Wineskins Archive

November 26, 2013

Will Churches of Christ Survive the 21st Century? Part 2 (Jan-Feb 2002)

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By Randy Harris

This is the second in a three-part series on the future of Churches of Christ. The material was first presented at the 2000 Pepperdine Lectures. Yet I’ve made some crucial revisions, thanks to helpful insights from scores of people. I am grateful to new Wineskins for affording me the opportunity to make one final contribution to the ongoing discussion of our theological identity and future. At the conclusion of this series, I happily leave this important dialog to others.

In 1976, as a freshman at Harding, Jimmy Allen made a speech at the Harding Lectures unlike any I had ever heard. It was a ringing endorsement of the restoration plea–that by simply reading scripture, one could become a Christian like those in the first century. After 25 years this plea still moves me. It is an inherently powerful idea, which I believe is being taken seriously by increasing numbers of people.

As the anti-institutionalism of postmodernity deepens, it inevitably becomes expressed as post-denominationalism. That is, people are less tied to traditional denominational loyalty and more interested in simply being disciples of the Christ. They are ready to answer to the demands of scripture – as they understand them – but not the tradition of any particular religious heritage. In other words, in increasing numbers, the religious world is singing our song.

At the heart of our plea is the idea that will succeed in the coming days: all that we think, say, and do must be constantly re-examined in the light of, and brought into conformity to a constant engagement with scripture. This will mean that we must continue to be a movement, always ready to re-examine where we are in light of a fresh reading of the text.

We have always been a back-to-the-Bible movement. Unfortunately, much of the effort of the last century has been aimed at the criticism of the practices and convictions of others. What would happen if we turned that critical eye on ourselves, asking the question, “If I take this passage seriously, what would I have to change?”

Then restoration would be a process that while never completed would produce constant vitality. Change, which is so constant a feature of the postmodern world, would be expressed as deeper and deeper conformity to Christ.

But if this vitality is to be realized it cannot be as a simple reproduction of Biblical structures. The postmodern religious world has little interest in such things. It must also be the restoration of values and passion. To be Biblical in the deepest sense is not just to believe certain doctrines. It is to experience “For me to live is Christ.”

I was speaking at a church once where there was a question-and-answer session following my seminar. One brother was clearly frustrated with me, and especially over the fact that I did not think enough people were going to Hell (everybody but us!). Finally, in his agitation, he asked, “Do you think anyone is going to Hell?”

“Yes I do,” I replied, “and in fact I will give you a list.” I then read the passage in Matthew 25 that concludes as follows: “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you have me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’ They will also answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ He will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’ Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

I do not wish to argue that this is the only passage in scripture that deals with judgment, heaven and hell that should be studied. However, it is crucial to our future that we take biblical teaching on how we treat the poor as seriously as we take teaching on frequency of the Lord’s Supper.

I have never presented “the restoration plea” to other Christian groups or students where it did not have a respectful reception and an immediate and powerful appeal. There is a kind of wistfulness on the part of others for this kind of approach. And there is nothing to prevent us from claiming our legacy today! Any Church of Christ can decide today without consulting any convention, school or teaching office to turn on a dime and take a new direction in response to their understanding of God’s intention for their congregation. What freedom!

Our life-long commitment in Churches of Christ to get things right can either bring disaster or blessing. If this commitment turns into arrogant criticism of all those who disagree with us and the basis of division within our fellowship, we have no future. If, on the other hand, the commitment turns into a humble pursuit of God’s ideal which constantly leads us into cross-imitating transformation (change), the future is bright indeed.

As the rest of the religious world, in increasing numbers, starts to sing our song we have choices to make. We can say, “That’s our song and you have no right to sing it,” and isolate ourselves from fellow pilgrims. We can abandon our song and content ourselves with quiet respectable denominationalism. We can continue to defend positions that biblical scholarship make increasingly indefensible because they have been passed on to us.

Or, we can pursue the grand adventures of walking the way of biblical discipleship of Jesus, not knowing exactly what its going to look like or where it will take us, but determined to follow where Jesus leads. We can join hands with fellow pilgrims who will (in large numbers I believe) be willing to walk this way too. If we take this approach I am sure of two things.

First, it will never get boring. Second, it will never become irrelevant. Following the Christ is always exciting and always contemporary. If we become a movement again, rather than the depository of all truth that condemns others, driven not by sociological and cultural fad, but by the biblical witness we are bound to succeed in the coming century.

So what will we do?

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