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.