We’re working our way through Leroy Garrett’s book: What Must the Church of Christ Do to Be Saved? The paperback is $7.95, but it’s also available in Kindle edition for $0.99. For $0.99, it’s really an offer you can’t refuse!
Now, by “saved” Garrett doesn’t mean that he questions the salvation of the individual members of the Churches of Christ. Rather, he is concerned to save the Churches of Christ as a “viable witness to the Christian faith. What must it do to escape extinction in the decades ahead …?”
Chapter 11 is entitled “Recognize that we can’t be a first century church.”
Hanging about the neck of the Church of Christ like an albatross all these years has been the fiction that we are the first century church duly restored in name, organization, worship, doctrine, and practice. It is a fiction grounded on false assumptions, such as the church of the apostles having a particular name, which it did not, and that it had a uniform organization and clearly-defined “acts” of worship, which it did not.
But the first thing we must come to terms with if we are to rid ourselves of the weighty albatross is a proposition that can hardly be questioned: We can’t be a first century church! There is no ground for supposing that God ever intended for His church in each succeeding century for the past 2,000 years to be a first century church, even if it were possible, which it isn’t. That one simple fact, duly accepted and acted upon, would go far in saving the Church of Christ, to wit, that it is impossible to be a first century church in the 21st century. (pp. 129-130).
It is interesting that Alexander Campbell in his earlier years was misled by this fallacy. When a new method of doing the church’s work was proposed to him, he retorted with, “It is not commanded.” Experience taught him that the “silence” argument confines the church to centuries past and makes useful innovations impossible. By 1849 Campbell was ready for his congregations to pool their efforts in an organized missionary society and he served as its first president. He was by now asking different questions about a proposed innovation, such as whether it is in harmony with the plain teaching of Scripture, whether it is in keeping with the Spirit of Christ, and whether it will promote the cause of Christ in our age? (pp. 132-133).
Leroy begins by pointing out that even Alexander Campbell was forced to give up the idea that we are limited to the forms and structures of the First Century church. Late in his career, he campaigned for a national missionary society! Why? To replicate a pattern? No, but because no one congregation had the resources to send the missionaries that the world needs to find Jesus.
The mission defines the method. The American frontier was filled with lost people. The world outside the USA was filled with lost people. The need for missionaries was desperate! But transportation was expensive – it could take months to reach many foreign nations. How could the typical Restoration Movement church, having less than 75 members, hope to have the resources to recruit, select, train, send, and support missionaries? Obviously, the task requires that talents and resources be pooled.
Many in the 20th Century Churches of Christ have tried to insist that Alexander Campbell never approved the American Christian Missionary Society (or have tried to hide that fact), but the Encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movement states on p. 25,
Campbell wrote in the Millennial Harbinger of 1850 that from the very first volume of the Christian Baptist he had insisted that the church is the only missionary society. But to consider the missionary society as an instrumentality of the church, for which the church is represented in general convention by elected “messengers,” proved to be a different story. …
The December 1849 edition of the Millennial Harbinger contains Campbell’s regrets at having been denied the pleasure due to “an unusually severe indisposition” and his hearty endorsement, being “particularly gratified.”
His biographer and personal physician, Robert Richardson, recorded that Campbell “was accustomed to meet with the ACMS as its president regularly every year, delivering addresses and urging increased liberality.”
Our response to the demand for a changing church in a changing world should be a blend of common sense and vital piety, which does not call for a Bible verse for every modern innovation. The question ought to be whether all such things are in keeping with the Spirit of Christ, whether they are a proper use of financial resources, and whether they are used to the glory of God. The rule should be to use things and love people, not the other way around. That means we will use such things in order to be a servant church rather than a self-serving church. So, the church of every age since apostolic times should say to the world around it, “We are your servants for Jesus’ sake,” but ways of doing this will change. (p. 137).
The gospel of the grace of God is forever, as are the ordinances of that gospel. Means, methods, and secondary matters, which are effected by cultural change, will vary with the generations. This calls for a responsible handling of Scripture by the church of every age lest we cling to the Book itself and lose sight of the Person. (p. 139).
Indeed. The Churches of Christ split from the rest of the Restoration Movement as much because of the missionary society as the instrument. Both were hotly contested 120 years ago. But I recently asked the class I was teaching to tell me what a “society” is and why it might wrong. The class had members who’d been in the Churches of Christ all their lives and who are now in their 80s. And they didn’t know. No one did.
Only a few who’ve studied our history remember the split over societies (a 19th Century term for “nonprofit organization” or “parachurch organization”). But plenty remember the splits during the 1950s over orphans homes and the Herald of Truth. The argument was that the Bible does not authorize a congregation to use its funds to support either one. After all, if we needed to reject the missionary society, surely we need to reject orphanages supported by similar means.
My church has one of the oldest campus ministries in the Churches of Christ, founded in 1954. Back when we needed support from other congregations, we ran into two arguments:
1. A campus ministry formed as a nonprofit organization, apart from a local church, is an unauthorized organization, just like a missionary society.
2. A campus ministry that is part of a local church is unauthorized, as an eldership is given authority only over the work of the local church.
But such is the nature of making up your own laws: Everyone gets to have an excuse for not giving money.
Here’s the bottom line. Today, the average Church of Christ has 75 members. That means that over half our churches can’t afford to hire a fulltime preacher — much less support a missionary. Moreover, effective missions work requires expertise that even some large congregations just don’t have. Anyone in your organization ever study missiology? It’s a field of study that has learned a lot about how to be effective in the mission field, and virtually none of our churches have that expertise on hand.
As a result, we aren’t very good at missions. Many of our missions accomplish little. Those that do well often start with a bang and then plateau. Your missionary may have built a congregation of 50 in three years, but if he’s like most, he got so busy pastoring his members that he stopped doing missions and the church stopped growing. (Sounds a lot like an American church, actually.)
We’re getting better at it, but it’s because there are some great parachurch organizations that help local churches work together to be effective. They help pool skills, experience, and the contributions of multiple churches to do it right. They just have the good sense not to call themselves “societies.”
Now, obviously, there are good and bad ways to form a parachurch organization. But the mere fact that we are capable of being foolish doesn’t mean we can’t be wise at least some of the time. We should not let our patternism keep us from saving souls. That would be like … objecting to someone healing on the Sabbath. It would be forgetting why we’ve been saved. We can’t let a theological theory inherited from the Puritans keep us from seeking and saving the lost.