The Standard writes,
If a church or ministry in our movement chooses to, it’s easy for them to operate as a “free agent.” There are church planters who have started independent Christian churches and yet seem reluctant to affiliate with our fellowship in any real way. …
Our church plants and megachurches would do well to remember that any success they enjoy is due in part to the fact that they stand on the shoulders of men and women who paved the way to create the autonomy and creativity that today propels our movement forward.
Free agents have a self-centered approach to loyalty. They seldom give back. I have no reservation about asking our church planters to subscribe to brotherhood publications, attend our conventions, give back to their church planting associations, and support our institutions and missionaries.
Good stuff. I agree. Well, I agree in part. But there’s something not quite right here, and I’ve been struggling to put my finger on it for months even before this article was written.
I mean, obviously enough, if we don’t support our own missionaries and our own universities and our own publications, well, they’ll fail and we won’t have them anymore. And that would be bad.
But we need to take a big step back. Before we start demanding loyalty to the “brotherhood,” we need to remind ourselves who the brothers really are, right? You see, old habits are hard to shake. For many of us, for most of our lives, we in the Churches of Christ were the only saved people — and not all of us. Just those in that part of the Churches that agreed on “fellowship” issues — a list that grew with each issue of our periodicals!
Now that we’re getting away from this exclusivism, we have to re-learn what the “brotherhood” is. It’s all who are saved by faith in Jesus — which is a lot bigger than our little slice of the Christian world, isn’t it?
And yet there’s a purpose in having “our” colleges and publications. Well, some of them (there are those that we could really do much better without). I mean, we do have some doctrines and practices that separate us from the rest of the Christian community. We are a little different on baptism, and we’re right. We don’t want to start teaching error on this or denying what we think the Bible says.
And we really do believe that the apostles started weekly communion. We really aren’t planning on becoming Calvinists. And lots of other stuff. We aren’t the same as all our fellow Christians, but we’re the same about what matters most: faith in Jesus.
The other stuff is not trivial. But neither should it divide. And that’s a hard thought to hang on to.
And so, let me suggest a few thoughts.
First, church autonomy, as practiced in the Restoration Movement, isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
You see, we don’t practice Biblical autonomy. We practice isolation, and it’s an isolation that at times is downright hateful. I mean, in most towns, there are multiple Restoration Movement churches that enjoy virtually no fellowship — and even where we consider each other saved, well, that just makes that other church part of the competition. I mean, we almost never truly cooperate within the same community.
Our elders never meet to pray or — better yet — study the Bible together. Our preachers may meet for lunch, but not to coordinate ministry, to plan the evangelization of the town, or the like.
As a result, we get along much better with churches in other towns than in our own towns — which plainly brands us as sinners, doesn’t it?
Second, denominations serve legitimate, vital purposes.
We’ve spent the last 150 years damning denominationalism — all the while working very effectively to become a denomination, and to some extent, for good reason.
You see, having our own colleges and universities, our own publishing houses, and our own periodicals is important, because we have needs different from other denominations. We have our own issues to be addressed that are quite different from the issues the Baptists or Methodists, for example, need to wrestle with.
Even if we acknowledge the salvation of those outside our Movement, we still need a certain, healthy separation. We are quite naturally going to want to plant churches that take communion and baptize and otherwise teach as we think the Bible teaches. We want our missionaries to teach our doctrine because, well, we think it’s right.
But this doesn’t mean that we repeat the sin of our congregations and isolate ourselves from our brothers in the other denominations. Rather, just as our congregations should be doing in their home towns, at the denominational level we need to be looking for ways to work and study together with others. We even need to merge denominations when we can agree on enough things.
But we don’t need to seek unity by ecumenical means. Unity cannot come from the top down. It won’t work. Rather, unity can only come congregation by congregation, as we reach out to our brothers in our home towns and learn to work together in the Kingdom.
Of course, we can’t even work with each other at home! We are just terrible at this, but we can do better. Just as the Stone movement and Campbell movement merged congregation by congregation, we can unite Christ’s church by first doing so in our home towns. The denominational institutions will figure out how to catch up later.
Third, in practice, unity comes from a common vision
You know all these great books we’ve been reading about church leadership, about having a vision, and all that? Well, apply those lessons at the denominational level and see what happens!
In a denomination organized autonomously, it’s not easy to create a common vision. We used to do it through our periodicals, but the Churches of Christ don’t have any that can take such a task on.
Nonetheless, the progressive Churches of Christ are muddling along, largely through books and lectureships. It’s not enough. It won’t hold things together for long, but it’s all we have right now.
Anyway, the universities are in a position to help the Churches think through the vision thing. They can host lectureships and publish books that ask what we need to be doing as a body — what should be the uniting vision of the Churches of Christ (or the Churches of Christ and independent Christian Churches)?
It’s not an easy question. I have an idea or two, but I’d rather leave it as a question for now. If we aren’t the people saved by a cappella music, who are we?
Or should we abandon our history and our community and drift into a unbranded evangelicalism? There’s a case to be made for that as well, you know.