Replanting a Denomination: Answering Some Questions, Part 1

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.

Introduction

A Unity People

Renouncing Sectarianism

Instrumental Music

Preserving Our Heritage

Re-joining the church of Christ

Radical Congregationalism

More Biblically Responsible

Knowing Who the Real Enemy Is

Shooting Our Wounded

Women and Men

Renewed Assemblies

A Colony of Heaven

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.

Advertisements

13 Responses

  1. I spend a good portion of my time with people who are 18-23 years old. They see a church building with a sign in front that says “This-town Church of Christ” or “That-town Church of Christ.” They see a denomination just like Baptist, Methodist…Catholic.

    No matter how much we try to “instruct” them on this point, they still see a Church of Christ as just another denomination. This really upsets some people I know as the word “denomination” is properly defined as “agents of Satan.”

    Maybe this is all semantics and playing games with words. It is, however, a powerful obstacle to overcome on all sides.

  2. Dwayne,

    You’re right. In many communities, a denominational name — regardless of which one you pick — will offend many. After all, the very choice of such a name indicates that we are divided — and comfortable with it. Big C, little c, it will be perceived as a denominational label.

  3. “The Orthodox and Catholics largely insist that those outside their communions are damned.”

    Jay: What makes you think that? My expose to Catholic and Orthodox teaching indicates that the Catholic Church largely regards Christians outside their communions as saved.

    The Orthodox are a more difficult group to understand, since they are a very diverse group. But I think it is false to say that they “largely” regard those outside their communion as lost. (See, e.g. Timothy Ware’s *The Orthodox Church* for a discussion of this.

    I’m not denying that many Orthodox and Catholics would view those outside their communion as damned, I just don’t see any evidence that they “largely” believe this.

  4. Hi Jay,

    I gree with your staement that:

    “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.”

    The challenge to unity (to me) lies in the specifics. I mean, it is easy to lay out some general guidelines and/or boundaries like:

    1) So long as faith is in Jesus
    2) So long as the believers are penitent
    3) So long as salvation is not attempted by works, etc.
    (I think that these three were the gist of what you previously listed?)

    But, what about when some honestly and sincerely believe that there is sin involved (whether or not “damnable” sin)?

    For example, suppose that I (for argumnet sake), honestly believe that to worship with instruments and to be led by women in prayer is against the will of God and a sin.

    And suppose their is an upcoming unity gathering wherein there will likely be both. Would you consider it a good idea for me to embrace and support (and attend) an event wherein I honestly believe brethren will be engaging in sin?

    Even if I did not consider those who were in error (in my honest and studied opinion), to be neccessairly damned — does that mean I could take part and with God’s approval? All the while believing it sin?

    Or, suppose the gathering was to be spearheaded by practicing Catholics? If they were going to do things I believed to be unbiblical (whether damnable or not), should I ever prevent my children from going? If they wanted to go, would I have a biblical right in telling them that what they believed, taught, and/or practiced was contrary to the will of God? (If I honestly believed such to be the case)?

    I guess my ultimate question is this:

    At what point do I have a biblical right to not attend, support, and/or work with a church that opennly teaches and/or practices things which I honestly believe to be sinful?

    OTOH…

    Are there ever times wher it would actually be pleasing to God for me to welcome, support, and/or take part in beliefs and/or practices which I honestly believe to be against his will and a sin?

    And if so, what specific things and to what extent?

    I just don’t see how the two can walk together except they be agreed (at least in terms of whether or not a thing is a sin).

    What do you think

  5. Is there any benefit to reviewing here (no doubt you’ve addressed it before) how/why you seemingly exclude Methodists, Presbyterians, et al, who do not baptize by immersion, but then still include them in other parts of your discussion on fellowship.

    Leroy Garrett and Al Maxey, though in different ways, both put forth the idea of one being responsible to the extent of “available light.” I can’t recall if I’ve read that you subscribe to this, as well.

    While this argument fits best in a discussion of non-Christians who have never heard (or rejected) the gospel, it seems employing this with respect to sprinkling groups would be a form of amnesty granted by “superior” Christians on top of grace from God.

  6. Jay, In one of your comments it seemed to me you were saying that Baptist do not baptize believers and not by immersion. They do. Love your web site and read it every day. Thanks so much for all the time you put into it. Hope your health is improving. God Bless, Margaret

  7. Micah,

    I stand corrected. The Catholic Church changed its position in the Second Vatican Council (1962-5). http://catholic.christianityinview.com/

    “The children who are born into these Communities and who grow up believing in Christ cannot be accused of the sin involved in the separation, and the Catholic Church embraces upon them as brothers, with respect and affection. For men who believe in Christ and have been truly baptized are in communion with the Catholic Church even though this communion is imperfect. The differences that exist in varying degrees between them and the Catholic Church …do indeed create many obstacles, sometimes serious ones, to full ecclesiastical communion. …But even in spite of them it remains true that all who have been justified by faith in Baptism are members of Christ’s body, and have a right to be called Christian, and so are correctly accepted as brothers by the children of the Catholic Church…”

    Indeed, before becoming Pope, Joseph Ratzinger wrote in The Meaning of Brotherhood,

    “The difficulty in the way of giving an answer is a profound one. Ultimately it is due to the fact that there is no appropriate category in Catholic thought for the phenomenon of Protestantism today (one could say the same of the relationship to the separated churches of the East). It is obvious that the old category of ‘heresy’ is no longer of any value. Heresy, for Scripture and the early Church, includes the idea of a personal decision against the unity of the Church, and heresy’s characteristic is pertinacia, the obstinacy of him who persists in his own private way. This, however, cannot be regarded as an appropriate description of the spiritual situation of the Protestant Christian. In the course of a now centuries-old history, Protestantism has made an important contribution to the realization of Christian faith, fulfilling a positive function in the development of the Christian message and, above all, often giving rise to a sincere and profound faith in the individual non-Catholic Christian, whose separation from the Catholic affirmation has nothing to do with the pertinacia characteristic of heresy. Perhaps we may here invert a saying of St. Augustine’s: that an old schism becomes a heresy. The very passage of time alters the character of a division, so that an old division is something essentially different from a new one. Something that was once rightly condemned as heresy cannot later simply become true, but it can gradually develop its own positive ecclesial nature, with which the individual is presented as his church and in which he lives as a believer, not as a heretic. This organization of one group, however, ultimately has an effect on the whole. The conclusion is inescapable, then: Protestantism today is something different from heresy in the traditional sense, a phenomenon whose true theological place has not yet been determined.”

    http://www.mostholyfamilymonastery.com/christian_brotherhood.html

    Interesting and positive news.

    This is actually consistent with the current Pope’s views on grace. http://oneinjesus.info/2009/07/26/the-new-perspective-justification-and-pope-benedict-xvi/

    Well … you learn something new every day.

  8. Hank,

    As we discussed before, I certainly agree that you cannot participate in a practice you consider sinful. That’s not a controversial position among the readership here or the Churches of Christ of any stripe. If to you it’s sin, don’t do it.

    But some have tried to over-sensitize our consciences so that we can’t even be members of churches where we disagree with a decision of the elders on doctrinal grounds. Nonetheless, the idea that we must leave when we disagree is a false teaching. While we cannot personally participate in what we disagree with, God expects us to extend grace to the same people to whom he extends grace.

    Thus, if you believe it’s a sin to clap to the music, don’t clap to the music. But nothing requires to leave when other people are clapping.

    This obviously has serious implications for any kind of cross-denominational gathering. Some will want to speak in tongues. Some will want leavened bread and others will want unleavened. Some will want wine and some grape juice. Some will want communion served by an ordained clergyman. Others won’t care. It’d be hard to find a common form of communion.

    But to even have a chance, we have to get over the notion that we can only commune who agree with us on all the issues. There are too many “issues.”

    And so, yes, there may be events like this where you likely couldn’t participate in good conscience. Be gracious, loving, and stay away. But look for ways to make it work rather than for ways to stay away.

  9. Margaret,

    I’m not sure which comment you are referring to, but I understand that Baptists baptize believers by immersion. If I left a contrary impression, I need to correct it.

    I know the Baptists pretty well, actually.

  10. Rob,

    I don’t teach Available Light, which has to do with the fate of those who’ve never heard of Jesus. http://oneinjesus.info/index-under-construction/theology-general/available-light/ The arguments I’ve heard mis-read Romans, in my opinion. But I don’t take an entirely conventional view of the fate of those who’ve never heard of Jesus either.

    As to penitent believers, however, I believe God will certainly overlooked flaws in their baptisms. http://oneinjesus.info/books-by-jay-guin/born-of-water/

  11. What about people who come to have faith in Jesus who have not been baptized? I think the COC denomination will be in for a great shock that heaven has people who weren’t baptized there.

  12. Jay:

    I have to echo what cobbmic said regarding the Orthodox Church. I’ve spent a good deal of time studying them over the past decade. The most prevalent view, I believe, could be characterized by the saying “we know where God’s Spirit is but not where it is not.”

    There is a group of recent Evangelical converts who now view Protestants as heretics, most notably Frank Schaffer (son of the famed Calvinistic apologist of the same name) but I don’t believe that is the common view. So
    e also in mostly ethnic congregations may feel likewise but I believe their bishops would disagree.

  13. This is from a World Council of Churches statement agreed to by the Orthodox Churches —

    15. The response to these questions is influenced by the existence of two basic ecclesiological self-understandings, namely of those churches (such as the Orthodox) which identify themselves with the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church, and those which see themselves as parts of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church. These two ecclesiological positions affect whether or not churches recognize each other’s baptism as well as their ability or inability to recognize one another as churches. They also affect the way churches understand the goal of the ecumenical movement, its instruments – including the WCC – and its foundational documents.

    http://www.oikoumene.org/en/resources/documents/assembly/porto-alegre-2006/3-preparatory-and-background-documents/final-report-of-the-special-commission-on-orthodox-participation-in-the-wcc.html

    Notice the careful distinction they make. They are not part of the church. They are the church.

    See also http://www.orthodoxinfo.com/inquirers/metphil_heterodox.aspx and http://www.reclaimingwalther.org/articles/pieperohcth4.htm, which argue that you can be saved by grace in a heterodox church unless you were once Orthodox. Those leaving Orthodoxy for another church are lost.

    The second article therefore counsels against any fellowship with those outside the Orthodox church. It sounds very familiar.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: