What Is a “Church of Christ”?

The point has been well made in the comments here (thanks, CDG) and elsewhere that the numerical decline of the Churches is of far greater significance than the decision of some editor to remove 20 churches from a book that very few people will read (it’s like reading the phone book, you know). It’s true.

But I and the readers of this blog have known for a long time about the decline. Nor is it much of a surprise after decades of being plateaued, with ever-increasing divisiveness and sectarianism. What did we think would happen?

No, the decline is a well-established fact reported here months ago, and I posted a series of articles on how we should deal with the decline. What’s new is —

* Flavil Yeakley has announced the decline as fact, making it much harder for people to continue denying the obvious. A large portion of the Churches has been pretending that we are doing just fine, thank you. And so I hope that this is a step toward escaping our denial.

* 21st Century Christian has long been thought of as progressive publishing house. Their decision to exclude Churches of Christ with instrumental services, even if they also have a cappella services, seems to indicate a change in editorial policy. 

* The publication, Churches of Christ in the United States, has a history that’s more important to the Churches of Christ than many people realize. Were this just a mailing list from any number of publishing houses or colleges, no one would be surprised to see the partly instrumental churches purged. But this publication, well, it used to be special.

The book is published every three years. It used to be called Where the Saints Meet back when it was published by the Firm Foundation. 20th Century Christian picked up the title later and changed the name, to something less sectarian. It’s been edited by Mac Lynn going back at least to the 1980s.

You see, even when the Churches of Christ were going through some truly bitter divisions, this book listed both sides of the division as “saints” or “Churches of Christ.” While much of the Church was damning each other, Where the Saints Meet/Churches of Christ in the United States put both sides in the same directory. One side or the other might get a footnote, showing their doctrinal differences, but both sides were in the book — as a body of saints or a Church of Christ.

As a result, this book has for many years helped us to see each other as part of the same fellowship or same “church” despite all our feuding and fussing. The “antis” may have been dead wrong, but they were in some signficant sense still part of the Church of Christ, we thought. When we spoke of the “denominations,” we meant Baptists and Methodists, but we didn’t mean non-institutional or no-Sunday school Churches of Christ. We were all still family in some sense. We were all still “Churches of Christ.”

Now, it was a divisive, cantankerous, disputatious family — and a family that often denied the salvation of each other — but it was family. And many in the pews, contrary to their preachers’ imploring, never broke fellowship and never damned members of the Churches just because they had a footnote in Where the Saints Meet/Churches of Christ in the United States.

Growing up, my best friends were members of anti-institutional Churches of Christ. We were friends, we argued about doctrine — a lot, and we didn’t damn each other.

And part of this strange brew of familiality and discord was this book, which somehow told us all that we were all family. And it mattered.

I should add that another part of what held us tenuously together is the Christian Chronicle. We have this one book, this one newspaper, common roots in the Stone-Campbell Movement, and a whole bunch of common doctrine and practices.

And so, when Where the Saints Meet/Churches of Christ in the United States purged the partly instrumental churches, well, they’re saying that these churches are even less like us than the non-institutional churches or no-Sunday school churches. And it’s just not true, unless you see a cappella music as somehow the one, unique mark of the Churches of Christ. And some think that way, but it’s a historically uninformed view, as I’ll explain in a future post.

In short, it’s a step toward the complete separation of the progressive and conservative churches. That separation is well underway and the progressive churches aren’t going to return to the conservative camp. It’s as though 21st Century Christian is pushing them out of the door. 

An Issue of Identity

Ask yourself, what is the “Church of Christ”? There are many answers. 

The church of Christ.

There are those who equate “Church of Christ” with “church of Christ” and with “the saints.” That is, they equate the earthly institution, the Church of Christ, with the set of all saved people. 

Those in this camp will see the exclusion of the partly instrumental churches as validating their sectarianism. I’m sure many rejoice both at the purge of these churches and at the consternation of those of us who see this as wrong. 

Denomination.

Another definition of “Church of Christ” is a denomination. And whether we admit it or not, most of us think in those terms. After all, we meet the dictionary definition (which really is how we should use the word) —

a religious group, usually including many local churches, often larger than a sect: the Lutheran denomination.

Random House Unabridged Dictionary (2006). That’s us.

Now it’s not a very tightly worded definition. So let’s stick with common sense. Where in the Yellow Pages is Richland Hills Church of Christ listed? In fact, under “Church of Christ.” I looked.

That means that any outsider would think Richland Hills Church of Christ is a Church of Christ. And we have to figure Richland Hills does, too. Why else list themselves under “Church of Christ.” 

Historical roots.

But within the Churches of Christ, we tend think of the Churches of Christ as those churches that result from Christian Church/Church of Christ split in the Stone-Campbell Movement (or Restoration Movement) culminating around 1906. And Richland Hills can certainly trace its roots into that branch of the movement and has not intentionally left it.

Cooperation.

We in the Churches of Christ don’t cooperate that much or that well. But we do cooperate. We rarely cross certain lines. Non-institutional churches don’t cooperate with institutional churches, but both are in the book. Increasingly conservative and progressive churches don’t cooperate, but they do still cooperate to a degree — and they certainly cooperate within their own fellowships.

To most of us, I think, the real practical definition of “Church of Christ” is based on these circles of cooperation. For example, if my church hosts a “Church of Christ” youth rally, we’ll send invitations to other “Churches of Christ” in the area. We likely won’t send invitations to non-institional churches, not because we question their salvation, but because we know they won’t come. However, we’d certainly include all the so-called mainstream churches, whether conservative or progressive. And if we’re very careful about who we invite to speak and how we handle the music, we’ll get teens from both kinds of Churches of Christ.

That’s the “Church of Christ” for all practical purposes. Who supports our universities? Who supports our missions? Who supports our publishing houses? Who buys our periodicals? Who comes to our youth rallies?

And the fact that a church has added an instrumental service has little to do with such things. They still send their kids to Harding and Abilene, read the Christian Chronicle, and all that.

But the book is just a list of churches that are a cappella!

21st Century Christian has a constitutionally protected right to include or exclude anyone they wish. If they want to publish a book of just purely a cappella churches, it really is their right. But there are consequences.

When Mac Lynn and Flavil Yeakley run numbers on the size of the “Churches of Christ” in the future, the numbers will exclude Richland Hills and other partly instrumental churches. Their numbers will, therefore, understate our numbers and become increasingly irrelevant. The numbers will also overstate how fast we’re declining, because, on the whole, the instrumental churches are growing.

When someone buys the electronic version to put together a mailing list, the instrumental churches will be excluded. And this matters. This decisions places an pointless burden on organizations that need the support of these churches as well as the purely a cappella churches.

When the US Census Bureau tallies the numbers, well, someone will have to confess that we don’t include the instrumental churches, which may well make headlines. It’ll be 1906 all over again — and some will celebrate. Yes, there are those in the Churches of Christ who celebrate division. Will the book’s editors declare the partly instrumental congregations a new denomination?

And there will be countless among us who are encouraged in their sectarianism by this decision, ratified as it is by one of most prominent, progressive publishing houses.

This is what I find so appalling — 21st Century Christian, for a profit, has offered encouragement and endorsement to those with deeply sinful, sectarian attitudes.

It’s just wrong.

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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6 Responses to What Is a “Church of Christ”?

  1. Tim Archer says:

    Jay,

    I beg you to bring a bit of reason to the hysteria that has circulated about the 21st Century directory. Read the introduction to the directory, if you have one. Read the website about the directory. Read the Christian Chronicle article, especially the compiler's comments.

    It is a directory of a cappella churches within the Restoration Movement. I understand some people not understanding that, but Jay, you have always shown a great use of logic, apart from emotionalism. We may not like what the directory is, but they have faithfully followed the definition of what the directory is.

    There are plenty of people who have acted judgmentally as regards Richland HIlls. If we want to react against that, we're targeting the wrong publication.

    Grace and peace,
    Tim

  2. Jay,
    Thanks for your post. It disturbs me greatly to see the differences in our brotherhood highlighted. One can only speculate as to the intentions of 21st Century Christian. The results of their actions only highlight the differences that exist among us. We self-righteously stand behind our interpretation of the things we believe God intends. Arrogance hiding behind hermaneutics is not good. Instead of highlighting our differences our fellowship needs a stout dose of humility. Thanks for all you do.

  3. Jay Guin says:

    Tim,

    The website says,

    Whether you are traveling, planning a mission effort, interested in church history, or needing to contact a congregation anywhere in the U.S. (including Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and other U.S. territories), this is an important reference for your family. This data that has been gathered and processed since 1973 represents a continuing effort to provide a compilation of current information relative to those congregations aligned with the “Restoration Movement” which are known for their a cappella worship.

    It's does not say it lists only those Churches of Christ that are exclusively a cappella. It does say the directory should be used for "planning a mission effort," that is, for fund raising.

    The Chronicle reports,

    When asked why the 2009 directory didn’t simply adopt an “instrumental” designation instead of excluding churches, Royster said that doing so would compromise the accuracy of the publication as a statistical record of a cappella churches.

    Hmm …. I still don't buy it. After all, they later admit,

    “What’s happened is you’ve got a few churches in no man’s land,” Lynn said.

    In other words, some churches won't be listed in the directories of any branch of the Restoration Movement. Which would be more accurate — a book that includes the instrumental Churches of Christ, with an instrumental note. Or excluding them from the statistical records of all 3 branches? Are we to now create a fourth branch with its own list?

    Now, it would maybe make sense if someone outside of the Churches of Christ cared to have a list of entirely a cappella churches. But, of course, the interest in the question is purely internal. And this book is an important part of how we present ourselves to the world around us.

    The Churches of Christ today are no more defined by being a cappella than they are defined by their opposition to missionary societies (most members have no idea what that controversy was about, even though it drove the division as much or more than the music issue).

    No, the compilers' explanation doesn't change the facts. The book used to be a unifying force. It symbolized our ability to recognize one another even when we disagree.

    Now the book is a fetish of an shrinking subset of the Churches of Christ — those who deny that instrumental churches are a part of us.

    Worse yet, this book is the unofficial record of who we are. Statisticians use it. It's a lot like, say, the US Census.

  4. mattdabbs says:

    We could just divide even more and have 2 "official" directories. 🙂 I agree that the numbers need to be representative of Churches of Christ in order to be accurate.

    If this distinction is to be made clear there needs to be a change in title. It needs to be re-titled to "Acapella Churches of Christ in the United States". That would clear things up and they could go about their business with no complaints from anyone. As it stands it does seem to be out of place to title the book that way if in fact it is only going to be listing a subset of "Churches of Christ" that are non-instrumental. Let's just call it like it is and let everyone go home happy. Then people who purchase it or purchase the CD for mailing lists can know exactly what they are getting and be clear about their need to track down which churches were left out and what their contact information is. I will even put a post on my blog or create something online as a supplement to the directory to inform people of the contact information of those churches because let's face it, people do want to know how to contact those churches to ask for support or to visit when they travel.

    Sound reasonable?

  5. Lori Raymie says:

    We are to be obedient to God’s promises, the gospel, the mssg to be saved. We learned about these in the second chapter of Acts. Of course we have to hear the message, believe, repent, confess and be baptised into christ to be raised with him and recieve the promised Holy Spirit and then continue in faith. The message does not say anything about instraments or singing for that matter, sun school, etc…. I really believe in my heart of hearts and through reading the scriptures that these other things are disputable matters that christians should not be divided on. The basic steps to obey and be added to his kingdom are very straightforward and not disputable in any of our minds.

    Peace to all true christians-take joy in your gift

    ps. I left the coc because of this kind of stuff and am now looking for a christian church that teaches correctly in Surprise arizon or close–I have no idea how to find one because most ‘christian churches’ here are evangelical influenced. my heart is breaking–

  6. Bruce Morton says:

    Lori:
    I have approached the question of instrumental music a bit differently than has typically been the case within the Restoration Movement. Some of this is included in a recent publication from 21st Century Christian (I am the author).

    Glad to send you a copy of the publication as a gift to you. I believe you will find of interest. If you are interested, please send me an email at MortonBLSL7 at earthlink dot net.

    In Christ,
    Bruce Morton
    Katy, Texas

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