Addressing Some Issues about “Assembly Distinctives”
A few weeks ago Crawford Paul posted an interesting and important article on Assembly Distinctives (hereafter ADS), which was followed by a supporting article by Ross Rodgers. While many of the points that Crawford and Ross make are important, some points worry me and could create more problems than they solve.
Part of the problem is simply due to the shortness of the articles and cannot be blamed on the authors themselves. I also want to add that I have had some time to correspond with Crawford and we do agree on many points. I still want to express some of my thoughts and concerns while there is interest in this topic.
1 What are assembly distinctives?
One major problem when talking about ADS is there is no consensus over what they are. Perhaps the only (recently) published list is by H. G. Mackay in the early 1980s. ADS act as a silent creed, but no one really knows what exactly they are. While both articles were written without listing specific distinctives, it would have been helpful to give a formal idea of what ADS are.
2 Reading the Bible
Crawford and Ross agree that “It would be far better for each local church to search the scriptures themselves and follow those convictions than adhere simply to an established list of the ‘brethren’.” While I do agree with this statement, it does need some qualification.
How should we study the Bible? How do we study the Bible individually and as a church? What should we use to aid in reading the Bible, if any? Crawford and Ross did not set out to write articles on interpreting the Bible, but presenting a solution like this makes the answer seem easier than it is.
3 Us vs. them
Both Crawford and Ross make a big deal out of how ADS fosters an “us vs. them” attitude. While I do not disagree this can happen, it does not always have to necessarily follow. An us versus them attitude is a result of poor application of ADS, not of ADS themselves. There can be doctrinal and denominational boundaries, but unity can still be experienced.
One example comes from a Lutheran and a Catholic. George Lindbeck was a Lutheran observer at Vatican II, and during a presentation he heard a Catholic Bishop state that at times Protestants had a better understanding of Justification and that they should be able to learn from the Protestants. Lindbeck was astonished when he heard this, that he was moved to tears! They were able to have some unity despite their continued differences.
4 Final authority and tradition
While Crawford made some statements about the authority of the Bible, Ross makes it one of his major points. Now I will not be arguing against the authority of the Bible! But to uphold the authority of the Bible does not mean we have to rid ourselves of all tradition. In fact, Paul encourages the churches to follow his tradition he gave them (1 Corinthians 11:2; 2 Thessalonians 2:15; 2 Thessalonians 3:6). We all agree that we should not rush to get rid of all tradition.
Tradition has always been tentative in the assemblies, with its strict biblicism, lack of any formal creed or doctrinal statement, and the term’s implied Roman Catholic undertones. But tradition does have an important place in church life. It helps guide us as we begin to first read our Bibles and gives us a framework to see the whole Biblical story.
When people think tradition, they usually think of practices, like Sunday night meetings or head coverings. But there is also doctrinal tradition which should carry heavier weight. These would include the creeds of the early church councils that set forth the orthodox understanding of the Trinity and the Person of Christ.
Let us not forget that there is a long line of believers that came before us, who all had the Spirit’s teaching as they read the Scripture. It would be foolish to ignore their comments, either old or new.
If there is good reason, traditions should be questioned and challenged. But, in the past, this has led to some major problems. Some brethren have been so set on rejecting tradition and “just believing the Bible” that they fell into real heresy and denied the perfect and full humanity of Christ. Even C. H. M. was accused of this at one point.
I am not saying that if we do as Paul and Rodgers suggest, people would be committing heresy left and right. But I am concerned since there is real historical precedent in the assemblies for this sort of doctrinal error!
5 Local Churches and Accountability
Ross states that each church should search the Scriptures for themselves and “is accountable for sure… but to Christ alone.” Despite this statement’s good intentions, it can create real problems.
Local churches must able to have some influence or authority over others when appropriate. While the (open) assemblies hold to the independence of the local church, a scheme like this could veer into hyper-independence to the detriment of the “Unity of the Body.” How can the church be one body, yet have no influence over its other parts?
6 Man-made categories
While Crawford advocates for dropping the term ADS, Ross seems to go a little farther in wanting to drop all man-made categories. While I emphatically agree with Ross that “our basis for fellowship within the body of Christ, is a person”, dropping man-made categories does not really solve the problem. Man-made categories are inevitable and often reveal a heart issue.
Next time you find yourself in a discussion with someone and they state, “I am a (insert term here)”, simply ask them what they exactly mean by that and where they think it is found in the Bible. You may be surprised how much you agree.
7 Letting “God’s Word Have the Final Say”
Both Crawford and Ross make statements about how the Bible gets the final word. “We may have to have respectful discussions seeking understanding first, if there are disagreements, and then let God’s Word have the final say.” It is necessary to affirm this. But it too raises a problem.
When people are discussing the Bible and disagree, the question is over interpretation.
This is the exact problem that the early church encountered when discussing the Trinity. Everyone would agree that “Jesus comes from God” because the language was biblical. But not everyone agreed on what the language meant. Did it mean that Jesus is sent from God or that Jesus was created by God?
Because of the intense debate, the church had to basically create a Trinitarian vocabulary that was not in the Bible to speak accurately and truthfully about what the Bible said about the Father, Son and Spirit.
Comments like “let God’s Word have the final say” seem to leave little room for the move to interpretation and theology. We must be able to accept that we have to move from Biblical language to non-biblical language, and from text to theology.
Thankfully, these articles will not be the end of the discussion. We must continue to dialogue about what ADS are and what to do about them. But I stress that while it is good to look to the future, we must also keep an eye on the past.