The Chance To Embrace Our Rhetoric (May – June 1996)

By Matt Dabbs

by Rubel Shelly
May – June, 1996

Churches of Christ have always talked a good game; our rhetoric is about Jesus, unity, and nondenominational faith. Our history has not honored the rhetoric; it is filled with issues, division, and sectarianism.

Alexander Campbell moved in a wide circle of denominational associations and used the platform that afforded him to call for the abolition of division among the people of God. We glance backward and honor his memory. When Max Lucado moves in similar wide circles today, a venomous magazine denounces him as a compromiser.

Jesse P. Sewell spoke at Abilene Christian College in 1923 to proclaim “freedom” as the glory and greatness of the plea for New Testament Christianity advanced by his brethren. His name is spoken with respect across the great state of Texas. Yet the echoing of Sewell’s statement at the 1996 Abilene lectures was heard as a call to arms by many who are still buzzing, preaching and threatening the university over it.

David Lipscomb occasionally preached among the Methodists and more frequently still among churches of his own fellowship that used instrumental music. He both advocated and defended such practices in the Gospel Advocate. People in my part of the United States still honor the memory of Lipscomb, but Foy E. Wallace, Jr. took control of the Advocate in 1930 and committed it to a right-wing agenda that repudiates Lipscomb’s legacy.

T. B. Larimore was popular on the evangelistic circuit, partly because of the duets he and his wife sang wherever he went to preach. People in Alabama still preserve his memory, home, and name with respect. A brotherhood paper informs us, however, that singing other than congregational is unauthorized in Scripture and sinful.

N. B. Hardeman preached in the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville to proclaim the nobility of attempting to be “Christians only” and simultaneously to repudiate the arrogance of claiming to be the only Christians. Hardeman is still called the “Prince of Preachers” by people who gather at the school bearing his name to denounce anyone who says the same thing today.

I can only speak for one, but I am through mouthing rhetoric that belies my actual practice.

Some of my closest friends are men who pastor churches whose history is known to the Church of Christ only because we have had hateful debates with earlier generations of their Baptist or Pentecostal predecessors. They are as embarrassed and apologetic over those debates as most of us are. I pray there will be no more of them and that we will, instead, learn to spend time together in prayer. I pray that the communities in which we live will stop looking for us to have our next fight with the Methodists or Christian Church and begin to expect us to work together to help our towns and cities be better places to live.

Churches of Christ don’t have our theology or practice perfected. Neither will ever be perfect! Without abandoning the distinctive things we believe and do, we can still be in constructive dialogue with people from other backgrounds. We can affirm and benefit from enterprises such as Promise Keepers and Community Bible Study without having to make apologies to our own fellowship. We can embrace again the early history of our movement in having positive rather than negative relationships with the denominations around us.

As one Baptist preacher wrote me recently: “God is good at bringing folks together that religious systems have long separated.” Want to guess where we met? We had met a week earlier when we both spoke at a conference organized by charismatics!

If people in the Church of Christ have anything worthwhile to contribute to the contemporary religious scene (and I think we do!), we must move outside the circles of our own buildings, schools, and brotherhood. Against the scare-tactic cry that people who do so are leaving our fellowship or trying to say there is no difference that matters among the beliefs of various groups, we must make clear what we are doing. We are simply trying to change our isolationist posture and negative-pugilistic image. We wish to be heard by others, and we try to earn the right to be heard by hearing them—for we have many things to learn. We are willing to worship, study, and pray with anyone who makes the same confession we do that Jesus Christ is Lord—believing that differences in our worship, organization, and the like are less important than our common affirmation that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.

In this issue of Wineskins, we have chosen to hear from some outside our own walls. We have had other insiders write about their perspectives on the direction our movement needs to go in the future. We share these things not to provide final answers that our time and place in history is searching to find. We are only raising the questions for public discussion and hoping to make a contribution to answering them.

In the things published in this issue, I hear a call for us to embrace the rhetoric we have used for years and to put it into practice. It is high time, in other words, for us to walk our talk. It’s a biblical idea whose time has come.

As more and more groups around us are moved by God to affirm the need to break down the walls of religious division, let’s abandon the sectarianism of our own recent history and participate in the process.

Rubel Shelly preached for the Family of God at Woodmont Hills in Nashville, Tennessee, from 1978-2005. During that time he also taught at Lipscomb University and Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. He holds a Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University, and is the author or co-author of many books, including The Jesus Community: A Theology of Relational Faith and The Second Incarnation. He presently lives in the Greater Detroit area where he teaches philosophy and religion at Rochester College. He is known as a community leader in Nashville and has served with such groups as the AIDS Education Committee of the American Red Cross, a medical relief project to an 1100-bed children’s hospital in Moscow called “From Nashville With Love,” and “Seeds of Kindness.”

He is the author of more than 20 books, including several which have been translated into languages such as Korean, Japanese, Portuguese, Italian, French, and Russian. He has published widely in religious journals. He is co-editor with Mike Cope of the online magazine New Wineskins. Shelly has lectured on Christian apologetics, ethics, and medical ethics on university campuses across America and in several foreign countries. He has done short-term mission work in such places as Kenya, the Czech Republic, Croatia, Bulgaria, and Russia. He was educated at Harding University (B.A.), Harding Graduate School of Religion (M.A., M. Th.), and Vanderbilt University (M.A., Ph.D.). He is married to the former Myra Shappley, and they are the parents of three children: Mrs. David (Michelle) Arms, Tim, and Tom. [RubelShelly.com]

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1584 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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