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
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.)