The Future of the Progressive Churches of Christ: Part 9, A New Restorationism

cooperation.jpgIt’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?

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About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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11 Responses to The Future of the Progressive Churches of Christ: Part 9, A New Restorationism

  1. Alan says:

    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.

    That is a very important distinction, one which few people are making. When we insist that we are not bound by some example in scripture, there is at least a suggestion that we are only trying to meet minimum requirements — in other words, that we will will only comply with that which can be proven to be mandatory.

    Following scriptural examples might better be described as following "best practices." We might not all agree on every item that qualifies as a "best practice", and we might not implement them all even if we agree with them. But in general we should want to gravitate toward "best practices." Maybe that approach, over time, would tend to bring us together rather than divide us.

  2. One of the more fundamental issues, that creates the problem you address, is our pre-occupation with organization. Too many people accept the premise that the organization is somehow central to salvation.

    I believe the gathering of believers — what we call church (another lousy word) — is the result of salvation — not it's predecessor.

    I have no illusions that this will change, but I can still fantasize!!!

  3. Excellent piece.

    Seeking Shalom,
    Bobby Valentine

  4. kyle meador says:

    Wow, Jay – Wow! I love how you're able to make subtle distinctions and keep certain things in tension together throughout this. The distinction with soteriology and praxis is an essential one – but one that its going to be hard for folks to acknowledge if church leaders continue to form identity out of 'being right' (which plenty of folks do, not just the c of c.

    And you spot-on about the importance of elders (well-trained, deeply loving elders) and about the Churches of Christ being well positioned for missionality. Randy Harris made that case brilliantly some years ago in a lecture at Pepperdine.

    Great work. Thanks for everything you put in here.

  5. Jay Guin says:

    Kyle,

    It's good to hear from you!

    The missional thought is via Mark Love at a seminar I went to a while back.

    The solution to relying on "being right" is to be married and have teenagers! It sure humbled me!

    On elder training, it's being an elder, you know. Seems pretty obvious.

  6. ” If that were entirely true, why aren’t we all Baptists or Methodists or something else?”

    Because you’re trouble makers who’d rather stick around and cause heresies and divisions and turn the church of Christ into another part of the broad road to hell than go join your own kind on the pre-paved part of the broad road to hell.

  7. Dwight says:

    Huh? is all I can say to David’s post.
    Moving on. There is a website called Answering Religious Error that makes everything a sin, no matter what. It is a site of judgments. I brought up the concept of the one cup concept as is seen in the scriptures as the way the Jews understood the concept of partaking and suddenly it was question as to whether it was a commandment or not and a sin or not. Such is not the point. To understand things in a richer understanding is not sin and to not have that richer understanding is not counted against one as sin, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t move towards a richer understanding if we can. Many people were baptized in the scriptures, 3000 in Acts and they didn’t have the deep understanding of being buried with Christ as Paul had not expressed it yet and still they were saved. We act like everyone must be on the same level as we are or else they are on a level below us sloping down to hell, when it might be us holding judgment that is on the lower level. This was the Pharisees.

  8. Alabama John says:

    In history what brought people together in worship was hard times of some sort.

    When a tornado hits Alabama and everyones home is destroyed. jobs lost, children without clothes or maybe folks killed, everyone, whatever denominational persuasion is seen holding hands and praying together. Same in a hospital, especially childrens hospitals and all prisons.

    During those trying times, all denominational differences are forgotten and together calling on God for help is the most important.

    No one realizes this better than God himself so I fear for the divisions in our country and what they might be bringing to all of us.

  9. I fear that the seeds for failure lie in the first facet Jay presents, that is, holding to an insistence on “bible things in bible ways”. I cannot for the life of me think of an idea less likely to foster unity. It has historically divided us. Every single schism of the CoC thinks they are already doing exactly this and that all the other schisms are not. Every one of Rick Atchley’s chairs is filled by a brother who holds this position to the exclusion of someone else. If we take this as a fundamental principle, it is unlikely that we will every get past the disagreements that will arise here. We will never rise above “doing some things together” and get to “being one”. Forget unity in the body of Christ, this won’t lead even to unity in the denomination.

    Here, Jay repeats the mistake that has been so often made, that is, “We can find unity if other people will just agree to our minimum standards, which are not negotiable.” This is a recipe for forming a new denomination, not a prescription for any real unity. Perhaps forming a new PCoC would be an improvement, but I can’t really see the benefit.

    The last objective Jay mentions is effectively forestalled by the preceding expectations. I somehow doubt, when Jesus prayed that we all be one, that He was predicating autonomous congregations and weekly communion and Arminianism as the basis for that unity.

  10. Dwight says:

    Charles I think Jay’s statement about “minimum standards” was trying to get at the basic standards taht all Christians enter Christianity on. But you make a good point to and that is even as we try to make a better way in the right direction it might just be another way in the end. This what happened to the Campbells who sought to unify all of the religions based on the belief in Christ and yet when you cannot get others to do that, you are left with you. The Campbells were surrounded by others who did not share that unified vision, which many envison now. Unfortuantely we are our own worst enemy and our own undoing when it comes to doing things for what we percieve is the the best reasons.

  11. There is an old saying that we judge other people by their performance but ourselves by our intentions. Perhaps it would be wise to reverse this, if we want to see positive change. To look at the results of our intentions with a critical eye. To walk through the garden and try to understand just why it is that, when we intended to grow corn, we wound up with mostly thistles. In Campbell’s case, he wanted an end to division, but the method he chose to pursue that end turned out to be ill-suited to the task. A rational man, Campbell assumed that if everyone would just stick to his bible and nothing else, that we would soon come to a unified faith and practice. He was simply mistaken. He brought a fork to the soup pot, and so never got more than a taste of what he was after. Our challenge is to recognize that the failure here was not just in the frailty of Christians, but that it was caused by the wrong choice of unifying forces. Christendom has never been unified by “sticking to the bible”. This method simply results in multiple groups, each trying to stick to the bible while insisting that none of the others are doing so. We have never produced any sort of unity by trying to “restore” ancient practices. We have planted that seed for several generations now it has never given us anything but weeds. It has long produced division and can do nothing else. Only the Holy Spirit and our common identity in Christ has the power to unite us. (There is our “basic standard”.) We want to see change, but we continue to seek it by other means, in an effort to get other people to do most of the changing to suit us, to find a form of unity that is defined as “when everybody becomes pretty much like us”.

    As long as we continue to pick up Campbell’s fork and stick in the soup pot, we will not get much different results than he got– a divisive and divided denomination.

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