Deism in Churches of Christ?

Jay guin In his conversations with leaders in Churches of Christ, Pat Keifert noted that God was used as the subject of an active verb less roughly 5% of the time. Here's what that means in part: leaders in Churches of Christ generally view God as passive.

That finding doesn't surprise me at all. As I hear churches discuss their futures, deal with crises, debate theological or textual issues–there is a sense that God indeed spoke, but doesn't speak. He did, but doesn't do. He lives, but isn't living. I don't know if it's an anti-Calvinist or anti-Charismatic bent that points some of us that way. Whatever it is, it's noteworthy. What we believe about God shapes absolutely everything.

I've witnessed a practical deism at play these days in many Churches of Christ (not all)–a worldview in which God is never the subject of an active verb. I personally think it has to do with individualism and our fairly radical free-will doctrine. After all, if God won't infringe on our choices than God essentially acts only when we allow him to. God gave us free will, we say. So, he doesn't intervene unless we sovereignly invite Him to do so (to caricature a bit). Well, that's certainly not Calvinist. However, it's not Christian either.

I think many of us could benefit from a rediscovery of the doctrine of God's sovereignty. This isn't just because it keeps us from this feaux-deist way of seeing the world, but because it's thoroughly biblical and great news. If we fear God in the unbiblical way, we will fear His activity in the world. If we fear the Lord of Scripture who we trust in all things, we welcome His activity in the world with great joy. Either way, God is who He is. How I view Him doesn't alter who He is.

At the practical level, we have come to explain tragedy, sin, and really most of life in terms of the simple result of free will. We say, "well, that's what happens in a world where God gives people free will." This may be an appropriate thing to say at times. However, if God is in fact God, isn't it better to explain what happens in the world in terms of His activity? God still speaks, still moves, still does great things. This is something we all know and say we believe when we sing hymns or read Scripture. We'll do well to begin speaking that way on our own, even as we continue to sing and read.

Question: What does Keifert's 5% finding mean to you? How would you interpret it? 

Dr. Tim Spivey is Lead Planter of New Vintage Church in San Diego, California. He is the author of numerous articles and one book, "Jesus: The Powerful Servant." A sought after speaker for events, Tim also serves as Adjunct Professor of Religion at Pepperdine University. Tim serves as a church consultant, and his writings are featured on ChurchLeaders.com, Church Executive magazine, Faith Village, Sermon Central, and Giving Rocket.

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14 thoughts on “Deism in Churches of Christ?

  1. I spent 35 years in the “Church of Christ” and I thank God He brought me out. Since then I have found the true gospel of Jesus Christ and to the praise of the glory of His sovereign grace I am no longer under their “freewill” bondage and legalism (baptismal regeneration, etc.).
    i’ve studied theology and cults for over a decade now and surprisingly the false freewill doctrine is at the root of every false religion. It exalts man and insults God to say the least. This is the root of Arminianism and unless God sovereignly rescues His sheep from it,, they’ll never escape.
    The CoC originated in the 1800’s under the title of “Campbellism.” It was founded by Alexander Campbell.

    I highly recommend the classic on the subject that thoroughly explains it thru and thru—–
    “Campbellism: It’s history and heresies” by Bob L.Ross

    I’ve seen many set free by the true gospel of Christ and I pray God will be pleased to deliver many more from this deception.
    It has been said that Campbellism is the worst form of Arminianism that exists. I can attest to that.

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  3. Agreed, Keith, God is sovereign, and we should take great comfort and strength from it.
    However, place that alongside Paul in 1 Cor 14, though … “eagerly desire spiritual gifts, especially those that edify others … ” It certainly seems as though God’s sovereignty isn’t impugned by our requests!
    Dr. James Bradley of Fuller wrote “Miracles and Martyrdom: Some Theological and Ethical Implications” — a fascinating study on the relationship between a close sense of God’s Presence and power in the post-NT church and the realities of persecution in the Roman Empire — see it at http://wp.me/P1o6yE-30 How can we reconcile God’s sovereignty with His active involvement in the ministry of the Spirit “and” persecution unto martyrdom? The ancient post-NT Christians (as well as the NT ones) seemed to have a grasp of God’s sovereignty that also allowed for His active intervention, as He willed.

  4. This doesn’t surprise me since in my experience as a minister, prayer is one of the last responses rather than the first response to challenges that congregations face.

  5. Three boys facing certain death in a fiery furnace could confess that their God was able to rescue them, but would not put Him to the test of doing so. They let God be sovereign.
    They also didn’t draw conclusions for their king about how or by Whom they were rescued. They let him be sovereign to. In the end, death was not at all certain and God was glorified above all.
    Maybe there’s a good principle in that story for us.

  6. Great thoughts, thanks for the article. I personally appreciate the epistemic humility, given the very loose God-talk in the religious environment around us. However, I spent most of my earlier years of faith and ministry in the classically CoC deistic style of faith. I discovered that very many pre-Christian people simply can’t relate to a God who doesn’t do anything.
    The Bible itself is charismatic literature, written by charismatics for charismatics, to coin a phrase. We’re going to have to find a way to derive our understanding of God’s involvement in the creation, history, our lives, etc. “Charismatism” has to be informed by Scripture, to be sure — but if we’re going to be anything like the ancient Christians, we’ve got to find the Biblical kind of charismatism, for lack of a better way of saying it … my own lame efforts at exploring it can be found at riverwindfire.wordpress.com

  7. Reminded me of a comment I heard several years ago regarding Jesus as Head of the church: He is Head, not Head Emeritus.

  8. What can I say? Raised in a KJV-conservative-almost-no-Holy-Spirit-outside-the-Bible mentality, it is hard to sign off for God – “God did that!”
    But now, I’ve found “God allowed that!” is much more palatable and sensible. We can’t say he was the impetus, but we can say he permitted it. Therefore, we are needing to bring out our belief that the Holy Spirit is alive and active, God is therefore active in this world and moving in us and through us, also around us.
    God is God, we are not.

  9. Chris,
    That’s a very interesting take. I’m sure that may be the case for some. My own experience with leaders in Churches of Christ would suggest it’s less epistemic humility. That’s not an indictment. It’s just to say I would expect true epistemic humility to apply to all Christian doctrinal claims…not just this one.
    As opinionated as many leaders in Churches of Christ are–even on finer points of doctrine–it’s hard for me to think that’s the case for most. I would imagine it’s epistemic humility for some, certainly, however.
    I’m also not sure claiming God acts in certain ways is less humble…though perhaps it is more risky. And, to be fair, having passionate views doesn’t mean one cannot be epistemically humble simultaneously.
    Great comment, Dr. Heard.

  10. Perhaps part of what Keifert is (not) hearing stems not from cryptodeism (leaving aside the question right now of whether that it self-evidently bad) but from epistemic humility. Maybe at least some people who are reluctant to ascribe this or that to God do so out of respect for divine freedom and a keen knowledge that they do not in fact know whether God did this or that.

  11. I think it means, as John Mark Hicks has noted, that we have a desperate need to (re)formulate the doctrine of God in our churches. It is my hope that the Churches of Christ will recapture their classical Arminian roots. A good place to start for this is Roger Olson’s excellent work, Arminian Theology.
    Grace and peace, Matt Dowling