1. Missions. Nearly every denomination does a large part of its mission work through its denominational structure. Even in the Churches of Christ, we find we have to cooperate to do missions — and we cooperate within the denomination. And we have supporting organizations that help us — as elements of our denomination.
I mean, the missionaries are usually trained at one of “our” universities or schools of preaching. They are often supported by various para-church organizations, such as World Radio.
One reason we cooperate via our denominations is we want to convert people to our brand of Christianity. I may not think Calvinism damns, but I do think it’s wrong. Why would I spend good money to convert people to a viewpoint I consider error when I could just easily contribute to a missionary who agrees with me?
2. Foster care/orphanages. The same is true of child care agencies. These have always existing within distinct denominations. And, again, why pay to raise children as charismatics when I’m not a charismatic?
3. Seminaries. Churches need trained ministers and missionaries. Seminaries need donors. And why would churches send men and women to a seminary that teaches what they disagree with?
4. Benevolence. Now, while it’s obvious why the first three are denominational institutions, it’s less obvious why we feed the hungry, house the homeless, and clothe the naked through our denominations. Indeed, it’s pure parochialism. We just don’t want the other guys to get credit, and that’s a sinful attitude.
5. Periodicals. Well, most of our periodicals were created as means of keeping the flock “sound.” The Restoration Movement has even had periodicals called things like “Heretic Detector”!
But periodicals such as Christianity Today show that it’s possible to do great journalism and present a rich body of theology without being limited to a single denominational point of view. You see, it’s really about humility — and so seeing the value of other people’s teachings. And a nondenominational periodical creates a forum where your teaching can be heard by others. No longer is it about affirming the loyal members but engaging in dialogue with all.
If “our” preachers attend only our “our” seminaries and if “their” preachers attend only “their” seminaries, well, we’ll never learn from them and they’ll never learn from us. If “we” only read “our” periodicals and “they” only read “their” periodicals, well, we’ll never learn from them and they’ll never learn from us. So how can this good? Unless you think your beliefs won’t stand up to the competition, you should be thrilled to see denominational periodicals replaced with nondenominational publications.
But the same can be said of seminaries — especially if the professors come from a variety of backgrounds. I mean, how likely is it that a Catholic professor of Old Testament is going to convert a kid who grew up in the Churches of Christ to Catholicism? In fact, we’re increasingly seeing students earn M.Div.’s and D.Min.’s at schools of a different denomination. For that matter, Church of Christ-affiliated universities are now enrolling over half their students from outside the Churches of Christ.
And as I’ll explain later, I think the nature of seminaries will shift in a united church, because the training that’s needed will be radically different.
And the initial analysis doesn’t really hold up as to foster care programs and orphanages. Children who already have a denominational preference aren’t going to have their minds changed just because they’re being cared for by a Church of Christ orphanage or foster parents. Indeed, one way to be sure to run them out of the Churches would be to force them to attend against their will.
On the other hand, for younger children, they’ll likely become loyal to the theology of their house parents or foster parents. That’s the nature of things. But what difference does it make whether those parents are employees of a nondenominational child care organization or a denominational one? In fact, if child care were to become nondenominational, then any qualified, Christian couple wanting to become house parents or foster parents would be enabled to raise children. And parents from Churches of Christ could raise as many children as they could handle.
You see, competition is neither biblical nor helpful when it comes to child care. In fact, my experience is that the expertise is so thin in many states that the quality of child care would greatly improve if the denominational organizations were to be merged and their talent pooled.
And there’s another subtle but important need this would meet. You see, state-level agencies aren’t, as a practical matter, very accountable to the Christians and churches that support them. It’s just too much trouble for a contributor to drive half the length of a state to check out a denominational social agency. And, therefore, they are often not as well run as they should be.
But if you combine them all, and then divide them geographically throughout the state, so each community has its own office of the foster care agency or its own low-income housing office or home for battered women (although perhaps supported by a state headquarters), that office will be accountable because it will work for and with the churches and Christians in its community. And that’ll greatly improve the quality of church-sponsored social services.
And so this brings us to missions. Missions is the toughest area to see the advantage of giving up our denominational loyalty. But maybe a story will help.
Years ago, a friend of mine was a member of a local Baptist Church. He had been raised Methodist and was explaining to me his transition from one to the other. He mentioned in an off-handed way how his new Baptist Church supported a Presbyterian missionary. Now, this was decades ago — and I was astonished. I asked, “Why on earth would a Baptist Church support a Presbyterian missionary?”
“He baptized 50 people last year — people who’d never heard of Jesus growing up. He’ll probably baptize 100 this year!”
“But he teaches unconditional election and limited atonement …”
“Fifty baptisms. More to come.”
“He rejects congregational autonomy!”
“Fifty baptisms. More to come.”
“It’s a dying, liberal, mainline denomination!”
“Fifty baptisms. More to come.”
And I got angry. I mean, it’s hard to argue with that — not that I didn’t try. So I got angry.
Now, let me suggest another one of those paradigm shifts. Which would God prefer: 50 baptisms by a Presbyterian missionary or 49 baptisms by a Church of Christ missionary? I mean, just how heavily does doctrinal orthodoxy weigh against salvation?
I’m certainly not arguing that salvation is the only thing that matters to God. It’s not. But how many people would we let be damned so that we can preach a pure Arminian, Stone-Campbell doctrine only?
You see, the Reformation viewpoint — which they inherited from the Medieval Catholic Church — was that any doctrinal error damns and even justifies burning as a heretic. We’re past burning those in error at the stake, but not by much. We just can’t imagine how someone in error on unconditional election could be of value to the kingdom.
Now, what we’re learning about foreign missions and church planting in the Churches of Christ is that we are lousy at it. The traditional model is that a single missionary is sent to a city. For about two years, he works hard and converts the lost (or, sometimes, the Baptists’ converts) and starts his own congregation, modeled after the West Tennessee congregation where he grew up.
(In all seriousness, there’s a Church of Christ congregation in an African village — which is not at all Westernized otherwise — where new converts walk for 20 miles and spend their life savings to buy a suit so they can go to church. That’s how we do it in some places.)
After the missionary has 60 or so members, he becomes the pastor for the church and the church enters maintenance mode, with the members becoming more and more Westernized and remote from their neighbors. And the new church has about the same evangelistic success as the American church where the missionary grew up. He knows how to be evangelistic, but he stops because doing church gets in the way. It happens here, too.
Lately, though, many Church of Christ missionary and church planting organizations have taken the time to learn how other denominations do it, and we’ve learned a lot. Of course, we should have learned those lessons 30 years ago — but it was more important to stay away from the denominations than to save souls. Our arrogance sent (and is sending) countless thousands to hell.
The reality is that cooperative missions and church planting allows Christians to pool knowledge and skills and so to be much, much better at it. We save more souls when we work together. And we have more Arminian, congregationally autonomous, baptism by immersion into the remission of sins Christians when we work with people who disagree with us on those things. Yes, it really happens.
You see, we have this competitive, we-know-all-the-answers attitude that works against being successful at everything that matters to God — and everything we say we think is important. But we’d rather fail than ask for help from a Baptist or Methodist. And that’s very wrong.