Big Questions: About this series
In the United States, Churches of Christ are declining. Every…
Churches of Christ struggle to express our place in Christian heritage.
Are we Catholic? No, but we believe in one apostolic church.
Are we Protestants? Not exactly, but that seems closer to the mark.
Are we the first-century church restored after a 17-century hiatus? We often say so, but it feels like amnesia to pretend the intervening years never happened.
This question is the riddle Leonard Allen tackles in his latest book, “In the Great Stream: Imagining Churches of Christ in the Christian Tradition.”
Allen, dean of the College of Bible and Ministry at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tenn., brings his extensive knowledge of church history to the task of articulating a historically meaningful identity for the Churches of Christ. He began this discussion in “Discovering our Roots: The Ancestry of the Church of Christ” (1988).
Allen’s repertoire is deep and wide. “In the Great Stream” draws from church historians such as Jaroslav Pelikan, Thomas Oden and Everett Ferguson as well as philosophers like Charles Taylor.
The result is three nuanced conclusions: First, Churches of Christ do not neatly fit into the historical Protestant category. Second, we cannot ignore the historical context of our identity. And third, we must embrace our larger Christian heritage to maintain any identity.
Allen portrays “tradition” as a living voice rather than an iron shackle. Christian tradition (or orthodoxy) is equally threatening to both conservative and progressive voices among Churches of Christ.
For conservatives, Christian history reminds us that the status quo developed a few decades ago is merely a blip in the two millennia story of Christianity. It is hard to insist on “the way we have always done it” when “always” accounts for only 3 percent of the total.
For progressives, history reminds us that orthodoxy has stood largely unchanged in its core tenets until now. Thus it is hubris to redefine Christian thought radically and cancel the faithful voices of the past.
By way of critique, I would mention that Allen is narrowly focusing on the earliest centuries of church history. Like the old motto Anglican theologians often recite, Allen is influenced by one canon, two testaments, three creeds, four general councils and five centuries.
Medieval Christianity is a difficult period, but it seems unfair to root our heritage in Irenaeus and Tertullian (“near the head of the stream”) without hearing Aquinas, Anselm and Francis.
That said, I wholeheartedly recommend “In the Great Stream” to anyone wanting a better grasp of the shape our identity might take. Taking a look at our past will give us courage and insight into the murky future of Christianity, specifically Churches of Christ.
As Allen explains, our churches must learn to be confessors of the ancient faith. “Such confession, in a culture of lightness where truth is mostly private and personal,” he writes, “is deeply counter to the dominant spirit of our times and deeply formative to our faith.”
BENJAMIN J. WILLIAMS is the senior minister for the Central Church of Christ in Ada, Okla. A contributor for So We Speak ministries, he specializes in Christian worldview, apologetics and faith-science dialogue.
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