I gave a speech I titled “Justice and the Gospel” at the Searching Together conference this year. Several people said I presented well or that I made a great point. It was an odd experience because I felt I wasn’t really making a point at all, just listing a bunch of depressing facts about some history recorded in the Bible. I thought of it as a kind of sequel, or maybe prequel, to my first Searching Together presentation, “All Creation Groans,” but when I actually went back to read that one I thought maybe I just repeated myself.
Other presentations were:
David Gay, “The New Covenant Ministry: The Basis and the Practice.”
David presented in two parts, the first and last sessions. This was the first conference he attended, and he said he wasn’t sure how he should present to our group. Later he said it was just as well that he went first, because after he saw the other presentations he would have felt so out of place he wouldn’t have been confident enough to present at all. David’s presentation was based on 2 Corinthians 3-4. Somehow it didn’t cross my mind to bring a Bible with me, and that may have made it harder for me to follow along. The theme I caught was David’s emphasis on the sovereignty of God in salvation, but in his second presentation he also brought in the idea of the watchman’s responsibility. I didn’t understand how he reconciled the two. I wasn’t the only one who struggled on that point, but the response to David’s presentation that everyone will remember was a complaint over a side-bar remark he made about God being glorified in the destruction of sinners.
Jim Putney objected to this idea, stating emphatically that “Love wins” and that in Christ “all” will be reconciled. The objection was presented disrespectfully, I thought, and it provoked a harsh reaction in turn from another member of the audience. The substance of David’s presentation did not get discussed.
Jim Putney, “Rest in Christ”
Jim’s presentation was based on the image of passengers at rest while travelling in a train, and his experiences with his grandson. Jim related these to various passages regarding the Sabbath, to the effect that God has already made us Holy and we are now to rest in His work.
Vinny Oliveira, “Why Are We Here?”
Vinny’s presentation was mostly a recounting of his life’s story. Vinny went from a drug dependent life through several controlling cults. As I remarked later, you can always do worse than truthfully recounting your story, because the truth will always speak of God. Vinny’s story did not offer a model to be emulated, but rather evidence of God’s intervening mercy from hardship to hardship. It was, I think, the most hope-inspiring presentation of the conference.
Tom Atkinson, “The Believer’s Death to Sin in Romans 6 and 1 John 3”
Tom’s presentation is another where I might have benefited from having a text in front of me. My impression listening was that Tom was overstretching the meaning of regeneration and justification to a point where we would no longer have any continuing need of Christ. If the inward man is totally dead to sin, and only the fleshly man persists in sin, than we are already perfected and need no ongoing grace. I brought Tom’s much longer full text home to read later, because I wasn’t sure I was hearing what he meant.
Jon Zens, “Christ on Earth as Community”
Jon argued from John 13 – 17 that Pentecost should be considered the second coming of Christ (not excluding or replacing the traditional Second Coming, but interjected as a third, so to speak). This also seemed a bit overstretching a valid point. Jon used this to repeat his refrain that the separation of believers is a sin directly against Christ.
Jamal Jivanjee, “Loving Like God”
Jamal interwove a personal story into the account of Jesus at the well with the Samaritan woman. It was a story I would not have credited if I heard it second-hand, so I won’t repeat it. In person it was a remarkable and unlikely tale that well illustrated Jamal’s point that God does not do his work within the lines or rules of what we expect.
Kat Huff, “One”
Kat spoke about the inclusion of male in female in one humanity and further argued that there were feminine aspects to God. Kat was careful to say that the feminine aspects did not replace or negate the male aspects of God traditionally acknowledged, but went on to point out the female gender of verbs applied to the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament and some maternal images used at various places in scripture. Her conclusion was that because of these feminine traits we could not exclude women from functioning in the fellowship.
To me this was an invalid way to make a point so broad and vague as to defy simple agreement or disagreement. I thought the emphasis on “One” was dubious since God, on his own prerogative and before the fall of man, made two, male and female. I thought more could be said about God’s consistent choice to portray his people as female (the bride) alongside his own male, across scriptural imagery. I suggested as much, but poorly, and no useful discussion entailed.
I increasingly find the teaching presented in sessions at Searching Together unprofitable at best and misleading at worst; and yet I am always reminded that I do not go there for teaching, at least not in the usual didactic sense. Vinny commented on Jim’s outburst at David by saying, “Often, the problem isn’t the problem,” and suggesting that there was probably something other than just the words David spoke that was bothering Jim and fueled the vehemence of his response. Intellectually I agree with David much more than Jim on the controversy at hand, but I was struck by Vinny’s point. One did not have to agree with Jim to ask about the struggles that lead him to his position, and in asking and listening we can learn about the help people need beyond a lecture in doctrine. There are times when the issue does come down to doctrine, to a deliberate attempt to spread man-glorifying teaching and drive out the Christ-dependent gospel, but hastily “correcting” doctrine rarely does anyone any good.
Probably more than half of the people at the conference gave me some kind of compliment on my presentation. I like that, and I know it. I don’t want my evaluation of the worth of the conference to be a simple function of how well my talking is received. Overall my persistent feeling from the conference was that the comments I made were based on my social position within the Searching Together group. That is, I know that people who have heard me speak before consider me insightful; I know some of that attitude is conveyed, without words, to the group as a whole. I know I have “pull” with the key people that keep Searching Together, well, together. I only remember speaking up in the discussion twice, and both times it was with the intention to signal that I was “standing with” someone who had already spoken up. I was throwing my “weight” behind them.
I said so, too; and I also said more. In both cases I explained, briefly, the thinking behind my position–the theology, if I can use so big a word for such a short and casual statement. I don’t think I did anyone wrong, that I should regret per se. But I did feel that for my own part the shift in my attitude was important. I felt also insincere in my interactions with others because I regarded so many of them so lightly, as to whether they could say anything that I would benefit from hearing. In this I was shown wrong several times in the conference. People who I would not follow (which should be everyone) can still say things I think reveal truth. But again, the attitude that I adopt I think says a lot about whether I should go out of my way to appear at the conference once a year.