Perhaps it is one of the most enduring qualities of the Churches of Christ that we have managed to be unapologetically Bible-focused and Bible-centered, while at the same time remaining outside the limiting circles of Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism [Richard Hughes argues that this may no longer be the case for much of the movement in his Reclaiming a Heritage (a great read for any reader of this blog!) ACU Press, 2002 – see especially chapter seven entitled: “Why Restorationists Don’t Fit the Evangelical Mold; Why Churches of Christ Increasingly Do” Another topic for another day]. In compiling the “Heart of the Restoration Series,” ACU Press was quick to release a work centered on the place of the Bible in our heritage [volume 2 in the series is entitled God’s Holy Fire: The nature and function of Scripture, 2002.] Gospel meetings, mission statements, sermons, and classes echo from congregations of Churches of Christ the world over with the message of “Back to the Bible.” Any study taken upon by her students inevitably begins with the question, “What does the Bible say about that?” Stated simply, there aren’t many groups who know the Bible as well as our people do, and to not recognize that as a hopeful fruit would be disingenous and a disservice.
Brightly hanging down from the branches of the Churches of Christ tradition is their abiding love for the story of God. I remember sitting in Bible classes learning the books of the Bible, the 12 Tribes of Israel, the 12 Apostles, the chronology of the Old Testament . . . just about everything that’s in those 66 books, we covered it. Bible bowls, Sunday school, lectureships, Vacation Bible School, and Gospel meetings still retain the undeniably Bible-focus even today. From the smallest, most rural congregations to the largest suburban megaplexes among Churches of Christ, these churches love to teach the Bible.
Among members of Churches of Christ, a person’s age, education, and life situation all are considered secondary to how well she or he knows the Bible. Bible knowledge is often directly equated with spirituality – the more Bible you know, the more spiritual you are. Quoting Scripture is sometimes seen as paramount to a spiritual gift. These latter case points illustrate some worms that lay underneath the skin of a perfectly healthy piece of fruit, but shouldn’t take away from the fact that Churches of Christ hold steadfast to the biblical text.
It is widely held that children within Churches of Christ are not learning as much Bible as they did in bygone days. Biblical literacy across denominational boundaries is suffering and the Churches of Christ are certainly not immune to this phenomenon. However, there remains, by and large, an incredible commitment to teaching our people the Bible. While there may be a general laxity in the general audience when it comes to the biblical literacy, it also should be noted that scholarship in Churches of Christ has gained an increased audience in recent years and is more widely respected by the broader theological community than ever before (could this be evidence of an increased Evangelical leaning??)
While the commitment to being biblical and Bible-people should be seen as hopeful fruit, the good fruit has not come without potential worms. Often, in Churches of Christ, the story about God has been elevated to a higher plane than God Himself. Bibliolatry has become the golden calf for many in Churches of Christ – this excessive emphasis on the bonded leather and gold-tipped pages to the neglect of the mysterious Creator and Savior of all that is in existence. Too often we have bound God to the ink on the pages instead of allowing Him the freedom to work apart from the Scripture itself (we seem to have overlooked Paul’s point in Romans 1 all too often).
Just as damaging, we have often married our love and emphasis of the text to our love and emphasis of “necessary” antiquated interpretive devices. The thoroughly modernistic hermentuic evolving from Enlightenment philosophy is often valued equal to the text it seeks to interpret. Churches continue to be taught the interpretive system of command, example, and necessary inference both directly and indirectly. The limitations of this foundational philosophy has been exposed over the past several years (see the work of Michael Casey, John Mark Hicks, along with others). Unfortunately, for many in Churches of Christ their love for the sacred text is married to their love for their interpretation of the sacred text. The certainty demanded of foundationalism has created skepticism of alternative voices and a myopic view of the hand of God. As the Churches of Christ engage the world of postmodernism, nothing has been more harmful to her cause than the lack of place for alternative voices and this begins at the table of biblical interpretation.
I believe we must reinvigorate our love and passion for the story of God, and not find ourselves so committed to one interpretive device or another. Instead, we need to find our way beyond the need for certainty and past the place of answers, as very difficult as that is going to be. If we will once again fall in love with the text and, in the spirit of Psalm 119, meditate over it, take it to heart, allow it to sink into our very ethos . . . and allow part of God to be revealed in the text, but not limited to the text. Our churches should be filled with people who love the text and love to learn about the text and engage in long discussions about what the text means. Churches of Christ must become a place where conversation is encouraged and facilitated instead of streamled monologue and uniform teaching dominate the floor. May diversity abound and the unity of the Spirit be what unites us instead of the unity of thought and homogenous hermeneutics.