Moving Into God’s Future*
What does the future hold for Churches of Christ? The way we frame the question is important. “What does the future hold?” sounds as if we are in the hands of an uncontrollable fate. Perhaps we should ask, “What direction should our churches follow in the future?” But that question places too much faith in our human ability to discern the right path. “What does God want his church to be?” That’s the proper question. We know he holds the future. What we hope and pray for is discernment to see his hand at work and a willingness to submit to his will. In light of our heritage of unity and restoration, I believe God is leading us in the following directions.
The Bible for Head and Heart
The future must be more than an institutional pilgrimage; it must be a spiritual one. Our past has sometimes focused on convincing the head instead of turning the heart. Both are needed. We want to have right doctrine, because we want to obey our Father, but doctrine must translate into life. Too many times we have been content with restoring the structure of the church and have neglected the weightier matters of justice, mercy, and faithfulness.
Ideally, one leads to the other. When Alexander Campbell penned his series of articles “On the Restoration of the Ancient Order of Things,” his dream was that the restoration of the weekly Lord’s Supper, believer’s immersion, and local church leadership would lead to a more spiritually disciplined church. It was not doctrine for doctrine’s sake. That’s the very thing he and our other early leaders objected to, a “cold orthodoxy.” Instead, the Lord’s Supper each week was to be a spiritual feast, an experiential participation in the death of Jesus. Baptism was to bring a heart-felt assurance of salvation and reconciliation. We should appoint elders not so we could be “organized correctly,” but so that deeply spiritual leaders could guide others to a more intimate relation with Jesus.
A unity movement needs the challenge, the comfort, and the assurance brought by the spiritual disciplines. In the words of The Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery, we should “pray more and dispute less.” There are signs of spiritual renewal among us. We must restore and cultivate that spirituality sent by the Holy Spirit of God if we are truly to be the church Christ intends.
Lord, Come Quickly
The one certainty of the future is that our Lord will come again. We have at times neglected and misunderstood this truth. Alexander Campbell and others believed we could hasten the coming of Christ by uniting the church. Unfortunately, that millennial hope soon merged with the glorious future of the American republic. Campbell and others soon confused the success of America with the coming of the kingdom.
Later in our history, some forced premillennial Christians into their own congregations. Consequently, we neglected the book of Revelation and the anticipation of the Second Coming. We didn’t talk much of the return of Jesus. We didn’t know how he would return. Some assumed the kingdom had come in its fullness in the church, so we did not anticipate the culmination of the kingdom’s coming at the end of time.
We are not suggesting it would be healthy to reopen the old postmillennial or premillennial or amillennial discussions. What we do need is a global kingdom vision. Jesus will return to bring a new heaven and new earth where God’s will is done and justice and peace reign. All we do as a church we do in anticipation of that day. Indeed our value as a Restoration movement is completely based on God’s promise to renew the heavens and the earth. We cannot as individuals or as a church constantly keep the Second Coming foremost in our minds (although we should think and speak of it more often). What we can do is be ready for his coming through constant faithful service.
The Second Coming relativizes all our plans and programs. It reminds us that God alone reigns, although now we only see that reign by faith. If our path is a journey, not a destination, we must also remember that we have a destination. Our pilgrimage is toward the New Jerusalem. Our Movement is precisely that, a journey to the heart of God. We must learn again to desire him alone. To look forward to that day when Jesus comes and we see God face to face.
May he come quickly.
*This article is an excerpt from a forthcoming concise global history of the Stone-Campbell Movement.