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Fighting untrue characterizations: a Christian response to Nancy Grace

We were shocked to hear the Church of Christ characterized as “sort of like a cult” to millions of viewers of the Nancy Grace show recently. Grace, a former prosecuting attorney, has a nightly interview program on CNN. She was interviewing several people about the slaying of minister Matthew Winkler in Selmer, Tenn. When she asked a Baptist minister what he knew about the Church of Christ, he said, “The Church of Christ is a relatively new church. … It’s, unfortunately, a very legalistic sect, and they tend to use methods of intimidation and pressure.” As for salvation, “all other people are condemned to hell,” he said. Finally, he mentioned that our view of baptism is that one is “doomed to hell” if not “baptized by one of their ministers.” Grace responded, “You make it sound like a cult.” The minister said, “It kind of is a borderline cult, unfortunately.” Since then, speculation about what might be wrong with the minister’s family, his congregation and churches of Christ as a fellowship has traveled from Larry King to the National Enquirer to Internet blogs around the world.

The worst of thesecharacterizations and insinuations ranges from charges of a being a cult todismissing us as mindless “fundamentalists” and conservatives.
This is not the samechurch we know and love. It’s painful and frustrating to find our congregationsso seriously misunderstood, especially since we recognize the untold labors oflove and ministry, teaching, worship and community involvement that go oncontinually, to say nothing of millions of dollars we donate to the poor andneedy around the world. We know these charges to be false, inaccuratestereotypes not based on fact.
The biblical view ofour relationship to broader culture is complex, filled with tensions andpromises of misunderstanding and persecution. The truth is, Christ’s churchwill always be countercultural, and its teachings include issues raised in thecurrent media melee such as gender, baptism and social control.
It’s important to behonest with our culture, which in this moment seems to be interested in who weare and what we teach. Generally speaking, the majority of our churches take aconservative approach to the place of women in public preaching and church leadership,believing that to be a biblical view. To be honest, we also have to say beliefsand practices range widely across a spectrum — including a few congregationswith women ministers or deacons, but many more who give women leadership inservice and teaching other women and children.
We believe thatbaptism is of critical importance in the gospel. It is a “clothing of ourselveswith Christ,” an encounter with his blood, a way to share in his death, burialand resurrection. A few Churches of Christ may teach salvation as a work, butthe vast majority we know understand that our salvation is by grace throughChrist.
No one shouldapologize for drawing believers to understand the centrality of baptism inScripture.
Cults browbeat theirmembers, use coercive practices and police the borders of their group forinterlopers. We must admit that not all Christians treat one another withgenuine respect, humility and Christ-like charity. Some go to great lengths totry to justify their unloving behavior and judgmental attitudes “in the serviceof truth.”
Where spiritualintimidation of any kind has been used, it is wrong and calls for repentance.In fact, during the 1980s, mainstream Churches of Christ pulled away from theInternational Churches of Christ because of their unwise use of social control,which they have since rejected and taken steps to root out.
Do we fall short ofthe glorious kingdom God envisioned? Yes, we do.
Still, even with allour faults, the church we know and love is a network of independentcongregations practicing Christian devotion and responding in love when ourneighbors — of every religious, political, economic and cultural stripe — hurt.
During this mediamelee, thousands of Christians were busy praying for and serving the Fourth Streetchurch without any fanfare or attention. They recognized the enormity of thetragedy and responded in love.
We must neither beaddicted to the approval of the wider culture, nor stubbornly picking fightsover doctrinal details. If we love, our difference will be noted. While thechurch we love is countercultural and always will be, we should show the heartof Christ to our culture in our actions and attitudes.

Asfor the media’s recent treatment — beyond good-spirited efforts to educate themabout the church, as Rubel Shelly tried to do on one of Grace’s subsequentprograms — Jesus reminds us that such experiences should be cause for joy:“Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say allkinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great isyour reward in heaven.”

May 1, 2006

Filed under: Editorial Staff Reports

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