If 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.