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Friday, March 06, 2009

UPDATE FOR FEBRUARY 2009


Im Westen nichts Neues. In 1929, Erich Maria Remarque, a German veteran of World War I, published a book the title of which, loosely translated, is "All Quiet on the Western Front." The author depicts the war's horrors and the broken dreams of many men. The book's German title refers to the relative quiet encountered on the western front, a calm sufficiently real that the army dispatches for the day could write that there was nothing new to report from the western front. However, the book's title rings with bitter irony, because Paul Bäumer, its principle character, is ordered to the western front where he faces the devastating physical and psychological consequences of relentless combat and the dreadful suffering and death of his comrades. He reflects on the war as he witnesses the dehumanizing conditions of combat that deprive soldiers of their humanity and future. The tragic story ends when a French sniper's bullet kills Paul as he was reaching for a butterfly. For this man who loved life, the Western Front, after all, was anything but quiet.
All quiet on the Italian front? When we moved to Italy in 1964, we began meeting churches of Christ that numbered around 50 congregations. These came into being after the Second World War as American veterans who had served in Europe, inspired by missionary ideals, returned to evangelize here. Later, new laborers joined them on the field. Happily, many of these brought with them the high ideal of replicating the ideal New Testament church in Italy.
Regrettably, some "restorationists" also imported "patternism." This approach to restoration asks: "What are the marks of a faithful church? We must reproduce the true and authoritative pattern, or restoration cannot occur." Promoters of this view proceeded to create their own detailed blueprints of "the Church," utilizing (presumably) apostolic precedents, human logic, Biblical "silence," historical confirmations and other criteria. Their laudable goal was to promote the unity of the Lord's Church. Paradoxically, this approach cannot produce unanimous agreement on these details. Ironically, this unity movement splintered into factions that fostered, or opposed, a given practice and disfellowshipped anyone who was not in agreement. Today, these once numerous churches count a reduction in membership and a number of the first generation converts has passed on. Eventually, the graying congregations lose their first love, dwindle in numbers, become ineffective and die. There is an eerie quiet on the Italian front? and the battle is never very far away.
Several factors account for this condition, but most often, we hear it said: "The Americans brought Stateside problems to Italy and infected our churches with them." We must see clearly that the seed of division is not one particular issue, American or not, but a congenital weakness imbedded in "patternism." This philosophy brings with it legalism and reduces churches to warring factions. People are hurt, congregations fragment, evangelism goes begging, and the love of many grows cold.
Some may feel that to compare today's religious situation with World War I is exaggerated and not fair. On the other hand, sectarian strife is far more devastating than armed combat, because it harms not merely the bodies of people, but also affects their souls adversely for eternity. In the midst of these conflicts, the pain is real and the casualties are people whom Christ loves and for whom he died. ?
The Good News is that God is still on the Throne! He is answering prayers in the midst of turmoil, and we see some interesting moves in the right direction. All of us must win the battle against legalism by grasping God's concept of Grace. Pray that we may proclaim the Gospel of Grace widely, exalt Jesus Christ, and, above all, that the Lord's church may open up to all the fullness of God's Grace and prosper. And, while you're at it, join us in prayer that our Lord may reign in the hearts of all the believers in Italy, whether they have ever heard of "our" Restoration Movement or not. Pray for our efforts not only locally, but also among other believers too. ?
Pray also for the conferences scheduled in Italy from May to September, that these may glorify Jesus and encourage Kingdom building and promote unity and a vital sense of brotherhood in the local churches. ?