For some time now, I’ve advocated for all churches in a given community — across denominational lines — to join forces to pursue God’s mission in that community as a single body. I think the cure for denominational division isn’t the ecumenical movement, but local churches working together.
Edward Fudge recently mentioned a 1984 article by Elizabeth Achtemeier, “Covenanting: New Directions for Ecumenism,” written near the collapse of the COCU, a failed effort of several denominations to merge despite Reformation-type disagreements. She concluded with some insights that are well worth repeating.
Denominations were important in bringing the Christian faith to the variegated areas of American life, especially to the frontier. Their value now is by no means as clear. Because their structure is organized to secure the preservation and extension of the larger institution, congregations that take their primary identity from their denominations cannot relate to the total life of a community. Thus, denominational organization tends to make congregations a force of division rather than of reconciliation in their communities. The result of this fragmentation is that denominationally defined local churches do not feel ultimately responsible for representing God’s reign in or to their area.
If we see our task is to further the goals of the Churches of Christ and to support its institutions, the task of ministering to our home towns is diminished. It’s hard to find the resources and time to do both.
To serve communities effectively, congregations need to be oriented to the needs of an area, assuming holistic pastoral responsibility for their immediate environment. They must exercise a priesthood for their communities, being the church for a particular place. This can only happen if their primary associations are with other groups of Christians in their immediate neighborhood, not with a denominational officer, or with other congregations of the same denomination many miles away.
If our work with other churches in our communities, for our communities, is first, then we’ll serve our communities. Are we an outpost for the Church of Christ in Tuscaloosa, meant to serve fellow members here, or are we an outpost for God’s kingdom bent on serving all people?
In recent years COCU conducted experiments in joint mission and worship among local congregations — experiments which made clear the value and possibility of such a concept of congregational mission and identity. The consultation learned that a group of congregations, bound together by covenant and regular eucharistic worship, can more effectively address community problems than can those divided by their denominational identities.
And the idea’s been tried! The churches joined in “covenant” across denominational lines to serve their communities together — not waiting on the day when all Baptists and Methodists would be converted to our way of thinking and not waiting for some national merger effort. Just walk across the street, agree to work together, and together seek God’s will for how to bring his redemptive work to Tuscaloosa.
But this works best when the churches share worship and eucharist — when they enjoy table fellowship as one.
If congregations are to be such a sign, firstfruit and instrument of God’s purpose of reconciliation in any place, it is vital that they have a sense of being one people in worship and service, in association with other Christian congregations in the area — not in isolation from or in competition with them. What emerges is a new ecclesial identity as a “household” of local congregations, defined as Christians together meeting the needs of a particular place. … Uniformity in such interrelatedness is not necessary: the activity of the Holy Spirit is seldom very orderly.
If we stop competing with each other and instead cooperate in a unified, unifying mission, we become a common household. We’ll know and serve alongside Methodists and Baptists and all sorts of other people whose differences don’t matter in a soup kitchen.
Establishing a covenanting relationship with other churches is not “cheap ecumenism.” A change in identity is required; intentionally becoming a sign to a broken human race demands communal strength. COCU denominations will accept these challenges only as they realize that being baptized into Christ and the cross really does signify an abandonment of self and the acceptance of a new identity.
One thing is certain: it is in the cross, and the weakness and defeat it represents. that the power of God was and will be made manifest. It is to that cross that Jesus wishes to draw all people. And it is at the foot of that cross that each of us will recognize and experience our oneness with him and with each other.
She concludes by pointing out the centrality of the cross and the surrender of our identities at the foot of the cross in order to show the lost world a single church living as Jesus lived.
While this kind of thinking is foreign to the Churches of Christ, we have some natural advantages. Because we have no denominational authority, we don’t have to ask permission or create committees to write position papers. All we have to do is walk across the street to the other churches in town and invite them to join us in ministry.
Now, it’s already true that many churches in many cities cross denominational lines to work together — but rarely is it for more than a weekend or two. Rarely do their leaders gather to put together a common strategy for participating in God’s mission in their city. They might agree to jointly sponsor an inner city ministry — but do they lay all their outreach efforts on the table and suggest that they all be coordinated? Are these token efforts to symbolize unity — or are they utter unity in action?
I don’t know whether Tuscaloosa is in any sense typical, but we have fairly cordial relationships with other churches in town — other than the other Churches of Christ. But we’re never notified or consulted when a denomination plants a new church in town. For all they know, we were planning to plant a church across the street. We don’t discuss how to meet the city’s medical needs or the needs of the poor.
In short, cooperative efforts exist, but they are minimal — largely symbolic. But they demonstrate that more could be done. And if a Church of Christ were to initiate the effort, who could say no?