Where Do We Go from Here?
I was 26 years old before I ever heard the names Barton Stone or Alexander Campbell. If conversations with my peers can serve as any kind of barometer, I’m not the only one. It seems that growing up in Churches of Christ bears little connection to knowing anything about the history of Churches of Christ, which, regrettably, does seem appropriate. After all, of what possible use is historical memory to a tradition that boasts no tradition? If Churches of Christ are nothing more and nothing less than the continuation of the church in Acts, then any acknowledgment of historical contingency or context can only serve to embarrass, if not undermine.
This model can work (and has worked) very well if you are willing to give in to the sectarian impulse. However, the moment you decide to leave sectarianism behind is the moment that things get complicated. Because now, rather than defining yourself as the church over and against the “denominations,” you’re forced to acknowledge yourself as one denomination among many. And if you acknowledge that you are in fact a denomination, then you are forced to recognize that you must also have a denominational history.
That’s where things get sticky. An investigation of our history reveals that the Stone-Campbell Movement was initially conceived as a Christian unity movement. If we simply returned to Scripture and implemented the ecclesial model we found there, we would be well on our way to visible Christian unity. Therefore, we divested the church of creeds, confessions, and centralized governing structures in the belief that it was these “tests of faith” that were keeping us apart. If we simply removed them, unity and harmony would naturally result.
Experience, unfortunately, has shown otherwise. Two individuals, even without the burden of creeds or confessions, are still able to read the same biblical passage and come away with radically different interpretations. Moreover, without any agreed-upon creeds to set the rules of the game or any other higher governing structure to which we can appeal for adjudication, we’re left with only one viable option when a disagreement arises: split. Thus, the Stone-Campbell Movement itself divided into three streams, and these days, seeing the name “Church of Christ” on the building doesn’t tell you much about the congregation that meets inside. Are they conservative or progressive? Are they institutional or non-institutional? Are women involved in worship, or are they not? Do they have an instrumental service?
Churches of Christ searching for identity thus find themselves with only two seemingly viable paths forward. Option A: retrenchment. We embrace sectarianism and implement the polemical strategies of our past. Strong fences breed strong communal identities. Option B: give up the ship. Make peace with our past and move forward into the evangelical future. For Churches of Christ that wish to move beyond sectarianism while still remaining Churches of Christ in any sort of meaningful way, there seems to be little hope.
But what if there was a third option? What if there was an alternate path that could lead us beyond sectarianism while still allowing us to hold on to all that is rich and valuable in our heritage? I personally believe there’s been far too much anxiety and hand-wringing regarding “moving past” our Church of Christ “baggage.” Sure, there’s baggage, just like any other tradition, but some of it is good baggage. Our love of Scripture. Our biblical IQ. Our deep sense of community. A cappella singing. Our high views of baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and the church. The list goes on. We need not jettison all that is wonderful and life-giving about Churches of Christ just because we’ve fallen short in some areas. That would be a tragedy. What we need to do is recover what we’ve lost.
Thus, recovery is what we’re proposing. At its inception, the leaders of the Restoration Movement sought to conform themselves to Jesus’s prayer in John 17 by working toward visible Christian unity. With that pursuit in mind, they dispensed with creeds, confessions, and all that rang of capital T “Tradition.” They believed that if we could just dispense with these “tests of faith,” visible Christian unity would result. They were wrong, as history has demonstrated. However, the solution need not be to dispense with their unifying vision and all their descendants have accomplished since. Why not first try to recover what was lost? Why not first re-engage the vast resources of the nearly 2,000 years of our shared Christian tradition? Why not recognize that we are surrounded by a “great cloud of witnesses” and see what we might learn from them? Why not affirm that the church did indeed exist between the resurrection and the Revival at Cane Ridge? Why not embrace the ways in which the Spirit has and continues to work in the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church? These are the questions we invite you to consider with us.