November 22, 2014.
Over the years I have been asked on a number of occasions a question that I find somewhat difficult to answer. “What kind of church do you go to?” The question isn’t difficult to answer because I am not readily able to call up the particular congregation of believers that I am worshiping with at the time, but rather I tend to hesitate because of the implications that my answer has to so many people. I make it a point now to first say that I identify myself as a Christian, to make it clear my intention against division and denominationalism. But when I tell people I attend a “church of Christ,” sometimes the implications of this answer are too strong for my original statement to ring through. It is for this reason, among others, that I have decided to do a series on the church of Christ, highlighting our history, the things that we do well, constructive criticism of our fellowship, a re-evaluation of our premise and what I believe our future should hold. I am aware that I will likely receive criticism from many sides, inside and outside of our fellowship, but I believe that it is time we clearly define our movement seeking unity and address the issues that have arisen over the years that threaten (and have in some cases already made null) this unity. What I ask is that you stick with me throughout the series, as it really should be taken as a whole instead of just in one part.
Who we are.
It is very difficult to describe to a believer who does not identify with our fellowship that we do not consider ourselves a denomination. Actually, that was the key point in the restoration movement that founded our fellowship, which we will get to in a bit. I would say that the term “un-denominational” is preferred to non-denominational. We wear the name “church of Christ” simply because we identify ourselves as just that. The church that Christ came to establish on this earth. I would personally just like to call ourselves the church, as this is how Christians are identified most in the New Testament, but I understand the reason we don’t simply put that on our signs. In the most basic definition, the church of Christ is simply all believers across the globe who are in the church. At least, that’s what the movement was first about. We don’t use the names of men to identify our churches as the church belongs to the Lord, not any of us. We have no organized headquarters, nor do the leaders of our churches participate in a hierarchy of leadership (like the clergy in many denominations) beyond the roles of deacons and elders set in each autonomous congregation as laid out in scripture (ref. I Tim. 3 and Titus 1).
Though we have no earthly headquarters, common elements of belief hold our fellowship together. We believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of the living God, and it is though Him that we have redemption of our sins. We hold that creeds are divisive and thus we study and teach only the bible as our doctrine (more on this in post three), a concept that was first set out in the protestant reformation known as “sola scriptura.” We believe that in order to restore the unity of Christianity, then we must all throw off our denominational bias and only look to the bible as our guide. Unity can only come from foundational premises that have been agreed upon. Using the bible as our guide, ideally we simply believe and practice what it teaches without theological bias. In this spirit, one of our core beliefs that holds us together is that baptism (immersion) is for the forgiveness of sins, uniting us with Christ in His death, burial and resurrection as laid out in many scriptures, some of which include Acts 2:37-39, Romans 6 and Colossians 2. We do not believe that this should in anyway shadow the role of faith and grace in salvation, as they are core elements as well. Our worship style when we gather is often intentionally simplistic, with congregational singing, a lesson and bible study.
The restoration movement.
Though we don’t typically identify ourselves as a new group of Christians but rather a group that looks to restore New Testament Christianity, you can trace the roots of the churches of Christ to a couple of movements that began in the early 1800s and eventually joined in fellowship. One of these movements was led by Barton Stone in the northern states and the other by Thomas Campbell and later his son Alexander Campbell in the southern states. These two movements united in 1832 and remained united until tensions officially divided them into two distinct groups, the Christian Churches and the Churches of Christ. The early calls of each movement was for Christians everywhere to come out of the denominations that divide the body of Christ and to simply be Christians. Though each of the movements put more emphasis on one of the two, the idea was to establish unity of the body of Christ and to restore Christianity of the New Testament. This is a very biblical concept as Jesus prays specifically for the unity of His disciples in John 17 and Paul strongly stresses the church at Corinth to be unified and to stop forming factions in his first letter to them (ref. I Cor. 1-3). A notable quote from an early reformer contains the idea of the movement: “The church of Jesus Christ on earth is essentially, intentionally, and constitutionally one.” An early motto of the movement was “we are Christians only, but not the only Christians.” Another phrase that is often heard in our fellowship is “Speak where the bible speaks and be silent where the bible is silent.” This movement, which took place during the second great awakening, is one that I strongly believe in. I’ll spare you all the details of the movement, but if you are interested, there is a good Wikipedia article that you might like to read (just click on “Wikipedia” to be redirected to it’s ‘Restoration Movement’ page).
Unfortunately, and rather ironically in my opinion, as is the case with any human group, the groups that formed the movement divided over some issues and became two distinct groups. The movement eventually became institutional and many would criticize the church of Christ as being indeed a denomination today. Unfortunately in some cases they are right (I will talk about this more in my third post). But I still believe in the original goal and premise of the movement and I think that it is still viable amongst the church today. There are a few key essential beliefs that I think we must all hold to be truly unified in Christ and the rest we can spend much study in and come to conclusions along the way. The essential beliefs are things that are clearly defined in scripture whereas the other stuff is not as well defined (See Eph. 4 for a better idea).
Today, I would guess that the group that denoted themselves as the “churches of Christ” is more prevalent in society, though I really don’t have any numbers to back that up, just experience (of course, I do live in the bible belt, so my experience may be a little biased). The heyday of the church was in the 1950s and 60s, and members were known for their biblical knowledge as a common phrase was “well, they sure do know their bible.” When I hear the phrase “we just need to restore the church of the New Testament” today, I often feel as though they mean “we just need to restore the church of the 50s and 60s.” I do not believe this to be the case, nor do I think that this would emulate the humility of Christ, although we do need to continue to be knowledgable bible students. There is a broad range of congregations in our fellowship that span very conservative/traditional to quite liberal/contemporary. There are still tensions between more conservative leaning and more liberal leaning congregations which I believe stem from an idea that developed after the onset of the original movement. Though there is no centralized organization, the worship style, barring a few elements that differ between conservative churches and liberal churches, is quite similar in each congregation, which I find really cool and a proof of concept to a degree.
So why do I believe in our movement? What is it about our fellowship that keeps me here and makes me want to invest in the idea? Unity. I strongly believe in Christian unity, and I believe the only way that we are really going to achieve unity (and this though the Spirit) is if we all go back to the bible and agree that that is going to be the guide. If we have a common ground, then there is hope. I also believe that there is room for disagreement amongst believers, just as there was disagreement amongst the Corinthian church and a big difference between Jewish churches in the first century (Messianic Jews) and Gentile churches. But you know what? They all fellowshipped with one another, although admittedly it took some strong words from the Apostles at times. They united in a common set of core beliefs. This is what we must do to if we want to show a united front of Christianity to the world. Over the next few days we are going to examine what these core beliefs are, as well as beliefs that should not be divisive but are today and a in depth look at what the New Testament church actually looked like. I will also discuss what I hope to be the future of the church, as I would love to see the original movement revived. I think it’s time for a third great awakening. I hope you stick with me on this journey and find it helpful. I pray that all unity may be restored and that we can glorify Christ as we should.
Suggested Daily Reading: John 17, Acts 2, I Corinthians 1, 3.
Let’s revive a movement.