The Progressive Churches of Christ: Keith Huey’s Diagnosis, Part 1

progressiveIn a 2006 Leaven journal article, Keith Huey, then chairman of the Department of Religion and Bible at Rochester College, reflects on the future of the progressive Churches of Christ. Leaven is a publication of Pepperdine University.

He diagnoses several problematic areas:

The Holy Spirit

First, the lack of teaching and experience of the Spirit. (The article was evidently converted from hard copy to .pdf via OCR, and I’ve tried to correct the obvious transcriptional errors.)

[Leonard Allen] also alludes to the larger, more intractable problem when he pleads for trinitarian doctrine: since the earliest days of our Movement, the Churches of Christ have been reluctant to participate in theological discourse. Alexander Campbell and Barton Stone, for instance, were willing to discuss the Father, Son and Spirit,” but they were hesitant to engage the kinds of questions that bedeviled Nicea. Trinitarian vocabulary, they explained, could not be found in scripture, and the issue had been “a subject of endless controversy among theologists.” The Churches of Christ have inherited this perspective, and now, divorced from the biblical and traditional resources of theological deliberation, we are unprepared to name the God whom we serve.

Ill-equipped to think theologically, we have turned our attention to the external forms of the worship assembly. Hence, our progressive and conservative churches are deeply divided about praise teams, clapping, hand waving, and women who lead public prayers. Our controversies spin perpetually around these kinds of axes, and our acquaintance with the Spirit has been restricted by this narrow focus. Devoid of any meaningful theology of the Spirit, progressives complain of Spirit-less assemblies, while conservatives complain of charismatic excess. Limited to questions of Sunday-morning praxis, neither camp has authentically considered the Spirit. They cannot possibly anticipate the transformative power of the fullness of deity, as it moves beyond the auditorium and empowers us to live in fleshly temples.

In short, even the progressive Churches can’t escape being bound to think of the Spirit in terms of ecclesiology, that is, how the Spirit impacts the assembly. We don’t think of the Spirit as selecting our leaders (Acts 20:28). We don’t see the Spirit as leading our mission efforts (Acts 13:2). We are scared to talk about the role of the Spirit in conversion for fear of igniting yet another Calvinist/Arminian firestorm (Acts 16:14). Therefore, even we progressive types try to keep the Spirit safely limited to a spirited song service — maybe not in terms of our doctrine but in terms of how we actually behave.


Our prior confidence has eroded into a crisis of doctrinal insecurity, as Jack Reese has aptly described it:

While Certainty, at least on the surface, served us well enough in the past–keeping our fellowship together, energizing our zeal for evangelism, inspiring our preaching–it is proving false in our current context. As the continental shelves of opposing cultures slide and crash into each other, as the ground beneath us shakes, and the structures we have long trusted begin to tremble, Certainty seems to have abandoned us. 

Some are understandably afraid of this kind of language and unwilling to capitulate to the uncertainties of a postmodern worldview. We want book-chapter-and-verse security, to be assured that our doctrine is the substance of things completely realized, and the evidence of things clearly seen. Our attitude is the by-product of the rational, scientific spirit of modernity.

Where is the safe harbor between knowing all the answers and knowing none of the answers?

Allen rightly observes that our new situation demands “a fundamental reorientation,” and he significantly appeals to examples from our own heritage. He is thinking of people like Barton Stone, who presciently repudiated the prospects of a doctrinally-defined unity. Of course, Stone did not anticipate a postmodern world in which the category of “objective truth” would be subject to suspicion; his program, however, is well suited to a generation dissatisfied with modernist pretensions. Stone advocated a “union of fire” that was not based on any particular definition of truth, but rested instead on the “spirit of truth.” Allen is also thinking of Robert Richardson, who similarly spoke of a Spirit-created oneness. Richardson believed that we might appeal to a power beyond ourselves, laying hold of a unity that, as a creation of the Spirit, defies the normal demands of prerequisite doctrinal uniformity. Beneath the Spirit’s influence we could probably discover debate as an act (and not a denial) of fellowship, a helpful supplement to parties and potlucks.

Allen quotes Stone and Richardson because they provide concrete examples from our own heritage. With them, we presumably possess the resources we will need to address the challenge of unity. Stone and Richardson, however, are truly distant voices, and the Churches of Christ have been overwhelmingly dominated by the alternative visions of Walter Scott, Tolbert Fanning, and many other “hard-style” proponents. Moreover, Stone and Richardson relied completely on a Spirit-centered approach, and, as I have already suggested, the Churches of Christ are not prepared for that kind of path. Unless we move beyond our auditoriums and embrace a missional ethos, we are unlikely to trust the Spirit; unless we trust the Spirit, we will never experience the unity of the Spirit.

(Italics are mine.)


Huey brings up the emergent church movement and missionality. The emergent church has largely disappeared in the nine years since this article was written, with many its best features having been absorbed into evangelicalism and some of its worst traits being marginalized. There’s no need to autopsy the movement here. Rather, the more vital conversation is about missionality.

The idea of being “missional” is for the church and its individual members to participate in God’s redemptive mission. Hence, praxis, that is, the practice of the church and its members, becomes every bit as important as doctrine. Orthopraxis — right practice — is placed on an equal footing with orthodoxy — right teaching. And yet, this begs the question: just what is “right”?

And as the church has wrestled with these questions over the last several years, “missional” has been diluted to mean something like “evangelistic,” which isn’t really the meaning. Then again, others take the redemptive element of the idea and water it down to “social justice” — whether or not associated with Jesus or his church.

The word has lost its punch. So has “Kingdom,” which now many take to mean any form of good doing, even when done by atheists. After all, isn’t the world a better place when a Muslim doctor mends a broken bone? But this is not the meaning of “redemption” found in the Bible.

No, what Huey only hints at, and what has become much more clear since his article was penned, is that we need to more clearly articulate the boundary between the Kingdom and the world and what the church’s responsibilities are with respect to that boundary.

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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One Response to The Progressive Churches of Christ: Keith Huey’s Diagnosis, Part 1

  1. Jim H says:

    I grew up in the CoC legalistic, 5 step, we’re the only ones saved, era. Was taught, and after considerable personal study and internal struggle accepted God’s grace (KC Moser).This created all sorts of questions. What else was I taught (Soteriology) in error or to be gracious, biblical traditional ignorance? I did my own personal studies and have taught classes on the Holy Spirit. Eschatology is another another biblical subject we have avoided. Our fears have caused us to put a rut in the “slippery slope” argument! (What a dialectic argument!!) The CofC where I attend is definitely progressive, and your current posts helps explain where members who left have gone: some to the satisfied, some to political and some to community churches seen as more progressive than we. To satisfy my own personal need to dig into other historical theological subjects I take courses at a local theogical school/seminary. I recommend it. It provides the opportunity to explore and discuss things with others that very few in my church have any interest. Sad.

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