No Room for Family

Christian people speak often of family values, the sanctity of marriage and the horrors of broken families. We definitely care a great deal about family, as we should, and the Bible has much to say about family. For instance, Jesus himself taught that God’s ideal for marriage was a man and woman in life-long partnership and that a marriage should only dissolve when a spouse has chosen another’s bed. Moreover, several New Testament writers speak of the commitment a husband and wife should have for one another, and that children and parents should treat one another with appropriate respect. Yet, Jesus placed marriage (and family!) second to following him. Accordingly, marriage and family are important, but they are not our most important commitments as Christians.

One only has to spend a few moments in western Canada to find that family is important in the Churches of Christ; one soon finds out that family is often the glue holding our congregations together. Shortly after moving to Canada, I learned how interconnected church and family were. When we introduce ourselves here, we immediately follow with which family is ours. Because of this, ministers and elders in western Canada also need to be part family counselors. In addition, families are the earthen vessels that pass the gospel from one generation to another. Family ties are one of the strengths of the church in Canada—however, it may also be a serious weakness in participating in God’s mission.

Sociologist Reginald Bibby has done some serious cultural analysis of the state of “Christianity” in Canada. In Restless Gods: The Renaissance of Religion in Canada (2002), he addresses the place of family in the life of Canadian churches. “For all the talk about evangelism,” says Bibby, “groups of all kinds were failing to demonstrate much success in recruiting people outside their own boundaries. Most were growing by adding people who were primarily their own—children and geographically mobile members” (p. 24).

In another place, Bibby asserts that churches in Canada generally grow in two ways: birth and marriage. That is, either we give birth to future members or our children marry people who then also become members. In his earlier work, Unknown Gods: The Ongoing Story of Religion in Canada (1993), he observes that churches in Canada were often “family shrines.” In these churches a few families hold all of decision-making posts, both formal (elders, deacons) and informal (highly respected members). Regarding a congregation he once attended he states, “For all the external signs of engaging in outreach, I increasingly had a great difficulty being convinced that people in my small church really wanted things to change. New people would have upset the organizational applecart” (269).

Some of what Bibby observes rings true for us as well. It is entirely possible that we have so much biological family around us that we do not feel the need to invite new people into our church family. Even if folks try us, they might not find the welcome they seek. I often ask church leaders in workshops I hold, “Whom does your church exclude?” The first response is usually that their congregation is very friendly and welcoming. I quiz deeper, “Would the handicapped find a welcome here?” Most of our older buildings are not up-to-date and so we usually have to admit that a wheelchair-bound visitor would find it difficult to move around. We could ask the same about the blind and the deaf, although most of congregation would probably adapt if they had a member with such needs.

But let’s look even deeper. As the morning service adjourns, do we have room at our families’ tables for those who are not physical family? Do people have to know the same people as you know to be welcomed? Do people have to have attended the same (unnamed) school to be part of the circle? If a visitor really wanted to become a member, could they find a clear way in? If they had leadership potential and desire, could they learn what it would take to be a Sunday school teacher, deacon, or elder in your congregation? Before answering these questions, think about how successful your congregation has been in the past ten years at bringing in new people and assimilating them into the common life of the church. (If this concerns you, see Lyle E. Schaller, Assimilating New Members [Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1978]).

While Bibby’s research may help us take a hard look at ourselves, we depend ultimately on the teachings of Jesus to place family, church and discipleship in proper perspective. One time, Jesus’ family came to take him away because they believed he was crazy. When his family, which included Mary and his brothers, approached where he was teaching, they sent word to see him. To this Jesus asked the messenger, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” Looking around at the rag-tag crowd listening eagerly to his message, Jesus said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3.32-35). To feel the sting of this, imagine your son or a significant family member saying something like this about you. Jesus gave preference to his seeking-God’s-will family over his physical family.

However, Jesus has more to say regarding family. Luke records Jesus teaching, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple. And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14.26-27; cf. Matt 10.37-38).

This topic is of personal importance to me. My mother and father were strangers to the people of God. I am a Christian today because a Christian woman invited me to a Vacation Bible School when I was seven years old. I had no physical family in the church and the physical family I had was not able to teach me God’s ways. I was a stranger and the church took me in and gave me a place to belong. Consequently, I have always looked to the church to be my family wherever I have lived. I understood that when I accepted the call to follow Jesus that my present family—my wife, my daughter, and any extended family I have—all come second to my loyalty to Jesus.

This topic has become important to me for another reason. I now live in this country and I want our churches to grow and to prosper in every way. We all know that we are not growing and I have come to suspect that in some degree we are the problem. The protection and nearness of our families may give us the false illusion that we are doing well, yet all the while church after church is on the verge of closure; as many as four have closed in Saskatchewan since I arrived here in 2003. As these churches die, they often find themselves being mostly members of a single-family group. I know several such families and they are my heroes for keeping the doors open, but they know that if revival is to occur, it must involve those who are not biological family.

I do not write this as a final word, or even as a word of judgment, but as a place to begin a very difficult conversation. I recognize I could be butchering a sacred cow here, but we must be willing to lay this one on the altar if we are serious about following Jesus. I may have overstated my case a bit here or there, but maybe not. Is it possible we are not inviting people into the family of God because we have “enough” family on earth?

Adapted from my May 2008 Gospel Herald article by the same title.

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Selectivity of Restorationism

Churches of Christ have understood that their mission is to restore the New Testament Church in the twenty-first century. After all, Churches of Christ are part of the Restoration Movement. However, restorationism as a historical project is, at best, selective.

Because we sought to restore the forms and practices of the early church, we have been especially concerned about the Christian assembly and what we do on the first day of the week. These are valid concerns. However, if it remains our only concern, we miss the needed restoration of Christian living in our times. Even so, we should not apologize for even the provisional and incomplete nature of our mission as any project of restoring the New Testament church is necessarily and always selective and provisional based on our current understanding of the will of God.

Our concern to restore New Testament church life gives us a decided strength against the backdrop of modern evangelicalism. For instance, evangelicalism has only recently given focused attention to the nature of the church while we have given sustained attention to the nature of the church for the last two hundred years. From the beginning of the restoration movement, our earliest leaders, Alexander Campbell and Barton W. Stone, in the United States, and James Black and Joseph Ash, in Canada, were deeply committed to restoring the New Testament church in present times. For them, to restore church practices was the means towards recapturing the apostolic church in its pristine first-century glory. To be sure, the restoration of church practices fit into a much larger program: a restored church would lead to a united church that would lead to the winning of the world for Christ before his return.

In the 1820s, Campbell ran a significant series of articles in his Christian Baptist journal entitled, “A Restoration of the Ancient Order of Things” where he set forth a program for such a restoration. Most of the articles deal with the restoration of church forms and practices. Only in one article did he take up the restoration of the spirit, or disposition, of the early church. Through this series, Campbell makes the “restoration of the ancient order of things” the mission statement for the fledgling Disciples movement and over time, this slogan became the raison d’être for the Churches of Christ.

However, “restoration” did not belong exclusively to the North America Restoration Movement (called the Stone-Campbell Movement by some scholars to distinguish from other restorationist attempts). It was an essential plank in Protestantism, in general. Church historians have traced the call for restitution (restitutio) in such forerunners of the Reformation as Hus and Wycliffe. Later Luther and his colleague Melancthon made restorationist appeals in their stand against Roman Catholic corruptions. Additionally, restorationist tendencies have been found in the reformatory programs of the Swiss Re-formers, John Calvin, in Geneva, and Ulrich Zwingli, in Zürich. Zwingli, interestingly, promoted a kind of restorationism similar to what Churches of Christ would later promote in North America.

The hope that the New Testament church would be restored fired the imagination of several radical reformers who did not think the magisterial reformers (such as, Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and Knox) were thoroughgoing enough. These Anabaptists (as they supported rebaptism for those baptized as infants) sought to restore such elements as congregational autonomy, elder-rule, separation of church and state, and church discipline.

The Puritans, reacting to the Anglican and Reformed churches, attempted a more rigorous type of restorationism. They sought to embody a restitution of the Old and New Testament in their formation of government in the New World. For them, the Old Testament was equal to, if not more important than the New, as precedence for political protocol. This legacy still informs the civic religion of the United States that blends patriotism and evangelical Christianity.

Sadly much of the fragmentation of Protestantism in North America has been done in the name of some form of restorationism. Even the most heretical religious leaders sometimes claimed a restorationist platform. For example, Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormons, preached and envisioned a restoration of the church that included apostolic power. One twist in Stone-Campbell history was when Sidney Rigdon led his Disciples congregation en masse into the Mormon Church because Rigdon believed Smith offered a more convincing vision of the restored church. Again, rather uncomfortably Rigdon’s association with the Disciples of Christ is partly responsible for the full name of the Mormon Church: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

Though, for Campbell, the restoration of the true church did not require the restoration of apostolic power, since he, like many of his heirs today, believed that the apostolic periods and the miracles belonged exclusively to the first century. Not everyone in the Stone-Campbell movement, then or now, agreed with Campbell on the cessation of miracles. For example, William Kinkade, an early associate of Barton W. Stone, passionately disagreed with Campbell on the issue of apostolic power and miracles. In his Bible Doctrine (1829), Kinkade responded to Campbell in chapter playfully entitled, “The Restoration of the Ancient Order of Things.” As to be expected, he actually defends the continuation of the miraculous with the same logic Campbell had used to disprove their continuation. From the beginning of the Restoration Movement, people have had competing visions as to what restoration actually entails.

Others like John Wesley, deeply influenced by this reading of post-apostolic church leaders, longed for the restitution of the spirituality of the early church in their day. Before Wesley started the Methodist church in the United States, he sought to recapture the spiritual intensity of the early Christians through his holy clubs, something akin to our small groups today.

When spiritual lethargy overtook Methodism, the Holiness movement grew out of it in the nineteenth century. The Holiness movement wanted to restore the church’s spiritual and moral life. But it too gradually grew cold and lifeless and so the modern Pentecostal movement, in its place, sought to recover apostolic experience of healing and speaking in tongues. These believers sought to recover the experience of the New Testament church. More recent charismatic movements, and such new churches as the Vineyard, are still seeking what they believed was lost in the fallen church(es) of Christendom.

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So as we look into the history of Protestantism we see that many different people and groups have tried to capture something of the meaning of “restoration.” What we learn from history is that no one does it right and each group tends to choose its own self-chosen identity markers. What also seems to be true is that cycles of excitement are replaced with times of dryness to be then sparked again as people catch the dream of restoring the New Testament Church afresh.

However, we, the Churches of Christ, do differ from other groups in a significant way. Restoration was not one of our themes, it is our theme. Restorationism shapes the core of our being. Yet, the unpleasant and unwanted byproducts of our attempts at restorationism have been pride and prejudice, division and separation. A real danger of any project of restoration is that restorationists can come to believe that their way is the only way to restore the true church and that no one can do it better. Worse yet some will even come to believe that their efforts at purifying the church have re-established the True Church of the New Testament in its pristine glory. Perhaps, to guard against this, we should embark on a restoration of the humility of Christ—I don’t know of a group yet that has taken that up as their platform.

Essentially, as shown in this brief historical sketch, there are three major kinds of restitution or restoration: ethical, experiential, or ecclesiological. There may be other ways to categorize these, but in the main, any attempt to restore the church will fit one of these broad types. No group to date —including us, the Churches of Christ—has been able to concentrate on all three at once, but have tended to focus on one of these to the exclusions of the others.

An ethical restorationist would seek to restore the Christian life to what we believe the New Testament requires. Because of our sometimes-myopic attention to what we do in the assembly, we have not always stressed that correct church practices must be coupled with the highest ethical standards rooted in the life and teachings of Jesus. The New Testament plainly gives substantial attention to this area of our existence and common life. The direct result of our baptism is that we live new lives. Our reception of the Holy Spirit causes us to produce the fruit of the Spirit. Living more ethically may well be the most important kind of restoration we could undertake today.

Experiential restoration implies there is a need to recapture the experience and power of the early church. While this can be taken to an extreme, there is a need to recapture the kind of spiritual authority the apostles had. This is not to supplant their unique role, but to walk in the same spirit of boldness they had. People in our churches long to experience the power of the gospel but do not really expect to find it at our assemblies. This accounts for a great deal of the apathy church leaders face every week. We have people leaving us every year in search of the power of God they cannot seem to find among us. If we have the same Spirit as the early church, why do we walk so weakly and deal with difficult situations so timidly? Why can we not successfully discipline wayward members?

Of course, restoring every church practice to its pristine New Testament quality would not guarantee that people’s hearts would be more devoted to God. More would still be required than the simple restoration of the forms and practices of the early church. I believe we have come to a time when our guiding principles (more assumed than articulated in most places) need some reassessment and our project of restoring the New Testament church is in need of some serious course adjustments. Someone called insanity doing the same things over and over yet expecting different results.

Is there still a role for restoration of church practices and forms—the kind we have tried to practice for the past two hundred years? I believe so, but this venture is going to need a much broader base than it has been. The mere restoration of church practices is empty if unaccompanied by ethical and experiential restoration.

We have built a house that many now find empty, lifeless, even soulless. There are signs that the foundation of our house is cracking and attempts to shore up that foundation only seem to amplify the problems. Why do we think we can somehow build a superstructure and so impress God by the soundness of our work? The focus on restoring church practices has produced exclusion and endless wrangling among our churches. Jesus died for a more significant reason than for us to get all of our practices right. The prophets give testimony that correct practices without the right spirit and experience of God is empty and something God does not want. The prophetic voice still resounds, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”