If you’ve read some of my writings about what is typically called the Restoration Movement, you may wonder how I could write this article, but one of the reasons I write so much on the Stone-Campbell movement or the American Reformation Movement (my two preferred terms) is because I love it so much. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t put as much time as I do into studying its history, writing on its principles, and discussing it with others.
In fact, just a few months ago, I wrote a lengthy research paper on the concept of unity in diversity that existed among the founders of the movement. You can read that by clicking here.
Contrary to what some people think, I really do love the Church of Christ. I believe that its core principals, sayings, and vision can truly bring about unity among the body of Christ. While I also believe there is a lot to criticize, such as pattern theology, I also trust that the body of believers as a whole is redeemable. Sure, many will not “seek the old paths,” but if they are consistent with the core ideas they have been taught, then I know it is possible!
As a small point of clarification, by “Church of Christ” I’m talking about the coalition of congregations that exclusively uses “Church of Christ” on the sign and is recognizable by weekly communion, acapela singing, and generally little to no fellowship with other groups, and who came out of the Restoration Movement in the 19th century. I am not talking about the lower-case ‘c’ church of Christ which has always and will always exist.
No Creed But Christ/ We Speak Where the Bible Speaks
These two slogans are popularly used in Church of Christ pulpits to condemn anyone who uses a creed or set of denominational bylaws in addition to the Bible. While we have our own creed books that can be found on the “what we believe” section of websites, in the teachings of “great preachers of the past,” preaching schools, and publications, these two sayings are actually an excellent foundation for Christian unity.
A creed is a formal statement of religious beliefs, so by saying that we have “no creed but Christ” what we are really saying is that the profession of Jesus as the Christ is the sole basis of our unity. Disagreements over methods and interpretations are the product of human reasoning and, regardless of their truthfulness, are not the basis of our unity. In that way we, “speak where the Bible speaks.” In other words, we should not elevate human reasoning and understanding to the same level as Scripture itself; our interpretations are not the same thing as the word of God.
Why I love it: when we say “no creed but Christ” it allows us to challenge literally everything else. We can ask questions, offer up different interpretations, and even hold what some would call an “unorthodox” position, but since our unity is found in our belief in Jesus as the Messiah, we can remain in Christian unity with others despite our differences.
Church autonomy is beautiful in theory, but it is rarely practiced. Thankfully, I believe the preaching schools do not hold as much weight as they once did. With many preachers accepting the renewed earth view of eschatology, there has been a lot of backlash from some of the preaching schools. While some young men have lost their ministry positions, I do not believe that these bullies have had the same impact that they had in the past.
Church autonomy is the idea that each congregation is self-governing and answers to no higher power than Christ Himself. This has its ups and its downs.
Unfortunately, this is not really practiced. As mentioned above, if a congregation does not line up with all of the so-called “essentials” of the faith, it will not be long until a neighboring church or preaching school holds a seminar warning about “false teachers” or “change agents” in the brotherhood. So much for “no creed but Christ!” In fact, I know of a situation where a local preacher would teach Bible classes attempting to refute what another church was teaching the week after! This was no friendly conversation either; it was an attempt to establish himself as a “conservative voice in a liberal world” or something to that effect.
The above situation is a sad example, and it is not uncommon at all. If one believed in “no creed but Christ” and church autonomy, then there would be room for disagreement, but it wouldn’t be so hostile.
Why I love it: different churches could knowingly disagree on different points but stay united in their faith in Christ. They would each understand that the other church is self-governing and that disagreements don’t mean disfellowship or calling each other heretic. Each congregation can do what is best for their unique situation, and the only need for any other church or group to speak out against them would be if some kind of injustice was being perpetuated. Otherwise, they could get together, talk about disagreements, but ultimately walk away as brothers and sisters in Christ.
In Opinions, Liberty
“In faith, unity; in opinions, liberty, and in all things, love.” Some earlier versions of this within the Stone-Campbell movement said, “…in opinions and methods, liberty…”
The idea here is very close to what we discussed in the first point. The trouble is how one defines a matter of faith and a matter of opinion. As I referenced in an earlier paragraph, I dedicated an entire twenty-six page essay to this one topic. The way our “founding documents” defined opinions was basically anything that one inferred from the text. That is, an opinion is anything that one reaches based on human reasoning and understanding. If we make those things the basis of our fellowship, then we are doomed for division.
If unity is based in conformity to opinion, then it is necessary that each person must reach the same level of knowledge at the same time or else they will be in danger of being excluded from the community of believers. Ultimately this will lead to someone being in a church of one made up of themselves or a church of parrots. The former is lonely; the latter, fake.
Why I love it: “…in opinions, liberty…” is founded upon the Biblical idea of unity in diversity. Without unity in diversity, there could be no congregations. We all have our positions, interpretations, and ways of reading the Bible that come from our unique situation. While we may find people with whom we largely agree, demanding unity in conformity to a specific set of doctrines or interpretations allows no room for organic Christian growth and maturity. In some circles of our movement, the most dangerous thing a person can do is read and study their Bible more than their peers.
Many More Reasons
These three reasons are more theological, but there are many other reasons why I love the Church of Christ besides our rich ecumenical heritage. I love the way we worship with no instruments. I love our in depth Bible studies. I love our Christian camps and conferences. I love our youth devotionals, songs, and the people. It really is a great group of folks, and I truly am optimistic that it can be redeemed if we go back, research our founding documents and heritage, and seriously critique some of the causes of our many divisions.
One of my friends is writing a book based on the idea of church autonomy called What You Find Behind the Sign is Different Every Time. It’s an appeal to many who have a negative view of the Church of Christ because of bad experiences with elderships, congregations, and preachers who mistreated them in some way. He wants people to know that not every Church of Christ holds the same positions on marriage, divorce, and remarriage and other topics that have caused many believers a lot of unnecessary grief.
Thankfully, I’m at such a congregation. They’ve been through a lot and criticized for all kinds of “brotherhood issues,” but they have kept on following Jesus regardless of outside criticism. If you love the Church of Christ like I do but do not love the bad fruit you may have seen in other places, then North Broad may be the place for you. We aren’t perfect, but we freely admit that and work to grow in the grace and knowledge of Christ as a community of Jesus followers.
(I still don’t feel like doing recordings right now. Sorry about that. – DR)