Posts Tagged ‘Christian unity’

churchofchristsignI think many Churches of Christ are caught in a dilemma that they don’t even know will have a long-term effect on them.  See if you agree with me.

Prior to the last quarter century, Churches of Christ viewed as part of their core identity their non-denominationalism.  In fact, the earliest roots of the Restoration Movement in the U.S. were a reaction to the fact that denominationalism had become the means of excluding those from one’s fellowship who had different creedal beliefs.  By laying aside all human creeds and denominational organizations, restorationists believed they were more perfectly practicing the unity of the Spirit in the one Body of Christ.

During the 1970s, many in Churches of Christ began to believe that regardless of our theology, our practice had become denominational.  Churches of Christ had in practice adopted a brand that was defined by its own traditions and that brand was used to exclude rather than include.

Whereas in the sixties, we argued over whether to write “church of Christ” with a capital C or not, by the 70s, those debates were over, and we had become totally tolerant of talking about “Church of Christ” preachers, “Church of Christ” colleges, “Church of Christ” elderships, buildings, JOY buses, and when asked about personal membership “Church of Christ” was the only acceptable answer.  The term “Church of Christ” no longer was just a descriptive name borrowed from Romans 16:16, but rather a brand name and trademark of a very particular group of Christians—the very definition of denominationalism.

Interestingly enough, about the same time period, two new developments began to surface in the broader Christian community:  a number of new non-denominational  groups like Calvary Chapel, The Vineyard,  and The Way were started.  Also the whole Bible church and community church movements flourished. These were typically individual congregations very loosely associated with other churches, if at all.

As these independent non-denominational churches became more numerous, they were seen to be taking advantage of growing tolerance among evangelical Christians in particular.  Congregations of mainline denominations, seeing the tide moving away from denominationalism, began changing their congregational names to more generic names.  New names like Harvest Church, Covenant Church, New Life Church, etc., replaced old names and left old denominational identifications to very small fonts in parentheses, if visible at all.  Some of these churches quit their denominational organizations, but most just changed names.

 So as I see it, about the time the Churches of Christ became comfortable about being one among many churches—at least among evangelical churches (although I myself think we are very inconsistent to only identify with evangelical churches),  those same denominations started moving away from that very position and towards the non-denominational position that Churches of Christ were abandoning.

Here are my conclusions for Churches of Christ:

  • Churches of Christ need to return to their roots and recover their non-denominational theology.  What a great opportunity to be what we have historically claimed to be, a unity movement.  What a great time to preach and actively embrace the unity in the Body of Christ.
  • Churches of Christ need to quit trying to imitate “successful” churches and decide who God wants them to be and what He wants them to teach. Turning to market research for our identity has two big drawbacks: It leaves us being a lesser imitation—a knock-off—of an original, and it means we are always catching up to the “latest trends” often after those who established those trends have moved on.
  • The highly autonomous congregational approach to church is robbing Churches of Christ of the power in community, in fellowship, in “many members but one body!”  We must learn to be more collaborative, to look for true fellowship in the work of the Gospel, and to welcome partnerships with other members of the Body.  Isn’t that the only way to be a whole and healthy Body!

Watch for more on this last point later.

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Glasco ChristianIn the late 1870s,  my great-grandfather and my and other family members were part of starting a new church in a small Kansas town.  They just called themselves Christians, and so the church was also called a Christian church.  As one reads the history of this small insignificant church in this scarcely populated wheat town in the Solomon River valley, the description inadvertently betrays the post-civil war rift in the Restoration movement.  On some pages, the words introduce former preachers while just a few pages later, a new minister is called a pastor. Pages are periodically silent about the music, then suddenly there is an organist, only to go silent again for a few more years!

Our  family’s conclusion is that this little wheat field town’s church members hardly noticed the differences that other Restoration Christians in larger cities were debating and dividing over.  They were first a community of Christians, living and worshiping  together–with no further adjectives necessary.

By 1906, someone who was somebody decided it was time to differentiate the two groups–that is, the instrumental, mission society Christians from the acapella, non-missionary  society Christians.  I wonder how long it took the Christians in that tiny town in Kansas to know to which group they belonged?  They may have been confused and just thought that they were Christians.

For one hundred years, the two groups operated with few exceptions in completely different circles.  We each developed our own jargon, our own heroes, our own missionaries, our own colleges.  With the exception of a few touch points, we were not talking, certainly not fighting–because we hardly knew the other existed.

The instrumental churches of Christ–not everyone bothered to change their name–later split into two distinct fellowships:  the Independent Christian Church/Church of Christ (because not everyone changed their name!) and Disciples of Christ.  The movement which began as a unity movement . . . oh, well!

Some individuals of all three groups continued to keep the hope of unity alive with annual gatherings, some pretty scholarly publications, and an occasional token invitation to a lectureship, but with the exception of this high-level contact, the average members of these churches continued to exist in different worlds, practically oblivious to the others.

On the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the separation of Churches of Christ and Independent Christian Churches in 2006, several leading preachers and pastors in both groups declared that the 1906 breach was wrong and that the unity of the Restoration Movement should be restored.  At several high-profile gatherings, representatives of both groups repented for participating in division, asked for forgiveness, extended  fellowship to their counterpart, and ceremoniously traded Bibles as peace offerings.

Let me tell you why I am thinking about this.

My personal history is in the acapella Church of Christ. During the last few days, however, I have had the privilege of being on the campuses of two of the Independent Christian Churches larger colleges/universities.  I have been extraordinarily well hosted and extended complete and unreserved cooperation.  I would not have expected it to be any other way between Christians!

What  continues to sadden me, however, is how little either of us really knows about the history and the daily life of the other.  Just today, in casual conversations with colleagues,  I have learned of marvelous missions efforts,  of amazing heroes of faith, both alive and dead, even of Christian colleges/universities–all completely unknown to me.  I know a lot about our side of the aisle, but embarrassingly little about these brothers and sisters.

Maybe we have reconciled, but not actually restored fellowship.  Let me suggest a few actions that could possibly get us started in the process of really loving the whole brotherhood.

  • Local congregations should begin getting to know other congregations. It might only be a common potluck at first, but perhaps with the goal of getting to know each other.
  • Preachers could swap pulpits and use some of their time to introduce the history and heroes of their congregations.
  • Youth ministers from both groups could plan joint outings/camps/mission trips together.
  • The Christian Chronicle and The Christian Standard could each begin a section that deals with the news and ongoings of the other group.
  • Christian colleges/universities of both groups could include tracks in their lectureships/conferences that introduce both groups to each other.
  • Perhaps somebody needs to start a ministry of fellowship restoration, specifically focused on bringing not just the leaders, but the grassroots of these two groups together until we learn how to love each other again.

I know somebody is going to think that all this talk of getting to know each other and fellowshipping with people that we hardly know and may not entirely agree with is going to be a slippery slope to  . . . you know where!

I’m sure they (the others!)  aren’t perfect–but I’m not either, so I’m not going to be afraid of loving someone who loves God.  Fear makes us do terrible things–like ignore people who belong to the Body of Christ.

Maybe those people in that little church in Kansas knew something about love and fellowship and unity after all!

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A-ChristianLet’s talk a little more about denominationalism.  I know of no Christians who would take issue with Jesus’ prayer for unity: “that they may be one, as I and the Father are one” (John 17:11,22). Nor would they argue with Paul’s unities in Ephesians 4, beginning with “one body” (v.4). So why does denominationalism seem normal and unity abnormal?

The concept of denominationalism grew up in the early years of the Reformation, especially in England, when the Church of England broke away from the Roman Catholic Church. When then the Separatists, the Anabaptists, and others including Calvinist reformed churches and the Presbyterian congregational churches solidified into something other than the Church of England, none of them wanted to claim to be the exclusive Body of Christ, so everyone except the Roman Catholics abandoned the theology of One Body=One Church and moved to One Body=many denominations.

Lest we forget, however, these early denominations were rarely, if ever, in fellowship with each other either. The New World became the haven for persecuted denominations, which often then persecuted other denominations after the formerly persecuted gained the ascendency.

And so we in the US are exactly as Dietrich Bonhoeffer described us in his 1939 essay Protestantism Without Reformation after visiting the US. He said, “It has been granted to the Americans less than any other nation of the earth to realize on earth the visible unity of the church of God.”

Bonhoeffer goes on to say that “The unity of the church of Jesus Christ is to American Christianity less something essential, originally given by God, than something required, something which ought to be.”

A denomination, if seen as just a convenient association of Christian congregations, or just a brand, seems pretty innocuous to most of us.  What truly frighten us today are those radical Christians who claim to be the one true church!

These polar opposite positions prove to me that we have been living in and rationalizing disunity so long that we are now to the point of celebrating the division among us instead of abhorring it.

Many will agree with me and will call with me for true unity–but, let’s be honest: describing what that unity really looks like is a daunting task for us—another indication of how far removed we must be from it!   I certainly don’t have all the answers, but here are a few possibilities:

  • Jesus’ disciples would love one another—not just in words, but in deed and truth. Don’t be tempted to ask at this point “who is a true disciple?” It sounds too much like the “who is my neighbor” question from Luke 10.  Instead, make a list of those things you would do for or with other disciples of Jesus if you love them.
  • Jesus’ disciples would be found in ever-growing gatherings. They would eagerly welcome others of like faith, and they would be telling others of God’s great love, so the Lord would be adding to their numbers daily those being saved. Theirs would be a spirit of inclusion, not exclusion.
  • Jesus’ disciples would “love the brotherhood” (1 Peter 2:17). I’m quite confident that this verse does not mean love just your family, or your small group, or just your congregation, or just those who read from the same version of the Bible or sing the same songs that you do.  In fact, the same word for brotherhood is used in I Peter 5 to talk about the brothers and sisters in Christ “throughout the world” (v.5).

With these last points, perhaps we have laid the groundwork for talking about less pride in autonomy and greater value for fellowship.

My conclusion then is that denominationalism is a convenient rationalization, but that it is not the unity with which churches of Christ should be satisfied. 

Allow me just a few more insightful words from Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

Where the unity of the church is forgotten as a goal . . ., the work of the Holy Ghost, who will fulfill the promise of the unity of the church, is no longer taken seriously, and a separatist Pharisaic claim takes the place of the divine unity of the church.

Next we will get into the questions raised about autonomous churches.  

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In exploring the very important question of Christian unity, I keep asking myself how Jesus really wants us to be ONE.  What does this Divine Desire for unity look like in our world?  And what keeps us from achieving this unity?

I fear that one answer to this last question might be that we live in such an individualistic, consumer-oriented society that the right to shop is considered God-given.  I know this from personal experience.

Sherrylee and I have left two churches and thought we might have to leave another. Two of these churches we had a hand in starting and were certainly part of the core group. In the third church we were very common members.

Church number three was a good, traditional church, full of wonderful people; Sherrylee and I were continually irritated, however, by what we thought was a bureaucratic though benevolent leadership and shallow preaching. We left peaceably when the opportunity presented itself to start the perfect church with a like-minded group of friends.

Church number two felt like the perfect church, just what we wanted church to be: close, intimate fellowship, challenging teaching where any question could be raised and seriously addressed, and communal worship that visibly flowed from heart to heart in songs and prayers that felt holy rather than enthusiastic.

In spite of many years in that community of believers, Sherrylee and I left that church because we had lost confidence in their commitment to core Christian beliefs that we held to be essential and because we ourselves had lost the confidence and trust of the church leaders in this tension.

We did not leave the first day we noticed these losses. No, for several years we tried to re-direct and lead the church along a different path, but when we felt we had lost our voice and even the goodwill of the community, we left.

This congregation continues to exist, and I want to be clear that my description of how we believed it was many years ago is not a statement of how the current community is or what they believe and practice.  Neither we nor they were as perfect as we wanted to be!

Church number one is really the one I want to focus on in this post because with this particular group of Christians, I learned lessons that continue to challenge my understanding of Christian unity.

In 1973, Sherrylee and I along with two other couples moved to Hannover, Germany, in order to plant a new church (to use a jargon that belongs to the current generation).  Planting a church is an extraordinary experience that challenges the essence of your faith. It draws on all of your experiences as a Christian as well as all you have learned, and it defies formulas and templates, so you are forced into arenas that you never knew existed.

(Wow! I just realized as I wrote that sentence how attractive that whole list is to me. Makes me want to do it again!)

Here are a few of the lessons I learned in Hannover about church unity

  • We really don’t have an inalienable right to choose with whom we worship. We had one older German couple that were “old German”—meaning that their norms for propriety were from their generation, not those of the younger people in our age group. They were constantly being offended, but they desperately needed the Lord! On many days they were an irritant in our small community of believers—but God had brought them there. We did not have the right to choose to divorce them or ignore them; our only choice was to love them, so we learned to love rather than leave—and became a little more like Jesus because of them.
  • What is “lively” to one person is “deadly” to another even within the same community. The first wave of what we today call praise music was big in the States in the 70s, especially among campus ministries. Since Sherrylee and I had been at Ole Miss prior to going to Germany, we were familiar and in tune with this new music. You can imagine our enthusiasm for translating and introducing it to our fresh, new community in Hannover. What could be livelier?? Except that it was not their music. As in any group, some people liked anything new and different, but others needed the continuity of familiar German hymns. There was no option about having a “worship war,” so we had to learn  not only to respect each other, but to worship together in unity of spirit—and the style became secondary to the love that required.
  • Those least like you may become those most like you. Hannover is in northern Germany which is historically protestant. Southern Germany is much more Roman Catholic. We began our mission in southern Germany, but expected when we moved to Hannover that receptivity would be greater in northern Germany among the protestants with which we had more in common.  We were completely wrong!

What we had yet to learn was that the modern German protestant is far removed from the theology of Luther. In fact, Protestantism in Germany only has vestiges of Christian faith remaining. Most pastors do not believe in the resurrection of the dead, do not believe in eternal life, and do not believe that Jesus is the Son of God. I’m sure there are some clergy who do—and certainly many of their members—but as a whole, we found the protestant church in Germany then to be post-Christian.

You can imagine our surprise as we discovered that we had much more in common with the Catholic church than with the Protestant.  We had been raised to understand Catholics as much farther removed from the presence of God than Protestants. But Catholics firmly believe in the Lordship of Jesus, in his death and resurrection, in eternal life, in the inspired Scriptures, in prayer, communion, baptism, and so much more that we share.

If unity is based at all on likemindedness, if unity is based at all on speaking the same thing, then we had much more unity with Roman Catholics than we had with German Protestants.  In fact, many of those who joined our little community of faith came from Catholic backgrounds and probably joined us, not as a repudiation of their past, but as their own attempt to draw even closer to God.

So, as you can probably tell, I really don’t believe that we have the inalienable right to casually shop!  At best, the opportunity to shop is a luxury of the rich who live among many, many stores!

I do believe that belonging to a community requires commitment and part of every real commitment is being able to trust that you will not abandon those to whom you have committed.

God hates divorce! I believe that He hates that which creates Disunity, that which destroys committed relationships—including church fellowship.

But I’m still working on what that means.  So I’m thankful for His grace and mercy that heals brokenness!



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