Brace yourself, this one is a bit longer than usual. Don’t worry, I won’t make a habit of it. And hey, I haven’t written in a few months so cut me some slack.
I’ve been thinking a lot today about the story of the Churches of Christ and our history, and that is partly because I recently attended one of the great gatherings in our movement, the Pepperdine Bible Lectures.
I grew up in this story of the Church of Christ. Some today call this a denomination, some a movement, and the new lingo seems to be “tribe”. It doesn’t matter much to me. What I knew of my history I didn’t like. It was embarrassing. It was divisive. It was sectarian. We also had the habit of pretending that church history was our slightly over 200 years of existence, and then there was this dark void dating back to pre-Constantine. That era from Acts 2 to Constantine we pretended looked just like our current churches. We were the standard that everyone should seek.
So, I didn’t like our history. Then I picked up this very short book by Douglas Foster called The Story of Churches of Christ. Given the background and view of our movement I just described, you can imagine the shock when just the second page of the book had the heading of “An American Unity Movement”. How could Foster call this a unity movement? This little book, along with my friend Mike Cope as a conversation partner and mentor led me to a better understanding of our history. It is a history that I think if embraced could speak of a brighter future.
So in short, what is our story? Many say it began with a young Alexander Campbell who was fed up with the deeply divided church of which he was a member. The leaders had determined that they should examine the parishioners to decide who they deemed “worthy” to partake of the Lord’s Table, which is odd in and of itself since it is the Lord’s Table and his invitation. Anyway, they would offer an examination of the communicants and if they passed, they received their token to partake of communion. But Campbell knew something didn’t seem right about this, and so when the yearly observance of the Table came along, the story goes that Campbell threw his token in the plate, pushed his chair back, and walked out of the church.
Alexander Campbell then embarked on a journey of unifying God’s church. The problem was, he thought we could unify around the Bible. As we have come to find out, people interpret the Bible in a variety of ways, and so unifying around the Bible is nearly impossible. Thankfully, Campbell found a partner in this movement named Barton W. Stone.
Stone had a more helpful and hopeful vision of unity which was “fire union”, or “Spirit union”. (Check out this link to the website of John Mark Hicks to read more about Stone and unity.) This is unity found where the Holy Spirit is working among the lives of God’s people. It is unity found not in agreement, not in interpretation of the Bible, but in worship, prayer, and service together with other believers. It reminds me of Jesus’ words that we will recognize his followers by their fruit, and by their love. We don’t recognize the people of God by proper beliefs, sound doctrine, or other factors. We see God’s people where the Spirit is present and at work in their lives. And we know who Christ is, according to John 17, not by proper interpretations, not by who is the most “right”, not by properly ordered church services, but by the unity of his followers. Yes, we may practice a bit differently, but we cling to one of the sayings of this movement that “we are Christians only, but not the only Christians”.
So what on earth is the point of this long post? Well, I grew up in Churches of Christ and I didn’t know this story. I knew stories of worship wars, stories of division, stories that embarrassed me, and at times made me want to leave this group. I really didn’t hear the phrase “Christians only, but not the only Christians” much when I was growing up, but now I understand that to be the rallying call of our movement from the beginning. We loved Alexander Campbell and his hope of restoring the church to proper practices, but we didn’t talk much about his and Stone’s vision of unity.
Now I have just come off of one of my favorite weeks of the year at the Pepperdine Bible Lectures. As a side note, you should all try and attend these lectures. My friend Mike Cope is knocking it out of the ball park in directing these events, and this year was as good as it gets. If you missed out, check out this link to watch the keynotes. We had an Anglican bishop in Dr. N.T. Wright, a community church pastor and theologian in Greg Boyd, and many other thinkers from various backgrounds. In addition, we had hundreds of Church of Christ brothers and sisters teaching various classes on various topics. None of us agreed with each other on everything. Some of the classes were even at odds with others. However, we were unified in Christ and there were our brothers and sisters, despite the details of each person’s doctrines and beliefs. In other words, the Pepperdine Bible Lectures are an acted out parable of the Restoration movement. No we don’t all agree, and we don’t even all share the same background. We disagree and spar over things in love, but we are all one in Christ and we all find our common unity at the Table of the Lord.
And here’s the deal, in my opinion, we are in a post-denomination type of world. Community churches are all the craze these days. People are burned out on division and God’s people picking each other off. People are tired of arguments about “sound doctrine” and worship practices. I think God’s people are longing more for of Jesus’ prayer for unity. We long to be able to partner with our neighbors in God’s mission, not seeing them as competition, nor seeing people as objects to grow our local churches. We long for what Stone-Campbell were really all about in the beginning, though that vision has been lost through the years.
So, this Church of Christ story brings a young 32 year old like me hope, because at its core it is a story of unity. In this post-denomination, post-Christian world, or missional era we are in, this story has the potential to paint a bright future. It is why I love being a part of this group, even with our scars and bruises.
I love my Hunter Hills Church family. In my year here, I’ve heard from members all across the spectrum. I’ve heard from some that want instrumental worship, some that want a cappella. I’ve heard from some that want to see women involved more publicly in our church, and others who are concerned about this and interpret those passages differently. I’ve heard from some that want a traditional “altar call” every Sunday and some who never want to see that again. I’ve heard from some who are pacifists, and I know of many who are active military and have even fought in our current global conflicts. I know of some who want more spontaneous times of prayer together, and some who just want ancient scripted prayers that we read together. I could go on and on with what I’ve learned about my new church family. Yet each week, I look out as these various groups of people pass trays to people next to them, and partake of the one body, Jesus Christ, and drink from the one cup. We don’t agree on everything, and we never will, but we are learning what this “fire union” is all about. We’re learning to disagree with our fellow brothers and sisters, but not doubt that they love Jesus and the Scriptures. We’re learning to submit to one another, and look to the needs of others. We are learning to be self-giving in the form of our self-giving God who has invited us on a journey of losing our lives for the sake of others. Our Church of Christ roots give us a narrative to disagree, but still find unity.
Jesus seems to think in John 17:23 that the world is going to know who he is and where he comes from based on the unity of his followers. Perhaps it is high time we begin thinking seriously about what this means, and those of us who are Church of Christ to start embracing this story of unity. Maybe it begins today by simply praying for your Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Church of Christ, or whatever neighbors you have, and joining together with other brothers and sisters in God’s mission of restoration.
“I in them and you in me – so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” – John 17:23