The Future of the Progressive Churches of Christ: The Christian Standard’s June 13, 2010 Issue, Part 2

Article by LeRoy Lawson

LeRoy Lawson is an international consultant with Christian Missionary Fellowship International, an agency that supports foreign missions. He writes,

1. We have made our point and it has been adopted by many who are not “us.” We do not now own the movement for restoring New Testament Christianity—if we ever did; and we’re no longer isolated from the larger Christian world—which we certainly were at one time. We find Restorationist soul mates scattered throughout the national and international church scene.

2. We don’t have a distinguishable brand. As has often been pointed out, “Restoration Movement” is a terrible label. So is “Stone-Campbell Movement,” since most people even within the movement don’t know about either Stone or the Campbells. To quote Professor Fred Norris, “Our distinctive is that we have no distinctives.” So, as I said, “they” have trouble figuring out who “we” are

3. We have outlived our enemies—and as a result have a dimmed sense of identity. Some of “us” have trouble figuring out who “we” are. By 1928 we knew we were not Disciples of Christ, not a capella churches of Christ, not Fundamentalists, not Pentecostals, not even Evangelicals. Instead, we boasted, we are “Christians only”—and don’t you forget it!

So we were energized and scrappy and sure of ourselves when we were fighting—Baptists, denominations in general, erring fellow Restorationists, and more. But without a fight, who are we?

4. We have a generation gap—a definite reason for our dealing with this issue today. Younger leaders are taking their cues from each other, not their forefathers. They’re convinced they face different challenges from any faced by those who have gone before them.

In short, we’ve been defined by our enemies — and this is certainly true of the Churches of Christ. The conservative Churches expend vast energies drawing lines between themselves and their perceived enemies. The progressive Churches went through a time of defining themselves in contrast to the conservative Churches — but that time is quickly passing.

As Lawson reminds me, my children have no interest in the conservative/progressive issue because they grew up in a progressive Church. They aren’t interested in rehearsing the old arguments from another generation.

Without other churches as enemies, who are we? Can we define ourselves by something other than our opponents within the community of believers?

Here are 10 specific values we have to offer within the larger Christian enterprise:

1. There is value in nondenominational connectedness.

I stress both: nondenominational stance, and connectedness. Interde-pendence [sic], not independence.

In this very secular and too, too religious world, individual Christians and churches, even individual denominations, aren’t strong enough to be effective alone.

I agree entirely. The Restoration Movement is no more self-sufficient than my right arm is self-sufficient.

2. There is value in not being merely Evangelical, especially since Evangelicalism has become so politicized. We must be broader, more inclusive than that. It really is better to be mere Christians.

Agree, but there really aren’t many congregations that hang “evangelical” on the door. There are lots of congregations that try to just be Christians who are, in fact, evangelical.

In fact, I doubt that 90% of our members can define “evangelical” — a word even scholars struggle to define. So we’ve never tried and aren’t trying to be evangelical — we don’t even know what it is. I’m not sure who does.

Worse yet, if we build our self-definition on such terms as “evangelical” we’ll just create a new super-denomination and find ourselves fighting over the boundaries of evangelicalism. Yes, we need to avoid the temptation to become generic evangelical churches, thereby creating the Evangelical Denomination.

3. There’s value in our entrepreneur-friendly environment.

Let our leaders lead; let our dreamers share their dreams; let our icon-smashers protect us from our own idolatry. Let the mavericks roam.

Again, I agree. Formal heirarchies turn movements into establishments.

4. There’s value in striving anew to be a youth movement.

In fact, we’ll survive only if we are one.

I suppose it’s true that we need to always be exegeting the culture afresh and being careful not to let tradition interfere with the mission. But if we decide to be uniquely tied to each other as an un-denomination denomination, aren’t we in fact not being a youth movement? The youth have no interest in denominational thinking … period. Hence, “we” cannot be some subset of the Restoration Movement. “We” has to become the church universal.

5. There’s value in acknowledging the authority of the New Testament and the preeminence of Christ over all other personalities and documents and theologies, especially systematic theologies.

We haven’t always correctly applied our slogan, “Where the Bible speaks, we speak; where the Bible is silent, we are silent,” but it does point us to the right source.

Agree 100%.

6. There’s value in continuing to aim for that elusive target, unity. We acknowledge it is helpful to be reminded of Calvin’s stress on the sovereignty of God, Luther’s on justification by faith, Francis of Assisi’s on love of all creatures. Likewise we do well to remember Campbell and Stone’s commitment to unity in spite of so many differences of opinion. “We’re Christians only, but not the only Christians.”

Agree 100%.

7. There’s value in stressing roots, even as we give our children wings.

We did not emerge from nowhere and were not birthed without cause. We are thriving because, remembering our origins, we have still been able to remain relevant to our culture, even as culture changes.

Kind of agree. I mean, our roots aren’t only in the Restoration Movement. As C. Leonard Allen and Richard T. Hughes showed in Discovering Our Roots: The Ancestry of Churches of Christ, we have dozens of roots. (That’s an especially good book, by the way.) We also have roots in the Puritan movement, in the Baptist Churches, in Landmarkism, in the Enlightenment, in Methodism, in the Second Great Awakening, in Frontier Revivalism, in the Anabaptist movement, in the Catholic Church, in Zwingli … we have lots and lots of roots. It’s a mistake to limit our rootedness to the last 200 years.

And maybe we should instead be talking about the future of “we” as the New Testament uses the term. What is the future of the kingdom? Where does Christ’s church go from here? How do all churches find unity? After all, we (narrowly defined) can’t find unity unless we (biblically defined) find unity.

8. There’s value in constantly promoting the priesthood of all believers who use their individual spiritual gifts to build up and do the work of the church.

This teaching has the virtue of enhancing personal self-image without fostering self-centeredness. We’re gifted so that we may be gifts. We are called, all of us, to serve.

Amen. But what denomination would disagree?

9. There’s value in being held together by ideas, values, goals, and mutual commitments rather than by ecclesiastical structures and bureaucratic demands.

Amen, but many congregational denominations would agree. And who is that is to be held together? Surely, all Christians.

10. There’s value in offering what we enjoy to others all over the world. For their sakes we must keep teaching what we’ve learned and sharing what we’ve been given.

Ah … absolutely! But how do we share if we keep to ourselves? And how do we gain an audience to voice our ideas?

[to be continued]

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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14 Responses to The Future of the Progressive Churches of Christ: The Christian Standard’s June 13, 2010 Issue, Part 2

  1. One function of a denomination is to determine what is correct. The denomination then teaches that correctness to its members locally, nationally, etc.

    There lies a problem in the year 2010. If a person is educated, i.e., can read and use a computer, they can find two dozen sermons and lessons on any randomly selected verse of the Bible in a couple of minutes. They can read all these sermons or lessons in an hour and then decide what they wish to do. They don't need someone in a national headquarters, a Bible department of a college, or an editor of a publication telling them what the Bible says.

    One thing they quickly observe is that there are many good Christians who study the Bible and reach differing conclusions. Some of these Christians blast the other Christians who disagree with them. Some of these Christians say, "My brother disagrees with me. That is fine as we both accept Jesus as our Lord and Savior."

    Now guess which type of Christian attracts other Christians and non-Christians as well.

  2. Rich W says:

    Jay,

    I commend you for stepping up the visionary discussion.

    I personally must have a end goal in mind before beginning the journey. I would label the previous 20 years of the progressive movement as a "rebel without a cause". That mind set was/is popular but never appealing to me personally. There are two ways of allowing other people to dictate our actions. One is do as they say and the other is to consciously do the opposite. Both are signs of weakness in my way of thinking.

  3. Rich,

    I remember a congregation where I preached as a much younger man where there were two men who each read Ira Rice. One read to know who to condemn because Ira condemned him. The other read to know whom to support because Ira supported him.

    I thought both of them were wrong. We need to get our identity from the Father of mercies whose greatest commandment is to love Him – and the second is to love each other.

    As Christians of all stripes through the centuries, we have failed miserably at each of these.

    Jerry

  4. Royce Ogle says:

    In point #2 above is this statement, "So, as I said, “they” have trouble figuring out who “we” are".

    Just as true…."We don't know who we are!"

    Royce

  5. JMF says:

    Practically, Jay, what are you willing to do about it (anyone call fill in their name where I've put "Jay")?

    So denominationism is wrong…then why aren't you guys becoming the "University Family" or University Church", etc.? Why don't you guys fold up, sell the building, drop the salaries, and combine with a non-denom church?

    I'm sure your preachers are good guys; they can start attending the new church as regular members, they probably have hire-worthy characteristics that will make them successful in the secular world. Of course, you'd no longer be an elder, but I'm sure their leadership will lead you on a sound path. If not, you could slowly facilitate change as an average member.

    Will you applaud when the preacher says, "For anyone that was saved recently, we'll be doing baptisms next month." Will you lean over to your grandchild and say, "Are you about ready to say the Sinner's Prayer?"

    I know. It doesn't sound very savory.

    Basically, it seems to me that what we'd be comfortable with is taking "COC" off of our names, but remaining COC in all ways. I know; you might say the same thing I do. "I'll gladly worship with and fellowship the bapt/meth/etc." So you and I would be willing to start going to a non-denom church with views that we disagree with, for the sake of unity. But….we'll teach them a better way!! And we'll go to work making them a Progressive COC (but not in name).

    Has it done any good for Woodmont to drop the "COC" and become a Family Of God? Why didn't other progressive COC's follow them into non-denominationalism?

    I certainly don't have any answers.

    PS: By the end of today, you'll be at ONE MILLION views!! (props)

  6. Jay Guin says:

    Dwayne,

    I think that's an important observation. Denominationalism in its current form came from a perceived need to associate only with those who committed to the correct creedal statement — often addressing issues that are far from the center of scriptural teaching. 200 years ago, many denominations would deny communion unless you took an oath confirming your agreement with the doctrinal statement — making doctrinal purity the very essence of Christianity.

    I think the modern church is trending away from such a perspective, see Christianity as about much, much more than having the right positions. Indeed, the positions we take on many issues seem very unimportant compared to actually participating in God's mission.

    Now, the reality is that sound doctrine lays the groundwork for better mission, but we can't get so hung up on doctrine that we turn God into a book of systematic theology.

    Sometimes we get so hung up over our speculations that I wonder how we can believe anyone with less than an MDiv is saved. I mean, the preaching in Acts doesn't address most of the questions that so fascinate us today. It didn't seem to require 2 years of instruction for someone to come to a saving faith.

    In fact, we just had a 12-year old girl be baptized because she knew Jesus had changed the lives of her parents for the better. She believes because she's seen the difference between faithlessness and faith. But I doubt she could explain the difference between modalism and triunity. But she'll be taught within a community of believers and, when the teaching is done, her faith will still be built on having seen lives transformed by the cross — not having the right view of the Trinity.

    I'm very orthodox in my Trinitarianism. I just don't think you have to know the Nicene Creed to go to heaven.

    (Rom 10:9-13 ESV) 9 because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. 11 For the Scripture says, "Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame." 12 For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. 13 For "everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved."

  7. Jay Guin says:

    JMF,

    You are thinking too 20th Century. It's not about the name so much as our behavior. In my home congregation —

    1. We have taught on this in all adult classes as part of the Amazing Grace series.
    2. We participate across denominational lines in service projects.
    3. We have a men's group that works cross-denominationally.
    4. Our Celebrate Recovery effort is cross-denominational.
    5. Our home schooling program crosses denominational lines.
    6. Many of our children attend a cross-denominational private school.
    7. Etc.

    But we are not satisfied. My home town lacks a proper cross-denominational organization that can facilitate cooperative efforts, and we are hoping to do something about that. And there's more that needs to be done. But that's the direction we are headed — and I can take little credit for it. It's truly the leading of the Spirit — it's where the church wants to go.

  8. JMF says:

    Jay–

    Perhaps you'll address this in future posts, but I feel a disconnect between what you wrote at 4:01pm and what I consider to be the overall tenor of this series.

    You started in the first post of this series with saying that denominationalism is bad. I consider denominationalizing to be (in part) differing names (Coc, bapt, etc).

    Above, you state your case for how your church (COC) is moving in the right direction, more united as a whole with your community and surrounding churches.

    But, if denominationalism is bad, then you guys would need to start moving toward un-denominationalizing yourselves!

    My point is, somebody has got to take that first step. Are you willing to strip off your nameplate and join with a non-denom with Baptist roots? Like I said earlier about having your grandchild say the Sinner's Prayer, until you can teach them a better way?

    I don't think so.

    As long as we are accepting of the other groups (Christians), I don't see our different names as a bad thing. Like Darin said, we need connections. Certainly, the Christian connection is the important one — but we want something closer, too.

    We define ourselves by the unique groups we belong to. If I saw you at Summer Celebration and screamed out, "Hey Jay! I went to Lipscomb, too!!", you'd think I was crazy. If I randomly came upon you in China and said, "Hey Jay! I went to Lipscomb, too!!", you'd be thrilled and we'd probably hug and go to dinner.

    "Just Christian" is great, and of greatest importance; but, we'll always gravitate towards a smaller, more distinguished grouping. I think that is okay.

    I heard something interesting one time (I'll mess up the specifics, but the principle remains). We all have about 75 meaningful relationships at any given point in our life. The family you are around, colleagues that you are close to, friends. Going back into early civilization, it appears most clans tended to be around 75 people.

    Point being, there seems to be an instinctive comfort zone that makes us desire certain-sized groups.

    I think our time is better spent learning to accept one another, start working together, and accept the other's heritage.

    Restoration Movement Part Deux sounds good — I just see it as another round of denominationalism.

    How are these community churches doing? Are they working together in all things, or are they starting to group up and draw some lines? Because, if they are doing well, we need to join them yesterday and scrap our denominationalism.

    …Or maybe I totally misunderstand the direction of your thoughts. Probably the most likely scenario.

  9. Jay Guin says:

    JMF,

    Under what theory is a "non-denom church" necessarily not elder led? Many non-denominational churches are elder led.

    Under what theory must we accede to the Sinner's Prayer to be non-denominational? Are you arguing that baptism for remission of sins comes only from being a denomination?

    I'm not arguing that we all become Baptist.

    I just don't follow this line of reasoning. You speak as though a non-denominational church were a denomination itself — as though we must all agree to become Baptists or generic evangelicals to become non-denominational. But I don't think that's right. Indeed, it's not really about uniformity — it's about being united despite disagreements. That's the only approach with a chance to work.

    And, as I'll address later, I don't see the cure to division being a uniform worship style, that we all become one big uniform denomination. That was Campbell's vision, not mine. While I agree with much of Campbell's thinking, I think he was mistaken on that one.

    I certainly disavow universalism. And I don't believe we are going to all agree on everything. I've yet to see a Calvinist reader persuaded to the contrary — or vice versa. Human nature is perverse that way. That's not the cure.

    The cure is to see unity as a gift of God to be maintained, not a humanistic achievement to be accomplished. We've been unified already. The next step is to live as though it were true. It already is.

  10. Jay Guin says:

    JMF,

    The hit meter is bogus — I just learned. At the conversion to Theobloggers, I had over 750,000 "hits" meaning "page views," which I consider the real measure of effectiveness. But the new hit counter measures "hits" meaning "hits," which is the number of downloads — pages, images, etc. It's a much larger figure and measures nothing of importance, in my view. I'm trying to get that fixed.

    In the mean time, I have so many readers via email, Twitter, and Facebook — which don't generate page views, I really don't know how many readers I have. So maybe 1,000,000 is right, but I think I'm still a few months away.

  11. It is intriguing to see comments and posts praising cross-denominational efforts, all the while saying, "How do we maintain our identity?" I've brought this question up before – why is the identity of a denomination worth saving? Isn't it the identity of Jesus that we're all after?

    There will be arm churches. And nose churches. And ear churches. And pinky toe churches. Birds of a feather will always tend to flock together.

    But while an eye person is seeking other eyes, they will go through a toe church, and a nose church, and a mouth church, and all will be edified by the other, to the glory of God. This is the way it is supposed to be.

    This is why people travel to other countries and stay when they get there. Others can't get home fast enough. And the process of finding that out is invaluable for the rest of their lives. It changes them.

    In my opinion, there is no reason to keep a denominational name or distinction. Simply allow each congregation to express Jesus as the Spirit directs, so that they join God in what He does on the earth. Dropping the name shouldn't be an exercise in modernization or evangelism, but in obedience to having no other Gods but God. (If the name or distinction is not an idol, then why the discussion?)

    We make things far too difficult because we don't really believe that God is completely in charge of His own church. As a substitute, we create golden calves, and we bow to them and argue over them, to the detriment of the Kingdom.

    Better to advance the Kingdom trusting in God than to bury our talents in the ground trusting in our own understanding.

  12. Rich W says:

    Jerry,

    I have never had much respect for the level of name calling and criticism from Ira Rice's publication(s). Someone pointed out one of his articles against a person whom I was reading. I came to the conclusion that Ira Rice had no idea what the bible actually said on the subject.

    Rich.

  13. Guy says:

    Jay,

    Suppose 200 years from now, all the people with a "submissive faith" have come to the same conclusions you have here about the wrongness of denominationalism and needing to break away from that structure. So CoC's, Baptists, Methodists, etc. (throw in who ya like) toss off their names, and all just decide to use signs that say "Christ's Church" (or whatever name you like). They all cooperate with each other, they respect each others' right to some different practices and positions on things, but the work is cooperative across all these groups, and they all consider each other brethren–both theoretically and functionally.

    However, there are still groups who consider themselves Christians who are not embraced. Why? Well, take your pick. Because according to the "Christ's Church," these groups teach Christological heresies or the "Galatian heresy" or some heretical ethical teaching (that incest or homosexuality is okay or whatever). Fill in the blank with whatever you think constitutes a belief or practices that is legitimately a fellowship-deal-breaker.

    So there is "Christ's Church" which is now tens of millions of members strong, and several of these other groups. These other groups use different names because they know they are not embraced by "Christ's Church" and differing in name makes it clearer to anyone in the know about the topic how to distinguish between them and Christ's Church. These various groups also don't see their own beliefs/practices as wrong or problematic despite those in "Christ's Church" deeming those beliefs/practices heretical (again, fill in that term with whatever you personally believe is genuinely heretical and can't be supported/tolerated/cooperated with).

    So you have "Christ's Church," then a smattering of other groups with different beliefs that are organized and function separately from "Christ's Church."

    It seems to me that your goals are a seed which would eventually grow into something like "Christ's Church"–a network of people who are eager to embrace anyone with a "submissive faith" provided that person doesn't deny in belief or practice something "central to the gospel."

    If this is ideal at all, how is it not just another form of denominationalism? –various groups who all think they are acceptable and right as they are, but who do not see each other as all acceptable and right as they are? What would you do if you were a member of "Christ's Church" 200 years from now? Wouldn't you see yourself and "Christ's Church" as being fundamentally right in its policy to embrace anyone with a "submissive faith" as long as that person doesn't hold some belief or practice which is legitimately heretical? Wouldn't you try to teach and persuade people from those other groups to change their position? If so, how is that any different than how the conservative CoC views itself and its task toward those with whom it disagrees?

    –Guy

  14. Jay Guin says:

    Guy,

    Denominationalism is a sin. Heresy is a bigger sin. There will be heretical sects today for the same reasons there were in apostolic times. But the non-heretical sects ought to be able to get along — because to refuse to treat a fellow Christian as a fellow Christian is, in fact, the very definition of "heresy" — the original sense of which was "division."

    I have no plans to ask the Baptists to give up their names — just their preference for cooperating with fellow Baptists. I intend to ask them to be true to their announced, non-creedal principles.

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