W.E. Garrison once said tongue in cheek: “Students of religion have long known that culture, social structure and habits, climate, economic conditions, forms of government, national loyalties and the like affect all religions except our own.” I have often wondered had I been born into a Hindu or Muslim family would I be a Christian. Had I been raised as a Baptist or Presbyterian or Roman Catholic would I be a member of the Church of Christ today? We all like to think of ourselves as persons who are truth-seekers and respond to it in a discerning, objective, rational, unbiased way, but I tend to think that our culture, education, environment, expediency, and traditions influence us more than we like to admit.
Over the years I have repeatedly heard brethren say that they just take the Bible for what it says and do not interpret it, or they call for that kind of an approach to Bible understanding as a basis of unity. That is a false premise. They do interpret the Bible. We all do and it is “clouded”, affected by our history, both individually and collectively.
We in the Churches of Christ have had a particular problem separating Biblical principles from our traditions. Our environment and history has conditioned us in favor of a familiar way of thinking and doing, and we often confuse our interpretations with what the Bible says factually. We routinely superimpose long- held opinions upon the Biblical teaching and cannot tell them apart. Thus when others come up with different conclusions or interpretations or opinions it often makes us feel uncomfortable and perhaps threatened and if we are imbued with the party spirit we react and attack in a negative way toward them. Defending our interpretations becomes all-important even if it means grinding up faithful, sincere brethren as grist in a mill. We delude ourselves into thinking we are defending the faith by quickly discrediting thinking brethren and dividing. Our reactionary behavior conveys the idea that either we think truth can’t stand the test or we are unsure and fear challenges and investigation.
Probably I got off on a tangent somewhat, but yes I think secular education has had an “impact on the overall understanding of the teaching of the New Testament” and “it has adversely affected the Church of Christ doctrine”. I tend to view this as something positive.
Let me finish this answer with a relevant quote from the book A Gathered People: Revisioning the Assembly as Transforming Encounter by Hicks, Melton, and Valentine. They speak to what I was trying to say. Writing of the “Five Acts Model” of worship they say,
“Numerous unintended consequences flow out of this paradigm. Though none of the articulate defenders of this position would say that life (discipleship) does not matter, nonetheless an hour on Sunday often became the criteria to determine the faithfulness of a Christian. This position sometimes radically compartmentalized the demands of the Lordship of Christ. Perhaps the sharpest example of the narrow orthodoxy produced by this theology is the hundreds of congregations that were deemed ‘sound’ and ‘faithful’ because of scrupulously performed five acts of authorized worship while excluding African Americans from their assemblies. A local church could be deemed ‘orthodox’ while virtually ignoring the poor and hungry and sleeping on the street.
There is also a certain amount of irony in this paradigm. Though advocates believe they have deduced a timeless pattern, close scrutiny reveals that it has been shaped by culture. The ‘five acts’ paradigm was, in large measure, handed down to us through the Reformed tradition and Scottish Independents that formed Alexander Campbell’s own personal views. Culture influenced the exercise of these acts when we stopped using wine on the table because of the Temperance Movement. Culture influenced us when adopted individual cups for the Supper because of the discovery of ‘germs’. Culture taught us to sing four-part harmony and American revivalism led us to adopt practices like the ‘invitation’ song. Rather than being timelessly written in stone, the five acts paradigm is culturally dependent and theologically inept.
James J. Albert