“I think we’ve all got to admit that we spend most of our time talking to ourselves, with people who already agree, reading the same blogs, and possibly not listening a lot to people we disagree with…In our heritage have we not learned that being right about an issue is not somehow more important than practicing right relationships? –Jeff Childers
If you’ve been following this blog for a while you know that I regularly participate and attend several different conferences (what Churches of Christ call Lectureships) every year.
Last year, Dr. Jeff Childers gave this “performance” above at the Pepperdine Bible Lectureships and it was one of the best things I’d seen in a long time. It was Jeff Childers vs. Jeff Childers on the role of women in the church.
You may notice that Jeff does not sound like a very feminine name, and if you watch the video you may come to the conclusion that either Jeff is a man, or a very unattractive woman. But this was an intentional move by the PBL to be representative of the kinds of people who are there, in ways that those people could hear and relate to. It was an attempt for people who had sharp disagreements with each other to be able to hear one another.
If you are not native to Churches of Christ, this post might not make much sense, but there is a point here I believe is universal to every Church or Christian institution that we have. We have a really hard time fellowshipping people that we don’t have almost universal agreement with. We may say it’s about orthodoxy/heresy, but it’s not.
It’s not that we’re lying, it’s that we don’t know ourselves.
I think what is really happening is a form of radical Western individualism that is fundamentally opposed to how the New Testament talks about the way of Jesus.
Think about the people Jesus gets together in the Gospels, Tax Collectors & Pharisees & Fisherman & Prostitutes & Zealots, He gathered together people who were all natural enemies of one another and they somehow were able to gather around more than their differences.
I’m still a member of Churches of Christ because that is, in our better moments, who we are. The Restoration Movement was started by two people who looked around Protestant Christianity and saw hundreds of denominations fighting over some very petty things. The Restoration Movement started with this one big idea, we want to be Christians Only, not the Only Christians.
The two guys who started this, Barton Stone and Alexander Campbell, had the kinds of differences that would split most movements. They disagreed more than they agreed, but they had this vision, and I still think they were on to something.
Everything that they did, was centered around trying to create the biggest tent for as many as possible. They were trying to not create divisions in an amply divided world. So they saw the ways that people’s worship preferences were dividing Christian fellowship and they decided to sing a capella, they saw the way people were using creeds to split fellowship with one another and they said “No Creed But Christ” They saw how people’s interpretation of Scripture was divisive and so they decided to only speak where the Bible spoke.
Now I get that these methods are often problematic and naïve. I understand that No Creed but Christ is itself a kind of creed, but I love the Spirit of what they were trying to do and it’s because of that I’m willing to write a blog like this.
Because out of the Churches of Christ I was given the radical idea that every person who believed in Jesus and was baptized was just as much a Christian as I was.
I remember in the little 10 person church I grew up in, Bro. Foy asked my Methodist friend to preach, my Baptist friend preached and led singing, and this was way before the world was post-denominational. Those things mattered everywhere else…but not at my church. And from the beginning, it was radical hospitality and Christian fellowship that I saw that captured my heart for Churches of Christ.
Since I’ve started preaching, I’ve been invited to leave Churches of Christ several times, to work at Christian Churches, Assembly of God Churches and Non-Denominational ones, but I’ve always said the same thing, “These are my people. I believe in us and love them, because they taught me to believe in and love everyone else, even when we don’t agree.”
Especially when we don’t agree.
So what does this have to do with Pepperdine?
The Autonomy of A Local Church
Of all the things that Churches of Christ have taught me the one I appreciate the most is that each Church is autonomous. That means that every local church is able to be free to take their context seriously, and figure out how to be Jesus in their specific neighborhood.
This is one of our greatest strengths and weaknesses. It’s a great strength because we are able to be good missionaries, each church (at her best) is indigenous to the local community that she’s in. It’s a weakness because if we are doing it well, over time, we become very different from one another.
I learned when I was a Harding student leading a Spring Break campaign to San Francisco that almost everyone at the Church of Christ there believed that being gay wasn’t a choice, (this was back in the 90’s), I learned that Churches of Christ in Greece have a very different view of alchohol than brothers and sisters in say Oklahoma, Churches of Christ in L.A. have a very different perspective on Hollywood and Churches in D.C. were much more politically involved than someone like a David Lipscomb would’ve thought was possible for a Christian. .
All that to say, when you plant a tree in different soil, you find out that you get different types of fruit.
Now imagine trying to bring all these people together, to share fellowship, and learn from each other. Here’s where it starts to get dicey, because most of these people might not know that their context has led them to different conclusions.
And here’s the point, if you try to be a unity movement, with no creeds, with autonomous churches scattered over all the different parts of the world whenever you gather together you’re going to be shocked at how different you all are. That’s a characteristic of a unity movement.
But let’s be honest, even in our own churches fellowship these days is a challenge, when we find out that the person in our pew believes that God created the world by evolution, or is a young earth Creationist we’re shocked because we had just assumed that everyone believed what we did, we thought it was basic Christian orthodoxy, until we find out that we are surrounded by heretics! So much of ministry in a local church is protecting people from themselves. As Randy Harris says, “The only thing keeping many churches together is their lack of communication.”
And so what’s happening on a local church level, all across the country from conservative to progressive churches, is that people are finding out that they disagree with some people in their church, maybe in leadership maybe just in the next pew, and so they pack their bags up and go to the church down the street, unaware that the heretics are there too, unaware of how heretical some people would see their views!
And that brings me to Lectureships, (Pepperdine and ACU are the ones I’m the most familiar with. but I don’t think this is limited to them). Right now, there is a bru-ha-ha over the Pepperdine Bible Lectureships, because there is a woman is speaking as a Keynote for the first time this year.
But this is exactly what you get when you try to be a unity movement, and it’s precisely these moments where we find out if we really are one.
The speaker is Sara Barton, a good friend of mine, so I’m not neutral here, and I’m not going to make the case that you need to believe what I believe for women’s roles in Church. But I do know that Sara is a good preacher, and she was called to preach by small, rural Churches of Christ in Africa, not some progressive ivory tower academics.
And here’s why I’m writing this blog, I hope to reach people who disagree with this, I don’t want to preach to the choir. I want you to consider what it means to be a part of our movement. Every year for decades, you’ve sat beside people who have read the Bible differently than you, every year dozens or hundreds of people at our conferences, and probably your church believe what lots of Christians have believed for a lot longer than America has been around about women being able to preach.
They read the Bible differently, and for years they were frustrated because no one else saw it the way they did, and they kept showing up. Because that’s what it means to be a community of reconciliation. That’s what it means to be a Unity Movement.
When Christians want to discern God’s will in something, they argue.
Seriously, this is our tradition, from Acts 15 to the ancient Christian Councils, the Christian tradition is one that doesn’t believe any one perspective has the corner on Truth. We debate-hopefully respectfully, we share stories and testimonies-hopefully open to what each other are saying. But to do that, we have to be present.
So I hope you are there. Jeff Childers will be…both of him.