J. James Albert
(Dr. Jim Albert is an educator by profession. He has had a long association with disciples who reject those who use individual communion cups and Sunday School though he himself is free from all sectarian spirit. He offers great insights in his mailout, “California Letter,” which you may receive upon request. This essay is from the December 1996 issue, used by permission. P O Box 811, Corcoran, CA 93212. CH)
Recently I was reading a book by an author identified with the Churches of Christ. His Introduction was prefaced by a quote from The New York Public Library Desk Reference pub-lished in 1989. The quote was as follows:
“Church of Christ: Organized by Presbyterians in Kentucky in 1804 and in Pennsylvania in 1809. 1.6 million followers. The New Testament is believed in and what is written in the Bible is followed without elaboration; rites are not ornate; baptism is of adults.”
With my red pen I underlined “what is written in the Bible is followed without elaboration.” Then I leaned back in my recliner and thought about this for a while. That’s what I was taught from an early age. “We let the Bible speak for itself. What we ‘preach’ and teach is not what we are saying, but what the Bible says. We don’t interpret the Bible; it interprets itself. ”Then I pivoted in my recliner, swinging it around to face the bookshelves behind me. The first thing that caught my eye was the What The Bible Says About… series, 42 books written by authors having some connection with that movement organized by those early Presbyterians. Then I looked at the set of commentaries by McGarvey, Lamar, Lard, and others. Next to these was a set by E. M. Zerr. Then my eyes traveled to an as yet incomplete set of commentaries entitled Contending For The Faith being written by those associated with the one cup, no Sunday School segment of the Churches of Christ. Finally my eyes scanned a couple of hundred hardback and paperback books written by persons mostly associated with the Churches of Christ. Then I thought of the periodicals up in the hall cupboard to which I either subscribe or are sent to me each month. There’s a dozen or so edited and published by Church of Christ advocates. “Yes,” I concluded, “the Churches of Christ do follow what is written in the Bible without elaboration.” If you believe that, you will believe most anything.
Unfortunately many brethren in the Churches of Christ insist that they do not interpret the Bible. Their elaborations are not interpretations, but what the Bible actually says or the Bible interpreting itself. If you dispute their elaborations or interpretations, they accuse you of not respecting the authority of God and his written word. Further still, they might accuse you of promoting the idea that the Bible cannot be understood by man. I don’t believe this, but I certainly felt this way at times after I’ve read some of the debates between our brethren, or read some of the articles or tracts detailing the rationale for party shibboleths.
We do interpret the Bible. Reading with comprehension and understanding is interpretation. Reading is not merely a matter of phonetic pronunciation either in the mind or orally. In the presence of my mother-in-law I once picked up a magazine written in Spanish and decoded orally a couple of paragraphs quite well. She then asked me, “What did it say?” I didn’t know; I couldn’t comprehend or interpret what I had decoded phonetically.
If we didn’t have to interpret the Bible, we wouldn’t have to worry about brethren reading and being influenced by the periodicals of those not of our party. Errors would be obvious. We wouldn’t have to worry about the rank-and-file going to the meetings of so-called brethren-in-error or digressive brethren. We wouldn’t have to constantly propagandize our position(s) from our pulpits. These kinds of worry smack of partyism and confirm that we do interpret the Bible.
Coupled with this false premise over the years has been the assertion that we are the “people of the Book,” meaning the Bible. We pride ourselves on this assertion and our dnomination is built around this concept. Whether it is true or not that we are faithful to the Book, we, each of our segments, like to think of ourselves as being the only remnant of God’s children upon this earth faithful to God’s written word. Outsiders see us as making such a claim. We see it as necessary to perceive of ourselves as “people of the Book” and perfectly faithful to it because we think that was the case with the first century Christians.
I deny that any segment of the Churches of Christ represent a group of people that is perfectly faithful to the Bible. Who will say that they know all of God’s written word as it is to be known and understood and apply and practice its precepts perfectly? Who among us is/are the official interpreter(s) of God’s written word? Who is at the top of the totem pole? Who has the right to demand conformity to his/their interpretations(s)? Who has the authority to judge brethren as deserving of hell because they don’t subscribe to the party creed?
In addition to the fact that no segment of the Churches of Christ today represents a group of people that is perfectly faithful to the Book, the premise that they should be “people of the Book” because that was the case with the first century church is a false premise. In the first place they had no New Testament. After the gospel was preached on the day of Pentecost, seventeen years went by until the first epistle was written. During the decades of A.D. 50 and 60, the apostle Paul and others began to write documents that eventually gained the status of scripture. As late as 200 A.D. though there was still no New Testament canon and some “books” we now accept as scripture were still treated as doubtful and some we don’t accept now were regarded as being legitimate. It wasn’t until about A.D. 367 that there was an accepted New Testament canon of 27 books. It was part of an official letter by a bishop Athanasius of Alexandria, Egypt.
Second, few people in the early church were literate. Until as recently as the past three centuries, few have had that ability. Over the centuries by far most Christians have been illiterate. God recognized that and that’s why he did not give a book to save the world, but he gave himself in the form of a Person. That Person is the ground of our faith, the source of our hope, and the basis of our unity. If a book could have done it, then Christ would not have needed to die.
Certainly there is a book, a glorious and wonderful revelation that tells us of that Person and his expectations of us. We should cherish it, discuss it, study it, teach it, and use it to see Christ more clearly and to be obedient to his doctrine. Unfortunately we have lost sight of Christ in our interpretations of the Book. Our creed has not been Jesus is Lord, but our select interpretations of the scriptures. We are trusting in our own intellectual abilities to save us rather than faith in Jesus Christ.
Over the decades the Churches of Christ have degenerated into a denomination that confuses the text of the Book and its interpretation. In turn they want to make binding judgment relative to those interpretations. In fact, each segment usually has several interpretations that have reached canonical status and you question or challenge them at your own peril. They think of interpretation as an exact science, all the while becoming very emotionally attached to their comprehension of the text. Then these emotional attachments increase the potential for bias and add to the complexity of the problem. We need to believe what God’s written word says, but we need to realize that at any point we may misunderstand what God has said in that written word.
The problem of which I write was not unknown to our spiritual forefathers in the American Restoration Movement. Let me close with some quotes from Robert Richardson.
“Men seem to have lost sight of the obvious distinction which is to be made between the Bible and the Gospel.”
“It should never be forgotten that the Apostles and first preachers of the gospel had no Bibles, and not even a New Testament, to distribute; and there was no such thing among the early Christians as a formal union upon the ‘Bible alone.’ Nay rather it was a union upon the Gospel alone.”
“Let the Bible be our spiritual library; but let the Gospel be our standard of orthodoxy. Let the Bible be our test of Christian character and perfection, but let the Christian confession be our formula of Christian adoption and of Christian union. In a word, let the Bible be to us everything designated by its Author, but let ‘Christ crucified’ be not only our peace with God, but our peace with one another.” 
Moving again! We thought we were settled for the duration in New Braunfels, but Paul and Mira had different plans for us. Then we thought we were settled for good when we came here over two years ago. But now that I have our new address in most of my books, we are moving again!
Paul works for Intel about ten miles away and the church building is about a mile beyond that. Heavy traffic makes commuting very burdensome. And the kids needed an investment to save on taxes. So they began looking for a more convenient location. Yet they did not want to leave us ten miles away.
They found a spacious house that has a “mother-in-law” apartment diagonally across the street from the church property and less than a mile from Paul’s work place. So we are due to move on March 8 to
17196 NW Woodmere Court
Beaverton, OR 97006-4820.
Please note that change. We are not sure that our telephone number can be transferred, but perhaps at least a forwarding message can be used for a while. Our e-mail address and website URL will not be affected.
This will be a downsizing for us which is needed due to our age and situation. We will be closer to our family, for our living room will open into their breakfast room. Becoming dependent is a probability for all, but for us it seems more of an imminent inevitability. We are most blessed to have children who are so concerned about our needs.
Although it is a one-bedroom apartment, it will provide all the necessities of life like a fireplace, central H/A, an intercom, and a sauna J ! Looking out our bedroom window across the all-weather basketball and tennis courts in the back yard, we can see the church building.
With all the distraction of moving, there is no idea as to when the next mailout will be. I am trying to get this to you now so you will have our new address.
New subscribers to Freedom’s Ring are being added all along. That pleases us. It is free for the asking, both by regular mail and by e-mail. Send e-mail requests to Victor Phares at <firstname.lastname@example.org>. If you wish to receive it no longer, please let us know. Nothing personal. Save money. If you are dissatisfied with its content, we will refund double your subscription price!
(I read) your article on instruments. I asked a man (named) what he thought and I was quite surprised to find out you are a false teacher. J Anyway I wanted to forward my response to you that I sent to him. Keep on preaching the Gospel. I have your site linked from my page and so far I am proud ot it.! -Lyle Marti, “I read and enjoyed Free In Christ and am nearly finished with Leroy Garrett’s Stone-Campbell book. As someone who grew up in the Church of Christ, I have found the material to be very interesting indeed. I feel I could talk a hundred hours or write a hundred pages to you about the things discussed in these books. But don’t worry, I won’t. (At least not now!)” -<JANY73A@prodigy.com
“Thank you for the Freedom’s Ring newsletter and for sending me your book, Free In Christ. I truly enjoyed them both. I was baptized in the church of Christ at age 14 and began preaching in small rural churches in East Texas at age 15. It was not until age 26 that I had a real, personal experience with Jesus Christ. How wonderful to know that a message of free grace is coming from brethren in the church of Christ. I will be praying for your ministry. Keep upholding the message of mercy and grace in Jesus!” -Athens, TX <email@example.com>
“Cecil, Cecil, Cecil… Why is it that every time I read your writings, I think, ‘Yes, this Brother echoes what I believe, he makes sense. Surely this is closer to the heart of Christ than this other.’ And then, a brother who also teaches me and gives me strength, has a cow over that ‘crazy Cecil Hook’? I am of course referring to a year ago when I discovered you. It was only a few months after I had put on our Lord, in submission, in baptism. You were a lesson and an encouragement to me. I e-mailed you and you graciously sent me your books. Then, on the Gospel Advocate List (discovered to me the same time as Freedom’s Ring) some chap was ranting about how heretical Cecil Hook was. You were the topic of at least one thread for a week! J Impressionable as a child, I put down Free In Christ, and sent back your books. I wonder, saint or serpent? Have you the time to talk? I will try to read more, judging the book less by the cover.” -<firstname.lastname@example.org> [And we wonder why we lose converts! He is reading again!]
“I remember when I was baptized all of the congregation was so loving and supportive of their new member and novice in the word. I was told to study the Bible with an open mind. But, after a while I began to question some of the things we did or did not do as compared to what the Word said. Then the encouragement of an open mind was replaced with don’t ask so many questions and toe the party line for we have much more knowledge than you so just listen to us. That was OK for a while but the more I studied the more questions I had that just couldn’t be swept away by the same standard answers anymore. But slowly I met and became aware of more of my brothers and sisters who felt the same way I did but were afraid to openly express their views. Then one day someone gave me a copy of your book Free In Christ and I was so excited that….”
she has little strength or energy for it, Lea is able to move about the house some without assistance. Your expressed concern for her is appreciated.
Our proofreader, Brian Casey, has been occupied with a new job so that he has not been available lately. So all the errors you see are mine, not his.
January was a good month with 159 free copies of Free In Christ being sent out. In February, 30 copies have been sent to a worker abroad who will give them to other preachers with whom he has been discussing. Our prayers go with each book that it may find an open heart. We continue to invite you to pass these free books along to others of receptive heart.
Checking our website, you will see that some of Mission Messenger and Restoration Review are accessible.
Your communications are appreciated. At times I become snowed under and find it difficult to respond to all immediately or with much detail. If I fail to respond to your questions or requests, it is inadvertent. Some e-mail with requests or expressing needs have been replied to, but they are not delivered due to technicalities that I do not control or understand. So please try again. Sending snail mail addresses also can remedy that problem.
Profound matters to ponder (not original): Stupidity got us into this mess; why can’t it get us out? Why do we sing “Take me out to the ball game” when we’re already there? If you throw a cat out the car window, does it become kitty litter? When it rains, why don’t sheep shrink? The trouble with doing nothing is that you never know when you are finished. The claims levied against O. J. are so enormous that he may turn to a life of crime.
Tim Woodroof is one of the most astute writers among us. He brings fresh meanings and startling insights to familiar portions of Scripture. I am pleased to carry a tiny notice of his great list of teaching materials which are used in over 2000 churches already. It is a gold mine for preachers and teachers. Ask for a fuller list and description.
WHAT I HEAR FROM YOU
“Glad to see you still on the optimum firing line. Your awakening of souls to the liberty that is in Christ Jesus is refreshing. Keep up the good work!” -Given Blakely, Joplin, MO <GivenB@aol.com> [Given, a profuse writer, publishes an e-mail thought/lesson each day. If you would like to receive it, let him know.]
“I put a link to your chat rooms from my CONSER-VATIVE CORNER page. Would love for you to visit my site!” -Melanie Schurr <email@example.com.>
“I am an Elder at the Southwest Church of Christ in Jonesboro, AR. I am pleased to find this area. The Elders are now trying to study the roles of women in the church.” -Joe Stephen Selby <firstname.lastname@example.org>
“I first read your theology from your book “Free In Christ.” I find your religious views to be based on a particular attitude toward the Bible. You seem to have a low view of Scripture, that is, that it is not the Christian’s complete and perfect guide to faith and practice. The church, seems to be in your system nothing more than a human organization, with all the flaws of the human beings who have espoused the Gospel. No wonder you don’t like it. I am sorry your reaction to a few obnoxious souls in the church drove you so far from the truth. The enthusiastic disciples of yours, whose copy of your book I read, had a note at the end of it. ‘We do not go to worship.’ I hope that is not your goal nor the fruit of your labors, but they seemed to think it was. In Christian love, I will pray for you to be restored to a high view of Holy Scripture and obedience to the Son of God (Heb. 5:8-9).” -Frazier Conley <email@example.com> [With all due respect to you, my brother, Frazier, I suggest that you read the book again to more accurately reevaluate your assessment of my writing.]
“God bless you, Cecil. You’re providing a more valuable service than you’ll probably ever know.” -Gary Hardy <Ghardy8719@aol.com>
“You have very interesting articles here regarding restoration movements and the present state of churches of Christ.” -Leong Peng Chuen, Singapore <leongpc@starnet.-gov.sg>
“This is a great page for references on many of the topics I get questions about daily. Thank you for supplying me with the correct tools (words from the Bible) to inform others of the right choices. I am finally really feeling like a true Christian now since I’ve been studying and praying, utilizing the writings you have here to make it easier to understand sometimes.” -Shaun Mullenix, St. Marys, GA <firstname.lastname@example.org>
“It’s always a pleasure to receive your Freedom’s Ring. You, along with Leroy Garrett and Carl Ketcherside, have been and continue to be tremendous supporters of my faith. I thank our Lord for putting you there and for your submission to his will. All of you have also ‘turned me on’ to several other helpful brethren and resources through your writings. When I sit down to write (I’m just beginning to learn type – a month and a half of it so far) I realize the time and devotion, the effort and study, the long hours and sacrifice that you must put in to be able to get your materials out as regularly and faithfully as you do.” -<MattMarkM@aol.com
“I greatly appreciate your devotion to honest truth! It’s really not difficult to understand, in fact the simplicity of the gospel and God Himself is very easy to see through eyes that have surrendered to truth. But it’s extremely difficult to see God and the simplicity of His purpose when man’s arrogant pride refuses to surrender.” -<email@example.com>
“I love the church I attend (named, in Texas), but as a grad student in the college group I see a lack of true worship in our group. The singing is beautiful and I know that people’s hearts are all for God, but it is as if we can’t get excited about God. We can’t clap unless it is at a devotional, we can’t lift our hands in praise, etc. for fear that it will distract others in their worship. Isn’t that underestimating the power of God? Isn’t he big enough to take care of distractions if that is what the spirit leads you to do in your worship? I have the opportunity to worship in another college Bible study that is ‘non-denomina-tional’ each week and that is where I see true worship happening. I know we have to start somewhere in the C of C, but I am really struggling with this whole issue. How can we let people know the power of God and assure them that hand raising or clapping isn’t ‘getting out of hand’ when the spirit is leading the worship? As a worship leader this is hard for me right now.” -<firstname.lastname@example.org>
“Brother, you have written with compassion and wisdom. I am very grateful for your voice since mine is not as eloquent on these matters. Through recent years I have developed a working definition of idolatry as creating God in man’s image. It’s more than an effort to be politically correct on homosexuality. Our society is being overrun by other politically correct topics which are nothing more than saying that the individual is the center of the universe and the standard of right and wrong. The ‘Oh, Jerusalem, Jerusalem’ passage comes to mind. People cannot find joy with that false doctrine yet even with my convictions I struggle against the same idolatry. You encourage me. Thanks.” -<email@example.com>
“I don’t know if you have heard of a gentleman by the name of Don DeWelt, but to me this man was a ‘true’ man of God. I’ve been in several seminars and classes that Bro. DeWelt taught and was so impressed with his knowledge of God’s Word and his ability to ‘feed’ those who would listen those precious words. This man captured a very personal spot in my heart and I’ve loved him as I would a father, though my personal relationship with him was nowhere near that. I say all that, Bro. Cecil, to say to you, that you too are finding a very personal spot in my heart. I love the way you deliver God’s Word. I’m more interested in how you have opened a floodgate of truth from the words that others have used to hold us captive. Those who would condemn you for showing the way to God’s grace are foolish within their own teachings. I’ll not ramble, but I did want you to know how much of an influence you’ve had in my life and in many decisions I’ve made. Thank you for taking a stand for the truth, although I know there have been times it hasn’t been the ‘easy’ road to travel. I failed to ever send Bro. DeWelt a note of this nature and I’ve regretted it ever since his death. I made a promise to myself that I would not be so lazy in the future. Thank you again and keep up the fight – it’s well worth it.” -Jimmy Johnston, <firstname.lastname@example.org> [Jimmy, that is a treasured note! Thank you. Yes, I knew and admired Don as a great promoter of unity. But I am not of his stature! He wanted to publish my first book, Free In Christ, when no one else dared, but he was not permitted. But that is another story.]
“I am a fan of your writings. Thank you for opening my eyes and allowing me to rethink some of my past ideas and rituals. I am the webmaster for the Stillwater Church of Christ in Oklahoma. The address for our web page is: <http://www.fullnet.net/np/cocsw/> and I would like your permission to link Freedom’s Ring from our sight.” -Travis Weber, <email@example.com> [Great! Thanks!]]
“I do not know you. I have read some of our work. I was in a discussion on the GA-LIST and I told people to read someone had put into book form answers to so many of the questions and concerns that I had about what I saw as inconsistencies of the church of Christ. Thank you so much for your efforts in encouraging true unity as well as making published materials available. May the blessings of our God bless you in every way.” -Mt. Vernon, TX. [I am thrilled by these and other letters from you sharing your feelings of joyful liberation. Hundreds of others who read them will share your joy also.]
“Restoration” and Renewal
An inquirer asks, “Can spiritual renewal and ‘restoration of the NT church’ go hand in hand? What is God doing in the Churches of Christ these days? Is it business as usual?”
It all depends on what one thinks needs “restoring.” If restoration focuses on the inner elements of NT Christianity – the core gospel, the Christ-centeredness, the supernatural power, holiness, ministry to the world in divine strength – certainly it can allow, encourage, and stimulate spiritual renewal.
However, if the desired “restoration” primarily revolves around externals, and particularly if the restoration of those externals becomes an end within itself, then it will regard spiritual renewal as a threat and will reject it whenever it appears.
The great “restoration” will be God’s own accomplishment at the End (Acts 3:21). Even now, however, God gives us “times of refreshing” to sustain us as we wait for his great “restoration” (Acts 3:19). That is what “renewal” is all about.
What is God doing in Churches of Christ today? I would not presume to claim a definitive answer. But I venture to say that part of what God is doing in COC today (and in other parts of his universal church as well) is turning us into Churches of CHRIST – people who talk about Jesus, preach Jesus, measure doctrines and priorities by the example and teaching of Jesus, and who trust in Jesus for salvation rather than in our success at restoration or our feeble efforts to be obedient.
Part of what God is doing in COC is opening us to the reality of God himself and to his personal, powerful presence in the Holy Spirit. Part of what he is doing is showing us not to depend on our own resources – whether intellectual, spiritual, physical or financial. Part of what he is doing is showing us that we are not alone in his kingdom, after all, but that we are privileged to be included. I would say that is NOT “business as usual.” Praise God from whom all blessing flow!