My Pragma Ran Over My Dogma

Back when I was one of approximately four people going to heaven, I used to knock on doors to let others know. I didn’t really care that much if they accepted what I had to say; I just knew that in addition to conforming to every “command, example, and necessary inference”¹ in the Bible, I also had to warn others of their impending doom.

There was just one problem with doing all of that – it wasn’t possible.

I was newly married, had a part time job in the eeaarly mornings, was a full-time student, and spent at least two hours every day knocking doors. All of that was in addition to attending church services three plus times per week. After eighteen months at that pace, I played out. I reached a place where even the fear of hell wasn’t enough to get me off the couch.

I still remember when Uriah called. I took the cordless phone (this was the early nineties) out to the carport, rested my elbow on the washing machine and my ear on the receiver.

“Hey,” he said, “I was reading in Colossians and I got to 1:27 that says, ‘the mystery hidden for the ages is Christ in you.’ That’s it! That’s what it’s all about.”

“Man, I just don’t have the energy to think about that right now,” was my reply.

He responded, “This doesn’t take energy; it gives it! There’s something different about me now, I mean, I can’t drive by someone on the side of the road without stopping to help them.”

“That sounds great,” I dismissed. “Can we talk about this later?”

In a few days, my guilt compounded enough to pry me from the couch and into the seat of Uriah’s 1970-something Mercury Monarch. I still remember sitting in front of Applegate Apartments, paralyzed by dread.

“Man, I don’t think I can do this today,” I confided to my compatriot.

“I’m telling you, the answer is, ‘Christ in you,’” he responded.

I didn’t know what that meant, but there, trapped between hell on earth and hell in… hell, I decided to imagine that Jesus Christ himself did, in fact, inhabit my body. My willingness or ability no longer mattered. My limp hand rose to the door latch and dropped to pull it forward. My elbow swung outward and with it the creaky metal door. I half-fell to my feet, a disoriented newborn unsure of which way to place his first steps.

Just then, a long-haired man who looked as though he’d abused his body in nearly every way possible, came out of his apartment and hobbled toward us. He was probably in his early thirties but looked every sweaty swollen inch in his late forties. We accosted him with some sort of “are you saved” opener.

“I went to hell one time,” he blathered. “It was weird. It’s like all your stuff and your money and stuff…they’re not worth anything…”

He obviously wasn’t in any state to receive our rationalist take on conformity to the rules of the New Testament. Previously, that fact would have moved me on to a more coherent subject, but for some reason, I put my hand on his shoulder. I offered to pray with him. I felt a compassion for this lost cause that I hadn’t felt for others.

As we disengaged with that guy and moved around the apartment complex, our message changed from warnings about neglected New Testament requirements to invitations to a relationship with Jesus. The obligation that had been sapping my strength transformed into an invigorating indulgence in Christ himself.

At one point I remember turning to Uriah and saying, “You know what? Suddenly I don’t care if someone wants to worship God with a piano.”²

“Me neither!” he exclaimed.

When divine mandate failed to budge me out of the car, “Christ in you” put me to dancing in the street. Our relationship with God had been based on dogma gleaned from an ancient text – demanding, demoralizing, dead. Now, we’d sampled a hit of resurrection power. Our “pragma” (that which we learned through practical experience) had begun to run over our dogma.

Please don’t misunderstand. I’m not saying that we were completely free that day. It was just the beginning of a long journey to the powerful, primitive faith that I now offer to anyone who’ll accept it.

Old dogmas die hard. We didn’t care whether someone wanted to worship with instruments, but we still knew that represented the one true church. We talked less about doctrine and more about Jesus, but then we’d always get back to doctrine. Our minds remained calcified in convictions long set in doctrinal forms, but a living seed had been planted in the dirt between the cracks. It would take time for living experience to displace the hardened legalism that surrounded it.

For now, we channeled our new-found passion into the same old tactics. Once a door opened (literally and figuratively) we set out to delegitimize our victims’ previous religious experience. We’d show them our well-worn proof texts which made abundantly clear that Baptists had been baptized for the wrong reason, and Methodists had been baptized in the wrong way. We argued that if their church had been wrong on something so foundational that it must be the wrong church. They needed to join us in the one true church. After being baptized in the right way and for the right reason, of course.

Not long after having found “Christ in me,” we went door knocking again in the low-income neighborhood around those apartments where it all began. A kindly older lady in a cracker box house invited us in for coffee and condemnation. While we were working on her, a man who looked to be about ten years younger than she came to the door. He was apparently a friend and she invited him in as well. She made introductions all around and then said, “Hey Larry, these guys are here to talk about the Bible. I know you’re into that kind of stuff. Why don’t you talk with them?”

He agreed out of the side of his eyes, and we redirected our barrage at him.

I’ll never forget the serenity on his face as we hammered his claim on salvation.

When we called him to account for his dereliction of duty to the book we regularly violated, Larry would calmly respond, “You guys can say whatever you want. I know that I belong to Jesus.”

We scoffed at his subjective certainty, but we were also shaken by it. He could not measure up to our dogma, but we couldn’t measure up to his faith.

Then there was Shannon, a big guy who lived alone in a messy duplex. As he and I talked, we started comparing notes to discover that our experiences were almost identical. The longer the conversation went on, the more we found ourselves finishing each other’s sentences. We had a kinship that I didn’t have with anyone at the one true church, but Shannon insisted on remaining Catholic. I tried to help him bring his dogma in line, but he just didn’t feel the need.

The rift between us stretched through the middle of my worldview. If my experience had been authentically from God and Shannon had the same experience, then none of the doctrinal stuff mattered to God. But that would invalidate my exclusive claim on God. On the other hand, if my doctrinal formulas were correct, Shannon must have been deluded. If he had been deluded, I had no basis for confidence in my experience either. Shannon and I parted ways, but the tension continued to pull on my paradigm.

Eventually, I would discover that the whole problem had nothing to do with the Bible, but with my assumptions about it. Those assumptions had been given to me as axiomatic truth by the group to which I gave credence. The assumptions and not the Bible were my dogma. But that dogma didn’t hunt (southern reference). I mean it didn’t work.

It didn’t work practically. The New Testament when turned into a law is both too amorphous to master and too rigid to serve. The man who baptized me into the Church of Christ once described the Christian life as trying to hold a ball under water. “You push it down here and it pops up over there.”

So, you’re saying that Christianity consists of spending time and effort on a completely futile and frustrating endeavor? Sign me up!!!

At what point does a person chuck the ball out of the pool and say, “This game is stupid!”?

In addition to failing practically, my dogma also failed predictively. Like Ptolemaic astronomy, it failed to predict reality. If all those assumptions were true, then God couldn’t accept even one person like Larry or Shannon and yet it seemed that he had.

Before you write me off as a crackpot using his own experience to determine objective truth, could we look together at a biblical example of someone whose pragma ran over his dogma?

Peter was praying on the roof and he had this vision of a great sheet filled with all kinds of critters being lowered down out of heaven.

Then a voice said, “Get up Peter. Kill something and eat it.”

Peter’s response typifies the Biblicist approach to religion, “Not so, Lord, for nothing unclean has ever touched my lips.”

To which the Lord, responded, “Don’t call anything impure which God has made clean.”

For some reason, Peter needed to hear things three times  before he got them, so this cycle was repeated two more times.

A cynical synopsis of this narrative from Acts 10 could read as follows: “Christ appears to Peter and commands him to violate Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14.”

As Gentile believers, we might not fully grasp the psychological turmoil into which this vision cast Peter. He whose name means “rock” had never wavered from his resolve to obey the Torah. Now, the Living Word expected him to violate the written word. I don’t know if I can even come up with a modern equivalent from New Testament practice. I suppose it would be like Jesus coming and telling us to replace the wine and bread on the Lord’s Supper table with Monster Energy drinks and churros. Even then, we Gentiles don’t grasp the importance of the food laws to the Jewish identity.

Speaking of Gentiles, Peter, directed by the Spirit, then went to the house of a Roman army officer named Cornelius to tell him the gospel. That, in and of itself, wasn’t scripturally wrong so much as it was a violation of traditional Jewish practice.

While Peter preached about Jesus, Cornelius with all of his friends and family began to speak in other languages and to prophesy by the power of the Holy Spirit. In response, Peter commanded that they all be baptized – that is, that they be visibly accepted into the covenant community.

That posed a problem. Peter allowed the uncircumcised Gentiles into the messianic community even though Genesis 17:9-12 declares that everyone, even foreigners, must be circumcised if they are going to belong to the Abrahamic covenant.

When Peter and his cohort returned to Jerusalem, they were called on the carpet for this action.

The apostles and the believers throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him and said, “You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them.” – Acts 11:1-3

In his defense, Peter recounted the whole story of how he had been called to go to Cornelius’ house to preach the gospel and how God’s pragma had run over his dogma:

“As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit came on them as he had come on us at the beginning. Then I remembered what the Lord had said: ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ So if God gave them the same gift he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could stand in God’s way?” When they heard this, they had no further objections and praised God, saying, “So then, even to Gentiles God has granted repentance that leads to life.” – Acts 11:15-18

It would seem from God’s dealing with Peter that he never meant for Scripture to hamper our interaction with him in a dynamic relationship. Christ could command Peter to violate the Torah and then the Holy Spirit could circumvent the covenant requirements he himself put into place.

But why would God do this?

Because no written code, even one given by God, could possibly apply to every circumstance or address every person. Scripture serves a purpose, but it’s very nature also makes it provisional.


Footnotes:

  1. In my strain of the Church of Christ, we used these three phrases to establish New Testament authority.
  2. The Church of Christ is known for shunning the use of instruments in their public assemblies. Here’s an  article for more on the belief.

The Bible Never Said, “Obey the Bible” — Introduction

The four of us rode together that Sunday morning. The closer we got to the little church house, the greater our anxiety rose until we finally had to pull over into a radiation therapy clinic to pray in the car before continuing on.

When we reached the church, the parking lot was empty. All of the lights were out and a “For Sale” sign was in the yard. We had driven that place out of business!

I had come into the Church of Christ after an existential crisis in my later teen years had sent me church shopping. Their mantras mesmerized me,

“We just want to follow the Bible.”

“Read the Bible for yourself.”

“Don’t take our word for what it says.”

“If you find something we’re doing that doesn’t line up with the Bible, we want to know so we can change.”*

I started reading the New Testament and couldn’t put it down. Very soon, I found some of those things they’d missed. I brought them to the attention of the minister, but he explained them away.

A few years later, I met Uriah who agreed with me, and together along with our reluctant wives, we pushed the envelope. Apparently, they didn’t really mean that part about changing to accommodate.*

Out of devotion to Christ we had committed to reading the New Testament and to doing what it said no matter what. No doubt many would consider that a noble aspiration. That is, until you get to passages like 1 Corinthian 11:2–16 which mandates that women cover their heads when they pray. After much study of this passage, Uriah and I became convinced that these instructions still applied. We were ready to go to the mat for that conviction.

We pushed our belief about the “head covering,” as we called it, on that little church until they had the preacher officially shut us up. Then, we wrote letters to each congregant saying that according to 1 Corinthians 5, Romans 16:17, and 2 Thessalonians 3, we were going to shun them until they repented. We hand delivered each letter along with a personal appeal for their repentance. Now, you see why they closed up shop.

I know all of that sounds pretty macabre to the average person — even the average Christian.

And yet, in principle we weren’t really so different from all the other “Bible believing” Christians in the world. We were just more consistent.

While almost no one outside of Alabama would agree with our conclusions on 1 Corinthians 11, Christians in America have debated the role of women in leadership for decades. The church has continued to straggle behind the national conscience on equal opportunity for women because certain passages in the New Testament seem to specify male leadership or limit female participation. Churches which continue to adhere to those passages alienate women and marginalize their message.

Even though more people agree with their position than with the one we were pushing, these “complementarians” claim to base their beliefs on the same standard Uriah and I used. The same New Testament (even the same epistle) that seems to prohibit female teachers in the Christian assembly also seems to teach that women should cover their heads.

Why don’t more “bible based” churches insist that women cover their heads when they pray? Could I suggest that the difference between the Southern Baptist Convention today and me in the early nineties has more to do with politics than with hermeneutics and more to do with democracy than with devotion to God?

Mainstream conservative denominations derive their doctrines from the same assumptions that Uriah and I used; their motives are just a bit more mixed. Since no text can be understood exactly the same by any two people, agreement among large groups suggests a preference for compromise over conviction. We were only four and no more because we were ready to follow the New Testament to the letter without deferral to human opinion or even to common sense.

My position on the head covering didn’t arise from personal misogyny or some sort of male power trip; it was pure, painful devotion. I was ready to do whatever the New Testament enjoined on me no matter how odd or difficult.

Here’s another vignette which I present to you as Exhibit B.

I still remember the day that I read Romans 13:1–2:

Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.

I can’t remember where I went after reading that passage, but I’ll never forget the trip there. I always took a long backroad as a shortcut any time I traveled north from my house. I hadn’t previously paid attention to the 25 MPH sign. Now, it stood there with the prohibitive force of a command carved in a tablet of stone. Sweat beaded on my forehead as my white Rabbit idled along, nearly gobbled up by the truck bearing down on my bumper. When the speedometer needle would spasm over to 26, I’d utter a petition for forgiveness under my breath while glancing again at the angry grill in my rearview mirror.

I drove like that for years. Even as a UPS driver. Even in 5 MPH parking lots. So maddening was the pace, that my passengers would occasionally reach over to push down on my knee.

As ridiculous as my story sounds, wasn’t I just obeying the Bible? Read a little further down in Romans 13 to verse 6:

This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.

Christians claim to follow the Bible, but we gasp when someone cheats on his taxes and laugh when he gets a speeding ticket. What’s the deal?

No doubt many will recoil at the idea that we’re not supposed to obey the Bible. Here’s a word of comfort for those folks: You already don’t obey the Bible. Nobody has. It’s not possible.

When Christians claim to follow the Bible, or churches predicate their authority on it, they’re just really being dishonest with others and themselves.

The Bible wasn’t written as a rule book. Attempting to treat it that way will result in confusion, hypocrisy, and division…oh wait, it already has.

In this series of articles, I will demonstrate that much of the church’s failure to accurately represent Christ to the watching world stems from its misunderstanding of the purpose of the Bible.

Strange Fire

The religious group that I came up in was built on the notion that God gave the New Testament to humanity as a blueprint for the way he wanted them to live and worship him. We believed that in the letters of Paul God had prescribed exactly how he wanted collective worship to be performed and that any deviation from that prescription would incur divine judgment.

For those of you who’ve always wondered, that’s why Churches of Christ “don’t have music” – the New Testament prescribes singing and so “playing” is forbidden.

To illustrate the gravity of any sort of innovation, we’d point to the tragic story of Nadab and Abihu in Leviticus 10:1-3. These two sons of Aaron offered “strange fire” before God which he had not authorized. In response to their sacrilege, fire flared up from the presence of the LORD and killed them. God required that anyone who came near him treat him as holy.

God hasn’t changed. We mustn’t despise him in any way. Worship has changed, though. When asked by the Samaritan woman about the proper location to worship God, Jesus divulged a secret:

Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks.  God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth. (John 4:23-24)

The redemptive work of Christ would transition worship from physical rituals and sacrifices to spiritual practices and offerings (Spirit). He would reveal the reality (truth) represented by the temple and priesthood which had been shadows cast on a wall awaiting the full light of Christ’s presence.

The recipients of the letter to the Hebrews faced exclusion from the temple service in retribution for their “blasphemous” proclamation that Jesus was the Messiah. The author of that letter wrote to assure them that they would suffer no loss whatsoever since worship under the superior priesthood of Christ could never be withheld from anyone. Why not? Because we worship “outside the camp” in the wilds of our daily lives and not within sacred spaces or under the auspices of any human authority. Consider the glory of vulgar worship that pleases God:

Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our “God is a consuming fire.”

 Keep on loving one another as brothers and sisters. Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.  Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.

Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral.  Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said,

“Never will I leave you;
    never will I forsake you.”

 So we say with confidence,

“The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid.
    What can mere mortals do to me?”

 Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith.  Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.

Do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teachings. It is good for our hearts to be strengthened by grace, not by eating ceremonial foods, which is of no benefit to those who do so. We have an altar from which those who minister at the tabernacle have no right to eat.

The high priest carries the blood of animals into the Most Holy Place as a sin offering, but the bodies are burned outside the camp. And so Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood.  Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore. For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.

Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise—the fruit of lips that openly profess his name. And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased. (Hebrews 12:28-13:16 emphasis mine NAW)

This section is bookended with the idea of pleasing worship to God. Everything in the middle describes that pleasing worship. God has not changed since the days of Nadab and Abihu. He’s a consuming fire today just like he was then. On the day Christ fulfilled our obligations to God, the curtain of the temple ripped from top to bottom. The divine presence has been released, imposing holiness on every aspect of human existence.

Now, we worship when we mow our brother’s yard, take our sister a meal, or pray for a brother in prison. We encounter the transcendent and pure when we have sex with our spouse. We pay homage to God when we follow our leaders into the abandonment of material gain and goods because of faith in his provision. Consuming a ceremonial meal does nothing for our hearts because grace keeps us ever partaking and always filled. Instead of making an animal pay for our devotion to God, we offer the more costly gifts of unashamed confession of his name and sacrificial service and giving.

In light of that description of worship, the rituals and ceremonies which the church offers smell like strange fire.

We don’t gather weekly to worship. The early church didn’t model their meetings on the worship at the temple but on the gatherings at synagogue. God never called upon Israel to gather every Sabbath to worship him. He gave no direction whatsoever regarding the procedure or structure of synagogue service. Jews which had been scattered after the Babylonian captivity in 586 BCE, spontaneously began coming together (the literal meaning of the word “synagogue”) for mutual encouragement and learning.

Jesus never told his people when, how, or why to meet. He made them a called out people of the resurrection and disbursed them among a hostile world. Having risen out of Judaism, they knew that meeting once a week for mutual encouragement and learning was critical to the maintenance of their distinct identity and spiritual vigor. In structure and procedure, early church gatherings were almost identical to synagogue service.

Here’s the kicker, just as synagogue grew out of necessity and was shaped by human thinking, so church gatherings, governance, and their liturgy have no connection with divine mandate. God gave the gift of wisdom to Paul and the other apostles who ministered to their generation, but they appointed elders in every church because every synagogue was presided over by elders, not because Jesus told them that churches should be elder led. Paul prohibited women from ministering in the gatherings of some of the churches, but women couldn’t even attend synagogue.

If we’re going to regard Paul, then we’ll need to respect his declaration that we no longer serve God under a covenant based on written rules but one which expresses God’s purposes in Christ. When Christ instituted the Lord’s Supper, he didn’t specify how often they were to eat it. He only required that as often as they did partake that they remember him. Communion is for us. Through that remembrance, we come back to the wellspring of our faith. In 1 Corinthians 11, Paul spoke of divine discipline carried out on those who ate unworthily, but the sacrilegious actions had nothing to do with mishandling emblems; it consisted of mistreating the people of God.

We meet to encourage one another – that is the spirit of Paul’s letters. When we attempt to strain out every doctrinal gnat of church procedure, we always end up swallowing the camel of dead legalism.

Because we meet for mutual encouragement, we need to stop asking, “What did the early church do?” or even, “What does the Bible say about how we should meet?” and start asking, “What will encourage everyone to go out into the world and really worship?”