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If you are looking for a book of hope during troubling times for Churches of Christ, it is understandable if the word “elegy” in a subtitle gives you pause.
And if you do proceed, do not be surprised to read, “Our churches are dying.”
Jack Reese, former dean of Bible for Abilene Christian University and current executive minister for the Northside Church of Christ in San Antonio, uses that word and that sentence in “At the Blue Hole: Elegy for a Church on the Edge.” And he manages to do so with a sense of hope.
Reese recounts formative stories, personalities and principals that shaped Churches of Christ in the early days of the Restoration Movement and shows the influence they continue to have. Of particular concern is how Churches of Christ drifted from an early and intense focus on unity to a stringent and demanding call for conformity. This shift is illustrated using three key stories.
The first happened in Lexington, Ky., in 1831, when members of the Stone and Campbell movements joined forces. Despite continued disagreement and strong personalities on each side, Barton Stone and “Raccoon” John Smith extended their hands in fellowship. Both sides valued unity and were willing to extend grace.
The second story is the funeral of T.B. Larimore in 1929. Larimore, a highly regarded preacher in the Restoration Movement, was known as a peacemaker. Helping carry Larimore’s casket was a young Foy E. Wallace. Wallace later emerged as a far more contentious preacher whose focus was on conformity, Reese writes.
For Reese, Larimore and Wallace represent the tension between early Restoration principles of unity and restoration, freedom and conformity.
This tension is illustrated by the third story, at a 1973 meeting in Memphis between representatives of the Herald of Truth (Landon Saunders, Batsell Barrett Baxter, Harold Hazelip and Lynn Anderson) and concerned leaders who feared the program and its speakers were drifting from key doctrines. What was intended as a conversation turned into an inquisition, Reese writes. The spirit of unity and grace present at the Lexington meeting in 1831 had seemingly disappeared.
Behind each story is a series of personalities and events that further impacted the drift. Reese shows how cultural and geographical forces influenced conversations and impacted change. The book is filled with interesting conversations about Alexander Campbell, President James Garfield, the Civil War, Walter Scott and other significant topics.
What does any of this have to do with hope for the future of Churches of Christ?
The book’s title references a spring in San Antonio that gives life to the city and connects to the Guadalupe River. Just as the Blue Hole connects to a deep and hidden source of water beneath it, the best parts of our Restoration heritage connect us to resources that can and must guide us through current challenges: unity, restoration, reasoning, listening, generosity and apocalyptic living. These resources naturally grow from the self-denial envisioned in our strong commitment to baptism and communion.
Reese’s book will spark strong reactions. Readers who emphasize the side of our DNA focused on restoration and conformity to New Testament forms will likely be uncomfortable with Reese’s views on the Holy Spirit and instrumental music and his understanding of boundaries.
Readers who stress the freedom and unity side of our DNA may push back against any suggestion of boundaries or conformity. After all, the spirits of Larimore and Wallace live on.
The tension between unity and restoration is left partially unresolved. Reese believes the restoration of forms and structures has value, “but only if they are connected to the center, only if the how grows out of the why.”
In my experience, both sides of the debate claim such a centered connection. Reese’s work is an important and helpful contribution to the conversation. We cannot ignore the tensions of our history, nor can we pretend they have no bearing on how we think and act today. However, the ultimate power and future of the church rests with a sovereign, resurrecting God, not us. Therein lies the hope for what some people see as a dying church.
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