Observations by Gregory Alan Tidwell!
Biblical Studies Journal Volume 1, Number 12
November 9, 1997
the Church of Christ?
by Gregory Alan Tidwell
From the humble men and women who separated from the Disciples at the turn of the century, the Churches of Christ have come a long way. Growing numerically and building large institutions, he brotherhood advanced socially and educationally, presenting a powerful success story by secular and cultural measures.
As congregations, institutions and individual members became more socially and economically successful, however the underlying cohesiveness of the movement showed frayed edges. Yes, the Churches of Christ have a great deal of momentum, but in what direction?
On the doctrinal front, accommodation to secularism and to the fads of academia became commonplace among certain leaders and institutions, raising foundational questions. Have we lost our spiritual and theological integrity? Have we traded our birthright for a bowl of pottage?
Considering the past (although doctrine and practice among Churches of Christ was never monolithic) an essential underlying identity was well established in the formative decades of the 1900s. The differences which existed between men such as Sommer and Lipscomb at the beginning of the century or Wallace and Brewer in subsequent decades, pale into insignificance compared with the doctrinal smorgasbord presented among Churches of Christ today. The men who lead the movement into the 1960s were profoundly united on the nature of God, the way of salvation, the exclusive unity of the Lord's church and the authority of Scripture.
The essential identifying convictions of the Churches of Christ at mid-century was a continuation of the early nineteenth century Restoration Movement. This heritage of faith was maintained through conviction that Scripture, as God's authoritative word, cannot be supplemented nor mitigated by human authority. In the 1990’s this continuity is challenged by radically diverse views. Individuals and institutions with little doctrinal cohesion share the name “Church of Christ.” Who is, and who is not, appropriately considered part of the movement becomes a difficult and embarrassing question.
The issue of brotherhood identity is now engaged by two opposing constituencies, each with an program for the future. Those to the Right seek to define the brotherhood in terms of doctrinal conviction, growing from an absolute submission to the authority of Scripture. Those to the Left present a vague idea of brotherhood identity, descriptive rather than prescriptive; an inclusive concept spiraling out to embrace any and all.
The conflict between these two competing identities touches all aspects of faith and practice, bringing the Churches of Christ to an impasse. The competing approaches can never reach accommodation without one or the other surrendering. As the doctrinal aberrations of the Left become ever more apparent, the irreconcilable nature of the rift will grow clearer.
At the turn of the century the Churches of Christ, as a coherent and doctrinally homogenous movement, separated from the Disciples. Sadly, the doctrinal unity of the past has given way to a culturally determined pluralism, precisely the error Churches of Christ rejected among the Disciples. By the late 1970s it was clear that basic doctrinal divisions were forming. Beginning with technical challenges to the prohibitive nature of Scripture's silence, the division quickly encompassed every aspect of biblical authority and veracity. Today, divergence is apparent in every major doctrine; including Christology and Soteriology.
The struggle for control of the movement continues to coalesce around the identification of who is, and who is not, a part of the Church of Christ. The integrity of the movement is essentially tied to its convictions concerning Scripture. Much of the brotherhood is not firm in this regard. Our doctrinal defenses are down. An infection of infidelity has affected many individuals and institutions among us. The division becomes more pronounced as the epistemology of the dominant culture drives the Left wing of the brotherhood into further eccentricity.
Seduced by the methods of PostModern academics, several leading brotherhood theorists have forsaken any claim to objective truth. How, then, can we understand the nature and authority of the Bible? The Left wing puts forward various aspects of the "hermeneutics of suspicion.” Each individual or community of believers decides what is and what is not true and authoritative by judging how the text of Scripture corresponds with a preconceived notion of authentic Christianity. Truth, in this view, is subjective and experiential.
This PostModern approach cuts the heart and soul out of the Restoration Movement. If God's word is not objectively true, independent of our experience, any notion of Restoration is a farce. The historic identity of the Churches of Christ subsists in a claim to absolute, objective truth (though we never claim that, with our human limitations, our own knowledge is absolute). At this point there can be no compromise if our identity is to be maintained.
While theorists and academicians debate the inspiration and authority of Scripture, the division of the brotherhood is occurring on the basic level of local congregations. Attempting to be relevant to the world, many pulpits have accommodated to the point of compromise and surrender to the prevailing culture. The language of doctrine has been washed out by the vocabulary of self-fulfillment. Biblical truth is diminished or rejected when it is inconvenient for the secular agenda.
Diluting their convictions, the Churches of Christ stand in danger of absorption into cultural oblivion. Given the dynamic nature of contemporary culture and the attrition of biblical knowledge among many church members and leaders, some progressive congregations seem to have virtually nothing distinguishing them from the world.
This problem is starkly evident in the trends affecting worship services. A secular agenda of entertainment has replaced biblical worship and the distinctive character of the church. “Church Growth” consultants urge congregations towards worship inoffensive to the secular attendee. The world increasingly sets the agenda for the church.
Although worship may legitimately be conducted in a wide range of styles, it cannot be culture-centered and remain biblical worship. Not style, but content, must be carefully assessed. True worship focuses on God through five authorized means: prayer, proclamation, song, financial contribution and observance of the Lord's supper. By this standard, much of what takes place among Churches of Christ cannot be called worship.
Thus, in both theory and practice, members of the Churches of Christ are called to make watershed choices leading to divergent futures. One path takes those who follow into a continuation of the Restoration ideal, applying the Bible as an absolute standard in all of life. The other path takes those who follow into a deeper and deeper accommodation with the spirit of this world.
[Non-text portions of this message have been removed]