I graduated from law school in 1978 and immediately began my career of teaching Bible classes. And early on, around 1980, I taught a Wednesday night class about the Restoration Movement — which is when I began my Restoration Movement (RM) studies.
I graduated from David Lipscomb College in 1975, a school named after a RM leader, with dormitories named after Tolbert Fanning, E.G. Sewell, and someone named “High Rise.” Anyway, the school was filled with paintings and names honoring our RM heritage — and yet despite taking a daily Bible class and attending a daily chapel service long enough to earn a four-year degree, I managed to graduate knowing nothing about the RM — not even who David Lipscomb was.
So I was a newly minted lawyer teaching a Bible class on a topic regarding which I knew nothing at all. It wouldn’t be the last time. Fortunately, my church had a great library of RM materials, and this was in the spring and hence tax season. My wife is a CPA, and so I was living essentially alone at the time and had plenty of time to read everything there was on the RM.
There are far more and far better resources today. Back then, there was no consumer version of the Internet, and most RM histories were written to pretend that the 19th Century founders taught the same thing as the 20th Century editors — which is not remotely true. And fortunately my law school training had taught me to spot prevarications and rationalizations in the written word.
By digging into the original texts, I learned that the RM wasn’t about baptism or instrumental music. It wasn’t even about disagreeing with the Baptists over the Sinner’s Prayer. It wasn’t about marks of the church or the Five Step Plan of Salvation or the Five Acts of Worship. It was founded as a unity movement. Cool.
And it didn’t seek unity by insisting that everyone worship and teach the same way. Rather, Barton W. Stone and Thomas Campbell taught that we should recognize as saved all with a genuine faith in Jesus as Messiah. If we’d just do that, they figured, there’d be no need for denominational separation and the church would quickly and easily become one and the world would be drawn toward Jesus. It was supposed to be just that easy.
The next generation — Alexander Campbell and Walter Scott most notably — taught the same thing. And so did their immediate successors.
And then came the death of Alexander Campbell, the Civil War, and a dramatic change in theology among some of the RM churches. Soon, churches were damning other churches for disagreeing over located preachers, bake sales, the piano, and nonprofit organizations that support missionaries. Really. Just a few decades before, Alexander Campbell was declaring that we should not separate over issues even as big as the five points of TULIP Calvinism. In fact, Thomas Campbell likely died a Calvinist, whereas his son Alexander was not a Calvinist — and they gladly wrote for the same church periodicals and preached side by side.
How we went from tolerating disagreements that tore the Reformation to shreds and then divided over bake sales (I kid you not) is one of the more astonishing turns of events in all of history — and a lesson on how hard it is to change hearts and attitudes, even in a unity movement.
Amazingly, the Church of Christ branch of the RM retained the language and slogans of unity while becoming incredibly narrow and divisive, even splitting in places over kitchens in the building. (The church where I grew up refused to put a sink in the communion preparation room for fear of being accused of putting a kitchen in the building. No fooling. And in fact, despite the absence of even a sink, the accusation was still made by our sister congregations. There’s a lesson in there somewhere.)
The progressive Churches of Christ have largely put such absurdities behind them. Many even have kitchens in the building — not to mention bake sales. My present church has a huge commercial kitchen, which we use in countless ways to do Kingdom work. And we have the occasional bake sale in the lobby as members raise funds to support orphans and buy goats and chickens for impoverished families across the globe.
But we’re still not where we need to be. These are big steps toward the unity God calls us to, but they are not enough.
A recent study by a British scholar has concluded that if the apostle Paul’s house churches were composed of about thirty people, this would have been their approximate make-up:
• a craftworker in whose home they meet, along with his wife, children, a couple of male slaves, a female domestic slave, and a dependent relative
• some tenants, with families and slaves and dependents, also living in the same home in rented rooms
• some family members of a householder who himself does not participate in the house church
• a couple of slaves whose owners do not attend
• some freed slaves who do not participate in the church
• a couple homeless people
• a few migrant workers renting small rooms in the home
Add to this mix some Jewish folks and a perhaps an enslaved prostitute and we see how many “different tastes” were in a typical house church in Rome: men and women, citizens and freed slaves and slaves (who had no legal rights), Jews and Gentiles, people from all moral walks of life, and perhaps, most notably , people from elite classes all the way down the social scale to homeless people.
Do you think these folks agreed on everything? (Impossible is the right answer.) Were they a fellowship of “differents”? (Yes is the right answer.) Was life together hard? (Yes, again.) That’s the whole point of what it means to be a church. The Christian life is not just about how I am doing as an individual, but especially about how we are doing as a church, and how and what I am doing in that mix of others called the church.
God has designed the church — and this is the heart of Paul’s mission — to be a fellowship of difference and differents.
McKnight, Scot (2015-02-24). A Fellowship of Differents: Showing the World God’s Design for Life Together (pp. 15-16). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.
So we’re just not there. We might have a few black or Hispanic members in a predominantly white congregation. But generally, our churches look like the same people who are in our civic and country clubs. We pick churches that suit our social station — rather than working to create congregational communities that are stationless.
The theology of our youth insisted on straightjacket uniformity. We left a little of that behind — so that we would happily worship next to someone who disagrees with us on bake sales — but we are not the least embarrassed at churches that reflect a single race, a single economic status, a single nationality — even in cities where this particular mix constitutes a distinct minority.
We might give lip service to a desire to cross social and racial and denominational lines, but we in fact take no steps in that direction because we feel no guilt about our comfortable congregations. Our vision of what is good differs dramatically from God’s.
So to where do the progressive Churches of Christ need to head? Among other things, toward much greater intentionality when it comes to diversity, differences, and distinctions.
and that is what the Christian life is all about: learning to love one another, by the power of God’s grace, so we can flourish as the people of God in this world. The purpose of the church is to be the kingdom in the present world, and the Christian life is all about learning to live into that kingdom reality in the here and now.
McKnight, Scot (2015-02-24). A Fellowship of Differents: Showing the World God’s Design for Life Together (pp. 23-24). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.