Erring on the Side of Love
A Lover’s Quarrel, by Leroy Garrett
I can’t pinpoint when, but at some point I realized that my ecclesial tradition (Churches of Christ) was not the norm in Christianity—not even close. We sing without instruments as a rule, and we lack any governing structure beyond the local church. We tend to think like Anabaptists, behave like Calvinists, and adopt the exclusivism of the Eastern Orthodox Church. We like to think that we have “restored the ancient order of the New Testament,” though much of our laity don’t necessarily think in those terms, and many of our theologically educated members view this sentiment as a well-meaning but ultimately doomed aspiration.
Some of our churches have services that look like period pieces from American frontier revivalism, others are textbook examples of modern-day evangelicalism (such as Max Lucado’s Oak Hills Church in San Antonio, TX). Many are somewhere in between.
I grew up in this church. I learned about Christianity in classes and by watching parents, mentors, and elders in this church. Christ met me through the discursive and symbolic world of this tradition. But I did not realize we were on the margins of Christendom until my early 20’s.
It was at this point, however, that I was able to understand my church and the broader Christian world we nevertheless exist in. It was at this point that I could understand myself and the debts—for better or worse—that I owe my church. It was at this point, also, that I was able to take a side.
There is a classic preacher-story-joke that perhaps all Christians can resonate with, but which I think exemplifies no church better than Churches of Christ.
Explorers discovered a man who had been trapped on an island for many years. When they came to the island they found that this man had built an entire village. There were homes, stores, workshops, and a church. The man gave the explorers a tour of his village, pointing out the significance of each building and so forth. As they neared the end of the tour one of the explorers noted a dilapidated building at the edge of the village. He asked the man what this building was. The man replied “Oh that? That’s where I used to go to church.”
The trait that captures the essence of Churches of Christ most, for so long is the exclusivist or sectarian spirit. In short, we have thought we were the only ones who got Christianity right, and that if you didn’t agree with us, then you were not only mistaken, you were condemned. Yet this is only one side of the debate in our church, albeit the dominant one for many years.
Leroy Garrett grew up on this side of the debate for many years, yet his voice became one of the loudest, most clever, and perhaps the most cantankerous and obnoxious at times, against the sectarian spirit of Churches of Christ. He faced plenty of opposition, but in his mind he never had an enemy. He insisted that doctrinally “conversative” and “liberal” churches both have a seat at the table, when neither side really wanted to share the space. And he did so when this kind of thing was costly.
I and many in our churches owe an incredible debt to Leroy. He was not a perfect man. As I reread through his autobiography there were parts that frustrated me. He loved his family, but I’m not convinced he was the best or most present father. He held opinions and ideals that I cannot defend. In particular, he did not believe it was acceptable for churches to hire full-time paid ministers. I’d be out of work if he got his way.
But a meditation on his flaws, far from undermining the value of his life and work, serves primarily as a defense of the greater ideals he fought for. Which of us is the best parent, child, brother, and so on? Which of us has conceived of Christianity in the most perfect way? Even the most orthodox among us could be criticized for being too orthodox! The point here, as Garrett exemplified, is that we are all full of flaws and failures. There is no prayer capable of giving us the mind of God, no oblation capable of erasing the many mistakes we carry with us before God, no ablution capable of sanitizing the hands we use to serve others. We come before God and do the work of God carrying the baggage of imperfect doctrine, incomplete theology, and mixed motives. There is no other way. What unites us to one another is what unites us to God: the faith that relies on God to accept the spirit we offer to him in prayer and the work we offer to others in service. “I believe!” we say, and we are quick to add: “help me in my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24). We give God what we can, and hope that we will increasingly be able to give more.
There is no other way. But if we are going to err, we had better err on the side of love.
When we begin with these kinds of assumptions we find a freedom to hold to what our conscience directs without, at the same time, insisting that our conscience is the measure of another’s, or the blue print of God’s own heart. Leroy would have phrased it in a different way, with a different grammar, I am sure. But I would not have been able to even think in these terms if not for the work of Leroy Garrett and a host of other high-profile and nameless Christians in my church who worked hard and endured their share of sufferings to release the gospel from the captivity of our ecclesial ghettos.
Leroy passed away a month or two ago. It affected me more than I thought it would. I am grateful for him. I am grateful for the ways in which he made it possible for me to grow up in Churches of Christ and find God there. I am grateful for the ways in which he showed me how to love people who disagree with me. What better way to commemorate his memory than to borrow a phrase from another part of the body: “memory eternal!”
Churches of Christ are by no means the only tradition to adopt exclusive and sectarian attitudes. It may be one of the few things that all denominations and traditions share in common at one point or another! Whether you come from Churches of Christ, have some familiarity with our tradition, or find many of these themes repeated in your own religious (or even non-religious) background, I hope you learn something about Leroy Garrett and benefit from his life. If you have a chance, reading his autobiography, A Lover’s Quarrel, may not be the worst way to spend your time!