Let’s see if we can find answers to some of the questions posed back in this post —
1. Identity: “Why are, we in business? What are our assets and strengths?” Members rediscover who they are and why they exist as a [denomination] in this place and time.
Why are the Churches of Christ in business? What are our assets and strengths? Those are not easy questions.
We began 200 years ago as a unity movement. We became a movement rife with division. But the original vision was a good one: treat as saved all penitent believers. That was a great moment in Christian history, but it’s no longer a sufficient basis for a renewed movement. You see, despite our best efforts to frustrate his goals, Alexander Campbell’s dream is well on its way to becoming reality. That’s how most Protestants already believe.
The Orthodox and Catholics largely insist that those outside their communions are damned. There are some denominations that are the same way. But most denominations would recognize all penitent believers as saved.
100 years ago we organized around opposition to instrumental music and missionary societies, and we were wrong on both counts — wrong because we made both issues salvation issues, contrary to the scriptures.
So why don’t we just abandon ship and become, oh, I don’t know, Baptists? Well, because we are right about some things. We are right that baptism is supposed to be for believers and by immersion. I would not want to give that up.
And while it’s not a salvation issue, the leadership of congregations by elders is both scriptural and a good model for today.
I posted a more detailed defense of some Church of Christ teachings at In Defense of the Churches of Christ.
The other denominations have many of their own problems that I’m not too keen to adopt. For example, I wouldn’t want to contribute to the national headquarters of the Methodist or Presbyterian Churches. They are too disrespectful of the authority of scripture.
On the other hand, while Protestant churches largely recognize the salvation of other denominations, they don’t cooperate very much or very well. Campbell’s vision wasn’t just to end the conflict caused by creeds, but to bring all Christians into a single body. We’re very far from that vision.
2. Vision: “Where do we want to go?” Members reaffirm their obligation to become more faithful to their [denomination] as it could be in the future.
I suppose we could redefine ourselves as “the denomination that gets baptism right,” and I certainly want to get baptism right. Or we could be the denomination with elder-led churches, but that would hardly be unique. And neither vision offers any direction. I mean, we already have baptism and elders right. What does that mean we do next?
I’ve often posted on areas for improvement or correction in the Churches. One detailed discussion is the A Lover’s Quarrel series, based on a series of suggestions made by Leroy Garrett in his autobiography.
This is a critically important discussion for the Churches to have. But it doesn’t go nearly far enough. I mean, once we’ve abandoned our mistakes and replaced them with good, scriptural practices, where does that leave us as a denomination? What do we do next? What’s our purpose for existing? How do we do business if not as a denomination? Do we become unattached, independent, autonomous congregations? Do we merge into the independent Christian Churches? The Baptists? And we would do this in order to accomplish what?
We could adopt a more traditional vision of evangelism or, much better, evangelism and benevolence. But countless other denominations and churches share that vision. Why exist as a separate body if our vision is identical to everyone else’s vision?
And while those are certainly very big and even central elements of God’s vision for us, is that the totality of God’s mission for his churches?
Suppose we were to adopt our historic purpose of working against denominationalism — the division of Christians into competing factions. Denominationalism remains a problem — although not nearly the problem it once was but still much more of a problem that we tend to think. How would we work toward greater cross-denominational unity in today’s environment?
Consider a congregation that drops all denomination distinctives, pursues missions and cares for the poor, but do so all by itself. Is that right?
Some would argue for abandoning the Church of Christ denomination and becoming free-standing, non-denominational churches. After all, we always intended to be non-denominational. Why don’t we just up and do what we say?
I have these concerns with such a vision.
First, it does nothing toward uniting the denominations. In fact, many non-denominational churches are really one-congregation denominations, no more in fellowship with or united to the other churches in town than a traditional, legalistic Church of Christ. As good as it is to recognize the salvation of the other churches in town, that’s not quite the same thing as unity. Unity requires being the body of Christ, working together with a single will toward common goals.
Second, congregations were never meant to exist in isolation and don’t work well in isolation. Churches need the support of other churches. They need the support of other institutions — seminaries, Christian colleges, missionary support organizations, that sort of thing. Unless a church becomes very large, it doesn’t have the resources to train ministers and church planters, missionaries, and inner city ministry directors.
If a congregation intends to use the resources of, say, Abilene Christian University to support its work, then it really ought to support the institution on which it relies. A church cannot responsibly exist in isolation.
Many tasks that churches should be doing are too big for a single congregation and so require a model for cooperation. Not many churches can support a missionary by itself, much less a church planting team. Few churches can establish, fund, and run an inner city ministry all on their own.
Third, there’s but one body, and if we aren’t working with other congregations, we’ve become a separate body. Autonomy is not isolation. American individualism and self-determination are not biblical values. We are called into community.
In my view, we sometimes have an adolescent mentality, wanting to prove we can succeed all on our own, without any help from anyone, but that’s both childish and untrue. We can’t. Not for long. Responsible churches should support the institutions that allow them to be effective churches and they should participate in works so large they can’t do them by themselves. And this has historically been done through a denominational structure.
You see, denominations exist for two reason. First, they generally were formed because of a shared doctrinal commitment. Second, churches with shared doctrinal views banded together to accomplish things they couldn’t do on their own.
We in the Churches of Christ have tried to deny that we are a denomination or have “Church of Christ” institutions, but obviously we are and we do. When our churches want to hire a minister, we want someone trained by one of “our” schools. When we have a congregational conflict, we call one of “our” universities to provide an expert in conflict resolution to help us sort it out. When we decide to sponsor a missionary or plant a church, we look to one of “our” nonprofits that are expert in such things to help us do it right — at least one of “our” schools to train the missionary or planter — and we seek to raise support from among “our” sister congregations.
The Churches of Christ have never had a national headquarters, but we’ve had colleges and publishing houses and lots of nonprofit parachurch organizations that have served the same purposes for us — providing doctrinal training and all sorts of other support for our churches.
The Kingdom was never meant to be thousands of city-states. It’s supposed to be a single kingdom, under a single head, all serving in cooperation.