Review: Ross Cochran, Not Off Limits: Questions You Wish You Could Ask at Church. Abilene, Texas: Leafwood Publishers, 2014. 200 pages.
The importance of questions
To all Bible teachers fielding questions presents a challenge. We seem to have a love/hate relationship with the poser of questions and suffer approach-avoidance regarding the questions themselves. We like to say, “Truth has nothing to fear from honest questions.” Truth may not be afraid, but often we are. No wonder the lecture method still predominates in both the college classroom and the Sunday school. We tend to avoid controversial subjects and deflect as inappropriate questions not on topic. Students who wonder when their questions will ever be appropriate eventually stop asking.
Both biblical and unity-friendly
That’s why we should welcome Professor Ross Cochran’s new book, Not Off Limits. For many years Cochran has collected questions from his students and led discussions of them as a regular part of his classes at Harding University. In Not Off Limits he tackles eight of these “hot potatoes,” offering answers that are simultaneously biblical and unity-friendly. This review briefly examines each question and its answer.
1) Why so little unity among Christians?
Beginning with Jesus’ prayer for unity (John 17), Cochran surveys the splintered state of Christianity throughout the world. Rather than striving for the apparently unreachable goal of uniformity in doctrine and practice, Cochran urges us to redefine the goal of unity as developing and maintaining a Christ-like attitude—striving for compatibility rather than combat-ability. Given our Restoration Movement’s heritage of debating, an approach that often generates “more heat than light,” this is a surprisingly different approach to what many view as an insoluble problem.
2) How should we view Christ-followers in other Christian traditions?
When we see Christ-followers of other “tribes” whose attitude and good works seem to outshine our own, we recall the dividing of “sheep” and “goats” (Matt. 25) and wonder whether proper practice (orthopraxy) trumps proper doctrine (orthodoxy). Of course, God wants us to exemplify both. Cochran points us to Rom. 14:4: “Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall.” He urges us to be just as committed to love one another as fellow followers of Christ as we are to orthodoxy. If we desire to discuss differences with other Christ-followers he counsels us to emphasize what we agree on (our common ground) before we begin to discuss our disagreements.
3) How should we deal with same-sex attraction and homosexual practice?
Cochran helpfully divides this topic into several related issues, in the process making the crucial distinction between homosexual practice and same-sex attraction. Cochran’s call to treat practicing gays as Jesus treated tax collectors is the right one. He asks, “What would a church need to change if it wanted to become known as the friend of sinners?” His question immediately prompts us to realize how far we have to go in following in the steps of our Master.
4) Can women lead the Sunday Christian assembly?
This chapter examines two camps of the current debate: complementarian (men and women are equal in Christ but have different roles) and egalitarian (their equality means that
gender is no barrier to any role in Christian service and ministry). In reality at least four views exist, but Cochran ignores the extreme position on either end (radical feminist and patriarchal, respectively).
Cochran approaches the controversy with an eye on hermeneutics (Bible interpretation principles). He avoids taking sides but seeks to explain each perspective with a respectful and
sympathetic attitude. His call for a full, open, and loving discussion is a welcome alternative to the all-too-common approach of avoiding the issue or even suppressing discussion. Cochran seems to accept that congregational autonomy will inevitably result in a diversity of practice regarding this controversy. An increased understanding of hermeneutics and application of hermeneutical principles will help to reduce the intractability of this issue. I appreciate Cochran’s call for moving toward more female involvement in ministries as a way of increasing the common ground between the two sides.
5) Is it impossible for a person who has fallen away to be restored to Christ?
Cochran reviews Heb. 6:4-6 and 10:26-31, analyzes what Jesus calls “the unforgivable sin” (Mark 3:29), and points to examples of apostasy in both testaments. He carefully defines
and distinguishes between three kinds of sinning – being defiant, drifting away, and suffering defeat. He then explores the process involved in falling away and in being restored. Drawing from James Thompson’s commentary on Hebrews, Cochran explains why “impossible… to be brought back to repentance” (Heb. 6:4, 6) must be hyperbole for rhetorical effect. The hyperbole, however, has meaning: Cochran warns us of the spiritual risks of falling away.
6) Will those who have never heard the gospel be saved anyway?
Cochran presents eight rival ways of understanding how the claim of Jesus to be the only way of salvation applies to unsaved persons, including those who have never heard of the gospel. These spread across a continuum from inclusivity to exclusivity, each claiming biblical authority that focuses on a central text. Although Cochran mentions problems with most of the eight positions, he refrains from endorsing any of them as his own stance, urging his readers to think deeply and humbly about this issue. At the close of the chapter I expected him to call for a position that accommodates all of the relevant biblical texts.
7) Is the Lord’s Supper a “table” or an “altar”?
The vertical dimension of the Lord’s Supper (our connection with the Father through the Son – Supper as “altar”) is virtually the exclusive meaning of the Supper according to the traditional practice among modern churches of Christ. Cochran explains and explores the Supper’s horizontal dimension (our connection with one another that Christ’s sacrifice has created – Supper as “table”). Cochran observes that making the Supper exclusively one (by solemn reflection) or the other (by conscious interaction) robs participants of the full experience that the Lord intends for us. He finds value in both and calls for designing ways to observe the Supper that include both dimensions. Cochran, however, warns against making changes in ways that ride roughshod over member’s scruples. The resulting chaos and uncertainty may actually prove to be divisive rather than helping to unify the local body of Christ.
8) Do we worship on Sunday or every day?
The traditional concept that focuses primary emphasis on the Sunday assembly stands in opposition to the concept that our worship is 24/7, of which Sunday assembly is only one component. Cochran definitely opts for the 24/7 concept of Christian worship, pointing out that the New Testament’s six Greek words for worship all describe the Christian’s daily walk. This is true despite their usage in the Greek Old Testament and secular literature to describe temple-centered worship in both Jewish and pagan contexts.
Following his usual irenic approach, however, Cochran seeks to emphasize the importance of the Sunday assembly. This appreciation of its significance can help to pacify brothers and sisters who are used to thinking of the assembly as the center of Christian activity, even while attempting to open their minds to the possibility of change. Cochran briefly mentions thinking of the assembly as analogous to the huddle of a football team – essential to gaining a victory, but certainly not the only component of football. Here is a good analogy to stress the Sunday assembly’s important but subordinate role in the life of the Christian.
Guidance on Conducting Peaceful and Productive Dialogues
Cochran concludes his book with a list of suggestions for conducting discussions of these and other issues in a way that not only avoids division, but actually draws participants closer together. Crucial among the many suggestions are two: 1) learn and practice effective listening, and 2) apply the Golden Rule to your dialogue.
Cochran counsels us to migrate the goal of the discussion from winning an argument to winning a friend. He endorses the principle: “People can change, but they can’t be changed.” In other words, they have to want to change. Cochran points out that we cannot hope to find a solution for every controversy. What we can hope for is to understand one another, and in that understanding, come to “accept one another as Christ accepted [us]” (Rom. 15:7).
Longer not necessarily better
Virtually all of my quibbles with Cochran involve his omissions. Were he to address each one, his book could easily balloon to twice its current size. I readily acknowledge that the resulting bulk would not necessarily improve his book, because the additional pages would be a barrier in an era in which many readers are looking for sound-bite answers in short chapters at an affordable price. In its present, lean state, his book serves more as an introductory guide to thinking through these eight puzzling questions than it does as a volume of definitive answers, based on a thorough exegesis and careful application of Scripture. The carefully crafted discussion questions and the section on resources for further study go a long way toward filling in the gaps.
A peacemaker’s answers
I heartily recommend Cochran’s book as an excellent example of how to treat controversial issues involving Bible interpretation. I can only hope that Cochran will write several additional volumes that continue his theme of providing a peacemaker’s answers to questions “Not Off Limits.” Throughout the book, Cochran demonstrates that he practices the peacemaking he preaches. Like the author of the famous prayer, he seeks not so much to be understood as to understand. Such an attitude carries with it the potential for God to use him and those of us who learn from his example as instruments of His peace.
—Steve Singleton, DeeperStudy.com