The Head and the Heart

When one comes to read about the decades following the Protestant Reformation, one encounters a variety of events and movements in church history – some regarding the Catholic church (e.g., the explorations in the New World), and some regarding the various Protestant movements (e.g., Puritanism in England and the Americas).  One very important development in this time period was the early moves toward the rationalism of the Enlightenment, and how those moves affected Christianity.  As various Christians emphasized “head knowledge” in their relationship with God, others reacted against that emphasis and focused on “heart knowledge.”  It’s that tension that is relevant for us, because we see it in our world, still to this day.

headvsheartIn fact, there is no question that Christianity is founded on at least three kinds of activity: thinkingfeeling, and doing.  But for some reason, we have often tended to struggle primarily with the relationship between the “head” and the “heart,” as we see in statements like “you’re over-thinking it” and “don’t get carried away with your emotions.”  People sometimes criticize too much “head-ness” in the context of emotion-less Bible study or sermons, and others find fault with worship that is “too emotional.”  So, is it possible to love the Lord our God with all our heart and all our mind?

I would say “yes.”  Obviously, both of these impulses are based on New Testament teaching.  For example, Paul’s “Pastoral Epistles” (the letters to Timothy and Titus) repeatedly warn against false teaching, which presumes that true teaching – orthodox theology – is what Paul wants (cf., e.g., 1 Tim. 4:1-10; Tit. 2:1).  Further, Paul’s “fruits of the Spirit” (Gal. 5:22-23) are dispositions of the heart, even if they do manifest themselves in action.

Fortunately, in this time period after the Reformation, we find Christian figures whose religious commitments led them to great heights in these areas.  People like Desiderius Erasmus and John Locke have been intellectual giants for Christianity, and Blaise Pascal and Philipp Jakob Spener have taught us about the importance of the heart.  Of course, there have also been extremes, as you know; the phenomena of deism and “Protestant scholasticism” are expressions of extreme “head-ness,” and some worship gatherings like 18th-century revivals and contemporary “worship concerts” can sometimes be accused of appealing merely to the heart without considering the head.

Happily, there are many other folks who help us in these ways.  If you’d like to read more, let me recommend three groups:

CS Lewis1) Writers like the Middle Ages’ Thomas Aquinas, the Reformation’s John Calvin, and the modern world’s C.S. Lewis (especially in his Mere Christianity) do a good job of teaching theology – addressing the head – without losing sight of the heart.

2) Similarly, for folks who can speak to the heart without losing the head, you can read the Methodists John and Charles Wesley, the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and the recently-deceased pastor and writer Henri Nouwen.

3) Finally, writers like the ancient African St. Augustine, the colonial American Jonathan Edwards, and the modern author Rob Bell often do a good job of blending the two, in my opinion.

Finally, a plug for those who happen to be in my area of West Texas: if you’re interested in this topic, you might want to consider taking any opportunity you can find to interact with my colleague Jeff Childers.  He teaches at my university and in my church, and he has a deep knowledge of the spiritual traditions in Christianity.  If you get a chance to sit at his feet, do it!

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Where the Churches of Christ May Be Headed

church_of_christ_signI have written now and again on this site that I grew up in and still belong to the denomination known as the Churches of Christ.  Some of you are part of that group, but others are not.  This post is dedicated to the direction(s) that I see the Churches of Christ heading; some readers may find it directly applicable to their own contexts, but if you’re not from the CofCs, let me encourage you to “peek over our shoulders,” because you might find something relevant for your own tradition.

Now, because those of us within the movement typically know best our home and/or current congregations, you may not be aware that our denomination/movement is actually rather fragmented in some important ways.  And because those of you outside the movement haven’t been exposed to it as much, you don’t know it intimately enough to see the rifts.

But consider the following phenomena that are current among congregations in the Churches of Christ:

  • Although our founders encouraged us to call ourselves by the “Bible name” of “Christians” or “Disciples,” our movement eventually took on the name “Church of Christ” (also biblical: Romans 16:16).  But, it ended up becoming a “denominational name,” which is what our founders didn’t want.  For a variety of reasons, some churches are taking the name “Church of Christ” off their doors — and of course inciting the wrath of some who think that move inappropriate.  Most, of course, have kept the traditional name.
  • One of the hallmarks of the Churches of Christ down through the last 200 years has been acappella worship, not least because there is no mention of music with instruments in the New Testament.  However, for a variety of reasons, some churches are including instrumental worship alongside — or even in place of — traditional acappella worship.  Many, of course, have not done this, and many strongly reject this inclusion on the part of the churches in question.
  • Similarly, traditional Church of Christ worship has not included leadership roles for women, not least because it’s not clearly presented in the New Testament.  However, for a variety of reasons, some churches involve women heavily in worship leadership, sometimes in every single role a male may inhabit.  Some have not done this, and (you can guess this by now), many strongly reject this move.
  • Given what you’ve just read, you won’t be surprised to learn that some churches and individuals publish extensively in favor of preserving very traditional practices and theology.  Others, of course, practically repudiate such views.
  • And finally, some churches and individuals even take harshly polemical views against a whole variety of topics, including those within the movement with whom they do not agree.

reconciliationIs there a way to bring these groups together?  Is it even legitimate to call these disparate groups part of the same movement?  What will be the future of the movement in, say, 50 years?  Will the fringe elements fall off, leaving a more stable center?  Will the movement ultimately polarize (as has happened occasionally in broader church history), with “liberal” and “conservative” movements emerging? Will the whole thing just come apart at the seams?  Honestly, I don’t know, but I am inclined to think that the movement will survive, in some form or fashion.  There are so many traditions and institutions that can help tie things together — camps, schools, musical styles, etc. — that it’s hard to see the whole thing dissolving.  But… I don’t know.

You might expect the post to end here, but there is one outgrowth of this question that touches me even more directly: how my university fits.  Older alumni of our school are, not unexpectedly, typically much more traditional than our current students; this is true partly because of what happens as we age, but it’s also true because the churches are changing.  Add into this mix the number of students who come from non-Church-of-Christ backgrounds: while some come from fellow “congregational” churches (many non-denominational or “community” churches are like this), and while most share our relatively conservative theological heritage, most do not share our acappella heritage, and most come from churches with different attitudes toward worship.

So what kind of student should we recruit to our school?  Should we focus only on those from our heritage?  And if so, what branch?  If not, what kind of student should we try to attract?  These are open questions, and there aren’t obvious answers.  I am very grateful, though, even in the midst of this uncertainty, that we can still encourage students to invest ever more deeply in God’s kingdom and purposes.  We can try to mentor them and guide them, attempting to foster a love for God and neighbor.


To come back to our original question, I would say that that is true of our movement as a whole.  There is a lot that most of us cannot control (although some of you readers may be in positions of influence).  But what we can always do is to seek to be faithful in our local contexts.  We can work with our congregations, being patient with the leaders or congregants when we disagree, and encouraging ever-greater discipleship to Jesus.  We can embrace our tradition at some times and question it at others, always seeking to “put on love.”

May God bless us all in our kingdom work!

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Democracy and Church Life

voteWhen we study Christianity in the modern world, we sometimes study aspects of Christianity as a whole, while at other times we focus on this or that denomination.  We also deal with the ways in which the great diversity of modern culture shapes a Christianity that has truly “gone global.”

In thinking of modern American Christianity, we have number of denominations to deal with, but also the phenomenon of democracy.  We might tend to think that democracy is mainly a political or cultural aspect of our culture, but in fact, it has impacted church life in HUGE ways, not least in the Churches of Christ, the denomination of which I am a part — as well as its larger branch of Christianity, sometimes called the “Stone-Campbell movement.”  (Click here for a reference work on the movement.)

Democracy is something that is relevant for us is that nearly all of us have encountered it in church life, whether or not we’ve actually noticed it.  Consider this: have you ever (or always?) attended a church service in which someone who was not an “ordained minister” was free to, for example, give the spoken meditation or prayer over the Lord’s Supper, and/or to distribute the bread and wine/juice at that celebration?  What about preaching?  The reading of Scripture?  Are those activities restricted to the ordained/commissioned ministers of your church, or are they available to a wider range of congregants?

To get a sense of what’s going on here, let’s cast our minds back to the Reformation as it was expressed in England, to the conflicts between the Puritans and the English government, and to the Great Awakenings in North America.  As you will remember, for most of Christian history – including in English-speaking countries – most of the people who have had “jobs” in Christian worship have been ordained ministers.  “Regular people” participated in the pews, but they did not typically take leadership roles.  So why have things changed so much?

nathan-hatch1I was not aware of the magnitude of this change until about 10 years ago, when I read a book by a historian named Nathan Hatch.  That book, called The Democratization of American Christianity, was published in the late 1980s and early 1990s by Yale University Press.  There, Hatch looks at five Christian groups that came to prominence in the 1800s in America – i.e., post-American-Revolution.  These groups include the Methodists and Baptists in America, the African-American churches, the Mormons, and the Stone-Campbell movement (which, again, led to the Churches of Christ).  Hatch’s thesis is that the democratic impulses present before, during, and after the American Revolution, caused a widespread belief that “common people” have a rightful access to some of the “jobs” and opportunities previously held only by society’s elite.  These jobs included holding political office, gaining higher education, and (most importantly for us) leading in churches.

Now, I’m convinced that Hatch is right, and I also think that there was something more going on here – a sociological component.  Many of these church groups flourished (or found fertile soil) on the American frontier of the time – on and beyond the Appalachian mountains.  And it’s true that, in these remote places, with low population density, it was difficult for ordained ministers from established denominations to reach the local Christians on a regular basis, thus making it more necessary to have non-ordained folks available to do the “jobs.”  But Hatch is right in saying that there was also a certain ethos – freedom and democracy were in the air, and that air pierced the walls of the churches.

So, this is an obvious example of a current practice in churches that has a very clear set of roots in church history.  But there’s also another plank to this platform, and that lies in the Enlightenment.  Hatch points out five ways in which the Enlightenment influenced these churches, and I’d like to connect a couple of these with a couple of manifestations in our church life:

First, folks at this time in these movements believed and taught that all people (not just the elite) have been endowed with reason.  Further, they bought into the Enlightenment emphasis on individual autonomy, that each individual person had a responsibility to discover and follow God’s ways, using their reason.  In church life, we see those beliefs in things like Sunday school (people can be taught about spiritual things), the encouragement for everyone to read their Bibles independently, and the desire for individual Christians to use their God-given gifts to bless others, even in public worship, no matter their “ordained” status.

gravitylounge-711478Second, they believed that, just as nature had laws that could be discerned by reason (e.g., Newton’s “discovery” of the law of gravity), so God’s ways might also have laws, e.g., in how a church should be run.  Further, they saw the universe as an orderly and harmonious organization, and they saw the church in the same way.  If a church is focused on its leaders, then there is not as much harmony as a place with many, many people involved.  More involved individuals means more potential tension, but it also means a greater potential for exhibiting the church as a harmonious whole, as God desires it!

So, friends, the next time you see a variety of people leading worship in your church, or students leading worship in your school chapel services, you might remember where that impulse came from.  And, if you’re so inclined, you might give God thanks for the many gifts he gives his children, and for the ways in which the Holy Spirit brings God’s family into harmony.

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Contemporary Catholicism

As some of you know, I grew up (and still am) in a Protestant denomination, but I did my Ph.D. in church history at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana.  One of the MANY great things that happened during my time in South Bend was that I got to know Catholicism much, much better — not just individual Catholic brothers and sisters, but also the broader movement as a whole and in its diversity.  Some of you currently belong to Catholic churches or have in the past, and so you are naturally aware of aspects of modern Catholicism — but some of you do not have that knowledge.  As a result, I want to reflect upon an important event that ended right at fifty years ago — the so-called “Second Vatican Council” — and what it means for contemporary Catholicism.

Now, because of our various backgrounds, I can’t assume that you know much about pre-Vatican-II Catholicism before this week.  Among Protestants, probably the most well-known feature of older Catholicism is the use of Latin in each church’s worship., as opposed to the “vernacular” (that is, local languages).  Also, if you’ve seen certain movies, you might know that the priest used to celebrate the Mass with his back to the congregation, facing the back wall.  And you might possibly be familiar with the relative lack of good preaching in Catholic churches at that time, and how many Catholics viewed worship as a confusing experience.


I’m willing to bet, though, that you did not know about how closed off the Catholic church was during recent centuries; in fact, one of the greatest enemies of 19th-century Catholicism was the so-called “modernism,” as this list of 80 (!) modern “errors” that Pope Pius IX rejected can testify.  In fact, some authors have argued that pre-Vatican-II Catholicism was largely about protecting a type of “medieval fortress,” with as few gates as possible open to the modern world.

Of course, there were exceptions, as you may also know.  For example, Jesuit missionaries traveled very far afield, even experimenting with new missionary methods.  Also, there were many Catholic thinkers who were in conversation with the modern world; the controversial priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin provides just one example.  But for the most part, especially in the West, “Catholicism” was often associated by Protestants with being “conservative,” and even sometimes “backward.”

But in the wake of Vatican II, many changes have happened, as you now know.  Catholics can now experience worship in the vernacular (German in Leipzig, English or Spanish in the part of Texas where I live, etc.).  They can now see their priest’s face, as he faces them around a table that is much closer to the congregation.  They can hear good preaching – even if it is rather short.  And those of us who are Protestants would probably be more welcomed than we would have been 50 years ago.

Those changes are rather well-known.  But what about some less famous modifications that still impact us?  One important one is the growth in Catholic participation in ecumenical movements.  The recent Pope John Paul II was well-known for this sort of thing, in his visiting of Eastern Orthodox churches, and even sharing Communion with its leaders!   Second, if you were to take my own road and attend graduate school at a Catholic university, you would enjoy much more academic freedom there than you would have before Vatican II.  There wouldn’t be as much need to line up your research with traditional Catholic teaching.  Finally, we’ve seen new emphases in Catholicism: on youth ministry, on using media in ministry (e.g., the TV network EWTN), and on composing new, indigenous worship music.

The term that most accurately describes one goal of the Second Vatican Council is the Italian word “aggiornamento,” which means “bringing up to date.”  Catholicism certainly hasn’t been well-known for being innovative in its recent history; if anything, it’s been known for being behind.  And so, just bringing the Church “up to date” is a real win for Catholicism.  Sometimes just catching up is really important.

pope_francisBut why is this important for those of us who are Christian but not Catholic?  Well, there are a few reasons.  First, Catholic churches are no longer places that ought to feel particularly intimidating to us.  A lot of the barriers have come down in that regard.  Second, we can learn about recent Popes – people like John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and now Francis I – and we can truly admire them.  The reality is that we really have a lot in common with them, whereas before we might have thought of them as “stick-in-the-mud Catholics” who are really different.

The final reason this is important is that, as our world continues to change, I really think that we will become more and more dependent on our fellow Christians, of whatever stripe.  It will become more and more important than we can join together in common work, even though we have doctrinal differences.  Thus, it will be important that we can know and learn more about Catholicism, just as it will be important that Catholicism is more and more able to learn about and accept us.

Jesus prayed in John 17:21 that those who come after his disciples “will be one,” and that that oneness will be a testimony to the world concerning Jesus.  May it be so among us!

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Parachurch Organizations

When one learns about church history in the post-Reformation world, one often reads about two approaches to following Jesus that really flourished during this time: one that emphasized the head (e.g., deism, “Protestant scholasticism,” etc.), and one that emphasized the heart (e.g., Pietism).  A third approach developed in the 19th century, namely, the social option (most fully in what’s called the “Social Gospel,” but also in various aspects of mission work, anti-slavery efforts, etc.).


The 19th century also witnessed the rise of a new type of church organization, one that was involved in these kinds of efforts but also in many others, namely, the “voluntary societies.”  These were groups of Christians who banded together to work on a particular project, whether Bible translation, mission work, social relief, or whatever.  Two things are particularly interesting about this development, especially given the prior centuries of Christian history.

First, these groups did not line up along denominational lines; rather, these groups consisted of individuals dedicated to a common cause, no matter their denomination.  This was a truly new approach within Christian history.  We are certainly familiar with various groups in Christian history existing apart from others, but these were usually either intra-denominational groups (e.g., Catholic orders like the Franciscans or Jesuits) or splinters from denominations as the Protestant movement fragmented after the Reformation.  The new impulse in the 19th century was that individuals from various denominations could band together but not be under the thumb of any one denomination.  Not surprisingly, this approach was quite popular at the time (although some “Back to the Bible” movements could not find this kind of individual cooperation in the New Testament, and so they rejected the impulse)..

The second interesting part of this development was that it proved especially popular among women, who had not been typically in positions of power — or even participation, in some cases.  But these new voluntary societies provided women new opportunities to participate and even to lead — again, on all types of issues, even including overseas missions efforts.  This interest on the part of women also caused some controversy, but that opposition did not stem the tide of this new, innovative, and powerful development in Christian history.

The reason it is relevant for us is that this movement didn’t just stay in the 19th century; it has influenced our own world through what we call “parachurch organizations.”  “Para-” here refers to a Greek preposition that can mean “beside” or “alongside,” and so parachurch organizations hopefully don’t compete with or serve under churches, but rather work alongside churches and denominations.  Sound familiar?  It’s the same as the voluntary society in the 19th century.

What are some examples?  Have you ever: Young-Life

  • Read a Bible in a hotel room left by the Gideons?
  • Participated in Young Life in high school?
  • Sponsored a Compassion child?

If so, then you’ve been involved with a parachurch organization.

And there are many kinds.  Various organizations focus on things like college students (Campus Crusade for Christ), teaching people the basics of Christianity (the Alpha Course), prisons (Prison Fellowship), spiritual growth (Renovare), publishing (InterVarsity Press), politics (Focus on the Family), relief (Samaritan’s Purse), and homebuilding (Habitat for Humanity).  In other words, there is an almost limitless variety of such organizations.  And they have become very important for many modern Christians, both in how they spend their time, but also in how they steward their money.

On this last point, parachurch organizations can become controversial.  When people give money to Focus on the Family, they are (at least theoretically) not giving it to a local church.  Further, if a group is not under the oversight of a particular denomination, some people wonder if the group’s doctrinal stances can be trusted.

But the strengths outweigh the weaknesses, in my mind.  Parachurch organizations can be more organizationally nimble, they can effectively meet immediate needs on a wide scale, and (like the societies of the 19th century) they can provide new opportunities for participation and leadership to women, young people, and others for whom access to traditional channels of influence can be challenging (or totally unavailable).  And as you know, it can be challenging for young people who strive to follow Jesus to find ways to express that devotion in meaningful ways that make an impact in the world — and parachurch organizations can provide just that opportunity.

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John Wesley and Small Groups

john-wesleyOne of the most influential church leaders in the “modern” era (that is, the last few centuries) is John Wesley.  His influence has, of course, been especially strong in the Methodist and other Wesleyan churches.  But his work has also influenced other churches in a variety of ways (his preaching, the hymns his brother wrote, etc.)  Perhaps his greatest influence among churches of ALL kinds, though, has been his idea of Christians interacting together in small groups.

You may know that Wesley developed an organizational structure for his fledgling movement of folks who wanted to follow Jesus more intentionally.  You may also know that he did not call his gatherings of a handful of Christians by the now-familiar name of “small groups,” but rather as “classes.”  These meetings focused on testimonies, prayer, and spiritual encouragement — quite like the small groups with which we are familiar — and they became “a highly successful feature of the Methodist awakening” (Bruce Shelley, Church History in Plain Language)  As it happens, Wesley did not invent this idea, but it was part of the influence he received from the Pietist movement in Lutheran Christianity: the Pietists had developed this mode of meeting already, and part of Wesley’s “conversion experience” occurred in a Moravian (Pietist) small group meeting.

But as is often the case in history, one person invents something, but another popularizes it.  And without Wesley, this way of interacting may never have become the phenomenon that it has.  It has persisted, becoming very important in modern American Christianity.  Whether one speaks of parachurch movements like Bible Study Fellowship (which according to its website currently boasts over 1,000 groups in 39 nations, with over 200,000 members), denominational groups, or simply “life groups” within large congregations, one finds a vast group of Christians involved in some kind of small-group life.

In fact, I often hear from ACU students about their experiences in various small groups.  Many of these students belong to the Beltway park congregation, which makes life groups an important part of its college ministry.  Others are involved with smaller congregational college ministries, which function like small groups.  What these groups usually have in common is a desire to “do life together,” as people often say, and can include things like Bible study, prayer, worship, and/or other kinds of spiritual fellowship.


If you ask me why these groups are so important, I think that it’s the close relationships that people experience there.  It’s probably not an accident that Wesley birthed his idea in the urban settings of pre-Industrial-Revolution England.  As you may know, the rapid urbanization and depersonalization of the 19th century in Europe made life difficult for many Christians.  They were uprooted from small villages and close-knit family structures, and they had to find their spiritual way in what was functionally a new world.

Our world is not that different.  Many of us no longer live in the places our other family members do, and even at a school as community-focused as the one in which I teach, it’s impossible to be friends with 3000+ other undergraduates.  We find meaningful relationship in small groups, where we can know and be known.  You might even be thinking, “Maybe Jesus knew what he was doing when he called only 12 men to be his closest followers.”  Indeed.

If you choose (or have chosen) to be involved in a group like this, may God bless you in that endeavor.  And for all of us, when we hear people talk about their small groups — let’s remember that this is a way of living that is rooted in church history!

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