A couple of weeks ago I had a Skype conversation with Tony Jones and the class he was teaching for the Missional Leadership graduate program at Rochester College (directed by my good friend Mark Love).
Before we got into the conversation Tony started me off with a question about why I was a member of the Churches of Christ. On the surface, it doesn't seem like I'm a good fit for the Churches of Christ. Is that impression right?
Here's the answer I gave Tony.
To begin, there are two kinds of Churches of Christ. Some people call these "liberal/progressive" or "conservative/traditional" Churches of Christ. This split isn't formal, but it's widely recognized within the movement. However, I don't like these labels as they aren't very descriptive.
Here are the labels I prefer. There are ecumenical Churches of Christ and there are sectarian Churches of Christ. The ecumenical Churches of Christ have a sense of church history and about where they fit within that history. Consequently, ecumenical Churches of Christ see themselves as just one part of the church universal and, thus, extend the right hand of fellowship to other Christian communities. By contrast, sectarian Churches of Christ don't have a sense of church history and, thus, feel that they are a faithful replication of the 1st century church (e.g., many of these churches have "Founded in AD 33" inscribed on their cornerstones). As such, sectarian Churches of Christ feel that they are the true and only apostolic church. All other churches are forms of heresy and disobedience, a willful refusal to worship according to the New Testament pattern. Consequently, it is widely believed in sectarian Churches of Christ that all Christians outside of the Churches of Christ are in a state of rebellion against God. Thus my label "sectarian."
A lot of people, when they hear "Church of Christ", think of the sectarian Churches of Christ. And as should be obvious if you read my blog, I don't fit into that mold. Thus the questions like the one Tony asked me: Why are you a member of the Churches of Christ?
However, I don't worship with a sectarian Church of Christ. I worship with an ecumenical Church of Christ. And, as I've said on many occasions, I find the ecumenical Churches of Christ to be one of the best places to be within contemporary Christianity. Not that we don't have our problems, but I think the ecumenical Churches of Christ have a lot going for them. Of course, I'm biased in this assessment as my history and biography are a huge part of this.
With that backdrop in mind, here are the three reasons I gave to Tony (plus one extra) as to why I like the Churches of Christ.
1. Keeping it Local: Congregational Structure
Churches of Christ are radically congregational in structure. Each church is independent. There is no hierarchy, conventions, or bureaucracies. Each church is left to govern itself as it sees fit.
The benefit of this, for me at least, is that my church life is very local. I don't give any attention, say, to how the evangelicals and emergents are getting along, or to how the Southern Baptists are receiving the newest version of the NIV, or to how Rome is getting along with the American bishops. All I have to focus on is my life with the Highland Church of Christ that meets on 425 Highland Avenue in Abilene, TX. I'm not a part of a larger movement, conversation, or organization.
I'm just a guy with a blog who goes to the Highland Church of Christ. That's it.
And here's the deal. Truth be told, finding a church home is all about your experience at the local level. If the people in a church love you and you love them I don't think it matters much if that church is Catholic, Church of Christ, Baptist, or Episcopalian. At root, the question "Why are you a member of the Churches of Christ?" (or anything else for that matter) really isn't that critical of a question. If you're happy at the local level then a lot of the global stuff can slide. In fact, a lot of complaints about the global level are really complaints about the local level. When you hear someone say, for instance, "I hate the Churches of Christ" this person is more likely saying that they hate the Churches of Christ they have had experiences with. We don't hate (or love) abstractions. It's all local. The loving and the hating.
2. The Noble Bereans: Biblical but Non-Creedal
The Churches of Christ are non-creedal. We don't have a statement of faith. Nor, incidentally, do Church of Christ universities. According to most Churches of Christ creeds are "the teachings and traditions of men" and, thus, highly suspect. We just use the bible as our guide for faith and practice.
Theologians in the audience are now scratching their heads. How, it might be asked, do you regulate your doctrine without a creed? Good question. Answer: Mainly via tradition and an unspoken creed. The creed is more implicit than explicit.
But an unspoken creed leaves a lot room for diversity. For example, while most members of the Churches of Christ believe in the Trinity (at least implicitly), there is a strong Unitarian strain within our movement. Why? Well, the word "Trinity" isn't in the bible you see. That word, and by implication that doctrine, is a "teaching of man." The examples can abound here. Members of the Church of Christ are generally amillennialists. But you do run into people who believe in the Left Behind stuff. Historically we're Arminian but more and more Church of Christ folk are adopting Reformed beliefs.
It's getting to be a bit of a mess. And that's the point. This theological elbow room works for me. I just add my mess to the mix.
What holds the mess together (at least for now), and is a distinctive mark of our movement, is the consistent and ubiquitous appeal to Scripture. If there is one verse that describes the Churches of Christ it might be this:
Acts 17.11What truly marks the Churches of Christ is this: we examine the Scriptures daily to see if what is taught is true.
Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.
So that's what I shared with Tony. What marks me as Church of Christ isn't theology or doctrine. Again, we're non-creedal. What marks me as Church of Christ the centrality of Scripture. How I keep going back to Scripture, day after day.
For example, think about this blog. Have you not noticed that this is a Church of Christ blog? If you can't see this conduct the following experiment. Scroll down to the end of this page and count up the number of Scripture references you see across the posts. Go back a couple of weeks and count them all. Then go to a favorite Christian blogger of yours and do the same, counting up all the Scripture references and quotations.
If you do this you'll see the difference. As best I can tell, as I mentioned to Tony, I quote Scripture more than any other Christian blogger I know. Shoot, I quote more Scripture than a lot of fundamentalist bloggers. Do you know why?
I'm Church of Christ.
3. No Flag Waving
The third reason I find the Churches of Christ congenial is that we're not nationalistic. We don't have flags in our churches and we don't have patriotic displays on the Fourth of July or other national holidays. Of course, this practice varies from church to church. But generally speaking, we don't wave flags.
(Note: In the last decade or so there do seem to be a few Churches of Christ who are drifting toward evangelicalism. Consequently, these churches are slowly becoming politicized and, thus, are starting to wave flags and obsess about election cycles. This is a new and worrying trend.)
In short, there a bit of an Anabaptist and anarchist thread running through our movement. Largely due to people like David Lipscomb, an early leader in the Churches of Christ (and founder of one of our schools, Lipscomb University, where I once taught) who was a pacifist and advocated that Christians shouldn't vote or serve on juries.
So, in a world where Christianity is becoming more and more politicized and where "God and Country" idolatry is an increasing problem, I find the Churches of Christ to be a nice oasis from the political madness of contemporary Christianity.
4. "Welcome each other, as Christ has welcomed you": Open Communion
I didn't mention this to Tony, but I think he would have liked (see his post here) this fourth reason about why I prefer the Churches of Christ: Open communion.
If you attend a Church of Christ you are welcome to take communion. To be honest, I don't think the Churches of Christ have thought much about this topic, but that's our practice. If you are sitting in our pews on Sunday you are welcome to take communion as the trays are passed. The implicit theology is clear: You are welcome at the Lord's Table. No one is left out.
(A story about this. I think this practice of open communion in our churches was one of the most profound and affecting things that the SoulForce--an LGBT advocacy group--riders experienced when they visited our campus in 2006. When SoulForce arrived on a Sunday night they had dinner at a local Church of Christ where there was a communion service afterward for our college students. The SoulForce riders attended the service and, per our practice, were welcomed to partake of communion with everyone in attendance. As I remember it, this act of welcome, and the implicit theology it incarnated, was the most profound experience of the visit for the SoulForce riders.)
To be sure, there are good things and bad things about open communion (as there are good things and bad things to closed communion). But given the vision of radical hospitality I paint in Unclean it should be obvious that I prefer open communion.
So there you have it. That was my answer to Tony. Why do I like the Churches of Christ? Four reasons: congregational/local structure, non-creedal but biblical, strains of Anabaptist/anarchism, and open communion.
I also like the acapella music, the Arminian soteriology, the high view of baptism (and that it's believer's baptism), the taking of commuion every Sunday, the use of Sunday school, the lack of clergy, and the amillennialism/preterism (which keeps us clear of the Left Behind stuff and zany ideas about the state of Israel).