13 February 2016

The Razor's Edge: Covenant Faithfulness and Apostasy Part I

When the antithesis is heightened, so is the risk. The Plymouth Brethren represent not only a more conscientiously separatist form of Christianity but their antithesis in this case also extends to the Christian narrative as a whole.

All Separatism does this, but the Brethren made a conscious break with the Protestant tradition, identifying its faults and unbiblical defections and sought to genuinely reformulate their worship, doctrine and practice on the basis of the New Testament.

From my perspective they failed most poignantly in their embrace of a wholly novel doctrine, that of Dispensationalism. It must be said though that not all the early Brethren were on board with this aspect. George Muller would be the most famous dissenter in this regard. This doctrine effectively destroyed their attempts to pattern themselves on the basis of New Testament Christianity and has caused no small bifurcation in their Separatist creed. Dispensationalism has fueled Christian Zionism both in Britain and the USA and has brought forth a witness (that at least on this point) starkly contradicts the witness of the New Testament and Early Church.

Aside from that substantial and unfortunate point (and a few others to be sure) I think there is a great deal about the Brethren to appreciate.

There are many problems with sectarian insularity as has been made all too clear in recent years. They have not been exempt from scandal and again in no way do I wish to 'endorse' the either the Open or Exclusive Brethren. Their definitions and methods of separatism can also rightly be critiqued and from multiple angles. In some ways they go too far, and in others not far enough but I can't help but be intrigued by them.

But there's another aspect to their experiment (if I can identify it thus) that is both intriguing and deeply disturbing. I'm speaking of their children and in particular those that fall away.

These deeply devoted and dedicated folk have created a very rich community that is fulfilling and of great comfort to those who have embraced it. And yet for those who do not continue in it, there is not only the resulting ostracism and ecclesiastical discipline, which despite the concerns of Evangelicals is more right than wrong, but there is blowback, the backlash that often occurs. When their children fall, they fall hard.

Just to clarify there are many Evangelicals and even Reformed who are greatly confused about Church Discipline in no small part stemming from their confusion over the issue of antithesis. The Brethren go so far as to sunder the familial relationship entirely. This too is something of a mistake. While Christ indeed argued the Gospel would bring about the division of families and that as believers we must put our devotion to God far above any earthly (even familial) relationship I see no warrant in arguing that children, siblings, parents etc... are to be totally and utterly cut off from all contact.

Certainly the relationship is modified and lessened. An apostate is in a much worse place than the average unbeliever. Though this judgment contains an element of subjectivity I believe it firmly and can attest to it personally. I think there is also Scriptural warrant for categorising such a person in a place of despair that exceeds that of the average unbeliever. There's something more awful about embracing Christ and rejecting Him than merely not believing as serious as that also is.

And so I don't want to suggest for a moment that an adult apostate child will somehow fit into the family or have much of a place in it. But I think to cut off all contact as groups like the Amish and Brethren are wont to do is an unnecessarily extreme measure. I think you can still be a parent and retain the hope (even if distant) of reconciliation and restoration. At this point 2 Thessalonians 4 needs to be considered. We can cut off fellowship even to the point of 'eating' as it says in 1 Corinthians 5. We can treat that person as a publican, as a pagan (Matt 18) and yet still show a degree of kindness and communication toward them.    

Children raised in Christian homes are in a unique situation. They are by virtue of birth, holy (1 Cor 7.14) and already reckoned part of the Church (Eph 6). I would go further and argue by virtue of baptism they are also reckoned as regenerate and believing. The oikos (oikoV) formula in Acts confirms Apostolic paedobaptism and the formula itself, the very syntax regarding household baptism is incomprehensible in a strictly craedobaptistic framework. There is no participation in the Church outside of the covenant and baptism signifies membership and participation in both. Both Church and Covenant are but facets of a larger complex of concepts we identify as the Kingdom. In a sense they are all synonymous but also reflect nuances in difference, in emphasis, perspective and redemptive-historical setting.

Those who extend the Church and Covenant to a larger set of definitions that include the culture have strayed from the New Testament, embraced Sacralism and therefore it is no great surprise that they are typically quite hostile to Separatism. While many will claim a doctrine of antithesis, from the perspective of this author, their antithesis is an attempt to salvage some form of distinct identity and thought from the synthesis they have already committed themselves to. Their doctrine of Kingdom is without Biblical warrant and in fact directly contradicts many of Christ's descriptions of it. The Kingdom is the realm of the Holy Spirit and is largely incomprehensible to the lost world.

Children of believers are reckoned within the covenant and subject to the commands of God, something Paul identifies as impossible for unbelievers.

You cannot raise a pagan in the fear and admonition of the Lord. Christian children hold covenantal status and in that sense they are raised and reckoned as Christians... until they manifest evidence otherwise, signs that they are rejecting the Gospel heritage, signals of apostasy. When they refuse to submit to God's Word, at that point the Church must intervene. But this is true with all 'members' of the Church. I use that term in its Biblical, not its denominational or bureaucratic sense. There is so much confusion surrounding this issue and for many their doctrine of Justification as well as the epistemological commitments they bring with them to the text cannot accommodate the concept of apostasy. This affects both their doctrine of Church discipline as well as how they view and consequently raise their children. Many greatly err in understanding 'saving faith' as an event rather than a continuous living and developing expression of hope and trust.

The Brethren are inconsistent on these points as are many Separatist groups. The Open Brethren are theologically Baptistic but like almost all Baptists raise their children as Christians. On a practical level the difference is whether or not you press for a conversion experience. The Exclusive Brethren practice paedobaptism but I suspect their doctrines are not as developed.

In my own house I've often said to my wife that either our children will fully embrace our vision and understanding or upon reaching maturity they will think we're quite insane and the defection will probably tend toward the severe. Though it's possible, they will not likely be content in a 'mild' defection, settling into some form of mainstream Protestant/Evangelical Christianity. They will either be 'on fire' as we are and of a separatist mindset or they will likely fall away.

Such is the risk of antithesis. I'm speaking in terms of human means and experience of course. God is ultimately in control of these matters and can do whatever He will. Our children might forge a somewhat different path and yet still be within the fold of His Grace. That is possible but God utilises means within the framework of His Covenants and one of the primary means is that of parents.  Human speaking our fidelity ought to produce faithful results, the fruit and reward (as it were) of obedience. But as we know it doesn't always work out that way. Sadly many at this point make the exception the rule and incorporate the exception into the normative structure of their theology. They act like when a child goes astray that should be viewed as a somewhat normal, legitimately possible and even unsurprising development. This is not to suggest they aren't upset by it. But I don't think they fully appreciate the tragedy and the 'wrong-ness' of what has occurred. It should be viewed as a severe aberration and defection from the norm.

The antithesis, raising our children to be conscious pilgrims and strangers on the earth and in opposition to it, is a God ordained means. It draws lines and our children like all people are forced to choose. At this point I'm not speaking of decretalism. That's another layer or mysterious aspect to this question. I'm speaking in terms of experience in time and space, the application of the covenant in This Age. We have to choose, exercise our will and in order to do so we must wholeheartedly rely on God's grace, coming to him with impoverished spirits crying to Him for mercy. Of course our seeking is itself generated by Him, but that's another issue. Once again we should avoid utilising one truth to cancel out another.

Continue reading part 2