The Progressive Churches of Christ: Keith Huey’s Diagnosis, Part 2

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Huey writes,

In the past few years, the Churches of Christ have been blessed with some serious reflections regarding the future. In Things Unseen, Allen is primarily concerned about our modernist addictions, and, as we have seen, he wonders especially about our view of the Spirit. Other authors, however, have emphasized different issues: for instance, in The Crux of the Matter, Jeff Childers, Doug Foster, and Jack Reese are hoping that we can rise above our traditional isolationism. In Reclaiming a Heritage, Richard Hughes challenges us to develop a countercultural witness, and to reverse our progress toward the orbit of American Evangelicalism.

Having read these kinds of discussions, two questions reverberate: first, to what degree would our heritage be changed if we accepted the challenges these writers propose? If we did all these things, would we still be the “Churches of Christ?” Our heritage is most famously known for its a cappella music; what, then, will become of us, if we exchange our assembly-centered obsession for a missional, theological orientation? We are renowned for claiming exclusive rights to heaven; what, then, will become of us, if we lose our dogmatic certitude? Will anybody be able to recognize us?

And, I might add, would God shed a tear if we ceased to exist as a distinctive institution within the larger church-universal? Should we, as Richard M’Nemar, Barton Stone, and others wrote in the Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery, generally considered the founding document of the Restoration Movement,  “be dissolved, and sink into union with the body of Christ at large”?

Living in the Past

How do we make constructive use of our past? It is difficult business to sift through our heritage, and to sort the good from the bad. In this vein, Allen has counseled us to maintain our “high view” of baptism and of weekly communion. The Crux authors have provided a catalog of concepts worth saving, with special emphasis on Stone-ite and Campbellite visions of unity. Hughes has advised us to restore the “apocalyptic” perspective of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century Churches of Christ. The above-cited “Christian Affirmation” would defend our doctrines regarding baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and a cappella music.

I happen to agree that we should not throw our past away. The Restoration Movement did produce some marvelous insights and practices that I would want us to preserve.

Huey notes the inevitability of tradition. Tradition can be very helpful and human institutions can’t avoid tradition. The key is to have a healthy tradition that helps keep us faithful, rather than a tradition that frustrates faithfulness.

I agree with the Restoration Movement’s high view of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. In fact, I think we don’t respect the Lord’s Supper enough. I agree with the Restoration Movement founders’ emphasis on unity and even much of their theory on how it might be achieved. I’m not fan of primitivism for the sake of primitivism. That is, not all First Century behaviors of the early church were intended to be a pattern for the church for all time. Women no longer need to wear veils; we no longer need enjoin each other to greet with the Holy Kiss; and we need to learn how to distinguish eternal principles from applications of these principles to temporary cultural circumstances.

Richard Hughes dissects Restoration Movement history by tracing the demise of our “apocalyptic” perspectives. David Edwin Harrell, Jr. explains

An apocalyptic mind-set included all or some of the following–premillennialism, pacifism, opposition to participation in civil government, an identification with the kingdom of God, and a general sense of alienation.

He is right that the modern Churches of Christ would find the Churches of Christ of the 1900s foreign, even alien, because of changed views on these and like issues. It’s important to ponder just what changed. And Hughes is surely is surely right that we need to be more focused on eschatology, that is, God’s ultimate plan for mankind. The present is too much with us. We aren’t sufficiently inclined to think in biblical terms. We are eaten up with Western consumerism and individualism. Nor have we learned the Revelation teaches us about the relationship of church and state.

Prognosticating the Future

Huey predicts,

Our most conservative churches will continually mistake their isolationism for counter-culture, and, as their modernist foundations gradually vanish, they will fade into irrelevance. Our most progressive churches will speak (with breathless enthusiasm) about a deeper theology of the Spirit, a broader fellowship, and a “dangerous” witness to our culture; in reality, however, they have already chosen the broad and easy road that leads to pop Christianity. Either way, the future appears rather dim for the “Church of Christ” label. 

Well … that’s depressing. And clearly true as to the conservative Churches. But what about their progressive counterparts? Are we doomed to become little more than pop Christianity with a Restoration Movement flavor? Well, it’s not hard to find our preachers and youth ministers teaching Therapeutic Moralistic Deism.

We are left to chart a course that steers between self-congratulation and self-loathing. Earthly institutions should have modest expectations, but God has already accomplished magnificent things through our Movement. My great-grandchildren might never be acquainted with a fellowship that is called the “Churches of Christ,” but I think I can live with that prospect. 

Is that the key? Must we be willing to surrender the name? Is the brand itself a problem? Has the denominational tag served its usefulness? Is it time to sacrifice the name on God’s altar?

(I selected this tune, not only because of the irony, but the demonstration of how you can improvise on an old tune and create something quite new. You don’t really have to start all over. But neither do you have to always play it exactly the same way.)

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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23 Responses to The Progressive Churches of Christ: Keith Huey’s Diagnosis, Part 2

  1. Richard says:

    I’m not sure what you are attempting to prove/demonstrate with the video. It might be a joyful noise but it sounds more like youthful entertainment than worship. As to the words, they were totally ununderstandable to my old ears. It is possible for entertainment to also be worshipful. For me sometimes (often) it is difficult to discern the difference between human-centered and God-centered worship. Thankfully I’m not the judge. (Some of the Psalms don’t seem to be appropriate for worship. Yet, they have been used, I would assume, to the glory of God.) Flexibility sometimes demonstrates a strength lacking in being rigid.

  2. Randall says:

    yes, all of the above

  3. Dwight says:

    Delabeling ourselves is the first step in joining the body of Christ at large as it refranchises us with other believers without a sectarian connotation. Alexander Campbell used the term “chuch of Christ” to indicate the body of believers in general, but never envisoned that a group would commandeer it as thier proprietary name. As seen in I Cor.1 and 3 the saints were staking a name (denominationalism) with who baptized them and then breaking off from others who had different names (sectarianism). Denominationalism isn’t a bad thing, after all we call ourselves Christians, but when we use those names to separate ourselves from others, then this becomes bad, which is what I Cor.1-3 was teaching against.
    Most coC, esp. conservatives, would argue that they are not a denomination as that it is sinful, but cannot define it as sinful by scripture, and would argue that they are not sectarian because they are the one true church (the base) and thus all groups should belong to them and be like them. They conviently get around the fact they are both a denomination and sectarian in nature.

  4. Dwight says:

    True story. Archeaologist like to label the bones of animals they find. It so happens that over the years a skeleton was labeled as one type of animal and another set of bones was labled as another, but after much time went on, they decided to re-examin the skeletons and they found that the animals were the same, but one was smaller and younger, then they became the same animal. Up to that time they were classified differently and kept apart.
    Many of us have existed using the names we were given or have assumed that we no longer seek to look deeper than that name. If we did many of us would find that we are not so different as we thought we were. In fact some claim the scripturality of the name as a reason enough to be a seperate entity from those who worship alike. Many do not want to unite, as this might mean that they are less exclusive than they have taught. The consrvative coC will not disappear as long as children are being taught the same message, but they will not affect the culture of the lost around them as they have not been doing as of now.

  5. John says:

    Huey’s prediction that the conservative Church of Christ will become more irrelevant, and that many progressive churches will take the road into pop Christianity is, I believe, the future reality. The sad truth is that many members who came out of legalism stopped growing once they enjoyed the freedom and fresh air of not having to believe that others are lost souls.

    I do believe that keeping a strong emphasis on baptism and the Lord’s Supper while being a hungry people is a legitimate hope. But they will find their beauty only within a people of great mercy and compassion.

  6. Joe B says:

    Four Winds church in Arkansas was formed from a group of exasperateds. The congregation is now 12 years old. They are not being absorbed into “Pop” christianity. In fact there are many “progressive” or as I prefer spiritual reformists churches that are truly forging their own beautiful way.

  7. Jay Guin says:

    Joe B,

    Delighted to hear it.

  8. Jay Guin says:

    John,

    I don’t entirely share Huey’s pessimism. We live in an age when our leaders have access to some of the best theological writing in centuries — and the teaching that’s out there is being chewed and digested. I’m not quite sure where we’re headed, but I see the Spirit at work reinventing us. And the Churches of Christ have this advantage — no denominational HQ to tell us what we cannot do, which will allow for wise leaders to experiment with new ways of being the church. There’s never been a better time to have congregational autonomy.

    Some experiments will fail. Some will succeed. And something better will come. I may not live to see it, but it will happen.

  9. Jay Guin says:

    Dwight wrote,

    “Delabeling ourselves is the first step in joining the body of Christ at large as it refranchises us with other believers without a sectarian connotation.”

    Amen. There is no such thing as a nondenominational denomination. We are a contradiction in terms when we pretend not to be a denomination. Only by putting the name on the altar can we escape our sectarian roots.

  10. Jay Guin says:

    Richard,

    “Youthful entertainment”? I’m 60 and Ian Anderson if of my generation. It’s old man entertainment. But that’s really beside the point.

    The point is there are two ways to follow a pattern. A symphony orchestra plays the notes as written, in the style noted in the margins. Some composers skip the orchestra altogether and put their music together with MIDI files electronically. This is strict patternism, and it makes for beautiful music. But Beethoven’s Fifth is Beethoven’s Fifth is Beethoven’s Fifth.

    In jazz (per the video) a pattern is followed but used as a means of improvisation so that new possibilities are found. The same old tune becomes new in the hands of a gifted artist. But it’s still the same tune — Living in the Past — but rephrased and interpreted in a way that is consistent with the original but different.

    Both approaches to music create beauty and both are true to the composer’s intent. No composer would object to having Miles Davis improvise on his tune! Both work.

    Just so, there are many ways to do a scriptural communion service. We pretend that we’re confined by a “pattern” but we’re really confined by a lack of imagination and a fear of criticism. When we get past that, we can re-discover the meaning of communion by improvising on theme by the Holy Spirit.

    And so I entirely agree with your conclusion: “Flexibility sometimes demonstrates a strength lacking in being rigid.” Amen and thanks.

  11. Monty says:

    Dwight said, “Delabeling ourselves is the first step in joining the body of Christ at large as it refranchises us with other believers without a sectarian connotation. ”

    I sort of disagree with that. I don’t think it’s our name that keeps us out of the loop, but our belief that baptism(normally, or occasionally un-normally) is when a person is graciously forgiven by the blood of Christ and added to the body at large and when one receives the indwelling Holy Spirit. I’ve read enough from those outside our clan to believe that the “others” won’t be so accepting of us as we might be of them, without totally dropping baptism, as something done by saved folk and not those who desire to be saved. We may accept their baptism and seek fellowship. I don’t see them accepting our interpretation of it. As much as men like Campbell and Stone sought unity with the body at large, their increasing study and understanding of baptism put them at odds with groups like the Baptist, who quickly distanced themselves from those men and their teachings, and considered them to be divisive.

  12. I believe that the choice between insular irrelevancy and “pop Christianity” is a false one. Yes, the conservative wing will see a anti-progress growth spurt and then slowly fade into obscurity. But the idea that the alternative is also bad news is rooted in our deeply-imbedded view that what is not of us is of necessity unworthy. It is hard for us to break past this assumption and think that the progressive wing might just find its way into strong and positive relationship with the rest of the church– once it stops once and for all comparing itself to what will shortly be a dying anachronism. Yes, the progressive CoC will eventually lose the historic moniker. It is an antique anchor which will be harder and harder to justify carrying merely for the sake of keeping our historic proprietorship displayed on the Sign Out Front.

    As to the Lord’s Supper, frequency of observation is not sufficient to constitute true “emphasis”. A weekly five minute exercise with two thirty-second prayers and the efficient passing of trays in utter silence is hardly a mark of deep devotion to this memorial. And making baptism salvific does not create a deep spiritual emphasis simply because we hang the fear of hell on it.

    I, too, would like more emphasis on the Lord’s Supper –beyond its regularity. I look forward to seeing it in the CoC.

  13. Dwight says:

    Mark, my comment was more aimed at those who carry no sepcific name as that once you have a name you have isolated yourself by that name. And the fact that many in the coC make the name a point of separation, before doctrine is even talked about.
    Baptism is also a dividing point, but it isn’t something that hits you before you even step in the door. If we took the signs off of the Baptist and coC lawns and left a blank many coC might go into Baptist buildings and many Baptist might go into coC buildings and worship without noticing much of anything up to they get to the point where they talk of baptism and even this might not be brought immediately to light until many weeks or months later because some baptist and some coC don’t focus as much on baptism as much as others do. I have a problem myself with many coC in regards to baptism being the point of salvation as I believe it is a point, but not the point…Jesus is the point. We are not baptized into salvation. We are baptized into Christ. So even I have an issue with our approach and I attend a coC.

  14. Dwight says:

    Charles, this has spurred a thought. We from our perspective see change as a bad thing. From a conservative standpoint change is bad when it changes the status quo, as the status quo can be sameness and from the progressive standpoint change is bad when it does the same, as the status quo itself can be progression. It is possible that the future of the conservative and progressive is to give up ground that they have staked for themselves and actually move closer to one another without defying scripture. But those groups also need to move closer to others despite thier names when they meet scripture as well.
    The passover was done where everything within the passover had meaning and there was sharing and although it was structured it was meal and had a sense of life to it. We have stripped all of the life from the LS that Jesus placed into it by narrowing it down to just two elements.

  15. Monty says:

    Dwight,
    I assume you meant me, and not Mark. Hey, it happens. I agree Jesus is the point. If he’s not the point, then why be baptized into Him? Without rehashing baptism again, Baptism is into Christ, for or towards, forgiveness of sins(of course along with repentance). Is repentance salvic? Or, is repentance what a saved person does after he’s saved? In other words who needs to repent? A lost sinner or a saved sinner? ( I’m talking initially). I think Peter, or whoever, could just have easily wrote “believe the gospel, your saved , and then get baptized as a first act of obedience.” That would be too simple I suppose. But I read believe “and” be baptized and you’ll be saved(cue the Mark 16 isn’t really scripture comments). I read repent “and” be baptized into Jesus for the remission of sins. If remission has already occurred why place that in there Peter? He certainly could have said something different. Isn’t that what those believers in Acts 2 longed for? Forgiveness?

    Paul said, he got up and was baptized to “wash away sins.’ Would any (left side of the progressive chart member) ever instruct a new believer to do so in those words? He had met Jesus on the road to Damascus 3 days earlier, weren’t his sins already “washed away?” How does that act in physical water, wash away something of a spiritual nature? Why, when it was just he and Ananias did he need to “symbolize” his sins already being washed away? Is calling on the name of the Lord something a guy who has been saved 3 days needs to do? Is that symbolic too? Hadn’t he already been fasting and praying(calling on the name of the Lord?)

    Paul says in baptism we have put Christ on. How do we put on something that we’ve already put on? Some would say it’s just a type of reenactment. Paul said, being baptized with Christ was being made alive with Christ. How can you be made alive, if you are already alive? Another reenactment phrase I suppose. If baptism isn’t required as part of turning to Jesus, then let’s just tear down our buildings and throw in with the Community church. The seem to have little, if any, doctrinal issues, according to some.

  16. Richard says:

    In Acts 2:38 is the repentance of sins or their view of Jesus?

  17. Alabama John says:

    Dwight

    Easy to see the difference in a baptist church and the building of a church of Christ.

    Two big differences, stained glass windows and a steeple on top.

    Only exception is when a COC group buys a former denominational building and it cost too much to remove.

    Lot more differences than Lords Supper and Acapella Music around here.

    Someone mentioned instrumental music for a wedding. No weddings or funerals allowed. Worship only.

  18. Jay Guin says:

    Richard asked,

    “In Acts 2:38 is the repentance of sins or their view of Jesus?”

    Peter called on the audience to repent of their lack of faith in Jesus as Messiah. The sermon was not about leaving behind your life of sin but accepting Jesus as the Messiah. The “change” desired was faith. “Repent” often means “repent of your lack of faith” in Acts, although it can also mean “repent of your sin.” We assume that “of your sin” is inherent in the word, but it’s not.

  19. Jay Guin says:

    Charles wrote,

    “the progressive wing might just find its way into strong and positive relationship with the rest of the church– once it stops once and for all comparing itself to what will shortly be a dying anachronism”

    I’m not as skeptical about the future of the progressive Churches as some — but there has to be some serious re-thinking of some things.

  20. Jay Guin says:

    Monty,

    That’s an interesting perspective on the Baptists, and likely true as to some. But the Methodists, Anglicans, Catholics, Orthodox, many Pentecostals, and others treat baptism as the moment of salvation. It’s just those denominations with Calvinist roots that think otherwise.

  21. Monty says:

    In Acts 2, if I had been present and called for Jesus death. I think I would want to know if there was a way to be forgiven for that grievous sin. They didn’t believe Jesus was Messiah(true) but there was an even bigger issue that day for many of those standing there. They had been responsible for calling for his crucifixion. “Then answered all the people, his blood be on us and on our children. ” Which would prick your heart more? Not believing someone was the Messiah, or calling for the death of someone whom you later came to believe(through Peter’s sermon) was in fact, the Messiah? Were they guilty of a lack of faith in Jesus? Yes. Did they desperately want to know if there was some kind of forgiveness available? Yes! What do we need to do? Please! Tell us! Repent(have faith, believe? I think those crying out had come to a faith, (a repentance of sorts). But Peter exhorts the whole crowd, “Repent and be baptized every one of you.” Those who had repented of crucifying the Messiah needed baptism and those who were on the fence about who Jesus was, needed repentance and baptism

    It’s hard for people to repent of not “knowing” Jesus. However, a past lifestyle of sin and rebellion to God is very much in play today when people come to hear about Jesus atoning death and his resurrection. They may not need to repent of unbelief,(if they had never been fully taught and exposed to Jesus, but of living a sin indulgent life.

  22. Dwight says:

    AJ, I have been in some baptist buildings that were sublime in their presentation and some coC that were grand in thiers. I visited one large baptist building and found no pews, just chairs, granted this was because they could move the chairs and have a basketball court in the same room, but this also allowed them to form circles, to form squares, to have people sit down on the ground and flexibility. I have only seen pews in most coC, when they can afford to have them.
    Some of the differences are grounded to topography, meaning the further into the Bible belt, the more conservative you get, but move towards the coast and it becomes less so.

    What amazes me is that Peter’s sermon is so short compared to what we preach from the pulpits, but then again who he preached to made the difference. Peter was teaching the Jews abut Jesus who was one of them, but was rejected, but was the Son of God.

  23. Dwight says:

    Monty, I think you are right, baptism is vitaly important.
    But some community assemblies do teach baptism as part of how to be saved, maybe not making baptism the point of salvation, but rather a part of salvation in God’s plan, afterall even after being baptized we are called to walk in Christ and presevere, so our path to salvation is really a continual thing until we die. Baptism just places us into a relationship with Christ, then we are told to live in Christ in our faith, repenting when we turn towards the world, confessing always.
    In our assembly we teach baptism as the goal, but often times Jesus is just how to get to baptism and not baptism how to get to Jesus along with repentance, faith, etc. Flyers are in our racks promoting the five acts of salvation, with baptism placed in huge bolden letters. Ther are other flyers on selected issues such as abortion, etc.
    But strangley no flyers on Jesus as the savior. This is a case of minoring on the majors and majoring on the minors. Or placing the cart before the horse. However we want to put it.

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