The Future of the Churches of Christ

In the most recent addition of The Christian Chronicle, it reported the top story of 2009 was the decline of attendance among Churches of Christ.  It is no secret that our fellowship has been going through changes over the last twenty-five years.[1]  Now that we know the overall membership is in decline, it begs the question of what is the future of the Churches of Christ.  The question really asks of us, what must take place for us to have a future that thrives with mission and kingdom impact in the world rather than continued decline (which will only result in missional impotency).  Obviously any detailed answer to the question would require at minimum a very long essay.  Also, Tim Spivey is doing what I believe will be an excellent blog series on some specific issues relating to our future that you should take time to check out.  However, I want to discuss one aspect which I believe would firmly ground us for the possibility of a healthy and missional future. 

The Churches of Christ belong to a movement generally known as The American Restoration Movement which has its beginnings in the late 1700’s to early 1800’s with Thomas and Alexander Campbell along with Barton W. Stone.  In broad terms, the movement took off with the ideal of restoring the primitive apostolic or “New Testament” Christianity in hopes of uniting all professing Christians from among various sects as one body of Christians.  As the movement gained more momentum, the mantra became “Christians only but not the only Christians.”  This expressed the idea that members of this young movement wanted to be no more and no less than a Christian as defined by scripture but did not want to regard other professing Christians outside the movement as non-Christian.  I believe this was a noble cause and it is one I still believe in.

As time went on, the movement seemed to become more preoccupied with the restoration of primitive Christianity which meant restoring the church to its first-century form.  This is critical because that came to be the essence of our identity…that we were seeking to reproduce the form of the early church.  I now think this was a mistake on which I will elaborate and then suggest what needs to happen to correct that mistake. 

We sought to restore the form of the earliest church and along with that came a bunch of hermeneutical assumptions too numerous to go into at this point but are nevertheless not without question.  The belief was that the restoration of the primitive church form would result in Christian unity.  However, that has not been the case.  As the Brits would say, the proof is in the pudding.  In the attempt to pursue resotrationism from this trajectory, the original movement has splintered into several fragments with other smaller divisions occurring in these fragments.  Further, there have been numerous local churches that have divided and split as a result of differing views over what the primitive church form was.[2]

Could it be possible that we should never have sought to restore the early church form to the inth degree that it was pursued?  For a movement that sought to go by the Bible alone, there is no place in scripture that calls for the church to follow any other historical church whether it is of the first century or some other historical period.  Scripture teaches us that disciples of Jesus are called to follow Jesus (cf. Matt 4.19; Mk 1.17; Jn 13.14-7).  In fact, that is what discipleship is…following Jesus, learning to live as Jesus lived.  I believe this is what the primitive church sought to do, follow Jesus.  Following Jesus was their function and we learn from them not to see how we can look just like them but to see how insights from their triumphs and failures as disciples can help us in the quest to function as Jesus functioned.

Thus I am suggesting if the Churches of Christ wish to have a healthy and missional future, we must restore the function of the early church and not necessarily their form.[3]  By restoring the function of the early church, we are placing discipleship as our primary objective.  That is, we are striving as a body of local churches for our churches (and every individual Christian within the local church) to live just as Jesus lived, to think as Jesus thought which leads us to speak and act as Jesus did. 

Will we be perfect at such an endeavor?  We never have and never will be and neither was the apostolic church.  We are reminded though, that God has and still does work through jars of clay.  However, in our twenty-first century North American/Western culture that is increasingly becoming religiously pluralistic, skeptical towards Christianity, and uncertain about any truth claim that cannot be tangibly seen and experienced, what is needed the most is a church that looks like Jesus and lives like Jesus.  No one is interested in any church claiming it has it pretty much all figured out but at the same time, increasingly looks very different from the life of Jesus as revealed in scripture. 

If we, the Churches of Christ, ground ourselves in the pursuit of this discipleship then I believe whatever other problems we need to work on, they will be corrected in their rightful order.  Further and more importantly, I believe we will restore the mission of God as our primary task and make a kingdom impact wherever we exist locally and beyond.

 


[1] The year 2009 was the twenty-fifth anniversary of Rubel Shelly’s publication  I Just Want to be A Christian , Nashville: 20th Century Christian, 1984., which arguably became the spark for the changes which began taking place.

[2] It is too easy to always blame the other group or the other side for causing and forcing division.  But I believe that is wrong and only serves to adjudicate ourselves from the responsibility we all have in fostering division.  Hard-heartedness is what keeps one always seeing the speck in the other persons eye while missing the log in their own eye.

[3] The question of form vs. function is a massive hermeneutical quest that would require a large essay at minimum to discuss.  I believe there are times when in order to have the proper function, we need to seek the proper form (e.g., baptism) and there are times when proper form is obviously not needed to maintain proper function (e.g., extending a welcome through a holy kiss).

13 responses to “The Future of the Churches of Christ

  1. Thanks for a great blog site.

  2. Wes, thanks for the shout-out, and great post.

  3. Welcome to the ranks of the heretics!

    I’ve been pondering the same things over the last few months (The Next Restoration Movement, for example) and am uncomfortable with the conclusions I’m reaching.

    But not as uncomfortable as I am with doing the same things we’ve always done and believing the same teachings we’ve always believed even if they’re of men and are wrong.

  4. Keith,

    The classic definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and expecting different results…and yet, that is what I fear some local CoC’s are doing. Others, realize that something has to change but are either not sure to what or just have trouble trying to conceive of a different paradigm (and my heart goes out to these congregations). This is where courageous leadership with a bold vision needs to step up to the plate and the good news is that I believe the CoC has plenty of these leaders.

    Grace and peace,

    Rex

  5. K Rex: I know we disagree on some things; but I do believe you will affirm at least some of the following. I appreciate the discussion and it is beyond time for a very public and rigorous one (by means of grace).

    I believe what we need to do is fall in love with Jesus. All of Him. God, from Genesis to Revelation; without trying to conform Him into something palatable to our own tastes by removing his true holiness/justice/character. That Jesus. We need to fall in love with His Sovereign authority over all things and all peoples. We need churches that have a passion for the “Supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples.” We need to spread this joy we have in Him without watering Him down.

    Discipleship to Mark the Evangelist was the proclamation of the Gospel, being “handed over”, then being “put to death.” First it was John the baptizer, then Jesus, then it was expected of His disciples. How many people you know are willing to die for The Name? Considering our flowery teddy-bear ‘ol grandpa doctrine of God/Jesus, this is where my concern rests in our fellowship.

    In addition, we have unconverted people being treated like they are born-again because they say they believe in Jesus but they bear no fruit; then we expect them to be disciples? Not gonna happen. Easy believism needs to be called out and confronted by the truth of the Scriptures.

    In my humble opinion, it starts with our theology; which is weak and is tossed to and fro by the winds of culture and certain authors. We need a serious discussion on what we believe in and what we stand for. Our idolatry of autonomy is not helping us here. It is time we decide what we believe.

    We need to confront and dismiss the fads and wolves of the day that are nothing more than a bunch of white people in high chairs throwing their parent’s method off the tray while exchanging the Jesus of the Bible for a Rabbi with some pithy good teachings we need to follow. Hardly a King. Hardly a Redeemer. Hardly an Atonement. Hardly the Son of God. Might as well gimme Buddha.

    Let’s get back to the Scriptures, see God for who He is, fall in love with Jesus, be transformed by grace through faith, then act like disciples in love for one another and for others by being willing to sacrifice and die for His Name to be proclaimed. THAT is true discipleship. THAT is true love for all people. With this we bear good fruit for the Kingdom of God by loving and caring for others, following our LORD’s commands, and the sheep will hear His voice. His Word will not return void.

    Faith without works is dead, indeed; and works without faith in the God of the Scriptures is pointless and brutally unloving.

    Grace to you –

  6. Jr.

    There is probably much more we agree on than what we disagree over and I don’t mind disagreement, especially when it comes in the form of good constructive dialogue spoken in Christian love.

    Any ways…I agree with much of what you say here. We need to restore rigorous discipleship. The problem is that from where I sit, most of those in leadership within our fellowship are still reeeling from a time when discipleship meant an oppressive secterian legalism and they do not want to go back to such a time. The question then becomes how do we pursue biblical discipleship rooted in biblical grace and faith. This would certainly then involve, as you put it, a deep love for Jesus from Genesis to Revelation. And as I just spent some time this morning reading from “Life Together” by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, I get the sense that he was wrestling with some of the same concerns as he watched many professing Christian from his own tribe become nationalistic sell-outs to the culture of the day (which was, of course, the Nazi way).

    As far as Churches of Christ are concerned, I certainly fall into the progressive camp of thinkers and practicioners (as much as I dislike terms like progressive and such). So I do have my own biases but I am not sure who the “wolves” are among us. I firmly believe those among our fellowship who are trying to conserve a secterian, legalistic identity are wrong but I don’t think of them as wolves but as bretheren who love Jesus but severely misunderstan his will. As for the so-called progressives, whether they/we are right or wrong, I have yet to meet, read, or hear one who does not have an equal love for Jesus.

    Part of the problem in our fellowship is a colision of two different hermeneutical approaches to scripture. That is frustrating on one level since hermeneutics is something never specifically mentioned in scripture. Yet it is something we cannot avoid either since everyone reads scripture and applies it through a hermeneutical lens. The question then needs to be asked: what is the best (not perfect but best) hermeneutic? I know that some will try to prove their hermeneutic is taught in scripture itself but I believe this is a result of eisegesis rather than exegesis. For me, the question then needs to be what hermeneutic helps us to live out the life of Jesus, whom scripture teaches that we are to follow (be disciples of), in its robust fullness? That means we are pursuing lives of holiness, righteousness, justice and mercy…lives that are self-sacrificial rather than self-serving, live that neither seek to preserve (conservative) the ways of this world nor tolerate (liberal) them but proclaim the kingdom of God in word and deed knowing that our victory is ‘already’ in existence just ‘not yet’ fully realized.

    There also needs to be much more listening from the different voices in our fellowship. However, if the recent conversation on the blog “Grace Conversation” (http://graceconversation.com/) is any indication, the conservative voice seem unable or unwilling to listen as they repeatedly failed to understand and articulate the concerns, questions, and arguments of the progressives while the progressive represenatives were able to articulate the concerns, questions, and arguments of their conservative bretheren. Until all sides can listen, there can be little hope for progress.

    Well that is enough for now…I appreciate the dialogue. Tell me more about yourself? Where you live, a little about your family, what you do (I take it you are a theology student), what your future plans are, etc…

    Grace and peace,

    Rex

  7. Rex:

    I could not find an email link on this site to email you with the information pertaining to your last paragraph. I wasn’t sure if giving a bio in the comment section was appropriate (or safe for that matter!). But I would like to dialogue with you via email on such things. What I can say now by way of summary: I just turned 30, am a M.Div student at a well-known Church of Christ grad school, have two kids, and was born and raised in the CofC fellowship; and my life’s mission is to spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples through Jesus Christ. (hope that helps a little bit)

    As to some of the questions/comments you presented in your last comment:

    1) What is the best (not perfect but best) hermeneutic?
    My answer: Jesus, the Cross, the empty tomb, the Gospel. Every single text in our God-breathed Scriptures needs to be read and proclaimed and acted upon through this prism. Jesus did it after He, in a physical body, rose victorious from the grave. The Jesus hermeneutic:
    “And he said to them, ‘O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?’ And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:25-27). Additionally, “Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:1-2a, 3-4)

    That is the Gospel. That should be our hermeneutic.

    2) What hermeneutic helps us to live out the life of Jesus, whom scripture teaches that we are to follow (be disciples of), in its robust fullness?
    I would simply repeat the above. Preach the Gospel (Christ died for your sins and was raised on the third day) then when the sheep come to faith by the power of the Holy Spirit (John 3:8) by the preaching of the Word (Romans 10:17) we live with each other and disciple one another and we grow faithful to the teachings of Christ that were preached by Him for His people. With this relationship of love with God and with each other and with such power we can be robust for the Gospel to the death to all nations; till the day we all drop to all peoples. How can you not live out such a life when you understand that “by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your doing, it is a gift of God, not by works so that no one can boast”? (i.e. the Gospel).

    3) As for wolves “within our fellowship”:
    My knowledge of leaders within our fellowship is, admittedly, limited. I was never into the inner-circle of things in the CofC and have personally always been positively most influenced by those outside of our fellowship (particularly in the last 2 years or so); namely John Piper, Tim Keller, Ed Stetzer, Matt Chandler, just to name a few; as well as apologetics expert James White.

    So when I speak of wolves, I speak of authors who I see are being read widely (which in and of itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing) and believed/trusted/relied upon for theological opinion (which is the danger and in my view reveals our lack of discernment). Three names immediately come to mind: Brian McLaren, Rob Bell, Doug Pagitt. These three popular authors (with probably less influence then I’m giving them credit for; seeing the demise of Emergent Village and other emergent cohorts as of late) twist the Gospel and have very questionable views about Jesus, God, and the Gospel; which therefore infringes on my stated hermeneutic above. Oh how I could go on and on about what they have said and written that raises huge red flags but I will not do that here. In my opinion, these men have snuck in under the cloak of questioning the practice of the church (which may be valid) … but being so close to orthodoxy to be damnable. They have led some astray by throwing the eternal-life-teaching-orthodox baby out with the church-practice bathwater. They gather the disgruntled former-evangelicals (usually middle to upper-class white people who grew up in legalistic type environments) and their ambiguity on crucial doctrinal matters like atonement, exclusivity of Jesus, biblical authority, etc. is enough. As G.K. Beale is quoted as saying: “The mark of the false teacher is ambiguity.”

    Even Scot McKnight has said (in the September 2008 issue of Christianity Today), “The emergents I know are numb to both the warnings and the lines; they have heard those warnings and they have crossed those lines. They are surprised by neither and are not likely to turn back” (62). This is not hopeful; and our biblically illiterate culture falls prey.

    There is, for sure, more to say but I don’t want to say too much so that too much gets lost (as I fear I may have already done with my response). Nonetheless, I hope this helps from where I am coming from. Again, if you could direct me to how to email you, I will gladly do so.

    Grace be with you-
    Jr

  8. As I write, I am trying to figure out how to upload my facebook badge so that my email will be visible. In the meantime you can feel free to email me: k.rex.butts@gmail.com

    I have no problems with your hermeneutical approach. I realize space requires us to be breief but I can say that your brief description is consistant with my approach.

    I have read some of McLaren…I obviously don’t agree with everything he says but I probably would not catagorize him as you do. In fact, I have “A Generous Orthodoxy” in front of me but I stopped reading it not it was so theologically offensive to me but because I just thought it lacked theological and exegetical depth. I read one book by Padgit, on preaching, and did not like it because I thought his treatment on the history of preaching in Christianity was poor. However, I did think there was something to be said for the method he was proposing. As for Rob Bell, I keep meaning to pick up a copy of “Velvit Elvis” for traveling (it seems like a book I can read with distracting noises around me, unlike something by Moltmann or Brueggemann.

    As for people on the opposite side of McLaren…like John Piper and John McArthur, there Reformed Theology seems a little to dogmatic at times but they can be wrong at some points and still have some valuable things to say.

    I think a big question for all of us is how much we are allowing philosophical mindset (modern or postmodern) to influence our reading of scripture. I realize we can never totally evade such lenses though some pretend to read scripture in a cultural and philosophical vacume. I am of the persuasion that both modern and postmodern epistemologies, if they had their way with us, would nulify God by either elevating ourselves as god (modernism) or reletivising everything so that everything can be god and yet nothing can be god (postmodernism). However, I am hopeful about the ways which postmodernism from a practical standpoint opens up news doors for the way the gospel can be heard, experienced, believed, and lived.

    Any ways, I do enjoy the dialogue. Take care and have a great day.

    Grace and peace,

    Rex

  9. The Church of Christ. Hello, my brother. I began life in a Church of Christ family, and attended Abilene Christian. I was altered by the Jesus Movement, and was led on a pilgrimage through divided Christendom. I met many who know and love Jesus Christ. Yet that did not answer the question of the Church.
    My journey brought me finally to the Eastern Orthodox Church which I believe to be the Church of Christ. The Incarnation necessitates a persistent historical fellowship, preserving the Gospel through time. Our struggle to recover the ancient faith, must involve recovery not only personal Faith in Him, but also discovery and Incorporation into His Body. Most of His People these days are in a diaspora in some ways similar to that of Israel’s after the Babylonian Captivity. As there were many of Israel who nevertheless did not live in the Land nor have access to the Temple, so now, there are many Christians, who are of the Church, but not in It, having been scattered by the various disasters of Church History.
    I suggest that to resolve the core question of the recovery of Christian presence in the world we need to recover our Union with His Church. That’s where I see the real answer. Other answers have not yet asked the right question. We must be delivered from the broad scale monophysite Ecclesiology that fails to witness to the Incarnation.

    Your prayers are solicited and appreciated!

  10. Ben,

    Thanks for stopping by the blog and commenting. I appreciate your concern and trust God will continue to lead you as he has up to now. I understand the desire to belong to the “true Church” but I don’t believe being a disciple of Jesus makes one part of Jesus’ church/assembly which means that being Jesus’ church, as I understand, is not dependent on identifying with a specific named church fellowship but on pursuing Jesus as his disciple. I do, however, believe the doctrine of theosis which has historically been ignored in Western Christianity (both in Roman Catholicism and Protestant churches) but maintain in Eastern Orthodox Christianity is biblical and something that Western traditions need to relearn from the Eastern tradition.

    Grace and peace,

    Rex

    • Well articulated my brother. But to follow Christ the Lord is not only to follow Him in His Divinity, which is inner faith and discipleship but also in His Humanity, which is a visible, local, historical, corporate organism, that has believers but also an authority passed by the laying on of hands, and a history in the Spirit of pastoral decisions binding upon the whole of the church, and statements of faith that tell primarily, in apophatic fashion what the faith is not. That is to say, to follow Christ involves being united to His Church which is visible and one. Otherwise the Church could not be the pillar and ground of the truth, nor a continuation of the Incarnation, as it is.

      But let us with faith and love draw near to him in the perilous times, as both you and I will taste the same to the lions, and I hope that we both be faithful unto to that end, if need be

      Christ is risen!

      P.S. I have blogged on hesychasm which is the method of Orthodoxy in the pursuit of Theosis. http://hesychasticlayman.blogspot.com/

  11. I agree that being a disciple means being a participant/sharer in the community of Christ, his church which we became a part of in our baptism. But I don’t believe such participation is restricted to one specific group in our (sadly) divided body of Christ.

    You say “…also an authority passed by the laying on of hands, and a history in the Spirit of pastoral decisions binding upon the whole of the church, and statements of faith that tell primarily, in apophatic fashion what the faith is not.” This essentialy is to make the object of our faith not God/Christ alone but also church. In other words…faith in God/Christ and church. I don’t know about the Eastern Orthodox Church but in its worst forms, the idea of faith in God/Christ and church allowed the Roman Catholic Church to teach a doctrine of salvation that was dependent on both God/Christ and the church. That seems nothing more than a variant version of the problem in Colossae where Jewish Christians were telling Gentile Christians that they not only needed Christ but also to continue in the traditions/teachings of Moses.

    Any ways…I’ll check your blog out later today.

    Grace and peace,

    Rex

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