Wineskins Archive

January 13, 2014

Is It An Identity Crisis? (Mar – Apr 1996)

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by Mike Cope
March – April, 1996

Isn’t it terrible that Churches of Christ are having an identity crisis? Well, no — at least according to Alasdair MacIntyre. He claims that a vibrant tradition is one in which people continue to argue about what its identity is.

Could he be right? Is it possible that at least some of our internecine struggles over the past decade about identity have been healthy?

I think so! Religious restoration movements (and there have been many!) begin with a hunger to search God’s word, to seek God’s favor, and to live as God’s counter-culture. They initially have lots of discussion about what will be their “mark” as a movement.

But at some point the “movement” stops. Calcifies. Petrifies. People start assuming everyone knows what their identity is: they are the “true” New Testament Church. They, and only they, through right biblical interpretation have arrived. They have perfectly recreated the “steps of salvation,” the “acts of worship,” and the “New Testament organization.”

This is what Leonard Allen and Richard Hughes called “the illusion of innocence.” A generation arises that thinks their interpretation is flawless, that the return to “New Testament Christianity” is accomplished. They live with the illusion that they and they alone, have returned to the pure, innocent wells. At this point their circle of fellowship gets smaller and smaller.

One preacher taught me over and over that we couldn’t fellowship anyone who differed from us on a single doctrinal point. That made sense to me (unbelievably, I now think) until our church’s most revered traveling interpreter came to town and turned out to be a pacifist! I asked the preacher how we could fellowship this heretic, and he reassured me that “the war question” was a matter of opinion, not of doctrine. (Translation: he’s one of our guys, so we cut him some slack!)


If I had not been right in the middle of these discussions about identity over the past decade, I think I would have enjoyed watching from the sidelines. I would be in wide-eyed amazement as I heard:

–Christians way to the left of me theologically sounding like arch-conservatives as they kept paying homage to tradition;
–Some of the people most infected by secular influence taking the lead in attacking the rampant secularism in the church;
–People who have been “progressives” their whole lives now heralding the glory of the “middle road.” (Don’t we all think we’re in the middle?)

Can all this discussion really be a healthy sign? Yes! A movement must eventually be left alone to die or it must be reborn. As long as God’s Spirit is alive, renewal can break out anywhere and at any time!

As I listen to members of Churches of Christ these days I hear healthy signs:

1) I sense that we’re talking much more about God—the one who has called us by his grace (rather than by our doctrinal functioning) and who has called us to holy living.
2) I sense that we’re focused more on “Christ and him crucified.” In l986 I finished a sixteen-week series on the cross and had an elder ask when we were going to return to talking about the gospel. But now I hear more people who know that Jesus Christ, the Crucified One, is the core of the gospel.
3) I sense that we’re discussing more freely the Holy Spirit. We’re learning about and experiencing his guidance, his renewal, his conviction. (Our doctrine never got farther off course than when some claimed the Holy Spirit’s work is limited to the work of Scripture.)
4) I sense that we’re realizing that our primary job isn’t to master Scripture but to be mastered by it. Scripture isn’t primarily there for us to explore, rather, it explores us. It shakes our worldview, jars our easy presuppositions, challenges our idolatries, and demands our obedience.
5) I sense that we’re admitting that God has many other faithful children than those in our small “brotherhood.” We’re returning to our wonderful roots: “Christians only, not the only Christians.” We long more, pray more, and work more for unity.


I don’t mean to imply that we’ve finally arrived. Nor do I intend to say that this healthy renewal is coming from a new generation. (Quite the contrary: It is older Christians of courage and deep holiness who have led us!)

Nor would I bury my head in the sand and pretend that everyone likes what’s been happening in Churches of Christ. Some will continue to deliver breast-beating jeremiads about how we’ve left “the old paths.” But they’re wrong! If anything, we’re falling in love more fully with the true old paths.

The test of this new identity quest will be our growing openness to God. Are we growing in prayer? Are we more humble before him? Are we displaying his compassion? Are we letting him use us to build relationships with people who need to hear the gospel? Are we committed to holy living that resists the temptations of materialism and cheap success?

A funny thing has happened in my heart. I’ve known the faults of my spiritual heritage for a long time. (It’s made up of people like me, so it’s bound to fall very short of perfection! But I’m beginning to appreciate its strengths more than ever before. I’m realizing that as we continue to talk about our identity, our spiritual heritage has many strong resources to offer. May all the praise and glory of our feeble attempts go to Jesus Christ, who alone can renew us!Wineskins Magazine

Mike Cope

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