missions and cofCs

How about a rant for Friday afternoon? What say?

Go read this article from the Christian Chronicle. Now.

A few observations:

1) This is crazy. (But then again what isn’t crazy about Churches of Christ…sometimes.)

2) The Christian Chronicle can’t seem to make up its mind. (For any non-cofC readers here, the Chronicle is a news magazine published by and for members of mainline Churches of Christ).

**DISCLAIMER: None of what I am about to say should be taken to mean that I support the divisions that exist among Churches of Christ. I am simply trying to make some points about the power of language and the affect that it has among us.**

The question for the Chronicle is this: are non-institutional churches of Christ part of the Churches of Christ or not? On the one hand, the Chronicle features an interview with Ferrell Jenkins at FC in the “Dialogue” section of the paper (the tone of which runs like this: “look at those quirky little antis, aren’t they cute!”). They also include a link (now repaired) to the Florida College website. On the other hand, they’re clearly upset by missionaries from NI churches “causing division” (this is, after all, the anecdotal centerpiece of the article).

Yes, splitting congregations (“exporting conflict,” as they so aptly call it) is horrible. I’m horrified (but not really surprised) by the actions of Keith Sharp and Stan Cox — they are unconscionable and wrong. HOWEVER, should the Chronicle really, seriously expect anything different? Do they have any cause to be so righteously shocked at what is occuring? No.

To accuse someone or some group of “causing division” assumes that there was unity to begin with. There is not now, nor has there been for a half a century, unity between mainstream and non-institutional cofCs. To explain: NI churches are, to paraphrase Ed Harrell, a separate religious body with its own distinct religious agenda, which only rarely overlaps with that of mainstream cofCs. They were run out of the “mainstream” 50 years ago with a ruthlessness and a rhetorical paranoia worthy of the McCarthy hearings that were exactly contemporary with the split. The two groups today, as much as it pains me to say this, stand in relationship to one another in about the same way that Disciples and Churches of Christ relate to one another, i.e. they share a common history but not much else.

Regarding the question of missions, the complaints in this article remind me of nothing so much as reports from Disciples missionaries from the 20s and 30s complaining about non-instrumental missionaries creating strife on the mission field. How many “mainstream” cofC missionaries have not done this in their pursuit of converts in the mission field? Unfair, you say? Not true any more? The recent openness among mainstream cofCs notwithstanding, all branches of the cofC have a long and well-established history of exactly this kind of behavior in support of the “truth.” Some call it sheep-stealing.

Back to the Chronicle article. Rhetorically, the confusion about who is in and who is out is very useful for the Chronicle and mainline cofCers in general — all of the benefits of keeping a whipping boy around, none of the responsibility of actually treating them like brothers and sisters in Christ.

3) It’s extremely striking to me that the people they quote are Keith Sharp and Stan Cox. Are these really the best choices to represent NI churches? Is Stan Cox really the only person they could get on the phone? What about Colly Caldwell, Ferrell Jenkins or Ed Harrell? I suspect that the average Chronicle staff writer does not know their way around NI churches and the attendant politics therein and therefore has no way to be savvy or remotely representative in their choice of interlocutor. So, perhaps I shouldn’t be so hard on them. Plainly put, Sharp and Cox are division-mongers, people who have no qualms splitting NI churches, much less “apostate” (to use their own term) “mainstream” ones, and should hardly be seen as representative of a movement within which they increasingly represent a minority.

Rant over.


13 responses to “missions and cofCs

  1. Chris,

    Interesting piece. Indulge me a few comments of my own…

    I agree with your assessment of the gradual uncoupling of these two segments of the CofC. It has come to the point at which, in many cities, members of the two groups hardly recognize or even acknowledge one anothers’ presence. And, what is sad now, is that in many, many places, as the NI churches begin to soften their radical stances against “institutional practices,” it hardly matters, for there is no dialogue or debate ongoing which might serve as a forum for unity movements. In fact, I have seen NI churches close to the point of declaring the old “issues” irrelevent, only to find that the Mainline churches have developed entirely new issues during the interim.

    In regard to “causing division,” this is simply not an easy cause to pinpoint. It’s all in the eye of the beholder. It all depends on one’s hermeneutic and vantage point. To Keith Sharp, whom I know personally (first cousin, once removed) and with whom I spent a summer back when I was discerning whether I had a preaching vocation, these issues are not “causing division.” He truly believes he is doing God’s work, and I’ve seen him make honest, sincere attempts at unity. But, he and Cox and others like them are firm in their convictions handed down to them by previous generations. And there is very little interaction with contemporary study and scholarship that might shake them loose from their narrow crevice in which they are so unfortunately sequestered. A good read of N.T. Wright, Rowan Williams, Stan Hauerwas, Joseph Ratzinger, etc., might do a lot to open an honest mind to the enormous world of history and divine drama that is out there.

    But, here’s my question to add to the fracas: Aren’t both of these groups guilty of the same thing? And, as a followup: Is there any solution for a non-episcopal group other than to form independent and gradually disassociating groups that — in the name of “care” and “concern” — continue to proselytize one another?

    The Mainline CofC did the same thing with the Disciples a century ago, roughly speaking. They still often do the same to Evangelical groups, whether the issue be music, the Lord’s Supper, or other. And who can authoritatively speak — to address my second question — any of these issues? Is there a St. Peter or St. Paul among us who can answer a question not clearly addressed in Scripture? And we both know that the lack of clarity from Scripture on a subject does not negate the legitimacy of the issue (take abortion, e.g.).

    This ongoing spiral into silliness and ahistorical positions (i.e., heresy or at least schism) is inevitable given the “local autonomy” and non-creedal stances of these churches. It is why I believe the best solution is for them to slowly, over time, dissolve into non-being. Their members need to find their way back into historical Christian bodies, as do the members of many other American-made denominations, as well. It seems to me that any “solution” to these types of problems is merely pragmatic. A solution might “work” in that it preserves unity, pro tem. But, does it do so at the cost of giving up historical ecclesiology?

    Good thoughts, bro. Hope you’re doing well in Nashville. Next time I’m down there with Greeson, we’ll give you a call.


  2. Powerful questions, indeed.

    To your first question: Both groups are guilty of the same thing. (I was trying to express exactly that point in the original post; perhaps I failed to make myself clear.)

    Second question: That would seem to be the only option. It is harder and harder to discern the work of the Holy Spirit in either group.

    Your examples of NI churches slowly dropping their distinctive doctrines is telling. They really are left, ecclesiastically, to fend for themselves — out of favor with those they have long identified with, ignored by mainline cofCs who just don’t care — not good. You would think, as you state, that they would be well-positioned to rejoin the “mainstream.” But that’s not the case: what I consistently see from those most interested in unity among mainstream cofCs is an intense interest in reaching out to Disciples and Independents, but a complete lack of interest in those who would traditionally be thought of as theologically to their right — not only a lack of interest, but a willingness to facilitate yet another split among mainline churches.

    Part of this is that it would require more work. Hard work. Part of it is a spectacular lack of understanding about the true nature of NI churches. Most of the mainliners that I have occasion to talk to think that NI churches are just like the Spiritual Sword/Contending for the Faith (right-wing mainline) churches, only more extreme. While NIs certainly have people among them like that, the inaccuracy of that characterization is fairly easily disproven. NIs are a much more diverse lot than that.

    I am beginning to see the urgency of some sort of ‘episcopal’ means of sorting all of this. But who would our ‘bishops’ be? We certainly have some people that would, apparently, love the job. But I don’t think that Cox, Willis, Halbrook and company (to put it mildly) have the spiritual or theological resources to hand to bridge the divide. Would we accept the intervention of a third party? Not likely. Do we allow all of these people to wander about willy-nilly in hopes that one day Mater Ecclesia will take them under her wing (or that they will consent to go)?

    Just some thoughts. It’s a tough question and I don’t have an answer.

  3. Chris,

    I commented on this over at Grace-Centered forums. It seems ridiculous that mainstream coCs would complain that NI missionaries are stealing converts when its been the modus operandus (sp?) of the Restoration Movement from DAY ONE. Isn’t the entire RM predicated upon the idea of encouraging Christians to leave the group they are with.

    With regards to the different wings of the NI movement. I know from personal experience that NI churches in the Dee Bowman/Colly Caldwell wing support missionaries who encourage members of mainstream coCs in foreign nations to leave the mainstream for NI. I’m not sure going to them for interviews would ultimately give a different response, maybe just sweeter words.

    WRT changing the governmental structure of coCs. It just wouldn’t work for a variety of reasons. But we have actual historical evidence of the result, the Disciples of Christ.

  4. Good thoughts, Ken.

    You’re right. Even though the wings of the NI movement are pulling apart, there still isn’t a clear distinction between the two with respect to the theology or praxis. There is just a divergence in the way that the same essential message is presented.

    Agreed re: governmental structure. I hardly think that the modern-day DoCs, as much as I like some things about them, present a viable path for CofCs of any stripe.


    The more I think about what you said, the more I think that it probably applies/will apply for South Newnan — cut off from the other, radical NI group in town, but receiving a lukewarm reception to their overtures of unity and reconciliation from other cofCs in town.


    Finally, a question for both of you: why is no one talking about these issues, on either side? Thoughts?

  5. Chris,

    Insecurity. Both sides (though the Mainliners are largely drifting away from this) have spent 100 years or more basing their confidence on being “right” on doctrinal matters. To ask questions about things such as episcopal oversight, etc., is such a large departure that it implies we may have missed a few things by a large angle.

    As more and more learn that they won’t “go to heaven” based on whether or not they “cooperated unscripturally,” and as a life of faithful learning replaces static traditionalism, I think these questions will be asked more.

    The only problem is this: in the meantime, those who know the questions cannot bring them up without personal consequences. And when, one day, it might be possible to bring them up, any shifts as large as some of these questions might elicit would form essentially new churches.

    Which is why I tend to think the best thing is for them to dissolve back into more historical, episcopal-led groups. But of course, that’s an even bigger order than the questions!

  6. RANT on … I second the motion.

    Bobby Valentine

  7. Can I ask a question (actually, two – well, three if you count this one) to make sure I understand?

    1) Do you really believe those who oppose institutions are a minority within NI churches?

    2) Are you really advocating *increased* centralization among churches?

    Seems to me part of the problem is that churches (yes, even NI churches) are too centralized as it is, taking sides around their favorite preacher(s) and/or parachurch organization. Centralization is the friend of the ambitious and ruthless, the enemy of the peacelover, IMO.

  8. Jeff,

    Good questions. It seems that I was misunderstood — allow me to try again. I’ll take your questions in order.

    1) It seems to me that the vast majority of people in NI churches oppose institutions. This is as it should be (I mean, that’s what we’re all about, isn’t it?). The question is not concerning whether or not we should oppose “human institutions.” To my knowledge, all of the people that I cited would agree on that. Rather, it is about the way in which that opposition is set forth to inquiring outsiders (be they Christians or non-Christians). Who is (or should be) the public face of the NI movement in a situation like the one that the Chronicle went investigating? Who should be the person or people who are interviewed? The situation in Nigeria is bad enough — enough of a black eye on NI missionary efforts — without the wider world thinking that rancor and divisiveness are the order of the day among us.

    So, no, I don’t mean that we need an archbishop or a pope to speak for us. What I’m talking about in my post is not the authority to speak (in the sense of power or rule) but the authority to speak (in the sense of knowledge of subject matter and the requisite gravitas to avoid sounding like a petty dictator).  You, or others, might protest that that’s superficial, that it’s too concerned with image.  Maybe so.  But we live in a world where image is reality, where soundbite is manifesto.  It would therefore behoove us to pay closer attention to how we are perceived by others.

    Having said all of that, do I get frustrated sometimes? Sure do. The level of discourse among NI churches and individuals in our day is deplorable; our magazines are filled with articles whose rhetoric owes a lot more to Bill O’Reilly and Rush Limbaugh than to Jesus and to the fruits of the Spirit.  How to raise the tone of our collective discussions? That is the real question.



  9. Re: Nigeria, I don’t see it as a “black eye” at all, based on the scant facts the Chronicle gives. Sharp could have presented the truth in a spirit lacking love, but the Chronicle doesn’t make that allegation. Their only allegation is that he preached against institutionalism and the like.

    When truth is preached and rejected (or error preached and accepted), division occurs. The only question is if what he was preaching is truth. If it was, then he should have been preaching it. If not, then the Chronicle and Oji should be trying to refute it rather than mere tut-tutting. The truth is that we are divided, and trying to paper over the division (or hoping those who oppose institutionalism will just pipe down) isn’t a valid option.

    Re: Stan Cox, I’d assume the Chronicle got his name from a Google search (Watchman used to have a high page rank before they packed it in). He wouldn’t be my first choice. Or second. Or third.

    Re: spokesmen, how is that different from what we have today? For a long time, American churches have been dominated by the iron triangle: preachers, papers, and colleges. Even NI churches fall into this trap. (One preacher once told me he stood with the GoT; I’d rather he said he stood with the Lord. Another said he opposed FC; I’d rather he opposed Satan. I’d assume similar statements have been made the other way.)

    It seems to me a local church was meant to be run by elders in that congregation, not by outside self-appointed “apostles.” Our failure is that we raise up preachers as “brotherhood leaders” and we rally around parachurch organizations. We train men to preach, not to be elders (when was the last time you heard of elder training programs?). We quietly replace Scriptural elderships with non-Scriptural men’s business meetings or de facto pastor systems. We make clergy-laity distinctions when we should be training all to be a royal priesthood. Even in NI churches, we spend too much time thinking globally and not enough time acting locally… or at all.

    And, yes, as a blogger, I’m well aware that statement verges on the hypocritcal. 😉

    My rant for the day, since I haven’t blogged on the topic in a while.

  10. I’ve made two trips to India with groups led by Ed Harrell, who has been going to India regularly for over a decade after living there for two years. Many of the people we work with are formerly from ‘Mainstream’ churches. Many had already broken out of the institutional network, however. The structure of the institutionally supported churches in India is not simply a replication of American institutional churches, but rather a hierarchical structure run through preacher schools. Preacher support is funneled through these schools and the guy who runs them is known to the Indians as the “boss preacher.” There is no plundering of institutional churches, however when we offer classes people can come and hear what we have to say. A lot of them like the idea of being free from an unscriptural structure.

    Jeff has much good to say regarding elders above.

  11. Thanks, Alan, for chipping in. I was hoping that you might find your way over here.

    Three comments:

    1) I (and I suspect many, many people of whatever stripe of CofC) am simply unaware of the realities of day-t0-day existence on a given mission field. There seems to be a disconnect that lies somewhere along the line between the (1) Indian (or Nigerian or whatever) Christians and the (2) missionary preacher(s) and (3) American congregations.

    2) What you describe re: India is extremely interesting to me. Do ‘mainstream’ American churches understand the modus operandi of those whom they support in India? I can’t imagine that most of them would be comfortable with that arrangement (at least not publicly). Are they in denial about it? Or, does it matter at all?

    3) Your words are of some comfort, as well. I don’t think that disagreement with others justifies raiding their congos, which is what the Chronicle article, at least, implies. (Who knows what the reality is.) It seems that by simply offering public classes, you are approaching our disagreement with ‘mainstream’ churches in an ethical fashion. Thank you.


  12. I have always figured that American institutional churches would be uncomfortable with the preacher school arrangement, but I figure most don’t know.

    The original core group of the first congregation that Ed began working with in Hyderabad, India was a group meeting in a home that had become disenchanted with the institutional church and had broken off. That church is now a thriving group of about 125, meeting in their own building and supporting a number of Indian preachers themselves. They are near the point of appointing elders. If no more Americans ever showed up on their door they would continue on fine, which is what anyone working overseas should strive for. As a result, we are spending less time there and more in new fields that have opened up. As they are a such a strong example of what a church can be, and because of their good facilities, we do continue to hold classes there open to people from other areas.

  13. Pingback: round and round we go… « Anastasis

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