As I’m reading Brian McLaren’s newest book Do I Stay Christian?, I have found it helpful to replace “Christian” with “Church of Christ” at times to make the book even more relevant to my current stage in my faith journey. I know that this new question Do I Stay Church of Christ? is one that many members and ministers are experiencing now.
Many, who are fifth, sixth, or seventh generation members (and beyond) of the Churches of Christ are asking this very question every Saturday evening as they pick out their clothes for church the next day, write sermons, prepare Bible class lessons, and reflect on yet another sermon that can’t be complete without talking bad about another denomination.
Many are tired of seeing yet another lectureship announcement with Ladies Only! beside some of the speakers. Many are tired of hearing sermon after sermon on instrumental music, baptism, and traditions. On the flip side, there are others who find themselves tired of hearing sermons and reading articles like mine: those that attempt to deconstruct much of what I was raised with. They think “can’t we just move on?” and they wonder why there are even those who are still of the old mindset.
For many, this question is very personal because how they answer could lead to divisions in their families, churches, or groups of friends. Let’s remember to be gracious to one another regardless of how we each struggle with and answer this question.
If you are reading this article as a critic, I just request one thing: please understand that those who ask these questions, including myself, love our heritage. We wouldn’t be thinking twice if we didn’t.
In Do I Stay Christian?, Brian suggests summarizing or journaling each chapter to make it applicable to one’s own life. I’ve done this myself, and I want to share a few of the things I’ve come up with. To keep things short, I will only share two no’s and two yes’s.
No – I can’t Take it Anymore
Because the Church of Christ Has Been Vicious to Its Fellow Christians
There are two questions every member of the Church of Christ has gotten: (1) are you the ones who don’t have music, and (2) are you the ones who think you’re the only ones going to heaven?
Despite scruples about the word “music,” the answer to the first question is “yes.” Everyone knows that what they really mean is “instruments.” The same is true when someone asks me if I’m a pastor. My answer used to be “WellTechincallyI’mAMinisterBecauseIDon’tMeetTheQualificationsForAPastor…”
Now, the answer to the second question is also “yes” if we are being honest. “But 29-year-old Daniel,” 20-year-old Daniel responds, “I believe that God is the judge and that whoever is baptized the right way, worships the right way, and who believes the right things is going to heaven.” This answer is just “yes” with more steps. Unless there is some magical tribe in some remote location who happens to believe exactly like we do, then everyone else is going to Hell.
Which is what the person is really asking: “Do you believe I’m going to Hell for not being a member of the Church of Christ?” For most of my life, that answer would have to be “yes.” This stigma alone is enough to justify anyone changing the name on their building or moving to a different denomination altogether.
Because of the Church of Christ’s Suppression of Dissent
Historically [the term heretic] empowers those who apply it and disempowers those to whom it is applied…Labeling someone heretic or apostate (or digressive, change agent, or false teacher – DR) made almost any cruelty possible.Brian McLaren, Do I Stay Christian? (St. Martin’s Essentials, 2022), p. 21.
I’ve personally been guilty of using this language to dehumanize other believers, and I know that this language has been used in reference to myself as well. I’ve had friends who talked like this concerning other Christians, and when I spoke out against it, I was called “soft” or “wishy-washy.”
The use of these terms by well-meaning Christians and elderships have led to many good men and women losing their jobs in ministry, not being able to find other work, losing friends, losing family, and losing a safe place to worship God.
One minister I heard said that those who do not agree with him on how to interpret Revelation should be isolated, made to feel alone, and not even be allowed to say a prayer.
Friends on social media have felt cast aside by their alma mater because of similar statements which used exclusive, condemning language. This habit of dehumanizing those who disagree is a very good reason to leave. No wonder so many have found more generous communities.
I could talk more about the racist history of the Church of Christ, it’s lack of transformation, how it treats women, or many of the other “no” answers Brian gives, but I’ll let you read those sections of the book and find your own similarities.
Yes – The Movement is Redeemable
Because Leaving Hurts Allies (And Helps their Opponents)
In this chapter, Brian talks about a young man named Seth who laments that so many were leaving organized Christianity. He says, “But I just wish…I just wish…I just wish there was someone left to appreciate the breakthroughs that are happening.” Seth goes on to say, “I just feel like people are quitting the marathon when they’re only a couple hundred yards from the finish line. And every person who quits makes it a little harder for those of us who are still running the race” (ibid. 84).
First, let me say that if you are leaning “no” or have already answered “no,” then I totally understand. In fact, my answer was “no” as well until I found the church I’m currently at. Now it is just “yes” on the good days. Regardless of how you answer this question, I have zero doubts I can still work alongside you towards a greater world through our mutual love of God and neighbor.
But this reason is one of the major ones which makes me lean towards “yes.” I know so many ministers who are good friends of mine that are currently working as change agents in their congregation. One friend recently told me, “One of our couples started attending another church, which makes sense for them logistically, but we need them if we are going to keep going the direction we are.”
I’ve had similar conversations with many other ministers, and each one makes me want to keep running the race, even if sometimes it feels like I’m on a treadmill. Before you leave whatever church you are at, why not talk to the minister and see if he is having his own suspicions about our traditions. It may be that he (saying “or she” makes no sense here, ya dig?) feels alone and thinks that there is nobody else who is seeing what he is. If he calls you a false teacher or something, then you have my permission to leave (as if you need it).
Of course, leaving or staying compliantly are not your only options. Brian offers a third choice:
We can leave definitely, shaking our fist as we go. Or we can stay with a good-natured but firm defiance, determined to keep our integrity and speak our truth as best we can, as long as we can, from the outside edge of the inside, staying centered in genuine humility and love.idib. p. 95
If you can do this, then keep it up, but if you are tired, worn down, and need to say “no,” then do what you have to do! Again, I’m there a lot myself.
Because of Our Legendary Founders
In his book, Brian talks about Christianity’s legendary founder Jesus. The Church of Christ, which has its genesis in the Stone-Campbell movement, has a birthdate of August 17, 1889. While Christianity began in the first century, the Church of Christ as we know it today is a modern invention with its style of worship, organization, and doctrines.
But those two names, Stone and Campbell, refer to two men who had a vision for the church which is similar to my own. In my major paper, In Opinions, Liberty, I talk about how the Church of Christ has its beginning as an ecumenical unity movement, despite its later narrower-than-narrow view of itself.
These men were able to work together despite differences of opinion concerning atonement theory and even their view of the Trinity, or lack thereof. While they had their faults, as every person does, they serve as role models for what a unity movement can look like.
While it is true that their teachings were rooted in modernity, they had a prophetic voice which envisioned a world where Christians were united, not unified. It would be a shame to surrender their movement to people who have lost the true “restoration plea.”
How? – Regardless of Your Answer
I won’t say much on this point, which is the last section of Brian’s book, but regardless of your answer, stay humble, walk a path of love, tolerance, understanding, sympathy, and graciousness. This does not mean that you have to stay silent, compliant, or submissive. Unfortunately, because of our culture, we often equate saying anything negative at all concerning our traditions with hostility towards our heritage and ancestors within it (living or passed on), but this is a tool used to quiet those who have serious and genuine critiques.
Speak boldly, live boldly, and if you want to see change, whether on the inside or on the outside, model for the rest of us what you believe it means to be Christian. As Richard Rohr says, “Transformed people transform people.”
To all of my friends who have said “no,” I hope you find or have found a community which is refreshing, faith-building, and carries you on to the next leg of the journey. Please pray for those of us who have said “yes.”
To those who have said or will eventually say “yes,” stay healthy please. Find a friend or group to confide in. Find spiritual support. And reach out and encourage those who have said “no” so they know that you affirm their decision and still love and support them.
I love you all regardless of where you are in your unique situation.
A final Note
In my upcoming book How a 25-Year-Old Learned He Wasn’t the Only One Going to Heaven, I talk about how I have answered this question up to this point in my life, as well as the larger question Do I Stay Christian? Follow my blog on social media or through WordPress for future announcements for its release!