The books on how to teach adult Bible classes all say you need to end with an application: how do we apply these lessons to our lives? It’s good to gain a perspective from history because it helps us separate culture from command and accident from design. That doesn’t tell us what to do with the conclusions.
We’ve seen that the 20th Century Churches of Christ were the very opposite of the movement that Stone and the Campbells worked to establish, with the original teachings misrepresented, suppressed, and ultimately forgotten. For a time, we pretended to have no history at all — as though somehow the church founded by Peter in AD 33 lept across the pages of history to the present with no intervening events at all — other than a series of digressions by “the denominations.” It’s just not true.
More recently, many have sought to wrap themselves in the cloak of Restorationism, as though being in the Restoration Movement had always been about restoring First Century practices, rather than First Century unity built on faith in Jesus.
It’s easy to become a bit arrogant and look down on our spiritual fathers of the last century as though they accomplished nothing of merit. But here we are in a Church of Christ Bible class — not a Baptist or Methodist Bible class — and we should ask ourselves why we’re here? What did the 20th Century Churches of Christ get right?
* Bracketed materials are suggested answers for the teacher’s benefit.
[Successful avoidance of theological liberalism, with nearly 100% acceptance of Jesus as being the Messiah, the Son of God, come in the flesh, crucified, and bodily resurrected. There are surely a handful of exceptions in a multi-million person denomination, but the Churches have weathered the heresies that infected many quite well.]
[Strong emphasis on personal evangelism, missions, and church planting. Many Bible schools and hospitals founded in other countries.]
[Strong emphasis on Bible education, with many universities and private schools founded.]
[Although we’ve historically emphasized missions far more than benevolence, some excellent work has been done in the area of benevolence — orphanages, foster care programs, and disaster relief efforts all have deep roots in our history.]
[Strong emphasis on personal Bible study.]
[True understanding of baptism being designed for believers and to be by immersion (although this good conclusion is greatly harmed by the sectarian tendency to treat all with a false understanding of baptism as damned, as though we are saved by faith in baptism)]
[Strong emphasis on personal participation in congregational worship (but greatly harmed by the false notion that instrumental music or any other perceived error damns]
[Our rejection of denominationalism is right, although in the 20th Century we went about in the wrong way. The original plea — still remembered — is: “We will be Christians only but not the only Christians.” It still rings true. We just need to stop treating committed believers in Jesus meeting in other churches in town as enemies of Jesus. They’re not.]
[Weekly communion is the First Century practice. It’s not a salvation issue, but there is wisdom in the practice, as it helps moves the service away from a “vertical” event focuses solely on God and a lesson more toward a balance of vertical and “horizontal” — it’s just that this event, designed to have strong horizontal meaning, has been distorted into a private meditation performed in the presence of other private meditators.]
[The model of elder leadership is Biblical and sound. Many other kinds of churches are moving in this direction, but they usually do so by giving the staff more leeway than most Churches of Christ do. We need the vital synergism of a well-trained, full-time staff and an eldership that knows how to get out of the way without abdicating.]
[Congregational autonomy is sound when it doesn’t lead to isolation from or competition with other churches in town. We’ve taken it too far, but the model can be quite powerful when done well.]
So what is the plan going forward? What needs to change?
[We have to get our theology of salvation right. God saves those who have faith in Jesus and are faithful to him (not sinless and not doctrinally perfect).]
[When we get our theology of salvation right, we soon see that God’s priority is not doctrinal purity or even moral purity (although these are important). God’s priority is mission — and this redefines everything.]
[We have to get past the compartmentalization of life, where we see church as something to balance with work, family, etc. Rather, we have to all come to see life as being about mission, and mission absorbing and redefining all of life. We need to stop being Westerners who go to the right church and become citizens of heaven, parts of the body of Christ, on mission to a lost and hurting world.]
[We need to work collaboratively with other churches in town — not just Churches of Christ — to honor God’s mission.]
[We need to move toward a model of doing benevolence that is more cooperative and less program-driven. Every member needs to have a place in God’s mission.]
[We need to take the New Testament’s teaching on “neither Jew nor Greek” and be at the forefront of racial reconciliation — white and black/Anglo and Hispanic — whatever racial or ethnic divides there are in our communities. The notion of “white” and “black” or “Korean” churches should be seen as the affront to the crucifixion of Jesus that they are. Racial segregation in church needs to be seen as shameful.]
What does this mean for the progressive Churches of Christ as a movement? Do we move forward as Churches of Christ of a different kind? Do we become non-denominational community churches? Do we remain connected to Church of Christ institutions?
Many progressive Churches of Christ have left the Churches altogether, changing names and abandoning our institutions. Others have changed names while remaining active in our institutions. Others have kept the name while adding instrumental services. Others keep the name, teach a better theology, and try to reach out to conservatives looking for a better relationship with God.
Should we form yet another denomination? Should we merge with the independent Christian Churches? Should we abandon all denominational ties and be truly independent?
[class to discuss]