by Pete Garcia–
The ‘Church of Christ’ in the Last Days
Chances are, if you belong to a Church of Christ (non-instrumental), you probably wouldn’t be reading the Omega Letter in the first place. But, I have met enough people along the way who were or know people who are that I thought this warranted writing.
I was born and raised Southern Baptist, but married into a five generation-strong Church of Christ family. Having attended almost a dozen different Churches of Christ in three different states, I have come to notice similarities and differences amongst all these different churches. But there is one common thread in all of the ones we have attended.
Churches of Christ pride themselves in following the early church model as found in the book of Acts, and not falling underneath any type of hierarchical structure of a higher organization, such as the Southern Baptist do with their SBC Convention or how the Vatican does with the Roman Catholic churches. Each Church of Christ is an independent island of believers rooted together in common faith. But this is also why there have been so many different types of Churches of Christ who have branched out or split apart since the Stone-Campbell movement in the 1800’s.
Recently, I attended a Wednesday night bible study at the local Church of Christ and was entreated to a class that could for all intents and purposes be called “the Dangers of Dispensationalism” or “why futurism is a faulty view,” as I think that ultimately this was at the heart of his teaching. The preacher teaching the class began to hit some rapid fire points right off the bat to include a clip from the Left Behind movie that came out in 2000.
- Dispensationalism began in the 1800’s with John Nelson Darby—thus can’t be trusted.
- Israel uprooted the local population in 1948 and thus has become much of the problem in the Middle East
- American politics and churches are overwhelmingly Dispensational which is why we are so ‘pro-Israel’ which of course is dangerous
- You cannot take the book of Revelation literally or chronologically as it is “Apocalyptic literature”, thus in its “own” special kind of category.
Not knowing what was being taught that night and being a Pre-Millennial Dispensationalist, I of course took exception too much of the discussion. I spoke up politely because much of what was being taught simply wasn’t true. This of course didn’t sit well with the preacher who probably didn’t anticipate being challenged on any of his prescribed views and led to my early self-dismissal from the class. But this experience got me thinking.
Question: If Churches of Christ are supposed to be stand-alone churches (not bound by creeds or indoctrinated by some higher organization), why do they all tend to hold to the same Eschatological view? [See Revelation 19:10]
The How and Why
After this class, I began to research this more in depth and came across an article released through Pepperdine University (in the January 2000 edition of Leaven magazine) by a Dr. Lynn Mitchell entitled Eschatology: Essential, Yet Essentially Ignored. The author belongs to the Church of Christ, and was writing essentially to ask the same question I am asking here now 14 years later. He makes some interesting points that seem common across the Churches of Christ. He notes two interesting points in the history of the Church of Christ’s eschatological understanding. The first he chronicles how it happened:
“Eschatology died as a living concern among our churches because of at least four related developments:
(1) The acceptance of the church-kingdom identity fostered by Tolbert Fanning and like-minded sectarians;
(2) The powerful and brutal assault on millennial modes of thought and millennial thinkers, particularly premillennial, by the Foy E. Wallace Jr. cadre of de-eschatologizers;
(3) The subsequent ruthlessly enforced triumph of Amillennialism and the dogma of church-kingdom identity; and
(4) The filling of the vacuum in eschatological thinking with inane, hybridized life-after-death language uninformed by biblical or systematic theology.”
Dr. Mitchell succinctly sums up the end result of such theological witch-hunts within the Churches of Christ in his essay:
“All we have left is ah-millennialism.”
“We are neither passionately radical nor invigoratingly hopeful.”
As to Foy E. Wallace Jr, history records he made it his personal mission to stomp out Pre-Millennialism single handedly if need be:
In October 1935 Wallace founded the Gospel Guardian as a monthly magazine primarily to combat the views of the premillennialists. The Gospel Guardian ended in June 1936 and merged with the Firm Foundation. In 1937 Wallace was the front-page writer for the Firm Foundation. In 1938 Wallace founded the Bible Banner, initially also dedicated to the defeat of premillennial doctrine.
By the early 1940s, every significant paper and college associated with Churches of Christ took the amillennial position, often, like Wallace, never using the terms amillennial or Amillennialism. By 1949, when Wallace ceased publishing the Bible Banner, this campaign had been so effective that fewer than a hundred congregations adhered to the premillennial view, and those generally isolated from the mainline, as they remained for decades.
Dr. Mitchell does a decent job of showing why the modern Church of Christ churches and universities promote the Amillennial eschatological view over all the others. I pointed out on that fateful Wednesday night that it was to the credit of Augustine of Hippo (circa-5th century A.D.) that Amillennialism even existed. Augustine wrote and developed much of what the Roman Catholic Church adheres to as doctrine and dogma. This revelation went over like a wet blanket on a cold night.
In all the discussions I’ve had with Church of Christ elders, deacons, preachers, and church members over the years, there is a general consensus that Eschatology is best left to the experts, and the “experts” all hold to either an Amillennial, Pan-millennial (it will all pan out in the end), or Preterist view of Bible prophecy.
If the conversation continued long enough, the unanimous conclusion drawn from my counterpart is almost always “why does Eschatology even matter for the here and now?”
So why does it matter? I’ve stated in previous articles that how one views the end, will largely shape how one views the here and now. Would it matter if you don’t believe in God or an afterlife? Would it matter if you believed that you were THE kingdom come here on earth now? Would it matter if you believed that life will just go on and on until the end of time when God one day just pulls up the curtains and says ‘That’s All, Folks!’ Would it matter if you believed that Christ could return at any moment?
“Therefore you also be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.” Luke 12:40
Aside from the historical origins of Amillennialism, accepting this view comes with some significant theological challenges. First of which, is the amount of prophetic scriptures one has to either dismiss as “apocalyptic literature” or has to allegorize to such an extent that it could mean anything. That would mean about 30 % of your Bible (both Old and New) were now up for grabs.
German Higher Criticism came about around the 18th century promoting and attempting to answer the inerrancy claims of the Scriptures from a philosophical and rationalist perspective. It was birthed in Europe, but soon moved to the American seminaries as many of these clergy departed Europe for the New World. One of the products of their teachings was developing a Lower Criticism and a Higher Criticism. The lower dealt with the actual physical translations and texts (or how they came together over the centuries) and the Higher dealt with the actual content of the messages.
The Maccabean Jews had first coined the term “apocalyptic literature”. But since they (nor Judaism) accepted the New Testament, this term would later be co-opted by the critics who used it in describing the Revelation and other text that fell into this category. It seemingly gave license to teachers and preachers to either dismiss or allegorize the prophetic text. At the very least, “apocalyptic literature” would not receive the same theological weight as say the Gospels or the Epistles.
The term “apocalyptic literature” soon became a catchall phrase for all the passages of scripture that seemingly argued against Amillennialism. The main problem with this is that one cannot hold to a consistent view of Scriptures and simultaneously promote Higher Criticism at the same time because they work against each other.
For example, higher critics would argue that half of Daniel (chapters 7-12) was written in the 2nd century B.C., because it too accurately predicted the rise and fall of nations that came to pass from Daniel’s time (5th-6th century BC) to the time of Christ. They neglect the truth that the true author of Scripture was not Daniel, but God.
There is a danger to this type of ‘higher criticism’ thinking. Almost every Church of Christ elder or preacher that I have spoken too on this topic have no issue with all the prophecies that foretold the first coming of Christ…of which around 108 prophecies were literally fulfilled. Yet, they tend to dismiss the next 300 or so prophecies concerning Christ’s Second Coming as ‘apocalyptic literature.’ The Pharisees of Jesus’s day applied this same type of dismissive reasoning to His first coming. Think about that for a second.
When the wise men (Magi from the East) came to worship Christ, notice how King Herod’s chief priests and scribes all knew about the prophecies concerning the coming Messiah, but none of them really believed it or they would have already been searching Him out. At the very least, they would have travelled the five miles from Jerusalem to Bethlehem with the Wise men to see for themselves. But they didn’t. [See Matthew 2]
One last point that I heard reiterated from time to time in C of C churches is that prophecy is based on the Hebraic Mindset, and that prophecy is pattern, and not to be taken chronologically as laid out in the book of Revelation. That is true to an extent, but that is not the whole truth. Jesus responds to His disciple’s questions about the last days sequentially in the Olivet Discourse (Matt. 24, Mark 13, Luke 21)…of which Revelation 6-19 is merely an expansion on.
Question: Was Jesus using Hebraic reasoning that spoke in patterns as ‘apocalyptic literature’ in the Olivet Discourse, or was He, as God, answering sequentially the question that His disciples asked Him about the last days?
The hour is too late and the day too far gone to spend your time either not knowing or deliberately ignoring what God has to say about our immediate future. There is nothing wrong with taking a literal understanding of the Bible. Yes there are different types of speech contained in Scripture: Parables, euphemisms, figures of speech, symbolism, metaphors, etc. But just using a common sense approach to Scriptures solves a lot of these differences. Having a literal understanding, doesn’t have to be “wooden” or rigid as some would say, it’s totally based on the understanding that God instructed men what to write, and God is not bound to time like we are. ‘He declares the end from the beginning’ (Isaiah 46:9-10) and what He says will come to pass.
You don’t have to believe what I write, but be a Berean and search these things out for yourself. Don’t just take what a guy in the pulpit tells you because he went to seminary and you didn’t. As believers, we all belong to the body of Christ and we all received the same Holy Spirit who will reveal to you these things you seek out. I’ll close with a warning by Jesus to a church that no longer concerned themselves about watching for His return. We too should take heed, since Jesus ends this (as He does with all the others) by saying ‘He who has an ear, let him hear’…
“Remember therefore how you have received and heard; hold fast and repent. Therefore if you will not watch, I will come upon you as a thief, and you will not know what hour I will come upon you.” Revelation 3:3