Backgrounds of the Restoration Movement: Where Do We Go From Here?

passioncartoonThe books on how to teach adult Bible classes all say you need to end with an application: how do we apply these lessons to our lives? It’s good to gain a perspective from history because it helps us separate culture from command and accident from design. That doesn’t tell us what to do with the conclusions.

We’ve seen that the 20th Century Churches of Christ were the very opposite of the movement that Stone and the Campbells worked to establish, with the original teachings misrepresented, suppressed, and ultimately forgotten. For a time, we pretended to have no history at all — as though somehow the church founded by Peter in AD 33 lept across the pages of history to the present with no intervening events at all — other than a series of digressions by “the denominations.”  It’s just not true.

More recently, many have sought to wrap themselves in the cloak of Restorationism, as though being in the Restoration Movement had always been about restoring First Century practices, rather than First Century unity built on faith in Jesus.

It’s easy to become a bit arrogant and look down on our spiritual fathers of the last century as though they accomplished nothing of merit. But here we are in a Church of Christ Bible class — not a Baptist or Methodist Bible class — and we should ask ourselves why we’re here? What did the 20th Century Churches of Christ get right?

* Bracketed materials are suggested answers for the teacher’s benefit.

[Successful avoidance of theological liberalism, with nearly 100% acceptance of Jesus as being the Messiah, the Son of God, come in the flesh, crucified, and bodily resurrected. There are surely a handful of exceptions in a multi-million person denomination, but the Churches have weathered the heresies that infected many quite well.]

[Strong emphasis on personal evangelism, missions, and church planting. Many Bible schools and hospitals founded in other countries.]

[Strong emphasis on Bible education, with many universities and private schools founded.]

[Although we’ve historically emphasized missions far more than benevolence, some excellent work has been done in the area of benevolence — orphanages, foster care programs, and disaster relief efforts all have deep roots in our history.]

[Strong emphasis on personal Bible study.]

[True understanding of baptism being designed for believers and to be by immersion (although this good conclusion is greatly harmed by the sectarian tendency to treat all with a false understanding of baptism as damned, as though we are saved by faith in baptism)]

[Strong emphasis on personal participation in congregational worship (but greatly harmed by the false notion that instrumental music or any other perceived error damns]

[Our rejection of denominationalism is right, although in the 20th Century we went about in the wrong way. The original plea — still remembered — is: “We will be Christians only but not the only Christians.” It still rings true. We just need to stop treating committed believers in Jesus meeting in other churches in town as enemies of Jesus. They’re not.]

[Weekly communion is the First Century practice. It’s not a salvation issue, but there is wisdom in the practice, as it helps moves the service away from a “vertical” event focuses solely on God and a lesson more toward a balance of vertical and “horizontal” — it’s just that this event, designed to have strong horizontal meaning, has been distorted into a private meditation performed in the presence of other private meditators.]

[The model of elder leadership is Biblical and sound. Many other kinds of churches are moving in this direction, but they usually do so by giving the staff more leeway than most Churches of Christ do. We need the vital synergism of a well-trained, full-time staff and an eldership that knows how to get out of the way without abdicating.]

[Congregational autonomy is sound when it doesn’t lead to isolation from or competition with other churches in town. We’ve taken it too far, but the model can be quite powerful when done well.]

So what is the plan going forward? What needs to change?

[We have to get our theology of salvation right. God saves those who have faith in Jesus and are faithful to him (not sinless and not doctrinally perfect).]

[When we get our theology of salvation right, we soon see that God’s priority is not doctrinal purity or even moral purity (although these are important). God’s priority is mission — and this redefines everything.]

[We have to get past the compartmentalization of life, where we see church as something to balance with work, family, etc. Rather, we have to all come to see life as being about mission, and mission absorbing and redefining all of life. We need to stop being Westerners who go to the right church and become citizens of heaven, parts of the body of Christ, on mission to a lost and hurting world.]

[We need to work collaboratively with other churches in town — not just Churches of Christ — to honor God’s mission.]

[We need to move toward a model of doing benevolence that is more cooperative and less program-driven. Every member needs to have a place in God’s mission.]

[We need to take the New Testament’s teaching on “neither Jew nor Greek” and be at the forefront of racial reconciliation — white and black/Anglo and Hispanic — whatever racial or ethnic divides there are in our communities. The notion of “white” and “black” or “Korean” churches should be seen as the affront to the crucifixion of Jesus that they are. Racial segregation in church needs to be seen as shameful.]

What does this mean for the progressive Churches of Christ as a movement? Do we move forward as Churches of Christ of a different kind? Do we become non-denominational community churches? Do we remain connected to Church of Christ institutions?

Many progressive Churches of Christ have left the Churches altogether, changing names and abandoning our institutions. Others have changed names while remaining active in our institutions. Others have kept the name while adding instrumental services. Others keep the name, teach a better theology, and try to reach out to conservatives looking for a better relationship with God.

Should we form yet another denomination? Should we merge with the independent Christian Churches? Should we abandon all denominational ties and be truly independent?

[class to discuss]

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10 Responses

  1. Jay:

    As one who made the leap from CoC to the Christian Churches I can tell you that while the problems are different on this side of things, they are no less severe.

    On the Christian Church side, we have a lot of mega-churches and the number is sometimes multiplying by the month. The very real question is whether mega-churches have a reason to remain loyal to the movement in any practical way. Sure they still look to Cinncinati, KCU, and others when looking for ministerial staff but most of them have abandoned the North American Christian Convention in favor of seminars and conventions specifically for mega-churches. They feel they have more to learn from and more in common with churches like Willow Creek and Saddleback. Without the mega-churches, all we have are a lot of small, stagnating congregations that will die out in a generation or two at best.

    I see it as a very real possibility that the entire movement, on both sides of the keyboard, could come apart in our lifetimes.

    Of course that raises the question: Is that a bad thing? I don’t know. I feel a loyalty to my spiritual family but do I really want to pass on our baggage to the next generation? Then again, if we’re not there to press for unity, who will be? It seems to be a back-burner issue for most groups. Nice but not necessary.

    I have come to believe in the unity seen by Richard Foster in his book “Streams of Living Water.”

    He sees each of the major traditions within the Church as emphasizing something that’s missing from the Church as a whole. The only way to really be unified is by learning those lessons from the other branches. What can the Pentecostal teach the Sacramentalist? etc.

    Though he doesn’t recognize us in his book as a distinct stream, I believe we are. I believe we are an important stream to keep in the discussion.

    I see us as the Amish see themselves: living examples for the Church universal. They hold up to the rest of the Church a model for peace, love, and forgiveness. There way isn’t the only way but it speaks to the Church as well as the world. In a similar way I see us being a model for the rest of the Church on how unity should look.

    If we survive this time of tribulation I believe we could well be that example. That too could happen in our lifetimes. But only by prayer and a lot of discussion among the parts of the movement.

    Ultimately, if we’re serious about unity, the Churches of Christ and the Christian Churches must reunite, otherwise we’re just a bunch of hot air.

  2. I really beleive that this is the most important discussion for the next decade. Unfortunately, the post is so broad that it is hard to respond to.
    As I look around my town, the most visible, growing churches are non-institutional mega churches or mega want to be. There is pressure to copy techniques because most want to look successful. I am thankful that this site tries to mine, what we have done right, and what we should be.
    I thank the Christian Church input, but hope we can avoid the same direction: mega or die.

  3. Thanks again for your thoughts.

    I think the question of the progressive coc’s future will prove to be critical. While I am on staff at a very conservative and traditional congregation, I would best be labeled as progressive.

    I have to say, I think that our restoration roots are something to hold on to, and when I hear of churches (both ICC and COC) leaving that heritage, it is somewhat disheartening. I think that both branches have something to bring the religious world, and I think that some of our own practices, while not to be put on a pedestal or made to be divisive, are still very worthwhile.

  4. I don’t think loyalty to any “train of thought” or “heritage” is relevant. While I acknowledge that “mega-churches” are not likely to disappear. And many congregations do many good things.

    Faith in Jesus is as threatened by organized religion as it is encouraged.

    In my view, Jesus taught individuals to seek to love as he loved us. And Jesus did not run an organization. He mentored 12 guys to emulate himself.

  5. Hmm,

    A few thoughts – yes, our beginnings should have made us the “unity” stream, but as we have observed by our review of our own history we became about almost everything but unity very in the second or third generation. Now we stand for extreme division, perhaps a major reason we are dying. Today the best hope for the “unity” platform is among the “community churches” where Christians from many denominational backgrounds are coming together to pursue Christ. (In point of fact my discussions with the leaders of such groups amaze me. They are far more true to the Stone-Campbell vision than we are and they’ve never heard of those men.)

    This can not be a major discussion over the next decade as the current trends show that a great number of our congregations may not have a next decade. From where I sit this morning in south Texas I can imagine a 50 mile circle around me in which perhaps 60% or better of the congregations will shutter within 10 – 15 years due to no evangelism and a lack of cross cultural sensitivity twenty years ago which has left them about to die today. The sad truth is that – short of a well funded nationwide church-planting effort – our day is almost done.

    As far as mega or mega want to be, we study and copy because we want to get the job done. Today I will have a much harder time saving souls via Jule Miller than we did thirty years ago. Things have changed and the churches that are growing have adapted to that change. (Kind of like we did when we adopted Stamps Baxter music, Sunday Schools, door knocking campaigns and, hmm, the Jule Miller film strips.) In our little part of the Church adapting our methods have produced new disciples, who are now producing new disciples, who will produce new disciples… sound like a familiar pattern?

    Bottom line (for my morning rant) we only have one tradition that is worth holding on to and that is Jesus Christ. Nothing else that distinguishes us is either all that distinctive or worth the bother if it gets in the way of the mission. Losing sight of the mission has allowed us to become the famously divisive people we now are.

  6. Let me agree first that only Jesus matters not heritage. Now having said that, we have a lot of choices to make. When, where, and how we shall meet, work together (service activites), and how shall we organize? For almost everyone heritage answers many of these questions. We can choose what heritage, and what in that to keep and what to change. Starting with a blank sheet is too hard.
    Secondly, in 20 centuries, many good ideas were put in practice and many bad ideas keep coming back. We can do better by looking at the past.
    I liked the Shakers but celibicy is hard on church growth!
    Anyway, I’m with the just Jesus theology but it really lacts answers for how we meet, organize, and work together.

  7. Just meaning that we need to hang on loosely to our traditions and be willing to make changes to get the mission accomplished in each generation. And right now, heritage – as it has come to be in the past half century – isn’t working so well for us.

    As for a blank sheet. I agree and would go one further. I think such is not really possible. In looking around at what is going on today there is really not much that is new (as far as the theory and most of the practice goes.) And in another century or so perhaps the methods of fifty years ago (in a modified form) may again be effective. Our failing is that many have been convinced that what they see in a CoC on sunday morning is exactly the way God intended and any changes are inherently evil. We also allowed Sunday morning to become disconnected from true life.

    So what do we have:
    – hundreds of congregations doing “1st century Christianity” every Sunday morning as it was done in the 1960’s.
    – thousands of believers who see the Great Commission as a mantra not a calling (And to be fair, a large number who have been taught that the GC applied only to the apostles so they needn’t worry about it. What spawn of Satan thought that one up?)
    – thousands who live life on their own terms, not Christ’s therebby negating any effect the GC would have through them anyway.

    And all of this with a generation coming up that demands authenticity. You must show them the reality of what you believe and how it works for them to trust it. A generation that, once convinced of the truth of the Bible, is very impatient with our hermaneutic parlor tricks, and takes the text as it reads. And a generation that, once it finds Jesus, brings every friend they can find to hear what He has to say. The past two years have proven to us here in Corpus Christi that this generation is not all that hard to bring to Jesus – you just have to be open to them and a follower yourself. A serious emphasis on evangelism driven college ministry right now will truly change our world.

    Perhaps that is the answer to keep us from disappearing. But you won’t get it done by not doing it.

  8. Pogo spoke to us long ago, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” How can a little o’possum have had things so clear. There is always an attack on the Lord’s people and God will always rise people up to do the job that needs doing.

    To me it is exciting to know that our children will be involved in a new song of Christianity. One that is not hamstrung by all this banter of the heritage of legalistic patriarchs from the 1950’s. Do you get the feeling we keep revisiting the Tower of Genesis 11 when humanity builds these religious organizations? Why do we want to “mega-anything” instead of following God?

    Instead, our children’s hearts will be turned toward Jesus, filled with the Holy Spirit and living in God’s grace. They do not have to be perfect and as a knuckle dragging coC’er I am thankful for their faith. I pray that they will find a small group and then feed one another on the love that Jesus supplies them.

    Philippians 4:13 gets the press but it is 14 that brings it home, “Even so, you have done well to share with me in my present difficulty.” I’m glad you’re here with me in this mission to tell others about the true Jesus not the “true church.”

  9. Thanks Todd & Neal. Blank sheet is really impossible, because we bring our past experiences, parental imprint, etc. to everything we do. Just important to honestly examine it and be humble enought to not suggest my way or the highway.
    I’ll rarely give my personal experience but two will fit these thoughts. My family attended a mid size c of C congregation basically whenever the doors openned. Unlike my piers, I waited late to be baptised. Major reason is I wanted to make it my choice not passed down. I read the bible conver to cover and again in my mid teens, and came to the conclusion what I was taught was largely good, and baptism was right.
    I am read a tract that exclaimed the Law of Silence and somehow made “strange fire” equal most of other Christian practices like IM, sprinkling, etc. Like most of the rest of my life, I would not use that argument because it seemed weak, contrived, and maybe wrong. The things the tract tried to support could still be true, perhaps for other reasons. I never found them. I never left because it wasn’t a fellowship issue, and that line was rarely preached or taught. I was always impressed by Paul in Acts on circumcism, as long as it was a minor thing, not a “or else” letting it go. Unfortunately, like today it became or else.
    I just wish the entire Christian world would try to honor God’s imspired word first then be humble about our traditions second.

  10. I agree. Traditions are an inevitable part of being human. No church is going to change practices every single week.

    The trick is to carefully distinguish what unites (our imperfect but genuine faith in/faithfulness to Jesus) from everything else. And teach it over and over. And teach our children and grandchildren to do the same.

    And then we have to live it by working side by side in the Kingdom with others not like us. (I think is where Campbell failed.)

    Nothing else has a chance of working.

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