The Future of the Progressive Churches of Christ: The Christian Standard Weighs In (Fifth Question)

cooperation.jpgWe were once known as a “people of the Book.” Have we become a people of methodology?

The Standard writes,

If we neglect our heritage and if we fail to teach sound doctrine, will our legacy be a generation that denies both?

It’s a deep and important question. And it’s too easy to blow it off by noting that our long insistence on “sound doctrine” has been divisive and ultimately ineffective. True enough, but there are doctrinal issues that matter and matter a lot.

I think the Standard‘s question is built on a false premise. I just don’t see us running headlong away from sound doctrine. Rather, the trend seems to me to be very much in the other direction! Of course, I write from my own perspective, the a cappella Churches of Christ. But the overall trend of the progressive Churches has been good.

We are heading to a place that’s just so much better than where we’ve been! I actually have a lot of confidence in our progressive thought leaders, our church planters, and our missionaries who are coming out of the progressive churches and universities.

But I agree to this extent — even though I like the direction on the whole, at the more detailed level, we can be doctrinally lazy and sloppy. I think we’re heading a good direction. I’m just not that impressed with the level of scholarship I’m seeing at times. I mean, I’m not surprised we’ve failed to convince so many on grace and the Holy Spirit. We just don’t do that good a job of explaining ourselves at times.

Some of this is due to our weak and collapsing institutions. I mean, if we were to actually have a worthwhile conversation about what to teach on divorce and remarriage, the role of women, or grace, where and how would we have it?

There’s not a single print periodical within the progressive Churches of Christ. Zero. There is no institution or publication where both conservatives and progressives share ideas.

The book publishers do a much better job, but books aren’t a great place for discussion and debate. Periodicals are better for that sort of thing, but it’s not happening. And book authorship seems reserved for just a few with the proven ability to sell books.

Which means that, interestingly enough, the best and most interesting theology is being done on the internet blogs and forums. And maybe that’s good. It’s certainly democratic! I mean, anyone can write a blog (even me!), and everyone seems to have one. And there’s some really good stuff being written.

Nonetheless, and maybe this is wrong, there’s no center of gravity. As an elder, I can’t count on my members as having read anything anyone has written. Therefore, whatever the issue is, we have to teach it from scratch in all our classes. Fortunately, we’re a big church with some great teachers and lots of resources. But where does a congregation of 100 turn for lessons that teach the theological issues of the day — divorce and remarriage? grace? baptism? the role of women?

And yet the internet is proving remarkably efficient. When Rick Atchley preached his “Both/And” series on instrumental music, I heard about it not only in the internet forums, but from several church members and staff members. CDs were being passed around in our hallways for weeks. The word spread with remarkable speed. So maybe this internet thing will catch on …

I’ve been astonished at how much good stuff is out there. Obviously, there’s lots of awful stuff, too, but most people can tell the difference. If you want to find good material on any topic, Google will get you more than you can possibly read, much of it better than what the book publishers offer.

This just means we church leaders need to learn this: we cannot count on the church’s institutions to teach our members sound doctrine. Rather, our members are going to buy the books they want to buy, read the blogs they want to read, and form their own opinions regardless of what we may prefer. Therefore, the task that befalls congregational leadership is to train the members on how to tell good theology from bad.

And the more good theology we teach them, the more they’ll be able to tell what fits well within that framework.

It’s a new way of doing church. It’s a new way of learning the Bible. But it seems pretty much inevitable.

Therefore, we need to help our members find good blogs, good forums, and good books. And we need to teach all of our members how to tell good from bad. And I think we can count of their good sense and God’s Holy Spirit to move us all in a good direction. It’s already happening, you know.

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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7 Responses to The Future of the Progressive Churches of Christ: The Christian Standard Weighs In (Fifth Question)

  1. Royce says:

    These discussions beg the question of those who fear that "sound doctrine" will be abandoned, what is "sound doctrine"? I promise you it is not great Bible themes like justification by faith, the person and work of Jesus Christ, etc. "Sound doctrine" usually boils down to a sectarian view of the churches of Christ, baptism, and a cappela only singing.

    Our identity as believers should be found in our fath relationship with God through the finished work of Jesus and not in a church tradition.

    Royce

  2. I'm both empathetic and antagonistic towards your dilemma.

    In one breath, I appreciate the history of the Restoration Movement. And I think many good principles have been properly emphasized by it, over the years.

    However, today, as is true of virtually any and every "church" organization, it is our observable pre-occupation with having the "right" doctrine, that is, in fact, the drain on organized "church."

    Because, even if we get all the doctrine right, if we understand everything in the New Testament, perfectly; if we don't have the kind of love Jesus had, then we've completely missed the point. See 1 Corinthians 13.

    Getting the doctrine correct, only means we've defined the law properly. And the real problem Jesus came to resolve is our failure to follow the law — I know you agree with that.

    So, if we get doctrine right, then we can properly define what sin is? Who cares?

    Tell me I've forgiven and show me by everything you do that you share Jesus' love for me.

    Jay, I truly appreciate the way you handle the Text, your thoroughness, your fairness, and your point of view.

    But focusing on having the right doctrine is actually a huge part of the problem. And I'm not advocating doing away with study and debate and seeking a clearer understanding of the Text. But when that is the only message people hear from any group, they are likely on a path to oblivion — perhaps very slowly, but inevitably.

  3. Jay Guin says:

    David,

    I agree that we tend to make doctrine an idol. We do. But I think my doctrinal concerns are valid. Here's why —

    * Pastorally, bad doctrine on, for example, the role of women or divorce and remarriage hurts the cause of Christ. The question isn't just the breadth of grace — it's how to lead a church. And as all elders know, there's no escaping the questions.

    Now, as the series on the role of women and divorce show, the questions aren't simple. They require considerable scholarship — beyond what many leaders can do for themselves.

    * Bad doctrine, mainly the doctrine of grace, is dividing the Churches of Christ and divides us from other denominations. How do we teach our sister congregations grace as we understand it? Or is it enough that we've escaped legalism? Surely we owe a duty to our brothers and sisters trapped in legalism.

    In short, our elders, ministers, teachers, and other leaders need all the support they can get on doctrinal matters (not just doctrine, of course). And I think we're doing an inadequate job of it. It's not that we aren't trying at all. Rather, my complaint is —

    — Many of our books are not written in terms that could convince their intended audience. We don't address the objections of the legalists. Some books actually serve to persuade the legalists that they're right because the arguments offered are so poorly worked out.

    — None of our periodicals allow opposing views, making it impossible for many people to compare competing claims. And there's no periodical that teaches the progressive view of things. None.

    — Our lectureships rarely present two sides of a question.

    In short, not a single one of our institutions has taken on the mission of bringing reconciliation to the two sides of the disputes that divide the Churches of Christ, and this is tragic.

    Some might object that we've written lots of books that teach the truth of this or that issue, but it's not enough. Obviously enough, the Churches remain seriously divided and are becoming more so every day. We're not finished, and therefore what we've done so far is not enough. And I'm personally not yet willing to write off half the Churches of Christ. I just think we ought to be trying to bring all the sheep into the fold.

    Now, the issue hits us another way. People move, and churches get dozens of new members every year from another Church of Christ — and many need teaching on lots of issues, which we are glad to do. But I know of lots of churches that had people move in and turn the church toward legalism. Many elderships are not equipped to protect the church from false teaching.

    One of the charges given to elders is to protect the church from false teaching. Acts 20:28-30; Titus 1:9. And I don't think we're producing the literature needed to do this, especially for smaller churches with limited resources.

    I'd feel better about it if we did a better job of elder training. ACU is trying via ElderLink, but we need more and deeper teaching on lots of subjects — not just doctrine. I wonder why our universities don't do more in the way of continuing education for church leaders? We need it.

    I see the progressive Churches of Christ making important gains, but I think we're making harder for a church to escape legalism than it needs to be. A good, grace-filled periodical would help. Weekend courses on issues of concern to elderships would help, too. And a place to talk with the other churches would help the most — just a periodical or lectureship or book where the two sides line up their arguments and the church gets to compare.

  4. Joe Baggett says:

    Wine Skins and Grace Centered Magazine are good places to start. Sometimes the Christian Chroncile. Though of late I am disgusted.

    Here is my advice be willing to look outside the churches of Christ. I just finished reading unChristian by David Kinnaman of the Barna Group. This is must read for anyone who is concerned about the future of Christianity. Others include:
    "After the Baby Boomers, how twenty and thirty somethings are shaping the future of American religion" by Dr. robert Wuthnow.
    "The Present future" by Reggie McNeal
    "Revolution" by George Barna.

  5. Jim says:

    I'm the author of the Christian Standard article you have been discussing here. I've been pleased with your comments and the thoughtfulness of the debate. The "five questions" have raised a lot more discussion among a cappela churches of Christ than among my own "tribe". Not sure why that is, but I'm enjoying the feedback.

    Jim Tune

  6. Jay Guin says:

    Jim,

    I'm honored to have you visit over here.

    You might be interested to know that, although I'm in the a cappella Churches of Christ, there are participants here from nearly all branches of the Restoration Movement, from non-institutional Churches of Christ, to ICOC, to instrumental Church of Christ/Christian Church.

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