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Sunday, May 18, 2008

Deconverting from Sectarianism (3): A Culture of Hate

- Previous Article: "The Language of Exclusivism" -


Jonathan Swift's oft-quoted comment on religion still holds true today: "We have just enough religion to make us hate, but not enough to make us love one another." ¹ And he had well illustrated this truism in his unforgettable satirical novel, Gulliver's Travels.

The Lilliputian Connection

One of my favorite sections in this opus is Gulliver's visit to the capital of Lilliput, the city of Mildendo. Here, Dr. Gulliver converses with a city official named Reldresal who apprises him of the state of affairs in the metropolis and the whole kingdom.

Lilliput, it turned out, has been rocked by controversies chief among which is the "Big End vs. Small End" dispute which has already spewed out six rebellions against the Royal Family and has led the island-kingdom to a "most obstinate war" with its arch-enemy, the neighboring kingdom of Blefuscu. The latter is now poised for a punitive invasion against Lilliput which it believes violated the 54th chapter of the world's common sacred text, the Brundecral, when it decreed that eggs should be broken at the smaller end rather than on the larger end which has been the tradition from the beginning of time. This, despite the fact that the text cited neither commands nor bars either practice, for it says: "all true believers shall break their eggs at the convenient end" [emph. mine, sms].²

"Trivial Pursuit" Continues

As you probably know, the "Big Endians" and "Small Endians" respectively represented the Roman Catholics and the Protestants of Swift's day. And, as you probably would agree, "Endians" can still be found in all the denominations of today; we have never lacked of Lilliputian or Blefuscan individuals and groups who would afflict themselves and others with their unbridled combativeness over religious issues they regard as matters of salvation or damnation but which are actually trivial -- even laughable, to some -- when viewed from a larger circle of Christian scholarship and the greater issues of day-to-day life.

To illustrate from my own experience, let me paste here this email I recently received from a 21-year old American (name withheld):³

Mr. Scott M. Saboy,

This e-mail serves as a cordial invitation to engage me in a public, formal debate on June 7th, 2008. The proposed venue for the debate is the (specified location), Philippines. The propositions for the debate are thus stated below:

RESOLVED: The church of Christ is a denomination of the Body of Christ.

Affirm: Scott M. Saboy (should you choose to accept the invitation)

Deny: (his name)

RESOLVED: The church of Christ alone exists as the Body of Christ on earth.

Affirm: (his name)

Deny: Scott M. Saboy (should you choose to accept the invitation)

The recognized standard of authority for the proposed debate is the King James Version of the Bible and nothing else.

Please confirm your agreement to participate in this debate. Please make known any personal requests regarding specifications or modifications of the debate criteria, venue or date(s). I will be waiting for your response. Thank you.


(his name)

Minister, (location) church of Christ

PBC Alumni 2008

I leave to the perceptive reader to recognize the "trivial pursuit" in this challenge to a debate. Let me make one note though to make the Lilliputian connection. I once thought it a big deal to uncapitalize the c in "church of Christ" to emphasize the "undenominational status" of my former church group. Of this practice, the late Grover Cleveland Brewer, one of the most illustrious preachers of the CoC in the United States commented:

Some unthinking brethren seem to hold that to spell church with a small "c" avoids making a title or proper name of the phrase "church of Christ." This is laughable. When the sense is plainly a designation -- a telling of "what" church is intended -- then the phrase is used as a proper name, and thus the scriptures are violated [by using a scriptural phrase for all the saved to apply to only a portion], and to use a small initial letter in a proper name is to violate the laws of grammar. So, brother, you are both unscriptural and ungrammatical. [4]

To illustrate further, one idea which took me a little while to disabuse myself of is that "Church of Christ" is scriptural while "Christian Church" is unscriptural [5] -- a contention which another CoC preacher dismissed by aptly saying: ''The difference in those names [Church of Christ & Christian Church] is less than the difference in tweedle-dee and tweedle-dum. One is the Church of Christ and the other is the of Christ Church."[6]

Looking back to my sectarian past, I sometimes could not believe that I really got stuck in the mire of triviality where my avid challenger quoted above is now in. I have come to realize though that at some point in our quest for meaning, all of us will have to reach a turning point (or several turning points) in our lives when we will be made to cast off our robes of pretension and pettiness and lay prostrate before Him who knows the intents of our heart and the bounds of our intellect.

But to continue, K.P. Yohannan was right on target when he wrote: "We are mostly divided around pet doctrines, methods, personalities and structures. Too often, we're building our kingdoms instead of His kingdom..." [7] Evidently, these petty kingdoms are engirdled by solidified traditions regarded as having been erected by the mandate of Heaven. And it is these very same walls that choke the life out of people's faith. This reminds us of Jaroslav Pelikan's unforgettable words: "Tradition is the living faith of the dead. Traditionalism is the dead faith of the living."[8]

What is appalling in many religious polemical engagements is that they often turn physical. I know of several Filipino preachers who have had the unfortunate experience of being mauled during or after a theological debate by members of the religious group(s) to which their polemical opponents belonged. When focused on a truly significant issue, conducted by level-headed disputants, and attended by a well-behaved audience, a religious debate can be an enlightening experience. In the Philippines, however, many religious debates have often become occasions for ad hominem arguments, cheering contests, and even fistfights not unlike those sensationalized "smackdowns" in the Taiwanese Parliament. [9]

Worse, across the centuries political ambitions and religious differences have often been turned into an explosive mix that has shattered lives and properties (read: The Spanish Inquisition, Calvin's Genevan dictatorship, The Protestant Inquisition, Ireland, etc., ad nauseam, ad infinitum).

But be they polemical or physical, these religious conflicts have led many to say with Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi: "I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ." [10]

Law, Love and Grace

Indeed, how can belligerent dogmatists reflect the character of Jesus? Too often, those who have been most vociferous in attacking fellow Christians over "matters of faith" have failed to live up to the ideals of their faith themselves. Many of them spend much time trying to help God straighten people out doctrinally and even morally, while keeping a blind eye to their own little crooked lives. In their pursuit of doctrinal perfection, they have neglected their own moral integrity. In their zeal to root out those they perceive to be purveyors of false teachings, they have unwittingly rooted out the language of love from their hearts and have thus failed to imbibe the spirit of Christ. Here, I remember my dear preacher-friend, Dr. John Carlos Bailey, who once commented:

We should always be watchful of those who are so righteous that they feel they must commit character assassination on a brother or a sister. Those throwing stones usually cannot stand a careful examination of their own character. [11]

Further, in their desire to impose their petty laws on others, dogmatic Christians often deprive themselves of the joy that Grace brings. For as Max Lucado beautifully put it:

Legalism is joyless because legalism is endless. There is always another class to attend, person to teach, mouth to feed. Inmates incarcerated in self-salvation find work but never joy. How could they? They never know when they are finished. Legalism leaches joy.

Grace, however, dispenses peace. The Christian trusts in a finished work: "Gone are the exertions of law-keeping, gone the disciplines and asceticism of legalism, gone the anxiety that having done everything we might not have done enough. We reach the goal not by the stairs, but by the lift... God pledges his promised righteousness to those who will stop trying to save themselves." (quote from J. Alec Motyer, et al. - sms)

Grace offers rest. Legalism never does.[12]

Backward March

While modern-day Lilliputians and Blefuscans believe that they have advanced the cause of the Commander they profess to serve, they have actually caused him shame and shamed his cause. Their false sense of omniscience and infallibility largely expressed in their speeches and writings [13] has engendered a culture of hate that continues to fuel more divisions among the ranks of those who, despite the motley tribal standards they hoist and the variously colored uniforms they wear, should stand united under the great banner of righteousness and love. Thus, Christianity in many religious fronts of the world cannot sing the victor's song; instead of shouting "Onward Christian Soldiers," they are crying:

Backward Christian soldiers, fleeing from the fight,/With the cross of Jesus clearly out of sight./Christ our rightful Master stands against the foe,/But forward into battle we are chicken to go!/

Like a mighty tortoise moves the church of God,/Brothers, we are treading where we’ve often trod./We are much divided, many bodies we,/Having different doctrines, not much charity.

Crowns and thrones may perish, kingdoms rise and wane,/But the church of Jesus hidden does remain,/Gates of hell should never ‘gainst the church prevail./We have Christ’s own promise, but think that it will fail.

Sit here, then, ye people, join our useless throng,/Blend with ours your voices in a feeble song./Blessings, ease, and comfort, ask from Christ the King./With our modern thinking, we won’t do a thing.[14]

Staticus or Metamorpha?

To successfully reverse this backward march hastened by the beat of the drums of hate, Christians must choose, to borrow from Kyle Strobel, metamorpha (a life that is radically transformed by the love of Christ) over staticus (an uncoverted life resulting from a failure to recognize that much of what we believe in are, to a large extent, but products of our time). [15]

What Strobel proposes for individual Christians also applies to the different communities of faith in Christendom. Many churches need to forsake their collective delusions of grandeur, constantly examine their beliefs and practices, and prayerfully pursue reform in their respective ecclesiastical systems. For them to do otherwise is to arrogate to themselves the mind of God. As CoC historians C. Leonard Allen and Richard T. Hughes wrote:

If we assume that our roots are entirely sacred and not profane, entirely apostolic and not historical, entirely biblical and not cultural, then we have elevated ourselves above the level of common humanity and, in essence, made ourselves into gods....

A church that imagines it stands beyond history, beyond conformity to culture, beyond sin, and beyond tragic misunderstandings and miscalculations -- such a church has little to offer the world. But a church that owns up to its blunders and its compromises -- its humanness -- is a church that can both receive and reflect the love and grace of God to the world around it... [16]

These professors may have addressed the above quote to the CoC, but I believe their message can also be directed at other fellowships.

And the popular slogan of Reformed Churches applies to all churches as well: Ecclesia Reformata, Semper Reformanda ("the church reformed and always to be reformed").

And for those of you who still bear the wounds inflicted by zealots who have wielded the Word of God as swords to injure their fellows, may you be able to say with Philip Yancey toward the end of your own healing periods, that even after having "absorbed some of the worst the church has to offer," you still ended up "in the loving arms of God." [17]



¹ From "Thoughts on Various Subjects," available online @ worldwideschool.

² Chapter 4.1 Jonathan Swift, Gulliver's Travels and Other Writings, ed. Miriam Kosh Starkman (NY: Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group Inc., 2005), 70-75. See online text here.

³ This preacher once branded me in a global online forum as "man of sin," "anti-Christ," "wolf in [their] midst," and "false teacher," etc. for not adhering to what he believes as "sound doctrine." If you are interested in pursuing the details of his attacks against what he styled as the "errors of Saboyism," click here and here. My response to his tirades and goodbye letter to the CoC can be read here.

4 quoted in Douglas A. Foster, Will the Cycle Be Unbroken? Churches of Christ Face the 21st Century (Abilene, TX: ACU Press, 1994), 46.

5 See A.C. Williams & J. Harvey Dykes, Ready Answers to Religious Errors (Fort Worth, TX: Star Publication, 1973), 49-55.

6 Cecil Hook, Free in Christ (Round Rock, TX: by the author, 2004), 82. A related article is "Why Should We Denominate Ourselves?" on pages 77-80 of this book; available online @ this site. Also, see notes on the "name" issue in the previous article, "The Language of Exclusivism."

7 K.P. Yohannan, The Road to Reality (Carrolton, TX: Gospel for Asia, 2003), 128.

8 Know more about this great scholar @ Christianity Today. The New Testament presents "tradition" (Gr. paradosis - "something handed on to others") in both positive and negative light (cf. John 10.22; I Cor 11.2, II Thes 2.15, 3.6, and I Pet 2.18; Mt 15.6-20, Gal 1.14, and Col 2.20).

9 Related article: "GMA vs. ABS-CBN, ATD vs. ADD"

10 Cf. John 17: 20-21. One of the "Restoration Principles" I delighted in quoting early into my preaching for the CoC is: "In matters of doctrine/faith, unity; in matters of opinion, liberty; in all matters, charity." The idea actually originated from Rupert Meldenius (some attribute it to Augustine) whose Latin expression in necessariis, unitas; in non necessariis, libertas; in utruisque, caritas is said to have become a favorite quote among the Reformers. Although the slogan is popular among the heirs of the Stone-Campbell Movement, it has not kept them from splintering into many exclusivistic parties who use variously sized measuring sticks of orthodoxy to separate faith from opinion. See some of the divisions in Bobby Ross Jr.'s article in The Christian Chronicle entitled, "Who are We?".

11 Quoted with permission. Dr. Bailey is one of the most Christlike CoC preachers I have met. As the indefatigable president of the Body and Soul Ministries, he has blessed a lot of unfortunate children through his numerous dental missions in the Philippines, Indonesia, China, and many other countries. Know more about him and his work @ this website.

12 Max Lucado, It's Not About Me (Brentwood, TN: Integrity Publishers, Inc., 2004; reprint, Manila: OMF Literature Inc., 2005), 118.

13 Among the condemnation-saturated CoC literature in my personal library that I used to treasure are journals/magazines like Contending for the Faith, Firm Foundation (the irenic spirit of its former editor Rueul Lemmons is a great contrast to the intolerance of its current editor, H.A. Buster Dobbs), Sound Doctrine, The Spiritual Sword, and Vigil. The CoC's oldest magazine, The Gospel Advocate, and its international newspaper The Christian Chronicle have been more positive and balanced in their content, although the Advocate has tended to promote the traditional exclusivistic stance of the CoC on instrumental music and other CoC doctrinal distinctives. I include in this "literature of hate" Goebel Music's book -- Behold the Pattern. Colleyville, TX: Goebel Music Publications, 1991 -- which, although touted by its promoters as a standard manual of "sound doctrine" for its 660-page defense of a patternistic theology and tirade against "liberals," is actually a showcase of a sectarian mind reminiscent of the infamous "Sand Creek Declaration" which its main proponent, Daniel Sommer, would regret a little too late in his fading years. A critique of "Patternism" can be found in W. Carl Ketcherside's "According to the Pattern," and the articles of Dallas Burdette ("Oddities in Pattern Theology"), Al Maxey ("Behold the Pattern") and Joe Beam ("Behold the Sectarian Pattern"). For a short backgrounder on Sommer, consult Leroy Garrett's The Stone-Campbell Movement: The Story of the American Restoration Movement, rev. ed. (Joplin, MO: College Press Publishing Company, 1994), 388-395.

14 George Verwer's parody of Sabing Baring-Gould's popular hymn, "Onward Christian Soldiers," lifted from E. Glenn Wagner, The Awesome Power of Shared Beliefs (Dallas, TX: Word Publishing, 1995), 9-10.

15 Kyle Strobel, Metamorpha: Jesus as a Way of Life (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2007), 33-43.

16 C. Leonard Allen and Richard Hughes, Discovering Our Roots: The Ancestry of Churches of Christ (Abilene, TX: ACU Press, 1988), 8-9.

17 Philip Yancey, Soul Survivor: How My Faith Survived the Church (New York: Random House, Inc., 2001), 12.

Name Your Link

In addition to the books cited above, I also recommend the following:

Lucado, Max. God Came Near. Portland, OR: Multnomah Press, 1987.

Lucado, Max. Just Like Jesus. Nashville, TN: Word Publishing, 1998.

Lucado, Max. No Wonder They Call Him Savior. Portland, OR: Multnomah Press, 1986.

Lucado, Max. Six Hours One Friday: Anchoring to the Power of the Cross. Portland, OR: Multnomah Press, 1989.

Rogers, Adrian. The Passion of Christ and the Purpose of Life. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2005; reprint, Paranaque City, Phils.: Acts 29 Publishing, 2005.



Eileen said...

Who wrote the poem Backward March? I have read the words "like a mighty tortoise" somewhere else. I'd like to quote the poem if I may, but with proper credits to the poet.

scott saboy said...

that "flood" has surely drowned a lot of believers and has turned a lot of churches into swamplands. and i guess it will be a long wait (at least for some churches) until the fetid waters finally subside or are totally drained from the sects around here. but there is always a reason to hope for better things to come; there is always a reason to keep campaigning against sectarians who have pledged their lives to guarding and plugging the "drainage." :> thank you kabsat for sounding off "from down under."

atty. nestor agtina said...

Bro Scott,

Thank you for sharing your articles. I never thought that legalism has flooded some churches in the Philippines. I am very happy with your decision. Your series on sectarianism is an eye opener to me on what's happening in the Philippine Christian community.

dina said...

SECTARIANISM!!!a poison that seeps through the minds of "christians"... i remember once when someone visited me in our home to preach and i nearly shouted at his face after he contended that other sects are "wrong" or that their interpretation of the Bible is the only correct one and other interpretations are plainly wrong!!!

My elementary teachers before told me that though we have different religions, we still believe in one God, though we give Him different names..So i thought that despite our differences (customs, cultures, languages) at least we agree on one thing, that there is only one GOD. But i think otherwise now -- religion has divided us more than ever...

Thank you t. scottie for this's very enlightening....