New Wineskins - Why I Stay with the Church of Christ
Why I Stay with the Church of Christ
by James T Wood
I almost didn’t. I almost left. Something just held me back. It’s not the doctrine. It’s not the relationships. It’s not the time I’ve spent investing in the Churches of Christ. There’s something else that just won’t let me go. Despite the fact that more of my peers have left than have stayed, I can’t quite do it. Not yet.
In the Church of Christ, I learned that the Bible is the source of our belief and practice. We’re encouraged to read it, know it and apply it to our lives. It’s not a distant, dusty text, but an immediate, palpable guide. But the resulting mishmash of beliefs and practices in Churches of Christ can be baffling, frustrating and infuriating. Arguments over – well, over everything. And everyone claims biblical authority for their own position. Recently I had a chance to travel all over the country and around the world, and I visited churches everywhere. It’s the same argument. Everywhere. It may not be the same topic, but the gist of the argument is the same.
I’m tired of it. I want to get away from all the wrangling (and many of my peers already have).
As a member of the Church of Christ, I’ve been able to play the “Do You Know” game on three continents and I always make connections. It’s beautiful; I get to be a part of a family that extends around the world. It’s also deadly. This family is inbred and insular. There is no growth in the future of a family like this, only slow decline and then death. This closed-off family is awkward and uncomfortable for new people to understand. There are inside jokes and connections that strangers can never hope to share, so they will always be strangers.
I’m tired of it. I want to throw open the doors and invite everyone in (my peers have gone to the strangers’ churches instead).
I’ve been in the Church of Christ since I was seven years old. Since then I’ve done it all. I went to every service, every camp, and every Bible Bowl. I attended a Church of Christ college and then went to a Church of Christ university for an M.Div. I’ve worked at churches in six states and attended around the world. I’ve poured 26 years of my life into this fellowship, but all that isn’t enough to make me stay. Like most of my peers, I’m hungry for something new and challenging. I want to make a difference and change my world, and most of the churches I’ve seen don’t really share that vision. The unspoken mission statement seems to be, “Keep doing what we’ve always been doing until Jesus comes again.”
I’m tired of it. I want to explore new ideas, to challenge and be challenged (my peers are doing this in other churches and in non-profit organizations).
Why I Stay
The reason I stay is something that happened at a conference in Seattle, Washington a couple years ago. But, before the conference can make any sense, I need to explain some of my pre-college education.
I was baptized as an infant into the Lutheran church. I went to a Lutheran middle school and a Baptist high school (there were no Church of Christ schools in my town). There I found myself as the sole defender of the “truth.” I constantly asked questions about baptism and predestination. I saw it as my purpose to educate the lost people that surrounded me. I would go to my preacher and get counsel on how to approach the issues that were being taught at my school. Then, armed with ammunition, I would go back and fire away.
I didn’t have many friends in school.
By my senior year of high school, I was tired. Instead of me initiating the arguments over doctrinal purity, I was being accosted in the hallways. I could come up with (or find) the right answers, but they never satisfied anyone. They just came up with their right answers and we’d go another round. It was exhausting.
Then, one day, I was sitting in a lunchtime prayer meeting and I looked across the room at one of my few friends. I thought, “Do I really believe that he’s going to hell?” Of course he was doctrinally wrong on so many issues I couldn’t count them all, but I was also sitting in a room asking him to pray for me. So, was he hell-bound?
Fast-forward to the conference a few years ago. I sat in a room with Lutherans and Baptists, along with Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Methodists, and most other denominations. Several speakers shared their thoughts with the group, but a theme started emerging (at least in my mind).
The Lutheran stood up and told about how his church was reaching lost people, but they were noticing something unique for their denomination. He asked the crowd, “Did you know that the primary way that people are converted in the New Testament is through adult baptism?” Those of us at the Church of Christ table were not surprised, rather, we were smug. Of course we knew.
Then the Baptist talked. He shared the power and wonder of free will in connecting with lost people and helping them to find a faith in Jesus. This was in complete contrast to his denominational doctrine of predestination. We knew all about this too, but he’d only come to it through reading the Bible.
But then something we didn’t know came up. The Holy Spirit. Our table of Church of Christ ministers had to wrestle with the work of the Holy Spirit from a New Testament perspective. And we saw that we’d been wrong. These speakers were able to point us to something in the Bible that we’d missed. We couldn’t be smug about it anymore. It took them admitting that they’d been wrong to force us to admit that we’d been wrong.
That’s why I stay.
I stay, not because we’re the only ones who can read the Bible and do what it says, but because we’ve had that as our plea for centuries. I stay because I’ve seen the doctrine and practice of other denominations and they aren’t better than what’s happen in the Church of Christ (nor are they worse, necessarily).
I stay, because, despite the indoctrinated, insular, indolent history I’ve had with the Churches of Christ, I’ve also been challenged to read the Bible for myself. I’ve had opportunity to see what other people believe and practice. And, I’ve seen the opportunity to make things better, not just for our small fellowship, or just for Christians, but for the world.
I stay because we can still, in the words of Alexander Campbell, endeavor “to read the Scriptures as though no one had read them before.”
I stay because, as I looked at my friend in the prayer meeting, I realized that while we, in the Churches of Christ, may be Christians only, we are certainly not the only Christians.
I stay because our history of seeking unity can, possibly, be our future too.