1. I’m not saying that all the denominations should all merge into new super-denomination with a uniform worship pattern, uniform organizational structure, and perfectly uniform doctrine. That was Campbell’s idea, but it’s unworkable; at least it is today.
In a perfect world, this is exactly where we’d be, of course, but this ideal wasn’t achieved even in apostolic times. This is not the cure for division.
2. I’m not saying that we must all become non-denominational community churches — although there’s a lot of appeal to that model. But we can be functionally united without going that far. And one natural result of becoming functionally united is that our old denominational identifiers will not be our self-identities — so maybe something kind of like that happens. But that’s not essential to the proposal.
3. I’m not saying we in the Churches of Christ must surrender our beliefs on anything — other our legalism and our isolation from our brothers and sisters in other denominations. We don’t have to buy guitars, take communion quarterly, or give up immersion. Uniformity is not essential to unity.
4. I’m not saying that we sit down with other denominations and negotiate an agreed creed. First, it’ll never happen. Second, our members would never submit to such a document — nor should they.
5. I’m not saying that a hierarchy should be created that takes title to our property or compels doctrinal obedience. We should remain autonomous and elder-led. We just shouldn’t be isolated.
But there are some things we have to give up —
A. Competition with the rest of the body. Imagine a man running to win a race whose arm tells his leg that it plans to go faster than the leg! We are not in competition with any true church that honors Jesus as Lord and submits to him in faith. Indeed, if we seem to be getting ahead of them, well, our worldly, selfish attitude only proves how far from Jesus we are.
Isn’t it obvious that we are called to defeat Satan — not people of faith who disagree over how to worship but not who to worship?
B. Ambition for worldly political power. A united church would be the most powerful voice in American democracy. Christians remain a solid majority. The only reason we don’t control the government now is our division. And if we were to actually unite, we’d be seriously tempted to use our God-given unity for selfish ends. We’d rationalize that they are God-given ends, but we’d find it much easier to get the members fired up to protect their own neighborhoods than the neighborhoods of the unsaved. It’ll be a problem because we have yet to learn to live the sacrifice of Jesus.
Jesus showed us how to do this. He refused to turn stones to bread, even though he hadn’t eaten in 40 days. It would not have been a sin to eat some bread. When his fast ended, he really did eat. The sin would be in using powers, given by God to serve others, to serve himself. And Jesus was called to be selfless — a servant.
Just so, the body of Christ, his bride, is called to selfless living. We cannot use the unity that God gives to impose power on the unwilling. We can’t pass laws making church attendance mandatory, because church attendance has no merit if not voluntary. Just so, if we compel the damned to live as Christians, we do God no favors.
This is a difficult area, because government should properly protect all from criminals and work for the good of the community it serves. Therefore, there are some sins that should be illegal — but we need to avoid the temptation to skip the evangelism and let the police make the damned act like Christians.
It gets complicated. We just need to realize that power is given to serve others and that obedience compelled by the power of the state is not obedience as God reckons obedience.
C. Affimation. Many in the Churches of Christ are used to worshiping where their distinctive beliefs are strongly affirmed every Sunday. Many want repeated lessons on baptism because these lessons assure them they are absolutely right and everyone else is wrong. It’s affirming.
In a unified church, we’ll have to find our affirmation in Jesus, that is, find our confidence in his grace, received through our faith, not in the brilliance of our Bible study. We should certainly strive to be brilliant Bible students, but our intellects won’t save us or keep us saved. That’s what faith does.
Worse yet, we’ll be rubbing shoulders and working with people who disagree with us about all sorts of things. And while most will be very nice about it, some will be jerks. We won’t become instantly perfect people. We’ll still have extra-grace Christians! And so we’ll have to get used to being disagreed with. (I suggest raising some teenagers. It’s good practice!)
D. Little pond. In a denominational world, lots of people get to be big fish in the little pond. My blog wouldn’t matter very much in a united church. The great preacher who gets to speak at lectureships all over the country may not get the same number of invitations when he’s outshone by brighter lights in a larger universe.
On the other hand, a united church will need a lot more lectureships. Training will become much more important because the churches will take on bigger challenges. And rather than having a few national lectureships, there will have to be many regional lectureships, because you won’t be able to fit everyone in the auditorium!
E. Challenge. Frankly, 20th Century Church of Christ-ianity was not very hard. It took no great courage to have five and only five acts of worship every single Sunday and to accept for membership only those who complied with a Five-Step Plan of Salvation.
But a unified church would be much more about Christian living than purity of doctrine. And it’s much harder to live a pure life than to have pure doctrine. Sermons will be more about caring for the poor, doing personal evangelism, planting churches, helping people in need — Matthew 25 kinds of things, Sermon on the Mount kinds of things — than why the Lutherans got consubstantiation wrong. It’s easy to feel affirmed when the lesson is on consubstantiation. It’s not so easy when the lesson is about a couple who sold everything they had and moved to the housing projects to serve the poor in the name of Jesus.
Missional Christianity is much harder than doctrinal Christianity.
F. Personal space. In the 20th Century, we considered certain subjects off limits to the preacher. The bedroom was off limits. Preaching on child raising was allowed, so long as he didn’t ask us to give our children to Jesus to be church planters, missionaries, preachers, etc. Our billfolds were off limits — if we made budget. If the church could pay its bills, our money was our money. Retirement was our retirement. Vacations were our vacations. Husbands and wives belonged to us, not to God.
But this faithful presence theology tells us that everything belongs to God, even our choice of spouse and our retirement plans. And “everything” includes our 401(k)’s. They are all God’s.
And that means Sunday morning sermons are going to be a little tougher to sit through.
Now, you may wonder why I assume that a united church will adopt missional and faithful-presence Christianity as normative teaching. Well, the way we unite is by adopting missional and faithful-presence Christianity as normative teaching.