Garrett’s fifth wish for the Churches of Christ is —
Let us become part of the body of Christ at large, cooperating with other Christians in the work of redeeming the world.
We can do this without surrendering any truth we hold, and without approving of any error on the part of others. We can work with other believers, not because we agree on every doctrinal issue, but because of our common devotion to Jesus Christ. …
As we experience unity in mutual service with other Christians, we may all come to see the inappropriateness of our sects and denominations. Like Barton W. Stone, we may eventually be willing to say of our own Churches of Christ, “Let this body die, be dissolved, and sink into union with the body of Christ at large.” When that day comes — no more denominations, just the body of Christ — we will have realized the dream of our pioneers.
There are certain tensions here we’d do well to acknowlege.
First, if a church that agrees with Garrett too quickly surrenders its identity as a Church of Christ, it loses much its influence within the Churches of Christ. If the progressive-minded leaders all leave, what will happen to those left behind?
Second, if a church too quickly leaves the Churches of Christ, important institutions lose essential support. If we’re not thoughtful about this, we can leave missionaries, campus ministries, and church plants, for example, stranded and bankrupt.
Third, if a church too quickly leaves the Churches of Christ, it may not have had time to figure out what God wants it to be. I mean, knowing you want to leave the sectarianism of the past hardly defines your mission for the future.
Now, “leaving” means different things in different contexts. If a church changes its name to avoid a local stigma associated with “Church of Christ,” the church may well still be highly involved in inter-church efforts, missions, etc. I really have no problem with churches that adopt a new name but continue to be involved in the Church of Christ community. I have far more trouble with churches that keep the name and do nothing with other churches (including those conservative churches that contribute nothing to the community of congregations).
Ultimately, I think the most important reason to continue to cooperate and work with other Churches of Christ is to have influence within the Churches. There will come a point where that need disappears — but it’s not quite now.
All that being said, nothing prevents our working closely with other churches — not just Churches of Christ — today. Readers from evangelical churches may well be thinking they’ve been doing this for years — and they have. However, I think we should all be doing even better.
Rather than having a countywide Baptist association, for example, we should have a local association of all willing Christian churches. Rather than the Methodists in the county getting together to coordinate evangelistic efforts, all the churches would work together this way.
Now, my home county already has some of this. It’s involved in disaster relief and in cooperative efforts to strengthen marriage. But it doesn’t coordinate local evangelistic efforts. That only happens at the denominational level. And it doesn’t do much to coordinate relief for the poor and needy. Some churches do this on an ad hoc basis, but there’s no countywide coordinating effort.
My admittedly limited observation is that we all tend to put more energy into our denominational affiliations than into our local community of churches — and the result is a very weak effort local effort for evangelism and benevolence. And the numbers confirm that conclusion.
If we were to actually work together locally and intensely, there would be huge, difficult transitions from denomination-centered works to community-centered works, but I think this would be a big step toward Kingdom mission.
This would not be the end of denominations. But it would greatly limit what is done at the denominational level. For example, imagine that all churches (not just Churches of Christ) in Tuscaloosa County sponsored a lectureship much like the Pepperdine lectureships. We’d have more people attend from West Alabama than Pepperdine gets from across the globe! There are far fewer Christians in Tuscaloosa County than in the Churches of Christ, but because the effort would be local, organized by people we know, it would do very well indeed.