Why I’m (Still) a Member of the Church of Christ

ImageLast week I began asking some friends and acquaintances to share their perspectives as to why they remain a part of the group of churches known as the Churches of Christ.  I have begun receiving their answers via email and will be posting here in the coming weeks – hopefully about two every week.  I very much appreciate everyone’s time and energy spent on this request and look forward to the dialogue that follows (sorry I didn’t interact with the comments from the previous post – that will change). I am going to officially kick the series off today by offering my perspective as to why I stick around these churches.  (Though, full disclosure entails that I share up front that they pay me – so let’s not deny that this isn’t a factor!) ImageFirst, let me offer some broader perspective of who the “we” are that this series is talking about.

Through my years of living and interacting within this Christian tribe, I have determined the best word to describe us is “enigmatic.”  I have a tendency to embrace uniqueness, so I may be overstating it a bit, but my interaction with other Christian groups has reinforced the fact that we are a pretty weird group.  The fact that there even is an “us” is sociologically quirky in itself.  There is nothing determinative that we comprise a unique sociological ecclesial structure. We have no formal denominational headquarters or make up.  We have no clerical or professional order.  We have been anti-credal since our beginning.  Our connections with one another are loose at best.  And yet, we’ve managed to comprise some sense of an identity.  We have our own insider’s language and relative doctrinal consistency.  While there is certainly diversity, it probably doesn’t exist to the degree that we would like to believe.

We have fundamentalist tendencies, at times, but aren’t fundamentalist.  We have the feel of Quakers, but aren’t Quakers.  We often times look like card-carrying Evangelicals, but don’t quite fit that bill either (you can see a treatment of that in the book Evangelicalism & The Stone-Campbell Movement).  We are significantly rooted in the South and throughout the Bible Belt, but have some interesting outliers (like Pepperdine).  Like most “reform” movements, we haven’t tended to play well with others, often leaving us largely isolated from broader theological and ecclesiological conversations.  And, probably no one would argue, we have seen significant changes to this Movement in the past ten to fifteen years.  So . . . why is it that I stick around this enigmatic group?

Image

While the above cartoonist wasn’t referring to the “Church of Christ” specifically in this cartoon, it certainly resonates with me.  So why choose to stay around here?

I suppose the simplest answer as to why I’m a member of the Church of Christ is that my mom is.  That’s how I was raised.  I’ve never traced the Church of Christ lineage back in my family, but I know it goes through my mom’s family in Lima, OH, and we are one of the only families I’ve met that doesn’t have a Southern connection somewhere.  I’d love to go on some long rant about how I went and tried all other Christian brands and other faiths and found them wanting only to return – but in reality, I think I still find myself here because that is where I am comfortable, and some way, some how, the providence of God has seen fit to form his relationship with me in this context.

Looking at the surface, it’s easy to argue for providence.  I grew up in a tiny Church of Christ in Defiance, OH – the only one in the county.  There is a quirky little chart in Mac Lynn’s compilation of Churches of Christ (the 2000 version is the most recent I have) that shows the most populous counties in the U. S. without a Church of Christ.  The list contains about 100, and of those 100 you’ll find Williams, Van Wert, Henry, Putnam, and Shelby counties in Ohio, and Adams county in Indiana  – each of these counties are within 60 minutes of where I grew up.  The two Churches of Christ in Defiance and Paulding counties (my mom now goes to Paulding) are the only Churches of Christ in a six-county area of Northwestern Ohio.  You can imagine that we might have been a little backwards.  All the same, some way, some how, God chose to place me in this quirky little group and has formed my faith in him here.

The Defiance Church of Christ had their 50th anniversary celebration a few years ago and they had some former ministers come back and speak at a special weekend event.   I wasn’t invited.  As a matter of fact, I’ve never been invited to speak there since I’ve started working again in Ohio (that goes back to 2003).  We’ve never spoken of it, but I think they realize that we see things quite a bit differently.  Some of the leaders (read: men) see that as threatening, and so – it is what it is.  I’m not bitter, but I think it is a good testimony to the acrimonious environment that governs many churches in that area.  I attended Lipscomb University between 1997 and 2003 and worked for a Church of Christ in Nashville, TN, and was exposed to the other end of the Church of Christ spectrum.  Suddenly, I was living in an area that had a Church of Christ in every nook and cranny of the city.  I worked for the West End Church of Christ for about four years while I was there.

My journey within the Churches of Christ went through the usual season of disillusionment, in my early 20’s, as I was finishing college and beginning my ministry at Alum Creek (where I am now).  The church in Defiance has some extreme dysfunction – dysfunction that extends well beyond the Church of Christ name.  It took me awhile to separate the two.  All churches have dysfunction – few would argue against that point.  Allowing myself to sift through the dysfunction and find the salvageable pieces has led me to a reinforced confidence of why I stick around “our” churches.

The greatest thing I learned in the church of my youth was a love for the Bible.  I was taught to cherish and learn all I could about the Bible.  And I did.  I remember diligently reading the Bible on my own even though that was never modeled in my home.  I loved learning the stories – we didn’t start regularly attending until I was close to 11 or 12, so I had missed out on all the VBS-like stories everyone had learned.  That steadfast commitment to the Bible has always stayed with me.  I may not agree with alot of the conclusions my faith mentors promote, but I diligently share in their high view of the Bible.  It’s hard to find a Church of Christ that doesn’t hold a high place of Scripture.

I don’t think we have the corner on the Bible, like I used to, but I think that we do well upholding the Word of God as precious and unique.  I like that it gives us a reference point that many denominations lack.

I resonate well with our view of the sacraments (though we would never call them that).  Communion and baptism are so central to the story of God, and I appreciate our theology of these two.  I’ve had to wrestle a bit with our baptismal theology, and I’m probably not able to unilaterally endorse the exclusive salvific focus that we tend to have – I still think it is so essential and see great benefit in a perspective that emphasizes believer’s baptism over infant baptism.  The weekly observance of the Lord’s Supper is being re-discovered by many denominations – it’s nice to be part of a group that has practiced that for a long time.

There are few Christian groups that live out the Reformation doctrine of the “priesthood of all believers.”  My doctoral paper this month is going to be in this vein.  I believe that we may be living in a time when this doctrine will come more fully to bear than ever before – and I believe that churches like ours have an easier time assimilating this idea into practice.  While I would never want to give up the unique calling that I have as a vocational pastor/minister, too many Christian groups have created a chasm and the professionalization of ministry has created a new nuance between clergy/laity that I hope we can continue to avoid. The Churches of Christ may have a tendency to not fully appreciate gifted preachers, teachers, and writers, but we have been able to leave a place for most everyone at the table of leadership (except women . . . which many of us are working on . . .)

I’ve already rambled on way more than I’ve allotted my guest columnists in coming days so I should wrap up here.  The greatest attribute I see in the Churches of Christ and what keeps me most optimistic is our autonomy.  As the missional conversation of the past decade has emphasized a focus on local contexts, our churches should be fully equipped to jump right into this.  While groups like the Southern Baptists are autonomous, they carry with them the baggage of the denominational hierarchy and bureaucracy (it’s not that that is all bad, but for the sake of this perspective, it’s more of an obstacle to local ministry) our churches are truly “locally owned and operated.”  The more we can embrace that self-identity, the better prepared we will be to engage in ministry.

In the end I see the people and congregations I have been a part of within the Churches of Christ like good parents.  They haven’t been perfect.  They haven’t always made the right choices.  They aren’t always going to affirm the direction that I choose to go.  But they are largely the reason I am the way that I am.  The positive seeds of a high view of Scripture, the emphasis on simple worship (Richard Beck calls acappella music “theologically weird” – I love that image), the autonomous structure, the Anabaptist tendency towards pacifism, the radical insistence on the priesthood of all believers – these are all values I have learned from my Church of Christ parents.

That doesn’t mean everyone espoused those beliefs.  That doesn’t mean that each of these views was articulated.  But it’s alot like the influence of my real parents – sometimes they articulated what they wanted to impress on me, sometimes it was implicit, and often they didn’t even realize it when they were doing it or what it was they were impressing upon me.  I have taken what they have given me, and I am living out my faith as best I know how.  It wasn’t always evident growing up, but I think most of the folks who I attended church with wanted more than anything else for me to have a relationship with Creator of the Universe.  Like a parent who is left to watch their child blaze his or her own trail and pray that they have done what they were supposed to do, I believe that those within the Churches of Christ are in a good position to do  the same – “Let’s pray that we have given them what they need to live into the kingdom in his or her own way.”

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12 thoughts on “Why I’m (Still) a Member of the Church of Christ

  1. It’s easier for those (like yourself), who are in more progressive CofC’s to hang around. It is much more difficult for those of us in traditional, or even middle-of-the-road churches. We see the irrelevance. We see how it is affecting our kids. We see the church politics and majoring in minors, instead of being Jesus to the world (yes, I understand that all churches have those things to some degree). We see how women (and sometimes minorities) are marginalized. We see how ministers are disrespected, mistreated, underpaid (in many cases), and even abused. I was born and raised in the CofC, and currently serve as a CofC minister — but I have no desire to stay when I am no longer an employee (which I hope and pray will be soon). For something this important, brand loyalty is nowhere near the top of my list.

    I know this sounds bitter, and I suppose in some ways I am (I’m working on that). I do appreciate many of the things you mentioned, and I hope to find some of those things in the next faith community with which we cast our lot. But the reality is that my family and I are breaking up with the Church of Christ.

    • Frustrated preacher . . . If you read much of what I say on this topic here on the blog, I’ll be the first to admit that I sound like I talk out of both sides of my mouth all of the time. I have done some similar thoughts on this topic under “The Apple Tree” heading there in the sidebar. I feel your pain and agree wholehearted assessment. I thank God regularly for the church I have been a part of for nearly a decade. As I consider previous churches I have been a part of, I’m not sure at this stage of my life I would be able to be a part of any of them. The misogyny, racism, under appreciation of ministers – these are all true concerns that I have heard too many ministers testify to. I had reservations even doing this series for the fact that it’s become so hard to discuss the Churches of Christ in any kind of collective manner. I have pointed out the strong points of our heritage, but have ignored many of the glaring shortcomings – many of which you point to in your comment. “Brand loyalty” is pretty low on my list of priorities when it comes to finding a place to serve in the kingdom – and the Churches of Christ certainly have no corner on the market of these positive qualities. I am sorry to here the struggles you have in your current place and pray that you can find a place to more fully live out your calling in the kingdom.

      To be fair to our Movement, there are some black eyes that we must overcome in order to prosper in the future. Number one on many lists is the absolute necessity of us overcoming our harsh sectarianism. We must find a way to collaborate with the many good works of God happening all around our churches. We need to get out of the habit of asking so many qualifying questions that seek to nullify cooperation (what do they believe about . . .) and instead begin with statements seeking unity (can we agree upon lifting up the name of Christ?) I have little patience for those seeking to build sectarian walls of division that fall directly contrary to Jesus’ wishes in John 17. Also, while I love our focus and love of God’s Word, sometimes I wished our people loved Jesus as much as they loved his Word. Imagine the ways our churches would change if we put as much energy into living like Christ as we did into learning about Christ. Thanks for stopping by and I hope this series can be of some encouragement to you!

  2. I appreciate your thoughts, and I’m anxious to hear what others have to say.

    Reading my original comment again, it sounds very bitter — and I didn’t intend that. Like I said, I’m working on it! I am truly thankful for my heritage in Churches of Christ, and it will always have a special place in my heart.

    • Dear Frustrated Preacher,
      Sound bitter? You ain’t heard nothin’, yet! LOL I left the C of C in the early 80s which seems incredible since I graduated from a school of preaching in 78, I remember telling my wife that we were not far from leaving the C of C after reading Brewers little book, “Having Once been Enlightened.” It was not long until she was ready, too. Was I bitter? You betcha! Am I still bitter? Not at all. I am thankful.

      There is life after the Church of Christ and had I been able, I would have left much sooner. Yes, it breaks the hearts of family members, but even family can be a hindrance to the followers of Jesus, as He makes clear in His call to follow Him.

      I am thankful, to some degree, for the heritage of the C of C. It made me ready to listen and look for the gospel, since I felt only condemnation and could find forgiveness only in baptism- oh, and believe me I deserved condemnation and freely confess that I am a sinner, which gives me hope since it is for sinners that Christ died; not for the righteous. BTW, I was baptized three times! The C of C also helped to furnish a biblical familiarity through study. I was baptized while in the C of C, for which I will be eternally thankful. But, like most (all) adherents to “believers only” baptism, I had no idea of what was being given to me there and who was actually doing the work in baptism. I thought I was doing the work there, or that “my faith” was being expressed by my submitting to it. Arminian (Free will) churches teach that the efficacy of baptism depends on the faith of the one being baptized and not on God who works in and through the means of grace. This is the most serious charge against the C of C, they don’t understand the gospel or the sacraments (means of grace) and therefore, they show that they do not understand the work of Christ and Salvation and this is why they and their members do not know whether they are even saved or not. While I was preaching in the C of C it was common for members to confess doubts as to whether they were saved or not. Some actually thought they could not know, even though 1 Jn. 5:13 says otherwise. They said they were unsure of their salvation because they didn’t “know” whether they had done enough, meaning they did not know if they had done enough “good” works. This is very sad and is a testimony to the fruit of the C of C’s false doctrines. The sad truth is that the c of c rejects creeds that make salvation clear, i.e. that salvation is not by works but by faith in Christ and given by grace alone. It was impossible for me to believe it as well, since I was brought up to believe that salvation is a combination of “faith” plus “works” (synergism). Thankfully, sound doctrine found me and brought me out of the stupor of false and malicious doctrine (of demons).

      Frustrated Preacher, you may be able to stay around the C of C and if you do I wish you well. But, for the sake of anyone following in your footsteps I would not let the “positives” such as “self-governing” churches lure me to stay. IMHO, that is one of the reasons, albeit a lesser one, to get out of it. Elders, from my past experiences, had as much power over the local church as the pope had over the Catholic Church, but had no, zilch, zero, theological training. The autonomous C of C solves most (if not all) problems by splitting, which is probably a good thing for Christendom.

      In all seriousness, the C of C does not even come under the true definition of a church since the church is defined by the pure preaching of the gospel and the right administration of the sacraments. Heck, the c of c doesn’t even have sacraments, but (probably would) deny that God’s grace is delivered through the sacraments. I could go on and on, but then I might sound bitter. LOL
      Johnny Graham

  3. Adam,

    I just came across your blog today! I enjoyed reading your thoughts. After three years of ministry in Kentucky, I left the Churches of Christ last year to serve in the Disciples of Christ (one of the other two branches of the Restoration Movement). I respect you for staying in the C of C, and there are somet things I miss (accapella music), however, I appreciate Frustrated Preacher’s sentiment. Progressive C’s of C are few and far between, and it is very painful to feel abandoned and rejected by your own denomination. Not that you wouldn’t know, considering your own relationship with the C of C in Defiance. Anyhow, I just wanted to say hello. Good luck on your D. Min. I’m hoping to start my own next year. Have a great time in Europe.

    And just remember…I’ve seen you in a dress.

    -BJ

    • Hey man, great to hear from you! I saw your post on your blog – i tried to comment, but wasn’t sure if it went through – so you may have gotten a ton of them, who knows? Anyway, I’m glad that you posted that article. It’s great to see your perspective. Blessings in your ministry!

      • Hey, welcome home! For some reason the comment did not get posted. I’m not sure why. I’d love to hear your thoughts, so please try again.

  4. Adam-
    I saw your article via Twitter today & followed it to your blog. I love your post telling us non-CofC christians what it feel likes to serve the Lord & “stay in” your native tribe. I thank God for the tribe and what He is obviously continuing to do in the C’s of Christ. I am convinced that it is a part of the larger work the exalted Christ is doing through His churches.

    I’ve added your blog to my blogroll & look forward to following your journey.

    John Paul Todd
    e4unity.wordpress.com

    • Thanks, BJ. We all need to stay “curious” in the classic sense of “faith seeking understanding”.

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