The Fork in the Road: The Four Streams

In an earlier post, I quoted some excerpts from a recent article in the Tennessean newspaper about the rise of the progressive Churches of Christ. The article quoted one source as saying the progressive Churches are creating a “a fourth stream of the Restoration movement, distinct from Churches of Christ and other groups.”

Gregory Alan Tidwell commented,

This talk of a “Fourth Stream” is exactly the point I was addressing in the “You Know It Is A Different Religion When…’ series in the Gospel Advocate which you enjoyed so much.

I always find it interesting that when conservatives observe that some congregations and institutions no longer believe what they use to believe and that these changes constitute a division, the conservatives are derided as being hateful and mean spirited.


Having slept on it, I need to retract and restate my earlier response to your comment. I’d rather say —

Would a historian say the Restoration Movement has divided into four streams? Maybe. We’re in a time of transition, and only God knows where it will end. But I know where I hope it ends. The goal should be to pursue the dreams of such men as Barton W. Stone and the Campbells to re-unite all streams of Christianity into one.

The 20th Century Churches of Christ sought to accomplish that by declaring every nuance of their ecclessiology to be a salvation issue and then calling the denominational world to leave the denominations and join the Churches by having the right marks of the church.

But the Churches were (and are) in constant disagreement over what the true marks of the church really are and so spent the last century in constant division. Which subset of the Churches were the denominations to join so as to be united? Which subset is the one, true church? Even the so-called “mainstream” Churches are wrangling and dividing over issues that 20 years ago weren’t considered salvation issues.

The original Stone-Campbell idea was to unite by rejecting all marks of the church other than faith in Jesus, a penitent heart (a genuine desire and willingness to obey God’s will), and baptism (as well as understood by the convert). Period. And this is, I believe, the right plan because it’s the scriptural plan.

Moreover, I believe that those who insist on setting up such disputable issues as instrumental music and elder re-affirmation as salvation issues are making the same mistake as those who made circumcision a mark of the church. They also seek justification other than by faith, and so are in very real danger of falling from grace. Therefore, it’s imperative that the 20th Century “marks of the church” doctrine be rejected and that we return to the biblical doctrine of justification by faith.

While I can’t speak for all Churches of Christ that consider themselves progressive, the trend is for progressive Churches of Christ to consider themselves a part of the one, true church that consists of all baptized, penitent believers — even if their faith in Jesus, penitence, or baptism is short of perfect — and to therefore flee works salvation.

The progressive “stream” thus is not a division at all, but an effort to unite with all who’ve been justified on these terms — regardless of denomination. Indeed, I’m confident that the progressive “stream” will not find unity with the independent Christian Churches a sufficient stopping point. The goal isn’t a change of denominational affiliation but to escape denominationalism altogether.

That view necessarily creates some separation from those Churches of Christ that are caught up in the Galatian heresy. But it’s a reluctant separation that we wish to bridge through loving dialogue. After all, the division results from being disfellowshipped by sister congregations that we’d far prefer to remain in fellowship with. I don’t know of a single progressive Church that has ever disfellowshipped a sister congregation of the Churches of Christ. Rather, the conservative Churches of Christ, entangled in a works theology, feel compelled to “mark” and disfellowship the progressive Churches — even branding them “another religion” — as though they weren’t even Christian.

Yes, the progressive Churches have deep theological differences with the conservative Churches. No, that doesn’t make the progressive Churches divisive. Being different doesn’t necessarily produce division. Differences only produce division when one side or the other declares the division a fellowship issue. As Alexander Campbell wrote in the Christian Baptist of 1826, “I have no idea of adding to the catalogue of new sects. I labor to see sectarianism abolished and all Christians of every name united upon the one foundation upon which the apostolic church was founded.” Amen.

It’s nearly meaningless to talk about the progressive Churches “merging” with the independent Christian Churches, because there’s no way for autonomous congregations to effect such a merger. We simply recognize that we have a lot in common and can work together in many ways. They are our brothers and sisters in Christ — but not just them.

At the same time, we find that we can seek and save the lost and bring God’s compassion to the poor and hurting together with lots of other churches in town — not just Restoration Movement churches. You see, it’s not about two, three, or four streams. The goal is for the streams to flow into a single river —

(Psa 46:4)  There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy place where the Most High dwells.

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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15 Responses to The Fork in the Road: The Four Streams

  1. Royce says:

    Beautifully said Jay.


  2. Rich says:

    A fourth stream seems to be the best description of what is happening regardless of the stated intent. Progressives have a passion to be different from the 'church of Christ' stream and don't seem to want to join the 'Independent Christian Church' stream even though the similarities are strong.

    Not uniting with an existing stream is creating a new one. Alas, another division, only this time smack dab down the middle. Regardless of the rhetoric concerning the evil of splits, It's been over a hundred years since such a large division has occurred.

  3. Amen and amen Jay. I believe we could learn a lot about respecting differences from Richard Foster's group Renovare. They seek to learn from and integrate all of the streams of the Church.

  4. If there is a "fourth stream," what are the four streams?

    For example, is the International Churches of Christ one of the streams?

  5. Bob Harry says:


    The forth stream sounds funny to me. How many steams already exist in the badly divided COC. I counted 38 at one time.
    Give nme a break.


  6. One Cup Man says:

    Well done Jay. Conservative churches (CofC) will not change their approach until they understand that salvation is theocentric rather than egocentric. When a person understands the difference change will come. The we're right you are wrong can't let you lead a song will stop.

  7. Guy says:


    Have you read The Deliverance of God by Douglas Campbell (Or N.T. Wright's book on Paul, for that matter)? You hinge a lot on a certain view of "justification by faith." i've suspected for sometime that a lot of modern-majority views on this matter come from the Reformation and not from Paul or Christ. i'm very slowly cracking my way into Campbell's work; i definitely don't agree with all Campbell posits, but i think he's challenging the right things. And if he is, most if not all of our talk about "faith vs. works" and "legalism" and "personal salvation" (regardless of which 'side' you argue) is really fabricated rather than biblically derived.


  8. Jay Guin says:


    Just last week, I was on the phone with Stadia, an church planting parachurch organization within the independent Christian Churches, talking about planting a church in Alabama.

    I'm not sure how you'd "merge" the ICC and progressive CoCs, as they are autonomous congregations — but in practice, the groups are consolidating their efforts in many ways.

    The Christian Standard (leading ICC magazine) routinely prints articles from the progressive Churches.

    The merger is well underway.

    The early Restoration Movement's history is filled with stories of similar "mergers," as the leadership worked diligently to reduce the number of sects. Sadly, once the RM's theology changed from grace to legalism, the RM created dozens of new sects.

    A "stream" is not defined by name but by working fellowship, and the progressive CoC and ICC are in working fellowship. The conservative Churches are subdivided into dozens of working fellowships.

    There's a difference.

  9. Jay Guin says:


    You make a good point. Historians may find it convenient to subdivide based on names or such like, but what I call "working fellowship" is the truer test of how many sects there are.

    I'm sure the historian quoted in the article was speaking of the Disciples of Christ denomination, the independent Christian Churches, and conservative and progressive CoCs.

    But, of course, some within the former ICOC are very much a different stream. So are the non-institutional churches. Etc. Etc.

    Now that it appears that elder re-affirmation and the Spirit's indwelling have become salvation issues, there are even more streams than before.

    Four is not nearly a big enough number.

  10. Jay Guin says:


    I’m not sure which of NT Wright's books on Paul you mean, but I've read several of them. Good stuff.

    And I agree that our faith/works discussions are very Reformation/Reformed oriented and often not very biblical. Notice how little interaction with the text you find in the comments re Perseverance — on both sides.

  11. Randall says:

    Regarding divisions within the CofC, I believe about 25 years ago Leroy Garrett identified six as follows: 1. Mainstream CofC 2. Anti Cooperation CofC aka Non Institutional CofC 3. No Sunday School CofC 4. One Cup CofC , he actually described it as simply being opposed to individual cups, but may use more than one cup if the fellowship was large enough to require more than a single cup 5. Premillennial CofC primarily in Kentucky 6. Black CofC

    I do not recall why the International CofC was not included at that time. So now I guess we could add more "streams" if the ones mentioned in your post are actually becoming separate fellowships. More than a little sad for a unity movement to have become so divided.

  12. Jay Guin says:



    It's particularly wicked for us to be divided along racial lines.

    If you noticed the recent list of apostates being profiled at Contending for the Faith — — then everyone who agrees with one of the books published there is damned — even Dave Miller, for having the audacity to support elder re-affirmation.

    Well, there have to be dozens — maybe hundreds — of possible ways one might agree or disagree with the various "apostasies."

    So you have the elder re-affirmation stream and the no-elder-re-affirmation stream.

    And you have the Edward Fudge conditionalism stream and the anti-Fudge stream.

    Then there's Osburn's views on women.

    There are 8 ways in which one might agree or disagree with those three doctrines ( 2 cubed). And evidently we have to damn all with whom we disagree.

    In the Contending for the Faith worldview, there are LOTS more streams.

  13. Hank says:

    Jay, you wrote:

    "While I can’t speak for all Churches of Christ that consider themselves progressive, the trend is for progressive Churches of Christ to consider themselves a part of the one, true church that consists of all baptized, penitent believers — even if their faith in Jesus, penitence, or baptism is short of perfect — and to therefore flee works salvation."

    What do you mean exactly when you say, "…even if their faith in Jesus, penitence, or baptism is short of perfect"? On one hand, you say that the true church consists of ALL "baptized" believers, but you then add that their baptism does not need to be "perfect."

    I mean, are we at least talking about believers who have been immersed in order to obey God? Or, would you say that the true church includes those who have not been baptized (immersed) at all, but who had merely been sprinkled with water? ( such as most Catholics, Methodists, etc.)

    Just wondering.

  14. Stan says:

    Bishop Jay,

    I worship with one of these progressive churches in Texas. There has been a move here in the direction of the progressives for some time…but it isn't discussed outright. Well I''m not invited to those discussions. It has been a slow movement . . . but also seems to be a deliberate movement. I haven't been able to verbalize what has happened until I started reading your blog.

    I now know that my church home has become a congregation that seeks to be just as you described . . . "rejecting all marks of the church other than faith in Jesus, a penitent heart (a genuine desire and willingness to obey God’s will), and baptism (as well as understood by the convert). Period."

    Over the years, those who were not comfortable have removed themselves and attend "more faithful" congregations. It scared me for some time. I was raised to be a guardian of the truth. You know the type. It is a heavy heavy load. Did I say heavy? I was Mr. Cautious. But I also have always believed that there may be others who see things more clearly than I…that are smarter than I . . . and the alternatives seemed worse . . . so I stuck it out and kept listening . . . and reading . . . and thinking . . . and praying.

    For a while . . . I stuck out like a sore thumb. There was a time when most no one would look me in the eye. There are still some that won't. But no one has showed me the door. They have all beenl quietly waiting for me to "get it."

    And I'm so glad I did. Not the sore thumb part…but the sticking it out part. I'm starting to get it. I love my church! . . . and I'm gonna love my brothers and sisters all the more! Your blog has helped contribute to my understanding. I have been enriched. Thank you for your blog and all the work you put into it. I am amazed at your productivity. And thank you to those of you who post comments. You have all played a part in my spiritual growth.

    Yes the goal is for the streams to flow into the single river God intended. And thank you John Mark Hicks . . . if you are listening.

  15. Todd Collier says:

    For the Grognard in all of us:

    The three streams are:
    Acappella CoC
    Independent CoC/Christian
    Disciples of Christ

    An emerging fourth stream would be the progressive Acappella CoC's.

    Related are the United Church of Christ (A portion of whom left Stone rather than follow Campbell) and the ICOC. The UCC is among the most liberal – I mean really liberal – Bible doubting, anything goes – denominations. The ICOC arose out of the "Cross Roads" controversy in the early 1980's and achieved cult status by the end of that decade. In the past decade they have somewhat mainstreamed and aside from a connection to HQ have much in common with the progressive congregations.

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