[re-written and expanded]
We should not ask the question in terms of the future of the progressive Churches of Christ or the Restoration Movement. To ask about our subgroup is to assume that God wants our subgroup to have a future history distinct from his entire church. It’s a false assumption.
Rather, the correct question to ask deals with the future of the church: the real church of Christ, the church universal. And anyone with a lick of sense knows that it’s presently pretty messed up. We Christians are badly divided into thousands of denominations — and our members have lost patience with the divided leadership.
The leaders of the denominations have met in ecumenical councils and written papers and sought to negotiate compromise doctrinal statements — all to no observable effect. The ecumenical program is both noble and futile. It doesn’t work. It won’t work.
Rather, what we see happening is the membership, guided (I believe) by the power of the Spirit, deciding that denominationalism is wrong, pointless, and increasingly irrelevant. Families choose a congregation based on whether the congregation most closely approximates God’s will and whether the congregation is a good “fit” for themselves.
They increasingly test the church’s fit with God’s will in terms of the power of the gospel preached to transform lives and whether the church truly shows God’s love to each other and to their community. We are seeing a transformation from orthodoxy (right doctrine defined in Reformation terms) to better orthodoxy doctrine (defined in Sermon on the Mount terms) + orthopraxy (right living defined in Sermon on the Mount terms).
Now, we are by no means already there, but that’s the direction I see — amidst the false starts and other mistakes we’re all making. A couple moving into town will think nothing of checking out the local nondenominational “community” church, the big Baptist Church, the new Methodist Church, and even the Church of Christ. And the community church will have an advantage, because it doesn’t define itself in terms that no longer matter to the family. They really don’t care whether the church is a big fan of John Wesley or Alexander Campbell or whether the church has apostolic succession or congregational autonomy. They want to know whether the church will help them build lives and family in Christ.
And yet … it’s all but inevitable that for quite some time we Christians will disagree over Calvinism, apostolic succession, the role of women, and countless other issues — many traceable back to the Reformation and a few of more modern origin. And we aren’t going to get together through diligent study and negotiation over white papers. It’s been tried. It doesn’t work. Rather, the key is to declare such dispute to be of — at best — third-tier importance. They aren’t important enough to divide over. They may be important enough to cause a family to prefer church A over church B, but the same can be said of the quality of their nursery.
Yes, yes, I know that the Bible has clear, unambiguous, definitive answers to these questions and they matter — and they do — but they don’t matter as much as whether my child will be brought up among loving, caring, Christ-like Sunday school teachers in a church that will help me and my wife and my children become closer to God and live as God wants — even if they are Calvinists. I truly would prefer that my grandchildren grow up Calvinists who love and live for Jesus than Arminians who can’t stand church or the man who started it.
And, yes, yes, some will insist that we can have sound doctrine and sound practice, and they would be right, except it’s just not true everywhere. There are plenty of places where the choice is between legalists who get congregational autonomy right and who are miserably damning all others vs. another church that gets perserverance of the saints wrong, has a substandard organizational structure, and yet who love the Lord with a passion that drives them to contagious, sacrificial living.
In short, the first key to all this is to rearrange our priorities away from creedalism and toward Christian living.
(Eph 4:11-14 ESV) 11 And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, 14 so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.
It’s all right here in Ephesians. The job of the leaders is to “equip the saints for the work of ministry” (NIV: “works of service”). We must teach our members to serve or, better phrased, to work to serve. Paul will get to doctrine, but he starts with the hard work of service. We don’t have to all be M.Div.’s. We do all have to be servants — because to be like Jesus, we must first be servants.
The service Paul has in mind has the effect of “building up the body of Christ.” The word translated “building up” or “edification” in some translations can also be used to refer to a physical building. Of course, Paul has earlier referred to the church as being built into a temple of the Holy Spirit. It’s much the same image. We serve others because somehow this helps God complete the work of building the church.
Well, as your parents taught you, hard work builds character. Sometimes it’s easier to do first and to understand and feel second. You don’t know whether you’ll love caring for orphans in a foreign land until you do it. Most real learning isn’t head knowledge but experience knowledge. And we can’t learn the joy of serving others until we try serving others. And when we do, we’ll become more like Jesus.
Therefore, the first thing we should look for in a congregation is whether the leaders will equip us for service so that we can grow through service. Now “equip” may well refer to classroom study or sermons, but only in part. It’s ultimately about getting off the pew and going to work.
This, Paul says in v. 13 will lead to “the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God.” That’s right — not negotiating white papers, not ecumenical councils, but serving others. Service leads to a body that’s more like Jesus and therefore more united.
And service leads to “knowledge of the Son of God.” You see, it’s the old cliche — “If you want to understand me, walk a mile in my moccasins.” If you want to have true knowledge of Jesus, don’t buy a book — go serve somebody!
Finally, Paul concludes that this process leads not only to maturity (or completeness or attaining the goal), but also to no longer being —
tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes
Hmmm …. Isn’t that the solution to denominational division — divisions resulting from winds of doctrine?
So how does being equipped for service cure doctrinal disagreement? That’s a big question, but the question isn’t “whether.” Paul says it does. We must therefore ask: “how?” Well, it’s about priorities. Or paradigms. Or worldviews. You see, we inherited the idea that any doctrinal error at all divides (or even damns!) from the Reformation. Luther and Zwingi damned each other other consubstantiation. And their spiritual heirs followed their example to the point of killing each other.
The creation of the United States changed the world in many ways — one of which was the fact we learned to disagree over doctrine and not kill each other. It was a big step, but hardly enough.
So when Stone and the Campbells agreed to merge their movements despite doctrinal disagreements, based solely on agreement on the gospel, that is, faith in Jesus, that was truly revolutionary. But they made a critical mistake.
When the Baptists disfellowshipped Campbell’s church, Campbell accepted their rejection and formed a new denomination — but a denomination that considered other denominations saved. He prayed for re-unification with the Baptists — but it wasn’t in his power.
Campbell couldn’t help the fact that he’d been expelled by the Baptists. But he failed to raise up a generation of leaders who would work against the denominational grain, but rather acquiesced in becoming a new denomination (accepting the reality while rejecting the term). Thus, when he formed the American Christian Missionary Society, he didn’t invite Baptists or Methodists to join.
But in light of the world he lived in, his behavior made sense. You see, within his lifetime, nearly every Baptist Church in Kentucky had joined the Restoration Movement. Many small denominations and fellowships had been absorbed into his Movement. So far as he could see, the Restoration Movement would defeat denominationalism by converting them all! But it didn’t happen. It was a remarkable, brilliant experiment, but it didn’t work.
The generations after Campbell entirely forgot the Movement’s founding principles, quickly moving from the rejection of creeds as tests of fellowship — doctrinal positions on dozens of non-gospel issues — to the enforcement of one of the strictest creeds in Christendom. We went from “no creed but Christ” to “no creed but the right positions on the issues.”
No, the solution isn’t found in persuading everyone to join our nondenominational denomination. The solution is to rid our minds of denominational thinking and, instead, to find that the gospel compels us to serve somebody. It’s only when serving Jesus becomes the most important thing that unity can happen.
It’s really this simple. If you want to bring God’s redemption to the housing project in your home town badly enough, you’ll ask the Baptists and Methodists to help — because the job is too big for your congregation or even your denomination. If you want to see God’s will done in your city as it’s done in heaven, you’ll get along with the Pentecostal Church down the road well enough to work with them on a Celebrate Recovery program to cure addiction and mend lives by the power of the cross. If you really want the gospel preached to all the lost, you’ll find a way to involve the other churches in town to share the workload, because you can’t do it by yourself.
You see, while the preachers usually say that love leads to service (and it does), it’s also true that service leads to love. It’s only when you’re feeding a stranger that you really begin to see Jesus in the stranger. You can’t walk past a person in need while seeing Jesus in his eyes.
And when you see Jesus in the eyes of those in need, well, you care much more whether that person is fed or finds salvation than whether your denomination gets credit or your church is the one that gets to grow by adding a new member. And that’s when the churches in town become the church in town. And that’s unity.
Therefore, what the Churches of Christ, independent Christian Churches, and every other church that serves Jesus needs to do is get busy serving Jesus by serving those who need him and us — and to do so cooperatively. I mean, just walk across the street, knock on the door of the pastor’s office, and ask them to help. It’s not hard.
And here’s another cool thing. One of the best ways to make a friend is to ask someone to help you with something. They can’t help you without deciding to like you. Invite them to help, and their image of you will change dramatically. And your image of them will change. And as you serve shoulder to shoulder, some of what’s right about your church will rub off on them, and some of what’s right about their church will rub off on you.
Who knows. Maybe you’ll develop a taste for kneeling or responsive readings. And maybe they’ll discover the value of being an un-denomination without layers of bureaucracy sucking resources from the service projects you’re doing together. It could happen.
So call me crazy, but to me, the future of the progressive Churches of Christ is the future of the church of Christ, that is, the church universal — unity discovered through service. You see, God has given us the unity. It’s a gift, not an accomplishment.
(Eph 4:1-3 ESV) I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, 2 with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, 3 eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
Our calling is to “maintain” unity, not to create it. If we’re not united, it’s not God’s fault or even the fault of our ancestors. It’s our fault.
(1Co 12:12-13 ESV) 12 For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. 13 For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body–Jews or Greeks, slaves or free–and all were made to drink of one Spirit.
There’s one body. Those who divide it divide the body of the Lord. I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t want to have to answer for that.
[to be continued]