Wineskins Archive

January 9, 2014

Kith and Kin in Christ: A Southern Baptist Perspective on Churches of Christ (May – June 1996)

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by Marty G. Bell
May – June, 1996

23I spent the formative years of my early childhood in rural West Tennessee. Sometimes it has been said that Nashville is the buckle on the Bible Belt. I would advocate that West Tennessee could easily qualify to be the clasp of the Bible Belt. Growing up in that region between the mighty Tennessee and Mississippi Rivers, I saw the Bible figuratively used as a belt drawn as tightly as possible so that those who would live by its words had to suck in and hold their breath while it was fastened around the waist. In those childhood years nobody did a better job of pulling the Bible Belt taut than the Baptists and the Churches of Christ.

My paternal grandparents were inactive members of an independent Missionary Baptist church in which the members proudly claimed to hold to the Old Landmarks. I will spare you the theological details here; in short, they believed that only Baptist churches were the true churches of Christ and that Baptists could trace their New Testament origins through a “trail of blood.” My maternal grandparents were active members of a Church of Christ that in no uncertain terms made it clear that Baptists, Methodists, Cumberland Presbyterians, and all the rest of the “denominations” were bound for hell.

For the first 14 years of my life, my father and mother could not agree on a church, largely because they had been steeped in their respective traditions. Occasionally, my father couldn’t resist launching into an attack on the “Campbellites.” My mother’s standard response was, “I’d rather be a Campbell with a light than a Baptist in the dark.” Although we did not attend church regularly, I spent a considerable amount of time in Sunday School classes and Vacation Bible School in Churches of Christ and Baptist churches because of the influence of friends and family. Prayer at meals and bedtime and Bible reading were a part of family practice.

As the course of events took place, I ultimately professed faith in Christ as a teenager and joined a Southern Baptist church. A little later I announced to the congregation that God had “called me to preach.” The rest is my personal history. Today I teach courses on the Bible and the history of Christianity in a Baptist-related university. As I reflect on my life, I can see how easily I could have taken a different path and joined the Churches of Christ. In fact, I have friends in the Churches of Christ who had a situation similar to mine involving one parent who was Baptist and one who was a part of the Churches of Christ.

Despite the inflammatory rhetoric I heard from both groups growing up, I always suspected that they had more in common than either typically was willing to admit. As I studied to become a historian of Christianity, I gave special attention to the relations between the Baptists and the Churches of Christ. Today I can say with confidence that they are indeed kin. And there is an increasing number in both traditions that gladly acknowledge the common heritage.

I particularly am grateful that more and more Baptists and Churches of Christ folk are going a step farther and claiming each other as kith. This rather quaint term, which means friends, is related to the Scottish and North English word “kithe,” which means to make or become known. I have been privileged over the past four years to be part of an annual conversation group that consists of an equal number of Baptist and Churches of Christ ministers and professors. As we have prayed together, sung together, read the Bible together, and have heard each other respectfully regarding a variety of doctrinal issues, we have been “kithing” one another. Deep friendships have formed out of our desire to truly know one another.

As a Baptist who has had a long-term interest in the Churches of Christ, both personally and professionally, I have come to appreciate that many of those within the tradition of the Churches of Christ are facing an identity struggle not unlike that which Southern Baptists have confronted in the last quarter of this century. Although the secular media has paid less attention to what is happening in the Churches of Christ than among Baptists, largely because there is not a national convention among the Churches of Christ which draws attention to itself, it is obvious to astute observers from outside of the tradition that there has been tension within the fellowship of the Churches of Christ.

As one who is outside of the tradition, but interested in its welfare and sympathetic to its emphasis on the Bible as the standard for Christian faith, I have a number of observations to offer regarding the Churches of Christ in the late twentieth century. These are simply one Baptist’s perspective on what is happening. I’m sure that others within my tradition would see some of the following issues differently. However, I also believe that a number of Baptists would have a similar perspective as mine.

When I think about the Churches of Christ, I think of the original nondenominational movement in American Christianity. In the course that I teach on the history of American Christianity, I present Alexander Campbell, Barton Stone, and the other leaders who are identified with American Restorationism as promoters of nondenominationalism. Somewhere along the line, the message “we are Christians only” got translated to some folk as “we are the only Christians.” In my opinion, an inclusive message was transformed into an exclusive message in the heyday of nineteenth-century sectarianism. In an era in which the various Christian denominations sometimes blasted one another in an attempt to prove that their version of the faith was more primitive and thus closer to the standard of the New Testament, the wing of American Restorationism that became the Churches of Christ fell into the trap it was trying to avoid. Attempting to provide an alternative to Christian sectarianism, ultimately the Churches of Christ became one of the most highly sectarian groups within American Christianity.

Sharing so much in common with the larger body of evangelical Christianity, the greatest challenge and opportunity for the Churches of Christ at the end of the twentieth century is to return to the original emphasis on Christian unity and the tearing down of divisive denominational walls. I believe that there are three major obstacles that stand in the way of a return to the “Christians only” emphasis.

First, the strength and influence of those Churches of Christ that share a perspective similar to that which I encountered as a child in West Tennessee is still quite powerful. And those congregations are by no means limited to West Tennessee. As is true with Southern Baptists, even in the late twentieth century the majority of Churches of Christ are small and located in rural areas. Change often comes quite slowly. For those who have grown up hearing on Sunday morning and night and Wednesday night that certain ideas are absolutely essential to Christian faith, openness to new interpretations does not come easily.

Second, Churches of Christ do not have an easy time overcoming the prejudices that other denominations direct toward them. This is particularly true regarding those denominations who have flourished in those geographical areas where the Churches of Christ have been traditionally strong. Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, and, to some degree, others have caricatured the Churches of Christ. Unfortunately, the bygone era of religious debates in the rural South has left some very negative impressions.

Third, as admirable as the “Christians only” message is, what does it mean for the progressive leaders within the Churches of Christ? As one who is outside of the tradition but extremely interested in where all of this is leading, I suspect that the answer is still in formation. Clearly, many within the Churches of Christ are ready to enter the mainstream of evangelical Christianity. But at what price? Some congregations have gone so far as to identify themselves as nondenominational and have practically severed ties with the fellowship of the Churches of Christ. Others have carefully attempted to maintain their identity as Churches of Christ but have found themselves under attack by others within the tradition. Those sounding the theme of Christian unity are facing some of the same problems that their nineteenth-century leaders faced. Sooner or later, a group must define who it is vis-a-vis other groups.

If those within the Churches of Christ who are calling for a return to the original emphasis on Christian unity can continue to explore ways to build bridges to Christians outside of their tradition while maintaining the best of that tradition, the Body of Christ will be blessed. I think that there is much for other denominations to learn and appreciate from the Churches of Christ.

To a larger degree, the Churches of Christ are going through the same experience that most denominations are facing at the end of the twentieth century. We are in a transitional period in the life of the church. That which has been has not disappeared altogether, and that which will be has not come to pass fully. We are dealing with the issue of how to make the gospel relevant to our age without somehow compromising it. I don’t know of any denomination that is not struggling with this issue.

In the midst of the confusion of our times, the Churches of Christ find themselves at a significant crossroads. If they reclaim the heritage of Christian unity and the sole authority of the Bible and place these emphases within the context of an authentic and relevant preaching of the gospel, they are posed to influence significantly American Christianity as they did at the beginning of the Restoration Movement. If they retreat into sectarianism and refuse to cooperate with the larger world of evangelical Christianity, they face ultimate extinction.

I gladly claim my brothers and sisters in the Churches of Christ as kith and kin. In the last few years as I have come to be friends with a number of persons in the Churches of Christ, I have witnessed an interesting situation develop. At times I have felt closer in spirit to some of these dear brothers and sisters than I have to some of my fellow Southern Baptists. I think that I can safely say that sometimes they felt the same way in regard to me and others outside of the Churches of Christ. Undeniably, we sensed the bond of love in Christ. United in Christ and committed to the sole authority of the Bible, we tore down the partition that divided. We have much more in common than we have that is different. May we claim our common heritage and continue to get to know one another more intimately through the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.Wineskins Magazine

Marty G. Bell

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