The Future of Churches of Christ: Table & Baptism

I had wonderful time at Streaming last week with Greg Boyd and many others. Thanks to Mark Love for putting together, year after year, such a wonderful event.

(BTW, if you're thinking of pursuing a graduate degree in ministry be sure to check out the missional leadership degree directed by Mark at Rochester College. I show up in that program for a class in year two, helping teach a course on hospitality taught in Durham, NC as a part of a visit to Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove's Rutba House community.)

As you can tell from the Tweet above, Greg and I talked a lot about the Churches of Christ, where we've come from and where some of us might be going. This was, in fact, a conversation I had with quite a few people at Streaming.

What will be the future of the Churches of Christ? Given all the changes we are experiencing will there be anything left of the movement in a generation or two? And if so, what is that going to look like?

Before answering those questions, some quick backstory and context for Non-CoCers.

As I've written about before, right now there are two streams in the Churches of Christ, a sectarian stream and an ecumenical stream. Historically, the CoC has been very sectarian, believing only those from our tribe to be the only faithful Christians in the world. Catholics, Baptists, Lutherans and everyone else were headed to hell. At its worst that's what CoC theology represented and communicated. And that is what a lot of people have in mind to this day when they think of the Churches of Christ.

But starting in the 70s and 80s an increasingly ecumenical impulse began to emerge within the CoC, an increasing willingness to see ourselves as a particular stream flowing into the much broader river of Christianity. Catholics, Baptists, Lutherans and everyone else are our brothers and sisters in Christ. This, obviously, is the group of CoCers I identify with.

Now to a second point before we can discuss the future of the CoC. The CoC has been a movement centered around church practices, about restoring a "New Testament pattern" of worship and church organization. The CoC has been less focused upon theology (historically a dirty word in our tradition) than upon ecclesiology.

Now, the most distinctive aspect of CoC church practice, the other big thing we are known for, is acapella worship (voices only, no instruments). This has been such a defining feature of the CoC that we split with the Disciples of Christ/Christian Church over this issue. And as you know, if a church splits over an issue that issue--because you've spilled blood over it--becomes deeply rooted in the psyche and DNA of a tradition. If you spilled blood over an issue that issue has to become a test a fellowship, a boundary that cannot be crossed. For the Churches of Christ acapella worship became that defining issue, perhaps the most defining issue (because of the split) of our movement.

But now, with the rise of the ecumenical impulse within the Churches of Christ, this worship practice has been rapidly changing. Many of the largest and most influential congregations in the Churches of Christ are adding instrumental worship services. My church, the Highland Church of Christ, is now among this group.

Which brings us back to the question: What will be the future of the Churches of Christ?

You can see the issue. If acapella worship was a or the defining practice of our tradition what happens when that practice no longer characterizes our churches? If a Church of Christ goes instrumental what makes us distinctive, say, from the other community or Baptist churches in town that worship with instruments?

Let me frame the question this way. The Churches of Christ have been a movement that has maintained unity via church practices. Each Church of Christ organized and worshiped in the same way. So what holds us together once those practices start to change? If practices have been our organizing core what happens when that core evaporates?

Well, with an emerging diversity of practices we'd no longer have a core, no longer have a consistent expectation of what a Church of Christ might "look like" from location to location. Thus the question: What's going to be the "core" of the Churches of Christ (if it's not going to be acapella worship) going forward?

Now, I'm not a fortune-teller and given my limited experience and perspective from within the Churches of Christ I cannot speak for the diversity within the movement or predict how it will all work out in a generation or two. But as I've pondered the question "What will be the future of the Churches of Christ?" this has been my answer.

In my opinion, if the (ecumenical) Churches of Christ want to maintain a distinctive and coherent identity going forward they should increasingly focus upon articulating a robust and distinctive theology as it pertains to two specific church practices which I believe, unlike with acapella worship, will continue to characterize the movement for the next few generations.

These two practices are the weekly observance of the Lord's Supper and a believer's baptism by immersion for the remission of sins.

Let me comment on each of these in turn.

What will make the Church of Christ distinctive going forward? This: We are distinct (though not unique) in celebrating the Lord's Supper every Sunday. But it's more than that. Our distinctive (though not unique) belief is that the Lord's Supper is the sole reason for gathering, that the Lord's Supper can never be skipped. Sermon, worship and just about everything else can be skipped. But you cannot skip the Lord's Supper. Table is the focal point of our gathering. Going forward my sense is that this pratice will continue to define and characterize the Churches of Christ in both the acapella and increasingly instrumental congregations.

So my recommendation to CoC leaders is this: Let's give increasing attention to our theology and practice of the Table. Our weekly observance of the Lord's Supper, how everything we do on Sunday is oriented around the Table, is a distinctive practice. A robust theology informing and supporting this practice will make it even more distinctive. Why go to a local Church of Christ? Because of the weekly welcome to the Lord's Table, and all the profound theology that will rock your world if you step into that practice.

And if I might be allowed to nudge our theology of the Table in a particular direction let me add this. One of the things I've noticed in many Churches of Christ is how in our weekly observance of the Lord's Supper we've begun to explicitly articulate a theology of open communion. In ecumenical Churches of Christ you increasingly hear in the Lord's Supper meditation statements like "All are welcome to the Lord's Table."

What is interesting to me here is how our practice has shaped our theology. Given that many of our congregations are large and that we celebrate the Lord's Supper every Sunday, Churches of Christ have been, by default, practicing open communion. We pass the trays to everyone. No one can keep track of who is or is not taking the Lord's Supper as the trays are passed, especially in our larger congregations. Week in and week out, we have no idea who is taking communion.

Functionally, and therefore implicitly, communion has been open.

But increasingly what has been theologically implicit in our practice is now being made explicit. "All are welcome to the Lord's Table." That's what is being said in many Churches of Christ. In many places, the Churches of Christ have practiced their way into a theology of open communion.

Is that the future of a distinctive Church of Christ theology? The weekly observance of open communion accompanied by a robust theology of open communion?

I hope so. But if not, the larger observation is what I'm focused on: the distinctive practice of the weekly observance of the Lord's Supper.

The second distinctive aspect that I think will characterize the Churches of Christ going forward is a believer's baptism by immersion for the remission of sins. I have a post scheduled to come out in November on this topic, but a bit about this practice in our churches.

In the Churches of Christ we don't say the Sinner's Prayer. We never ask people to "accept Jesus into your heart as your Lord and personal Savior." To respond to the gospel we ask people to be baptized by immersion. Simplifying greatly, baptism by immersion is our Sinner's Prayer.

What this means is that the Churches of Christ, as with our weekly observance of the Lord's Supper, are poised to have a very robust and distinctive theology of baptism. If there is a faith tradition that can unpack Romans 6 it is the Churches of Christ.

And as with the weekly observance of the Lord's Supper, I think this practice of responding to the gospel in the act of baptism will continue to characterize both the acapella and increasingly instrumental Churches of Christ for a least a generation or two.

So that's my other suggestion. Along with articulating a robust and distinctive theology of the Table I think Churches of Christ should articulate a robust and distinctive theology of baptism. We're well positioned to do each of these things.

In fact, we're already doing so. More and more we've been reminding our members of their baptism, calling them back to the symbolisim of that central, sacred and life-defining ritual. Remember your baptism. Remember your baptism. Remember your baptism.

And the same has been happening in our theology of the Lord's Table. Our services are becoming filled with the invitation: "This is the Lord's Table. All are welcome here."

Which is interesting. These are two defining sacraments of Protestantism. Baptism and the Lord's Supper. And here's a faith tradition, the Churches of Christ--because of its weekly observance of the Lord's Supper and its practice of baptism by immersion for the remission of sin upon the confession of faith--that is distinctively (though not uniquely) poised to practice these sacraments in ways that open up a rich and deep theology.

I wonder about this. What future are the Churches of Christ practicing toward?

I don't know. I know I won't live to see it. But I have a clue. And a hope.

Yes, it's for these reasons--our practices of Table and baptism--that I have great hope for the future of the Churches of Christ.

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18 thoughts on “The Future of Churches of Christ: Table & Baptism”

  1. Good stuff, and I think it's so important for us Restoration movement folks to emphasize the open table and immersion. I would love to see some reconciliation between the CoCs and the Disciples and Christian churches (although like you,I'll probably not live to be old enough to see that day.)

    We do a great job of the open table theology in the DoC, but I wish we'd put some more emphasis on the theological implications and importance of baptism. We've made an intellectual proposition of it with mentoring and a yearly ceremony that I think we might be hampering a bit the Spirit's power to move in one's life to make one say, "Here is water. What prevents me from being baptized?"

    I've been studying and contemplating the impulse of the very early Restoration movement concerning unity, and wish all of us Restorationists would take a long hard look at that and move back towards that, not as an eschatological principle, but as an ecclesiological and sociological principle. That's where I think our ultimate future lies, in affirming that "Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God; we proclaim Him Lord and Savior of the world", and in learning how to live out His desire for "Mercy, not sacrifice" in our congregational lives.

    On a somewhat related note, I'm going back through Unclean and trying to look at where I've allowed disgust psychology to color my perceptions of different thoughts and ideas as sin and contamination, rather than performance issues. Not necessarily easy or pleasant, but fruitful, nonetheless.

    Thanks again for sharing your thoughtfulness and insights with us, Richard.

  2. Make Agape the theological linchpin. That way theology and practice are brought together. (I have in mind Luther's use of grace: whenever he reached a difficult theological decision point, he used grace as the rock to
    crack the hard nut.") At every point theology ought to inform and highlight Agape,

  3. I agree, of course. The issue is how you shape unloving people into loving people. Churches go about this in particular and distinctive ways via their practices. Thus my interests in something like the practice of open communion. The regular practice of "all are welcome"--week in and week out--shapes your imagination, affections and worldview. Love is an affectional capacity. We can't talk our way into it. We practice our way into love.

  4. I think a church of your description would gain traction in
    today’s “market” The only thing similar would be the Anglican Mission of North America
    and the closest one to my house is 30 miles away. They practice weekly communion but baptize

  5. Hi Richard, I read your blog often, but I don't think I've ever commented. Not sure how I originally found you. Maybe Leah Libresco's blog? Anyway, I'm curious about the relationship between baptism and communion in the theology of the Churches of Christ.

    As a Catholic, I obviously share the focus on weekly Communion (well, daily in my tradition, but you get the point), but not open Communion. It's always curious to me that in the Baptist tradition, communion is infrequent, and restricted only to church members. One becomes a member via believer's baptism by immersion, yet Baptists do not generally believe baptism "does" anything; it's done out of obedience. To me, it's sort of difficult to wrap my head around why baptism matters so much in a tradition (restricted to believers, full immersion only, means of joining the church) when it's not believed to be regenerative.

    It seems as though Churches of Christ have a view of baptism more similar to Catholics (in reference to efficacy, anyway), and highly value Communion as the point of community worship, but don't see baptism as a "prerequisite" to Communion. Do the Churches of Christ see these two sacraments as intimately related, or more parallel? Thanks! :)

  6. Very true; to stop at talk is (usually) to fail at love. But a tradition that sees "theology" as a dirty word has not seen it as a way to elucidate the ways of love, to more effectively put christian vision into practice. So theology can be vital by taking on the difficult task of shining a bright enough light to see through the dark glass of human nature with all of its self-serving self-deceptions. I really appreciate how you take up that work on this blog.

    I become concerned, however, when respect for distinctive church traditions becomes a goal, as those traditions can also become dark lenses. I'll be concrete.

    My former church has a strong tradition of funding missionaries--and it saw itself as a failure when that funding began to slip. It's a complex story, but the gist of it is that it decided to move from an increasingly poor neighborhood to a new and more affluent one in order to attract the kind of members who could support its "distinctive" ministry focus. The Great Commandment, apparently, didn't fit the church focus.

    And here's the proof: rich and poor did not mix at church gatherings. But in fact very few poor came through the doors, despite the neighborhood's demographics. When I read how the Apostle Paul railed at the apostles who sided with the "circumcision party" for allowing fractures into the body of Christ, well, I'm certain that this point needs making... Better yet, how Christ railed against perverse traditions...

  7. Hi Julia! I’m curious to hear Richard’s take on this, but I will offer my experience in the meantime. Growing up in the Churches of Christ (of a more sectarian variety), I was taught that baptism (by immersion) was a prerequisite for taking Communion. I struggle to articulate the reasoning behind this though as this was taught via practice rather than theology, i.e. my parents (who were baptized) took the Lord’s Supper, but passed the tray over my sister and me until we were baptized in our teens. As far as I know this is pretty standard in Churches of Christ though not enforced. Most Churches of Christ pass trays with the bread and grape juice (rarely wine!) down the pews and it is up to each person to partake or abstain, though if you asked your average church member they would tell you it was intended for baptized believers.

    I can also remember being taught that you should never miss the Lord’s Supper. Ever. If you didn't go to church one Sunday, that was frowned upon as you should not give up meeting together, but skipping Communion was to endanger your salvation. Again, I don’t remember sermons explicitly about this so it may have been something I picked up implicitly.

    As Richard points out, we have historically been more focused on church practice than theology, which has led to some weird theology. My experience was that we always learned what to do but not the why do it. I’m not sure if the weird theology led to the legalism or the legalism to the weird theology. We’re still working on that. :)

  8. My family has belonged to the Independent Christian Church branch for six generations. We were always taught that one of Alexander Campbell's main objectives was to have open communion following his experiences in the Presbyterian Church in Scotland where he saw communion denied to some. The Christian Church I attend was founded in 1830 and like many who have commented before, it was assumed that one had to be an obedient (as in baptized) believer to take communion. This was never really verbalized, just absorbed by osmosis. A few years ago, a member of the congregation came to me as an elder and asked if baptism was required to take communion. My reply was that to the best of my knowledge, there were no requirements listed in the Bible for partaking of the communion and if we say we "speak where the Scriptures speak, and are silent where they are silent" then there is nothing to discuss. It hasn't been brought up since.

  9. Taking the Lord's Supper "properly" was demonstrated in a class I once attended. Oh, BTW, I've operated within the atmosphere of sectarian C of C all my life. So, of course, every ritual must be performed in an appropriate manner. The instructor picked up an individual cup and said we should observe the contour of the upper rim - how it was flared out. This meant that we could simply press it to the lips, turn it up, swallowing the contents without the jerking of the head backwards, which was supposedly quite distracting to others around you. We even got to practice doing this without the jerking motion. Once you have been reminded of this procedure, you will never forget it. So ever since, every Sunday, I carefully watch myself lest I jerk my head backwards and be a distraction. Yet, I can't imagine the Lord saying to me at the judgment, "Well, it says here that you used to jerk your head backwards when you partook of the communion. Is that true?" :)

  10. While I don't fully understand all the divisions that have fractured the church over the years, it feels like among my younger generation that there might be more movement toward reunification especially in circumstances where limited budgets and population have made it hard for congregations to maintain the standards of community they grew up with. On a personal level and at the local church level the conversation at least seems to indicate that many of the old reasons for separation are no longer as important but it feels like there is still a very entrenched old guard that would never be open to sharing leadership or 'compromising' their beliefs by accepting differing ideas in 'their' church.

    Or maybe the things that divide us have just changed and instead of being divided by biblical interpretation we will see division along social justice lines, or to the degree our groups are willing to accept outsiders. I think those things would matter more to me then doctrine, and separation because of intentional exclusion by the church is where I see the necessity of a split.

    In my church background the practices of baptism and communion have had very little meaning for me so I find the practice interesting but irrelevant. Baptism as a public declaration of faith makes sense to me, though I wonder if we need to be confined to this form since what meant something 2000 years ago may not have the same cultural context anymore. Is the water the defining characteristic or the public declaration? In a similar way I also find myself asking if the physical practice of communion really reflects what Jesus taught. Is sharing bread and wine the point, or is it supposed to reflect the degree we share share the rest of our lives? At least in North America we have embraced a view that you share your feelings, but not your money, and that it is not only normal but expected that the division between poor and rich is the same in the church as in the world unlike what you read about in early Acts.

    So in summary, I really like the idea of baptism and communion, but it somehow feels like the physical practice doesn't always convey the message it was meant too or accurately reflect the degree we share our lives. So then I have to ask are we limited to the form prescribed by scripture or can it be reinterpreted?

  11. Richard I have slept on these thoughts and while I celebrate the call here for more emphasis on weekly open communion and the importance of believers baptism, I would like to challenge our need and desire to be "distinctive". As soon as you find yourself, I believe, holding or searching for distinctive practices you are separating yourself which hints at a prideful heart. I would say that Christ calls us to renounce our need for these kinds of characterizations and to trust fully in his name alone and the saving grace of the cross. If in moving forward we provide these sacraments because we see there value and importance...we long to hold them up to a struggling world for their rich meaning than we must also, I believe, seek to find the practices that are healthy from other traditions and let go of our fear of labels. I have a long way to go but speaking for myself, when I start worrying about coC tradition being lost, i find it is because of my love of my parent's faith. We must consider the possibility that God is calling us to think more globally than our families. It is a work in progress no doubt:) Love what you are doing here and thank you for making me think on these things this morning:))

  12. Love this, Richard. It's why my theme for the Pepperdine lectures was "Enter the Water, Come to the Table." Like you, I think there is a lot of guidance for our heritage by returning to and exploring again these themes. They send us to the core of gospel/discipleship.

  13. This is an excellent post. BTW, loved [and preached on] your book, Unclean. Just terrific! Blessings from Round Rock, TX.

  14. Very good post; however, if you go back further in history your statement that "Historically, the CoC has been very sectarian, believing only those from our tribe to be the only faithful Christians in the world. Catholics, Baptists, Lutherans and everyone else were headed to hell" is not completely accurate. If you trace back to the beginnings of the restoration movement, and read original works of Campbell and Stone, you will find that the exclusive nature of the churches of Christ was a huge departure from the restoration movement.

  15. I've recently found your blog. I grew up in the church in rural Alabama, very conservative, very strict church. I left it for the Christian church in Virginia, and have now come back to the church of Christ now that I am back in Alabama, in Montgomery. With Faulkner in town, there are more than a few churches around. I've picked the most farthest away from the church of my childhood. What you call "ecumenical", other churches of Christ call "non Bible-believing" church. We're not in their tribe. I'm interested to read your thoughts on baptism. Must a Christian be Baptized to receive salvation? I was baptized at 13, and believed that I was doomed to hell until the moment I came up out of the water. I went to a Gospel meeting once and remember the preacher telling the story of a young lady who had a heart attack and died on her way to the baptismal, and how sad it was that she'd surely be in hell. I'm not sure how I feel about that now. Do I believe that Christians should be baptized, absolutely, in order to "put on Christ". I absolutely believe that salvation is a gift, and a gift for the taking. I'm just not sure that salvation only comes after you "rise up out of the watery grave" . Like I said, I'm interested to read your clue and hope.

  16. A lot of talk but not a lot of Bible. I don't do what I do and teach what I teach because Campbell and Stone did it, or because that's the way the "CoC" has done it. I do it because that's what the Bible teaches. A question I never hear answered: How far from the Bible can "Catholics, Baptists, Lutherans and everyone else [who you claim are] our brothers and sisters in Christ" go before it's too far? If you think baptism is immersion - just that one theological point - you just excluded at least half of that number.
    I just imagine Paul on Mars Hill saying, "Jehovah, Zeus, Ahuramazda - we're all worshipping the same god, just in different ways."

  17. A lot of talk and no Bible. I would appreciate a biblical substantiation of your point. What is it in doctrine and practice that a person must profess to become a Christian? To continue in the new life?
    If a person believes the Gospel, that Jesus the son of Yahweh God died as a sacrifice for their sins and was resurrected by the power of that same God (1 Cor 15), what can we say against them if they have not learned the truth of other areas? At minimum, if they are not our fully born brothers and sisters, then they are at least a brother or sister still in the womb.
    If we require a perfect understanding on all points of Scripture before we will call a person 'brother' or 'sister', then we become the Gnostics. One can no longer be saved by grace on account of your faith in the redeeming sacrifice of Jesus through baptism alone. It becomes a "Jesus and..." position, in this case, Jesus and correct understanding.
    And so I offer to you an opportunity to answer your own question, how far can a person deviate from your understanding and on which points before you count them out of the kingdom?

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