Wineskins Archive

November 26, 2013

Will Churches of Christ Survive the 21st Century? (Sept-Oct 2001)

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By Randy Harris

This 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 continuing dialog to others.

Failure was written into our identity from the beginning. Now that failure is clearly upon us. This identity that has led to disaster was largely a historical accident–the confluence of two factors that came together in Churches of Christ in a way that is not quite duplicated anywhere else in modern Christianity.

These two factors are:
1. an extremely high view of Scripture
2. an extremely high view of human reason

Evangelicals generally share our high view of Scripture but have a lower view of human nature. Liberals share our high view of human beings but generally have a lower view of Scripture. So what happened when these two things came together?

We came to the inevitable conclusion: To be a Christian means to get Scripture right and, furthermore, you can! And so we began our quest to get it right, and once having gotten it right, to defend it against all comers. If someone was wrong about Scripture, it was because that person was indoctrinated wrongly, intellectually lazy, or dishonest with the text; if such a person would be pure of heart, we could teach them what the text really means. Good exegetical method plus a good heart equals the right answers that anyone can and must come to see and obey.

This in turn led to the exclusivism that many take to be the real theological identity of Churches of Christ in the twentieth century–often crassly put as “we think we are the only ones going to heaven.” But this is the only logical outcome of believing that what it means to be Christian is to get the Bible right, that anyone can, and that we have. All those who have not been obedient to what Scripture clearly teaches (as we have demonstrated to any reasonable person) cannot be Christians, says this line of reasoning.

One may be inclined to argue that this is indeed who we are and that it is our glory and our strength and heritage, and that there is no reason to abandon our historic identity. What leads one to the conclusion that this is an identity destined for failure? I offer a couple of examples to argue my case.

Take any important controversial doctrinal issue facing Churches of Christ today. I will suggest the one most likely to create the most continuing rancor: women’s role in public worship. To understand this issue as it is discussed in Churches of Christ, one must understand what both the traditional and progressive sides have in common. Both have a high view of Scripture. Both believe that the matter must be settled by the Bible properly understood. Both have sophisticated exegetical positions. Both believe the texts support their position. Both, I believe, are more or less good of heart and the primary spokespersons for neither side are uneducated or ignorant. Given our historic identity of getting it right, we must get this right. But there doesn’t appear to be any way to solve this problem! So the arguments become increasingly harsh and hostile, and each side becomes increasingly frustrated at the other’s inability to see the “plain teaching” of Scripture.

A second example further makes the point. In this century, Churches of Christ have had major splits over the millennial issue and church support of orphan homes. Given our historic identity of having to get it right, these were significant issues of faithfulness and obedience to Scripture. At points, we went to what now seem absurd extremes (e.g., not only could you not be in fellowship with a pre-millennial, you could not be in fellowship with anyone who would not withdraw fellowship from a pre-millennial). In fact, my students (who did not live through the pain and heartaches) find the whole thing laughable. They do not share a previous generation’s understanding of Christianity as having to get it all right.

My two examples are intended to show the two reasons that this identity is bound to fail. First, it is now abundantly clear that good hearted and capable students of Scripture may come to totally different conclusions. Our conclusion about what the Bible teaches is not simply a matter of reading the text–all sorts of other things get mixed in too. Our religious traditions, our training, our background, our gender, our assumptions about the nature of Scripture, which are not themselves the products of Scripture, all impact our reading. Our locatedness in twenty-first century America influences us in ways we cannot easily discern.

The outcome of all this is crystal clear. We cannot be sure we have gotten it all exactly right. For a people whose whole identity is wrapped up in getting it right, this is disastrous. What is our reason for existence if we are not the ones who have gotten it right and who call all others to the truth we have discovered?

Second, in this postmodern world, the coming generation is not going to understand love for God in terms of getting it all right, but rather experientially and relationally. If all we have to offer is arguments for church government, weekly observance of the Lord’s Supper, a cappella music, and baptism for remission of sins, we have no future, for they are not interested. Their interest in authentic relationship in the church is not fed by such arguments.

So what is the future of the religious movement that has the identity I have outlined? Churches of Christ are certainly not going to disappear overnight. It will be less cataclysmic but no less tragic. One group, defending tenaciously the position that we do indeed have it all right, will become increasingly marginalized, strident, then irrelevant and just fade away. Another group, having rejected that identity, unfortunately also rejects all the wonderful critical tools that went with it. In rejecting the excesses they also reject the theological reflection that sorts out faith from fads and spirituality from enthusiasm and then bounce from one experience to another seeking God unencumbered by the strictures of Scripture and the church. While they may keep the name “Church of Christ,” the identity will be gone.

Will the Churches of Christ fail in the twenty-first century?

We have a historical identity that can be full of hope and promise, and the Churches of Christ can succeed in the twenty-first century – read how in the second of this series with Randy Harris in the next issue.

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