Assessing the Future of the churches of Christ: Part 2- Recognizing Real Threats

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Note for the Reader: This post is a continuation of a series that I started here regarding the future of the churches of Christ. Reading that piece will, hopefully, help contextualize what I say here.

I have to be honest before I fully embark on this piece: I have spent more time editing and rewriting this essay than almost any other work I’ve ever undertaken, even as a graduate student. I love the churches of Christ, and I long for this fellowship that I call home to be successful. I take no pleasure in noting her flaws or thinking about the ways in which she may destroy herself, and that’s manifested itself in the fact that I’ve discarded roughly 7500 words total over the course of writing the piece you’re reading right now. At times, I deleted something because I thought it was too harsh or unfair; in other instances, I discarded things that I thought to be unhelpful or vague. Other times, I got rid of something because I could already hear people saying, “Well, that hasn’t been my experience,” or otherwise missing my point because I wasn’t precise in my writing. My point in saying all of this is that I want to be careful, precise, and straightforward in writing this, because I love the church and recognize that if I’m going to critique the church, then I should do it in a way that is fair, honest, and helpful. With all that in mind, there are three broad, but pointed statements I want to make and try to unpack.

1. Should the churches of Christ “fall,” we will be brought down from within. I recognize, of course, that Jesus Christ declared that he would build his church and that Hell’s gates would not prevail against them, which is, amongst other things, a declaration of the impossibility of Jesus’ mission through the church failing. I also recognize, however, that congregations that seemed to be doing very well have been in mortal danger, even in the New Testament. Consider Revelation 2 & 3, which contain Jesus’ words to specific congregations in John’s day. It is easy to imagine ourselves as Smyrna or Philadelphia, faithful, yet suffering congregations, to whom Jesus says, “endure, for I am coming.” I worry, however, that it is far more accurate to see ourselves more in the congregation at Ephesus. The Ephesian congregation seems to be great in Rev 2: 1-3, and I see some parallels with congregations in the churches of Christ today. We pride ourselves on our devotion to Scripture and our testing of every manmade tradition against what God has said. We have little patience for false teachers, and we can arguably show some scars for our faith (though they would, at least in America, generally be light and small things compared to those our brothers and sisters at Ephesus bore). We are certainly a zealous people as well. However, I worry if, like Ephesus, we have left our first love, if we have lost sight of the proper motive for our dedication to Scripture and the way our zeal is supposed to be shaped and directed. Some balk at the notion that the churches of Christ could ever fail, but I wonder if some in Ephesus rejected the warnings they received about removing their lampstand as well.

We have no direct evidence of what happened in Ephesus in response to Jesus’ grave warning, but I know this: if they did not repent as Jesus instructed, then Jesus assuredly did just as he said he would and that should terrify us. If Jesus is willing to take Ephesus’ lampstand, then we have no reason to think that he’s not willing to do the same for churches today that refuse the warnings he gives in Scripture. The churches of Christ as we exist today will not fail because of people outside the church not wanting “hard preaching” or “just wanting to be entertained.” The churches of Christ, if they fail, will do so because we are unwilling to fully submit ourselves to Scripture, instead holding our opinions and preferences as sacrosanct. We will fail because we are unwilling to roll up our sleeves and engage with the world around us, instead demanding that the world meet us on our terms (an absurd request anyway, given the spiritual deadness of those outside of Christ). If we fail, it will be because we forfeited our lampstand by virtue of loving something, anything, more than we love Jesus. Should the churches of Christ end up relegated to footnotes in church history textbooks, it will be our fault and our fault alone.

2. As a rule, you attract the kind of people that you want to be around. Paul declares in 1 Cor. 15:33 that “bad company corrupts good morals.” While this is obviously true, I think a corollary to this statement is also true, that being that the company you keep says something about you, especially with reference to the kind of people you want to be around. James warns us against the sin of partiality explicitly in James 2, and Jesus frequently lived out impartiality by associating with societal outcasts, be it by eating and drinking with them, or by casting them as important figures in his parables. Yet, when we look around in our own assemblies, we may not act on partiality as such, but the makeup of our congregations reveals something about us. Common sense dictates that no one goes out of their way to be around people that they don’t want anything to do with. Granted, overriding factors can adjust how this aphorism plays out, but those factors only verify the principle in real time. Your friends and associates are a reflection of your priorities, your values, and most importantly, what kind of people you think are worth being around.

Think about the makeup of your own congregation and the company you keep religiously. During worship on Sunday morning, are you surrounded by people who look, think, and act just as you do? Do the people filling the pews every Sunday resemble the kind of people in the neighborhoods around the church building? Are people from all walks of life welcome, really and truly? Do we harbor expectations of people cleaning themselves up and meeting our standards (not the Bible’s) before they can show up? We sing “the Gospel is for all,” but I wonder at times if we really believe that. Every Christian, myself included, has to be willing to honestly ask themselves something like the following: “At both a personal and congregational level, what kind of people do I reach out to with the Gospel? What kind of people do I want to worship with? What kind of people would I prefer go somewhere else?” Honestly answering these questions will serve as a useful, and potentially unnerving, diagnostic for where our hearts are at both in evangelism and church life in general.

3. What you win people with is what you win them to. This has been stated numerous times by various people (I’ve seen it attributed to Kevin DeYoung and Kyle Idleman, as well as seeing Bob Hyatt saying it without attribution) and there’s a certain power to it. Paul Washer has made a similar case, noting that if you use carnal means to draw people in, you’ll draw carnal people. Both are true and both unsettle me deeply, but the first has more effect on me. The churches of Christ have historically decried “carnal” lures (entertainment, giveaways, fancy meals, etc.,) but I worry if some have not used altogether more destructive lures and drawn people away to unhealthy and perilous places. What we are called to win people to is obvious, even banal; Jesus and his teaching ought to be what we guide people to, per the Great Commission. The question naturally arises, however, of whether that is what people are being led to. Perhaps the easiest way to diagnose this is to ask a person what their idea of a Christian is, and not just in the sense of what makes a person a New Testament Christian. Ask them not just about key doctrines, but about various expectations and “unspoken rules.” Take note of what gets a person most incensed too, and you’ll be on the right track toward finding what it is that they care about, or more accurately what they were taught to care about. I worry that, if we’re honest, what has happened for so many Christians is not just that they’ve been led and won over to genuine faith in Jesus Christ, but also to an extra-Biblical set of requirements borne out of someone else’s opinions and preferences. In a worst case, it may not just be opinions and preferences they’ve adopted, but also caustic attitudes. Behind the fire-breathing dragon that many Christians resort to being is a preacher or evangelist that blasted them with fire first.

While these may be most applicable to the thinking of hardline and harsh conservative/fundamentalist types, this phenomenon is also applicable to other instances. If we bring our children into the church on the wings of shallow Bible lessons, and we continue to give them shallow lessons even as they grow up and become Christians themselves, we have little reason to be surprised when they become adults who not only know very little of the Bible, but also care very little about it. If we bring people in on flimsy or whimsical preaching, we ought not act hurt and offended when that is what people continue to expect and want. Whether our error has been too far on the side of soft and unfulfilling spirituality or harsh and destructive legalism will vary from one individual or group to another, but this notion is worth bearing in mind. When we urge people to become Christians, what are we calling them to and how are we calling them? While exact methodology can differ in healthy and God-honoring ways, our central aim ought to always be to call people to faith in Christ and living for him, nothing more and certainly nothing less. Anything else is a death warrant slowly signed and laboriously sealed, saving no one and heaping condemnation on ourselves for preaching a false gospel.

These three points, as I see and understand them, cover every substantive threat that the churches of Christ face today, at least in part. If we as a tradition that strives to be the church as God intended are to have success at all in this day and age, we’ll have to seriously contend with these three points in both our personal and congregational efforts. With all of this said, I’m reasonably optimistic about the future. The first piece in this series was somewhat neutral, and this piece was arguably negative, but in the last piece, I want to focus on the positive and talk about why I think the future can be bright for the churches of Christ, if we are willing to put our best foot forward and work. If you’ve made it this far, dear reader, you have my thanks, and this is especially true of my readers in the churches of Christ. I hope that this has been a helpful bit of reading for you and that it will start conversations that lead to the church being the best it can be for the glory of God.

Soli Deo Gloria!

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Assessing the Future of the churches of Christ: Part 1- a Diagnostic of a Non-Threat

Please Note: The next three posts were supposed to be a single post about why I’m cautiously optimistic regarding the churches of Christ in the 21st century. However, because I’m long-winded, I thought it best to break this into three posts so as to avoid writing a novel. The first two parts will focus on the negative, with the final point focusing on the positive. You will have my dearest thanks if you consider all three posts together.

Growing up in a group is a double-edged sword of sorts. Yes, one might gain a special appreciation for their roots and maybe even have a feeling of nostalgia, but there is also the possibility of a frustration not at all dissimilar to seeing your child doing something embarrassing. I’ve found this to be the case with my experience growing up in the churches of Christ. There is the appreciation I have for our broadly conservative and intellectually driven history, yes, but there’s also been a fair share of times I’ve simply had to watch the train wreck and shake my head in disbelief. It’s this mix of admiration and consternation that brought me to the point of writing this series. I have high hopes for the churches of Christ, but those hopes are matched by what I perceive to be serious issues that have to be acknowledged and addressed. With all that said, let’s talk about what I think is good, bad, and overblown. Of course, this will be lengthy, because I’m not entirely sure I’m capable of writing in brief. The first topic is something I’ve heard talked about for years, but not all the talk has been helpful.

Liberalism: Our Favorite Bogeyman

Growing up, I didn’t hear the words liberal and conservative very frequently outside of the occasional political discussion, usually set within the context of a history or government class. After I graduated from high school, however, I began to notice the term getting thrown around more and more frequently, sometimes jokingly, sometimes very seriously. Now, here is the strange part of it: few, if any, people ever seemed to have a consistent definition of what a liberal or a conservative is. Sure, there’s the very broad definitions of liberals being people who tend to eschew tradition while conservatives tend to cling to tradition, but such definitions can only take one so far. As a case in point, consider a choice exchange between myself and a fellow Bible major during my undergraduate years. This guy, whom we’ll call Jack for the sake of narrative, was bemoaning how a particular congregation had embraced liberalism and how disappointed he thought a noted 20th century preacher would be by the state of this congregation today. In his elegy for all things good and pure at this particular congregation, he never spoke of specifics and that bothered me, so I asked him a question. “What makes that congregation liberal?” It seems like a simple question, right? As such, I expected a simple answer. What I got instead was Jack looking at me as if I had sprouted an arm out of my forehead. “Uh, um, well, they’re just liberal!” Jack exclaimed, apparently dumbfounded either by my inability to read his mind, or by my not simply accepting his assessment of things. Bear in mind, this was no novice. This was a fellow Bible major, who was either a junior or senior at the time, who came from a family of preachers and teachers, one of whom teaches at a brotherhood university today. He should’ve been able to identify this congregation’s departures from truth with relative ease and yet, when pressed, he could point to no such thing that made this congregation “liberal.”

This is illustrative of part of the issue of liberalism in the churches of Christ: no one seems to be able to nail down what a liberal is and efforts to do so will occasionally be met with, at best, strange looks. The other issue is a bit more insidious and illustrated by another incident. When I had free time in my college years, I’d visit various congregations, and it just so happened that I visited one congregation fairly frequently: I liked their adult Bible class, and the people there were friendly, as well as it being a convenient place to go. A friend of mine balked at my going there and asked me why I would go to a “liberal” congregation. I don’t really consider myself a liberal, so I was puzzled and asked what was so liberal about this congregation. “They clap during worship,” this person said. I had two issues with this claim: 1) It wasn’t, and isn’t, true and 2) That’s not really “liberal,” not from a historical or academic perspective at least. When I challenged this person, they brushed off my eyewitness testimony with, “Well, that’s just what I heard.” I’ll get to the whole “that’s not really liberal” bit of my objection a bit later, but the uncritical acceptance of such accusations is troubling, especially when evidence to the contraire receives little more than token acknowledgement. Given how seriously some people take labels like liberal and conservative, would it not make sense to ensure that the use of such labels is grounded in reality?

These two issues are the basis of why I think referring to liberalism as a bogeyman is especially appropriate. Notice how children discuss the monsters in their closets and under their beds. They use the same names to describe the foul beasts that encroach upon their dreams and yet, what they see (or more precisely, think they see) differs from one to the other. The differences are apparent even between siblings and of course, the basis for each description tends to be based more on what each child may think is scary as opposed to what may actually dwell in the dark recesses of their bedrooms. Worse still, when first confronted with the notion of a bogeyman’s existence, children seem eerily readily to accept the concept. Even when their parents say, “There are no monsters under the bed,” this seldom satisfies. Instead, parents often have to go through the motions of searching the room, chasing the monster out, and taking some measure to ensure that the monster won’t come back. Even then, a child may only possibly be satisfied. They may dream up yet another creature or, worse still, be told of unspeakable eldritch horrors on the playground the next day. It is only when a child begins to develop a greater capacity for critical thinking and understanding of the differences between fantasy and reality that they can be free of the relentless pursuit of the demons plaguing the corners of their imagination. Sadly, “liberalism” is often the same way. It is spoken of frequently from pulpits, coffee tables, and Facebook groups, and each time, it looks and sounds slightly different. To some, the liberal bogeyman is the daring brigand preaching from something other than the KJV. Others envision the bogeyman as the happy go lucky song leader encouraging people to clap along as they sing. Others still toss and turn, tortured by visions of praise teams and their devilish scheme to bring the instrument along in due time, or bolt awake in a cold sweat as their nightmare culminates in people wearing jeans on Sunday morning. I speak, of course, glibly here not to minimize the importance of the underlying issues at play but instead to get at something else entirely. The next time you hear a discussion of liberalism, take a mental note of what gets discussed. How frequently, for example, do you hear people express their concern that a local preacher denies the deity of Christ or the historicity of the virgin birth? How often do the same people who take note of the congregations that allegedly permit clapping stop to consider whether or not they attend a congregation where people assert that the Bible isn’t inerrant but rather, that the Bible contains some truth, but isn’t itself entirely true?

This puts forward a third reason why the bogeyman is a fitting metaphor for a view of liberalism that is all too common in the churches of Christ. At the root of a child’s fear that something in their closet is coming to get them is a fundamental question of whether they are safe. Even the routines that parents go through to assuage their children address this concern and assure the children that they are in fact safe and sound. In the same way, concerns over liberalism today point to a deeper concern for the integrity of our understanding of Biblical truth and that is a fundamental concern of tremendous importance. With that said, the way we go about addressing this concern needs to be healthy and the aforementioned anecdotes illustrate the worst of unhealthy efforts. When one can’t or won’t define their terms, they risk creating an arbitrary and peculiar standard that essentially ensures that they are the only one in the right and the only orthodox believer. Bluntly speaking, an orthodoxy of one is likely an orthodoxy of preferences, a set of beliefs based not on what is good and true but on what is liked. Further, if we do not carefully and fairly examine the beliefs and actions of others on the basis of what is true, then we risk not only attacking those who have done nothing wrong, but also perpetuating falsehood, something that Christians should oppose at every turn. Summarily, yes, we should be concerned about what is true and right and that should affect the way we approach disagreements of any caliber.

This brings me to the fourth and final reason that I think that liberalism is fittingly called a bogeyman. On the whole, the bogeyman is not nearly the threat that a child perceives it to be and there is in fact something far more dangerous they should worry about instead. There is no monster in the closet, but the chemicals in the cabinet exist and are fatal if misused, for example. This is not to say that Christians should not worry about liberalism, but rather that we shouldn’t let ourselves become paranoid about it. That assertion may be puzzling to some, but I will attempt to explain why liberalism is not the threat that I think it is. Largely, this boils down to a distinction that I think ought to be acknowledged more frequently. Theological liberalism, in the academic sense, has nothing to do with instruments, clapping, and the like. Instead, theological liberalism typically refers to beliefs that fall outside of historic Christian orthodoxy. This would include denying the inerrancy of Scripture, denying the, historicity, deity, or resurrection of Jesus, denying the virgin birth, and other rejections of fundamental Christian belief. This is important for two reasons: 1) These beliefs are essential and foundational to the Christian faith as it has been known for 2000 years. Without them, the faith is either forfeit or so radically altered as to be unrecognizable. 2) These beliefs are the substance of intense debate throughout history and across all of Christendom. No council was ever convened over whether one could clap while they sang, yet multiple councils were called together to fiercely discuss questions about Jesus. That is not meant to say that we shouldn’t figure out whether clapping is acceptable or not and then act accordingly; rather, it is meant to insist that without fundamental beliefs of the faith, a discussion on clapping or another similar subject is meaningless. While the issues that often come to the forefront in churches of Christ matter, they are ultimately secondary to fundamental truths about God and the historical facts of the Christian faith. As such, I think it is wise to differentiate between theological liberalism proper and liberalism as it is sometimes thought of, perhaps by referring to them as foundational liberalism and pragmatic liberalism. The exact terms used are not so important to me as the distinction made.

With all of that said, I think that the two categories of liberalism will meet different ends in the churches of Christ. Foundational liberalism, with its rejection of central truth, will eventually go the way of mainline Protestantism, as some branches of Episcopalianism and Methodism, as well as some non-denominational churches, have gone. Exchanging historic and inspired truth for inclusivity and openness, it will be absorbed into a semi-tangible group of churches whose only relation to the Christian faith, and to one another, is found in the ways it departs from historic Christianity. This will, I think, have a comparatively small impact on the churches of Christ. Pragmatic liberals will eventually go one of two routes. Some, who are either willing to be persuaded or unwilling to cause division, will make themselves comfortable within the churches of Christ, either because they change their mind on pragmatic issues or because they simply don’t think it’s worth fighting over. Others will find churches that accommodate their pragmatic preferences, whether they be likeminded churches of Christ or some other group, and migrate without much of a stir. While this will potentially be of greater impact than the exodus of foundational liberals, one thing is indisputable, I think. Neither foundational liberalism nor pragmatic liberalism are the harbinger of the doom of the churches of Christ. Should the churches of Christ cease to exist as we know them now (and I don’t think we will) it will be because of other causes. Those causes are the subject of part two of this series and the source of much frustration and grief for me. In the meantime, dear reader, if you have made it this far, you have my thanks. If I may be so bold, I’d ask you to stick with me for the rest of this series, and I pray that it will be helpful to you.

Soli Deo Gloria!