Follow-Up to ‘A Church Shameful to Christ’ (last post)

Upon reading and re-reading my last post, I feel a few follow-up comments are warranted.

First, I admit my emotions may have come through a little too forcefully in that post. I do not retract anything that I said, but this is an emotional topic for me. Also, the past few weeks of my life have been anything but normal or settled, and perhaps the events of the past couple of weeks made my trigger finger a little too edgy. Sometimes I feel a need to apologize for unkind words or thoughts, and while I do not think I crossed any lines, I do want to offer some additional thoughts that might help explain the rawness of my last post.

I have said repeatedly that I am a child of the American Restoration Movement, and I not only am I deeply moved by the goals of that movement, I am proud of the better angels of that movement. I am aware no group of people throughout history has been perfect, and the members of the Restoration Movement are not exception to that rule. We have had our black sheep, and our closets are more than full of rotting skeletons. What transpired 200 years ago almost to the year, on the Western Reserve of Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Ohio, and south to Tennessee is nothing short of an American miracle. I am grateful to be an heir of that miracle.

The tragedy of the Movement is that we stopped moving. The focus of Alexander Campbell, Barton W. Stone and their compatriots was virtually entirely focused on the externals of ecclesiology. We focused on how to enter the church (baptism) and what one received in the process (forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit). We focused on church polity and decorum (proper worship and congregational government). In other words, over ninety percent of our efforts were focused on the visible congregation, how it was administered, how one entered it, and how one behaved in its assemblies. What was virtually non-existent was any sustained focus on what might be termed the spiritual nature of the Christian life. Exceptions exist, but, as I said, the vast, overwhelming majority of the foci of the early Restoration leaders was on the visible aspects of the congregation.

The problem with that emphasis is, once it was “restored,” once it was deemed to have been brought back into line with New Testament teaching, what else was there to restore? So, we quit restoring and starting fighting. Having decided that we were going to make our stand over jots and tittles, we started civil wars over who could count the most jots and decide the significance of the tiniest tittles.

For proof of that assertion, I point to how our fellowship has distinguished itself in topics that are generally considered to be of biblical or ecclesial importance. Scholars who are associated with the Churches of Christ have distinguished themselves almost exclusively in the areas of New Testament studies and church history, especially within the first three centuries of the church. There are a much smaller number of scholars or authors who are respected in Old Testament studies. Once you leave the fields of textual studies and early church history, the number of scholars, or even of respected authors, from the Churches of Christ virtually vanishes.

  • I know of no member of the Churches of Christ who is respected and recognized in the field of the spiritual disciplines (prayer, fasting, meditation, contemplation, giving, – some authors provide a dozen or more specific spiritual disciplines).
  • I know of no member of the Churches of Christ who is respected and recognized in the field of spiritual direction.
  • I know of no member of the Churches of Christ who is respected and recognized in the field Christian ethics.
  • I can only think of one peer-recognized author in the field of biblical theology.
  • I know of no member of the Churches of Christ who is respected and recognized in the field of serious, biblical ecumenical work.
  • The last of the great revival preachers among the Churches of Christ, those who could roar like Amos and weep like Jeremiah, are all retired or long dead.

Now, just because I do not know of such authors or scholars does not mean they do not exist. But I do read broadly, and the absence of authors from my own spiritual family in these and other areas is deeply disturbing to me. We have fought for decades to “have a place at the conversation table,” and seemingly at the moment we were granted that place, we just quit trying. Or, those who were invited to the table are just so embarrassed to be associated with the Church of Christ that they just rubber stamp what everyone else is saying. That is not ecumenism. That is cowardice.

What I do see is a widening and deepening chasm among factions within the church. On the left I see an avalanche of writing and teaching that has fully accepted the core tenets of evangelicalism. This is actually the full born fruit of Alexander Campbell’s later years and philosophy – “If you cannot beat ’em, join ’em.” In that sense these liberals are pure Campbellites, and they are utterly clueless about what that term means.

On the reactionary right I see the full grown fruit of the poisonous legalism that was introduced by such journals as The Heretic Detector (yes, that was an actual journal). Self-proclaimed guardians of the faith have made a career out of “outing” such blasphemous practices as raising hands or clapping during the singing of a song, having a functioning coffee pot during a Bible class, or, heaven forbid, singing a song during the participation of the Lord’s Supper (you cannot participate in two acts of worship simultaneously!).

Somehow, after two millennia of church history, we have succeeded in re-establishing both the Sadducees and the Pharisees.

When I first started my Doctor of Ministry degree, I had a private conversation with one of the directors of the program. He asked me what I wanted out of my specific study. After a considerable amount of embarrassed humming and hawing, I managed to weakly blurt out, “I want to help the Church of Christ be the church of Christ again.” He allowed that was a pretty noble quest.

Which brings me to my last post, “A Church Shameful to Christ.” It as an emotional outpouring, I admit. But I am pretty emotional right now. I see a church that is increasingly becoming more political (on both ends of the spectrum) – and simultaneously becoming less influential. I see a church that is doing everything that it can to appear to the world to be acceptable and popular. At the same time I see a retrenchment into attitudes that were divisive the first time around, and are proving to be even more divisive today. I see a church that is increasingly becoming embarrassed to be associated with the Bible (instead of Bible lectureships, we now have such foofy lectureships as “Summit” and “Harbor.”) The presidents of the universities and colleges associated with the Churches of Christ have displayed an unwillingness to stand up to the LGBTQ cabal that is repugnant, quite frankly. We are preparing more men (and women!) to preach in evangelical churches than we are men who are committed to Restoration principles.

As the church universal sinks deeper and deeper into utter irrelevancy, the message of the Restoration Movement is a clear and penetrating beacon in an otherwise wretched night. But, we cannot keep fighting battles that were fought and decided centuries ago and yet still consider ourselves faithful to Jesus. We have to move on past the jots and the tittles. Without surrendering an inch of the gains we have made in our biblical and historical studies (which are prodigious, and worth promoting), we must, we absolutely must, move forward.

We must return to discipleship. We must return to Christ. We must return to the basics of what it means to “put off the old self, and to put on the new creation.” We must lay aside the basic fundamentals and move on to a full humanity in Christ Jesus. I do not begrudge my forefathers one little bit, but in order to honor them I must keep the restoration flame burning. I cannot build a city where they merely pitched a tent.

God will not judge this generation, or any generation, on the basis of the successes or failures of the preceding generation. The church of the 21st century will be judged by how we both live and proclaim the cross of Jesus to a bent and broken and dying world.

Correct me if I am wrong, but I just don’t see us doing that. That makes me emotional – and sometimes when I write I let off more steam than I generate light.

If I offended, please forgive. If I spoke truth – let’s get it right.

In everything, let us ascend lower.

Author: Paul Smith

Paul Smith was born in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He holds the Bachelor of Science in Youth Ministry, Master of Biblical Studies and Master of Divinity, all from Abilene Christian University; and the Doctor of Ministry from Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. Paul's passion is in teaching and preaching the gospel. Beyond the study of the Bible, his main academic interest is in the life and theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He is an unashamed mountain-goat, and longs to spend his time with his feet in a cold trout stream.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.