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!

Image credits: http://signs.stewartsigns.com/church_sign_g_street_church_of_christ_2584.jpg , https://joshdowton.files.wordpress.com/2013/03/reconciliation.jpg?w=660 , and http://radiofreebabylon.com/Comics/CoffeeWithJesus.php

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.

Image credits: http://gopcampaigner.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/vote-ballot-b-w.jpg.728x520_q85.jpghttp://www.wfu.edu/wfunews/2005/images/20050121F_hatch8756w2.jpg , and http://aetherforce.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/gravity.jpg (edited)

Modern Worship and the Protestant Reformation

church history bookThe church history class I teach most often at our university is a so-called “survey” course — one in which we try to absorb elements of all 2,000 years of Christian history in ONE SEMESTER.  As you can guess, we’re always having to treat things at less depth than I would prefer, in the interest of getting the “big picture.”

When we get to modern American Christianity, it can sometimes be hard to see how church life in our day is connected with events from previous centuries.  However, it’s important to know — and a class focused on the history of Christianity in the U.S. would teach you — that many modern American denominations come directly out of the events of the Reformation.  There are, of course, Lutheran churches in America, as well as Episcopal and Methodist churches that are descendants of the Anglican Reformation in England.  But there are also churches descended from the Anabaptist movement (like the Amish and Mennonites) and several denominations that descend from the teaching of John Calvin (e.g., the Baptists and Presbyterians).

But something else that is true is that many denominations in America are based on a mixing of various Reformation traditions.  Think, for example, of the Churches of Christ, which (despite their claims to “non-denominationalism”) have their organizational roots in both Baptist and Presbyterian churches.  A more common example lies in the doctrine (that is, the theological teachings) in various churches.  When preachers focus on justification by grace, they are influenced by Luther.  When they focus on the sovereignty of God, they are influenced by Calvin.  When they strongly lean on the separation of church and state, they are influenced by the Anabaptists.  And you can hear all of these things in one and the same church, despite the variety of influences!

christomlinFor many of us, though, doctrine can be rather dry, and it often doesn’t affect us directly.  But the ways that we worship do affect us directly.  They are important to us, and they are important vehicles for our relationship with God.  And many of these ways of worship also go back to Reformation practices or principles.  Here are just a few examples:

  • We worship, pray, and hear Scripture read in the vernacular, a practice that arises from all the Reformation traditions.
  • We can sometimes emphasize the Eucharist (Communion) very strongly, and this emphasis sometimes goes back to Catholic or Anglican influences.
  • We very often lean heavily on a sermon in our worship, and this tradition arose in the Reformation world with people like Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli.  That’s especially true with preachers who are able to make the word relevant to contemporary life – as is so often the case in many of our “megachurches.”  Luther might not love some aspects of modern church life, but he would love the connection of “sound doctrine” with everyday life.
  • Finally, we use music a lot in our worship, and most of the ways are reflections of Reformation ideas.  When we have beautiful music performed by talented (maybe even professional) musicians, we participate in an impulse that was prominent the Catholic church after the Reformation.  When we emphasize congregational singing, we follow the same impulse for church participation that animated Luther.  That’s especially true when we put Christian words to familiar songs.  When we sing psalms set to music, we follow Calvin’s ideas.  When we sing simple, heartfelt songs, we follow Zwingli and the Anabaptists.  Note that a modern worship often has all of these: simple, meditative song, psalms and hymns set to music, rousing congregational pieces, and maybe even a “special” performed by a choir or ensemble.  We are truly a mix.


So what does this mean for us?  As was the case with universities, I find myself in a spirit of gratitude with regard to the Reformation influence on our modern worship.  I love music, and I love worship, and I am so grateful that Christians have found so many tools with which to worship God in the varied history of our faith.

Image credits: http://www.stjohnadulted.org/Gonzalz1.jpghttps://bicyclefreaksforchrist.files.wordpress.com/2009/02/chris-tomlin.jpg, and http://www.nwhills.org/ministries/worship-music/worship-band.html

New Testament Christianity

If you’re just getting started with church history, you might be wondering a couple of things:

jesus portrait1) Why do church history books often start telling their story with Jesus?  Wasn’t he a Jew?  Didn’t the
Jesus-followers only gain the name “Christians” after Jesus died (Acts 11:26)?  So shouldn’t the story start after his death — once the church got going?

2) I can imagine how later things, like the Reformation, are relevant for our world; after all, we follow people like Martin Luther.  But how is the very first century actually relevant for our church life today?

These are good questions, and you might be able to anticipate the answers.  First, there are many churches today that pride themselves on being “biblical”; in many cases, that includes a certain simplicity in worship.  Some churches emphasize charismatic gifts, such as speaking in tongues or the laying on of hands, precisely because those things were done in the early church and are a manifestation of God’s power.  (Sometimes it’s also because they have not been done in most churches since then, and some folks have an ax to grind against history…)  Other churches emphasize simple, “Bible-based” preaching, in part because that’s what we see in Acts. And still others reject elements from other denominations’ worship because those things are not found in the New Testament; examples here would include having priests/leaders who are commanded to be celibate, or using creeds in worship time, or praying to Mary.

In other words, if you are an American Christian — especially a Protestant one — it is relevant for you to know the story of the early church, because it probably impacts your church life more than you realize.

But the tradition I come from — a denomination called the “The Churches of Christ,” which is part of a larger movement often called “The Restoration Movement” (by insiders) or “The Stone-Campbell Movement” (by historians) — has a deeper connection with this impulse.  In fact, from the very beginning, its leaders focused on “restoring” (hence the name) New Testament Christianity in a particular way — and not only in worship.  The first leaders of the movement lived in the early 1800s, a time just after the American Revolution when there were many Christian denominations in the young America, and many of these denominations were divided in significant ways.  They longed for a united Christianity, and they saw how so many efforts at unity had failed.  Ultimately, some of these folks decided that the New Testament was the one thing on which all Christians could agree, and so they wanted to make all aspects of church life to be “according to the New Testament.”

ChurchofChristSignNow, because of their social location and time period, that aim ultimately meant that this emphasis was focused in worship — in other words, worshiping as we seem to see it in the New Testament.  While there has been debate about how to apply this principle in specific situations, it has been a hallmark of the Churches of Christ ever since.  Sometimes it’s even led to strange statements on the part of Church-of-Christ folk — like the line that sometimes appears on church signs and cornerstones that reads “Established 33 AD.”  But if you’ve ever wondered why Church-of-Christ worship regularly features musical worship without instruments, this is your answer.  We don’t see it in the New Testament, and so most Churches of Christ don’t include it, either.

We will have many more posts on this blog about ways that church history is relevant for our day, but it’s important to remember that history’s influence on today’s churches goes back to the very beginning of the church.  We truly are a people who have been shaped by 2000 years of history.

Image credits: http://images2.fanpop.com/images/photos/7400000/Jesus-A-Portrait-creative-for-christ-7417820-600-712.jpg and https://churchofchristandsocialmedia.files.wordpress.com/2014/12/coc.jpg (edited)