The Future of the Progressive Churches of Christ: The Christian Standard Weighs In (Fourth Question, part 1)

cooperation.jpgHow does our current historical amnesia affect the vitality of the Restoration Movement institutions? Should we care?

The Standard asks,

If megachurches and new churches are a prophetic whisper of who we are becoming, are we making ourselves vulnerable as a movement by not expecting them to preserve and teach the best of our heritage and demonstrate family loyalty?

It’s a thoughtful, important question. But we need to be careful here. Who is the “family”? Is it the churches in the Restoration Movement? Our piece of that Movement? Those churches that agree with us on the issues of the day? Well, “family” in Biblical terms is the family of all believers (Gal 6:10), right?

Now, when we, as Alexander Campbell advised, use Bible words for Bible things, well, the question has to be re-phrased. Do we properly expect new churches to demonstrate loyalty to our part of the family? Saying it that way has a very different resonance, doesn’t it?

It’s just not a given that there’s anything in our heritage as a human movement that has to be preserved. Maybe so, but we can’t start with that assumption. That would be nothing but pride.

Some of us, myself included, find ourselves wanting to be Restoration reformers, that is, throwing out the bad of the Restoration Movement until we’re left with a good Restoration Movement — assuming that the Restoration plea has continuing vitality and importance. But which aspect of the Restoration Movement is the ideal? The “Declaration and Address” of Thomas Campbell, which says nothing of baptism? The Lunenburg letter vision of Alexander Campbell, which denies the necessity of baptism for salvation? The “Sand Creek Address and Declaration” that makes a long list of opinions tests of salvation?

The “Declaration and Address,” for all its broadmindedness, sought to turn the New Testament into a legal document, a “constitution” for the church. Recent scholarship finds that view flawed, and I agree.

We are an Arminian (non-Calvinist) fellowship, but Alexander Campbell repeatedly denied that such questions should be tests of fellowship. Hmm …

As we consider who we are and our place in the larger world of Christianity, the answers aren’t very obvious. We aren’t Catholic, Orthodox, or Pentecostal. We’re pretty much “evangelical,” but that’s not a very well defined term. As a practical matter, it means we can go down to the local Bible bookstore and find that most authors have something to say we can learn from, whether it’s Anglican Bishop N. T. Wright, or emerging church pastor Mark Driscoll, or Church of Christ preacher Max Lucado, or megachurch pastor Rick Warren or Bill Hybels.

And this should tell us that we fit in pretty well with whatever it is that’s going on in mainstream American Protestantism. Like everyone else, we don’t agree with all the opinions being expressed, but we are moving toward a middle that’s being newly defined, along with lots of other people.

Some with a more independent streak worry about this (I know that I do!), but there’s comfort in seeing this as the work of the Holy Spirit. When Methodist Stanley Hauerwas and Mennonite John Howard Yoder and whatever Jim Wallis is all speak to me and help me in my spiritual walk, even though I certainly don’t agree with them on all things, surely the Spirit is drawing people from many different corners of Christianity into a conversation that helps us all … and more importantly, helps the cause of Christ. We live in exciting times.

Therefore, long, long before we start defining who “we” are in contrast to Christianity in general, we really need to get comfortable with just being Christians and celebrate who we get to be with and talk to and learn from. We need to be cool with the idea that the Holy Spirit may well be drawing us all together into a new kind of fellowship, and new kind of unity, where we disagree on a bunch of stuff and yet keep on talking to and learning from one another, treating each other are brothers and sisters and not as the competition.

Now, that’s a kind of Restoration Movement that’s different from what the Campbells attempted, isn’t it? I mean, it has a lot in common with the Campbells, but it differs in some critical aspects. The Campbells insisted that faith in Jesus (which includes submitting to Jesus as Lord) is sufficient to save and establish a common fellowship. This much is, I think, exactly right. There are large parts of the “Declaration and Address” that’ll preach today and that need to be preached.

However, the Campbells also attempted a common praxis. They could not imagine being a common church with different ways of worshiping and organizing a church. But 200 years of experience demonstrate that we aren’t likely to ever agree on how to run our worship and our church organizations. We can’t even agree among ourselves!

You see, as Martin Luther worried 500 years ago, insisting on First Century practice as essential leads to a kind of legalism that is very destructive. I mean, who gets to decide where to stop? Do we meet in houses? Take communion as part of a common meal? Wash feet? Have apostles? Speak in tongues? Establish orders of widows? Have all things in common? Have 7 deacons handle food for widows? Serve wine at communion?

Therefore, building a new Restoration Movement on the ideal of restoring First Century practices is always going to be divisive — if we insist on it. That’s not to say that we don’t study, learn from, and often emulate First Century practice. We should. We just shouldn’t define ourselves as separate from the rest of the Christian world by which practices we want to insist on and which ones they do or don’t. We aren’t going to agree and we aren’t going to be able to say that, say, a plurality of elders per 1 Tim 3 is essential while having an order of widows per 1 Tim 5 is not.

We’ve always picked and chosen. We’ve never attempted all First Century ecclessiology or all First Century worship practices. Rather, we’ve picked out the ones that seemed relevant to today’s church and quietly ignored the rest. And what seemed pretty sensible, even obvious, in the 19th Century sometimes seems less so in the 21st Century.

Oh, and we’ve added a bunch of stuff that’s quite foreign to the First Century practice, like the invitation, going forward after the sermon, and such like, being practices invented in the 19th Century.

Hence, my answer is “yes.” Yes, we should “preserve and teach the best of our heritage.” But we need to pick out the “best” with the greatest of care. We’ll get more detailed in the next post.

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15 Responses

  1. Here it is I’ll just put it out there. I don’t read in the Bible about preserving the heritage of a legalist sect that started about 1809. The other idea that we (churches of Christ) and RM churches are some how anything like the martyrs of the first three centuries who changed the world just because we follow some Ecclesiastical “pattern”, that we apparently are mostly the only ones who can see it in scripture; is ludicrous. The main presupposed idea that most of the RM theology was based on is if there is any Ecclesiastical pattern for the church written about in the NT that must it be copied to nth degree to please God. So we read and looked for anything that even seemed like a “pattern” a certain day for communion, specific religious rituals to take place a certain times and the list goes on and on. I do not wish preserve this arrogant presuppositional thinking. I wish to put it to death!
    I am thankful for the foundation of sticking to the scripture and the encouragement to study on your own. I am also thankful for being taught that Jesus is the Son of God and that he is real. Besides that I don’t think there is anything I feel called to preserve.

  2. We’ve been going at things the wrong way. Instead of insisting on complete agreement on a long list of topics before accepting one another in unity, we should embrace one another and learn from one another until we come to agreement.

    Eph 4:11-13

    And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ,

  3. JOE BAGGETT:

    Awesome post!!

  4. Joe,

    Your retelling of history sounds more like a caricature that would come from a poorly informed talking head on television. PLEASE read your history before saying such things.

    This statement is baldly false and insulting to your fellow children of God: “The main presupposed idea that most of the RM theology was based on is if there is any Ecclesiastical pattern for the church written about in the NT that must it be copied to nth degree to please God.”

    What about the willingness of Campbell and Stone and Scott and others to STRIVE for unity? How could they extend the right hand of fellowship to the Dunkards? The Mennonites?

    What about the willingness of men like Lipscomb and Harding to publish dissenting opinions in their journals?

    I’m not as impressed with the “encouragement to study on your own.” I think that Campbell’s idea that we should approach the Scriptures as if no one has ever read them before is impossible, and actually rejects the wisdom of the community that the early church (and Israel for centuries beforehand) understood to be indispensable.

  5. Nick,

    Please don’t insult me. I am not poorly informed. I am well educated and have written many accounts on this. Many scholars both in and outside of the churches of Christ would agree, Like Richard Hughes and Leroy Garret. Please provide me with historical proof of this early wisdom and how it is indispensable. Did that have the perfect hermeneutic? If so please give a citation for it. Just a note it was not CENI or anything close to it. David Lipscomb through the Gospel Advocate was probably the most responsible person for creating the present environment of legalism. Most of the these people you mention James A Harding, and David Lipscomb would now be tossed aside and publicly castigated (Just like Rubel Shelly, and Max Lucado) for their views on premill, the Holy Spirit etcetera. Unity went from discussions on matters of faith and opinion to we have all the answers and true biblical Unity comes by agreeing with us on all these issues. I would suggest that you read some more about the history of the RM churches before you make accusations.

  6. Joe and Nick,

    I agree and disagree with both of you — and I consider neither of you poorly informed or unstudied.

    Stone in particular was quite irenic and didn’t consider ecclessial uniformity as essential to fellowship. Neither did the Campbells.

    However, Benjamin Franklin, Moses Lard, James Harding, and David Lipscomb developed a theology that did indeed require agreement on countless points — a list that continues to grow.

    My theory is that these men —

    * misunderstood the Campbells because, well, their language was often pretty obscure and they did indeed push for a common worship and organization pattern. They just didn’t make these salvation issues.

    * were heavily influenced by the Landmark Baptist movement (very active around Nashville) and the Separate Baptists, which is where much of our theology really comes from, not Stone and the Campbells. The Landmarkers particularly insisted on the right acts of worship as a mark of the church, dated their movement back to AD 33, and listed other marks of the church as proving them saved — such as date of founding and founder. http://oneinjesus.info/2007/04/11/a-theological-history-of-restoration-movement-thought-part-55-james-r-graves/

    Much of the RM is in fact a legalistic sect that was founded in about 1809, as Joe says, although I don’t think it became legalistic until later, as Nick says.

    And Lipscomb would unquestionably be damned as liberal by the conservatives (he accepted Baptist baptism) and legalistic by the progressives (and, boy, he was!)

    Harding, likewise, wouldn’t please today’s conservatives (accepted the indwelling of the Spirit) or progressives (demanded division over the instrument).
    http://oneinjesus.info/2007/04/10/a-theological-history-of-restoration-movement-thought-part-76-harding/

    In short, I think there’s a lot of good in what Stone and the Campbells taught, although there’s some clay mixed in with the iron. I think many of the later RM leaders taught a horribly divisive, legalistic theology that we have no business supporting or preserving.

  7. And yet Scripture teaches us that we cannot pick and choose our history. Remember that Paul does not say, “I WAS a Pharisee.” He says, “I AM a Pharisee.” Years after his conversion, he has no problem owning his whole history, and even “preserving the heritage of a legalistic sect.”

    Much of the modern problem in the conservative realm seems to stem from the “AD 33 in the cornerstone” mentality — that there is no relevant history between Pentecost and the formation of our local congregation.

    I believe John Mark Hicks has done a beautiful job here (http://johnmarkhicks.wordpress.com/serial-index/), under Stone-Campbell Hermeneutics of laying out our theological history in an orderly fashion.

    And Bobby Valentine, who has read every word published by Lipscomb and Harding, does not judge them as harshly.

    (See, I’ve read scholars too!)

    Men who are damned by both sides are men I prefer to side with. Peacemakers are never popular. with either side.

  8. Much of the modern problem within the progressive realm seems to stem from the “grass is always greener over there” mentality. Progressive congregations are jumping INTO seeker-sensitivity just at the point when places like Willow Creek and Saddleback are jumping OUT.

    Joe is right; denominations are dying. Yet too many progressives seem to want us to imitate their theology — a theology that is leading them to death.

    And we need to lay off the “division” panic button a bit– we are not CLOSE to being the most divided tribe in the Christian world. In 200 years, our theology has generated 3 major divisions (CoC, CC, DoC).

    Yes, we spent 100 years losing our focus on unity. But the good work done before then, and the good work done during that time, should not be jettisoned. We began as a movement focused on what seems like a paradox — a unity movement who believed deeply in sound doctrine and practice. We stopped TALKING to one another and started lobbing ROCKS at one another.

    And there was this big Civil War thing that broke us in half, too.

    Let us take a deep breath, “gird [ourselves] like men” and get back to moving forward with the dual emphases (unity and healthiness) that the Spirit needs from us. For it is by the CHURCH that God has humbled himself to display his manifold wisdom before the powers. (Eph 3:10)

  9. The churches of Christ are just as much a denomination even though we have no central headquarters, bishops or popes; we just have editors, and bible professors. Very few of the progressive churches of Christ are copying the older denominations. They are looking for answers outside the churches of Christ and traditional Christianity. They are test driving new ideas. This is a phenomenon sweeping all faith traditions older than 100 years.
    Here is the issue our so called unity movement has not brought all the denominations together. Unity by attempting to convince people that our way of doing church is right and theirs is wrong, it is not biblical unity. The very idea of “restoring” so called new testament Christianity infers that any kind of existing churches of the time 1800’s or present are not New Testament or biblical is arrogant no matter how well intentioned. We went from “We are just Christians” to “We are the only Christians”. From here on out Unity can not be a doctrinal argument over the specific ways of doing church but understanding that someone who is educated and thinks for themselves can pick up the Bible and come up with something completely different than the average church of Christ on the corner. And then being willing to dialogue with them.

  10. Nick,

    You’re right that the Restoration is formally divided into only 3 denominations. But around here, just the Churches of Christ are divided into about 5 effectively separate denominations. We’re only listed together in the census because we have the same name and some common history.

    My congregation is not in active fellowship with any other congregation in town. Only two even consider us saved — and I don’t think they’re very sure.

    1 We have non-institutional churches, which have nothing to do with the institutional churches.

    2 We have no Sunday School churches in the next county, which having nothing to do with the rest.

    3 We have extremely legalistic churches (Joe Beam would say “zealots”) that spend Sundays damning the other Churches of Christ. I think they’ve damned us. We had an African-American preacher speak to us from another congregation, and he was disfellowshipped by the local zealots for having done so! So I guess that means we’re damned, too.

    4 We have “mainstream” churches, trying to keep people of radically differing theologies together. They are getting more conservative each year. We used to be close, but not anymore. They don’t damn us, but they have members who’d be unhappy if they too openly fellowshipped us.

    5 And we have progressive churches. That’s just us in this county. You see, we clap during worship, which damns us in the eyes of many.

    For every practical purpose, other than the census, we are separate denominations.

    We cooperate with “the denominations” in hurricane relief and other good works. None of the other Churches of Christ do this. We do more joint work with non-CoC congregations than CoC congregations. Not by choice.

    And so, we are sinfully divided. I can’t compare us to other denominations. I just know it’s wrong at the deepest levels. I know that it’s getting worse. And I know that in countless ways it hurts our ability to spread the good news of Jesus.

  11. Just because we do not have a Pope or bishops or a central headquarters does not mean that we are not denominational. While we may not have Bishops we have plenty of people who are editors and bible professors who write and speak and tell others what to think. We have our own song books and all the other distinct worship items. Congregation autonomy is a joke, just ask any of the churches who are: progressive and they will tell you the grief they have endured from other churches of Christ. We regularly exhibit all bad things “denominational”. The “Restoration Movement” based on the original perspective is dead, just like the other older mainline denominations. It was developed in response to those denominations that all are now in decline. The Restoration movement is mostly just squabbling and arguing with themselves through the publications such as the Gospel Advocate and the Christian Standard and others. This means nothing to ever watching unbelieving postmodern world. People do not see us as nondenominational because we don’t act like it.

  12. “We are an Arminian (non-Calvinist) fellowship, but Alexander Campbell repeatedly denied that such questions should be tests of fellowship. Hmm …”

    Well, not really. What Campbell actually said was he’d fellowship a Calvinist or an Arian or a whatever…but only to “undo him”. That is, in Campbell’s mind, if a Calvinist begins attending the church of Christ he will be undone (or his Calvinism will be undone) by the preaching which will be so clearly scriptural the Calvinist will fall on his knees and confess “God is truly among you.” It may be the case that an Arian might, or a Socinian might, or even a Catholic might be “undone” merely by attending a church of Christ, and would ultimately cease to be whatever they are and become “just a Christian,” as Campbell so boastfully claimed…but it will never work for a Calvinist. Calvinists don’t ever attend any church other than the Presbyterian unless they intend to take it over completely, and they are never persuaded of any other position (Because at heart they’re just atheists who use pretend Christianity as a means to power).

  13. “Remember that Paul does not say, ‘I WAS a Pharisee.’ He says, ‘I AM a Pharisee.'” (Nick Gill)

    Not precisely. In the epistles: “I was a Pharisee.” In Acts, when he can use it to his advantage in dividing the Sanhedrin and getting the Pharisees on his side to let him go, “I am a Pharisee.”

    So, to a Christian audience, “I was a Pharisee.” To a Jewish audience “I am a Pharisee.”

    Where it has no advantage attached “I was a Pharisee.” Where there is advantage “I am a Pharisee.”

    Acts even explicitly states Paul only said it that way because “he perceived” that part of the Sanhedrin was Pharisee and part Sadducee. It was only a divide and conquer tactic.

  14. “Much of the modern problem in the conservative realm seems to stem from the ‘AD 33 in the cornerstone’ mentality — that there is no relevant history between Pentecost and the formation of our local congregation.”

    On this, Nick, I wholeheartedly agree. But just the history of the restoration movement is not enough. We need to study all of church history and accurately understand all of it. Especially the big debates, like Pelagius and Augustine, and we need to take the right decisions, even if they’re the ones that the Catholic Councils condemned. We need to study the whole of the Reformation, not just pretend that Luther was a saint. We need to study the debates between Erasmus and Luther, between Socinus and Covetus, between Calvin and Servetus. We need to learn Latin and translate the writings that have not yet been translated, even the ones deemed ‘heretical’ by Catholics and Protestants, or rather, especially those. We need to know all of church history, not just the last 200 years. And we need to really know it all, not just the sanitized version that the Protestants and Catholics put out where they erase all the views they disagree with by refusing to translate those works or by declaring them heretical so nobody will dare read them.

  15. Those who view all of church history as I have just suggested will not be petty ceremonial legalists, nor will they be libertine immoralist absolutists faith onlyists who hate morality. Because knowing every position–both those considered orthodox and heretical–that has ever existed, and to what extent it was popular and when, they will have more of a heart for humanity overall–they will think of the Christians of the past–both the orthodox and heretics–as actual people, having studied their writings, laughed at their jokes, and so on, and not just as abstractions. Its easy to say “everyone before my denomination began went to hell” if all those people in the past are abstractions. But if you intimately know Justin Martyr, and Tertullian, Erasmus, Socinus, Melancthon, Wesley, Carlstadt, Menno Simons, Thomas Aquinas, and whoever else, because you’ve read their writings, imbibed their genius, corrected their errors, laughed at their wit and their puns, can you so easily dismiss them all into eternal torment? You end up with a solidarity with all of Christianity of the past (even if you also end up particularly hating certain individuals with a especial hatred as I do Augustine and Calvin) and so you will not so easily and without any thought just damn everyone who came before you! This is what is so desperately needed, not just in the church of Christ which essentially holds the position that everyone between 90 AD and 1700 AD went to hell — but this problem is also a huge problem in the Protestant denominations which brainlessly condemn people in the past just because a Catholic council condemned them, despite the fact that many of them condemned unjustly by having a position that they didn’t even hold imputed to them, and many other were condemned simply because their opponents were too bigotted to even try to understand their position! But without any deliberation the modern Prots follow Rome in condemning them. True knowledge of church history will correct both these errors. AMEN.

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