The Future of Churches of Christ (Jan-Feb 2010)

By Matt Dabbs

By Rex Butts

I am suggesting if the Churches of Christ wish to have a healthy and missional future, we must restore the function of the early church and not necessarily its form. By restoring the function of the early church, we are placing discipleship as our primary objective. That is, we are striving as a body of local churches for our churches (and every individual Christian within the local church) to live just as Jesus lived, to think as Jesus thought which leads us to speak and act as Jesus did. We sought to restore the form of the earliest church and along with that came a bunch of hermeneutical assumptions too numerous to go into at this point but are nevertheless not without question. The belief was that the restoration of the primitive church form would result in Christian unity. However, that has not been the case.”

In the most recent edition of The Christian Chronicle, it reported the top story of 2009 was the decline of attendance among Churches of Christ. It is no secret that our fellowship has been going through changes over the last twenty-five years.[1] Now that we know the overall membership is in decline, it prompts the question of what is the future of the Churches of Christ. The question really asks of us, what must take place for us to have a future that thrives with mission and kingdom impact in the world rather than continued decline (which will only result in missional impotency). Obviously any detailed answer to the question would require at minimum a very long essay. However, I want to discuss one aspect which I believe would firmly ground us for the possibility of a healthy and missional future.

The Churches of Christ belong to a movement generally known as The American Restoration Movement which has its beginnings in the late 1700’s to early 1800’s with Thomas and Alexander Campbell along with Barton W. Stone. In broad terms, the movement took off with the ideal of restoring the primitive apostolic or “New Testament” Christianity in hopes of uniting all professing Christians from among various sects as one body of Christians. As the movement gained more momentum, the mantra became “Christians only but not the only Christians.” This expressed the idea that members of this young movement wanted to be no more and no less than a Christian as defined by scripture but did not want to regard other professing Christians outside the movement as non-Christian. I believe this was a noble cause and it is one I still believe in.

As time went on, the movement seemed to become more preoccupied with the restoration of primitive Christianity which meant restoring the church to its first-century form. This is critical because that came to be the essence of our identity…that we were seeking to reproduce the form of the early church. I now think this was a mistake on which I will elaborate and then suggest what needs to happen to correct that mistake.

We sought to restore the form of the earliest church and along with that came a bunch of hermeneutical assumptions too numerous to go into at this point but are nevertheless not without question. The belief was that the restoration of the primitive church form would result in Christian unity. However, that has not been the case. As the Brits would say, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. In the attempt to pursue resotrationism from this trajectory, the original movement has splintered into several fragments with other smaller divisions occurring in these fragments. Further, there have been numerous local churches that have divided and split as a result of differing views over what the primitive church form was.[2]

Could it be possible that we should never have sought to restore the early church form to the Nth degree that it was pursued? For a movement that sought to go by the Bible alone, there is no place in scripture that calls for the church to follow any other historical church whether it is of the first century or some other historical period. Scripture teaches us that disciples of Jesus are called to follow Jesus (cf.”Matt 4.19; Mk 1.17; Jn 13.14-17). In fact, that is what discipleship is…following Jesus, learning to live as Jesus lived. I believe this is what the primitive church sought to do, follow Jesus. Following Jesus was their function and we learn from them not to see how we can look just like them but to see how insights from their triumphs and failures as disciples can help us in the quest to function as Jesus functioned.

Thus I am suggesting if the Churches of Christ wish to have a healthy and missional future, we must restore the <i>function</i> of the early church and not necessarily its form.[3] By restoring the function of the early church, we are placing discipleship as our primary objective. That is, we are striving as a body of local churches for our churches (and every individual Christian within the local church) to live just as Jesus lived, to think as Jesus thought which leads us to speak and act as Jesus did.

Will we be perfect at such an endeavor? We never have been and never will be – and neither was the apostolic church. We are reminded though, that God has worked and still does work through jars of clay. However, in our twenty-first century North American/Western culture that is increasingly becoming religiously pluralistic, skeptical towards Christianity, and uncertain about any truth claim that cannot be tangibly seen and experienced, what is needed the most is a church that looks like Jesus and lives like Jesus. No one is interested in any church claiming it has it pretty much all figured out but at the same time, increasingly looks very different from the life of Jesus as revealed in scripture.

If we, the Churches of Christ, ground ourselves in the pursuit of this discipleship then I believe whatever other problems we need to work on, they will be corrected in their rightful order. Further and more importantly, I believe we will restore the mission of God as our primary task and make a kingdom impact wherever we exist locally and beyond.

<sub><a name=”#_ftnref1″>[1]</a> The year 2009 was the twenty-fifth anniversary of Rubel Shelly’s publication <i>I Just Want to be A Christian</i> , Nashville: 20<sup>th</sup> Century Christian, 1984., which arguably became the spark for the changes which began taking place.

<a name=”#_ftnref2″>[2]</a> It is too easy to always blame the other group or the other side for causing and forcing division. But I believe that is wrong and only serves to adjudicate ourselves from the responsibility we all have in fostering division. Hard-heartedness is what keeps one always seeing the speck in the other persons eye while missing the log in their own eye.

<a name=”#_ftnref3″>[3]</a> The question of form vs. function is a massive hermeneutical quest that would require a large essay at minimum to discuss. I believe there are times when in order to have the proper function, we need to seek the proper form (e.g., baptism) and there are times when proper form is obviously not needed to maintain proper function (e.g., extending a welcome through a holy kiss).

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 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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