The Future of the Progressive Churches of Christ: Part 2, Why We Don’t Know Who We Are

cooperation.jpgIf you were to ask most Church members whether we’re headed for a split as a “fellowship,” meaning denomination, most would say the split is already well underway. Many would say it’s already complete.

In my church, when a couple is planning to move out of town, they ask the leadership whether we know of another “progressive” Church in the town they’re moving to. We know that some Churches are very different from the “conservative” Churches, but we are all hard pressed to place a definition on “progressive” and “conservative.”

For some, being progressive is about contemporary worship. For others, it’s having a spirit of grace and freedom. For others, it’s having excellent ministries. For some, it’s just not having to hear condemnation of sister congregations from the pulpit.

Most denominational divisions are defined by a specific doctrine or practice. The split over institutionalism in the 1950’s was over congregational support of orphan’s homes and the “Herald of Truth” television show. The split of 1906 was largely over the instrument and missionary societies. The split with the International Churches of Christ in the 1970s and 80s was largely over congregational autonomy and what the mainstream Churches perceived to be an extreme works religion. You see, in each case, we actually knew what we were splitting over.

In this split, the issues are more vague, more poorly understood, and so more poorly taught. Indeed, many of our own children have no idea why the Church of Christ a mile away speaks ill of us. And their friends at the other Church aren’t so sure either. You see, this split, despite being very real, remains largely undefined. Strange, isn’t it?

Read Joe Beam’s excellent article cited in the previous post. He speaks of issues such as who is labeled a “change agent” and who fellowships the Christian Church. We don’t even have a Christian Church in town. We haven’t talked about change agents in years. But the other churches in town treat us pariahs. Why?

What the issues really are

If you read some of the periodicals of the “conservative” Churches, you’ll find that the progressives stand accused — and often damned — for these sins —

* Granting improper roles and authority to women

* Fellowshipping the unbaptized

* Fellowshipping those who use the instrument in worship

* Allowing worship to become entertainment

* Clapping (either in response to good news or rhythmically to the music)

* Disputing the inerrancy of the Bible

* Allowing divorced and remarried couples to join a congregation

Now, although there have been a few books and articles written here and there questioning inerrancy, there’s just no momentum on that one. It’s not what the movement is about — and the books and articles have been read by very few, and believed by even fewer.

And while there’s been a lot of teaching on how we should expand the roles of women, not much has happened. You can count the congregations with a female elder on one hand (I know of only one that still bears the name “Church of Christ.”) A few have female deacons, but that’s been mainstream teaching (not practice, though) for nearly 200 years. I know of but one that’s allowed a female to preach.

You see, every one of these is a stalking horse. Pretending these are the real issues allows the conservative preachers to condemn the progressives with old arguments, long repeated. We’ve had 100 years of practice damning those who use instruments!

But the real issue is grace. Remarkably, though, we progressives have done such a poor job of stating our case that many conservatives don’t even know it.

They think we’re arguing grace just like we have for 100 years. Every dispute in the last 100 years has been over whether some practice or other is a matter of “faith” or “opinion.” The opinion side argues grace and expedience. The faith side argues law and commands. We are very familiar with these arguments.

The issue today, however, is different. The question isn’t whether clapping is authorized. It’s whether we ought to be even arguing about such things!

Here are the questions that we ought be talking about —

* Who is saved?

* Now that I’m saved, what might make me fall away?

* Now that I’m saved, what are the commandments I’m to obey?

* Are we adding commands — boundary markers — to the gospel in a way that causes us to fall from grace?

Obviously, these are closely related. You can’t have a complete understanding of one without understanding the others.

Now, how important are these questions? Well, they are the most important questions imaginable.

And how diligently have we in the progressive Churches worked to develop a literature that teaches our members the answers? Not very.

There have been many books that have danced around the edges or helped open our minds to the answers. But where are the answers explained in terms persuasive to those in the Open and Satisfied congregations?

I thank God for Rubel Shelly’s I Just Want to Be a Christian (1984). It was a great first step. And Jim Woodruff’s The Church in Transition was important (1990). But in the 24 years since I Just Want to Be a Christian you’d think we’d have developed a thoroughly grounded theology with a comprehensive literature setting it all out and making the arguments designed to persuade our brothers and sisters in conservative churches. Well, I can’t find it!

Oh, there have been lots of books. We’ve done an excellent job in Restoration Movement studies (such as Leroy Garrett’s The Stone-Campbell Movement). And Carroll Osburn’s work on the roles of women has been extraordinary.

But the best books out there on the issues driving the progressive-conservative split are the reprints of Carl Ketcherside’s works. That’s right, the man who wrote while being the leading polemicist for the non-institutional movement (an Anti!) 50 years ago remains the best advocate for the progressive view of things!

Ketcherside’s work has been re-introduced to the Churches thanks to the efforts of the late Cecil Hook at his Freedom’s Ring website. In fact, some of the most useful work in progressive theology has been done on the Internet, by such men as Hook, Ed Fudge, and Al Maxey. The publishing houses aren’t doing nearly the work these men are accomplishing.

When a denomination is attempting to change, the task of the first generation is to persuade people they need to change. What’s the task of the second generation? To develop a comprehensive, thoughtful statement and defense of the new position. And we’re just not doing that.

The conservative view is defined by the Gospel Advocate commentary series, especially J. W. McGarvey’s commentary on Acts. Where’s the progressive commentary series?

The Gospel Advocate and other publishing houses print adult Sunday school literature that teaches their viewpoint. Who is publishing adult class material teaching progressive attitudes? (Adult education leaders, are you satisfied with the adult Bible class material our publishing houses are producing?)

The conservative viewpoint is constantly being taught, defended, and refined in numerous print periodicals, most importantly the Gospel Advocate. Where’s the progressive print periodical? There’s not one. Not a one.

For a while, Image and Wineskins filled this role for the progressive movement. Image merged into Wineskins, and Wineskins became a subscription-only Internet periodical. It became free only a few weeks ago.

But Wineskins is not a theological publication. Rather, it’s much more likely to print inspirational material and Christian-interest news. It publishes little of special interest to the Churches of Christ.

Why are we silent?

I’ve thought about this a lot. I mean, by historical standards, we just aren’t arguing for our position at all. Why not?

* First, we don’t realize the serious spiritual peril and utter misery of our brothers and sisters in the conservative Churches. Of course, they aren’t all miserable. But none get to experience the joy of grace as they should. (But then, this is also true of many “progressive” churches! Many churches that consider themselves progressive are theologically identical to the conservative churches — they’re just willing to sing better songs.)

* Second, we have very little institutional support. We have no publishing house like the Gospel Advocate (or the Christian Church’s Standard Publishing). We have book publishers, like Leafwood-ACU Press and 21st Century Christian, but little in the way of Sunday school literature for adults or children.

Of our colleges, only Pepperdine, Abilene Christian, Rochester, and Lipscomb have plainly declared sympathy with the progressive movement. Few have shown much interest in advocating for that viewpoint outside their campuses, however. Abilene has been most outspoken, but even they seem to have a limited vision for the progressive Churches.

* Third, men with a Masters of Divinity or similar educational credentials have been taught grace and the Spirit. They learned it not only from their masters professors but from great Reformation teachers and many more modern theologians they had to study to get their degree. And they learned that everything we need to be taught has already been a part of the Protestant mainstream for 500 years! Why write new books and commentaries when standard evangelical commentaries already cover the material quite well, even brilliantly?

As a result, progressive preachers read Christianity Today, rather than Wineskins. And they read N. T. Wright and Stanley Hauerwas (influential and very excellent theologians from the Anglican and Methodist Churches) rather than our own commentaries.

You see, we just leapt from conservative Church of Christ theology to mainstream evangelicalism. And that’s not altogether bad. But surely we lost something in spending so little time in wrestling with our own problems.

It’s like the man whose first wife dies and then marries a new wife 2 weeks later. Even if she’s his new soul mate, who would recommend such behavior? Far better to spend some time getting over the first wife and learning who you really are apart from your first wife, rather than going straight into a new relationship.

Maybe it’s not such a good analogy. So I’ll try to be more clear in the next few posts.

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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0 Responses to The Future of the Progressive Churches of Christ: Part 2, Why We Don’t Know Who We Are

  1. Alan says:

    The conservative viewpoint is constantly being taught, defended, and refined in numerous print periodicals, most importantly the Gospel Advocate. Where’s the progressive print periodical? There’s not one. Not a one.

    Ketcherside said in his autobiography that the journals were the rallying points for the various factions in the divisions of the past:

    Divisions do not happen. They are caused. Parties form around men who promote the separation and insist upon the segregation of their adherents. In the movement growing out of the ideal of restoration as enunciated by Thomas and Alexander Campbell, most of the divisions centered around men of prominence. In almost every instance they were editors of journals. They could use their journals as propaganda media and the United States mails as a distribution method. No party could long endure without an editor and a "loyal paper."

    While neither of us would want to promote factions and divisions, I think we would want to educate and discuss areas where our churches need to deepen their theology. And it's easier than ever to do that. We're in a new era today. All who are willing to become bloggers can articulate their message to whatever audience they can draw.

    A network of like-minded bloggers is forming naturally, through word-of-mouth and basic search engines. Maybe visibility of the message can be improved by use of a webring, blogrolls, or some other link propagation techniques to increase search engine rankings and maybe promote "viral marketing." A news portal is great, but (IMO) viral / buzz marketing will take you farther in today's world. There are some things we could do to promote that, but I'm not the expert on it. Maybe someone who is will come along and offer assistance.

  2. Jay Guin says:

    Alan,

    It's an interesting thought. I think the work of the bloggers has been very influential. Lately, they've been more influential than the publishers. But for the blogs, the movement would be much less effective than it is.

    It's not so much the nature of the medium (although that's part of it) as the message itself. The blogs are just better at communicating the good news than the book authors. I get far more from your work, for example, than most books coming out of our publishing houses.

    To be as effective as possible, you have to propagate ideas by multiple means. Some people are more effectively reached by books. Some by blogs. Some by magazines. Some by lectureships. Some by Sunday school literature.

    The fact that we've abandoned so many fronts prevents the media from reinforcing each other. A magazine helps sell books or notify readers of blogs, for example. In fact, the Gospel Advocate makes good money on a shrinking subscriber base due to the mutual reinforcement of the magazine, books, and Sunday school materials.

  3. josh keele says:

    I think the divide is this: Conservatives read the Bible. Progressive read everything but the Bible (including the kitchen sink). I see myself as a pretty well-read guy, Luther, Calvin, John Gill, the Ante-Nicene 'Fathers', John Frith, William Tyndale, N.T. Wright., a little Augustine, a bit of Chysostom, Hillary, Alexander and Athanasius, C.S. Lewis, a ridiculous amount of internet discussion boards and blogs throughout the years, John Milton, a sermon or two by Lancelot Andrewes (one of the KJV translators), many of Spurgeon's sermons, John Wesley's Sermons, the Westminster Confession, the Helvedic Confession, the London Baptist confession, blah blah. Bits of the Talmud, Josephus, etc. The one thing I don't read, however, is sappy emotional garbage like Max Lucado and Joel Osteen, and there's your problem.

  4. Jay Guin says:

    Josh,

    Rather than admitting than someone might honestly disagree with you, for some reason you feel compelled to slander your opponents with personal assaults on their character.

    Asserting that your opponents haven't even read the Bible is, of course, a lie. And positions that require a lie to be "proven" are also lies.

  5. Raymond Perkins says:

    Josh,

    I think more particularly, the conservatives strain the Bible through the theological directives of strong personalities like Guy N. Wood, H. Leo Boles, G. W. McGarvey, David Lipscomb, Alan Highers, etc. thus rarely coming in direct contact with the Word, while progressives strive to read Scripture without those theological shackles, seeking the Word in its purest form. Of course this is my personal perspective after having spent 40+ years in the former group, then as I continued to study and grow (through two degrees) I began to see a plethora of inconsistencies in the indoctrination of my youth.

    Raymond

  6. Alan says:

    Josh,

    I think increasing the exposure to "sappy emotional garbage" would do a lot of good for some conservatives I know. We are called to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. It is not enough just to love him with your mind. OTOH I'm not advocating abandoning your intellectual convictions along the way — unless intellectually persuaded to change them.

    The biggest issue with the conservatives I know, honestly, is that they are too sure of themselves. They don't admit the possibility that they might be wrong about something. That comes out in an overconfident and misguided condemnation of those who don't agree on even the most contrived inferences from scripture. Pride is a character defect. (Ok, it's a sin.) If that issue is dealt with, then conservatives and progressives can have a constructive conversation. Until that happens, the progressives might as well be talking to the radio.

  7. Nancy says:

    I agree with Alan and Raymond and Jay (based on 44 conservative years.) The pride associated with a perceived righteousness based on works is spiritually deadly. There is great joy and comfort in complete submission to the Lord and freedom in accepting our need for a Savior. The Bible is clear on this issue. It is not most of Christ and part of me. Obedience to God's commands is out of genuine heartfelt love and devotion. Not "just in case" or "to be safe". God knows the difference, you can't fake Christianity.

    I completely understand Josh's zeal. I've been there, done that, lived with that. I am thankful to God to be free of that. I pray that others can experience the same joy.

  8. josh keele says:

    I don't think anything I say can really be understood apart from my view of the Holy Ghost, so I will explain that in order to be understood. The mark of a true Christian versus a false and of a true church is the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. And as the Holy Spirit is received in baptism, our views on baptism are able to differentiate who has and does not have the Spirit. Those who beleive that baptism is essential to salvation and require that it be by singular-immersion alone of believers alone, in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, specifically for the remission of sins and being viewed by the baptizee as an appeal for the forgiveness of sins, and who have been so baptized, these have the Spirit.. But those who reject any of these elements do not, meaning that those who beleive themselves to already be saved and then get baptized as a mere sign do not receive the Spirit. Also, those who follow the liberal works-salvation view of Lipscomb (Raymond, Lipscomb is no conservative) and who view baptism as the one justifying work of Christianity saying they are baptized merely "to obey God" rather than viewing baptism as part of grace being the necessary appeal for cleansing–these also receive not the Spirit for they think they are saving themselves, whereas those who are baptized as an appeal and not merely to "obey God" receive the answer to the appeal in the very appeal itself, which is the reception of the Holy Spirit.

    Now, all departures on any issue of worship, such as adding multiple cups to communion or using instrumental music or whatever, flow from a departure from this true view of baptism. It stems from men who were baptized thinking they were already saved, and who as a result received not the Spirit. Or again it stems from men who were baptized in the liberal works-salvation view of Lipscomb viewing baptism as the one justifying work of Christianity rather than as an appeal for cleansing. Departures from the truth faith on baptism result in departures on everything else, not the other around.

    In other words, the reason for the implosion of the progressive church is not that they added instrumental music or multiple cups, and then finally as a result of these worship innovations became Baptists. Rather, in reality, it is the opposite: they became Baptists first, then the internals of the heart began to show in actions, then out of the Baptist treasure of the heart came Baptists works.

    Their non-reception of the Holy Spirit due to their invalid baptism resulted in their incorrect observance of the Lord's Supper because they did not have the Spirit to guard them from their human ignorance. Far from arrogant, I assert that the reason (indeed the only reason) why I and those with whom i am in fellowship are able to understand the Scriptures properly and observe communion correctly while the progressive churches are not is that we received valid baptisms and have the Holy Spirit as a result whereas their Baptist and/or works-salvation (due to viewing baptism as the one justifying work rather than as an appeal for cleansing) views robbed them of receiving the Spirit.

    This again, is why they would rather read Max Lucado's sappy emotional writings that lack substance than either the Bible itself of a substantial theologian, because the lack of the Spirit brings about lack of spiritual appreciation, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 2:14, "the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned," and therefore, having not the Spirit, the progressive churches are led by their natural-man-mindedness to natural theologians who are nothing more than emotion-baters.

    Nancy, you are correct in saying that it is not mostly Christ and part of me, for after I have done the one thing I can do which is to have faith (in which is included of necessity the necessary appeal to God for cleansing through baptism, all of which is for me mental and is physical only on the part of another and all the actual work of which is simultaneously wrought by God internally)–after that, he which sustains me and keeps me from falling into your doctrines is not me, not my intellect, but the Holy Spirit. As John says in 1 John 2:19 "They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us: but they went out, that they might be made manifest that they were not at all of us," which describes the progressive churches who as we speak are on their way out and manifesting that they were never of us at all. Indeed, even now prior to their physical departure, they have declared their views of baptism, which are clearly not ours, but those of the Baptists. And John continues, saying "But ye have an unction from the Holy One, and ye know all things." I have an unction (an anointing) from the Holy One, that anointing being the Holy Ghost himself, who makes me to know all things as I read the Scriptures. I am not, as the progressive, "ever learning and never coming to a knowledge of the truth" (2 Tim 3:7) for the Holy Spirit makes me to know everything that I read in the Scriptures, but the progressive reads and reads and still knows nothing because he or she is depending on their natural mind having not the Spirit. And they have not the Spirit because they CHOSE (which is the meaning of the Greek word heresy, namely choice to beleive a falsehood)–because they CHOSE to reject the true purpose of baptism and hence received not the Spirit. They chose either to beleive they were already saved and be baptized as a mere symbol, or to be baptized as a work to justify to be baptized merely "to obey God" as if they could save themselves with brownie points, rather than to view baptism as an appeal for cleansing and make an actual appeal from faith in baptism and hence receive the Spirit.

    Now, you might try and accuse me of works-salvation thinking because I believe in observing the communion properly and in disfellowshipping those who do not do so. This, however, is not out of a fear of hell, but out of the fact that through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit I know how to observe the Lord's Supper properly (a think which progressive cannot know, for even when they know it, they deny to know it). And because I know how to do it properly, I refuse to do it improperly. I could not attend your churches, not because I would fear going to hell as a result per se, but because I know how to observe the Lord's Supper properly, and therefore I will do so and refuse to do otherwise. As you suggest, we ought to be grateful to the Lord for dying for us. But if we are grateful, will we worship incorrectly on purpose? What an affront to the Lord that would be! Why not just spit in his face? I would not observe the Lord's Supper incorrectly, even if you progressives could find a believable loophole! Because I do not want to disrespect the Lord in that manner. But the progressive, having not the Spirit, cares not at all whether he or she spits in the Lord's face or not. To the progressive all is about his or her own emotions. Do I feel good? If so, saith the progressive, all is well. IF therefore it be possible for the progressive to knee Christ in the crotch without feeling bad, then he will do it, because so long as he feels good all is well in the view of his pernicious doctrine.

  9. josh keele says:

    "Asserting that your opponents haven’t even read the Bible is, of course, a lie." (Jay)

    You misunderstood me because I didn't write clearly enough. When I said "I think the divide is this: Conservatives read the Bible. Progressive read everything but the Bible (including the kitchen sink)" I meant the word read in a habitual present tense, that of course both read the Bible but progressives read everything else more often.

  10. Mark says:

    Josh,
    You, my friend, are a piece of work. For one who claims to be one of the faithful, enlightened few who have the Holy Spirit, you demonstrate almost nothing of the fruit of the Spirit. How could that be? It's also amazing that someone could read the great writers and theologians that you claim to have read and still live in the narrow, dark, little theological cubicle that you inhabit.

    Those who differ from you want to "destroy the work of Christ," "spit in the Lord's face," and/or "knee Christ in the crotch." Nice. I think all this bluster and acrimony is just a mask. If we could pull back the curtain, we would find a scared little man at the controls, trying desperately to defend the indefensible.

    It doesn't have to be that way. Jesus Christ can set you free from your legalism and from the religious spirits that hold you captive. He can set you free to love–to love him, to love yourself and your one cup, one loaf friends, and even to love progressives like Jay and me. As the old commercial said, "Try it; you'll like it!"

  11. Chris C says:

    Jay,
    First of all, thank you for your writings! What a marvelous resource.
    Secondly, you said- "I’ve thought about this a lot. I mean, by historical standards, we just aren’t arguing for our position at all. Why not?"

    I see a couple of reasons:

    1. The conservatives are not receptive to reasoned discussion, or even the possibility they may be in error. Thus it becomes a waste of time and effort to refute them face to face.
    2. Many extended families have conservatives and progressives, and my momma always told me "Don't discuss religion or politics at a family gathering!" How true that is. And how sad.

    I think the conservative churches will die a slow death as they will not be able to retain their young people. Unfortunately many of these youth will lose their faith because of what they have experienced, instead of seeking out the truth. And many opportunities for evangelism will be lost.

    The best argument we can make is to support a progressive church with our attendance, time and funds. If we have the gifts of writing and teaching (as you do) then these are a blessing in this battle. Also, we must teach our kids to question. I've told my kids that whatever they hear or read, no matter the source, should be investigated against Scripture to their own satisfaction. The formula is- Read, study, pray, discuss with those you respect for their spiritual commitment / lifestyle (fruits of the Spirit).

    Keep writing! You have written what many of us have learned from our bible studies but are unable to articulate on paper or in conversation.

    God bless

  12. I should have read this post before reading Part 4. I would not have lumped the genuinely theological liberals in with mainstream progressive Churches of Christ (which, as you pointed out, would be more at home with conservative evangelicals than with the theological liberals). One of the publishers that you omitted, which I believe has some good books and commentaries, would be College Press. The College Press NIV Commentary series has some excellent work (Shanks' volume on the Minor Prophets, and the volumes on Matthew and Luke come to mind).

  13. Jay Guin says:

    Ironically enough, College Press has published some of our best stuff even though they come out of the Christian Churches.

  14. Guy says:

    Jay,

    i have pushed these questions you raise (who is saved/not saved?) myself because they seem of obvious unestimable importance in practical Christianity. Yet i always encounter personal attacks for raising them. As though wanting to explore these questions must mean my heart is in the wrong place because drawing any lines of any sort is somehow proud or elitist or something. Why?
    (1) Last time i checked, Jesus drew some incredibly tough, hard-to-swallow lines.
    (2) If you can't answer these questions, then it's arguably the case that you can't know where *you* stand personally with respect to salvation.
    (3) If you can't say who's in and who's out, then how are you to go about defining your ecclesiological mission? How can you 'reach the lost' or 'fellowship with your brethren' or 'bring back the scattered' if you have no clear parameters for those categories?

    i could list a lot more reasons, nevertheless, what i often encounter is almost fear of these sorts of questions. As though even asking them means that you're trying to go the traditional/conservative route. But i don't see how that necessarily follows at all.

    Many of your readers seem to go on endlessly about the inevitable death of conservative CoCs, but i don't see how that death is anymore inevitable than the entirety of the CoC as long as we're scared to ask and answer the hard questions and then stand by those answers.

    Guy

  15. Zach Price says:

    i see it more in terms of revelation, a conservative might think that everything God has revealed in the bible is said and done whilst a progressive might say that God continues to reveal things to us today through the holy spirit

    if everything has already been revealed then there is no need in the first place to question the traditions of the church (in which case we should all be Roman Catholic or at least the same denomination as our parents and never split)

    if things are still being revealed then we should pray and and use reason to see how God continues to speak to us

    thus we get issues over things like literal versus metaphorical such as wine or grape juice
    or issues over things not explicit such as church kitchens

  16. Zach Price says:

    Josh,
    could it not be possible to be baptized and not know fully the gift of which you receive? i find that every day the Holy Spirit does so much more for me than I would have ever realized on the day of my baptism. And when at exactly what point during baptism are you indwelled with the Holy Spirit, do we have to know that too in order to be saved?

    also what do you mean by the correct way of doing the lord's supper? i hope it means one cup, with fortified wine (Welch did not invent the process to keep grape juice from fermenting til the twentieth century) and in the context of a meal? and if so, how often is it done since that is not explicitly stated?

    i hope you realize i'm being ironic

  17. Zach Price says:

    Oh also, Jesus tells us to love God and love one another as he loves us. We do not do good works for salvation, for we have already received our salvation, but do those such good works because God gave them to us for us to do. It is a gift and we do them because God loves us so we should love him.

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