The Church of Christ
Some of you may know that I was raised in the Churches of Christ, a small religious group that emerged from the American Restoration Movement of the early 1800s.
At the time of the Restoration Movement, Christianity was radically divided. Not only were there large-scale barriers between Catholics and Protestants, but seemingly every Protestant church had fractured along many trivial lines, every single division marking a hard and formal barrier to fellowship or relationship with Christians on the other side.
One of the early instigators of the movement had himself come from the Old-Light Anti-Burgher Seceder Presbyterian church, each term in that title designating a historic division, and a group of people that were no longer allowed to participate in the work or fellowship of the community.
Something seemed very wrong about this, and many people were looking for a solution.
The answer that struck the leaders of the Restoration Movement was to pursue a path of theological minimalism. If people were divided over political alliances, they would avoid political entanglements. If people were divided over the nuances of different creeds, they would abandon creeds in favor of the scriptures. If people were split about worship styles, they would pursue the simplest forms of worship possible. If people were divided by labels, they would give up labels in order to be simply Christians.
In every way, they pursued unity by boiling down Christianity to its bare essentials. If they could arrive at the essence of Christianity, with no extra restrictions, no additional requirements, no added barriers, then every Christian would simply be a brother or sister, another child of God. And Jesus’ unity prayer would be fulfilled:
“That they may be one, just as we are one…so that the world will know that you sent me, and you have loved them just as you have loved me…” (John 17:22-23)
The result was a string of simple, populist churches springing up across the country. They were organically connected, with no hierarchy or central organization. Every congregation appointed people to serve their community’s needs, and nothing more was necessary.
Some of the early leaders even suggested that a church was simply wherever two or more Christians happened to be gathered together, echoing Jesus’ words: “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” (Matthew 18:20)
In all kinds of ways, this dynamic young movement was shaping the world around them. They inspired others to work for and realize greater unity, they changed the conversation in the broader religious culture, and they allowed many people to live their faith in greater freedom than they had ever known.
But over time, the emphasis of this young movement began to shift. It’s easy to transition from focusing on simplicity, to demanding simplicity from others. And that’s exactly what happened. Instead of just practicing simple and inexpensive worship styles (that all could join in, rich or poor, skilled or unskilled), they began criticising other people for worship styles that were not simple enough.
Soon, they had created all kinds of new divisions, based around different levels of greater and lesser simplicity. Worse, the arguments over these divisions led people to try to justify their choices by appealing to scripture — almost universally with badly out-of-context and misapplied verses. Instead of just defending their choices as an attempt to fulfill Jesus’ prayer for unity, they developed deep and convoluted arguments to try to demonstrate that their choices were the only ones acceptable to God.
In the end, these churches became weighed down with a complex and speculative theology, grown from the scar tissue of countless battle wounds, as the movement fractured again and again.
Today, the Churches of Christ retain some of that original vitality, a vitality which often pops up in surprising places and in surprising way. But they also retain the scar tissue, the battle wounds, and the baggage of that long history of division.
The movement that started out as the pursuit of Jesus’ unity prayer, ended up as another monument to division. The movement that started out by opposing man-made barriers, created new, unprecedented barriers of their own.
But I don’t write this to condemn. I write this to give hope.
It is not too late for the Churches of Christ to return to their original cry for simplicity and unity. To do so will require sacrifice, humility, and a willingness to be led by God. And it will require elevating the scriptures above our opinions, letting go of what is neither biblical nor sound.
Here are the four things I believe we must do.
1. Abandon unscriptural theology
In the heat of countless religious debates, some Church of Christ preachers came up with arguments and theological frameworks that were neither biblical, nor compatible with the New Testament. Rather than appeal to unity and simplicity as their predecessors had done, they appealed to ideas about religious ethics that appeared nowhere in the scriptures, and strained the credulity of everyone who heard them. And yet generations of preachers clung to these ideas like they were a life raft.
It is time to let go. It is our moral duty to let go. The scriptures want to be read as they are, not through an artificial lens we have created for them.
2. Embrace all Christians
A motto in the early Restoration Movement was “Christians only, not the only Christians”, but the Churches of Christ have sometimes turned this on its head. Rather than accept any obedient and believing Christian as a brother or sister in Christ, they have often required that these Christians be re-baptized by a Church of Christ minister, apparently feeling that belief in and obedience to Christ was not sufficient for salvation.
This is dangerous ground, biblically speaking. Christ and the apostles set out simple instructions, and adding anything to this gospel is not only wrong, it invites some of the worst condemnation in the scriptures.
3. Emphasize Baptism
One of the things that the Churches of Christ have often focused on is baptism. And rightly so — baptism is incredibly significant in the New Testament, precisely because it is the act of giving up our identity.
This is why Paul can say that he was crucified with Christ, and that other Christians were buried in baptism. He isn’t talking about what baptism looks like, or making an abstract metaphysical point — he’s suggesting that it is this act of publicly identifying with Jesus that destroyed an old identity, and allowed a new one to be formed.
We sometimes downplay this by suggesting that in baptism we are “turning our backs on sin”. But for Paul, it was far more significant than that. In publicly identifying as a Christian, he had not only abandoned his old beliefs and ways of living, he had abandoned his entire world, his station in life, everything that had given him meaning or value or significance. He lost it all, and it is precisely through that tremendous loss that he discovered a new and better identity.
In the same way, Christians of the first century abandoned their religious, social, and cultural status, and often their possessions and their lives. Baptism was a moment when, in a very real sense, one person died, and a new person was born.
This is why Paul can say that:
Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all. (Colossians 3:11)
There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28)
In identifying as Christians, all of these racial, social, and cultural identities had been abandoned, and all that was left was the binding love of Christ. If we miss this, we miss the power and significance of the early church.
4. Share Communion
In the New Testament, Christians expressed their newfound identities by gathering to eat together, sharing their food and their compassion over a common table. This was called the “Love Feast” and “The Lord’s Supper”, because in this meal, a new family was being built — a family that in a striking fashion, brought together slaves and slave-owners, rich and poor — living out in a concrete way the peace and the kingdom of God.
This practice was so important to Paul that in 1 Corinthians 11, he takes his readers to task for it. When eating together, many of the wealthy people had begun eating first, leaving the poorer individuals to pick up the scraps. This was repulsive because it went against the whole purpose of the meal, and contradicted everything they were supposed to be doing.
This practice is something we can reclaim and embrace. But we must embrace it with the full meaning and significance that the scriptures give to it — not as one of many rituals, but as an expression of the heart of Christian identity, and the all-embracing love of God.
These four things would mark a return to the Restoration Movement, a return to calling for and creating Christian unity. And they would revive a minimalist theology based around the core elements of New Testament Christianity.
But they require sacrifice. To return to the simplicity of New Testament Christianity, we must abandon the things we have added to it. To return to the power and signficance of the early church, we must re-embrace their spirit and their purpose.
Perhaps then we would have a true Restoration Movement, one that not only brings about Christian unity, but goes on to play a part in the healing of the world.