The Progressive Churches of Christ: Unity, Part 1

progressiveI 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.

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.
This entry was posted in Progressive Churches of Christ, The Future of the Churches of Christ, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to The Progressive Churches of Christ: Unity, Part 1

  1. John says:

    Very, very good piece, Jay. You have certainly placed a challenge before the progressives, which they need, and will always need in order to grow as a spiritual force.

    What I see when it comes to unity among diversity, is that it will not be real until white middle class, upper middle class Christians stop seeing themselves as the dominate and superior element in the church; not until the attitude of “We accept you, so now must be like us”, is humbly laid aside. The elephant in the room that many progressives in the Church of Christ refuse to acknowledge is that when African Americans, Hispanic Americans, Asian Americans, the poor, those who are considered social deviants, artists, political “misfits, and such, walk in and take their place, good “ol’ time” conservative politics runs screaming out the door; and this just may cause a few other denominations in town that they have just become chummy with to suddenly back off with, “Uh, this is not the kind of unity we were talking about”.

    So, we will see.

  2. Robert Lingle, Jr. says:

    Jay, as one who has spent much of my adult life trying to build multi-racial, multi-ethnic congregations of disciples, I really appreciate the focus here. When I was preaching part-time, I liked to say that the ethnic make-up of our church should look something similar to the ethnic make-up of the near-by zip codes, and that was on the order of half-white, with the rest remainder being black, hispanic, and asian. By God’s grace, we accomplished that. But there is so much more to unity than simply not disliking each other, or even sitting in the same building to worship. The larger challenge is to knit different kinds of people together in the fabric of their lives. The “differents” within a church need to be found in each others’ homes, with their kids lives intertwined, in multi-ethnic small groups, etc. This means we have to be intentional, so that I have good friends – and even mentors – who are different than me in race, socio-economic status, language, etc. Let us strive to build his kingdom, not ours!

  3. Until we can become more like Jesus in this we will not be that city set on a hill that cannot be hidden. This is the radical life that Jesus calls us to live in a world wracked by divisions of every kind. The cross breaks down, not only the wall of sera ration between Jew and Gentile (a truly radical thing!), but also every wall of separation ever devised by Satan’s wiles. Before the cross, we are truly one: sinners in need of God’s grace!

  4. Dwight says:

    I would rather say it isn’t about diversity, but rather not being exclusive to others, meaning that thier shouldn’t be a quota about getting those from different races or cultures, but that we should be open and accepting to others despite these differences. Christianity isn’t about becoming more diverse, but becoming more unified in Christ and putting away differences (RM) and yet recognizing that we are different and accepting these as gifts in the work of God.
    The RM was truly misunderstood and misapplied by later generations. The quote from A.Campbell, “speak where the bible speaks, be silent where it is silent” was transfromed from a unifier concept to a dividing concept. Instead of arguing that where the Bible is silent we shouldn’t infer a command, later generations took it to mean that silence is a command, although only in certain things. This later thinking still exist in regards to IM and other select things.

  5. Monty says:

    Let’s be honest, the white-other race(culture thing) isn’t just a CofC thing, but occurs in most churches that I am aware of. The “exception” is a blending of muti-races(cultures). Perhaps seen best in Joel Osteen’s church. Now prosperity is something we can all agree(get along ) on, it seems. Most church goers choose their “style” over breaking down barriers. Black congregations like a non-60 minute approach with rousing sermons filled with “Amens”, and “preach it brother” and lot’s of emotion. I’m sure in many of their eyes it would be a loss of something to have to do “white” church, ( I can’t blame them if they felt that way)where the emphasis is on unemotional ritual, serene ,quiet, respectful, and getting to the buffet lines faster. By the same token, whites couldn’t stomach a lot of what they see as “excess” in the black churches. Which is as fair a take perhaps as blacks seeing “white” church as bland.

    Once you’ve been used to a steady diet of instrumental praise songs like “God’s Great Dance Floor”, how do you go to Stamps-Baxter vocal only music? It wouldn’t even have the feel of worship for the youth ,as also, Tomlin’s rousing dance vibe wouldn’t be worship for the a cappella conservative group. So, there is more in play here than simply race issues(though certainly there). It seems to me more about what we value as “real” worship and by in large it’s a culture/age/tradition thing as much as it is about the color of the person’s skin sitting next to you.

    I don’t think blacks and whites have a hard time sitting together, eating together, talking together as fellow Christians until it comes times for the worship to start. Then it becomes more about what “I” value as meaningful worship. For right, or for wrong, we all deal with it.

  6. John says:

    Monty, I agree that styles of worship play a big part in keeping blacks and whites separate. However, there is also another problem at play. Many black Christians believe they do not have to subject themselves to being put to the test by whites who feel they must criticize, in their presence, the civil rights movement, black political leaders, and other socially progressive programs. And the truth is many African American Christians who are theologically conservative are political and social progressives; and they feel, justifiably so, that they would be pressured within a white congregation into recanting those views.

  7. Neal says:

    thank you for the encouragement to break free.

  8. Alabama John says:

    As a whole, people like to do as much as possible with their own race. It is not a black and white thing. Same with the various tribes of Native Americans.

    Nowhere is that more obvious than in the cemeteries the races or tribes use.

  9. AJ, as a whole, people like to do as much as possible that is wrong – if they think they can get away with it. But Scripture still says that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek – and a couple of other “nor’s” we’d rather “snor”e through than to seriously become what Jesus calls us to be.

  10. Dwight says:

    AJ, Birds of a feather flock together or people often associate with others they feel more comfortable with and this isn’t neccessarily a sinful thing. I would feel out of place in a hispanic assembly, as I would I would feel isolated culturally. They might not reject me, but I would not fit in and probably would not be edified.This would cause me to look for an assembly that is closer to what I know. This is only natural. But otherwise I constantly interact with others from other cultures all of the time. It only becomes wrong when we isolate or reject others based on race or culture from among us and purposely don’t interact and don’t accept them as Christians and brothers/sisters. It could be argued that if you are here on this blogsite, then you are rejecting other blog sites where you could be such as hispanic/ Asian blog sites. You obviously have a choice of where you go. Assembling with others takes time and placement, so either you are one place or another and there is no sin in being with others you feel more of a connection with as long as you don’t think less of the others and ignore them when you are near or with them.

  11. Alabama John says:

    You mean it would be wrong to sing the well known childrens song as we did in grammar school every morning before the National Anthem and reciting of the Lords prayer?

    We sang it like this back in the 40’s and early 50’s:

    Jesus loves the little children,
    all the children of the world.
    Black or yellow, red or white,
    but, he specially loves the white
    Jesus loves the little children of the world.

    Many would look back and grin at those of us of known mixed heritage

  12. Monty says:

    If there was(for example) a Vietnamese congregation in our area, I wouldn’t find fault with them for worshipping together. I would find fault with them if they were prejudiced or racist against me because of my ethnicity. And if I worshiped with them, I wouldn’t expect them to change their style and expect them to become more like me(what I’m accustomed to). I would try to become more like them, style wise. Of course in theory it would be better to have just one overall blended group. Not an us and a them. Just us. But that would mean that folks on both sides were willing to wade through the inevitable problems of linguistics and culture. But so often is the case where we struggle to get along with even those who are “like us”, much less purposely try to tackle the cultural differences of other believers.

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