Today’s guest post is by my friend Adam Ellis, a pastor and theologian I always look to for perspective and sanity on the most difficult theological topics. He’s also my number one source of Buechner quotes, and I always hold it over him that I met Buechner once but unfortunately startled him during the encounter because he was having a hard time carrying something and I came from out of his line of vision to help him. Back to Adam, he pastors a congregation in the Church of Christ denomination and offers some compelling reasons to join him (provided you don’t mind moving to South Carolina!):
Frederick Buechner says most theology is essentially autobiography. I’d argue the same is true of ecclesiology. That being the case, there are a few things you should know going into this. I’m the preaching minister for a small congregation affiliated with the churches of Christ. I’m also the son of a Church of Christ preacher. I was a youth minister for various churches of Christ for over a decade, and I have a Masters Degree in Theological Studies from a school associated with the churches of Christ. My point is, when it comes to churches of Christ, I’m about as dyed-in-the-wool as they come.
Have you ever enthusiastically agreed to do something that you thought would be easy and fun, only to discover that it was more challenging than you originally thought it would be? That’s me…writing this post. The whole undertaking is fraught with difficulty for someone like me presuming to talk about people like us. It’s a little like trying to explain what you love so much about your family. For everything you love, there are faces and relationships that cannot be reduced to bullet-points. There are embarrassing moments that you either try not to think about or you learn to laugh at yourselves.
My first impulse is to talk about the obvious distinctives one might notice if they attended a church of Christ worship gathering. I could talk to you about our tradition of a cappella worship. Some congregations in our tradition are beginning to use instrumental music in their worship services, but even in these cases there is still a certain reverence for the beauty of four-part harmony. I could talk to you about our weekly observance of the Lord’s Supper (Communion/Eucharist). I could (and many might think I should) spend some time talking to you about how we practice believer’s baptism. However, I don’t really want to talk about those things here. These are much longer and more nuanced conversations than the task at hand allows for. I’ve been asked to tell you what I love about churches of Christ and why you might want to be a part of this tradition, and that’s a different conversation altogether.
Churches of Christ have their roots in the American Restoration Movement, which also gave birth to Independent Christian Church and the Disciples of Christ. The movement began primarily as a unity movement in response to the rampant bickering, division and in-fighting many saw among the different denominations (sects) in the early 1800’s. Two early leaders in the movement (arguably it’s “founders”) were Thomas Campbell and his son, Alexander. Thomas was a minister for the “Old Lights, Anti-Burgher, Associate/Seceder National Presbyterian Church of Scotland”, and Alexander was in training to follow in his father’s vocational footsteps. You read that right, by the way. It was a sect of a sect of a sect of a sect. Both essentially broke official ties with this group over the group’s closed and exclusionary communion (eucharist) practices. However, their intention was not to break off and start another sect. Their intention was to draw the circle wider, not smaller.
They practiced open communion. In a revolutionary document titled The Declaration and Address, Thomas declared that division was a horrid evil. He said that the church could give no new command where scripture was silent, and that while creeds may be useful, they must not be used as tests of fellowship. His son Alexander concurred. Alexander was an incredible communicator and helped the movement to spread. Although they were often referred to by others as “Campbellites”, they refused to take sectarian names for their churches, preferring terms intended to be merely descriptive like “christians”, “disciples”, or “churches of Christ”. The sentiment is probably best summed up by another early leader named Barton Stone in a document known as The Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery:
“We will, that this body die, be dissolved, and sink into union with the Body of Christ at large; for there is but one body, and one Spirit, even as we are called in one hope of our calling…”
It’s easy to get confused, so sometimes you’ll catch some of us forgetting about all of this and perpetuating exactly the same kind of sectarianism we were intended to transcend. However, I believe unity is woven deep in the DNA of who we are as a people and when we lose our way, we eventually tend to find it again.
I’ll always remember the words of one of my professors from grad school. He said, “Here’s the thing about our people: If you can show it to them in the Bible, they can go there.” I’ve found this to be true and life giving. We always assume that there is more to learn. We assume scripture always has more to teach us. When I was growing up, I remember my Father telling me over and over again, “Don’t take my word for it,” when it came to matters of faith. I also remember him telling me that if I found that something he believed wasn’t right or true, I should move on. This is the prevalent attitude I have found in churches of Christ. Ideally, we try not to just believe a thing simply because it is the “Church of Christ” thing to believe. The question, “What do WE believe about that,” doesn’t really make sense in our context.
Each of our congregations is autonomous, and is ideally led by lay-leaders called “Elders” in partnership with a minister or ministry staff. There is no over-arching power structure to which we answer. There are pros and cons to this arrangement. On the one hand, it allows us the freedom to follow our consciences in the pursuit of truth, or, as a friend and mentor from another tradition once told me, “Churches of Christ are great, because you don’t have to turn the whole ship.” On the other hand, I’m typing this post with the full knowledge that there will be some from churches of Christ who will feel quite strongly that what I have written is not representative of them at all.
Even so, I love these people. I love them like the quirky, complicated, wonderful family they are. They taught me to study scripture like it mattered…to try to speak where the Bible speaks, and to allow for difference, nuance, and ambiguity where the Bible is silent. They taught me to keep digging, to keep searching, to never be complacent or merely prop up the status quo. They gave me the space to grow. If any of that sounds appealing, maybe they could do the same for you.
About Today’s Guest Blogger
Adam Ellis is the husband of Dana and the father of Emma & Chloe. He has a Masters Degree in Theological Studies from David Lipscomb University, and he worked for over a decade in youth ministry in various congregations across the south eastern United States. For the past 6 years he has been employed as the preaching minister for a congregation in South Carolina, and he’s been working on the side as an adjunct university Bible instructor. Frankly, he’s kind of a geek about theology and pop-culture, but his wife and daughters love him, so he’s ok with it.
About Denomination Derby
This series invites ministers or ministry volunteers with seminary training to share what they love about their denominations so that readers will have a greater awareness of and appreciation for the good things happening throughout the church.
We have several writers lined up to write about their respective denominations, but nominations for guest bloggers or requests for a particular denomination are welcome.
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