For thirty years Churches of Christ in the Portland, Ore. area have been coming together once a year for an event called Together with Love in Christ – or TLC. On October 18, 2014 the annual celebration gathered again on the bank of the Columbia River (in a hotel banquet hall), to worship. It is quite fitting that on the thirtieth anniversary of TLC the same number of congregations from the area were represented.
The churches that participated ranged from new church plants to long established congregations, from churches meeting in a small room to churches that fill vast auditoriums and demand multiple services, from churches that embrace the newest songs to churches that sing every verse of songs that were written a century ago.
Together we prayed and sang and communed and fellowshipped and learned. Together we represented the past and the future of the Churches of Christ.
In the past – at the very beginning of the Restoration Movement – the goal was unity. Alexander Campbell, Barton Stone, Walter Scott and so many others emerged from disparate churches and denominations to ask some difficult questions about what it means to follow Jesus. They sought to live out, in a radical way, the ideal of unity. Though the quote dates back to the early 17th century, the Restoration Movement took it as a rallying cry: “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.”
Yet, despite this past, the future of unity is in some doubt. Differences over what constitutes an “essential” have torn apart congregations and the Restoration Movement, on more than one occasion. Pick your issue: kitchens, instruments, cups, missionary societies, Sunday school, small groups, Sunday night worship, singing during communion, women serving, use of PowerPoint, or what songs qualify as an invitation song. Churches have split over each of these issues and many more than I can recount. Of course this is not unique to the Churches of Christ or the Restoration Movement, but it is notable in a movement founded upon the ideal of Christian unity.
I will not pretend to have a panacea for the divisions that threaten to tear the Churches of Christ apart. There is none. It is no easy task, but we were not called by God to an easy life, rather to one of meaning and purpose. I offer up TLC and Portland as an example of how to move forward. Not because TLC happens without conflict, but because it happens despite the conflict. It brings churches together in dialog. It forces us to confront our disunity every time we attempt to unite for one Sunday out of fifty-two.
If we are to move beyond the squabbles that have divided us, if we are to learn to live the ideal of unity in the essentials and liberty in the non-essentials, we must do so through the hard work of love. Love means self-sacrifice, love means patience, love means hope, love means listening to both the weaker and stronger brothers and sisters we have.
The future of the Churches of Christ is not glamorous or easy, but neither was its past. The hard questions and difficult conversations that brought Stone and Campbell and Scott together – despite their great differences – can be our heritage and our future hope. Loving dialog that seeks and promotes unity is our future, if we have the courage.
But too often we talk past each other rather than with each other. We decry our opponents instead of hearing them out. We vilify the other rather than learning from them. And this problem is not unique to the Churches of Christ or the Restoration Movement. Our society is mired in monologs that play endlessly over one another. It is not only our churches, but our world, that needs what the Churches of Christ have done and, I believe, can do again. Without dialog we are doomed to be alone, for the more we speak and demand that all who hear agree, the fewer and fewer people will listen until we all stand alone and isolated.
The commands of Jesus, the marks of a disciple, are meaningless to a hermit. It takes no effort for a loner to die to themselves or to love their neighbors or to become last or to care for the poor because there is no one else. Jesus’ commands only make sense to those living in community. The Sermon on the Mount is, in many ways, a handbook on how to live in community despite conflict. And, at its core, is the concept of loving each other, not just enough to take care of each other, but enough to listen to each other.
I can already hear the retort: “But if we listen to them, we are approving of their message.” No. No. Did Jesus approve of the Pharisees or teachers of the Law? Did he approve of the Samaritan woman or the rich young ruler or Judas? Yet he listened. He heard. He loved. And out of that listening love, he was able to speak truth to those who would hear him. We are told to speak the truth in love, but I think we miss the importance placed on the last word. Often in Greek the final word is the most important – sort of like using an exclamation point in English – so when you read that we should speak the truth in love, it should look more like: “Love people as you speak the truth!” Love people first. Listen to them. Care about them. Then, if they are willing, speak truth.
The future of the Churches of Christ can be the unity that it boasted in the past if we are willing to die to ourselves, love our neighbors and listen.