I would like to take a brief moment to review a book written by a good friend, Jeff Cary. Jeff and his family have really become dear to my family (both extended and immediate) over the years. And it would be truthful to say that he has been instrumental in my theological and spiritual development in quite a number of ways. He is currently an Assistant Professor of Theology at Lubbock Christian University.
But my point now is to draw your attention to his dissertation (now book) called Free Churches and the Body of Christ: Authority, Unity and Truthfulness. I had the privilege of reading the manuscript of this book whilst it was in its dissertation form – and though I read with a good deal of appreciation, I no doubt read with a good deal of ignorance as well. Still, Jeff graciously engaged with me in conversation both to helpfully dispel my broad misconceptions but also to prod me towards a more truthful and faithful understanding of the Church. For this, I remain deeply grateful.
Now, I am glad to say that I have re-read his book with (hopefully) more attentive eyes than before, and I would like to try and press upon you the importance of this book for the church today. I recognize how absurd it is to summarize such a well written and astute book in a brief blog post, but still, I aim to give you the core of Jeff’s thesis here and then hopefully to engage the book further in later posts. It is quite clear in my mind that this book is of utmost importance for the church today and though I may fail to commend it to you well, I urge you to grab a copy and engage it yourself.
Jeff begins by saying that this book is fundamentally about Christian unity, written for those primarily within Free Church traditions (see Yoder’s essay here for a decent understanding of Free Churches). He continues, “Although I raise some pointed questions concerning this tradition, I want to state clearly that I honor this capacious tradition, not least because of my own home within the fellowship of churches known as the Churches of Christ.”
Many of us (including myself) find ourselves most at home within the Churches of Christ or Christian Church, which represent branches of the larger movement known as the Restoration (or Stone-Campbell) Movement which arose in early nineteenth century America. As many are quite aware, historians suggest that the movement’s early hopes of broad Christian unity were overwhelmed by other concerns of practices and doctrines. Sadly, the movement took part in much of the same type of division that it had initially sought to overcome.
Yet, there is still a strong effort towards unity amongst many of its churches even today. Personally, I find myself in a long line of family members who have given their life’s energy and work to see the restoration and healing of the ruptures between these churches. This is most certainly a worthwhile effort and I, for one, deem that struggle to be at least partly successful in that it is through the Church of Christ that I have received the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Perhaps we could say, amidst all the ecclesial difficulty and disunity – the faithfulness of God to his church remains constant. But this, as we all might agree, cannot be a stopping point. Is it simply ‘good enough’ to find some unity amidst local Christian churches and then rest contented as if that was what Christ meant by praying ‘that they may be one’ or Paul’s pressing call towards unity in the Body of Christ?
This leads us to a primary concern in Jeff’s book. He suggests that the issue of authority in the church is central (if not the central) issue in working towards unity amongst churches. For Jeff, I think I would be right in saying that his work is born out of a deep concern for the visible unity of Christians as one of the primary ways the Church should bear witness to the world.
Therefore, one of Jeff’s primary theological concerns deals with the increasingly visible effects of individualism in churches today. Specifically where there is a lack of common understanding as to where ‘authority’ lies in the church and how it functions. Those within free churches have typically located authority primarily (if not completely) with the Bible (sola scriptura!). Whereas a majority of the church has historically recognized a constellation of distinct but not mutually exclusive modes of authority found in the Scripture, tradition and the teaching office of the church.
Since issues of church unity are so closely bound up with issues of authority, is it truthful to say that something integral to the church’s witness as a visibly unified body is lost when tradition or any extra-congregational teaching office is limited or rejected? Often when this has happened, the Church has seen the elevation of Scripture to the position of ultimate authority as it is interpreted by each and every individual/church, which has often resulted in unending disagreement and fragmentation.
In reference to ‘Bible only’ churches, Jeff is one scholar amidst many who have recognized the inevitable pesky issue of interpretation that opens up a host of other issues. In other words, whose interpretation of any given passage should be taken as normative for the church and who says? And when the Scripture is not so clear on an issue – who decides how to interpret the passage(s) and who verifies the truthfulness of this reading over and against other interpretations? And if the pastor or elder has a final say – what does this tell us about where authority in the church really lies – and how does this relate to the possibility of unity when every church is autonomously interpreting texts as they see fit.
One doesn’t have to try hard to see the significance of this discussion. Even in Kenya, this is a wide spread difficulty for many reasons. It would appear that any time a church member disagrees (refuses to recognize the legitimacy of another’s interpretation) – he/she feels free to leave the church and takes the initiative to start their own ‘better’ church down the road (perhaps an exaggeration but you get the point…).
Undoubtedly there are uneducated individuals that I have met in the slums of Nairobi who have grasped the Gospel in a fuller and more beautiful way than I have (and most people I know). Still, difficulties of understanding particular doctrines inevitably arise if individuals are not well versed in the various interpretive nuances and historical peculiarities of Scripture (which is a difficulty that I often have as well!).
In regards to ‘Bible only’ churches, there are an increasing number of theologians who have recognized the historical dynamics of canonical formation. Noting that historically – over the process of hundreds of years – the tradition (rule of faith), practices and leaders of the churches worked hand in hand (with the Holy Spirit) in recognizing, passing along and slowly coming to an agreement as to which scriptural texts should be authoritative for the church and why. Certainly in one sense the Scripture as the Word of God precedes the Church, but the canonical texts (the Bible) that we have today are an outworking of historical processes from within the church. An obvious question that arises from this is – what was the functional authority of the Church before the canonical Scriptures were compiled?
Recently, an increasing number of Free Church theologians are pressing for a deeper engagement with the wider theological and liturgical traditions of the church as authoritative [along with Scripture].
But to say that the church should read scripture in light of the church’s wider theological tradition opens up a new set of questions concerning the free church’s relationships amongst ‘itself’ and its relation to the ‘one, holy, catholic and apostolic’ church in light of its historical division. Most pressingly, ‘how is unity with this one church to be visibly demonstrated within a Free Church context in light of its traditional construal of authority?’
As Jeff notes in the book, often a solution to the problem of unity has been sought in the notion of the ‘invisible church’ or the ‘church as God sees it’.
In his Systematic Theology, Paul Tillich noted the paradoxical character of church unity in his statement ‘it is the divided church which is the united church’. Since sociological (or visible) division is impossible to avoid, Tillich suggests that the command for unity applies not to actual churches but to the “unity of their foundation” so that the unity of the church is real in each local church in so far as it is related to the Christ event as its foundation in spite of the fact that all of them are separated from each other visibly.
But in recent years, protestant theologians have become increasingly dissatisfied construing church unity primarily in terms of invisible unity. But the easily recognizable question becomes – how is one to speak intelligibly about the visible unity of the body of Christ from within a Free Church perspective where visible structures of unity/authority are most often severely limited or absent altogether?
This is a central concern in Jeff’s thought. In his own words: “The primary purpose of this study is to build on the recent turn to tradition among free church theologians primarily by pressing the question of visible ecclesial unity and its relationship to the issue of authority…”
He continues, “can the contemporary pursuit of tradition as an authority be undertaken coherently apart from a demonstrative pursuit of visible unity beyond the local congregation, especially in the form of an authoritative extra-congregational teaching office of some kind?
I shall argue that the one leads naturally to the other and that a rejection of a simplistic sola scriptura doctrine along with the affirmation of visible unity of the church substantiates and recommends the classic recognition of the triple loci of authority: Scripture, tradition, and some form of Episcopal teaching office.”
In order to facilitate these discussions in his book, Jeff begins by addressing these concerns through a number of prominent Free Church theologians such as John Howard Yoder, Stanley Grenz and D.H. Williams.
He then brings into conversation two theologians outside of the Free Church tradition: Robert Jenson (a Lutheran theologian prominent for his effort in ecumenical dialogues in the last half of the century) and Rowan Williams (former archbishop of Canterbury and an outstanding theologian in his own right). Jeff is primarily interested in how these two men understand the tri-loci of authority to function in the church in terms of visible unity. While there are some clear differences between the two, they each present a vision of church unity that provides a large challenge to those within free churches.
I would say that each of these chapters are well worth the price of this book on their own! It is shameful that I am not able to bring out some of that discussion here, but hopefully you will take it upon yourself to engage Jeff’s thought for yourself. [As a sidenote: I am working through all of Rowan Williams’ works this year and I have read many books about him as well and I have not found a better engagement with aspects of Rowan’s thought concerning Scripture and the Church than in Jeff’s book.]
In the last core chapter, Jeff engages Free Church (Baptist) theologian James McClendon, who is recognized as a pioneer in discussions of unity amidst free churches. While Jeff recognizes some helpful developments that McClendon has undertaken in his thought, he discusses why he thinks that McClendon’s understanding of ecclesial unity is deficient in certain areas theologically. This chapter can be of utmost benefit to those within the Free Church in order to see better how particular theological understanding of Christ, Scripture, the Eucharist and the Body of Christ deeply effect how one envisions and works towards church unity.
The conclusion will suggest that some Free Church theologians have helpfully moved beyond McClendon, yet even this has seemed to accentuate the problematic aspects of unity in the Free Church rather than dispel them. Without saying much more here, Jeff closes his work in suggesting that a move toward visible unity along with the retrieval of the authority of tradition leads naturally toward the usefulness of, if not the need for, some form of global teaching office.
I hope this review has provided enough clarity on the main thrust of the book though I would be the first to say that I have not done justice to many aspects of Jeff’s book. In conclusion, I think this book honestly addresses the primary concerns of the contemporary church as a whole. As such, it deserves a wide reading and attentive engagement. For me, in addition to just learning a good deal throughout, it has developed a larger concern for the Church’s unified witness and its central role as the tangible availability of Christ for the world.