The Future of the Progressive Churches of Christ: Part 4, Defining Our Challenges

cooperation.jpgMy concerns with us are —

* The progressives have failed to articulate a thoughtful, comprehensive theology for why we believe what we believe.

* The progressives have largely turned our backs on the conservatives, not creating the literature or institutions necessary to bring more conservatives into the progressive fold.

* In fact, many churches that are very sympathetic to the progressive point of view are legalistic churches — just not as legalistic as where they came from.

* The progressives are moving so rapidly into a generic evangelicalism that we may lose some of the Godly parts of our Restoration Movement heritage. We have much to contribute to the evangelical mainstream — but not if we forget the best of who we are.

* The progressives have few means of meaningful fellowship or cooperation among themselves — and little thought is being given to the costs of that omission.

Liminality

There’s actually a technical word for the mess we find ourselves in: “liminality.” It’s a term from anthropology. It’s the condition of a human society that has just experienced major change. At times of liminality, people feel unsettled and make many false starts before finding a new status quo. This is from Wikipedia —

The liminal state is characterized by ambiguity, openness, and indeterminacy. One’s sense of identity dissolves to some extent, bringing about disorientation. Liminality is a period of transition where normal limits to thought, self-understanding, and behavior are relaxed – a situation which can lead to new perspectives.

Alabama football fans have been dealing with this since the death of Coach Bear Bryant. The American church has been dealing with this since it became illegal for schools to lead prayer. And the progressive Churches of Christ have been there since the progressive movement began to have success.

It’s one thing to be a protester or even a revolutionary. But when your revolution starts to have success, you have to manage your revolution — and many revolutionaries never make the transition from rebellion to government.

We’re a new movement with no leadership structure. We have good intentions and want to escape a legalistic past, but we aren’t sure what the future holds or even how to have a conversation about it. We are therefore subject to fadism. We try whatever new idea shows up at the local Bible bookstore because we don’t really know where we want to wind up.

Liminality can be good, if it opens us to new and deeper truths. But it will be bad indeed if we wind up nothing but confused or, worse yet, landing in the wrong spot. We need to think about how to get past the confusion and focus on the new and deeper truths.

(Luke 11:24-26) “When an evil spirit comes out of a man, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. Then it says, ‘I will return to the house I left.’ 25 When it arrives, it finds the house swept clean and put in order. 26 Then it goes and takes seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that man is worse than the first.”

I think about this passage a lot, actually. We’ve swept the house clean. What do we put in it now?

* The progressives have failed to articulate a thoughtful, comprehensive theology for why we believe what we believe.

We really aren’t that sure what we believe, you know. We’re certain we don’t won’t to be legalists. But beyond that, who knows? And sometimes, to us “legalist” just means “not like we used to be.” You can’t drive looking in the rearview mirror.

You see, we haven’t even defined what it means to be “progressive.” To some churches, it means having a more contemporary worship and being more willing to reach out. To others, it means adopting Church Growth Movement methods, like Membership 101 classes. To others, it means not being hateful to other Churches.

When I use the term, I mean a church that rejects salvation by works, including salvation based on any doctrine other than the gospel — the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. (Again, please read Parts I and II of Do We Teach Another Gospel? if this doesn’t make sense to you.) A church that projects contemporary music on the screen, dresses casually, and denies the salvation of those who use the instrument is not progressive. A church that accepts as saved all baptized penitent believers but which sings Stamps-Baxter out of hymn books is progressive. At least, that’s how I like to use the term.

The need for a new theology

Where’s the progressive commentary series? Or Sunday school literature? Yes, there are some great books, but none that attempt in 13 or 26 lessons to explain why so many of our 20th Century traditional teachings are wrong.

Any why not? Well, to dig a deeper hole for myself, let me suggest that it’s because nobody’s in charge! In the old days, when we had a Church of Christ fight, the two sides were each led by the editor of a periodical. Today, there’s no periodical fighting the good fight for the progressives. And we don’t know how to advocate our views any other way!

It’s ironic that our extreme congregational autonomy has left us incapable of articulating who we are or what we believe in. I mean, we have a handful of publishing houses — Leafwood – ACU Press, 21st Century Christian — but none seems to have a vision for moving the movement or for rescuing the conservatives from their works-based religion.

Indeed, they’re simply printing the works of a few prominent preachers and professors who have the proven ability to sell books. And although sometimes a book will push things the right way, there’s no vision. There’s no plan. And hence there’s no comprehensive, overarching understanding. Each congregation is left to find its own path.

And while this may have some appeal in light of our historic insistence on congregational autonomy, I’m afraid it’s going to lead to a bunch of congregations with very different understandings of the Bible. And this will mean the progressive Church of Christ market these publishing houses are profiting from will disappear. Soon.

You see, while we can save a lot of souls with an incomplete theology, at some point, we really need to have a deep understanding of what the Bible says. If we don’t, then we’ll run into problems. What happens when a church nominates a woman as elder? Or the members want a joint service with the Mormon church down the road? Or a Catholic or Orthodox congregation? Or a new couple refuses to be immersed? These are hard questions. There are some lines, you know. Where are they?

And how do we talk about this stuff among ourselves?

[We’ll take up the remaining problems in the next posts.]

Leave a Reply

  1. * The progressives have failed to articulate a thoughtful, comprehensive theology for why we believe what we believe.

    It seems to me that the Heart of the Restoration series from ACU tried to do this. What's your opinion on that?

  2. Cary,

    It's an interesting question. My own take is that the books just never really responded to the need. And they didn't sell very well. Some are already out of print.

    I recently bought God's Holy Fire, and I'm really unhappy with it. For example, the authors make a point of arguing against inerrancy. Why? What good comes from that?

    Meanwhile, the rest of the book tends to be really, really basic. They recommend that we pray, read the text, outline the text, reflect on the text, etc. For this I paid money?

    At the River's Edge is on baptism but never addresses the obvious doctrinal questions the church is wrestling with.

    I've read The Crux of the Matter, but can't find my copy and can't remember much about it.

    I've not read them all, but I just don't think the authors had a clear vision of where they wanted to go with the series. But since I've not read them all, I may be selling the series short.

  3. I want to let you know that I am enjoying your series. It is very informative and interesting. I want you to know I look forward to reading your blog more ofter. I would love to invite you to join on any discussion on mine as well. I pray that God will bless you, your family and ministry.
    In Him
    Kinney Mabry

  4. This is especially fascinating to me. You are expressing some of the same concerns that led to some ICOC leaders making the "Proposal for United Cooperation," creating the disciplestoday.com website, holding annual worldwide conferences and regional conferences, etc. They too were concerned about churches drifting in different directions with no coordinating vision and leadership.

    We are a much smaller group of churches (a few hundred congregations). And we are a much younger movement. Perhaps for those reasons we are a little lighter on our feet and are moving more quickly through the stages. But we are going through very similar things.

  5. I think you articulate your theology fine enough. Your theology is basically the theological version of the political cry "But what about the children!!!?!?!?!?!??!?!?!??!" Your theology is essentially "The Bible says x. But what about all that people that don't beleive the Bible says x. God's a nice guy so he'll break his word to save them." It's simple. Its easy to understand. Its just wrong. But hey, no theology is perfect right?

  6. Alan,

    You raise an interesting and thoughtful analogy. I read your posts on the ICOC Proposal, and you're right that our situations are similar.

    My biggest concern with the Proposal is that it draws lines of fellowship too narrowly — why limit yourself to churches with an ICOC history when you have so much in common in others?

    Unity is such an important concern from a Biblical standpoint, that I just can't see any justification for drawing lines based on a common history. I means, that's what the Judaizing teachers tried to do in the First Century. And that's much of what I'm afraid that the progressive CoC will do.

    And there really has to be some means of cooperating across congregational lines. How do we train elders? missionaries? preachers? How do we fund missions or housing programs?

    You see, when you think missionally from the standpoint that we should do all we can — not just have a benevolence programs but be a benevolence program — you realize that most of the needs in the community require lots of resources, expertise, and money, which very few churches can do on their own.

    To really do the best possible job of missions and of helping those in need, we have to act in concert with many other congregations — which we in the COC just don't know how to do.

  7. Jay,
    Last night my wife and I had the privilege of attending the annual banquet for Whiz Kids. It is an after school tutoring program for children in elementary school who are reading below grade level. Whiz Kids originated in Denver and was brought to Oklahoma City by some people at City Church downtown as part of their City Cares ministry, which serves the urban poor.

    Whiz Kids matches suburban churches with urban churches located near schools that serve poor neighborhoods. Most of the kids in the program are from single parent homes, and most of them have very little parental involvement in their school work. Many of them live in very hopeless and dangerous circumstances.

    My church has been matched up with a Church of Christ south of downtown for about six years now, and between us, we tutor about 40 kids at the other church building on Monday afternoons during the school year. The tutors help the kids with their reading, and they teach them the love of Jesus. It is a remarkable program. Last night, they had a video interview with a Hispanic girl who was part of the program when Whiz Kids started here about 11 years ago. At the time she was a third grader reading at a first grade level. Now, she is a sophomore at Princeton, majoring in Sociology, and she tutors a child there.

    More than 40 churches of different stripes participate in the program. Most often, they pair churches from the same denomination, but that is not always the case. Last night, they mentioned the example of a mostly black, urban Baptist church that partners with a mostly white, suburban Methodist church.

    It was a great night of celebration, and our church is very pleased with our participation in this creative work in the name of Jesus Christ.
    Mark

  8. I think that you are looking at some of the same problems I see. Progressive Churches of Christ do not seem to have substance. As you mentioned, some of the leaders no longer believe in the inerrancy of the Bible. I have read one blogger and urban ministry leader who urges Christians not to evangelize, not to believe that anything close to absolute truth exists or can be known if it exists, and not to believe that the Bible is any more important than any other "holy book" of any other religion. If that becomes the definition of a "progressive" member of the Church of Christ, I am not interested in being defined as a "progressive." On the other hand, since I accept other baptized believers who are following Christ without being affiliated with the Churches of Christ as fellow Christians, I don't really fit the definition of a "sectarian" either. Where do I fit in? I doubt that I am the only member of Churches of Christ who is asking such a question.

  9. As a "legalist", everything that you said is right about the progressives, and this is why the progressives are divided more than small minority among the churches of Christ who have divided so many times among themselves, and though the progressives are not opposed to fellowshipping one another, their leadership does not. I personally hope the progressives and the ultra-conservatives will fade in or even fade out. To tell you the truth, this is the major reason why the mainstream does not give much thoughts to your theology, because there is none. How can we reconsider things by deconstructive criticism without reconstructive instruction?

  10. Just for clarification, what is the difference between a legalist and an ultra-conservative. A previous reply suggests there is a difference. I thought I was keeping up with all the terminology. I don't want to get lost (not in the spiritual sense, in the I want to be sure I can follow along on the discussion sense).

    These divisions grieve me. I don't know where to fit in either. I don't need to be wooed to worship (just the opposite), I want to study the scriptures rather than a pop culture secular self book and I desire a close relationship with God and fellowship with like minded Christians. I struggle with my sins and what to be more Christ like. I recognize my need for a Savior. Which sect will want to connect with the likes of me. I am thankful for this site and others that stimulate my thinking about these and other issues.

  11. Well, Nancy, one way to be Christlike is to do what is right simply because it is right. Those who take the attitude of "sure we're wrong, but its ok so long as we don't go to hell for it" aren't for you, Nancy. That's certainly not the type of attitude that Christ had.

  12. Nancy,

    "Ultraconservative" is what someone who considers himself a conservative calls someone more conservative than himself.

    "Legalist" is used differently by different people. It should mean someone who seeks salvation through rulekeeping. It is often used to refer to someone who seeks salvation through keeping more rules than the speaker thinks are necessary.

    Josh,

    You are right. That's an attitude that jeopardizes someone's salvation. But there's a substantial difference between saying (1) I think it's wrong but I'll do it in reliance on grace (a sin that can cost you your soul) and (2) I think it's wrong but because you don't think it's wrong and you have a genuine faith and penitence, when you do it, God will cover your sin with his grace.

  13. These two essentially boil down to the same thing at a point, however. Will God forgive the Christian who ignorantly does wrong? I believe so as well, per Luke 12:48. But when someone says "Well, if I don't think something is wrong and I commit a sin in ignorance God will forgive it, so let me not study my bible too hard" or "let me refer these questions unto the learned and not ever think about them myself"–then your #2 turns into #1, and this is what I see a lot of in these discussions, #2 turning into #1.

  14. Terry,

    Are you saying that a Church of Christ minister teaches "not to evangelize, not to believe that anything close to absolute truth exists or can be known if it exists, and not to believe that the Bible is any more important than any other “holy book” of any other religion"?

    That is certainly not the teaching of any Church of Christ I know of, progressive or otherwise. Can you share the URL of the blog? I'd really like to know who is publishing such heresy.

  15. Scott,

    I understand your reaction: "To tell you the truth, this is the major reason why the mainstream does not give much thoughts to your theology, because there is none. How can we reconsider things by deconstructive criticism without reconstructive instruction?"

    However, it's not a fair characterization of the progressive churches. There is actually some pretty solid theology being done. But we do a poor job of articulating our views — so much so that we are very easily misunderstood.

    I'd urge you to spend some more time on the blog. A good place to start would be the Amazing Grace lesson series http://oneinjesus.info/index-under-construction/a…. I try to lay out in broad strokes the Biblical basis for a progressive theology.

    And, by the way, like you, I detest deconstructionism and such. I think the whole conversation about Enlightenment vs. Postmodernism is helpful in terms of evangelism — understanding those we are called to convert — but pointless and counter-productive in theology.

    I've yet to meet a scriptural argument well made by talking about the "insights of Post-modernism." Oh, please, the same conclusions were reached centuries ago by good men who just read their Bibles.

    We need to spend more time learning First Century (and earlier) Judaism and less time worrying about such pretentiousness.

  16. I'm sorry, but I can't seem to make the link work. However, you should be able to go to the blog and scroll down a couple of weeks to find the relevent post.

  17. Terry,

    Thanks for the citation. Larry James' article is indeed very troubling.

    Larry James is the CEO of Central Dallas Ministries, a nonprofit organization that began as a work of the Preston Road Church of Christ. The organization has the reputation for doing extraordinarily good work among the poor of that city.

    James was a Church of Christ minister before taking his position. However, in his blog, he says that he's no longer a part of the Churches of Christ, and that certainly appears to be the case.

    Moreover, CDM is no longer affiliated with the Churches of Christ but instead receives support from outside the Churches as well as from the Churches. However, many of our congregations still support its work.

    Sadly, this example serves all too well to make my point. James' post is ramble through a host of platitudes masquerading as spiritual insights, is logically incoherent, and is often simply wrong. But this is what happens when we fail to clearly and plainly articulate what we believe and instead allow ourselves to drift into whatever is fashionable among the book sellers.

    It's a common problem: we rightly rebel against one error only to, as Campbell once wrote, in our haste to leave Babylon go past Jerusalem all the way to Rome!

    The theological error James has drifted into is partly the error N. T. Wright seeks to correct in Surprised by Hope — the false understandings of Christianity that force us to choose between caring for the needy and being evangelistic. In fact, true Christianity calls us to both — as a single, united, uniting enterprise — but we so badly misunderstand that we tend to do one or the other.

    The most conservative denominations, such as the Churches of Christ, emphasize missions to the near exclusion of benevolence, while the more liberal denominations go the opposite way. A truer understanding leads to vigorous support for both.

  18. Thanks for correcting me. I must have missed the section where Mr. James says that he is no longer a member of the Churches of Christ, but I'm glad that you saw the same problems with his positions that I saw.

  19. http://www.amazon.com/Christ-More-Less-Christian-

    Jay, are you familiar with this book? Pretty good stuff against postmodernism, but the church where is preaches is very "progressive" for lack of a better term. The Northwest Church is a merger between a CoC and a Christian Church in Seattle. Thought you might be interested.

  20. Kris,

    Even the progressive preachers who enjoy teaching through a Post-modern lens, such as Rubel Shelly, are not Post-modernists in the sense of denying objective truth or the ability to interpret writings. In fact, they teach against such views.

    Shelly sees Post-modernism as a useful means of contradicting the flawed notion that we will all reach the identical conclusions on all points if we just have truly open minds. But this was understood by Paul 2,000 years ago. You don't need Post-modern thought to get you there.

    By the way, for those with a scholarly interest, D. A. Carson's The Gagging of God does the most thorough, scholarly debunking of Post-modern theories I've seen. Very well written, although quite a long book.