An improper riddance of the proper

With proper-noun naming (denominating) comes more of a sense of formal organization, as detailed in the last post here.  A denominated group may manifest unwillingness to have its name questioned.  This was my experience when teaching a junior high Bible class as a young instructor in a Christian academy.  I had the one Bible class (along with band and choir classes I taught) and took them all very seriously; the worksheet below is one assignment I devised for the students.

8th grade test given during a course on the book of Acts at a Church of Christ school
Worksheet used during a course on the book of Acts at a CofC school

One would think that I’d’ve been applauded for asking the 8th graders to “go back to the Bible” to find various descriptions and labels for the church.  Not so.  The Bible class was actually taken away from me midstream.  In my view (obviously not that of a certain school administrator and, I suspect, some others with clout), this was an improper riddance of me as a Bible teacher.  More important, it was an improper pushing-aside of some very simple, yet significant, facts from scripture.

It is hurtful to be judged unworthy by the group from which you originate when you are only trying to bring growth.  Although I was over those particular wounds within a couple years, in a very real sense, a general anxiety in connection with potentially being judged improperly has remained with me.

Relatively consistently for a quarter-century now, I have been seriously interested in undenominational Christianity, relegating group names to a low berth if proper names must be used at all.  This is a small part of restoring and unifying, but it is a part nonetheless.

Subtle shifts to the “proper”

It can be intriguing and informative to learn of groups other than the one from which you originate.

Various groups, like “mine,” have had their struggles with restoration and unity.°  Many attempts to restore or reform have involved division and departure from larger, established groups, as well.  While that precedent is commendable, another trend is negative:  as far as I can tell, all reforming groups of any size have eventually become proper-noun institutions rather than bodies/organisms.  For instance,

The Church of God initially called itself the church of God to indicate its understanding of unity.  To my knowledge, no one has traced the shift from church of God to Church of God.[1]

That no one had historically traced the shift may indicate an apathy about institutionalization/ crystallization.  In other words, if one is content with membership in an institution, s/he might not even notice the subtle shift from church to Church over a period of years.  In my own musings and dreamings, I admit that I have at times been fixated on naming something I wanted to be a reality but didn’t yet exist for me.  Although I’m quite content in one respect simply to gather with Christians for discussion or study or a communion meal (to name a few things), at some point, I do wonder what to call the group or the meeting.  The gathering.  Our study.  The community group.  Our Christian get-together.  The practical reality is that we need nouns (sometimes, adjectives) when we refer to something.

When one “calls” oneself something, as an individual, he likely has a common-noun sense in mind.  I can call myself an erstwhile athlete, a dad, a husband, a teacher, a studyer of ancient texts, a musician.  All those labels have function or activity at their root.  When a group feels it should call itself something, though, a corner has been rounded, and the group probably then has a proper-noun sense in mind.  A group may be

  • a band . . . or The Balderdash Band
  • a team . . . or The Phillies
  • a duo . . . or The Dynamic Horn Duo
  • a church . . . or The XYZ Church

(In English, the indefinite or definite article helps to clarify the sense of the label.)

With proper-noun naming (denominating) comes more of a sense of formal organization.  When a proper-noun sense is the obvious intent of a church group, the lower-case “c” on “church” is incorrect.  It is admirable if a group wishes to retain a lower-case “c” sense of meaning, but actual retention is often elusive.  “The apparently irresistible urge to bureaucratize reflects a modern mind-set.”[4]

John Brooks of the Church of God (Holiness) argued that human law in the church was “not only unnecessary, but presumptuous.”[2]  The flyleaf of Brooks’s book describes its contents:  “a treatise on the origin, constitution, order, and ordinances of the Church; being a vindication of the New Testament Ecclesia, and an exposure of the anti-scriptural character of the modern church of sect.”  “Church of sect,” by the way, is Brooks’s term for the denominational system.[3]  Ironically, Brooks used the capital C in the first instance—presumably not to refer to his group but to “The (universal) Church,” as a whole, through the ages.  I would argue that any such capitalization tends to institutionalize rather than to focus on meaning and function.  When Luke wrote in Acts of “the way,” there were no capital letters employed, and I can’t be sure whether Luke a) wanted his readers to recognize a formal label for the new sect or b) perhaps was merely depicting function, i.e., this is the pathway for God’s people.

In speaking of the anabaptist (which might have a lower-case “a” sense when speaking of the dynamic, or a capital-letter sense when historically identifying the masses in a recognized movement), Theron Schlabach has noted, “The essence was radical discipleship and the ever-renewing church.  The structural pattern was non-structure, really:  to transcend the cultural and ecclesiastical structures that history had produced and to be a Spirit-led, constantly recreated people of God rather than an institution.”[5]  I say “yes” and label that good.

Where I land in all this, for the present (and it’s been relatively consistent for a quarter-century now), is that I am one of Christ’s, weakly trying to follow; I am shying away from institutional manifestations where I find them; and I am trying to be part of a movement.

° Some restorative groups that come to mind:  Amish, Mennonites, and Hutterites; Lutherans; Oneness Pentecostals; Church of the Brethren; Church of Christ and Christian Church; and various Reformed churches.  I am not intentionally omitting any group here; I suspect that most of them (even the Roman Catholics?) would lay some claim to attempting to restore or reform something at some point.  The groups I listed are a few that have, more or less, made reformation something of a hallmark.

[1] Susie C. Stanley, “‘Bumping’ into Modernity,” in The Primitive Church in the Modern World, ed. Richard T. Hughes, 134.  Emphasis on letter case mine, bc.

[2] The Divine Church (Columbia, MO.:  Herald, 1891; rpt., New York:  Garland, 1984), 27.

[3] Susie C. Stanley, “‘Bumping’ into Modernity,” in The Primitive Church in the Modern World, ed. Richard T. Hughes, 136.

[4] Susie C. Stanley, “‘Bumping’ into Modernity,” in The Primitive Church in the Modern World, ed. Richard T. Hughes, 126.

[5] Theron F. Schlabach, “Renewal and Modernization among American Mennnonites,” in The Primitive Church in the Modern World, ed. Richard T. Hughes, 213.

With my own ears

I heard it with my own ears.

It was the fall of 1987, and I don’t claim to remember every word, every inflection, but I do remember 80% of it—and part of it verbatim—along with the the general tenor of the expression.

Now, I had heard that some people in my “fellowship”¹ thought this way, but I, thankfully, had not been raised with such concepts.  This kind of explicit rhetoric, this kind of sentiment was so wholly embarrassing that I’m not sure I really believed it was ever spoken or heard.

But hear it I did.

And it went like this:

“People want to know what church the apostle Paul would choose if he visited [name of city] today.  Well, I know he would choose our church.  He would know it was the right church.  He would know it because he would drive right down [name of avenue], and he would see the sign “Church of Christ” right out front!!!”

And, even at my tender age, in a church I was only visiting, I came infinitely close that night to standing up and calling out that horrificly audacious, ludicrous claim in public, in a crowd of several hundred.  I was closer to causing cause a holy, real-time ruckus than I’ve ever come since.  Suffice it to say this:  I never returned to that building.

[Extendatis lector (yeah, I made up that Latin):  I was only beginning, then, thanks largely to Rubel Shelly’s book I Just Want To Be a Christian, to understand God’s church from a less sectarian, more universal vantage point.  It is quite possible that the experience captioned above fueled my travel down a road that has “No U-turn” signs all along the way.  In other words, I have not reversed my path; I still think the same way about sectarian exclusivity, although my position on the somewhat more neutral idea of “denominating” is more informed now.]

Fast forward 28 years.

I still receive the national, “brotherhood”¹ newspaper.  I skimmed a positive portrayal, in the August issue, of this same church.  The church is now known (at least in the paper) for being a church of love and service.

In 1987:  if I hadn’t heard it with my own ears, I wouldn’t have believed anyone would actually say it (the indented paragraph above).

In 2015:  since I did hear it with my own ears in 1987, it was difficult to believe the glowing report of this same church’s caring stance toward people in trauma.

But some churches (and some individuals) can change.

Vive la repentance.

¹ “Fellowship” and “brotherhood” are used in-house as euphemisms for that which is called “denomination” in most other circles.  In my view, “denomination” is a more apt, and certainly less disingenuous, term, although the Church of Christ certainly doesn’t have all the trappings of a full-blown denomination.

Denomination limbo (pt 2)

Time was when I was pretty accepting of a greater number of Christian traditions and denominations.  These days, I am less and less likely to accept the patterns of many Christian groups (including “my own”), but I’m not always sure I’m assessing things rightly.

What standards shall we use to determine what’s acceptable and what’s not?  The thoughtful, grace- and  truth-infused Christian must not be as interested in drawing lines of fellowship as in being a disciple himself, and yet there are some lines to be drawn, in terms of spiritual “family.” . . .

Some groups really do stand in opposition to Christianity.  The mentally unbalanced, blind practices of Fred Phelps’s group in Topeka come to mind, along with many other groups that don’t profess Christianity at all.  How far do we extend “the right hand of fellowship”?

[Aside:  the meaning of “fellowship” in the majority of New Covenant passages goes far beyond a simple recognition of some degree of unity.  Nor does it really have anything to do with potluck meals.  Most often, “fellowship” appears to speak of partnership in a task.]

Although we may not see eye to eye on many things, there will be some projects that we can do together with other individuals and groups — those with whom we don’t share key doctrinal positions.  Service projects such as cleaning up roadways, feeding and clothing needy people, and taking care of orphans in the name of Jesus come to mind. Recently, I came across the benevolence program of a church with which I would have only a modicum of spiritual camaraderie, but I was impressed with their list of charitable projects, and my family plans to join in one or two.  Partnership in a good cause that helps others (despite some important differences)!

As in the island party game “limbo,” there will ultimately come a time that we simply can’t bend any further.  How low can we go without breaking our consciences?

For me, the Jehovah’s Witness, Mormon, Unity Church and Unitarian Universalist entities are examples of (non-Christian) groups with which I have no spiritual fellowship.  The Roman Catholic institution, which is of course Christian in a broad sense, sits a couple levels closer to me . . . but here, as I type these words, part of me is loathe to think in terms of levels and lines that purport to keep others at bay.  Many other Christian groups seem much closer.

Does it constitute actual, spiritual back-bending for me to accept those who darken the door of the X Christian Congregation building down the street?  Is my back going to break, or will I embarrass myself by falling over backwards in this not-so-fun Christian “who’s one of us?” party game?

In retrospect, I don’t mind so much that, without thinking, I said “boo-hiss” aloud to myself when that vehicle turned into the Jehovah’s Witness parking lot (see beginning of last post for reference).  But I may need to stand up straight and extend my hand a little further in this vast sphere of denomination limbo.

Coming soon:  an extended treatment of Calvinism, largely thanks to the late Dr. Clark Pinnock’s very significant, helpful paper “From Augustine to Arminius:  A Pilgrimage in Theology.”   Spoiler alert:  Calvinism needs no more positive attention; Pinnock’s transparency and cogent scholarship help to enable other, thinking Christians to feel better about moving past the great reformer’s overstatements and overzealousness.

Denomination limbo (pt 1)

It is a Sunday morning, about 9:20.  I follow a foreign SUV in front of me.  There appears to be a nice, church-going family aboard.  The SUV turns right, into a Jehovah’s Witness “Kingdom Hall” parking lot.  I say “boo – hiss” out loud.

Time was when I was pretty accepting of a greater number of Christian traditions and denominations, including tautly Calvinistic ones and high-church ones.  In theory and philosophy, I maintain no binding loyalty to any denomination (although my heart-ties and history are with one and a half of these denominated groups).

I don’t know about you, but I am finding myself less and less likely to accept the patterns of many Christian groups (including “my own”).  What standards shall we use to determine what’s acceptable and what’s not?

In 2003, F. Lagard Smith, a Christian lawyer, law professor, former judge, and author, wrote Who Is My Brother?  I read enough of this book to know I didn’t think along the same lines in the area of drawing “circles of fellowship.”  I have just now learned that, a decade later, Smith reprised the earlier book with Circles of Fellowship – Responding to the Crisis of Christian Identity.  Among Smith’s assertions is the following system of delineation:

Five-fold Fellowship

5.  Universal Fellowship:  The Family of Man
4.  Faith Fellowship:  Likely Family
3.  “In Christ” Fellowship:  The Extended Family
2.  Conscience Fellowship:  Close Family
1.  Congregational Fellowship:  Immediate Family

Such a “levels” system may seem strange to those who have not been weaned on any sort of restorationist ideals or on exclusivistic, “we are the only ones going to heaven” bunk.  For some Baptists, many Church of Christ folk, and others, though, such “levels of fellowship” do seem strangely familiar, although the particular labels and pairings with sub-labels may not make sense.

In the initial analysis, these levels may even be comforting.  See, there, how Smith allows for a certain neighborliness with everyone in the level 5?  I’m not sure how he works out the difference between levels 4 and 3, but they are nice, because they allow even the most exclusive of us to say, “Well … on some level, I guess those _______ians/ists/ites are Christians.”  And on down the line it goes.  My own experience might lead me to reverse the last two, since I have for several years had a more spiritually “close family” distinct from the local congregation.

The thoughtful, grace- and  truth-infused Christian can’t be that interested in drawing lines of fellowship, in the final analysis, though.  We must be more devoted to being disciples ourselves than to doing spiritual arithmetic and supposedly figuring out who’s in and who’s out.  (This is a losing game, and I’m convinced it’s not really our business.)  Why not simply allow all sincere, believing souls to be found at points along a pathway?  Why not try to teach and influence from a vantage point of whatever relationship exists — from a stance of grace and inclusiveness?  It doesn’t seem to serve God’s (or anyone else’s) purpose to spend a lot of time managing lines of delineation and excluding these, those, and the others.

When the apostle John voiced concern over someone outside their little band, Jesus said, “Whoever is not against us is for us.”  This little tidbit doesn’t open the door to über-openness, but it does rebuke a small-minded, exclusive sort of “only-my-group” narcissism.

Next:  there ARE some lines to be drawn . . .

Of states and denominations

I’ve been thinking about some of our weird state boundaries.  Not being much of a historian, and not caring overmuch about state (or any other) politics, I figure we should combine West Virginia and Virginia.  Maybe subsume Maryland in there while we’re at it?  North and South Carolina?  And what about collecting Kentucky, Indiana and Ohio into a single conglom?  Vermont and New Hampshire might resort to fisticuffs, but they ought to be forced into union for sake of efficiency.  C’mon . . . at least Rhode Island and Massachusetts. . . .  Not sure what to do with the Maine and Florida appendages — they’ll always just stick out, I suppose.  It’s a good thing Texas is gargantuan, because it probably couldn’t be combined with any other state, anyway, but some of the above merging could work, couldn’t it?

See U.S. map here.

Wouldn’t the combos make sense?

  • We could cut down on so much overhead, so much waste.
  • Maps would look more squared off.
  • Oh, but we have a problem — we wouldn’t have an even 50 states anymore.  I guess we could annex Cuba and maybe a few Arab countries and claim “eminent domain” in Manitoba and Saskatchewan.  (If an Arab or Cuban reader sees this, please know that I am joking.  I do not really think the U.S. should annex anything.  No offense to the good people of those Canadian provinces, either, but they’re pretty desolate. . . .)
  • And worse — we wouldn’t have as many state senators.  Oh, wait — that would be a good thing.

Oh, bother.  I guess we can’t do this kind of thing.  Too many vested interests are at stake.

~ ~ ~

I’ve also been thinking about some of our Christian delineations.  Not being much of a churchman, and not caring overmuch about denominational (or nondenominational) politics, I figure we should combine the Presbyterian Church of America and the United Presbyterian Church.  And the Wesleyan and Free Methodist groups.  And the Mennonite Brethren and the Mennonite Church USA.  And the AME and AMEZ and black UMC groups.  And the Church of Christ and the Christian Church.  Somehow, I don’t think it would work to merge all the Church of God denominations — not even the two largest, which differ in some major arenas.  But c’mon . . . let’s at least combine at least the Southern Baptists and the Regular Baptists and the American Baptists.

Wouldn’t the combos make sense?

Oh, bother.  I guess we can’t do this kind of thing.  Too many vested interests are at stake.


real estateWe are selling our house.  Ugh.

Of course, a savvy potential buyer will be interested in “comparables” — other houses that are more or less like ours and have sold recently.

Aside:  the word “comparable” has three syllables, not four.  I think realtors (incidentally, also a difficult, two-syllable word for most of the populace to pronounce, not unlike “nuclear,” which has been difficult for multiple U.S. presidents of late) may use the abbreviation “comps” in order to avoid pronouncing the full word.

Anyway, one often likes to try to compare similar products before making a decision to buy one.  That stands to reason.

Yet there are no comparables, in our locale.  No matter how much a buyer thinks he is being smart by looking for them, there simply aren’t any.  In the case of our house, value will have to be decided with other bases in mind.  (Er … charm & quaintness? nice back yard? walking distance to “town”? new fridge and dishwasher? great closet and cabinet space? serendipitous peach tree?)


When one is looking for a new church, he might also be interested in comparables.  And one immediately enters into a problem area when he begins to compare church “products,” as though there are many “like” products to be compared and decided among.  What we need to remember is that there is but one church in God’s mind, and it is beyond compare.

A brief warning to any readers who are dyed-in-the-wool CofCers (or of any other denomination) and can’t see past the walls:  the church of the New Covenant writings is not equivalent to any humanly identifiable group, including “our” own.  No group exists outside scrutiny, and every group that uses a name to distinguish itself is denominating.  While our group is closer to the original intent in many respects than most other relatively large, recognized fellowships, it is not equal to God’s church.

THE church is not any (that’s right — not any — not my subgroup or yours) of the ones identified in the Yellow Pages or on the Web.  It is the one whose “roll” is kept only by the Lord.  And there are no comparables.

Unity and restoration

Unity and restoration were both key goals of the American Restoration Movement, and of many of the more serious Christian thinkers and practicers throughout history.  These goals are often found in opposition to one another.  In other words, if one is asserted, the other suffers.

James O'Kelly

For example, James O’Kelly led a division among American Methodists in 1793, apparently largely in opposition to the religious tyranny of the circuit-riding “bishop” Francis J. Asbury.

Francis J. Asbury

Inasmuch as O’Kelly was presumably restoring, disunity resulted.  If he had opted to accede, to resign himself to something not purely biblical, restoratory goals would have suffered.

A slogan of old was “Let Christian unity be our polar star.”  Such a galactic berth for unity may be a mite too high, in the grand scheme, but certainly the Lord’s Prayer (John 17) calls for unity with passion and conviction, and we should, too.

As I bring this series to a close, I would like to reiterate what Paul said to the Christians in Corinth (a loose paraphrase of some of 1 Cor. 1:11-17):

  • separate, named groupings within a Christian body are divisive
  • even Jesus’ name may be used to divide, and divisions among Christians are not good

By extension, the denominational situation in the world today is decidedly not a good thing.  Sectarianism and denominationalism are not to be accepted without question as the approved, natural outgrowth of the spread of the gospel and of human nature; rather, these denominations are to be worked in and worked through, to the end that all sectarian names, ideologies, and creeds should be abolished, giving way to the pure messages of the scriptures, and unity based on those messages.  I wish the words of the Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery were soulfully, intentionally applied to every denomination:

We will, that this body die, be dissolved,
and sink into union with the Body of Christ at large;
for there is but one body, and one Spirit, even as we are called in one hope of our calling.

May restoration continue to occur, and may unity grow alongside it.  May unity be found in scriptural truth and in the truth of Jesus the Living Word.

Models for unity

Continuing from the past few days, I’ll add a few more points and will soon leave this matter of Christian unity.

Unity based on single doctrinal points (or families of related points) may be difficult to achieve, if not completely fallacious.  Water unity isn’t even attainable within the circles of the Baptist denomination(s) or the Church of  Christ, for instance.¹  Calvinistic unity, too, is elusive, as may be observed in a casual glance at the Presbyterian Church (either of them), the Christian Reformed Church, and the Lutheran Church (either of them).

Head unity is based on reasoned understandings and was stressed by Alexander Campbell and Disciples of Christ in the 19C,² but it depends on conformity of human brain activity and is not likely to occur.  Still, it probably does us good to narrow the sense of core Christian doctrine down to the facts upon which more/most of us may unite.  Many of us can agree on such facts as Jesus’ birth to the virgin Mary, His atoning, sacrificial death, His miraculous resurrection, etc.  Opinions about the facts are other matters altogether.  Never can two thinking Christians unite on every peripheral opinion, induction, or deduction about a biblical fact, but the facts themselves deserve much consideration in this arena.

False unity results when a charismatic leader describes unity and asserts it where it does not exist.  Gregarious pastor-types may seek popularity by means of downplaying differences and making things appear more unified than they are.  Glistening or syrupy sermons do not create unity.

Leroy Garrett highlights what Barton Stone called fire unity–the gift of the Holy Spirit.  Inasmuch as this means the unity given by the Spirit that we are merely to maintain (Eph. 4), it warrants attention.  It’s not a goal so much as it is a reality:   we don’t need to achieve it; it’s already achieved.  But if “fire unity” means some supra-natural manifestation of the Holy Spirit–or even vaguely refers to something like “the Pentecostal fire of Christ’s presence”–as a marker of unity, it’s clearly not very unifying and is bound to fail.

Sunday-only unity can be more difficult for some, and less difficult for others.  Whether it works depends, in part, on one’s ecclesiology in terms of the assembly–how prominently corporate Sunday activities figure into the scheme or worldview.

  • If one thinks that what is done on Sundays is central and non-negotiable, agreement on those things is necessary for peace, as it were.  By conscience, some insist on conformity in all things observable during the Christian assembly.³  This scenario may be difficult to imagine in reality (or it may almost be assumed by those who by personality or conviction are bandwagon believers), but I have found it to exist commonly in the churches of the ARM.  It may be experienced rather shallowly in suburban and urban areas, but it is experienced nonetheless, and a measure of conformist peace may be reassuring.  On the other hand, this kind of unity is at once elusive and illusive.  A false “blueprint” conception of the New Covenant writings may be at the foundation.  The scriptures were not written to provide a precise pattern for church behaviors, although they do provide many guiding principles — and certain specifics — for all aspects of living.
  • If one thinks more relationally, i.e., how I believe in relation to the sister or brother sitting in front of me or beside me, then corporate activities take a back seat.  Large-scale aspects may be agreed on, or not, and the relationships will continue to be primary.  As the ultra-rightist, Reaganite, Commie-hating character Alex Keaton (Michael J. Fox, Family Ties) once articulated it when considering a Russian chess opponent, “It’s easier to hate a country than a person.”  Stated in the positive, it’s also easier to love and accept a sincere, individual believer, than an entire, off-base denomination or a large-scale corporate practice not based in scripture.

Perhaps a blend of extroversion and introversion is in order here:  thinking soberly and biblically about what is done when Christians gather together, yes, but also emphasizing individual relationships and the discipleship of individual souls alongside the large-scale stuff.

One more installment, tomorrow:  Unity and Restoration–a plea


¹ I understand that a Baptist forbear, John Smyth, immersed himself.  If he did that for the sake of church membership, as many Baptists today call for it, I’d be shocked.

² The Barton W. Stone “side” of the ARM does not seem to have emphasized rationalism as much as the Campbell side.

³ Further in the Sunday-unity model, there may be implications for discussions in lobbies and in Bible classes:  agreement on a list of items is either assumed or inflicted.  Dissent is either absent or kept under wraps.

Names (1) — denominating

A few weeks ago, three student ensembles under my direction presented a chamber music program at Baker Memorial Church in East Aurora, NY .  This was a most enjoyable experience in terms of the hosting, the music, and my students.  All this added up to pure delight.

But I’m caused to think about church names and am not so delighted anymore.  The Grace Dean Memorial Concert Series, held throughout the year at this United Methodist Church facility, is presumably aptly named for its original benefactor, but the naming of a church (or church building—I’m really not sure which, because there’s no distinguishing with the UMC and many other church groups) with some human moniker is, in my opinion, inappropriate.  In fact, I continue to believe that most church names are to some extent inappropriate—when they take a human, or a human aspect, as their jumping-off point rather than simply labeling themselves, and simply being, Christian.

What is it to be “Christian”?  And what is it to be a “Christian” church or a “Christian” college?  Will the adjectival use of a significant noun be appropriate?  Will it be enough?

Hear Leroy Garrett on the naming of the American Restoration Movement church groups:

Our name had to be biblical.  Alexander Campbell preferred Disciples, while Barton Stone insisted on Christians, believing it to be the divinely-appointed name, based on Acts11:26, “the disciples were first called Christians at Antioch.”  It was one of their disagreements. Campbell believed Christian was a name used in derision by outsiders, noting that in Scripture the disciples never called themselves by that name, not even Luke, the author of Acts, after saying that the disciples were first called Christians at Antioch.  He went right on calling them disciples, and never Christians.  Hardly a divinely-appointed name, Campbell insisted, but he was nonetheless honored to be called a Christian, even if at first used in derision.

I grew up sensing an almost reverent conception of the term “Christian” and for a long time believed that that word was the only apt label for me, for us, for anyone serious about God.  I have since added “believer” and “disciple” and, in my more quirky moments, “Jesus person” and maybe a few more.  I still use the term “Christian” most often.  Perhaps this is the term that describes status, while “believer” describes personal faith, and “disciple” describes living patterns?

What happens in life is more important, but names are important, too.

Next:  denominationalism within a “nondenomination”

Restoratory rumblings

I’ve finished reading all I’m going to (re-)read from Monroe Hawley’s book Redigging the Wells. Here are a few miscellaneous thoughts that continue from these prior posts: Marks of a denomination, Marks of a denomination (2), and Religious pollution.

The church Christ built includes all the saved; and it includes no one else.  There is not one saved who is not in it.  There is not one in it who is not saved.  The guarantee of this is that the same one does both the saving and the adding to the church.” (p. 20)

This description of Christian unity in the church is altogether different from watery ecumenism.  Its black-and-white simplicity might provoke wrath from critics of Restoration Movement ideals, but it is compelling and much more biblically based.

It’s important for those of the American R.M. to realize that restoration was not only occurring in the U.S., and not only of “our” branches.  Similar, documented efforts appeared in Russia, with the Bogomils in Bosnia, among the Plymouth Brethren (p. 25), and in other places.

Most of the RM forefathers and their thinking sprang out of established denominations.  Presbyterians and Baptists appear to account for most, but there are Methodist connections, as well.  I found it interesting that “authoritarian domination” was attributed to the renowned Methodist Francis Asbury.  (Wonder what the Methodists would say who have for years been naming their church facilities after him!)  The celebrated preacher James O’Kelly left the Methodist, revolting against Asbury, to form the Republican Methodists, and O’Kelly adopted several Cardinal Principles:

  1. Jesus is the only head of the church
  2. The name “Christian” is the only name
  3. The Bible is the only creed
  4. Christian character (termed “vital piety”) must be the sole test of fellowship

The Campbell clan, near the Pennsylvania/Ohio border, “cast their lot” with Redstone Baptist Association, then with the Mahoning Baptist Association in Western Reserve of Ohio.  Christian Baptist was the first Campbell publication.  Baptists of the West divided into 2 troupes:  Orthodox Calvinists and Reforming Baptists, the latter group of which, more or less, became followers of Campbell’s teachings.

The Campbells and others associated with the RM believed that true unity was possible without denominational “machinery.”  Later, few formal steps were ever taken to effect union, but “as they stood on the same platform and had sufficient love for one another, true unity was accomplished.”

The decade of the 1830s appears to have been one in which tensions increased within the RM and its ancillary associations.  Reading about this reminded me of accounts of the misplaced indignation of the Sadducees and Pharisees of the Bible:  tensions rise when power structures fear they will lose control.

Between 1832 (when the Stone and Campbell movements united, more or less) and 1850, the numbers grew from approximately 20,000 to 200,000, centering in the then-western states of Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana, Missouri, and Illinois.  Publishing of written materials was running at a high level, and three Christian colleges were founded.

The so-called missionary society — a cooperative effort among various churches — began to arise, though, and represented a divisive influence.  Earlier, Alexander Campbell had expressed strong opinions against such an organization.  The principle of biblical authorization meant that anything not expressly described positively in scripture was rejected.  However, Campbell later did an about-face and became the first president of the American Christian Missionary Society.  The practical consideration of increasing the capacity to work and serve in the world at large was weighed in the balance against the desire to follow only scriptural enjoinders, and in this case, the former one.

A historically important principle of conscientious division thus began to be seen in the RM from the middle of the 19th century:  the missionary society in itself wasn’t as potentially divisive since it didn’t affect corporate Sunday worship directly.  Later, when mechanical instruments began to be introduced, those whose consciences could not abide worshipping with instruments were forced to make a division decision.

While my strongest particular convictions don’t pertain to either of the issues named above, I certainly do deal with matters of conscience that affect what I do when I’m with the gathered saints.  I know from personal experience—which is of course not authoritative scripture but which nevertheless is very real to me—that things that happen in the assembly against my convictions threaten unity more than things that people believe and do at other times.

Marks of a denomination

I’ve spent a couple of hours lately in a book I’d almost forgotten I had — it’s called Redigging the Wells and is primarily a treatment of the nondenominational ideals within the American Restoration, or Stone-Campbell, Movement.  In the early pages of RtW, Monroe Hawley lists the marks of a denomination.  See what you think.  A denomination, he says, has

  • a legislative or executive organization foreign to God’s word
  • an authoritative creed
  • a basic doctrine that contradicts God’s word
  • a distinctive name
  • a sectarian attitude—“party spirit” in which first allegiance is to the group

For me, three of those five hold water pretty well:  when a religious group has a (1) political organization on top of the local church; when it concocts and inflicts a (2) creed, or interprets a preexisting one; and when it has a (3) distinctive name, it appears denominational.  So much of the religious world has accepted the machine that is denominational Christianity that few would find much problem with any of these things.  To many, if you’re not in a denomination, you may be a rebel or renegade.  But it is the anti-biblical denominationalism around me — and, yes, in my own Yellow-pages collection of churches! — that causes me to long for something more primitive, more pure.

A supra-church organization, which may be known as a conference, a synod, a general assembly, or something similar, probably isn’t essentially problematic.  But it runs great risk of getting in the way of God’s business, God’s Kingdom.  Simple, pure Christianity can be materially hampered by processes.  (Sounds a lot like colleges and the beauracracy of democratic government to me.  Did I say that out loud?)  We shouldn’t care all that much what the president or bishop of the general assembly of this or that church decrees, unless he is quoting scripture with great attention to context and God’s will.  And, chances are, in his run for the office, great expense and other resources were sacrificed on the altar of ambition, compromising something else more important in the Kingdom.

Next:  I definitely wish there were no “authoritative creed” in churches.  It’s OK, I suppose, to list “things that I believe.”  But when a church lists things that we believe, it is treading on dangerous ground unless those things come directly from a contextually sound biblical extraction.  As I find fault with statements on websites and in church literature (and recognize that most everyone will find something contentious in my own writings and lists), I know that some would call me iconoclastic or heretical, but the reality is that I’ve not found a single creed I can fully accept without scripturally based reservation.  Further, as long as God gives me breath, I will encourage fidelity to Him and His scripture over humanly devised statements.  The so-called “Apostles’ Creed” and the “Nicene Creed” don’t have a lot of error in them, although there are perhaps a couple of misleading statements.  The need for even such time-tested creedal statements as these is questionable, at best.

Third:  I wish there there were no exclusive names.  A geographically situated name is not bad, and I recognize that most church names aren’t used now for the purpose of excluding and delineating.  But in practicality, “Jones Memorial Methodist Church” separates whatever serious believers may be in that group from the believers down the road at the Bible Baptist Fellowship. To be in the first, you would have to accept, at some level, the tenets of Methodism, for instance.  So, names of churches are often exclusive, to some extent, and this is not a good thing.

I once found myself in chest-deep hot water after I preached a sermon on the denominationalism within us. Of course, most religious groups would have found that a non-issue.  But to suggest that there’s denominationalism in the Church of Christ is tantamount saying to the Continental Congress in 1787 that there’s tyranny at the root of the Declaration of Independence.  I eventually climbed out of the pool of hot water, but the elders, many of whom would have agreed with me in concept, never asked me to preach again.  I’ve listened to the recording of that sermon a couple of times in the years that have transpired.  And I still believe what I said was on target, although a couple of expressions I used were needlessly incendiary.

Here’s the essence of the matter of the naming aspect of denominating:  first, denominating means, literally, to name.  And to name a church is not in itself wrong.  Geographical or generic names can be used as identifiers without exclusive intent or effect.  But many names are used in sectarian ways, and that is part of the problem of denominating.

Next, we’ll look in a little more depth at the third and fifth points–points whose truths I find a bit more nebulous, or squirrelly–take your pick!