In the last post, we considered whether we should preserve the best of our heritage as Restoration Movement churches. Of course, we should. The hard part is figuring out what’s best. What doctrines are so important that we should have separate universities and separate mission efforts to preserve them, despite realizing that these are not salvation issues?
Here’s my opinion, for whatever it’s worth —
1. As the Campbells taught, faith in Jesus, including his Lordship, saves believers and establishes fellowship. We start here because the Bible starts here.
2. Therefore, the highest, most important fellowship we participate in is fellowship with all who share such faith.
3. This means that, rather than seeking unity denomination to denomination, we see unity as a gift from God given to all with faith. Rather than working for unity, we celebrate and honor the unity that we already have. We really need to stop denying the unity that God gives.
4. And this unity is most vital, not along denominational lines, but locally — with the churches across the street and down the road in our own towns. Not just Restoration Movement churches, but all churches of genuine faith. How dare we put asunder those whom God has joined? I mean, we have the most in common with these churches because we have the most mission in common with them! We want to evangelize the same people, help the same people, bring the Kingdom to the same place.
5. We therefore work with as many other churches of believers in town as will work with us to evangelize our home towns and to relieve suffering and serve the needy. We don’t do these things to compete with other churches. Rather, we join hands to build the Kingdom as a common church with a common Lord.
Now steps 1 through 5 are harder than the next steps, but they’re more important and so should come first. Don’t do the easy stuff first, or you’ll never get to the hard stuff.
6. We preserve the doctrines that we’ve inherited that are worth preserving and trash those that are not. And even the doctrines that we cherish, we re-think them, because they probably aren’t quite as perfect as we imagine. For example —
a. I think the Restoration Movement churches are quite right to be Arminian (not Calvinist) in theology. But I also think the truth is somewhere in between traditional Calvinism and traditional Arminianism. It’s a mistake to be too strident on these things. But then, I wouldn’t want to be supporting missionaries who teach old line, traditional Calvinism. I don’t think it’s a healthy form of Christianity, even if it’s sufficient to save.
b. I think the Restoration Movement churches are quite right to teach baptism of believers by immersion into the forgiveness of sins. The Bible seems quite clear on the question to me. I think the baptism of infants has proven a colossal disaster in many places. And yet, I don’t believe God damns those improperly baptized out of ignorance.
c. I think national denominational headquarters have largely been a disaster for Christianity. On the other hand, Church of Christ-style autonomy has been pretty awful, too. We need to learn how to be autonomous without being independent and isolated. The Christian Churches do this through conventions and societies, and have had great success.I think the Christian Churches are on to something. (Alexander Campbell showed the way.)
No Christian Church convention or society has any authority over any local congregation, but these provide means by which churches can pool resources and talent and accomplish things that no one congregation can do.
Therefore, autonomy is good, isolation is bad, and cooperation is essential. I mean, if we love our brothers and sisters, we’ll want to work with them and cooperate with them and study with them.
However, the problem with this style of cooperation is that it’s along denominational lines, and hence tends to preserve barriers and boundaries we’ve inherited from the Reformation. We’d do even better to build up new societies and conventions in our home towns, allowing us to first cooperate with local churches to do local work. That model will change the face of Christianity!
Just a few days ago, as Hurricane Gustav was bearing down on the Gulf coast, the Tuscaloosa Prayer Network put together a plan to serve the evacuees headed our way and our congregation was tasked with, among other things, food preparation. The TPN is a parachurch organization that coordinates the relief efforts of cooperating churches. We’re the only Church of Christ that participates — a very sad commentary on the style of autonomy our sister congregations practice around here.
Imagine that we also coordinated literacy training, Celebrate Recovery, or job training efforts the same way! Or maybe we even organized a way of recruiting, training, and supporting missionaries from all the churches in our town!
We’d find ourselves supporting men and women our kids went to high school with and played ball with. The support and ties would be immensely stronger than what we normally see.
The missionaries would be that much more motivated, because they’d be encouraged by friends and family who care deeply about them and their mission. And the town itself will be transformed, as mission becomes something that helps hold the community together.
Wouldn’t that better than the old-fashioned denominational model that everyone uses today?
7. On the other hand, as I’ve mentioned before, we’re going to want to hire ministers and send missionaries who agree with our understanding of the scriptures on baptism, Arminianism, unity, grace, and such like. Therefore, we are going to want to support those universities and organizations with similar views.
But as we narrow the list of doctrines that qualify or disqualify a preacher or missionary, far more church institutions will qualify for our support than once did. We’ll feel less insistence on preserving “our” universities and mission organizations when we find “they” have even better ones that teach the same things that we consider important.
Besides, as missions and such become more local, we’ll be more tolerant of disagreement, as we’ll feel compelled to support the missionaries and church planters whose hearts we know, even though they aren’t quite like us on some issue or other.
I really don’t want to be sending missionaries out that teach old-style Calvinism or that try to get their members to all speak in tongues. It’s not that these errors (as I see it) damn, so much as they make for a much less attractive and effective Christianity. I want to plant seed of the highest possible quality.
We already see that as the Christian Churches and Churches of Christ sort-of merge, some of their organizations are better than ours and some of ours are better than theirs. Good. A few will die. A few will merge. A few will learn to be better. Inevitably, some our institutions will fail. And yet, on the whole, God’s kingdom will be better served.
Does this worry me? Yes. It worries me because I’m afraid we’ll see all this happen without having first figured out what doctrines really matter and are worth suffering some measure of separation for and what doctrines should be utterly discarded in terms of ministerial and missionary training.
And, worse yet, I’m worried that our institutions will seek self-preservation while calling it doctrinal purity. You see, it’s only natural that institutions look out after themselves rather than the Kingdom — and it’s already happening — which is one reason radical change is so hard for us — many of our institutions are too cowardly or self-interested to help lead.
You see, most of our leadership is in our institutions, and yet our institutions will (largely unconsciously) only follow those paths that lead to self-preservation.
If you doubt me, just call up a college president of one of our more conservative universities and ask him to get his institution involved in the debate on who falls from grace. He’ll squirm, make excuses, and ultimately refuse to help. I know.
You see, as desperate as God is for the Churches of Christ to have an internal conversation about who is saved and who really isn’t, most of our colleges see keeping donor dollars and student tuition flowing as more important. And you wonder why so little changes …
PS — Our moderate universities that are trying to straddle the grace-fence are being very short sighted. For a while, avoiding the issues keeps the money coming in, but soon enough, the conservative churches are going to die and the progressive churches are going to stop supporting institutions that weren’t there when they were needed. The smart move, therefore, is to facilitate conversations between the two sides, encouraging dialogue. The actual strategy, however, is denial. It won’t work for long.