The Fork in the Road: The Nashville Tennessean Weighs In

A week ago, Bob Smietana, a reporter for the Tennessean newspaper in Nashville, emailed me, asking for an interview for a story he was working on regarding the progressive Churches of Christ. I tried to set up a time, but our schedules never coincided.

His story was published today. I think you’ll find it to be an interesting read (even though I’m not quoted :roll:).

Here are a few excerpts —

Since the late 1800s, Churches of Christ, one of Tennessee’s largest faith groups, have believed their approach to church — singing without instruments in worship, interpreting the Bible literally, taking Communion weekly and banning women from church leadership — was God’s way.

That meant they kept mostly to themselves, shunned other Christians and did not participate in interfaith projects for the community.

In recent years, congregations like Otter Creek have adopted a more progressive view of their faith. They’ve added instruments to church services on Sunday nights and during the week. And they’ve begun cooperating with other faith groups, especially on charitable projects.

Sanders and others say this approach is faithful to their traditions and to the Bible. But critics say churches like Otter Creek have replaced real Christianity with a watered-down version. …

Glenn Carson, president of the Disciples of Christ Historical Society in Nashville, said that congregations like Otter Creek are creating a fourth stream of the Restoration movement, distinct from Churches of Christ and other groups.

One of the first so-called progressive congregations was Woodmont Hills in Nashville. Another is Richland Hills Church of Christ, near Fort Worth, Texas.

“They are all larger, urban congregations, who are operating in a community church mode, rather than a Church of Christ mode,” Carson said. “And they are in the process of opening up to other denominations.” …

There’s at least one danger in the progressive movement, Camp said. He’s concerned congregations like Otter Creek could lose their distinctive nature.

“We could just become plain vanilla evangelicals,” he said. Instead, he’d like to see other Christian denominations learn from the Church of Christ, especially when it comes to weekly Communion. Other Protestants take the Lord’s Supper far less often, sometimes once a month, sometimes quarterly.

He, of course, includes statements for leaders who disagree with the progressive movement.

Critics fear that progressives may be giving up too much of their heritage. Chambers said that even though he’s reluctant to cooperate with other faith groups, he doesn’t criticize Churches of Christ that do.

When it comes to a cappella music and other traditions, however, he objects.

“I am afraid that a few of our congregations have waved the white flag and are basically surrendering the whole Restoration idea,” he said.


19 Responses

  1. This is my first time commenting on any of your posts. I have been a lifelong member of the church of Christ and have arrived at this “progressive” viewpoint by myself. None of my fellow Christians along the way have seen it this way which really has surprised me. I agree with Rubel Shelly’s comments. The real dichotomy is not between denominations of Christians but between Christians and other world faiths. It is difficult to talk with Muslims and Buddhists and Taoists from our fractured ground. I know because I have tried. Telling about Christ is not difficult……telling them how to find Christ in the fractured groups they encounter is the difficulty.

  2. Rose Marie,

    Thanks for joining the discussion. You and Rubel are right. We can’t be God’s people while fighting among ourselves. Love and unity will show Jesus to a lost world, and nothing else will do.

  3. God bless you, Rose Marie.

    Our sectarianism is a danger that is hard to even put into words. I am speaking as one who had essentially fallen away from all faith from about 2000-mid 2009. I am a lifelong COCer, even a graduate of Lipscomb. In the end, I could never reconcile what I read in the bible with what I was consistently taught in my upbringing. I’d read the bible and see a loving God that pretty much speaking of nothing other than helping those that are in a lesser worldly state than ourselves. I’d go to church and hear the majority of the classes and sermons disparaging the Baptists or the Liberals or Shelly or Mac Deaver. And I’d think, “Okay, I’ve always heard that Mac Deaver was one of the ‘soundest’ men in the brotherhood. Now just because he thinks the HS is active in our lives, he is now an apostate destined to spend eternity with Lucifer?!?!”

    I gave up.

    And I returned through the mentoring of an “apostate” within a non-denominational community church! And I returned from a different angle: he started talking to me about developing a “relationship” with God. COCers, I’m sure you are with me if this idea illicits a perplexed look on your face!!:) Relationship? Huh? Relationship thought work? What? I determined that I didn’t truly love God. My only idea of love was to simply try and *not sin* and to obey as many commands as I could find. I didn’t love my neighbors properly. Like Jay has said, I was loving them out of command—selfishly. I was loving them so that I could go to heaven since I’d followed this particular command.

    So I started from scratch. I had no idea where to start with this “relationship” thing. I did the only two things I knew how to do: I prayed and I read the bible. I’d pray things like, “God, I have no idea how to really love you. This is foreign to me. But my heart is pure in that I DO want to love you fully. I don’t know, God. Maybe you can put things into my life that will TEACH me to love you. Hit me in the head with it, God. Give me opportunities to serve you.”

    Brothers, I testify: If you pray prayers asking God to help you to love him more and if you pray and ask God for opportunities to serve, HE WILL ANSWER THOSE PRAYERS!

    Eight months ago I was hard-hearted, mean spirited, addicted to many worldly and sinful things, and highly cynical about Christianity in general. But by the grace of God, he saw fit to soften my heart.

    Brothers, I am back…..back with a vengeance. Satan kept all of my gifts couped up for TEN YEARS. But no longer! I said I was hard-hearted…..I couldn’t tell you the last time I cried. Now, I sit here for hours each day reading posts/books by Jay, Al Maxey, etc. and cry like a little girl! My God, I am so FREE! I cry out of thankfulness that men with a blessing for analysis and writing have read the bible and come to the same conclusions that I had….yet can express it in a logical and loving fashion. The God that I always knew existed does indeed exist! I’ll never again be trapped by the shackles of legalism!!!

    Let me close with this: I said that Satan had kept me from using my gifts for ten years. Unfortunately for him, God is back in the saddle now. I’ve started a benevolence group at our church. I am in the middle of starting men’s Covenant Groups. I’ve been blessed with a talent for communicating, teaching, encouraging, and discerning the best way to get through to others. Like Jay, my passion is for helping to free the imprisoned. And I pray to God for opportunities, and praise God, does he ever deliver! I probably spend 15-20 hours a week on the phone talking with friends and family members, talking about the freedom that we have in Christ. THEY are the ones pushing the conversation! Like me, they THIRST for the desire to be free and able to truly have a trusting relationship with God…not one where they are obsessed with a quest for some sort of doctrinal perfection. Like me, they KNOW that the God they read of in the bible does not reconcile with the one they hear about three times per week that essentially desires for you to weave your way though a gauntlet of patterns, and if you hit it just right–and have asked for forgiveness of sins prior to dying (and before sinning again)–you’ll go to heaven!! No, a dormant spirit is moving in these people—and for how ever much longer God decides to keep me on this earth, I’ll be introducing the freedom of Christ to these tortured souls!!

    I don’t say any of this to brag or pat myself on the back. I am nothing without God. But I prayed, and he answered. My faith has never been stronger and I know that I am doing exactly what God would have me to be doing.

    Wow. This post doesn’t really offer any logical response to the subject at-hand. 🙂 But it felt good to write it, anyways!! 🙂

  4. JMF

    I don’t think you left or a least you did not go far. Kind of like when Saul spent three years in the desert getting things in line, then became Paul.

    For many years it has appeared to me there are Christians in the many many other groups world wide. Even though they worship some what in a different style than we do today. Most, unlike the old COC, believe strongly in the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. We have worked with the Evangelicals and the Interdenominationals . If these folks are lost God help us all.


  5. JMF

    I really like reading your posts. You fill me with joy. You may remember that I said we were going to have to set you free. It sounds like you are on the right path.

    You may also remember that in that earlier post I said , “JMF my son……..” That is because your three initials are also the initials of my son. I was a little disappointed when you said you were a graduate of Lipscomb…..because that told me you were not actually my son….and I had been thinking….hmmmmm…..JMF may be my son…and he has a heart for God. Wow!

    Well……it’s still Wow!……my brother. Keep spreading that joy and celebrate the freedom you have in Christ.

  6. It is good to read of others finding life outside the bondage of a legaliatic point of view. It is interesting that a large secular paper like the Tennessean would note what is going on in the little ole church that main stream denominations shun.

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  8. Glenn Carson, president of the Disciples of Christ Historical Society in Nashville, said that congregations like Otter Creek are creating a fourth stream of the Restoration movement, distinct from Churches of Christ and other groups.

    Four streams? Progressive Churches of Christ and non-legalistic Independent Christian Churches have much more in common under the proverbial theological hood than legalistic Churches of Christ and legalistic Christian Churches. I see the division in the streams to be based upon legalistic interpretation of the scripture (most Churches of Christ and some Independent Christian Churches), grace-based interpretation of the scriptures (the progressive Churches of Christ, many, if not most Independent Christian Churches, and a minority group within the Disciples of Christ), and rejection of the final authority of the scriptures (most of the Disciples of Christ).

  9. Xray342

    How right you are . My neighbor is the Pastor at the Bastrop Christian Church. He even scares me. Rick is very non-legalistic and excepting of those who believe in Christ no matter where they come from. He is in favor of the merger that would involve the progressive COC with the Christian Church. The guy has baptized 26 souls this year in a congregation of 120. Not bad.

    There are two COC in the community, one non institutional and one moderate.


  10. Xray,

    He should have interviewed you. You’re exactly right. We should think in terms of grace, not instrumental music.

  11. Jay;

    This talk of a “Fourth Stream” is exactly the point I was addressing in the “You Know It Is A Different Religion When…’ series in the Gospel Advocate which you enjoyed so much.

    I always find it interesting that when conservatives observe that some congregations and institutions no longer believe what they use to believe and that these changes constitute a division, the conservatives are derided as being hateful and mean spirited. When a liberal (the director of DCHS) or a secular commentator (the Tennessean) say the same thing, they are practicing good scholarship.

    Never a dull moment.


  12. Seriously

  13. Greg,

    You’ll notice that I didn’t say much about the article. I thought it would be interesting to see what the readers think.

    I agree with you that a “fourth stream” would be a bad thing. We need fewer streams, not more. And this is one reason I suppose the effort to unite with the independent Christian Churches — and one reason I work daily to unify the two streams of Church of Christ thought. That would reduce the RM to two streams.

    Both sides are quite capable of being mean-spirited. But in my experience, it’s the conservative churches that run full-page ads to damn progressive ministers and that disfellowship the other Churches in town.

    A preacher in my hometown was disfellowshipped by a conservative Church in town because he accepted an invitation to preach to my church. If a conservative church were to invite a progressive preacher to speak, I doubt there’s a single progressive congregation anywhere that would feel the need to discipline him. Indeed, we’d congratulate him for his work toward unity.

  14. Jay;

    My concern was not whether Conservatives or Liberals are more mean-spirited. (We both could recount horror stories.) My point is that when I observed that congregations and institutions have changed their beliefs and that this change constitutes a different fellowship you take me to task. When Liberals say the same thing, somehow they are given a pass as being objective scholars.

    I believe that what the Tennessean observes, and what I noted earlier, is correct. There is a new fellowship (a fourth stream) which has diverged from the Churches of Christ. Whether this change is for the better or for the worse is a matter of perspective. The truth that this change has happened is a matter of fact.


  15. Greg, said “There is a new fellowship (a fourth stream) which has diverged from the Churches of Christ.”

    Jay said, “I agree with you that a “fourth stream” would be a bad thing. We need fewer streams, not more. And this is one reason I suppose the effort to unite with the independent Christian Churches — and one reason I work daily to unify the two streams of Church of Christ thought. That would reduce the RM to two streams.”

    Greg that is what confuses me they admit they want to join the “independent Christian Churches ” but they insist they are “Church of Christ” although they believe hardly anything the CoC teaches. Why insist that you change. I am sure the progressives would be welcome at the ICC. live and let live, do what you want to do. I don’t get why they are not satisfied with the choices they are presented.

  16. Would someone please succinctly differentiate between “legalism/legalistic” and “obedience”? Thank you.

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  18. Laymond,

    I urge the conservative Churches to change because I believe that are at risk of being guilty of the Galatian heresy — with the attendant consequences — and because I know that countless good people within the conservative Churches are being made miserable by their legalism.

    To say we believe “hardly anything the CoC teaches” is to presume that what we agree on is less significant than what we disagree on. And we agree on faith in Jesus, the authority of the scriptures, and the necessity of obeying God’s commands. That seems like a lot of agreement to me. I just wish they’d stop seeking salvation by works.

  19. John,

    “Obedience” is to obey God’s commands.

    “Legalism” is to insist that obedience to certain inferences is essential to salvation, regardless of the Christian’s understanding and heart.

    “Legalism” is to deny the sufficiency of faith to save.

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