Muscle and a Shovel

When I first moved to Texas, I went to church with my friend, who I thought would be able to help me move BibleTrans along. I also thought his church might be different from the Relationshipism the pervades most American churches. I was wrong about both. So now I'm going locally to a tiny little church in the same denomination [see Note 1] where I was in Bolivar. One of the ladies in this church seems to think her God-given duty is to evangelize the uninvited drop-ins. Me, I think her skills would be better spent on the unchurched, but it's not my place to criticize whatever God told her to do. So this week she offered me a book to read. I'd seen copies laying around in the church, so I suppose she'd bought up a box of them and was giving them out like tracts -- and that's what it is.

The title is a little off-putting to me, because I was never very athletic, and because a shovel calls up images of the life-time work ("ditch-digger") my parents held over us kids as the terrible consequence of not doing our schoolwork. The author tells us he meant it as a metaphor, that knowing what the Bible teaches involves hard work and digging into the text -- except this book obviously does not expect nor teach that kind of independent study, nor can it. Most Americans come through the public edu-factories, which like their correspondents in third-world countries, teach rote group-think. The only difference is that in third-world schools the kids must do it in unison, whereas Americans are taught pseudo-anarchy: "Believe what we tell you to believe, but pretend it's your own thinking." Take out the self-serving anecdotal "testimony" [see Note 2] part that fills more than half of its pages, and this book is almost word-for-word what the local preacher preaches from the pulpit, and very similar to what the guy in Bolivar preached. Apparently (more than I realized) this denomination is gung-ho on their particular denominational creed, taught in their denominational school(s) and expressed pretty clearly in this tract-book. Not all of that creed is Scripture; some is inferred from Scripture only by flimsy or faulty logic.

The presentation in this book was also off-putting, so I had a hard time staying with it. Most Americans have only a vague notion of what they believe, and are even more vague why. This book, like the Mormon and JW and atheist missionaries, preys on that confusion to make converts. It's a story told in the first person about when the author was 20 years old, and much of the story line is filled with the silly things the author believed back then, and how his evangelist demolished them. There was probably a time when I didn't know what I believed or why, but I actively overcame it with formal education and a lot of Bible-reading. That was a long time ago for me, and I am not today confused about what Scripture teaches, nor why I believe it. This book is not aimed at me.

The best way to convince me that I got something wrong is state your position clearly and succinctly, and then to listen to my objections to your position, then answer them logically. That takes time and it takes knowledge, both in short supply among people who think I got something wrong. An academic textbook makes the effort to present all the perspectives with their respective problems, and then (if the author so chooses) points out why he prefers one over the others. Like a polemic tract, this book presents only the denominational dogma (with its supporting Scriptures), without addressing the reasonable and Scriptural objections to it. Every denomination can (and most do) do that, although not all of them try very hard at it. When you've been around as long as I have, and have looked intently at what Scripture teaches and how each denomination filters that teaching, you can be more sensitive to their individual failings.

I am not criticizing this denomination. I sit in their church because (a) The preacher seems to me closer to Scripture than his rivals in this town, and (b) He cites Scripture a lot more than the others do -- often too fast for me to get it all (because I'm not a real-time person), but since much of it appears to be denominational dogma rather than what he recently found for himself in Scripture, I will hear it again in a week or two. I could wish that he preached what he found found new and fresh, but this church is too small to pay somebody to take that kind of time (this guy has a secular day job for income). I could wish that this denomination spent more effort training people to think for themselves and to find their own insights in Scripture, but nobody anywhere does that, it's too dangerous (people might find Scriptures that teach against the approved dogma).

ALL human-made systematic compilations of Biblical teaching have errors, and the dogma presented in this book is no exception. It devotes a whole chapter to demolishing the Five Points of Calvinism from Scripture (I assume correctly, but I skimmed that chapter rather than studying it carefully), while ignoring the plank in the eye of Arminians. Both the preacher at this church, and the one in Bolivar, found it necessary to say "this text does not mean what it says" (or words to that effect) when they preached on a text the Calvinists like. Fortunately they don't say it very often. I have heard Calvinists do the same with the texts the Arminians like. There is no Biblical contradiction except in the small minds of people who want to think they are smart enough to understand all of what God has to say (He wouldn't be God if they could) and in the smaller minds of the atheists ;-)

Baptismal regeneration, a dogma this denomination shares with the Catholics, some Anglicans, the Lutherans, and the Mormons (although only the Mormons go so far as to accept 1Co.15:29 as authoritative), is obviously important enough to devote half the book to. It's too complicated to address in this short review, nor even to cover fully in a book that is only an anecdotal tract. Maybe someday I will give it the attention it deserves [see Note 3].

There are other topics where this denomination distinguishes itself from the others, and from time to time this book devotes a chapter to each before returning to its main theme; one such topic is acapella singing. I happen to like being able to sing in harmony from a book (see my blog post on singing the Messiah, last year), and it's fascinating to hear guys who don't read music yet they find harmonious notes to sing, but the denominational argument for it seemed a little flimsy. If ALL Scripture is God-breathed and profitable for "teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness," and if we are both to "sing [with our voices] and make melody in our hearts" (presumably not involving our voices), and if Psalms are to be included in the repertoire, not just "hymns and spiritual songs," then what's wrong with obeying the command of God in Psalm 150 to use musical instruments in our praise to God? I haven't yet got up the nerve to ask the local preacher. The book has at least one historical error that I know of in its broader answer to the question, but maybe I'll try to be satisfied with it anyway.

The preacher -- or at least the book -- seems to put more significance into Col.2:14 than the context justifies, so as effectively to cut 2Tim.3:16 completely out of the New Testament and "nail it to the cross" with the other stuff they see in the Old Testament but don't like. Me, I don't feel God gives me that right. I'm not into reading other people's mail -- most of the OT was particular to Israel, not the Church -- but there's a lot of good stuff there that is obviously not for them only, and is part of what Paul said is "profitable" for training etc.

Self-published books have certain tell-tale marks, a rambling repetitiousness that a good editor can tighten up, misspelled words that a paid proofreader (or in this case, even a software spell-checker) would instantly catch, but all that is less important than the author's purpose and impact it had on me. My father once taught me, "No matter how smart you are, no matter how [less than smart] you think the other person is, there's always something you can learn from him." This has certainly been true in my reading this book: at least two little pieces of information I didn't even know to ask, now I don't need to. I also gained a much deeper insight into this denomination's inalienable dogmas, the better to avoid stepping on toes by asking the preacher (or somebody else) dumb questions. More than when I started (the first hundred or so pages), I'm glad I read it, but I wouldn't recommend it to anybody else. If you're in the denomination, you already heard everything -- except some of the goofy stories about untrained preachers in other denoms -- from the pulpit dozens of times; if you're outside looking in, you need a more honest treatment of the subject matter than this book offers.

Tom Pittman
2016 March 16


[1] Denomination. The English word "denomination" is derived from the Latin verb meaning "has a name". Every church has a name facing the street, and most of them are in groups that have a name by which they distinguish themselves from the other churches in town. It's like money, the other modern situation where we use the same word to tell the difference between $1 and $20 by the name "ONE" or "TWENTY" printed on the bill. One American coin denomination does not even tell you what it's worth, it just has a name, "DIME". Paul criticized the Corinthians for having factions and choosing names of people for them. Two of those factions have disappeared (replaced in Christendom by others, like Luther and Calvin and [John the] Baptist), and two others are still in use: Peter (the church at Rome) and this denomination, which prefers to be referred to as "of Christ", as if that makes them special. It's their chosen name, both then and now. Before the Roman church got so far from Scripture there was no need for distinction; now there is: I am not Mormon, I am not Jehovah's Witness, but "Christian" seems a little vague. Sometimes I say "evangelical," but mostly (like the smarter ones in this denom) I refuse to say. I serve Jesus Christ as Lord. Unfortunately the Mormons and the Catholics say that too, but they deviate from Scripture rather farther than my comfort zone.

[2] Testimony. It is a modern heresy taught in many churches today that the gospel is best presented by "telling your own story." The author of this book might shy away from openly admitting to believing it, but he obviously practices it. Nobody in the Bible ever did that. I think there are 24 times in Acts when somebody is seeking to evangelize another person, and not once did any of them ever "tell his own story." If we are told at all what was said, it is Jesus Christ crucified, dead, buried, and raised to life on the third day, so repent. There are four instances where the Apostle Paul is in a courtroom setting defending his life, and he must necessarily comply with the legal system he is being tried under; those four times only does he say what happened to him. I'm not a first-century lawyer, so I'm not prepared to argue what was or was not good legal practice in Roman courts, but that's where it happened, and nowhere else.

[3] Baptismal Regeneration. Like the denominational preachers, this book argues vigorously against the straw-man (nonsensical) supposition that the Greek preposition 'eis' in Acts 2:38 translated "for" in the King James Bible means "because of," but does not adequately explain why they prefer the KJV translation influenced by the Catholics ("for" meaning purpose) despite that the Greek preposition is translated (in the same KJV, by their counts, on page 184) more than ten times as often as motion toward or into, as for example the same preposition used with the same verb in Romans 6:3, where they eagerly accept its meaning as "into" and not purpose. I have never seen anybody (except the Pentecostals) address John's explanation of how his baptism (in water) differs from that of the coming Christ (in Holy Spirit and fire); taken at face value it seems to teach that Christian baptism is a spiritual thing "not made by (human) hands" [Col.2:11,12], whereas the author's pointed focus is on the "hands" pushing him into the water and lifting him back out in describing his own experience (page 321). My own rather robust "BS Detector" treats contradictions like this as evidence of dissimulation.

Also like the preachers, this book makes only a half-hearted attempt to explain away the missing quadrant in Mark 16:16, and does not deal at all with why they want to give "antitype" in 1 Peter 3.21 a meaning opposite to what it necessarily means in the only other New Testament usage. I'm not saying I reject the principle of baptismal regeneration, only that it's a lot more complicated than they (or anybody else) give it credit for.

[4] Problems & Unanswered Questions. I went back through my notes and wrote up the significant questions and problems I found, here. There might be others I didn't notice yet.

2016 April 13. Some three weeks after I told the woman about this web page, the preacher at church picked a phrase out of context from the King James version of a verse cited in my questions page here, and spent half of his Sunday School hour misapplying it to what appears to be denominational doctrine categorizing which things in the Bible are normative, and which things are not. I don't know that my remarks here triggered his lesson (he never said anything to me, and I didn't ask), but I can't blame the guy for avoiding direct dialog with me: ministers of a much bigger church and with more education cowarded out only last year (see "Cowardly Face-to-Face").