Why I’m a Member of Churches of Christ (May 2012)

By Matt Dabbs

By Jason Jarvis

I grew up in a non-Christian home but was born in a Church of Christ.[1]

Since my first church home my wife and I have lived in five different states in eight years and regularly attended worship services at more churches than that. We’ve fellowshipped with everything from a mid-size Church of Christ in Ohio, to a non-denominational evangelical mega-church (McLean Bible Church) in the DC area, to tiny Churches of Christ in Maryland, to a large Baptist church in Massachusetts. We’ve also worshiped at my in-law’s Associated Reform Presbyterian “church plant” in Southern California.

Partly because we’ve moved so often we’ve trained ourselves to adjust quickly to various fellowships and keep an open mind, distinguishing between things on which we can compromise (even if we’d prefer something else) and things we can’t.

It goes without saying that while our decision to place (and keep) membership in a Church of Christ has been informed by immutable principles, it’s also intensely personal—in other words, I don’t think this is a one-size-fits-all question or answer. That said, it might be helpful to explain what I see as issues on which compromise is possible versus the ones I don’t.

Of course I would not even fellowship with a church in which I could not see a fundamental adherence to the most basic orthodox Christian identity.[2] Some things are so clear and important — John 3:16 comes to mind — that they constitute fundamentals. But this leaves numerous churches in which I’m comfortable worshiping even if I might not be comfortable being a long term member; most orthodox Christian churches affirm Jesus as the sole means of salvation. I’d call specifics beyond those basic fundamentals imperatives; by that, I mean essential beliefs on which legitimately Christian fellowships differ. And then there are distinctives — adopted practices of a congregation that I don’t consider essential but still form an important part of the fabric of a fellowship. (Many of these distinctives, by the bye, seem to relate to how worship is conducted, but I think of it as a slightly larger umbrella than that only.)

One way to think about how I distinguish these three issues is to imagine a house. All houses require a foundation; i.e., the fundamental building block on which a house stands. Some houses are built of stone, or wood, or brick (on sand or of hay); in other words, some materials are useful — imperative — and some are not. And all houses have furniture and decorations — distinctives that make them comfortable, distinguishable, and attractive.

Consequently, I wouldn’t enter in a church in which I questioned the fundamentals (can I trust this house not to fall down on me?); I’ve developed what I see as essential doctrines to me that still vary among orthodox congregations (what’s this house made of?); and while perhaps not as essential, I’ve certainly grown comfortable surrounded by certain furnishings.

That hierarchy in mind, my family and I are members of the Churches of Christ because of a few imperatives and a number of distinctives.

The first imperative is Believer’s Baptism. As I read the Bible — and I continue to love and pray for my brothers and sisters who see this issue differently—it is clear that baptism is the central act of obeisance in conjunction with salvation, and it’s equally clear that baptism must be preceded by belief. Because it is the central response to claiming Jesus as Lord, it makes our practice of baptizing only believers an imperative on which I refuse to compromise.

I also believe strongly in the inerrant inspiration of Scripture. It has been my experience that Churches of Christ’s high reverence for the Bible correlates strongly with my elevated view of Scripture. (By elevated view, I do not mean everything is to be taken literally. I mean first, a resistance to an undercurrent of contextualism, which has grown more prevalent in mainline, academic, and progressive evangelical circles; and second, a sensible, comprehensive-but-reverent view of Scripture that acknowledges divine authorship and providence in its preservation). If it is God’s Word, then it remains imperative to try to understand Scripture; not criticize, contextualize, or marginalize it. On a related note, it is a testament to the Churches of Christ’s Scriptural fidelity that we maintain a fairly consistent hermeneutic and theology without a systematic theology to which other Christian denominations formally ascribe.

But wait, you say, one could find those same imperatives at certain other Reformation-movement churches, Baptist churches, or even non-denominational evangelical churches, to name a few.

True. These are just my own personal litmus issues. Indeed, when we were in the process of moving around often we found ourselves in other fellowships from time to time. But I’m a member of the Churches of Christ now as a result of more nuanced distinctives.

Structurally I appreciate the emphasis on Elder spiritual leadership but disconnect from a central governing body. I support the adherence to relatively rigid Elder requirements even when they are inconvenient — it’s easier to see the strength of your conviction when it’s socially unpopular.[3] I like the preaching minister model and the use of deacons and ministry leaders — in other words, the priesthood of believers.

Insofar as worship services, I love weekly Communion; I appreciate the Invitation; and I strongly prefer a cappella singing. And it’s not because I see this as an imperative — it’s no more complex than I think it sounds better. But it’s also because I feel that the congregation is more involved in the worship when they are carrying the music alone. In some worship services I’ve attended that employ instruments or a “praise band,” I end up feeling like I’m being entertained by watching a performance rather than participating in collective worship.

Finally, although neither an imperative nor distinctive, there is something to be said for familiarity. I became a Christian in a Church of Christ and everywhere else just doesn’t feel like home. The tension between wanting to be comfortable and wanting to be challenged is healthy. But it doesn’t mean there’s no value in the comfort of the familiar.

The question I’m answering — why I am a member of the Churches of Christ — resulted from a friend’s exploration of what some of us see as a bit of an identity crisis in the Churches of Christ, an exploration of which is beyond me here. But I don’t think it’s a unique identity crisis.

American Christendom is to an extent embroiled collectively in the challenge of discovering and embracing our identity. We are bombarded with secular media criticism of our churches: Why are fewer people attending? Why is Christian influence waning? How can you still believe [X] in this modern world of science and social progress?

We challenge ourselves with related questions: What can we do about our vanishing youth? Are our principles outdated? Why do foreign churches send missionaries here? Have we grown too focused on internal discipleship or not enough? Why have we been so focused on [X] social issue instead of [Y] social issue?

One of the most difficult reasons to quantify — but most important nonetheless — for why I’m a member of the Churches of Christ is that I appreciate how the Churches of Christ do not model our church experience on the culture in which we find ourselves. We model ourselves on the Scriptural culture. To be sure, it’s an inexact science and it puts us at odds with the world sometimes. When it does, however, we should be encouraged for “[i]f the world hates you, remember that it hated me first. The world would love you as one of its own if you belonged to it, but you are no longer part of the world. I chose you to come out of the world, so it hates you.” – John 15:18-19.

In conclusion, I don’t think our fellowship is perfect but none are. Instituted by God and body of Christ they may be, the Church is still populated by human beings in a fallen world. We have our challenges — some of them common to other churches and some of them unique — but I want a church that confronts these challenges through a scriptural prism. The Churches of Christ embrace that role, and so I embrace them.

__________________

1. I’m not a scholar and have no formal theological training. I do not intend or think my comments reflect those of everyone in my church. These are my impressions only; and, of course, all errors and omissions are those of the author alone.

2. That’s “orthodox” with a little “o.”

3. I have known wonderful people with leadership qualities and hearts after the Lord who cannot satisfy 2 Tim. But I think we rightly respect Scriptural fidelity more than we respect modern cultural norms or what “feels right” to us.

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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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