Fear-driven Christianity

Years ago, a hymnbook came out called Sacred Selections. It made numerous changes to the words of songs to adapt them to fit the beliefs of the editors. For example, instead of “When We All Get To Heaven,” this book had “When The Saved Get To Heaven.” Critics called it Scared Selections.

The subject of “safety” in Christian practice came up the other day. Too often, we let fear determine our practices, what we will do and what we won’t. (I wrote about “The Ticking Time Bomb” a couple of years ago) While actively seeking to do what is unsafe is foolish, focusing on “safety” in religion can lead us to an even more dangerous place.

It’s like the rabbinic concept of “the fence around the Torah.” To keep from violating the Torah, they made rules that would keep them from getting close to lawbreaking. This created a safety zone. It also created a new set of laws.

Think about this principle in real life. What if every choice we made was determined by safety? We’d probably eat baby food, just to reduce the risk of choking. No elevators; it’s the stairs for us. Speed limits would be set at 10 mph, or maybe cars would be banned altogether. Human contact would be restricted, to avoid the risk of contagion. See what I mean?

We see it in sports. The teams that play to “not lose” rarely win. Frankly, I think we see it in churches as well. That atmosphere of fear doesn’t foster healthy church relations. It kills creativity, spontaneity and leaves little to no room for the Spirit to work.

Part of this comes from the lost/saved mentality, the one that says that all that matters is being saved. In a sense, that is the ultimate goal, yet Christians that focus on that rarely enjoy the fullness of life in Christ. Our focus needs to be on pleasing God. It needs to be on the imitation of Christ. It needs to be on living life as a citizen of the kingdom, promoting the good of that kingdom. It’s not just a focus on “Am I in or out?”.

Or is there a way to focus on safety without focusing on fear? Am I defining things too narrowly? Am I misunderstanding what others have said?

Looking forward to your input.

Photo by Kevin Rosseel

48 thoughts on “Fear-driven Christianity

  1. Darin

    Do people focus on that because it tends to require less? Do the people of God love to focus on certain ideas because they require little in the way of change? We should be afraid of this and we don’t do it so we are good so can we get back to doing nothing?

    As always great thoughts.

  2. Frank B.

    Good post, Tim.

    I remember “Scared Selections.” And “When the Saved Get to Heaven”? The change completely transformed the feel of that song. It was no longer about assurance and joy. Now it was more along the lines of doubt, exclusion, and suspicion; not about God’s power to redeem all of us, but about the ability of some of us to accumulate enough merit so as to be among the saved. What a travesty. Note to song changers: If you don’t like someone else’s song, write your own!

    Regarding safety, when did Jesus ever use that as a guide? As you’re pointing out, if we reject safety as a primary value, that’s not necessarily the same thing as being foolish.

    By the way, I couldn’t help but remember that being safe has been an argument for the rejection of musical instruments in Christian worship. When some have sensed that their exclusionary rules were not so convincing, they have resorted to “Well, at least a cappella is safe.”

  3. Don Middleton

    I believe that there is an interesting dualism here. What does it practically, religiously mean to be safe? I have often thought, as evidenced by Jesus with the disciples in the boat — better to be with God in the storm on the sea, that without Him in the calm on dry land. Security is a good thing if it has the right focus…and our security should not be bound up in regulation, that is, our self-righteousness…because if anything, this is what makes many believers insecure and fearful. Another ironic aspect of this is that people “believe” that they are secure with walls, control, just as a fort would be built in order to protect a city. Many believe that this same principle applies spiritually…but, “freedom” is where true security is found. When we are set free from sin, death, regulation, anxiety, fear, etc….there truly is nothing to fear and we can enjoy salvation, life and godliness. (Psalms 46:10)

  4. nick gill

    Frank, that last is precisely the idea that troubles me.

    I don’t want to stretch the interpretation of a parable, but there’s something meaningful to me about the silence of the master in the parable of the talents in Matthew. He gives each servant some cash and then goes away.

    Now, in our traditional interpretation, we’ve added the assumption that the Master MUST HAVE given them instructions before leaving – “how else could he hold them accountable without a command??”

    But what if the test is to see how well they know him? How will they handle what he has given them, without a direct command?

    What was safe about burying the money?

  5. guy


    i’m taking a seminar on the problem of evil right now, and it’s something quite similar to that idea that motivates quite a bit of philosophical atheism. –God being too hidden (perhaps lack of instruction or lack of clear instruction or lack of epistemic justification and discernment) and then holding us accountable when we aren’t able to figure it out for ourselves. i’m certainly no atheist, but i’ll say that kind of ‘testing’ and ‘reckoning’ on those terms definitely goes against my fatherly intuitions.


  6. nick gill

    guy – they’re missing what the servant was held accountable FOR. Look at the text again:

    “But his master answered him, ‘You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I scattered no seed? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest.”

    The servant is held accountable for two things – completely misunderstanding the nature of his master and not acting in accord with his own stated belief about the master’s nature.

    He wasn’t held accountable for not being able to solve a Rubik’s Cube. He was held accountable for being disastrously unable to answer the question, “What would my master do with this money? Hide it or create something with it?”

  7. nick gill

    In this case, also… those being held accountable are those who already know the master. The parable is about the relationship between God and his covenant people, not those who are not members of that group.

  8. Tim Archer Post author


    Just to play devil’s advocate, doesn’t Romans 4:15 argue against that: “And where there is no law there is no transgression.” (Actually, I like your point, just want to get your interaction with that verse)

  9. brian

    recently had the same old Good Samaritan discussion. I know it’s especially hard for some ladies to stop and help a stranger. I don’t always do it.
    but our assumption usually is, God wants me to live a long life………….

  10. Paul Smith

    Okay, since nothing else in my life seems to be working very well, I’ll be the sacrificial black sheep in the conversation. It seems to me that a false distinction is often made in this discussion. But (because I was a pilot for 10 years) I want to point out that our missions in space would have been catastrophic failures had safety not been the #1 concern. Just look at the “Apollo 1” test fire, and the loss of both space shuttles. Apollo, Challenger and Columbia all ended in catastrope not because of the goal, but because of shortcuts in safety procedures. Had we been more safety conscious in each of those examples we would not have lost 17 astronauts. In the space program you see both classic liberalism (“we can do anything we put our minds to”) with classic conservatism (“that might be true, but we are going to make sure its done with the right precautions in place”). I have been told that the main life support systems on the Apollo craft were triple redundant. I flew twin-engine Cessnas and all the main electrical systems had redundancy built in. The fact that you can get 3 tons of aluminum, gas and freight up in the air is a dangerous feat, yet because I knew the multiple layers of “safety first, last and always” that governed my company’s maintenance procedures I felt totally comfortable flying those little “space ships” in weather that kept ducks in their nests.

    That, I believe, is the point of healthy conservatism. I don’t want to defend a flat-earth mentality, but if you want to suggest that a method or a doctrine or a belief or anything is superior or more correct than the method, doctrine, etc that I am currently using, you had better let me know that you have done your homework and can prove that it is as safe, or safer, than what I currently believe. We shifted from a earth-centric system to a sun-centric system not because it sounded better or because it would keep 20 somethings from leaving the church, but because it was proven through observation and testing.

    When I look back over the past 50 years or so at all the wreckage that the latest and greatest “new and improved” methodology created in the church I have every right to question the “new and improved” methodology that is being hawked today. It’s not because I am scared spitless. It’s because I don’t want to climb in a space ship where one spark can incinerate me in seconds.

    As I have discussed elsewhere, Jeremiah 6:16 has been used, abused and overwrought within the Restoration Movement. But all abuses aside, the fact is Jer. 6:16 is in the canon, and it is there for a purpose. If the ancient path leads us to fresh and new green pastures and still waters, then by all means let us walk that path. But let us make sure that we are traveling the “ancient path” for it will be the safest path.

  11. Tim Archer Post author

    Thanks, Paul, for being willing to be a dissenting voice. (Though I’d never heard of a sacrificial black sheep :-)

    The hole I see in the spaceship analogy is that we have to view our relationship with God as being as volatile as a space ship. Frankly, if it were, we’d all be dead. As the Psalmist said, “If you, O LORD, kept a record of sins, O Lord, who could stand?” (Psalm 130:3) [Was listening to a sermon on Uzzah where the preacher quoted Hans Kung to the effect: “The wonder isn’t that Uzzah was struck dead; the wonder is that we are all still alive!”]

    That’s why many love the story of Uzzah, at least as a negative example. They love to talk about Aaron’s oldest sons (and not the younger ones). “Look! One false move, and you’ll be struck dead as well.” Doesn’t it seem that something is wrong when we become famous for telling the negative stories? (Just Google “Nadab and Abihu” and see how many of the pages are from churches of Christ!)

    The other question that we have to ask: is the ancient path the path of fear? That’s not what I see in the Bible, which is why I reject it. Yes, it is the path of reverence (sometimes called fear, but I think we understand the difference). I don’t see Paul writing any church and saying, “Now don’t do anything until I get there; you might do something wrong!” That’s not the ancient path.

    Grace and peace,

  12. Danny Holman

    Thanks Tim, In particular it had not ocurred to me the tie between the privatizing of faith (my faith is about getting my sins forgiven so I can go to Heaven) and the stress on playing it safe. The sports analogy is a good one. I remember telling one of my sons that he was too worried about making a mistake on the basketball court, and thus he never tried anything that would advance his team so they could score points. Our task involves not doing that which we have been called to avoid, but the the end is to build the kingdom of God. Thanks again, give my regards to the family.

  13. Travis Flora

    Tim – First, let me point out that I am surprised you are still able to type, since you MUST have been zapped by lightning immediately after disparaging Sacred Selections, which is the official songbook of God, written in stone and handed down to Alexander Campbell in the Appalachian Mountains (I hear the angel looked a lot like Fanny Crosby). On a personal note, I had that same situation where a preacher “forbade” anyone from singing the song Troublesome Times are Here, because he thought it endorsed premillenialism, though that was in a different songbook. Guess we should have stuck with Sacred Selections…

    Second, I think you’re right in that the approach taken by too many is “to err on the safe side.” As I pointed out to those who used that line, that answer still includes the word “err.” In everyday life, it may be “wise” to have a personal policy of steering clear of dangerous situations, but it is not necessarily “wrong.” Sort of like having a conservative investment philosophy. Instead, I think we need to fully seek out and enjoy the freedom we have within the safety provided by Christ. We live our life with an excitement and joy BECAUSE we know we’re safe in Christ. Too many times we focus on the “thou shalt nots” of the Bible, and use those as a sign of our safety and salvation, while leaving the “thou shalts” undone. What Christ has labeled as sin, let us avoid and refrain from participating in. Just as important, what Christ has revealed to us to DO, whether by specific or generic command, principle, example, etc., let us do with a zealous heart. We have a freedom in Christ, let us take advantage of it in service to Him.

  14. nick gill


    Tim has handled well several of your points, but I think he missed the primary one that relates to our discussion.

    I want to point out that our missions in space would have been catastrophic failures had safety not been the #1 concern.

    This is demonstrably false. If safety had been the #1 concern, they wouldn’t have gone into space at all – at least not until the earth became so unlivable that it was safer to go into space than to stay on earth. President Kennedy made winning the space race the #1 concern. Safety came in somewhere after that.

  15. nick gill

    Just to play devil’s advocate, doesn’t Romans 4:15 argue against that: “And where there is no law there is no transgression.” (Actually, I like your point, just want to get your interaction with that verse)

    Quite right – I think it means exactly what it says, but explaining that would get us pretty far afield into eschatology, conditional immortality, and “Hell and Mr. Fudge.” :)

    In this particular instance, how I think that plays out is that the servant was not punished for violating the master’s command about how to handle the money. He was punished for being wicked and lazy – lazy in that he buried the money rather than do something with it… wicked in that he slandered his master in order to justify the fruit of his laziness. The fact that he is called the master’s servant assumes that he knows *something* – that something is that he is supposed to serve his master rather than bury the resources.

  16. guy


    i’m not saying you meant to at all, it just strikes me–is it really fair to identify with the wicked/lazy servant all who endorse the safety policy? Surely the wicked/lazy servant doesn’t represent the safety-policy-adherent in the nature of the case? –but only contingently, right?


  17. Paul Smith

    Tim, I’m “black” because everybody knows only white sheep are cute, cuddly and warm, and “sacrificial” because I can be gotten rid of easily.

    I get your concern about the space analogy, but it is only an analogy. I used it because it was where I was for such a long and important part of my life. Every analogy will break down at some point – even Jesus’ parables have been horribly abused throughout the years.

    My useage of Jer. 6 is simply to point out that God was calling his people to return to a path that had to have been well known and time tested. As I remarked in my thoughts on this passage, a path cannot be a destination, it is the method or course by which we arrive at a destination. God was not calling his people to a bunker, but a path that would lead them to him. In context the path that God was calling Jeremiah to meant surrender to the Babylonians – hardly a sane decision, but ultimately the safest one. Jesus’ life illustrated that obeying God’s will was anything but “safe,” and yet paradoxically obeying the will of God is the only “safe” thing to do.

    And Nick, to be polite, you are “demonstrably wrong.” The GOAL of space exploration was getting to the moon (and beyond) but the PRIMARY CONCERN was to do it in a way that was both practical and safe. No one said, “Let’s be perfectly safe here, now what can we do?” They said, “Let’s go to the moon, now how can we be safe?” Going to space did not kill those astronauts. Safety shortcuts and skrimping on finances killed those astronauts. Our GOAL is to be like Christ. Our CONCERN ought to be that we do so in a manner that both pleases Him and brings glory to Him and His church. We cannot do that in a reckless or careless manner.

  18. nick gill

    guy – no, you’re right – it wouldn’t be fair to do that, and I’m glad you brought it up, because it helps rein in the parable back towards its intended point and away from too much overapplication.

    The master himself points out that fear wasn’t actually the wicked/lazy servant’s motivator. If he’d truly been afraid, he’d have done what the master suggested or something like it. Fear wasn’t his real problem, after all.

    The major point for this discussion, I think, is exactly what the master points out – that fear is often stated as the reason behind a particular behavior (typically an omission), but often cloaks the real reason. This, as usual, is a matter for prayer and discernment and a humble community to work out together.

  19. nick gill

    Paul, I’m really not trying to tell you your business – I appreciate your first-hand experience in the industry, and I apologize that my initial response was probably blunter than it ought to have been.

    But GOAL and PRIMARY CONCERN are synonyms.

    Let me bring in a different example from my own life.

    As a military officer, my stated responsibility was to “accomplish the mission while safeguarding troops and equipment.” Which is the goal? Which is the primary concern? They’re the same – accomplish the mission (without ignoring the value of soldiers and gear).

    Now let’s roll that back to the primary question – the mission of the kingdom of God. Can we really say that the church practices of the past 1950 years or so were so demonstrably better at fostering transformation into Christlikeness that we should be afraid to turn away from them?

    You’re right – jumping out of a perfectly good airplane makes no sense – but if the plane’s on fire and failing to get off the ground, perhaps switching to a different vehicle is worth the risk?

  20. Paul Smith

    Nick, thanks for clarifying, but I connote “goal” and “primary concern” as two related, but fundamentally different, concepts. For example, if President Kennedy had said, “Let’s go to the moon as quickly and as cheaply as we can” then safety would have been third on the list – if on the list at all. What Kennedy said was, “By the end of the decade” which gave a limit, but allowed NASA to set the parameter of safety first. Even in your example the “while” delimits the “accomplish.” You could have been told, “accomplish the mission regardless of cost of men or materiel.” The goal would have been the same, but I think the soldiers would have a much different take on the major concern. So, what I see as very different, you see as synonymous, and thus the difference in our posts.

    As I said, I am no proponent of a flat earth argument. I see much about the current manifestation of the Restoration Movement that I would like to change. My heart felt concern, however, is that much of what I see and hear as “improvements” are actually just as weak as that which they are supposed to replace, if not more so. The only difference is they are “new” and as any self-respecting postmodern will tell you “If its new, its true.” It may be! Thank goodness for telescopes, penicilin, and the NIV. I simply urge caution, and critical examination before I can accept it.

  21. nick gill

    Ironically, my biggest concern is much like the old preacher illustration about secularism – but my take on it is about the illusion of safety.

    As the temperature gets hotter, the frog still thinks it is safe, right up until it boils to death. It is not true safety, but the illusion of safety, that concerns me far more than the question of safety itself.

    A related concern – far more prevalent because I think grace is a lot tougher than it has been given credit for – is the illusion of danger. It is very easy to spook people into doing nothing once you’ve convinced them that a) they’re safe where they are, and b) there’s danger lurking in every nook and crevice.

    When fear of making a mistake is in its rightful place, it is a valuable asset in any worker’s toolkit. But when it becomes the primary concern – when the mission becomes “make sure we don’t make any mistakes” – we start missing the fact that mistakes aren’t as big an issue as immobility.

  22. guy


    i think i definitely agree with the abuses that are being identified in this discussion. But i gotta say, i do think it’s wise if i avoid certain actions or situations for the sake of my relationship with my wife even if there is no threat or even great likelihood of danger involved. –and even if i knew that divorce wouldn’t result. My unwillingness to do certain things that perhaps are not at all bad in themselves can in some situations demonstrate how much i value that relationship (even if only symbolically). In that light, is a safety policy really just wholly bad?


  23. nick gill

    What Kennedy said was, “By the end of the decade” which gave a limit, but allowed NASA to set the parameter of safety first. Even in your example the “while” delimits the “accomplish.”

    Yes, “while” delimits the “accomplish” but not in such a way as to alter their relationship to each other. Mission is primary concern, safeguarding is secondary. That’s what I’m trying to say, I think.

  24. nick gill

    In that light, is a safety policy really just wholly bad?

    A safety policy is never wholly bad – it is only bad insofar as it undermines the mission or becomes the priority instead of the mission.

  25. nick gill

    i do think it’s wise if i avoid certain actions or situations for the sake of my relationship with my wife even if there is no threat or even great likelihood of danger involved. –and even if i knew that divorce wouldn’t result.

    Another big concern here is that there’s a difference between what I decide is wise for me, and what I decide is wise for YOU. Not “what restrictions we put our heads together and work out as wise ideas,” but what *I* decide are such wise restrictions that I tell you that you have to abide by them or else. I know there’s some latent individualism in there again, but I think some of that is part of our freedom in Christ from others’ definition of safety. “Wouldn’t it be safer to only eat vegetables?” “Wouldn’t it be safer to ‘not handle, not taste, not touch’ (Col 2:21)?”

  26. guy


    You beat me to the individualism comment. =o) But yeah, if everyone is an equal authority in the church, then is there really a resolution here? i mean, sure, we can curb some of the abuses–for instance the idea that every single apparently unsafe action risks divorce, right? But as you said, “put our heads together” suggests this can somehow be democratically resolved (am i reading too much there?). i’m not so sure about that.

    i think we’re again putting our finger on an authority problem. If there were apostles still living, would this be an issue? There would be authoritative pronouncements (even if in some cases, as with Paul, those pronouncements were–follow your conscience on this one and don’t judge each other). It’s not as though after Acts 15, churches were free to say “well, screw the Council’s decision, my conscience still tells me Gentiles are scum and that’s how i’ll choose to worship and do church.”


  27. nick gill

    We have to get our heads to wrap around the idea that Christ has all authority, and that our first calling towards one another is one of mutual submission. Submissive, servant leadership in the path of Mark 10.

    No, the churches weren’t free to say that, but that’s because the council was in fact disseminating the command for the Judaizers to submit – not to the Council – but to the will of God as revealed to Peter and to the other evangelists who were bringing Gentiles into the kingdom of God.

    Just so, people today are not free to say, “Screw the Bible, my conscience says X and that’s how I’ll choose to do my Christianity.” Those people are recognized pretty quickly by the church at large as being heterodox (think about Westboro Baptist, for example). Other churches, for example, might diverge from what’s been historically orthodox, but do their best to present Scriptural rationale for such diversion. Think of the Quakers and their very early rejection of slavery in US History. And finally, there’s always going to be some turmoil in the middle – consider the denominations wrestling with the very different (IMO) questions of women’s roles and homosexuality. Some of those churches do say, “Screw the Bible – we’re gonna do it the way we feel like doing it.” Others strive to present for their position a rationale drawn from God’s revelation.

    Humility, integrity, and community are essential to working out these questions.

  28. guy


    i guess i take the members of the Acts 15 Council to be authoritative. i’d say that derivative authority is authority nonetheless. (i think Paul, Peter, etc. had a right as apostles to speak and direct authoritatively. And i’m not sure it would’ve been appropriate for someone to demand that in every single case of direction, the apostle demonstrate that it was received by direct revelation.)

    Surely the “mutual submission” passage is talking about something else than what we are or there’s some important distinction, no? If not, then why didn’t the members of the Council simply “mutually submit” to the Judaizers? i don’t think ‘mutual submission’ rules out apostolic offices being vested with authority (albeit derivative) by which the ones occupying those offices were allowed to command, instruct, direct, etc. –nor does it rule out the authority vested in the offices they, themselves, established (presbyters whom congregants were commanded to obey).

    It seems to me though that even interpretation will amount to a matter of authority. What makes any given interpretation authoritative? If it’s right? If it’s held by the majority of us who ‘put our heads together’? i think democratic solutions could simply lead to a tyranny of the majority.


  29. Keith Brenton

    “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.”

    Some dude named John said that once.

    Maybe more than once, for all I know.

  30. nick gill

    I think what makes an interpretation authoritative is its demonstrable harmony with the revealed will of God in the Scriptures.

    Tyranny of the majority is no more troubling than tyranny of the minority, but mutual submission should rescue us from tyranny altogether. That’s why Paul’s letters are so long and complex – because even as an apostle, he will not simply send out commands and demand obedience – he spends a great deal of time tying those things to the revelation of God in Christ.

    Mark 10:42-45 seem to eliminate demanding as an attitude.

  31. guy


    i agree an accurate interpretation will have a certain kind of demonstration, but the problem is that “demonstrable harmony” is not demonstrable simpliciter; it will be demonstrable *to someone.* To Unitarians or Modalists or Jehovah’s Witnesses, Nicean Trinitarianism does not possess “demonstrable harmony” with the Scriptures. In fact, many of them believe their respective positions possess that “demonstrable harmony.” “Mutual submission” certainly cannot demand that Trinitarians accept Modalism or that JW’s submit to the non-Arian statements of Nicea. And surely it is not sinfully demanding to say there is some doctrinal line that cannot be crossed; i take it as obvious that at least John and Paul thought so.

    There remains the problem of who gets to decide where there is and isn’t “demonstrable harmony.” Everyone individually? That presupposes we all possess equal capacity and skill to make such judgment, and that each of us is more likely to be persuaded by “demonstrable harmony” than by other factors. And decisive “demonstrable harmony” becomes nothing more than “what everyone who agrees with me thinks,” doesn’t it?


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  33. Jerry

    “He who would save his life will lose it; he who loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.”

    “I am crucified with Christ. Nevertheless I live; yet, not I – but Christ lives in me.”

    Two takes. Same subject. One from the Master. The other from a master-builder and disciple. Both involve giving up self – which eschews safety for relationship and victory.

    More good ideas have been shelved with the “slippery slope” argument: “Yes, that may be ok, but what will it lead to?”

    Certainly we do not want to refuse to listen to the word of God. That was the problem in the context of Jeremiah 6:16. Israel was openly sinning against God and refused to accept any correction. That is why the Babylonians were coming for them – and why in the next chapter God told Jeremiah not even to pray for them. They were so far gone they did not even know how to blush. There was no shame left in them.

    By the way, Nadab and Abihu never are mentioned in the New Testament – though many warnings from the Old Testament are there. Yet, in what we call “the New Testament Church,” their example is one of the most frequently used. (Tim, their brothers are not mentioned either. Had to get that in to assuage those who worry that we only talk about two of these four brothers.)

  34. nick gill

    Actually, since Campbell and Stone were able to establish and maintain Christian fellowship despite vehement disagreement about the Trinity, I don’t have a problem accepting fellowship with those who disagree with me about it. Paul strove in 1 Cor 8 to maintain fellowship with polytheists, as long as they chose to worship only the One True God. While that chapter is also one of his clearest statements of Trinitarian theology, at heart it is a strong reminder that Ultimate Reality is deeply challenging to wrap our heads around, and knowledge should never stand in the way of love.

  35. guy


    If Campbell and Stone could be in fellowship, why not Campbell with Muslims, Jews, Hindus, or Spiritualists? Clearly there are still lines that can’t be crossed even among professed ecumenicals. (And more to the point, i’m just not sure i see how Trinitarians and Unitarians could be talking about one and the same Being. How many or what kind of false features can we assign a concept before we’re simply no longer conceiving of the real thing?)

    Jesus told His disciples to beware the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees–why not simply agree to disagree with them and continue synagogue-attending alongside them nonetheless? Why didn’t Paul simply agree to disagree with Judaizers? Or John with the Gnostics? Did the early church sin or act in an un-Christ-like way when it condemned the Arians’ position as heresy?

    i take it that these various “this-far-and-no-farther” examples we see in scripture and early church history tell us that something about those boundaries were definitive or partially constitutive or at least necessary conditions to fellowship. i see fellowship with no clear boundaries or deal breakers as not really “fellowship” at all, or at least not a fellowship worth having. Suppose my wife and i didn’t agree on any of the terms of our marriage contract. What would it even mean to be “married”? In what sense do i share a “covenant” with her at all? What would be distinctive of my relationship with her such that i could discern between it and relationships with people who are not my wife? i suppose we could get to the point where at best i have a woman who’s willing to occupy the same space with me with no threat of harm or moral mistreatment, but i definitely don’t want to call that “marriage” let alone “fellowship.” In fact, i can’t imagine that Christ died for that; John Lennon’s “Imagine” surely makes a strong poetic case that you don’t need Christ at all for that kind of “fellowship.”

    Should we simply agree to disagree and “fellowship” Unitarian Universalists? Mormons? Jehovah’s Witnesses? Christian Scientists? Moonies? Where is the line and who gets to say? i don’t see the basic authority problem going away.


  36. nick gill

    The clear lines which cannot be crossed must be related to the clear lines that Scripture establishes. Paul makes neither monotheism (the belief that only one god exists) nor Trinitarianism a line of fellowship, so I must be *very* cautious about doing so myself. Ask my brother in Christ Laymond how many times he and I have gone ’round and ’round about the Trinity.

    I’ve seen enough church fights to know that some of those early councils weren’t any more “all about doctrine” than our church fights are today. Many times, fights about power and control are gift-wrapped as doctrinal disputes. I believe Arianism is one of the more esoteric arguments ever to be used to shatter fellowship between believers in Jesus – not as bad as the Filioque Controversy, but close. Both sides should have been told to put their fancy rhetoric away (maybe even sent to bed without any supper) and get to work actually preaching the gospel and caring for the poor. Am I really supposed to believe that my eternal salvation rests upon whether I understand that the Son is or isn’t co-equal to the Father? I’m sorry, but that is preposterous to me. The Greek church imbibed a great deal of Hellenistic attitude, and combined it with wealth to give themselves the opportunity to “spend their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.” (Acts 17:21) According to Paul, there are such things as foolish controversies and disputes over words and genealogies, which the wise Christian ought to avoid.

    I am in no way intending to imply that there are no lines of fellowship. Rather, Scripture *clearly* states what those lines are. Requiring Christians to become Jewish proselytes before converting to Christ is one. Rejecting that Jesus Christ really came in the flesh is one. Possessing and fostering an attitude that seeks to divide assemblies is a third.

    guy, I appreciate how you push me to think, but I’ve been struggling with how to say this for a while now. After many conversations with you like this, what your writing communicates to me is that you’re more interested in deconstructing the ideas of others than in constructing something that might point towards a solution to the problems we see.

    For example, we’ve been dealing with problems related to authority lately, and while you swing for the fences at every response that tries to formulate a partial answer to the problem, you have yet to propose alternatives. All we get is a deconstruction of our writing, and a glib “i don’t see the basic authority problem going away.” We don’t see it going away, either, but we’d like to work towards lessening it.

  37. guy


    My best solution at the moment was to ditch Sola Scriptura and Protestantism and go for Orthodoxy. i’m still working through that process. i’ve barely begun it really. i still have tons of questions. i’m still unsure about a lot of things. i’d be on the brink of freaking out and identity crisis if not for some quiet reassuring gems to think about given to me by the priest at the parish i’m attending.

    i’ll be honest–i’ve been selfish. What you call “deconstructing” has been very, very helpful to me. You push *me* to think. Your posts and discussion have forced me to think through a lot of my questions and confusions in a way that feels like gaining more clarity. It’s frankly been therapeutic.

    i’ve been CoC my whole life. It has been deeply integral to my sense of identity. While there’s been slight evolution and change in places, i’ve still never been anything else. Now i’ve walked away–at least since January. It’s scary. Very, very scary for me. i get on here and discuss these things with you because it’s already on my mind or floating in the back of my mind all day everyday anyway, and discussing them this way at least for me feels far more productive than just letting vague thoughts and poorly-formed-concerns float around unorganized in my mind all day. i take it that you’re saying this has been taxing for you or at least bears the appearance of discord-sowing. i’m really sorry–that’s not what i’ve intended. i can definitely find someone else to hash things out with if that’s best.

  38. nick gill

    i can definitely find someone else to hash things out with if that’s best.

    Nono – that’s not what I want at all! :)

    I really appreciate what you just shared – that gives me a lot more insight into where you’re coming from and how you’re also working through these things.

    I came into the CoC nearly 20 years ago (ACK! where does time fly?) as a young adult (three months past my 20th birthday), because the Christian community around Lipscomb University basically rescued me when I was homeless and desperately in need of a meaningful place to belong. The love of Christ that flowed through them into me is responsible for just about every good thing in my life today – and because of them, I’ve also been able to see how God protected me during the years before then. I was sort of raised Mormon (inactive parents who had been converted from Baptist Christianity and have since reverted to the faith of their youth), but quickly abandoned that during my two years at West Point.

    Along with the fact that the CoC is what God chose to use to embrace me and lead me home, this recent article by Richard Beck gives voice to why I haven’t moved on from the CoC yet, despite much discontent.

    I have no desire whatsoever to abandon our conversations – I just needed some hope that we were working towards the same things :) I apologize for being frustrated (and frustrating!) but I’m glad for the results.

  39. Travis Flora

    Nick – you stated “The clear lines which cannot be crossed must be related to the clear lines that Scripture establishes. Paul makes neither monotheism (the belief that only one god exists) nor Trinitarianism a line of fellowship, so I must be *very* cautious about doing so myself.”

    I have to disagree with that. There is a difference between fellowship in a social sense and fellowship in a “Christian brotherhood” sense. Just because Paul spoke to the polytheists in Athens does not mean he accepted them and their beliefs in open Christian fellowship. He taught them out of it. Same thing if we happen to have a religious discussion with someone of a different religious philosophy (Muslim, Mormon, etc.). That’s why we see Paul converting the followers of John the Baptist. That’s why Priscilla and Aquilla taught Apollos about Christ. Those were good, God-fearing people, but they were not in fellowship yet. The simple belief in God does not put us in fellowship. Even believing that Jesus is the Christ does not put us in fellowship. And the act of discussing religion does not imply fellowship in a Biblical sense, at least as defined by John in 1 John 1. Even that passage states a condition on which that fellowship is established — being washed by the blood of Christ.

  40. nick gill

    There is a difference between fellowship in a social sense and fellowship in a “Christian brotherhood” sense.

    Absolutely true.

    Just because Paul spoke to the polytheists in Athens does not mean he accepted them and their beliefs in open Christian fellowship. He taught them out of it.

    The polytheists in Athens in Acts 19 were not Christians.

    The polytheists in 1 Cor 8 were Christians. That’s the difference.

    Therefore, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “an idol has no real existence,” and that “there is no God but one.” For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”— yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist. However, not all possess this knowledge.1 Cor 8:4-7a ESV

    An idol has no real existence.
    There is no god but one.
    Not all possess this knowledge.

    Just as the apostle pulls the theologically audacious act of inserting Jesus right into the middle of the Shema, he reminds us that we’re still talking about seriously complex and difficult concepts. But maybe he’s talking about non-Christians here.

    But some, through former association with idols, eat food as really offered to an idol, and their conscience, being weak, is defiled.

    (1 Cor 8:7b ESV)

    It is clear from the continuation of v7 that Paul is talking about former idol worshippers who aren’t conscience-stricken because they believe that the food really went through a particular ceremony, but because they believe that eating that food will constitute worship to a real, live god – a lifestyle they’ve rejected in favor of worshipping only the One True God they’ve met in the Gospel. They’re still polytheists, then – but they will only worship One God.

    And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died. (1 Cor 8:11 ESV)

    I was shocked – dumbfounded (and Travis, you know how hard it is to shut my mouth where these things are concerned) – when someone helped me see what Paul is saying here.

    The Apostle Paul uses the powerful phrase “brother for whom Christ died” to describe repentant, baptized-into-Christ believers in the One True God who still think that the cosmos is populated by many other deities.

  41. Travis Flora

    Nick – I went back and read that again. I’m still not seeing Christian polytheists there, more of a guilt-by-association and endorsement of a pagan act, much like Jews and their preoccupation of eating blood and circumcision. What I do see is fellowshipping with Christians in various stages of maturity, clinging on to old beliefs while still growing and grappling with new information. And I think that’s still my point — they are Christians, baptized into Christ, washed by His blood. That’s the distinction I was trying to make as per Christian fellowship. As for the polytheist perspective of 1 Cor. 8, I’ll study more on it. Thanks.

  42. guy


    Well, good. i’m glad–there is much temptation to evil in the blogosphere, but i genuinely believe i’m benefiting from our talks. Likewise, a particular CoC congregation definitely rescued me from my greatest despairing point–twice, in fact. And i’ll never forget that. Those people will always be like family to me.

    i wanna respond to one thing you said:

    “Am I really supposed to believe that my eternal salvation rests upon whether I understand that the Son is or isn’t co-equal to the Father? I’m sorry, but that is preposterous to me.”

    There’s so much here. The first thing that stands out to me is that defining boundaries necessarily entails defining things on which “my eternal salvation rests.” i think i’m starting to see in myself what N.T. Wright was talking about when he says he finds that North Americans are obsessed with hell. Our focus on “salvation issues” and framing discussions that way makes it seem like that’s all Jesus came to do–keep me out of hell. i think Jesus came to do far, far more than that. There’s a grand scheme of redemption and restoration that’s in play here. Perhaps some boundaries have to do with those kinds of benefits. At least in Orthodoxy, i’m getting the impression that the process of healing from sin and its effects is far more important than worrying whether i’m going to hell.

    Of course, that would mean that fellowship and salvation are not co-extensive. But frankly, however much a hardline CoC-er would recoil at that thought, the CoC has always acknowledged such to be true in my experience. Infants and the mentally infirm are acknowledged as not hell-bound despite lacking adherence to the necessary boundary markers for fellowship.

    There’s far more to be said here, and i’ll try to come back to it, but i don’t have the time now. So i just want to close with one more point. i agree it may sound preposterous–i feel that same intuition. But in the case of a modern Jew or Buddhist or Atheist, couldn’t they just as easily say, “Does my eternal salvation really rest on whether or not some random carpenter in Israel a bunch of years ago was a god??? That’s preposterous!”? Does their sense of preposterous-ness necessarily mean that it doesn’t? i’m not trying to deny your claim–i think there’s a lot of subtly in the various epistemic states we could be talking about–so my point isn’t rebuttal. My point is that if we think those atheists are wrong, then the difference between their claim and yours seems only one of degree, not of kind.

    Nick, it is beyond obvious at this point that if you’re ever in OKC, i owe you a beer (or a coffee if perhaps you’re an abstainer).


  43. nick gill

    guy – I hear what you’re saying and I share many of the same frustrations, especially along the lines of the American church’s obsession with hell. When I speak of eternal salvation, I try to mean that in the most Scripturally holistic way that I can – trying desperately to include missional aspects and healing aspects and certainly new-heavens-and-new-earth aspects.

    But I do believe, at this point in my growth process, that salvation and fellowship are co-extensive – or at least, looking from our perspective on the life of the Age to Come, they certainly appear that way. I would posit, rather, that the churches of Christ acknowledge different sets of boundary markers for different groups of people. Infants and the cognitively-impaired, we would assert, have always been in fellowship with God because they’re incapable of rebellion against Him. At some point in the human growth process (and here’s where the wicket definitely gets stickier – that whole “age of accountability” thing ought to be more troubling for “call Bible things by Bible names” folk than it is), the young human gains intimate, experiential knowledge (Genesis uses the same root for Adam knowing Eve and of their knowing good and evil) of the difference between good and evil. At that point, but not before, they’ve fallen into the brokenness of Adam and need the healing offered by Christ.

    Remember that I’m trying to draw a hugely detailed landscape with fingerpaints here… so be gentle :)

  44. nick gill

    Nick, it is beyond obvious at this point that if you’re ever in OKC, i owe you a beer (or a coffee if perhaps you’re an abstainer).

    You’re on! Likewise, if you’re ever in the Bluegrass region. We can have a Kitchen meet-up!

  45. guy


    i’ve started devoting all possible hours to studying for my general exams at the end of the month, so i’ll offer a couple brief comments this morning, and then, i really don’t know when i’ll be able to respond after that.

    The first comment i want to make is in response to your April 9th 11:07AM comment in which you began:

    “The clear lines which cannot be crossed must be related to the clear lines that Scripture establishes. ”

    i believe this assumes that all the “clear lines” which the apostles taught and recognized made it into the text of the 27 books of the NT. i’m not sure why i should think or even be inclined to think that such is likely. There may have been lines they recognized and taught to the church without there being textual record of such.

    Also, i think it’s important to recognize how the lines we do know about came to our attention. Were it not for Judaizing teachers, we wouldn’t even know about that particular “clear line.” Same goes for John and gnosticism (or whatever other rogue Christology he may have intended to combat with his statements). The point is, heresy came first and generated the need to draw a line. It is not as though (so far as i can tell) the apostles began the church with full awareness of all possible “clear lines” and dispensed those lines immediately to church members starting on the day of Pentecost. Judaizing teachers rose up and spread their teaching. The apostles did not all receive immediate and direct revelations about the issue and start writing treatises about it. The apostles and bishops themselves had to meet together and “consider the question” (Acts 15:6) and learn for themselves where and how God drew a line on the issue. [Notice, James doesn’t merely say “it seems good to the Holy Spirit..”, he also says “to us.” (Acts 15:28) i take it that the “to the Holy Spirit” part refers to the miraculous activity reported in Peter and Paul’s ministry. i take it the “to us” refers to the discussion process at the Council.]

    This example and probably gnosticism as well, i take it, sets a precedent for the fact that false and heretical teachings arise first and generate the need for the church to draw more or just more precise lines in the sand about what is the true faith. History seems to bear this out with the Marcionites, Arianism, and the rogue Christologies to follow. i don’t see why we should think that after John penned Revelation, there would be no more heretical teachings which appropriately called for the church to identify boundaries.


  46. guy


    Here’s my second comment, and then i’m off to read my eyeballs out about Mill, Moral Luck, Utilitarianism, and Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics.

    On April 9th 3:40pm you wrote:

    “But I do believe, at this point in my growth process, that salvation and fellowship are co-extensive – or at least, looking from our perspective on the life of the Age to Come, they certainly appear that way. ”

    This is another case where i didn’t define terms. So when i claimed that salvation and fellowship were not co-extensive, i mean fellowship in the thick and visible sense (practical unity), and i meant salvation in the thin sense of not going to hell. Under those definitions i take it as obvious that they are not co-extensive. If we acknowledge that there is even one person who is heaven bound upon death but with whom we do not share visible fellowship with in this life, then we imply they are not co-extensive. (By “visible fellowship,” i mean something organizational. i recognize there are people in other countries i will never meet who are Christians. But there is a practical difference to my relationship with Orthodox Christians in Russia and, say, Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia.)

    But like i said, i think i’ve come to see this thin sense of “salvation” as not the interesting or important question, whereas i feel like the conservative CoC atmosphere where i cut my teeth hangs virtually everything on it.

    i also understand that “fellowship” can be meant in a thinner or better i should say more mysterious sense of the “invisible church.” Somehow in principle i’m joined with people who are “truly” Christians even if we don’t recognize each other as such or something like that. Perhaps that’s right, but i’m not sure it’s worth much. At least, it doesn’t seem to comport with the sort or relational obligations in the church taught by Jesus and the apostles. i take it visible unity is what they were after. But clearly even from the NT, such unity has conditions.


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