I probably shouldn’t pour this out here or now. After an all-day headache that’s devolving into a sore throat, I’m tired and miserable. I delivered the lesson at my church today anyway — like so many preachers at small churches, I have no backup plan for waking up sick.
It wasn’t an easy lesson, and with out-of-town guests, it wasn’t a completely easy audience.
Tonight I thought I’d relax and read a while in a 1918 book edited by my great-great grandfather Alfred Ellmore, “Sermons and Sayings,” including some of each by himself and many of his Restoration Movement contemporaries. Among the authors are names I have long heard regarded as spiritual giants.
Since I’m not the student of the Restoration that many others are, I didn’t realize that its sectarianism went back this far, and obviously farther from the advanced stage of it evident among the authors. I thought that was a development of the 1950s or so; a mere 60 years ago rather than 100 or more.
The sermons and essays are eloquent beyond measure, from a time when erudition was actually valued and respected. Within them are often magnificent truths. And just as frequently, they contain lapses of logic and prejudices that go beyond the pale.
Even in written form, the arrogance of snide remarks about people of other faiths is too evident. In this style of expression, there is no giving an inch; no recognition of common faith in a common Lord or even just a sense of morality. The mode is always attack, belittle, condemn — the ABCs of confrontative evangelism.
How it can possibly endure today after a century of failing to persuade vast multitudes of people and turning away millions more escapes my imagination.
Except for the fact that I understand that judgment can be very enjoyable. it vaunts self by making light and less of others. It is so far removed from the winsome nature of Christ that it is no wonder that so many within the Restoration Movement (and, let’s be frank, other church fellowships too) have virtually negated the power of the humble gospel by proclaiming it with their words and denying it with their arrogance.
Those prejudices are among the causes of the flawed reasoning. Assumptions are made and conclusions drawn that now have the weight of more than a century of unquestioned acceptance — unquestioned, because to question them would draw the criticism and banishment of those who cling to them for dear life. The assumptions and conclusions (of men!) have been accorded the very same weight as scripture, and have been repeated so long and so forcefully and with such threat of reprisal — expressed or not — that the words of scripture are read to have taken on their meaning. Literally, it seems to have become impossible for some to see any difference between what scripture literally says and what they (and/or others before them) have concluded that it means.
How can such a perception be overcome? How can illogic-accepted-as-valid be defeated by logic? How can one explain the difference between what scripture says and what someone has said it means after it has been drilled in by repetition and religious culture and the Damoclean sword of threatened banishment from community? How can the satisfaction of “knowing” one is right lose ground to an humble, open uncertainty and reliance upon God’s grace?
After five generations of sectarianism’s enduring popularity?
I swing between the pendant alternatives of severing all connection with those who will not see or listen, and continuing to hold out an olive branch and a few disturbing questions — expressed in love — to those who still might.
And on nights like tonight, I just feel that the effort is largely lost.