is certainly entitled to select its own truths – it becomes our Christian duty to promote them as energetically as possible.
But the New Breed rejects this idea. Truth-promotion is, according to them, divisive and damages our ability to evangelize the world. They characterize truth-promoters as extremists who want to build little iron curtains around the thinking of people. What they really mean is that, in their opinion, the overseers of many of our churches have selected error and not truth. Surely, if they believe that these overseers were promoting truth they wouldn’t characterize them as curtain hangers. In short, when you strip away their circumlocutions you’re at point-blank range with what they really mean. What they really mean is anyone who disagrees with their doctrine – that pragmatism, positivism, and materialism are the highest values – is in error. And with the characteristic intolerance of a centralized denominational power, they seek to liquidize their opponents by imposing these new tenets wherever they can, while talking about things such as crowd size, unity, and the value of accumulated funds and assets.
We live in a turbulent and perverse culture because so many men have forgotten the framework of the New Testament Church, and because so many men have turned their backs on Jesus as Lord. Now we find ourselves in an intellectual war against the foundations of our spiritual faith.
Leadership in the movement against this is sorely needed; and yet the sternness, sacrifice, and singleness of purpose which we must show in order to win the fight seem to be lacking in a good many of us. First, they are lacking due to the fear of being labeled “negativists.” Second, because of an easy and lazy optimism. We have come to feel that the truths of God are so intellectually and emotionally compelling that they are certain to win in a contest of ideas. And because of our faith in the organic attraction of the restoration plea, we no longer fight with the zeal and resolution which characterized a small band of men, whose willingness, 2000 years ago, to sacrifice, proselytize and teach sound doctrine is responsible for the fact that on Sundays we worship at the altar of Jesus Christ rather than at the contemporary equivalents of Zeus and Apollo.
Terry Sweany serves as Senior Minister of Playa Christian Church. He received his Bachelor’s in Christian Ministry from Cincinnati Christian University and a Master’s in Marriage, Family, & Child Counseling from Hope International University. He and his wife, Patty, reside in West Los Angeles.