The Scandal of Conservative Exclusivity – A Quick Review of Todd Deaver's New Book "Facing Our Failures"
“Should the use of instrumental music in worship be a test of fellowship? If so, what about praise teams, handclapping during worship, praying to Jesus, or female translators? Must we divide when we disagree over the veil, the qualifications of elders, or divorce and remarriage?
This book documents the extreme diversity of views held by traditional brethren who are in fellowship with each other. These brethren, often preachers and writers, disagree over the scriptural bounds of fellowship. They disagree over the proper criteria for determining those boundaries. They differ on which practices are biblically authorized and which are sinful. They even disagree over which issues we must be right about in order to be saved. The one thing they seem to have in common is a belief that fidelity to God requires us to be right on all these matters. And yet, in spite of their crucial differences on these very issues, they somehow remain in fellowship with each other.
Is this consistent? Study the evidence and decide for yourself.
As a former preacher of the traditional dctrine of fellowship, the author understands it well. He writes with respect for thse whose views he critiques, and he fervently pleads for Churches of Christ to acknowledge the failure of the traditional paradigm. A theology that is self-contradictory cannot be right. Deaver calls us to the difficult task of opening our minds to a different approach.” — from the back cover, Facing Our Failures: The Fellowship Dilemma in Conservative Churches of Christ by Todd Deaver
When a Deaver publishes, it is rarely ignored in our brotherhood. His grandfather and father are both well-known teachers, missionaries, and gospel preachers. The apple has not fallen far from the tree, as both Todd and his brother are gospel preachers and articulate writers as well. There’s a further connection between myself and the author, as his family partnered in mission work in Tanzania with my spiritual mentor, Joel Hestand, in the early days of Chmala.
So when I heard through the grapevine that Todd Deaver had written a book, I would have probably have ordered it regardless of topic or theme. It came well-recommended as a challenge to the “powers that be” in the Churches of Christ, so I was even more interested. So I tracked him down on Facebook, ordered a copy (you can follow the instructions HERE and get one for yourself), and finished it tonight.
This book matters. As one reader has told me, “We needed this book 50 years ago.” Rarely does a book do exactly what it promises — no more, no less. What you will find in its pages is exactly what the back cover says, along with masses of evidence, to the tune of 228 footnotes in 110 pages. Who said what. Who agrees with who. Who says who believes and/or practices one form of damnable doctrine but is not rejected for it, while rejecting others for other doctrines equally damnable according to their theories of inspiration, exclusivity, and felowship.
The scandal of the exclusive conservative paradigm is, in a word, inconsistency. Its results are two-fold: 1) no one who preaches it actually practices it, precisely because 2) practicing it consistently would lead each and every Christian to worship in a one-person church. Some commentators (Gil Yoder at Let Us Reason, for one) are content to accept that the eventual result of our current trajectory is infinite division. Deaver is not.
In five chapters, Deaver exposes the deep inconsistency lurking under the surface of our conservative fellowship arguments. Using the words of many noted conservative brethren, quoting them as favorably and accurately as possible, he shows us the wide distance between what is TAUGHT and what is PRACTICED in fellowship. My favorite passage (pp. 78-79) addresses the popular a capella argument that our stance is not about the instrument; rather, it is about authority. Here’s a tease: “But if that’s the reason we must so rigorously oppose instrumental music and withdraw from those who participate, why wouldn’t the same apply to every practice we believe to be unauthorized? Consistency would demand it.”
In his conclusion, he shares almost 20 different points where our doctrine and praxis are contradictory. “It will not do to say that fellowship is a thorny issue and the application of truth gets complicated. Our theology doesn’t allow us the luxury of being wrong. Given our paradigm, we must figure it out or lose our souls.” p. 105
Other quotes of interest:
“Please think about this, brethren. We preach and teach constantly on the importance of doctrine and the necessity of being united in belief and teaching. We ridicule the concept of unity in diversity. We cannot have biblical unity unless we are in doctrinal agreement, we contend. But if each of us were honestly to answer the question of exactly which doctrines we must agree on to maintain unity, we would be stunned by the diversity of positions taken.” p. 46, emphasis mine
“What is at stake, in fact, is nothing less than our identity as the true church.” p. 88 (my Mormon-experienced readers might hear echoes of their own theology in ours)
“According to our theology there can be no diversity when it comes to the boundaries of fellowship.” p. 93
“If our theology is correct, we have a lot of dividing left to do. We simply cannot continue to hold our present paradigm, maintain our existing circle of fellowship, and claim we are consistent.” p.101
God’s Spirit always works in unexpected and new ways — I pray that he will breathe his life into our churches and set us free from our own broken worldview. If he does, I pray that Todd’s writing (this text and its necessary sequel) will be a catalyst in a return to our roots as a unity movement. If he does not, if he allows our spiritual heritage to pass from the earth, Todd’s book will hopefully survive as an artifact chronicling our failure. I recommend this book to any Church of Christ member willing to allow their views on fellowship to be challenged, and especially if your congregation has trouble finding faithful works in which to participate.
Give a copy to your preacher, to your elders. It is worth the money.
We MUST face our failure, we must OWN it like Nehemiah — even if you yourself have never actively contributed to the deep fractures running between parties in the CoC — before we can see clearly to find a way forward.
I close with a poetic warning. He who has ears to hear…
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shatter’d visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp’d on these lifeless things,
The hand that mock’d them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away