A Progressing Vision for the Church – by Kelly Carter PhD

The following serves two purposes: 1) The sharing of some brief thoughts about the Stone-Campbell Movement with those interested in the Movement and this website; 2) Fostering conversation for an upcoming video conference between church leaders that will take place on November 26, 2015.

In the 1980’s the Churches of Christ a capella (CCa) began a hermeneutical renaissance. Rubel Shelly, Tom Olbricht, Monroe Hawley, Jim Woodroof and others began to call for a Christ-centeredness intended to distance the CCa from a way of looking at the Bible that tended to focus on issues that were less than central to the gospel and to the biblical theology. Where for over a century the more conservative churches in the Stone-Campbell Movement had centered their hermeneutical attention on the specific commands given to and exemplary practices of the early church, logically establishing current doctrinal priorities from historical precedents, many in the CCa were now trying to establish the priorities of the biblical theology, from which the priorities of the contemporary church could be affirmed. Questions like, “What are the most central biblical themes?” or “How does any question regarding doctrine or practice reflect the personhood, ministry, mission, and priorities of Jesus?” or “What are the great acts of God toward humankind that show us something of His character?” eclipsed the rationalistic ferreting out of the primitive practices of the church (known in historical theology as biblical primitivism) that previously dominated CCa. The outcome was that many in the CCa began to emerge from their doctrinal and ecclesiastical sectarianism, opening themselves to both intellectual and practical fellowship with other traditions, including the Independent Christian Churches/Churches of Christ (ICC/CC). Many (but certainly not all) in the CCa began to exhibit an entirely different character than what they previously held, whereby they now were far more open, cooperative, theologically centered, positive, embracing, grace-filled, and Christ-centered.

At the same time that this hermeneutical renaissance was taking place, there began an effort by members of both the CCa and the ICC/CC to break down barriers between these two sister fellowships that shared a Stone-Campbell heritage. Over the next two decades, beginning in about 1982, many unity meetings took place (including one in Calgary), with barriers coming down between many in the CCa and the ICC/CC. In a sense, the walls are still coming down. In countless cities around North America there has been increased unity between Stone-Campbell Movement sister churches, with numerous joint meetings of leaders from each fellowship having taken place. The largest gatherings of CCa and of the ICC/CC have included speakers and teachers from the other fellowship. And in places like Calgary there have even been joint ministry efforts, including cooperating in church planting.

There is a current effort taking place in western Canadian Stone-Campbell churches that is building on the progression of the last three decades. The goal is not just to have fellowship (which is itself a noble goal), but to advance the impact of the ministries of Stone-Campbell churches by calling for increased cooperation and fellowship among the western Canadian churches of the Stone-Campbell Movement. It makes sense that our churches can be individually stronger and the impact of our Movement on both Christianity and our world greater if we are supporting each other and cooperating in ministry. This conversation has begun with some church leaders video conferencing about how we might support one another. The first video conference took place on October 27, 2015. The second will take place on November 26, 2015. If you are interested in being part of this video conference, please email me, Kelly Carter, at [email protected]

In light of the next upcoming video conference, as a kind of discussion starter, I want to draw the attention of participants to something pertaining specifically to Alexander Campbell that I hope will stimulate some conversation (this will be the focus of some of our conversation on November 26). Above, I mentioned the efforts of some in the CCa to become more biblically centered, including an increased hermeneutical Christ-centeredness. It is interesting that when Alexander Campbell initiated his first serial publication The Christian Baptist, in 1823, in its first few pages he called for an abandonment of many of the symbols, offices, and practices that were present in the various Christian denominations of his day, and he did so by calling first for a focus on Christ (“Messiah” he often says in the early pages) and the gospel and, secondly, for a clear simplicity within the church and its ministry. He calls for faith in Christ and submission to His will as the only bond of union among the churches, because the unity of the first Christians was their “fraternity of love, peace, gratitude, cheerfulness, joy, charity, and universal benevolence.” His language is flowery, befitting his time period. And his remarks about the status of Christianity are clearly critical of both Roman Catholicism and the Protestants. But in the midst of language that seems at places unusual in comparison to today, and which at other places seems a bit harsh and unaccepting of the practices of others who claim Christ, he presents a view of the church that is Christ centered, gospel centered, sacrificial with respect to its ministry, simple, unadorned, and which avoids self-promotion among its leaders and members alike.

When one gets past the early nineteenth century style of writing, and just focusses on Campbell’s intent, one is struck by what is commendable in how he begins The Christian Baptist. Campbell just wants to be a follower of “Jesus as Lord Messiah, the Saviour of the World,” being himself “under his guidance.” He wants the church just to be a joining together of people “set in order by those ministers [servants] of the New Testament” who received and acknowledged Jesus as Lord Messiah.

Some questions come to mind:
What in Campbell’s description of what Christianity should be do you agree with; disagree with?
To what extent do our churches today align with or depart from Campbell’s simple vision?
If there are departures, are they positive or negative?
How has the climate of Christianity changed since Campbell’s day, making our situations as churches different?
How do the differences between our own time period and that of Alexander Campbell need to be reflected in how we shape our ministries, our missions and visions?

If you plan to be part of the video conference on Thursday, November 26, it would be good if you could read pp. 5-8 of Vol. 1 No. 1 of The Christian Baptist. You will find it at https://play.google.com/books/reader?id=WhkRAAAAIAAJ&printsec=frontcover&output=reader&hl=en&pg=GBS.PA8
Or at http://bit.ly/1HYtEPp