November 5, 2013

Hard Conversations About the Future of the church of Christ

I've always attended church at congregations connected to the old Stone-Campbell Restoration movement. Earlier this year, I returned to a church of Christ (coC) congregation, feeling encouraged by the more open attitude I encountered there, and thinking that this might be a place where I could be a useful contributor if thoughts and ideas. I still have those hopes, but it seems that this, and many other coC congregations are gong to have to ask some very difficult questions of themselves, if they wish to continue as churches holding to the basic ideals of the Restoration movement.

I've heard it asked if a church has to ditch the coC name in order to grow in numbers and outreach effectiveness. In other parts of the country it may be different, but in SouthEast Texas, I'd have have to say that it's nearly impossible to overcome the stigma that has been brought upon the coC name. People have long memories concerning churches and their attitudes, and historically, the coC name hasn't been associated with love and hospitality in these parts. To this day, you can drive less than a half-hour to a nearby suburb and see a church of Christ congregation that has messages on its sign that would fit in perfectly with Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist crowd.

This same congregation publishes a newsletter that is "for those who love truth and hate error" as it says on their masthead. You can find just about mainstream Baptist pastor that will loudly condemn the tone and tactics of Westboro, but for some reason, coC preachers won't confront this church and its leaders until they're subject to an attack from them.

And that is a big reason that people in my area don't really care about what any church of Christ says or does. It's the same way across a lot of East Texas, and I would imagine other places, too. When one church of Christ condemns "fags" (yes, they do use that word on a regular basis) on their sign, and the rest of us hide behind the garbage of "each congregation is independent, so we can't say anything about them", why would anyone care to come and see if another one is actually different in its attitudes?

The legalism that has characterized the coC at large over the past half-century is bad enough, but when it grows into outright and self-admitted hate, and we don't confront it as Christians, then we've lost our credibility in the community. There are some people in the coC that are working to change that reputation, and give good passionate reasons why they stay in the coC for that reason. ("Change Agents" has been an insult used by the hard-liners in the coC for a very long time) And if you're in an area that is either dominated by, or has a great lack of coC congregations, then it's an easier job to make a different reputation for your congregation or the coC at large. But, when you're in a suburban area like mine, and there are at least a dozen different (mostly < 200 members) congregations, and one is spewing bile, then it's extremely difficult to get out a message of Christ's love and grace when we don't come out strongly against hatred and bigotry.

The big problem with coming out against a hardline church that insults people is that you're just stepping back into their game of debating tricks and "hating error". Time spent speaking out against those folks is time wasted that could be used to proclaim Christ and His love.  Time wasted that could be spent living out His vision of love and grace.

Hardliners defend their words and actions with the old "speaking the truth in love" cliche. Why do I call it a cliche? Because when it's used in that way, that's all it is. "Speaking the truth in love" requires that one loves first. Only then can you understand any truth. If you wish to claim that it give you license to be degrading and insulting to people that have a different opinion, then you understand neither love nor truth.

The sad thing is that this blog post, and my thoughts will go almost completely ignored by people in the coC. You see, I don't have a string of letters behind my name, or years spent in a pulpit, I'm just an average guy with an average mind, and very different lines of thought from most Christians, so very few people have any interest in what I have to say.

So what do you think? Am I just an unreasonable whiner? Should I just shut up and go along with business as usual? Should I stay and try to work to bring positive change? Or should I just walk away from institutional churches and simply try to live as best I can? Heck, should I even bother to keep spending time writing? I'd love to hear some opinions.


  1. No, I can't see anything unreasonable here.
    No, I don't think you should not shut up or stop writing.
    Yes, I think that you should continue to go along with your business as usual and continue to work to bring positive change.
    Yes, I know that you should continue to live as best as you can.
    As for stepping away from institutional churches or not I can't say for sure. I think that may or may not be something to consider but I would continue to pray and meditate on this matter before taking action. I enjoyed reading this.

  2. Good thoughts, Eric. I understand your frustrations keeping in mind that the problems you discuss are not exclusive to cofC. In fact, they are a part of Christianity as a whole. We can look to Gal. 2: 11ff when Paul confronts Peter--even Barnabas!

    I would encourage you to be steadfast while considering the apostle's advise to Timothy: "Do not rebuke an older man but encourage him as you would a father, younger men as brothers, 2 older women as mothers, younger women as sisters, in all purity" (1 Tim. 5: 1,2).

    Discerning the truth that has been revealed to us is sometimes daunting, but then persuading others to follow is to grand a task for us--I believe.

    My aspirations . . . to follow the Lord's lead and let Him do the persuading/changing. The obstacles you mention are present in some form with every congregation; however, it is a true testament to the power of the gospel when believers join in worship despite our often extreme dysfunction.

    Soli deo gloria

  3. Good morning, Paul!

    Thanks for your comment. Yes, this is a common problem in all sorts of churches, and it's why we're seeing so many new completely unaffiliated churches, and many churches that are dropping their denominational names.

    I'm sure you've heard countless times "Christians are...", "Baptists are..." "Church of Christers are..." to which the only short answer is, "We're not all like that." When enough people get tired of saying, we're not all like that, they generally make some sort of change in their church name. It's quite a bit easier in most denominations to be able to tell what the general attitudes will be like from the different conference and assembly affiliations. We don't have anything remotely like like that in the coC, so there's no way for people to know what a particular congregation is going to be like without attending, unless a particular one makes their positions very well known. Even trying to have some sort of conference along those lines elicits screams of "denominationalism!" from the hard-liners, along with the accusations of apostasy and threats of hell.

    All of this makes church growth in the coC very difficult. Congregations typically grow only by members transferring from other congregations, oftentimes other congregations that have had a blow-up over hard-line dogmatism. A lot of those people quit the coC altogether.

    The 1Tim 5 advice is sound so far as trying to come to a consensus with people who can truly be open, honest, and loving in dealing with these hard questions. When people resort to being insulting and degrading to others (and I have been that way before, and have turned away from it), then nothing we can do as people will ever change them; it's solely up to God at that point. But that doesn't mean we have to sit by in silence and and allow them to dominate the dialogue; it's our duty to let people know that we're "not all like that" and that we think we have a better and more loving way.

    In Matthew, Jesus is recorded twice as admonishing the Pharisees with 'learn what this means, "I desire compassion, not sacrifice."' I think that means it's probably a pretty important concept. Is it better to sacrifice people on the altar of our own self-righteousness or to show them compassion and love that makes them desire God? We know that Godly sorrow produces repentance, so why would we impede the work of the Spirit by producing anger and resentment in people with insulting and degrading words, and by allowing those who do intentionally insult to go unchallenged?

    It's definitely a problem everywhere, but I don't think that means we have to shy away from discussing difficult topics, nor leave a church that goes against how we feel the Spirit working in our own hearts.