The compiler of Churches of Christ in the United States posted a defense of his decision in his blog. I wrote the following response in his comment section. It’s a moderated blog, so it won’t be posted on the internet until approved.
I’m posting here to directly respond to your decision to exclude churches with both instrumental and a cappella services from the directory. Let me explain my thinking, and perhaps you can correct me where I am in error.
The goal of counting congregations and members is to measure what is in fact there. It’s not to measure some entirely arbitrary fact. Rather, good, useful statistics shed light on what they measure. They don’t obscure the underlying reality. Obviously, no group of people can be adequately described by mere numbers, but the numbers matter and have validity if they reflect and illuminate the underlying reality.
Now, in counting members and congregations of a denomination (for want of a better term), boundaries must be drawn. Not all believers and not all immersed believers are properly classified as part of the “Churches of Christ.” However, the boundaries of the Churches of Christ — as is true of all denominations — shift over time. The perceived markers that distinguish “us” from “them” have changed over the years and likely will continue to change. A proper statistical effort reflects today’s boundary markers.
The Churches began as a separate denomination in 1889 (not 1906 as so often stated) with the Sand Creek Address and Declaration by Daniel Sommer. This was the beginning of a new denomination because those who followed Sommer denied any fellowship or brotherhood with the others in the Restoration Movement. They refused to have anything to do with rest of the Movement, making the boundary real.
What were the boundary markers in 1889?
* The “one-man, preacher-pastor as the feeder and watcher over the flock after it had been gathered and established.” In other words, a church should not have a paid preacher after an evangelist has founded the church. The elders and other gifted men should preach.
* A “man-made missionary society with presidents, secretaries, boards of managers, life membership, life directorship and so forth on a money basis.” The local church is the only scripturally approved missionary society, Sommer argued.
* Any “modern, humanly-devised methods of raising money.” In other words, according to Sommer, if the teens have a car wash to raise money to free children caught in slavery, they stand damned. Funds may only be raised by donation. Sommer condemned all “fairs and festivals, pound parties and box-suppers” used to raise money for any cause, no matter how worthy.
* And then, listed last, “But no one ever did or ever can believer [sic] that it is the Lord’s will to play on an instrument in the worship.”
Sommer railed against all four “innovations” and damns over all four. Instrumental music was not the unique or especially defining practice.
If you’d interviewed Sommer immediately after this event, he’d have denied having formed a denomination but would have insisted that the remainder of the Restoration Movement was certainly a denomination — a denomination that had left the Movement. However, at this time, Sommer had relatively few followers, and the statisticians at the US Census took little note of this event.
Of course, by 1906 the split that began in 1889 was fully realized, and so Lipscomb declared the split a reality when asked by the US Census. But his declaration did not cause the division. The division had already happened.
Although the division was real enough to be recognized by the statisticians, the two parts of the Restoration Movement continued to seek unity. Even the Gospel Advocate published notices of periodic unity meetings — until 1939, 50 years after the fracture in the Movement first appeared. At this time H. Leo Boles, then-editor of the Gospel Advocate spoke to a unity meeting and declared unity impossible unless the Christian Churches agreed with the Churches of Christ on three points —
* The missionary society.
No other organization is needed for the conversion of sinners and the sanctification of saints — any other organization is an addition to New Testament teaching and is condemned by the word of God.
Notice the breadth of his condemnation. It’s any organization at all involved in missions other than a congregation.
* The instrument
Boles condemns any use of an instrument of music in worship.
* Using the word “denomination”
In acknowledging itself as a denomination the “Christian Church” betrays the Restoration Movement and surrenders to the enemy the cardinal principles of New Testament teaching.
Thus, in 1939 the boundary markers of the Churches of Christ, in contrast to the Christian Churches, were these three things. For whatever reason, the fights over located preachers and fundraising had been re-thought as no longer being fellowship issues, and the question of being a denomination had been added. The markers moved.
Now, by 1989 the missionary society issue had been nearly forgotten by the man in the pew. And the use of “denomination” no longer seemed a salvation issue. The basis for separation from the Christian Churches was perceived by many to be solely about instrumental music. Indeed, we often taught that the split had been solely about the instrument, which just isn’t true — but it was embarrassing to admit that we left the then-larger Restoration Movement over located preachers, given that we now all have located preachers. We like to think that our reasons for damning each other are built on eternal truths, but the reality is that they often are not.
Now that was a long way of saying that the boundary markers not only moved, they continue to move. And they will likely move again in the future.
So how do we know where the boundaries are today? Well, certainly not by asking why we split in 1889 or 1906 or refused unity in 1939! No, the proper statistical analysis looks to the reality on the ground.
And here’s the reality. The lines of a denomination are actually defined by how people and churches relate to each other. The lines are the lines of fellowship — not necessarily of doctrine. If you read the Handbook of Denominations in the United States, you’ll find very many denominations that are doctrinally identical to others and yet remain distinct denominations. The boundaries aren’t doctrinal. They are more institutional or ecclesiastic. Boundaries are wherever they may be, which isn’t always doctrinal.
In short, boundaries are found by asking such questions as: when a church hires a preacher or a missionary, as a rule, do they hire him from a “Church of Christ” college? Or a Christian Church college? Do they read the Christian Standard or the Christian Chronicle? Do they send their children to Abilene Christian? Or to Cincinnati Christian?
Do they cooperate with other Churches of Christ in supporting missionaries? Or do they cooperate with Christian Churches? Do they support Church of Christ-affiliated disaster recovery efforts and foster family programs? Or Christian Church efforts?
Those are the real boundaries. They always have been. Sommer’s “Address and Declaration” drew a denominational line not because of doctrinal disagreements, but because he decided that the doctrines should be boundaries. Doctrines are only boundaries when we, the members, decide they are.
For the last 100 years, instrumental music was a shortcut, a convenient boundary marker. But it only limited fellowship and cooperation so long as members of the Churches of Christ agreed that it should. They no longer do. There’s a new reality.
You see, my church is a cappella. I attend the Pepperdine Lectureships, and when I’m there, I find speakers and fellow attendees from instrumental Churches of Christ. We are in full and complete fellowship. We are actually more in fellowship with Richland Hills than with several Churches of Christ in my hometown! And so, unless you include the instrumental Churches of Christ, you’re measuring nothing but a ghost of how fellowship used to be. The boundary markers have moved.
Drawing lines in the gray
You appropriately ask,
From the perspective of reporting statistical figures, these half and half congregations do find themselves in a statistical “no-man’s land.” Can they correctly be counted as a cappella? Should they be counted among the instrumental Independent Christian churches as some have openly chosen to do? Should they be counted among the Non-charismatic, Independent churches (Community churches) as some have also chosen to do? How many instrumental services does an a cappella congregation have to offer before it is no longer called a cappella? I think you can see our dilemma.
I propose a simple solution: Ask them.
If a church wishes to no longer be thought of as a Church of Christ and prefers identification with the Christian Churches, send an email to the Christian Church equivalent of yourself notifying them of the new contact and delete them from your database. If they think of themselves as a Church of Christ and act like a Church of Christ other than having instruments of worship, include them and note their instrumental practices. If they wish to be independent, email the guy who counts independent churches, and delete them from your database.
There will be no double counting, no one will be excluded, and your database will reflect reality on the ground.
Good decisions have good effects
The final point deals with the practical effects of the information you’ve gathered.
If you exclude Richland Hills and other instrumental or partly instrumental Churches of Christ, they won’t be included in the electronic mailing list people use to raise funds — for missions, for disaster relief, for foster care, for orphanages, for Christian colleges. I can think of no good reason to burden these good works by making it harder to raise the funds they need to operate.
And unless I badly miss my guess, when the US Census Bureau, the World Almanac, the Handbook of Denominations in the United States, and other consumers of your data compile their own books and databases, they’ll also leave Richland Hills out. After all, if your database doesn’t include them, whose does?
Or will you tell them that there are over 20 churches that you’ve excluded that should nonetheless be treated as part of the Churches of Christ for purposes of the US Census and the like? And when you tell them they are no longer part of the a cappella Churches of Christ but also not part of the Christian Churches, will they conclude that the Restoration Movement has birthed yet another denomination? Will 2009 be the next 1906?
It shouldn’t be. You see, there really is a split going on, but it’s not between instrumental and a cappella churches. It’s between progressive and conservative churches, that is, grace-centered churches and the rest. If there is another split — and I pray it won’t happen — that’s where it will be.
Instrumental music is not the issue that is dividing the Churches of Christ. It’s the scope of grace. If you must draw a line to divide the Churches of Christ, you’ve drawn in the wrong place. But it’s too early to declare that there are two denominations, and by the grace of God, perhaps it will never happen.