How then should we interact?
Months earlier, the churches formed a coalition, 4 Amarillo, which has provided school supplies to students in need and engaged in other community works.
Nearly 840 miles east, a Church of Christ in Paducah, Ky., also got media attention when a billboard appeared on the city’s south side with the church’s address and four questions aimed at Baptists.
“Did John the Baptist authorize building the Baptist church?” one question asked, citing scriptures from Matthew underneath.
A member of the church paid for the sign out of his own funds, WPSD reported. The TV station also interviewed a Church of Christ minister who said he agreed with the message but not the method.
How should Churches of Christ — which claim the Bible as their only authority — interact with denominations and faith groups that also claim Jesus yet practice their faith in ways that differ from the pattern church members see in Scripture?
Opinions in Churches of Christ across the U.S. vary from cooperation to confrontation, said church members interviewed by The Christian Chronicle.
Churches of Christ have roots in the American Restoration Movement, which began on the U.S. frontier in the 1790s and called for Christians of all denominations to rid themselves of man-made creeds, following the Bible only.
More than two centuries later, the debate in Churches of Christ over how to relate to other faith groups has intensified, church members said, as young believers eschew the “brand loyalty” of their parents and join community churches outside the fellowship — churches that also claim the Restoration ideal of non-denominational Christianity.
The phenomenon is “almost breathtakingly ironic,” said Libby Weed, principal of Brentwood Christian School in Austin, Texas. “Our movement began as an effort to unite Christians — to do away with sectarian ‘branding’ and be Christians only. What a jarring paradox that, in the minds of many, we in Churches of Christ want to draw rigid lines of exclusion and impose boundaries that Scripture does not impose.”
Recent efforts to break down those barriers — such as 4 Amarillo — are not unprecedented, said Steve Sandifer, pastoral minister for the Southwest Central Church of Christ in Houston.
“This church has, for 70 years, cooperated with others in Kingdom matters,” he said. “During World War II, we cooperated with the YMCA in serving the needs of soldiers. … We cooperate with area churches in staffing and supporting a hunger coalition food and clothing distribution center.
“None of these requires us to deny who we are or compromise what we believe,” he said. “In a major urban area like Houston, it is not Churches of Christ against the Baptists. It is Christians trying to share Jesus with Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, Zoroastrians, Jews and cultural pagans.”
But Park Linscomb, minister for the Manchester Church of Christ in New Hampshire, called for caution when cooperating with other faith groups. Such interaction may cause confusion among new Church of Christ members, he said, on doctrinal matters such as baptism by immersion. Churches of Christ believe the practice is essential for salvation. Many denominations do not.
“To work with other religious groups implies agreement — or at least no disagreement — to other religious groups, to the world and, sometimes, to the weak brother or sister,” he said. “Our brotherhood has usually refused to participate in Billy Graham crusades for such reasons — especially as they professed a ‘worship at the church of your choice’ teaching.”
SERVING THE HOMELESS, PRAYING TOGETHER
Across the U.S., Churches of Christ cooperate on various levels with other faith groups:
• Congregations including Southwest Central in Houston, the Manhattan Church of Christ in New York and the Tempe Church of Christ in Arizona participate in interfaith organizations that help the homeless.
• Several ministers for Churches of Christ serve as hospital or police chaplains, sometimes supervised by ministers from various denominations.
• Some ministers for Churches of Christ participate in prayer groups alongside denominational leaders.
“I’ve learned to love these people and appreciate their approaches to theology and church life,” said Keith Roberts, preaching minister for the Calhoun Church of Christ in Louisiana, who has participated in prayer groups for more than a decade. “But it has also made me appreciate my heritage in the Restoration Movement even more.
“We have met only to pray together for our community,” he added. “We almost never talk doctrine.”
• In Austin, Texas, 342 churches, including representatives of 13 denominations, took part in “Explore God,” a recent multimedia campaign. Organizers designed the campaign to tackle often-difficult questions ministers hear, such as, “How can a loving God allow suffering?”
The campaign’s website, www.explore god.com, was promoted on billboards across the city as part of “a media blitz the likes of which Austin has never seen,” said Roger McCown, minister for the Brentwood Oaks Church of Christ.
The congregation participated in the effort. From their individual pulpits, ministers, including McCown, preached sermon series on “big questions” raised by the campaign.
“We can and should be involved in these things,” McCown said. “We give away nothing and we gain much.”
• The Tempe Church of Christ rents its building on Sunday nights to a community church with a growing outreach to students at Arizona State University. The community church was violating the fire codes at its previous facility, said Blake Jones, connecting minister for the Tempe Church of Christ.
• In Spokane, Wash., 400 people gathered for a recent all-area worship, hosted by Churches of Christ.
Organizers invited Churches of Christ and several Christian Churches, which also claim the Restoration Movement as part of their heritage.
“The Churches of Christ led the service with a cappella music,” said Patrick Newbill, minister for the Westside Church of Christ in Airway Heights, Wash. “It was a good way to reach out to others who don’t believe exactly as we do.”
‘DENOMINATIONALISM IS A SIN’
In Amarillo, ministers for the Central Church of Christ cited Jesus’ prayer in John 17 as a rationale for cooperation with other faith groups. Before his crucifixion, Christ prayed for his disciples and “for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one.”
“We’re really taking John 17 seriously,” Stanglin said. The goal, he added, is stated by Jesus in his prayer: “so that the world may believe.”
Jay Kelley, evangelist for the Austin Street Church of Christ in Levelland, Texas, agrees with that idea, though he has come to different conclusions about cooperating with denominations.
“Denominationalism is a sin — whether it’s practiced by ‘us’ or ‘them,’” he said. “It is in direct conflict with the prayer of Jesus in John 17. Because of this … I have very little to do with organized ecumenical activities that are designed to accept all beliefs, unchallenged.”
He does, however, participate in activities that encourage spiritual growth. While preaching in Kansas, he helped launch a Bible study with several denominational preachers in which each presented a lesson from the book of Romans and allowed time for the others to ask questions.
“I believe many of our early pioneer preachers had the right idea,” he said. “There must be a willingness to change when Scripture demands it, while being unwilling to bend on scriptural doctrine.
“While this hasn’t been the most successful viewpoint in terms of ecumenical unity, I believe it has been very successful in terms of reaching individuals with the unencumbered Gospel of Christ.”