Imagine, if you will, a community without denominations. Here in West Alabama, for example, imagine that all the congregations of Christ’s church decide to cooperate in all things. They begin with the easiest form of cooperation: benevolence. They begin small, working together by coordinating Celebrate Recovery efforts, food distribution to the poor, and the like.
Leaders from the churches decide to meet periodically not just for prayer and encouragement, but to coordinate and plan their efforts. With over 100,000 volunteers available, they realize that the church in Tuscaloosa is capable of far more than it’s even imagined in the past.
The leadership encourages some of its members to move to impoverished communities to become beacons of light and serve in God’s redemptive mission there. Over time, many are rescued from poverty and addiction, from broken marriages and failed families, and many turn to Jesus. Racial divisions weaken and the town changes.
The volunteers who work most closely with the poor do evangelism, too, of course — and they look for congregations for their new converts. They find themselves more concerned with whether the people they’ve rescued from poverty and brokenness will be accepted, encouraged, and supported than whether they are correctly taught on infralapsarianism. Christianity has a doctrinal element that’s of critical importance, but they learn that love is the greatest gift.
(1Jo 3:14-18 NIV) 14 We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love our brothers. Anyone who does not love remains in death. 15 Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life in him. 16 This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers. 17 If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? 18 Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.
When John explains to us how to know whether we are saved, he asks whether we love — not whether we understand hypostatic union. He also asks whether we have faith, but “faith” is simply faith in Jesus as the incarnate Son of God — not faith in how baptism works or God’s preferred form of church organization.
(1Jo 5:1 NIV) Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God, and everyone who loves the father loves his child as well.
When a single mother is killed in a housing project, the church must find suitable foster parents for her children. The volunteers, of course, insist that the foster parents be devout Christians, but they are far more concerned with their ability as parents and Christian role models than their position on how often to take communion.
Over time, although the churches in town continue to meet in separate buildings, with differing worship styles, the Christians begin to think of themselves as part of but one church — not a single congregation under a single eldership, but a single body of the Messiah, united by the Spirit. A big part of the transition is the quarterly communion services in Bryant-Denny stadium (it now holds over 100,000 people). The services focus on celebrating victories that Jesus is winning through the Tuscaloosa churches. Stories are told, testimonies are shared, and people find themselves cheering for churches of different denominations.
Churches begin to merge, as old priorities shift in favor of higher, better priorities, but not all churches merge. Some churches merge but conduct multiple services. Some just merge. It just seems so silly to maintain 200 75-member congregations with barely enough resources to pay the power bill when a merger will allow them to support desperately needed services, to support missionaries, etc. But there remain hundreds of congregations, worshipping and teaching as they understanding the scriptures.
And as the churches grow larger and as the churches see mission to those in need as more important than preserving stale animosities from the post-Reformation European religious wars, they see the need to train up their own members for fulltime ministry and missions. Just as many megachurches already do, they form their own training programs, because the seminaries are teaching a religion that’s 20 years behind the times. The West Alabama churches want ministers trained in what they consider important. And so they start a school for ministry – not just preaching, but counseling, serving in the housing projects, planting churches, feeding the hungry, cooperating with secular and governmental social services agencies, interfacing with local government — a whole host of skills not taught in the typical Christian college.
Meanwhile, the local Christian private schools begin to change their curriculums. No longer do they offer a secular education with devos and Bible classes and pledges of allegiance tacked on. They see the necessity of involving their students in actual works of ministry and teaching them how to understand what they’re doing and how to be leaders in such efforts. They teach them how to plant churches by bringing church planters in as spiritual heroes to be emulated. They teach a religion that expects Christian children to grow up not only orthodox but practicing a lives of selfless love. It’s not enough just to have the right positions on the issues — and the “issues” change as immigration, welfare, racial reconciliation, and environmental concerns become far more immediate than apostolic succession versus congregational autonomy.
The united church organically, naturally, and by the power of the Spirit transforms private schooling, seminary education, benevolence, and missions. The children growing up in the Churches of Christ learn that the assembly is a time to celebrate God’s powerful working in the community, to encourage and uplift one another as they learn a new way of being, and to praise God for inviting them into his family where they can experience such things.
There are, of course, tough decisions to be made. The movement begins with mainstream, evangelical churches with very orthodox views on the Trinity, inspiration, and such. But other churches that aren’t so orthodox want to join their communion — and some lines have to be drawn. Some lines are easy. You must have faith in Jesus, and so non-Messianic Jews, Muslims, and Hindus can’t join. Other lines are more difficult– Mormons, Catholics, and other groups present serious challenges to knowing just how broad God’s grace is.
But the leaders have the wisdom to adopt no creed, and so they let the Bible answer these questions in terms of faith and repentance, not creedalism. In fact, many people from less orthodox denominations join the good works and worship of the united church — and most gladly lay their positions at the foot of the cross as they see the power of a lived gospel. And the united church grows.
Now, I’m the first to admit that I’m naive, optimistic, and unrealistic.
(Mat 19:26 ESV) 26 But Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”
But if God wants us to be united, well, it must be possible. And if this isn’t the way forward, I’d love to hear a better idea. I’m not interested in the naysaying. It’s easy and cheap to be a cynic (I speak from experience). It’s dangerous to have a dream, because dreams can disappoint. Cynics never have that problem. But what fun is that?
I’ve seen God do some amazing things. And this one has to be easy for him — because he commanded it. We’re just too scared to try. And that’s not his fault.