[Journal, August 25, 2006]: Writing today while sitting in the Nashville airport, waiting to return home from the strategic planning conference for the church of God, just ended today. Themes that have emerged from this conference will emphasize a flexible ministry future that is characterized by multi-directional communications, connectivity that uses all available technologies, etc., etc. There is a sense that the upshot of this meeting might help kick-start the “movement” out of its two-decades-long sense of being in the doldrums.
There is of course a desire to keep emphasizing the twin doctrines of holiness and unity, which gave birth to our movement. But this morning one participant made an observation which got my attention. In its early years, this movement’s message was a church-oriented message (“come ye out from among them and touch not the unclean thing” etc., thus holiness, along with a sense that those who had thus “come out” would “see the church” and thus begin to experience the spiritual unity that comes from belonging, not to any denomination or sect, but to Christ alone). It was also a message whose target audience was church people, just as the core message had to do with the nature of a person’s relationship to the church.
Today, the target audience is no longer church people, but the unchurched, and if we are calling folk to come out from anything, it is from the confusing babel of voices that bombard them in the world. We still call people to an experience and intimacy with Christ, but we no longer have the luxury of assuming that where they are coming from is somehow even a pseudo-Christian loyalty. Our scope is no longer the church, in other words, but the world.
Several participants at various points in the conference pointed out that the themes of “holiness” and “unity” are the only two themes we have to fall back on for our identity, out of four that really defined us in the beginning; the other two being come-outism and church-historical eschatology. So many of the attempts to preserve and reclaim our heritage lead to a dead end, because those now-abandoned themes were the forward-looking motivation that made the movement really move. The heart and soul of what makes our history exciting is also tied up with those things, making it difficult to engage new people in the church from getting all worked up about the Trumpet family, the floating Bethel, or missionary homes. It may be a great past for those of us who are into that sort of thing, but the future is elsewhere. But where?
A colleague made an observation Friday morning that got me thinking about this shift in a new way. The observation is that in its beginnings, the Movement was a church reformation. The issues were church issues, and the target audience was church people. The come-out message called people out of Babylon, meaning churches (denominations) to stand in Christ alone. The unity message had to do with the nature of the church, and in a different way the same was true of holiness. And the explicit church message, that this reformation was foretold in scripture to be the culmination of God’s working in history, placed us at the center of everything; but it was a church-centered center all the way.
Today, the issue of denominationalism has largely become a non-issue. The come-out message seems a bit overdone and sectarian itself. We became a non-denominational denomination, an anti-sectarian sect, and the original basis of the unity message came to be seen (even by us) as narrow and divisive. Parachurch organizations know that there is really only one church, and even Baptist preachers will affirm as much. The passion with which that message was preached has faded. We’ve lost our target audience, and no longer consider it our holy mission to get Episcopalians to leave the Episcopal church, Methodists to abandon Methodism, and so on. Essentially, in the common culture the battle against the exclusivism of denominations has been won.
So, who is now our target audience? Where is there room for movement? If we remember that the commission is to go into all the world and teach all nations to observe the things that Jesus has commanded, our target is no longer church people, but the unchurched, the message of unity must extend not just to church people but to the human race, our place in the eschatalogical scheme of things will have to do with God’s great purpose to unite all things in heaven and earth under one head, namely Christ (Ephesians 1:10), and we have a new opportunity to preach a different come-out message: Come out from among the political and religious warriors who fight for their turf and their ideologies, come out from among those who neglect the weightier matters, justice, mercy, and the love of God. Come out from the Babel of voices that contend for land, oil, wealth and security. Stand with those who stand with Christ alone, who in turn stands with all of humanity, not just its nominally Christian subset.
[August 29] From Doug Welch, a former missionary, retired seminary professor, critical thinker, writer, conversationalist and curmudgeon, the above evoked the following comment, in part:
“If we remember that the commission is to go into all the world and teach all nations to observe the things that Jesus has commanded, our target is no longer church people, but the unchurched, the message of unity must extend not just to church people but to the human race, our place in the eschatalogical scheme of things will have to do with God’s great purpose to unite all things in heaven and earth under one head, namely Christ (Ephesians 1:10), and we have a new opportunity to preach a different come-out message: Come out from among the political and religious warriors who fight for their turf and their ideologies, come out from among those who neglect the weightier matters, justice, mercy, and the love of God. Come out from the Babel of voices that contend for land, oil, wealth and security. Stand with those who stand with Christ alone, who in turn stands with all of humanity, not just its nominally Christian subset.”
[Dr. Welch comments:] Here is our quotation for the day. And it’s a good one! What a great sermon! I hope you will preach it. Warner’s come-outism was very wrongly focused in many ways. Of course we have to remember that 19th century America (and 18th century America in John Winebrenner’s day) was a maelstrom of denominational and sectarian rivalry–a kind of Christian ‘tribalism’ run amok. The appeal for holiness and unity was greatly needed. But Warner and associates added to the Christian in-fighting in their own little corner of the world. As Bro. Tasker always said: “They fought sectarianism in a most sectarian way. They attempted to solve the problem by creating the sect to end all sects.”
For Warner, ‘holiness’ meant ‘unworldliness.’ That is, to ‘come out of Babylon’ was to come out of all of her worldly, ungodly social and personal behaviors. One became holy, of course, through the experience of ‘full salvation,’ but that meant eschewing fashionable dress, alcohol, tobacco, worldly entertainments, and anything else that took time or money away for “God’s work.” Holiness was the basis of unity. Only those who had experienced ‘full salvation’ and were walking in the light could be one. You could not have full salvation and remain in ‘Babylon,’ for God had abandoned it completely. No candle remained alight and “no sound of grinding was heard in the streets.” You could not be saved in ‘Babylon’ and if by chance you were saved you could not remain so unless you came out of her.
Unity for Warner was uniformity. All must see alike; all must preach alike; all must think alike; all must behave alike; all must worship alike. Diversity was not tolerated. It was equated with heterodoxy. The Holy Spirit may have ruled the church, but ‘the truth’ was revealed to the special few. No individual ‘revelation’ could disagree with that. This unity could be realized only through come-outism. This was not ‘the time of harvest,’ but the ‘time of gleaning,’ of gathering up the ‘sheaves’ that would constitute the ‘bride of Christ’ at his imminent coming. Thus they believed that only a ‘remnant’ would be saved.
The essential dynamic of ‘the church of God reformation movement’ (only ‘God’ is ever capitalized in the early literature) was the imminence of the Second Advent. This was a common belief in the Holiness Movement of the 19th century (and Warner was heart and soul a part of that Movement). In addition, Warner (followed by Schell, Riggle, and Smith) had much in common with the Adventists. (Warner and Schell differed with Uriah Smith only in interpretative detail–particularly the cleansing of the sanctuary–but fully accepted his basic eschatological hermeneutic, as did F.G. Smith.) C.W. Naylor was quite right in his contention that if Warner and associates were wrong about the Second Advent–and they were–then a great deal of Warner’s theology was essentially flawed–and it was. This was particularly true, Naylor believed, of his teaching of unity through come-outism.
Like you, I am a believer in a ‘come-out’ theology. The raison d’etre of any Christian community is to represent the Reign of God as model and herald of God’s shalom. This means being a counter-cultural community. Thus, all you enumerate in the quotation above is exactly what we are to be doing. This is how we are to be “in” the world. If we fail (by not trying) at those points we show ourselves to be “of” the world, rather than being fully ‘present’ as a people of God (Bonhoeffer!). I applaud your insights and hope your own congregation can be leaven in your community and beyond.
[August 31] I’m not prepared to issue quite so harsh a judgment on Warner as this brother has done, but many of his points, especially concerning how much the church-historical eschatology was a derivative and offshoot of Adventism, are certainly well taken. I am not so much interested, however, in a repudiation of Warner’s vision, as in a re-thinking and enlarging of it, to embrace, as I said above, not just the church but the whole of humanity, the new creation of which the church of God is to be, according to Pauline theology, the firstfruits. I believe this can be done by taking a new look not just at eschatology, but also at the vigorous pneumatology that brought a sense of “Heaven to Earth” in the lives of many of the movement’s “saints.” Neither unity nor holiness, nor the mystical vision of the church as a living organism, can be properly understood in the compelling way it was by Warner and his associates, absent a full embrace of the work of the Holy Spirit.
Further, it seems to me that this new come-outism would call people to come and stand with Jesus, not just as an icon of religious worship, but as the author of the words in red, as the itinerant healer, the toucher of outcasts, the one who chose to suffer rather than to rule, as the model for the common life to which persons of the spirit are called. If the great commission is to teach all nations whatsoever Jesus has commanded (the words in red, again) and the great commandment is to extend neighbor-love even to our enemies, which is one of the things included in those commanments written in red, then an understanding of church life will emerge which will make the church’s role in the things Jesus said are important, such as feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned, not an added, somewhat awkward option to the business of doing church, but the very definition of how we do church.