‘No matter how broken we may be’
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As a lad, I remember Churches of Christ having nearly identical orders of worship.
We sang from hymnals and studied from the quarterlies of but a few publishers. Women wore hats on Sunday mornings (never slacks), and men were always in suits and ties. Truth was defended in debates with “the denominations” and among ourselves when threats to our harmony arose.
I have witnessed the passing of this uniformity over my eight decades in our fellowship. The current diversity is clear to readers of this newspaper’s recent articles that ask the question, “In 2018, what is a Church of Christ?”
Though an admitted oversimplification, “conservative” folks among us remain very close in beliefs and worship practices to the churches of my youth, while “progressives” have reexamined our traditional understandings and have adopted some new worship practices and attitudes toward other faith groups.
Some believe that progressives have abandoned the authority of the Scriptures and are no longer members of the church.
Progressives, meanwhile, may see their conservative brethren as short-sighted, unwilling to study. Many have decided that they can’t let such brethren hold them back from making changes.
Some editors, preachers and writers seem bent on division. Sadly, this development stands in stark contrast to the ideals of our shared heritage — the Stone-Campbell American Restoration Movement of the early 1800s.
The movement’s followers sought to foster the mission of spreading the Gospel. They wanted Christian denominations to join together in evangelistic efforts based on their shared core beliefs. And they refused to allow divisive issues to interfere with fellowship.
“When you’re sure you are right, it’s not easy to seek unity.”
Alas, this cooperation was never achieved. The mission was hindered then — as it is now — by the lack of unity for which Jesus prayed in John 17.
Churches of Christ have inherited the divisive tendencies that developed later in the 19th century from the desire to restore detailed traits perceived in the epistles. This resulted in split after split — Disciples of Christ, Independent Christian Churches, non-institutional churches, one-cup congregations, the International Churches of Christ and so many more.
Our fellowship grew for more than a century, but mostly from persuading believers in denominations to accept our inferences and deductions and less from building faith in non-believers. We’re caught in constant controversy as to what God requires of us, what is permissible.
When you’re sure you are right, it’s not easy to seek unity. We need to recognize our differences and live with each other or else. Or else we will fragment further, becoming merely sects or splinter groups that once were part of a vibrant, noble movement.
I believe we can and should remain together. Conservatives in our fellowship may consider this view heretical. Progressives may consider it naive. Maybe they’re both right. Or neither.
Some ideas for fostering unity:
• We can agree that Churches of Christ, even with this broad spectrum among us, are worth preserving as a great brotherhood.
• We can stand strong for the principle of autonomy.
• We can reexamine the principles of our Restoration heritage.
• We can avoid being harsh with our brethren who have held to the old paths or who have reached new understandings. We need not tarnish each other with hurtful language.
• We can study the long-held positions that others have reexamined so that we may better understand those who have reached different understandings of the Word.
• We can refocus on soul-winning, disciple-making and building faith in non-believers. It’s hard, but possible.
• We can join with our brethren in service projects. In 2005, I spent 10 days in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina along with many wonderful brothers and sisters from all over the country — and from across the brotherhood spectrum. We worked together in Jesus’ name, focusing on the work to be done.
• We can agree on fundamentals of the Gospel and not allow perfect and complete agreement on all issues to be the enemy of unity and fellowship.
• We can remember that not one of us deserves salvation. We are reckoned righteous by grace through faith. Wherever God has children, we have brothers and sisters.
A long-departed hero of mine used to say that we may consider those who disagree with us as “erring brethren.” Then he would ask, “Is there any other kind?”
Are we not all erring? So, let us love and accept one another — or the “or else” will surely come true.
WAYNE NEWLAND is a writer, a retired educator and a member of the Greater Portland Church of Christ in South Portland, Maine. This piece is adapted from his 12-page booklet “Judge not Another’s Servant (Romans 14:4) — The Broadening Spectrum of Churches of Christ Today.” Contact Newland to request a free copy at [email protected].
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