Category Archives: Restoration Movement

Those Unhelpful Labels!

What kind of Christian do you consider yourself? A liberal or conservative? Perhaps a progressive or traditionalist? Maybe you consider yourself a fundamentalist or one of those “spiritual but not religious” Christians. What about a Neo-Calvinist or Missional?

Once Upon A Time…

In the year 2007 my wife and I moved to Ithaca, New York, a small town full of an earthy, free-spirited, political culture. Down the road from my house was a trendy little coffee shop that I frequented a couple times a day. One day one of the Barista’s, who knew I was a Christian, asked me if I considered myself a mainline-protestant or an evangelical? Well, I’m not one who likes to be cornered but I also knew that there were (and still are) some assumptions this person had attached to both choices that I didn’t want to claim. Fortunately, having been raised in the Churches of Christ, I responded as any Church of Christ member would and said, “I’m just a Christian.”

Several months later, the same Barista asked me if I believe that Jesus is the only way to salvation. Knowing that the person asking the question was not a Christian, I invited her to have a cup of coffee with me sometime so we could talk about her question. She did. And I did my best to explain over a nice cup of coffee why I believe Jesus is the only way of salvation. Her response… “So Rex, you really are a conservative!”

It’s kind of ironic because a year before that, when still living in Memphis, I had someone insist that I was a liberal because they knew I rejected a literalist reading of the Genesis creation narrative (creationism) and opposed the war in Iraq.

So Am I a liberal? A conservative? Or am I… Truthfully, I don’t really care!

Hyphenated-Christians?

But if you must know whether I consider myself a liberal or conservative, or whatever other designated tag you want to label me with, it all depends on where you stand in relation to me. You see, from my perspective, I stand perfectly in the center and it’s you who are either too far to the right or too far to the left.

How’s that for an answer! It also shows the absurdity of such labels. They’re all just too nebulous and too loaded for the kingdom of God. Fortunately, followers of Jesus don’t need such labels. That’s one of the values I greatly appreciate about my Restoration heritage that reminds me, we can just be “Christian’s only.” Not the only Christians but Christians only!

To say that we are Christians only without any additional hyphenated adjective allows us to stop defining ourselves by our own terms and instead define ourselves simply as followers of Jesus, which is what we are. Any thing else is too nebulous and in my experience as a minister, people and churches are too diverse to fit into the categories we want to label each other with.

So let’s just be Christians… followers of Jesus!

Pepperdine Bible Lectures 2014

It’s that time of year again. I’m leaving today for the Pepperdine Bible Lectures. This year I am taking my 9 year-old daughter, Caryn, with me and she’ll be participating in the Making Waves children’s program. Trust me when I say, she’s excited. Join me in praying for her faith formation.

This year’s theme is Enter the Water, Come to the Table. As expected, it will be a faith enriching time and it will be good to reflect on what it means to live from the reality that I am baptized into Christ and share in his table fellowship.

I look forward to the sunshine, balmy weather, blue-waters of the Pacific Ocean, and the foothills of the Santa Monica Mountains (yes, it’s a hard life but someone has to live it!). I also look forward to the great periods of worship in the Firestone Fieldhouse as well as the challenging key note messages and the many classes. But the lectures would not be complete without seeing many friends, some of whom I’ve only known thus far through social-media (it’s the new world). So if you’re headed to Malibu, I look forward to seeing you!

Preaching and the Mission of God

Per the request of a few people, I am uploading the paper I wrote for my first Doctor of Ministry class at Northern Seminary, Missional Ecclesiology, with Dr. David Fitch. I have reformatted the paper as a single-space, 13-page pdf.document.

This paper, which I have titled Preaching and the Mission of God, critically examines my own practice of preaching within the Columbia Church of Christ as we strive to participate in the mission of God. I begin by describing the doctrinal and ecclesiological formation of the Churches of Christ in order to understand how this bears upon my own preaching. Following this, I explore this formation in light of the cultural transition from a modern and Christendom culture, which the ethos of the Churches of Christ emerged in, to a postmodern and post-Christendom culture. The paper the turns with a focus on the mission of God and the role the church is to play within this mission in order to understand how I must engage in the practice of preaching.

Though the paper focuses on my own practice of preaching, I hope it will help others think critically about the practice of preaching — especially those who minister among Churches of Christ. So here is the paper:

Preaching and the Mission of God

Misreading the New Testament

There are many Christians among the Churches of Christ who continue to read the New Testament as though it is a law from God.  Perhaps the best example of this reading is found when dealing with the issue of a cappella vs. instrumental worship and passages such as Ephesians 5:19, Colossians 3:16, and other passages deemed relevant to the subject.  The argument goes that God’s word instructs to “sing” and that this excludes any mention of instruments.  This argument is accompanied with other ad hoc proof-texts from scripture, both Old and New Testaments, to warn Christians about the dangers of adding to God’s word and offering unauthorized worship to God (e.g., Lev 10:1-2; 1 Cor 4:6).

There are various assumptions at work that lie behind this legal reading of the New Testament.  One of those readings is the binding nature of silence among scripture which I have already written about in a post called The Silence of Scripture or Freedom in Christ?.  But another assumption, perhaps the biggest, is that the New Testament is to be read as though it is a law from God, one that replaces the Torah or Mosaic Law of the Old Testament.  Under such assumption, the New Testament is treated as though it is a constitution or instruction manual for following the assumed (yes, another assumption) one single pattern of Christianity called the New Testament Church.

This legal reading of the New Testament is wrong and it needs to be explained why because in the end it only produces legalism (see the video below).  Think with me for a moment.  The apostle Paul said this to say about the Law in Romans 7:12-13:

So then, the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good.  Did that which is good, then, become death to me?  By no means! Nevertheless, in order that sin might be recognized as sin, it used what is good to bring about my death, so that through the commandment sin might become utterly sinful.

Do you see what Paul is saying about the Law and humanity?  The problem of sin is not and has never been the Law.  Rather the problem with sin is and has always been humanity, you and I.  By the grace of God, that problem is rectified in Christ.  But here is the big question that must be asked which pertains to the issue of reading the New Testament as a new Law: If God’s aim or purpose in the gospel is to keep humanity living under a written law, why would God just not have us following the written Law of the Old Testament since it is already “holy, righteous, and good” law?  A secondary question: Assuming the New Testament is a new written Law, what makes us think we can faithfully keep that Law if we could not faithfully keep the written Law of the Old Testament?

The fact of the matter is that if God’s intention for redeeming humanity in Christ was to bind them to a covenant that requires following any written law, then God already had a perfect—a holy and righteous—Law established for this purpose.  Yet any cursory reading of the New Testament and the apostle Paul’s instruction to Gentile Christians is suffice to show that this was not God’s intent.  This is not to say that there are no commands for Christians to obey or that Christians can live a “lawless” lifestyle.  Loving God and neighbor (cf. Mk 12:29-31) are still the greatest commands that Christians are to obey; living by the Spirit (cf. Gal 6:13ff) is still a non-negotiable practice for all who profess the name of Christ.  But obeying the two great commands and living by the Spirit is one thing, it is quite another matter to turn the New Testament into a legal code that prescribes how every local church must worship, organize itself, and regulate its practice of ministry.

In Christ, we have been set free.  May we use that freedom responsibly and with integrity but may we also enjoy that freedom rather than being shackled by our own misunderstanding of the gospel and New Testament.

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I have posted this video before of Rick Atchley, Preaching Minister of The Hills Church of Christ in Fort Worth, TX but I am posting it again because illustrates well the legalism that is produced by reading the New Testament as a law.

Missional and Radical Christianity: Necessary or Legalism?

A lot of chatter has been flying around the world of social media about whether the emerging movements towards a Missional and Radical Christianity is becoming the new legalism.  This concern was raised by Anthony Bradley and judging from the number of times I’ve seen this article tweeted (and from one Christian who emailed it to me), I assume others share this concern.

Of course, Bradley is not the first to raise this concern with neo church movements.  A few years earlier, Jim Belcher raised a similar concern about the Emergent Church movement.  Observing the strong deconstructive critiques of the emergent church on traditional evangelicalism, Belcher wrote:

…this iconoclasm is not fair, and if not tempered it will handicap this reform movement, potentially leading it into a new kind of sectarianism, mimicking some of the same mistakes of the past—anti-intellectualism, anti-tradition, and tribalism (Deep Church, 48).

I blogged here about Belcher’s observation in relation to my own church tribe because this is the path that the Churches of Christ took.  The history of the Churches of Christ began as a non-sectarian unity movement that had mission stamped all over it but eventually the values of the movement resulted in an unwritten creed that turned us into sectarian legalists.  With little exception, we came to believe that we were the only Christians (fortunately that view is fading fast among us).  So I understand the concern that people have with new movements letting their critique morph into legalism tends to produce sectarianism and vise versa.

However, before we point fingers and issue warnings, I think we need to ask what we mean by “missional” and “radical” Christianity.  I’ve not read David Platt’s book Radical but I have read a fair amount of books on missional church, living, etc… (and I’m beginning a Doctor of Ministry cohort in missional leadership this June at Northern Seminary).  So I’m more familiar with the reforming call for Missional Christianity.  In his article, Bradley contrasts the missional and radical movements with “ordinary God and people lovers” to which I assume he means Ordinary Christianity.  That raises another question then: what do we mean by ordinary Christianity?

I don’t want to waste time by trying to define what is meant by Ordinary or Missional and Radical Christianity.  There are two things we must recognize though.  First, the term Christian is a very broad ranging term that can be used today to describe people with a very minimal faith/commitment to Christ.  So that almost always forces Christian leaders to find some adjective, such as Ordinary, Missional, or Radical (or Evangelical, Orthodox, etc…) to define what they mean by Christianity.  Second, like Jesus, none of the apostles ever called people to be Christians, rather they called them to become faithful believers who lived their lives as disciples of Jesus.  That is to say that they were not calling people to just a different religious identity but to a new way of believing and living that demanded uncompromising commitment.  So while I share the concern about the calls for Missional and Radical Christianity morphing into a new legalism, forgive me if I’m a little concerned about the idea of Ordinary Christianity among a post-Christian North American culture that has become very secularized.

The problem is that even though the Christian church is shaped and guided by scripture and tradition through the power of the Spirit, it is still comprised of people.  That is, the church is  one big jar of clay and made that way in order to show the “all-surpassing power” of God (cf. 2 Cor 4:7).  But that also means that in weakness, the church will always make mistakes, get off track, etc… and need leaders calling it back to Jesus and the kingdom way of life.  Jürgen Moltmann writes:

A Christianity that departs from its beginnings in order to adapt itself to the present-day state is bound to evoke the Christianity of reform.  A Christianity that surrenders its messianic hope is bound to evoke the Christianity of prophesy (The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 321).

Thus as the church rests upon grace to the neglect of obedience, it will need leaders to call for more obedience.  Yet as the call for more obedience begins obscuring the grace upon which the church lives, it will need leaders who speak up for grace.

Let me say that whatever is meant by Ordinary or Missional and Radical Christianity, I am glad that there are reforming and prophetic leaders among Christianity calling American Christians back to the gospel.  Yet, as one of these voices—though certainly lesser known than others :-)—I do agree Matthew Lee Anderson who said, “if the message is going to critique the American dream for the people in the pews, then we may need pastors willing to show us the path of downward mobility with their lives.”

While obedience apart from grace is legalism and often leads to sectarianism, from where I sit the grace without obedience that Dietrich Bonhoeffer coined as “cheap grace” seems to be the problem that must be contended with.  So whether we like or dislike adjectives such as Missional and Radical, let’s remember that we are called to be faithful believers who live as disciple of Jesus.

Churches of Christ…Iconoclasm

I’m reading the book Deep Church: A Third Way Beyond Emerging and Traditional by Jim Belcher for an upcoming D.Min class.  The book is thus far accessing the conversation and clash between the emerging and traditional expressions of Evangelical Christianity, in which the former has become a sort of new reformation protest against the later.

Among emerging voices, who see traditional Evangelicalism fraught with serious problems (too wedded to modernism/enlightenment philosophy), there is a strong tone of deconstruction before there is any reconstruction.  While deconstruction is necessary when there is a perceived problem, Belcher says that the “protest is too sweeping.  At times it borders on iconoclasm” (p. 48).  He goes on to say:

…this iconoclasm is not fair, and if not tempered it will handicap this reform movement, potentially leading it into a new kind of sectarianism, mimicking some of the same mistakes of the past — anti-intellectualism, anti-tradition and tribalism (p. 48).

When I read this I just dropped the book in my lap and thought how much he could of easily spoken these words to my own tribe, the Churches of Christ, many years ago.

For those who don’t know, iconoclasm has to do with attacking and destroying cherished beliefs of an institution, such as Evangelicalism.  Because this is a blog, I won’t take the time to document all the ways in which the Churches of Christ fell into the trap that Belcher warns emerging Christianity of.  It’s suffice to say here that as part of the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement, the Churches of Christ saw themselves as restoring the church read about in the New Testament.  Somewhere along the line this restoration project which began as a unity movement (“Christians only but not the only Christians) began asserting itself as the only true church, attacking all other denominations as false teaching and unchristian.  The result became an anti-intellectual, anti-traditional, and tribalistic form of sectarianism.  Of course, those still steeped in this sectarianism will cry foul at my assessment here but that may only show just how much we became a victim of our own iconoclasm.

While many among Churches of Christ have rejected this sectarian approach, it is worth mentioning as a living example of the warning Belcher offers:  Learn from history or repeat it!  For surely the Churches of Christ are not the only group of reforming/restoring Christians to become ensnared in this iconoclastic trap.

Future Church:

Churches of Christ are declining!  That’s what I’ve been reading about in the blogosphere as of late.*  I tend to agree bur beyond the reasons for decline, I want to talk about the way forward…at least where it begins because I don’t believe in waiting around for the bells to finally toll.

As far as decline is concerned, the reasons are larger than any simple answer.  Part of the problem is that like many other Christian tribes, the Churches of Christ came of age among Christendom era where almost everyone understood the basics of Christianity and the Bible.  For Churches of Christ, who became very sectarian, evangelism was often nothing more than convincing others why we were the “right” church.

This became the tribal DNA but as things have changed, this has been found in wanting.  For instance, many Churches of Christ have shed their sectarian skins and therefore what motivated evangelism has lost power.  I suspect this has also created something of an identity crisis (if not the only right church, then what reason is there for existance?).  I also suspect that some congregations see the need for new wineskins but keep pouring new wine into old wineskins (cf. Mk 2:22).  Added to this is two other fairly new realities that has created much confusion.  First, there is the reality that North America is now a post-Christian world of religious pluralism where the religious question of society isn’t “which church” but “which god or gods.”  Added to that is the increasing number of “dechurched” people (those who at one time belonged to a church) who are never going to encounter our churches unless it is outside the confines our Sunday gathering

Of course, not every Church of Christ is in decline.  But for those that are, what should the response be?   Some churches will remain as they are, either denying the reality before them while spurning any change or hold out hope that members of another congregation might transfer (which only prolongs the inevitable).  Other congregations might see the situation as hopeless and, throwing in the towel, die a slow and sad death.  I, on the other hand, believe there’s another option that is future oriented…mission oriented.

Where Future Becomes the Present

With the increased number of people who either do not or no longer believe in and follow Jesus, I certainly believe the need for churches living on mission with God is clear.  But how?

I serve as a minister for the Columbia Church of Christ and we are a small congregation that has been in decline for some time.  We could pursue one of the options mentioned above but we’re not.  We believe God still has a place for us to serve in his mission as we follow Jesus and so we are trying to do just that — following Jesus into our world, beginning in a neighborhood.

For the last six months a few of us have been meeting every Sunday after worship to pray specifically for our church and how God is calling us into the future (prayer should always proceed and envelope mission).  The shepherds and I have also started journeying with Mission Alive as we seek church renewal.  In the meantime, my neighbor has been battling with breast cancer (she expects to be declared in remission this coming May).  Consequently, this has opened up some opportunities for our church to help her while she goes through this ordeal with her health.  However, come this May we plan to throw a BBQ and invite the entire townhouse complex to come and celebrate my neighbor’s new lease on life.  Not only is this a great way to celebrate with my neighbor but it is also a great way to begin subtly saying to the townhouse complex that the kingdom of God is here.

What might come of this?  That’s a good question and we won’t know the answer until it happens.  In some ways, this is an experiment.  We’re not throwing the BBQ with any other motives other than to live as kingdom people among our neighbors, loving them and sharing the beauty of life with them.  But we have to believe that as we follow Jesus into the neighborhoods, that there are those who are seeking God (even if they don’t have the language to express that desire) whom we can share the good news of Jesus Christ with.  That’s why we can believe that there is a future full of mission and therefore a future for our church as participants in the mission of God.

I am not so naïve to believe that this is it.  There will be other systemic changes that we will need to make in time as they are revealed.  But this is where we start, where the future church begins.  So if your church is in decline, I hope this post offers you hope as a way forward beyond decline and eventual death.  While every church has different circumstances, the future church always begins with a renewed commitment to following Jesus.

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* If interested, check out James Nored, who has written a series of posts on this issue (read here, here, and here), and Sean Palmer, who recently wrote a guest blog post for Jason Locke’s blog about this issue (read here).