“The Importance of the Subject”|
When I took the “Advanced Unfolding Revelation of God” class at Community Chapel Bible college, the instructor, Mike Sabourin, started off the first day by lecturing on “The Importance of the Subject.” Today, nearly twenty years after taking that class and thirteen years after the collapse of the Chapel, I find it rather poignant that one of the reasons given was that the Chapel’s version of Oneness was “a safety against cult teaching - an unsound understanding of the nature of God opens one up to mistaken teaching.” 1 I now believe UROG (as we referred to the Chapel's version of the Oneness doctrine) was itself false doctrine, and also that it was one factor that made us vulnerable to the scandalous behavior that caused the collapse of the Chapel. This at first may seem an unlikely charge, but if what people believe has any affect on the course of their day-to-day lives, then I think I have a pretty strong case.
Community Chapel collapsed in a scandal because relationships among the members of the body of Christ there had been perverted by the teaching that God was moving among them in “spiritual unions” or “connections.” I think I can see how the Chapel’s flawed view of the nature of Jesus led to its flawed view of the nature of our relationship to him, and therefore of the nature of our relationship to each other in his Body, the church.
In the Chapel's theology we were asked to see Jesus as “the glorified Son of Man,” with whom we could fellowship apart from his deity, which was said to be due only to the Father dwelling in him, not to his own nature. As early as 1983, Don was talking about the need for a “spiritual union” with the glorified Son of Man. In September of 1983, Don preached a sermon series on “Having Fellowship with the Son of Man.” The notes I took of it include these remarks:
Is Jesus worshipped as deity only, or also as the son of man?
When “spiritual unions” did arrive three years later, here is how Barbara described her first experience with one:
The word ‘Christ’ does not speak of deity; it speaks of humanity (‘Christ’ means anoninted—God is the anointer, not the anointed.)
We are to worship the Son of Man—not the man of Nazareth, but the glorified Son of Man...
It is God's will that we have fellowship w/His Son:
? Col 1:9 - fellowship w/his Son.
It is not enough to have fellowship legally. He wants us to have it exprerientially. It is not enough to legally put on X—God wants it experientially. We need a real spiritual union.—a flow both ways. God wants us to know Him.
This union starts when we are born-again and increases through several steps. BHS, etc.
The love of the Son of Man is not romantic—it shd not be difficult for men to experience—it is a spiritual thing—He died for us and is now glorified.
Jesus was there—with me—looking into my eyes and seeing everything I was. With all knowledge, He still gave me unconditional acceptance. I looked into his eyes and I saw Jesus my Friend, my Savior, my Lover and Bridegroom! I was experiencing Jesus with skin on! We never touched. Our spirits merged—we became one.
So it was clearly in the context of the pursuit of “fellowship with the glorified Son of Man” that the doctrine of spiritual connections developed and grew. In that pursuit, relationships between brothers and sisters in the Lord were perverted, leading to the downfall of not only the pastor's ministry and marriage but also to that of the Chapel itself.
The song ended. Overwhelmed, I staggered to the wall. Another song began; he came to me and we worshipped again. When that song ended, he said, “Thank you, Barbara,” and backed away to the door. I slumped to the floor in complete joy and ecstasy.
...It was 3:00 a.m. before I could walk down the stairs to my car. I knew that Jesus, the glorified Son of Man, had—in union with another human being's spirit—manifested Himself to me, and by doing so, our spirits melded into one. I was certain the Father had answered Jesus' prayer of John 17:21—‘That they may be one as we are.’
I hope it is obvious that I am not saying Oneness doctrine in and of itself inevitably leads to degraded relationships in the body of Christ. All of us who were at the Chapel know there were several other obvious factors that contributed to the crisis. But it is equally obvious to me that an incorrect view of the nature of Christ, of his relationship to the Father, and of our fellowship with both, also contributed to our destruction as a church. In a word, the Chapel's “dual nature” doctrine played a part in opening us to deception. Because we were worshipping and pursuing fellowship not with God but with a (as we thought) glorified man, we got further and further off the path as we tried to walk with Him.
UROG Unravels, The Trinity Unfolds
But I did not see any of this until years after the Chapel's collapse. Having originally believed in the trinitarian view of God and then having come to believe that the Chapel's version of Oneness doctrine more accurately represented the Scriptures on the Godhead, I thought at the time that Oneness doctrine represented a core of solid teaching that I could hold on to in my post-Chapel Christian life. I thought that the collapse of the Chapel was due to connections only, and that they were an unfortunate phenomenon more or less unrelated to anything that had gone before them at the Chapel. It never crossed my mind that there could be any ties between the Oneness doctrine and the origins of the “spiritual connections” crisis at the Chapel, or the course it took among us. It did not occur to me to seriously question Oneness teaching in any way until more than ten years after the Chapel's demise.
At that time (late in 1998 or early in 1999), I encountered on the Internet ex-Chapel members who claimed that the Chapel's teaching on the Godhead provided them with the first steps toward the belief that Jesus is not God. That is, they still accepted the teaching which portrays Jesus as God not by his own nature but only by the indwelling of the Father, and drew from this the lesson that Jesus himself was definitely not God. Taking also the Chapel's teaching that the titles “Son of God” and “Son of Man” both refer to the humanity of Jesus (“a son by definition must have a beginning”), they claimed that to call Jesus "God" in any but perhaps a figurative sense was a pagan, Roman Catholic perversion of scriptural teaching about God.
This deeply disturbed me, and I went back to the Scriptures to see what they did indeed teach about the Son of God. The “Jesus is not God” camp (as I came to think of them, for besides holding that belief in common they are an odd and variegated band, and of course include many besides ex-Chapelites) is fond of asking, “Is ‘the Son of God’ God?” They expect one to see an absurdity in the very question, but to me it suddenly became a living issue. It touched off an examination of the scriptures and a scrutiny once again of the things I had learned and experienced in my Chapel years.
While at the Chapel I had heard many speak of how the Trinity had never made much sense to them, of how they always had lots of questions about it, and of how the Chapel’s version of Oneness seemed to make so much more sense than the Trinity in the light of what was written in the Scriptures, and answered all their questions.
I didn’t doubt them as to their own experience, but I did not identify very much with it. Before encountering the Chapel, I did not really have any doubts or questions about the Trinity. The Trinity made sense to me in the scriptural context, and as far as I knew there weren’t any Christians that believed otherwise. Granted, I was a raised a Lutheran by committed Lutheran parents, had attended a Lutheran college, and had not had a lot of exposure to other theological views. The JWs were the only group that I had ever heard of that claimed to take their beliefs from the Bible but yet rejected the Trinity. I knew (as a result of a few front-porch encounters with them) that one of the reasons they rejected the Trinity was because they did not accept Jesus’ deity. But that was something I had always seen clearly in the scriptures. Because of this, because of the strangeness of some of their other doctrines, and because of their personal dryness and legalism, I agreed with the assessment of them as a non-Christian cult and wanted no part of their approach to the faith or to the scriptures.
What attracted me initially to the Chapel, on the other hand, was the vibrancy of everyone’s faith there, the thoroughness of the Biblical teaching, and the emphasis on prayer. It seemed to me that I had truly found a body of believers trying to, and succeeding in, living a truly Word-centered life.
This made it all the more shocking to me when I suddenly realized the Chapel did not believe in the Trinity. When I first heard this stated in so many words (after perhaps three or four weeks of attending Friday night services—I was attending a Lutheran church on Sunday mornings), after thinking about it overnight I called up the friend who had been taking me to services at the Kirkland Chapel and told him I could not attend any longer. If it weren't for the fact that he worked at the same place I did, I probably would have gone out of my way to avoid ever seeing him again.
As it was, he managed to get me to listen to Russ Mackenzie's tape series on the Unfolding Revelation of God, and also to sit down and talk to Chapel Bible college students at several different times. (My friend himself was not only relatively new to the Chapel but also a relatively new convert and did not feel confident in explaining Oneness doctrine to me.) After several weeks, maybe longer, I was reassured that my central fear about their doctrine—that rejection of the Trinity meant rejection of Christ's deity—was unfounded. That was to me the central point of belief in the Trinity. The issue gradually receded into the background as I resumed attending services and grew more and more appreciative of the other facets of Chapel life I mentioned above. (Looking back at it now, I cannot remember that I prayed about it very much. I think I must have prayed about it, but it seems like I thought God was leading me there because it satisfied my emotional hunger for what I thought a church should be. This was of course a mistake, if my recollection is accurate that I did not spend much time in prayer concerning the Chapel's teaching.)
The issue of Christ's deity never entirely went away for me, though. After I decided to go to Bible college, one of my cousins who was attending a Lutheran Bible college in Oregon and whose family lived in Seattle, came up to talk to me. A couple of years before, he had attended a few services at the Chapel, had been impressed in some of the same ways I had, and yet had decided not to become a member there. We arranged to meet at a big old cafe in White Center to which I frequently walked for cinnamon rolls and coffee. It turned out, not unexpectedly, that one of his concerns was the Chapel's rejection of the Trinity. He spoke of his impressions of the Chapel's teaching and left me with some literature to read. I can't remember for sure if my cousin actually said the words, if I read them in the literature he gave me, or if both, but one of the things that stuck in my mind after I had met with him was that, in the opinion of some Trinitarians at least, the Chapel's doctrine “did not adequately safeguard the deity of Christ.”
I had not yet started attending the Chapel's Bible college, but I thought I already knew enough to write off that objection. I knew that the Chapel did not reject Christ's deity but in fact explicitly taught it—a fear that the Chapel rejected the deity of Christ had been one of my own reactions and I had completely satisfied myself that it was not justified. How could anyone know anything about the Chapel and say its doctrine did not adequately “safeguard” the deity of Christ? The charge did not seem significant to me, but yet it stuck in my mind and I later kept my ears open whenever the subject came up in Bible college.
In looking back at my notes now, I see that the primary thing that reassured me of the Chapel's doctrinal soundness in this regard was its continual emphasis on the scriptures that showed Jesus to be fully man and fully God. In the Introduction to the Unfolding Revelation of God class, we spent a day or two on the scriptures that showed Jesus to be man, then a day or two on the scriptures that showed him to be God, and finally a day or two on those that showed him to be both man and God. The Chapel called its teaching on the full humanity and full deity of Christ “the dual nature” doctrine. A dual nature doctrine concerning Christ was also central to Trinitarian theology. This was another thing that reassured me about the Chapel's doctrine.
I now realize that these doctrines are not the same, and the difference between them is precisely where the Chapel did not “safeguard” the deity of Christ. I now think the Chapel did not teach the deity of Christ in its full scriptural sense. It did not teach that Jesus was one person with two natures, as Philippians 2 shows and as the trinitarian dual nature doctrine faithfully (I now believe) follows, but that “two persons were involved in Jesus Christ—a person of humanity and a person of deity.” 2 That is, Jesus was God not because he himself was by nature God, but because he was a man in whom God fully dwelt.
Philippians 2, on the other hand, shows that the sense in which Jesus was God is that Jesus existed in the form of God before he was made in the likeness of man. The Greek word for “form” here is morphe and denotes a manifestation of an inner nature. Some translations (for example, the NIV) in fact translate the verse in which this word appears as “...Jesus, by very nature God...took on the very nature of a servant...”
The Chapel, on the other hand, used the phrase “dual nature” almost as shorthand for “fully man and fully God.” The entire time I was at the Chapel, the distinction between the two doctrines escaped me. I thought that the trinitarian dual nature doctrine and the Chapel's dual nature doctrine were the same, except that the Chapel taught that it was the Father—the one, decidedly nontriune God—himself that “dwelt in” Jesus, while Trinitarians mistakenly taught that a non-existent (to my anti-trinitarian way of thinking) “God the Son” dwelt in Jesus.
Now revisiting this question in the scriptures in the light of what the “Jesus is not God” folks were claiming about the statements of Jesus’ sonship, it begin to dawn on me that the scriptures did not relate the question of Jesus' deity primarily to God “dwelling in” him. The Book of John, which is conceded by even the “Jesus is not God” camp to have the strongest apparent statements of Jesus’ deity, starts with the statement that the Word was with God and the Word was God. The Chapel of course interpreted “the Word” (Grk. ho logos) to mean God's plan for his entire creation as it was summed up in the man Jesus Christ.
Trying to now read John free of any doctrinal bias, I noticed how this seemed to resist the direction the narrative was leading. Throughout the Gospel of John, Jesus is pictured as coming from above, from a realm in which he personally remembered having fellowship and glory with the Father. John pictures him as being in the Father in a unique sense, and as making statements that are simple, implicit claims to be equal to God and to in fact be God. No special qualifications are added to these claims.
But going back to the first verse of John and the Chapel's intepretation of it, is there any scriptural sense in saying that a plan “was God” in the beginning? Or for that matter, that God's plan was “facing” (probably the best one-word translation of the Greek pros here) God? Or even, (as the Chapel taught was the best translation of the word), that God's plan was “toward” God? I began to think not, in spite of the fact that Mike Sabourin's 1983 Camp Meeting sermon on this topic, “Pros Ton Theon—‘Toward God’ ” was widely regarded at the Chapel as a classic, and as practically the last word on it. I couldn't deny that Jesus of course represents God's plan for mankind, and that as such he pointed men toward the Father. But in reading the Gospel of John on its own terms, I could not honestly say that its picture of “the Word” was limited to that aspect. In trying my best to read the book without doctrinal presuppositions, I found myself seeing a picture of Jesus as in some sense distinct from the Father before his existence on earth; in an intimate relationship with the Father as his Son before, during, and after that existence; and united with the Father, sharing the same deity, all in the context of the revelation of the one true God of Israel. In other words, I realized that I was seeing the same picture as that painted by trinitarian Christology. And I did not find this picture contradicted by other parts of the Bible, but instead saw more and more how it was confirmed.
My first reaction at this realization was one of shock that I could actually be entertaining the possibility that a Roman Catholic doctrine might be true after all. My four years at the Chapel’s Bible college had shown me, so I thought, just how thoroughly paganized, Roman Catholic, and unscriptural the Trinity was. But as I continue to study and reflect on how doctrines of God's nature have unfolded in the scriptures, in history, and in my own life I become increasingly convinced that the one God has indeed existed eternally in three persons.
1Mike Sabourin, Bible college instructor, Community Chapel Bible College, Advanced Unfolding Revelation of God class. From my class notes for September 22, 1981. [Back to text.]
2Earl Faylor, Bible college instructor, Community Chapel Bible College, Introduction to the Unfolding Revelation of God class. From my class notes for January 26, 1981. [Back to text.]