One of the best teaching tools the Stanton Church of Christ had going for it in its old Non-Member Classes was the infamous Suitcase of Books. Eventually the inconvenience of passing it around to the next Non-Member Class Teacher, or perhaps the hypocrisy of it, led to its demise. Nevertheless, The Suitcase of Books played a convincing role in many conversions to the sect, because it truly was a unique and effective visual illustration of the confusion caused by the doctrines and traditions of fallible men.
I’m not positive the Suitcase of Books has been retired completely, actually. If it hasn’t, it most definitely has lost some of its rhetorical power, because alas, the point made by the Teachers using the Suitcase has come back to point the finger at them.
So what was the Suitcase of Books, and how was it used?
Prior to each Non-Member Class (traditionally on Thursday evenings), a big suitcase would be passed to the next teacher of the class. When I was growing up in Stanton, California, there were several who took turns teaching the class, and each passed the suitcase on to the next Teacher.
At the beginning of the class, the suitcase was always sitting, either on the table, or next to the Teacher’s chair. At some point during the class, the Teacher would start talking about all the religions out there that have arisen due to men’s fallible and changing doctrines. As each sect was brought up, the Teacher would display a book by the founder of that sect.
You had Charles Taze Russell’s Watchtower writings, which led to the eventual founding of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. You had the teachings of Joseph Smith, and the subsequent formation of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. You had Ellen G. White’s teachings, which led to the Seventh Day Adventists, and Mary Baker Eddie’s teachings, which led to Church of Christ, Scientists.
The list went on and on, and the rhetorical impact grew, as the pile on the desk (usually a T.V. tray) grew larger and larger. Then, the illustration would culminate with the idea that we don’t really need all these teachings of men. We just need the Bible alone, and all these religions may change and update their teachings, but the Truth never changes. Therefore, any church which changed its teachings could not possibly be teaching only the Truth. The Bible, it was concluded, was sufficient for learning all of what Jesus taught. We didn’t need the Bible plus some other book or audio of the teachings of fallible men and women.
So why has the Suitcase of Books perhaps fallen out of use? Maybe it’s because now, a large amount of the teachings of the Stanton churches cannot be found in the Bible at all, and in fact, can only be defended based on the “doctrines and commandments of men;” mere opinions, usually couched as “judgments” of the church, and often formed based on the church’s founding documents or a long tradition of May Meetings. To add to the weight of hypocrisy, while other religions were excoriated for “changing” and updating their doctrines from time to time, Stanton gets a free pass to do this each May (or March, as the case may be).
The hypocrisy of waging rhetorical battle against the writings and teachings of men in other sects, while passing around their own writings and teachings of men as the basis for church doctrine, was not un-anticipated at the time, either. I clearly remember the objections of members at a discussion in the home of my best friend’s mom, over sending church funds to help publish Merie Weiss’s book Put Up Thy Sword, while the church regularly taught that it didn’t need men’s books plus the Bible–it just needed the Bible alone.
But the objection, as far as my young memory serves me, was overruled, and the church did support the publishing of Merie’s book. While the hypocrisy in that case was blatant, the more subtle hypocrisy was (and is) that the church continues to publish and distribute the lessons of its current crop of Teachers in the church with 21st Century vigor. Distribution of these teachings of men is accomplished with CDs, carefully organized Dropbox accounts, iPods, and MP3 players. The buzz following each meeting always builds around this person or that person’s talk at the most recent meeting.
Am I saying it’s wrong to publish sermons? Of course not. If we truly believe what we are saying, we should want our words published, albeit publicly, not secretly to protect them from criticism. But when the teachings of men become so devoid of any valid Biblical basis so no one can point to book, chapter and verse for any of the church’s controversial teachings, rules or judgments, isn’t it clear that the real lesson of the Suitcase of Books has been lost?
The Suitcase of Books showed that followers of Jesus only need the Bible to learn about his life, example, and teachings. Perhaps this is a good time for “members” to re-learn that once-foundational “non-member” lesson.