1997 Inman Forum

"Churches of Christ: Heritage and Destiny"

Lecture 1


THE NECESSITY OF THE PAST:

WHY WE NEED A HISTORICAL CONSCIOUSNESS

by Dr. Douglas Foster

I want to speak to you about a serious evil of our day, bobbed hair on women. The practice of women wearing their hair short or bobbed has now become general and many of our best Christian women have conformed to this custom. When this began some years ago with a few movie actresses cutting off their hair, there was a great protest raised among women generally, and no conservative, cultured women, to say nothing of a Christian woman, would have thought of sanctioning such a practice and much less of adopting it. But now, the woman, or the man either, who opposes bobbed hair is the exception and somewhat of an oddity, and in the eyes of some people, a crank. However, there are still a few women and men left who have scruples against bobbed hair; and a great number in whose minds there is a question about the propriety and the scripturalness of this practice. In some instances it has caused divorces. In others it has brought about marital unhappiness, and in a few instances men have committed suicide because their wives bobbed their hair. (1)

There is a widespread propaganda in the world today which has as its purpose the throwing down of established institutions and customs with nothing better to offer. We should be careful not to aid in this sinister movement by adopting styles that it dictates. If bobbing the hair is a concession or giving way to that vicious propaganda which cries out against all restraints and all laws, strikes at home and marriage, preaches free love and promiscuous sex, lends itself to renounce religion, denounce the Bible, ignore and deny the differences in the sexes and throw men and women together in a lawless relationship--then it would be better if our women cut off their heads rather than their hair.(2)

The writer of the tract from which I have been reading was a sincere Christian and preacher of the gospel. He was fighting against what he believed was the evil Spirit of his own age. In the 1920s and 1930s the shorter hair styles for women were a disturbing change to many. In the context of the world they knew between the two World Wars--a world of communism, fascism and growing uncertainty, short hair on women seemed to be part of something that was threatening the very stability of society.

Today most of us look at such a tract and get a good laugh. But the matter was serious to many Christians in the 1930s as they struggled with what it meant to be God's church in the context of their own age. It would be easy simply to dismiss this as an example of some of the silly things people used to think, implying how much more sophisticated and discerning we are today! That is not the point of reading those lines. The point is that this is one example of people who, however poorly, were attempting to respond to what they saw as an assault on some essential matters of Christian morality (the biblical differences between the sexes, the sanctity of marriage and the family, respect for authority, etc.). That they were imperfect in this attempt is apparent. But it should also become apparent by analogy that we will also are imperfect in our attempts to respond to challenges. Every generation of Christians has its own struggles with how to keep the fires of true Christianity burning or how to rekindle those fires.

Very often I hear people bemoaning the fact that the church is adapting itself to culture. I think what they are opposing is the church conforming itself to the Spirit of the Age or the Spirit of this world. Culture simply means all the ideas, actions and utterances or expressions that a particular group of people learns and shares.(3) In the very definition of the word, human beings are cultural. A particular culture may be more influenced or more subject to influence by the Spirit of the Age or the world than another, but as human beings we are all cultural and our churches are all cultural churches.

There are many clear scriptural warnings to Christians about dealing with the World.

James 4:4--Don't you know that friendship with the world is hatred toward God? Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.

Romans 12:2--Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.

1 John 2:15-17--Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone lovesthe world, the love of the Father is not in him. For everything in the world--the cravings of the sinful person, the lust of their eyes, and the boasting of what they have and do--comes not from the Father but from the World. The world and its desires pass away, but the man who does the will of God lives forever.

Let me make two points that we will develop later. (1) We cannot be counter-cultural in the sense of being simply against culture and without culture. Culture is part of being a human being--if we're human we're cultural. We can be counter-cultural in the sense that we as Christians identify and live in another culture. We have a set of shared and learned ideas, actions and utterances that is different from that culture primarily influenced by the Spirit of the Age characterized by Scripture as "the world." Our culture inevitably intersects with the culture of the Spirit of this Age because all human beings share some things--change being one of them. Yet the transcendent Holy Spirit of all Ages lives in us and gives us stability and permanence throughout time.

(2) Christians are often drawn into and accept the assumptions of the Spirit of the Age because we are human, live in the world, and have a culture--and it is sometimes very difficult not to. Only with spiritual guidance, discernment and maturity can we guard against accepting these assumptions. In every era there are voices calling Christians to such discernment, though often their fellow disciples tragically label them enemies.

Now to my key point in this opening session. Christian leaders are greatly hindered in and, I think, cannot achieve the spiritual maturity and discernment so vital for resisting the Spirit of the Age and allowing God to work through them to strengthen and mature and revitalize the church if they do not have a historical consciousness.

Historical consciousness! He's got to be kidding! History is the most boring, irrelevant subject that anyone could ever force people to study. If having a historical consciousness is vital for Christians, then forget it.

Those were my thoughts twenty years ago. I certainly had no notion whatsoever about needing to know history to be a mature Christian. I didn't even know there was such a thing as church history then. But just to have history foisted off on poor students who had no say in it was to me a terrible injustice. The coach always taught it in high school and it didn't take much to get him off on the upcoming game. And in college many of us had the benefit of some of the driest teachers in all academia. I'm happy to know of others with very different experiences, and I hope my students don't experience what I did. But in my experience these teachers told me nonverbally that history was boring and irrelevant.

In fact, nothing could be farther from the truth. In graduate school when I was forced to take one more history class--this time church history--I found out that history is exciting and fascinating and engaging. But even more importantly, I found out that developing a "sense of history" enlightens and informs. That study helped me make sense out of so many things that I had wondered about and struggled with before. I found out that a historical consciousness is essential for full functioning--as a human being and as a Christian. Trying to function or make decisions without it is like running a six-cylinder engine with only four hitting.

Of all the creatures made by God, only humans can truly break out of their little narrow circle of the "right now." We can investigate, interpret, learn from and be thrilled by our past. Yet too many of us neglect and even disparage that wonderful ability, and as a result, we remain partially incapacitated--partially blind--limping and stumbling through our lives. In his 1987 book, American Memory , Lynn Cheney quotes a couple of pretty hard-hitting statements. The first is from the ancient philosopher Cicero: "To know nothing of what happened before we were born is to remain forever a child." The second was by the modern philosopher and historian George Santayana: "When experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual."(4)

David Steinmetz in an article titled "The Necessity of the Past" makes the point of how horrible it is when a person loses his or her memory. There are cases of amnesia caused by trauma to the head or witnessing some shattering event and, in recent years we've learned more about the memory destroying results of the advance of Alzheimers disease. Eventually these people no longer remember who they are. The often deep and long-time relationships they once had are gone. They don't recognize a husband or wife, or a son or daughter. They don't know where they live or how to get to the familiar places they once frequented. They cannot function effectively in the present and can make no secure plans for the future. They have lost their past and that has emptied their present of meaning and clouded their future.

Judging from conversations with many in Churches of Christ, we are suffering from self-induced amnesia--a very dangerous situation. Please don't misunderstand. Having a historical consciousness does not mean wanting to go back to some so-called "good old days." We're not talking about duplicating the past or creating an unhealthy nostalgia--a sentimental longing for the way things were, or the way we think things were. That is as dangerous as amnesia. But the knowledge of our past (or pasts) allows us to be self-critical and to make truly responsible decisions in the present and about the future. Nor is the purpose of creating a historical consciousness in people so we can choose rules, policies and procedures from what people did in the past. Only a person without a historical consciousness could pick up that pamphlet on bobbed hair we read at the beginning and either decide that that's an issue worth taking a stand on today or dismiss it as simply the ravings of an ignorant fanatic. It is by knowing and interpreting our past (or pasts), and by clarifying how those who came before us tried to deal with the Spirit of the Age in their own times, that we can gain a more universal perspective within which we can formulate our own actions in the present.

Let me illustrate from history what can happen when people lack historical consciousness. In the Roman Catholic Church of the middle ages there was little sense of history or development. There were reflective people who realized that changes took place and wondered about their implications. But for the most part people were taught and believed that things then were the way things had always been. The church taught, for example, that if you had entered a worship service in the days of Jesus and the Apostles you would have encountered exactly what you did when you went to the medieval Roman Catholic service--the service said in Latin, the full vestments on the priest, the taking of only the bread in the Eucharist or Lord's Supper, candles burning, booth for confession, and on you could go. Because these people had no historical consciousness, they believed it. They had no effective way of dealing with the Spirit of the Age because they were mostly ignorant of how that Spirit was influencing their culture. The scriptural and historical consciousness fostered by the Renaissance was partially responsible for the eventual revolution that took place in the Protestant Reformation--a massive effort at revitalizing the church.

The development of the idea of the authority of the Bishop of Rome is another case. In the Middle Ages those who wanted to claim power for the Pope used a document called the Donation of Constantine. It was a legal document said to have been written by the Roman emperor Constantine giving the entire Western part of the Roman Empire to Pope Sylvester I for having cured the emperor of leprosy. During the Renaissance several men with a historical consciousness examined the document and found that it referred to things that were not even in existence in Constantine's day. It would have been like the fourth century emperor saying I give the Pope authority to regulate gasoline prices and speed limits on the Italian superhighways. They didn't have that then. Only with an understanding of history could they have made that discovery and exposed the forgery. Only with a scriptural and historical consciousness could such a development have been seen to be an accommodation to the Spirit of the Age--the desire for power and control.

Our own Restoration movement doesn't have such a long history, but the same kinds of things are true in it. We have too often lacked a historical consciousness and we have suffered and are suffering for it. In the past the assumption has been strong in places like Tennessee, Texas, and Arkansas that the way we do and say things and the beliefs we hold in Churches of Christ have always been the same. There has been little general understanding of our own history, much less that of the larger context of American Christianity. Are the changes in worship styles today, particularly in music, an accommodation to the Spirit of the Age? Or are they an attempt to use parts of our larger cultural setting that are not inherently infected by the Spirit of the Age to bring people into relation with God? Of course, our first source for an answer is scripture. But the second is history. How have people dealt with changes in worship through the centuries?

When in the early 1700s there was a move to establish singing schools in New England to teach people to read music and sing three or four part harmony (congregational singing had been plainsong without harmony) there was great resistance. A tract written by a minister of the time lists at least ten objections to such an innovation:

A grand jury in England arraigned John Wesley for "altering authorized psalms and for introducing unauthorized compositions into church services.(6) In other words, there has always been resistance to change in worship, with many identical arguments used in all periods. And there have always been some who wanted to go full speed ahead with their new ways despite the sensitivities of anyone else. This does not give easy answers to all the questions about worship changes, but it does place our struggles into a larger context so that we can see how others reacted in their own times and can judge how successful they were in that context. With God's help and discernment we can benefit from knowing of their experiences.

There are some who regard recent developments in small groups, house churches or cell based churches as a modern accommodation to an individualistic, atomistic, selfish characteristic of the Spirit of this age. As always, scripture has implications for this matter. But when we look at church history, it is clear that in ancient times before Christianity's legalization in the Roman Empire churches met in houses. In more modern times we see the "gatherings of the pious" started by Philip Jacob Spener in Germany and the Methodist classes in England and America that were precisely small group meetings aimed at revival in the church. While there are dangers of being pulled into the selfishness and individualism of the Spirit of the Age, history shows that this movement has much deeper roots in Christian practice than developments in the last few decades.

The tendency when people don't have a sense of history is to react poorly and irresponsibly when the culture influenced by the Spirit of the Age challenges our culture. One way is to talk about how bad things are today in comparison to other generations and how we must fight against culture today (which, again , they mean the World or Spirit of the Age) if we are to be Christians. Or, even worse I think, is to try to figure out which parts of our Christianity are cultural and which are eternal--an impossibility if we understand what culture is, that is, all the ideas, actions and utterances that are learned and shared by a people.

The reality is that in this life there will always be a mixture of good news and bad news. The good news is rooted in the eternal work of God through Jesus Christ and His Holy Spirit in us. The bad news is that there is a powerful enemy who is the prince of this world. The good news is that the enemy has ultimately been defeated. The bad news is that the enemy will continue to exercise dominion in his realm until time ends, and we must travel through the enemy's realms on our journey. The good news is that our King dwells within us as we move through the enemy's kingdom. So we are in the world, though not of the world. Our very nature is imperfect and subject to influence by the enemy. I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do--this I keep on doing (Romans 7:18-19).

What that means is that we are on a perilous journey. Our best efforts at maintaining our journey and convincing others to join it have mixed success. Sometimes we are forced to deal with direct attacks from the enemy and his followers. At other times we come to places that seem very nice, very hospitable and we want to settle down and stop the journey. And sometimes we get mixed up and start attacking others who are trying to make the same journey we are attempting.

The lessons we can learn from our past in Churches of Christ must always be placed against the backdrop of the larger history of Christianity. The question of how we--Christians today--can allow God to work through us to deal with the difficulties we face, to rekindle the fires of Christianity, to revitalize the church as it relates to its circumstances in 1997 and 2000 and 2005, is the same question every generation of followers of Christ has had to answer either consciously or unconsciously.

We can learn from the history of the church--both of our own heritage and that of the larger stream of Christianity. By developing a historical consciousness, by using our God-given abilities of memory and discernment, we can gain help in formulating answers to the question of how to deal with the Spirit of our Age as it is manifested in uncertainty, division, fighting and struggles over the very meaning of being a follower of Christ.

One of the things I would strongly recommend is that series of lessons on church history be offered frequently in your Bible school program. I would also strongly urge you individually to read some of the excellent material available to help you continue developing your sense of history. One of the resources I vigorously recommend is a a magazine I think is one of the best things around for creating that spark in people who, like me a few years ago, know and care little about church history. You have to hook people first with the exciting and fascinating stuff before they will spend the time to read and develop that vital historical consciousness. And this is among the best tools I have ever come across to hook people on church history. It's called Christian History Magazine. If you don't know about it, let me tell you it is great. It is filled with photographs, time lines, engaging stories and enlightening articles that you can use in classes and devotionals. In the front of every issue a section titled "Did You Know?" tells fascinating facts about the great leaders and events of church history. For example, in the issue on Martin Luther it tells . . . read from issue on his preaching.

Because of a special arrangement for my students, we have a group subscription number through which you can subscribe to Christian History for half the regular rate--it is normally $16.00 per year; if you sign up today on one of the sheets on the tables and put your check made to Christian History with the list, you can subscribe for $10.00. I get nothing for this--except the satisfaction of helping Christians create a historical consciousness. They also publish bulletin inserts called Glimpses that you can request samples of.

I have to close this session with a warning. We must not fool ourselves into thinking that simply supplying information is going to give us what we need to solve our problems. Teaching church history classes or having sermons that examine historical topics will not in themselves give us the ability to know how to respond appropriately to the difficulties you face in your congregation or in Churches of Christ generally. Sheer information will not bring discernment and spiritual maturity. Just as a person can know much about Christianity and not be a Christian, a person can know much about the history of Christ's church (or any other history) and have no spiritually sensitive historical consciousness. God's Spirit must dwell within us and we must submit to God's will so that people see the Spirit's fruit increasingly in our lives. Information is not the same as realization.(7) We must hold to Jesus, the rock that stands forever and gives stability when the sands of culture and the Age suddenly shift. We must realize that we can survive the many and often rapid transitions with which we must deal as humans bound by time, only by holding to God's unchanging hand.

Songs

_____________________

1. 1Adapted from G. C. Brewer, "Customs and Christianity: With a Special Discussion of Bobbed Hair" (Austin, Texas: Firm Foundation Publishing House, n.d.) 1. RETURN TO TEXT

2. 2Ibid, pp. 7, 16. RETURN TO TEXT

3. 3Slate, C. Philip, "The Culture Concept and Hermeneutics: Quest to Identify the Permanent in Early Christianity" (Christian Scholars Conference, July 1991)617 (3). RETURN TO TEXT

4. 4Lynn V. Cheney, American Memory (Washington: National Endowment for the Humanities, 1987)6. RETURN TO TEXT

5. 5Robert H. Mitchell, I Don't Like That Music (Hope Publishing Company, 1983), RETURN TO TEXT

6. 6James Townsend, "Did You Know?," Christian History 10 (1991):1-2. RETURN TO TEXT

7. 7Craddock, Fred B., Overhearing the Gospel (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1978), 83. RETURN TO TEXT


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