Are the Churches of Christ Worth Saving?
October 16, 2012 8 Comments
I’ve written before about the sense of ecclesial homelessness many persons raised in the Churches of Christ feel, and have even gone so far as to claim that the dominant biblical hermeneutic in the tradition needs to be abandoned because it has caused us too often to miss the point of scripture. Like many denominations and ecclesial traditions, the CofCs are facing dwindling numbers and the shape of their future existence is being negotiated as we speak. In response, many have chosen to hunker down into an increasingly distant past and others have chosen to pursue fresh new visions of Christian life and community. However, many other people, for a variety and mix of reasons, have chosen to leave the tradition temporarily or permanently. I have not made this decision, but it is one I have considered.
Over the last 3 1/2 years my wife and I have moved across the country twice. Both times we faced the question of where to attend church. In both instances we decided to give several local CofCs a try. We expected, however, to be disappointed in what we’d discover and be forced to finally give up on our active membership in the tradition and begin attending elsewhere. For reasons of chance or providence or our own unwillingness to leave a tradition that has so formed us we found CofCs in both places at which we planted ourselves (which are both very different from one another and different from the CofC at which I was a minister during the first few years of our marriage).
In defending the decision to stay in a tradition with which I have some serious theological and cultural issues I have often appealed to my commitment to and love of those people within the tradition who have loved me, served me, formed me, and cared for me. “Leaving” those people would be a painful experience that I, nor my wife, want to endure. And I am not the only one to make such an appeal. It is often the go-to response of people who feel/think similarly to me and remain in a tradition that can at times be disappointing, infuriating, or simply baffling. Recently I came across one particularly beautiful example of such an appeal by a friend of mine.
However, those of my peers who have made the decision to leave the tradition have pushed me beyond this natural (and much stronger than average) sense of loyalty which I feel to people who have loved me and whom I have loved. The most poignant form of the question goes something like this: “What does the CofC uniquely contribute to broader Christianity that others do not?” For instance, Pentecostals clearly remind us dry, rationalistic types of the power of the Spirit and the possibility of God “doing a new thing.” And those Roman Catholics can always claim the various creeds and the inspiring spiritual witness of the saints, the Orthodox have given us the beauty of iconography and the ability to connect with God through art, and the Lutherans gave us, well, all of Protestant Christianity and retrieved Paul’s doctrine of grace in a world-changing way (as just a few examples). What, then, has the CofC contributed to the advancement of the Christian movement other than a couple of million bodies primarily located in the American south, especially Tennessee and Texas?
My first response to this query was, of course, the emphasis on scripture. However, we are not the only, nor the first, to place scripture at the center of ecclesial life, and I’ve already said why I think our unique hermeneutical approach is deeply flawed. Though the natural gut-response of one raised in the tradition it is not a compelling one.
My second response was the ecumenical spirit out of which the broader Restoration Movement sprung. And I do believe that the resources to reclaim that spirit still exist, but it has clearly been trumped by the more sectarian resources within the tradition for at least the past sixty years. Again, a natural response but not a compelling one.
My third response was the congregational ecclesiology of the CofC. Namely, the radically local and autonomous nature of our congregational life. As good Americans, our tradition is radically democratic – and I think, in general, this is a good thing. I have been pushed, however, by my friends within the tradition who, like me, have tried to push it toward more doing of justice, on this very point. They have pointed out that such a structure makes any large-scale organizing of congregations difficult if not impossible, and, therefore, makes tradition-wide change an arduous and agonizing process that is more burdensome than those denominations with national or international boards/conferences/leaders/etc. In other words, the lack of any tradition-wide organization and leadership creates the stagnation toward change on important topics like implementing justice ministries or gender justice that is what has caused much of my frustration in the first place.
Finally, my fourth response was cultural: a capella singing. While no longer a believer that the use of instruments in a Sunday morning worship service is a mortal sin (which I truly did believe some many moons ago), I think that there is something beautiful and compelling about congregational singing. And while my CofC peers from my youth would complain that it is boring and that the people in church don’t really sing that well, those non-CofC friends whom I have brought to church with me, almost without exception, claim to find it a welcome respite from the organ- or rock-music at their mainline or evangelical churches. I do think that this is a worthwhile contribution to Christianity in America, but am not convinced that it alone is worthy of keeping alive a tradition with the theological shortcomings of the CofC.
In a related conversation, however, I was recently brought back to my third initial response. From a missiological perspective, I was given a compelling positive account (from Garrett East) of the congregational ecclesiology of CofCs and of our emphasis on individual reading of scripture. Namely, our congregational structure and emphasis on individual study of scripture has helped us to avoid many of the pernicious colonial aspects of the history of Christian mission. Ironically, a tradition that is so culturally tied to the American project has been one of the traditions on the forefront of translating scripture into vernacular languages, encouraging culturally appropriate interpretations of scripture and theologizing, fostering indigenous leadership, and creating sustainable ministries that do not need the funds of non-native churches and/or Christians to continue after the missionaries leave. Our lack of institutional power has led to our relative absence from the often crippling effects of colonial Christian missions.
So, I come back to the congregational life and ecclesiology of CofCs – namely congregational autonomy, local leadership, and individual interpretation of scripture – as reasons to work to keep the CofC alive. Indeed, the presence of “everyday folks” and marginalized people leading Lord’s Supper reflections, scripture readings, and prayers in congregations across the world is something worth celebrating. We believe, when we are at our best , in the priesthood of all believers in a way that many others do not. And, whereas tradition-wide change can seem like a futile process, local and congregational change is always seemingly within reach (as in the case of the “beautiful example” mentioned above). And, as Rebecca Solnit has recently reminded us regarding the sphere of politics, it takes small and local changes to create big and far-reaching ones. The resources are there, at least in enough congregations, to make such changes. I’m not so sure such resources are available in the same way in either the institutions of the dominant historic traditions or the psuedo-congregational life of many non-denominational megachurches, for example. Our existence as a truly local, congregational tradition in combination with our emphasis on individual reading of scripture might be our contribution that makes us worth saving. At least, this is my tentative (and non-final) response to the pointed query which inspired this post. (And, of course, there is still and always will be the people.)
However, I’m very interested in what others have to think about this topic. Are Churches of Christ worth saving? If so, why? If not, why not?