It’s just so easy, and facile, to say the Restoration Movement has run its course and we need to do something else now. If that were entirely true, why aren’t we all Baptists or Methodists or something else? Why are we still Churches of Christ?
Isn’t there anything about the Restoration Movement that’s worth preserving? And if we can capture the good, maybe we can give some purpose to the last two centuries. Surely it happened for a reason. Surely there’s something that’s worth keeping!
I think there’s quite a lot, actually. And so, I’d like to propose a new Restorationism built on the good we’ve inherited from our spiritual ancestors.
Without trying to be comprehensive, I’d say at least —
First, an emphasis on doing things in Bible ways. You see, there’s a tension between soterology (the doctrine of how we are saved and stay saved) and all other theology that all Christians often struggle with. Campbell’s idea was that we’d recognize all with faith and baptism as saved but develop a praxis (Christian practice in the realm of expedience) based on First Century practice.
Unfortunately, his disciples turned his praxis into soterology, that is, they made weekly communion and a cappella singing salvation issues — a huge mistake. Our list of salvation issues kept growing for a century.
But another mistake some Christians make is to decide that the scriptures have little to say about praxis, that it’s all a matter of human wisdom and evangelical fashion. Under such a theory, the Bible says very little about how to organize or cooperate or do missions, so one plan is as good as another. I think this is a mistake. And yet it’s the direction we on the progressive side are heading toward.
I mean, you can find 20 progressive articles on how we aren’t bound by Biblical organizational structures for every one article telling us what the Bible really does say about organization. There is a positive message in the Bible somewhere, I’m sure. And the Bible says a lot about how to worship and care for each other. It’s just that we need to learn to see the instructions and examples through the lens of the gospel rather than law.
We still need to study the First Century patterns. We just need to stop binding them as salvation issues or even laws — but we should search out the wisdom in them and apply them in today’s circumstances.
Second, an emphasis on Christian education. Most denominations have colleges. Some of these “Christian” schools are entirely secular. Many are eaten up with the spirit of the world. Only a few remain truly committed to Christian values outside their Bible departments — and many are as worldly in their Bible departments as anywhere.
We have a precious heritage of Christian education that inculcates Jesus’ values in all areas of life. We need to preserve it and build on it. We need to remain proud to be different from the world in all things, including our schools.
Third, a passion for campus ministry. Many of the first campus ministries in the country were started by the Churches of Christ. And many are falling apart because the churches that once supported them are dying or have divided. We need to find a way to cooperate and share resources to remain lights on the campuses.
None of the Church colleges offers a major in campus ministry. I think it ought to be handled out of the missions department. Rather than building fortresses to protect our children, we need to be building armies of evangelists.
Fourth, a passion for theology. Well, it used to be true, but we’ve confused passion for doctrine with a passion to divide over doctrine. Sound doctrine unites. The great Restoration slogans such as “We are Christians only but not the only Christians” are theological assertions — and very good ones.
Sadly, in many denominations, Bible instruction has been dumbed down. Too often we teach adults today as we taught preteens 30 years ago. People aren’t stupid, and they need to know how to read and understand their Bibles.
We need to revive our love of Bible study and emulate Walter Scott’s skill at communicating it simply, memorably, and truly.
Fifth, a desire to cooperate while retaining autonomy. Congregations need to learn to work together but to do so without giving control away to some office in New York or Indianapolis. My own view is that the solution is to de-emphasize denominational ties and emphasize cross-denominational ties community by community.
In other words, the conversion of the lost in Tuscaloosa should be the concern of the Tuscaloosa churches (cross-denominationally) working in concert, rather than the Baptists convening in Florida to plan how the Baptists are going to save lost Tuscaloosans while the Churches of Christ work five entirely different, uncoordinated plans. We should talk.
The practice of dividing the Christians in a community by denomination has its roots in Reformation thinking that no longer addresses today’s realities. Rather, there should be a Tuscaloosa “convention” of all willing Christian churches. And this approach would be entirely consistent — indeed, in furtherance of — Biblical and Restoration ideals.
And if the local Church of Christ issues the invitation, how can the rest say no? This isn’t to reject being part of some denomination. Rather, it’s to treat denominations as expedients while treating cooperation to save and serve our local communities as necessities.
Sixth, believer baptism. Our teaching on baptism is, at its core, right and necessary. We shouldn’t be too quick to abandon it. However, we do need to refine it. We can no longer let baptism replace faith in our theology.
And while I believe God will extend grace to all with saving faith, I also think infant baptism is both bad theology and bad practice. I mean, visit Europe or Latin America and see how many of those baptized as babies are truly born again!
Believer baptism is Biblical and right, and we can stand for it and advocate for it without damning those who disagree. And the Christian community would be better for our witness.
Seventh, elder-led congregations. I don’t care how you argue the theology, the practical experience is that churches do better with elders. This is much of the reason that many Baptist Churches are starting to ordain elders. Elders meet a very real need. It’s just unwieldy and impractical for a pastor to answer to 70 deacons or a congregational vote. And people need shepherds.
Done well, the elder model is optimal at many levels. Of course, if a church has lousy elders, they’ll do lousy, but the same is true of preachers. (And this means we need a greater emphasis on elder training than ever before.)
Eighth, Arminianism. We in the Churches of Christ reject all 5 points of TULIP Calvinism. I think our views need some deepening, but they’re largely right. And the Christian world needs folks who stand up for free will. Calvinism is just such a depressing approach to things, you know.
The major denomination that agrees with us is the Methodist Church, and its offspring, such as the Holiness and Wesleyan churches. But we in the Churches of Christ seem to be trying to persuade ourselves to be Baptists in the traditional, Calvinist mold. Not a good idea.
Ninth, missionality. The Churches of Christ are hardly alone in being touched by the Spirit’s push of the church toward missionality. But we are well suited to help press the movement. After all, we have no denominational commitments or headquarters to get in the way. We don’t need any study groups or white paper reports. We can just invite our Christian neighbors to join with us in serving the communities in which we live.
Tenth, missions. Again, we are hardly unique in our concern for missions, but we do have a passion for missionary activity not shared by all denominations. It’s important that we always find a way to recruit, send, and support missionaries.
And even though we should cooperate cross-denominationally with churches in our communities, we’re going to prefer missionaries that teach what we teach. That requires a structure specific to progressive Churches.
We are nuts for not having our own missionary societies or — better yet — joining with the efforts of the Christian Churches.
Actually, we do do something like this — but we hide it in the universities. Many of our schools have departments or affiliated organizations that recruit and raise money for missions. Good. But we need to do this openly. Because, openly, we can do a much better job and raise a whole lot more money and train far more missionaries.
Eleventh, weekly communion. We need to get better at it. But the early church took communion weekly for a reason. We’ve tried honor the pattern but have often failed to honor the heart of the meal. Nonetheless, there’s value in preserving the practice.
Twelfth, a mission to re-unite all of Christendom. This is where we started. And if we’re not careful, we’re going to end a two hundred year effort by collapsing into a bunch of tiny, impotent factions. Why not get back into the business of seeking unity?
It would require an entirely different approach than the 20th Century approach, of course. But we can get past that.
Why not initiate an effort to develop serious efforts at Christian unity in our communities? And who could say no when a Church of Christ preacher or eldership tries to start it?
I don’t mean a token effort like prayer around the flag. I mean a coordinated effort to serve the community and save the lost in it. Not a joint workday; rather, joint work every day.
Rather than the Churches of Christ supporting their foster care program and the Methodists supporting theirs and the Baptists supporting theirs, all churches working together to support as many children as possible. Or unwed mothers. Or the homeless.
The world is moving toward nondenominationalism. Why not help it along by urging new models of ministry and cooperation, rooted in scripture — but never imagining that these methods — this new praxis — saves or damns.
Conclusion: We have a once-in-history opportunity to redefine the Church of Christ as a denomination. We’re unhappy with who we’ve been. Good.
But let’s be wise as serpents and as innocent as doves. Rather than closing shop, and rather than drifting off into several different directions, why not try to be just a little idealistic, think beyond our congregational concerns, and use the moment to call the believing world to something a little better?