Beware...this post turned into a short story.
I've gone back and forth quite a few times about whether I should write this blog post or not. I've been watching some blogosphere dialogue take place on the blogs of some old friends of mine. These friends also happen to be ministers in the Church of Christ. I grew up Church of Christ, was educated in Church of Christ schools, and have to admit, still have a soft spot of affection for the denomination that raised me. I certainly have a great deal of respect and admiration for all of the friends, mentors, and teachers I have had in Churches of Christ and Church of Christ schools. That having been said, I left the denomination. My hope is that this post will be a counter-point to some of my friend's posts. If you would like to read some of the conversation going on, Adam Metz (a man I respect who I've known since I was a kid) has a good series going on here.
First, a very short introduction to who the Churches of Christ are. They are not a cult, and it irritates me that they have ever been accused as being such. They are the product of an American, Christian religious movement in the early 1800s called the Restoration Movement, started and sustained by men such as Thomas and Alexander Campbell, Barton W. Stone, and Walter Scott. At the time, American Christianity was strictly divided along denominational lines. These men, sometimes together and sometimes as individuals, all worked to bring Christians together. In essence, the Restoration Movement was a Christian unity movement. To try to foster unity, the movement valued a focus on scripture (the one thing all Christians had in common was the Bible), the removal of denominational creeds and names (hence the generic name Church of Christ rather than Methodist, Episcopalian, Baptist, or Presbyterian Church), congregational autonomy, and the desire to go back to the (perceived) simplicity of the first century Church (hence the "restore" in the Restoration). As a side note, in the early days of the movement, names such as Christians, Disciples, Churches of Christ, and Disciples of Christ were all used interchangeably. It's not hard to see why things didn't pan out exactly how the founders had hoped. All Christians have the Bible, but as the running joke goes, "Put five Christians in the same room with a Bible and you'll have a dozen interpretations." And just because you don't have official creeds, that doesn't mean congregations don't have unofficial ones. So, long story short, a movement started to create unity has since broken into three denominations. The Churches of Christ and the Disciples of Christ split in 1906, and then in the 1960s, the Disciples of Christ split into the Christian Church on one side and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) on the other. All three of these denominations are Restoration Movement denominations, which means their theology is almost identical, but how that theology has been put into practice can be very different.
So, there's nearly 200 years of history summed up in a paragraph...moving on.
Growing up in Churches of Christ, I found myself at odds with much of what we did and said, but when you're not the one responsible for what is being done and said, it is easy to let a lot slide. I earned a Bachelor of Religious Education (Biblical Studies) and a Master of Divinity from Church of Christ schools, and it was always my perception that my professors hoped they were teaching me and the other students so that we could go out and be catalysts for change in our congregations. I say all that to say, everyone knew and acknowledged that there was a major divide between the fundamentalist slide many of our congregations were taking and what many of us who would one day become ministers actually believed. To put it more bluntly, everyone knew there was something going horribly wrong in our denomination, but either no one knew what to do about it or no one had the courage to call a spade a spade. I'm going to give everyone the benefit of the doubt and call it the first. And so, I stayed in Churches of Christ, because...hey, God was going to use people like me to change things!
But then I found myself in ministry and what had been a distant unease, sometimes even a strong pain in the backside, became an acute, spiritual disconnect.
To use an analogy I heard from another friend of mine who has also left Churches of Christ, it was as if Churches of Christ were hanging their hats on pegs I wasn't interested in anymore. Let me give an example. I have a deep respect and regard for the authority, history, and place of scripture in the life of the Church. I learned that in Churches of Christ, but I found that as a minister I wasn't being asked to uphold the authority of scripture. My congregation wanted me to uphold their interpretation of scripture, under penalty of losing my job. That attitude was symptomatic of my childhood congregation and almost every other congregation of which I had ever been a part. (As a side note, if you've never been attacked as a heretic when you weren't willing to spout bad theology to keep a pay check, let me say...it's not fun.) To be frank, as a minister I was no longer willing to uphold or perpetuate that attitude. That's just one such "peg." Other pegs were the Holy Spirit, religion and politics, sectarian versus ecumenical approaches to congregational life, the historical context of Biblical books, science and Christianity...it was a long list of issues. As a minister in Churches of Christ, I was constantly finding myself backed into corners where I had to choose between personal integrity and providing for my family.
That may all sound ideological. Let me give you another example. At the last Church of Christ congregation I served in before leaving the Churches of Christ, the leadership (all male) wanted to increase teen involvement during our worship services. We had a great group of teens that I still miss today, but only two of them were male, and neither of them were all that keen on being the only two teens involved. Churches of Christ (at least the vast majority of Churches of Christ) believe that only men can be involved in the worship and leadership of a congregation. However, I had three teenage girls (none had grown up in Churches of Christ) who approached me to ask if they might lead singing, lead prayers, or lead devotionals. I had to tell them no. My congregation's leadership would never have approved. And worse, I didn't have a single good reason to tell them no. That was one of those watershed moments when you realize you've got to change the path you're on. My job as a minister is to help people find their spiritual gifts and then empower those people to use them. Those three girls should never have been told no. I felt like a failure and a sellout.
And then, a great thing happened. My wife got pregnant. We were happy. We were excited. We felt all the things soon-to-be first time parents feel. We asked all the questions soon-to-be first time parents ask. What will our child look like? What will our child's personality be like? Will we have a boy or a girl? ...And then we found ourselves with another spiritual dilemma. If we had a girl, did we want to raise our daughter in a denomination that treated her like a second class citizen? We didn't have to think about that one very long. The answer was no.
I could go on and on about the reasons I left the Churches of Christ, and although it might be therapeutic for me, there isn't much point in it. Let me just say that it wasn't a knee-jerk response and a great deal of prayer, time, effort, and conversation went on behind my transition into the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). From start to finish, it took multiple years.
So, why write this post at all? Who cares why I stayed or left the denomination I grew up in? I wrote this blog because some of the assumptions I see behind the "Why I'm Still Church of Christ" conversation concern me. Here they are:
1) Churches of Christ are the Restoration Movement Denomination, and as such, have something unique to offer American Christianity.
Well, I am fully willing to admit that Churches of Christ have something unique to offer Christianity. Personally, I really miss the acapella music, but their uniqueness isn't found in their Restoration Movement history. Disciples of Christ and Christian Churches have just as much of a claim to that heritage. All Churches of Christ are Restoration Movement churches, but not all Restoration Movement churches are Churches of Christ. Churches of Christ have tended to have a "we're the only ones" attitude, and I have seen that bleed over into the way they view their heritage.
2) If you want to be a courageous Christian, don't ever leave the denomination you're born into...unless, or course, you want to join the Churches of Christ.
I will be one of the first to rant about how idiotic some of the reasons are that people leave congregations or denominations, and church shopping has reached epidemic proportions in this country. However, there is a point at which the courageous thing to do is leave the home we know in order to follow after God. I believe there is a story in Genesis about just such a thing.
3) If I can get over the differences I have with my denomination, so can you.
All people, myself included, tend to think that if it is right for them it is right for everyone. So when individuals begin feeling as if there are some major disconnections between themselves and their denomination, the temptation is to respond with, "Stop whining. Cowboy up." Obviously, based off the decisions that I have made, I don't think that's a good response. I am happy for my brothers in Christ. I am happy that they have reconciled themselves with their religious tribe, but just because they could doesn't mean other people should.
4) Staying builds character.
Sometimes that is absolutely the case, but sometimes staying destroys the person. A few years back my alma mater, Abilene Christian University, hosted a dialogue as part of their lectureships. Basically, ACU interviewed a number of female ministry students to find out what there experience was like as ministry students who would never be able to use their degrees (unless it was for children's ministry or the long hall to a PH.D. and teaching). At some point in the interview, each and every one of the students broke down weeping. God had called and gifted them to serve his Church, and then his church told them they couldn't. Please explain how that builds character.
Believe it or not, I didn't intend to write this post to bash Churches of Christ. I have many, many good memories from my thirty years in Churches of Christ. Abilene Christian University is a fabulous school, whether you're Christian or not, Church of Christ or not. I hope my kids go there. They'll get a great education. However, staying with a denomination just because it is what you are used to or because you're afraid of what it will mean if you leave is not faithfulness. It is laziness and cowardice.
Jesus told a parable once. An orchard owner had had it with a tree that was not producing fruit. He instructed his grounds keeper to cut it down. Instead, the grounds keeper asked for one more year, saying, "I [will] dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good but if not, you can cut it down." There ends the parable. Jesus never said what happened next. Churches of Christ are in decline (in their defense, they're a long way from being alone). I think that much of the discussion going on about "Why I'm still Church of Christ" is in some way the gardeners spreading manure in the hopes that fruit will come soon. Maybe it will. Who knows? This blog post was more for the people who are being spiritually strangled in the Churches of Christ. There is no shame in leaving a denomination that is asking you to take your spiritual gifts and let them atrophy in the name of faithfulness. There is no shame in leaving a denomination that has fallen into the evangelical trap of believing Biblical womanhood is 1950s womanhood. Doing so does not mean you're leaving behind your respect for scripture's authority. Doing so does not mean you're weak or a coward. Doing so does not mean you don't appreciate your religious heritage.
Take courage. Stay faithful to Christ and the power of his resurrection. Know you're not alone. Walk into the unknown, and who knows, God may have been waiting for you there all along. Oh, and by the way, I'm fully assuming that if you walk out of the Church of Christ, you'll keep walking until you find your way into another Christian community. Christians are only Christians in the Church.
I just wanted to say that, and that's why I wrote this beast of a blog post. If you've left the Church of Christ, I'd love to hear your experience. I only ask that you try to keep it respectful, and I know that can be hard if you've been hurt.