This month: 193 - All Things New
Exploring the Heart of Restoration

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Archives for May, 2019

Three Dimensions of Leadership for Growing (and Dying) Churches!

Last month, I offered a brief introduction to a wonderful book on leadership by Tod Bolsinger titled Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership in Uncharted Territory.1 One significant feature of the Bolsinger’s book is his contribution to thinking about the sort of leadership needed in congregational contexts today. When I say congregational contexts, I am speaking of churches that are likely aging and in significant decline, and I also am speaking of young churches experiencing vitality and life. Both kinds of churches need the things that Bolsinger offers!

Bolsinger names three vital dimensions that need to be in play for leaders. First is the dimension of technical competence. Bolsinger reminds us that even in new and uncertain times, churches still need certain basic things done well. All these matter: faithful stewardship; handling the nuts and bolts of congregational care and life; the ability to maintain effective, streamlined decision-making; and caring for the unseen and unexpected crises that emerge. Leaders must be trusted to do what the congregation has hired or affirmed them to do. Without technical competence, a church will be unwilling to try new things or step out in faith toward a new future.

Second, leaders must demonstrate relational coherence. Undergirding all congregational life and vitality is the reality of strong, meaningful relationships. Relational coherence refers to the credibility, connectedness and character leaders must possess to facilitate and nurture trust. Relationships must cohere; that is to say, relationships need to reflect honesty and authentic empathy. A lack of solid relationships will severely limit the capacity for a church to engage with its mission.

Third, leaders need adaptive capacity. This dimension refers to the ability to get on the balcony and see the big picture. Having seen the bigger picture, then the task is to undertake an experiment and try something that might extend mission. Being adaptive means being willing to take a risk, to try something new and then learn about it. It also can mean looking at reality and reframing something that may appear to be a bad thing to see the opportunity that lies latent within it.

When leaders possess all three of these dimensions and practice them, their churches will be well positioned to pay attention to God’s preferred future. More than that, those leaders will be well positioned to act as dynamic partners with God in kingdom activity. May God bless you as you develop your technical competence, your relational coherence and your adaptive capacity, all for the sake of God’s work in the world!


Carson 1. InterVarsity Press, 2018.
2019 Ministers’ Salary Survey results now online
Thank you to all who participated in the 2019 Ministers’ Salary Survey. The results of the survey are now available! This nationwide survey, an ongoing service of the Siburt Institute, gathers information about current compensation levels for ministers in Churches of Christ.

The survey compares minister compensation packages, including allowances and benefits, and provides information on the number of years in ministry, educational background, experience, and various other factors. To reflect up-to-date information, the survey was administered during the first few months of the year, requesting data on 2019 compensation packages. Once again, the survey process was led by Dr. Carley Dodd (’70), professor emeritus of communication and research director for the Siburt Institute. Dodd was kind enough to offer several reflections on this year’s data, including key takeaways for elders and ministers.

If you serve in a paid ministry position within the Churches of Christ and would like to participate in the 2020 survey, please complete this brief online form. Email us at with questions or feedback.
Ministry of reconciliation
In a special guest series on Mosaic, Maurice Dent and Drew Baker (’12) offer insights into the complexities and importance of pursuing racial reconciliation within the church. In part one, Baker reflects on how our vision of God’s kingdom relates to our (often flawed) perception of diversity. In part two, Dent and Baker discuss practical challenges to racial reconciliation in our worship practices. And in part three, the authors suggest three key commitments necessary for moving toward reconciliation. Dent (pictured, left) is lead minister for the Gate City Church of Christ in Greensboro, North Carolina, and Baker (pictured, right) ministers in Lewisville, North Carolina.
Register for Summer Seminar with Randy Harris
Join us for our Summer Seminar, “Rich Heritage, Unfolding Future: Renewing Churches for God’s Mission,” Aug. 9-10 in ACU’s Hunter Welcome Center. Under the leadership of Randy Harris (pictured, right), our growing team of presenters and panelists includes (pictured below, from top left) David Bearden, Dr. Wes Crawford (’02 M.Div.), Alejandro Ezquerra, Dr. Douglas Foster, Dr. Suzie Macaluso, Dr. Royce Money (’64), Ian Nickerson (’16) and Dr. Carson Reed (’95 D.Min.). Watch our website for additional presenters!

Register today! The event cost is $60 and includes meals. Registration closes Aug. 2.
Cross-Cultural Pathway at Summit 2019
It matters how we engage in multicultural relationships within our churches and leadership teams! All people are welcomed into the body of Christ, and the church is the physical embodiment of that welcoming.
This year at Summit, Dr. Jared Looney (’96), executive director and team leader at Global City Mission Initiative; Manny Dominguez, youth minister at the Hills Church; and Seth Bouchelle (’13), team leader at Global City Mission Initiative, will lead a full-day pathway on Tuesday, Sept. 17.
Global City Mission Initiative gathering
The pathway will focus on the challenges of multicultural leadership and discipleship, offering useful advice for any church concerned with its multicultural relations. Speakers also will explore unique challenges and benefits facing leadership teams as they seek to diversify their staffing in response to changing demographics and shifting religious and spiritual perspectives.

Please plan to join us Sept. 15-18 in Abilene for the 113th annual Summit.
Summer Seminar, Aug. 9-10Lunch and Learn with Dr. Jerry Taylor, Aug. 29ACU’s 113th Summit, Sept. 15-18Minister Support Network Retreat, Sept. 19-22Contemplative Ministers’ Initiative Retreat, Oct. 7-10
“Being a leader inevitably involves disappointing people. Someone will eventually misunderstand or criticize our decisions. But our goal is pleasing God, not trying to make everyone happy. Our goal is to serve the church with our gift of leadership.” – Bob Kauflin, Worship Matters: Leading Others to Encounter the Greatness of God “The thoughtful, relationship-oriented person in an organization may not always be the one with the most important title on the door or the one who dominates meetings. It may not even be the person to whom others turn for action. But in every successful organization there is at least one person who is oriented toward relationships and who guides others. The official leader does well to identify and encourage this person.” – Philip Crosby, The Absolutes of Leadership

Accused of Being a False Teacher

Recently a brother gave me a warning, it was out of love I am sure. “Watch false teachers that want to make the Church of Christ like Denominations.” The caps are his.

This was a well meaning brother. But the irony of that statement was completely lost. I, of course, was the “false teacher,” that all needed to be on guard.

I am for being on guard for false teachers. They exist. I see many posting all over social media espousing what I see as false, everything from religious nationalism, to Marcionism, to not so subtle Gnosticism, to sectarianism. We need to watch out for these wolves in sheep’s clothing.

But what is my particular heresy? My heresy is that I think, indeed I know, that me and my group are not the only Christians on the planet. I know that my standing before God is not based on the precision of my understanding of doctrine nor the precision of my performance of commands. Nor is the standing of any I disagree with based on their precision either.

I am grateful that it is the Lord who died, and was raised again, who is “able to keep you [us] from falling, and to make you [us] stand without blemish in the presence of his glory with rejoicing …” (Jude 1.24-25).

Here I Stand: The Years of Misunderstanding

The “standing” given to us in the presence of his glory is given by Jesus the Messiah. It is not given by me, nor my critic. It is not even given by a sign that says “Church of Christ” on a building.

I grew up in the Buckle of the Bible Belt, Florence, Alabama (in the very shadow of the T. B. Larimore Home). From my earliest memories of church there was, for lack of a better term, an “adversarial” relationship with other people who claimed to be Christian. In fact, I have no memory of ever thinking anyone “in the denominations” was in fact a Christian, that is a real Christian. (I apologize for the often horrible ways people with amazing faith in Jesus were often caricatured in print, in sermons, in conversations to which I was exposed growing up. I also admit that the Baptists down the street were often as sectarian as we were).

It is an ironic fact we did not use the lingo “Christian” very often at all. Rather we used “coded language” such as that a person was “a member of the church” or “they are Church of Christ.” We were the only true Christians for we were the only true church.

In fact if you were “in a denomination” it could only mean you did not love the Bible and did not want to obey it. This was also true for the various false Churches of Christ that I had a vague knowledge (the “anti’s” or those folks who were worse than Baptists, the “Christian Church”).

Here I Stand: Learning Surprising Grace in “Our” Story

I took a class in college called “The Restoration Movement.” It was a revisionist, almost a propogandist, presentation that reinforced a sectarian posture. I actually learned next to nothing about Barton Stone, Thomas and Alexander Campbell, Walter Scott, the “Christians,” the “Reformers,” the union of those groups, nor the incredible diversity between them.

Today, I believe, this perspective and attitude represents an absolute perversion of the what the Stone-Campbell Movement was all about. I know now that what I grew up in North Alabama is not, in fact, the vision of the Stone-Campbell Movement.

Barton Stone, Thomas & Alexander Campbell, Walter Scott did not think they were seeking the only true church. They certainly did not believe, nor teach, that they and their group were the only Christians. The first item in the Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery is utter nonsense if they did hold that view.

We will, that this body die, be dissolved, and sink in union with the Body of Christ at large; for there is only one Body and one Spirit.

They did not think Christianity had disappeared. Christianity had become divided and they were scandalized by it. They were seeking unity of a divided church. The chasm between the former and the later is cosmic in its distance. As the Last Will and Testament calls us to the task of unity.

Let all Christians join with us, in crying to God day and night, to remove the obstacles which stand in the way of his work … We heartily unite with our Christian brethren of every name, in thanksgiving to God …”

I remember early on, late 80s, starting to read some of Stone and Alexander Campbell for myself. I was in for a shock. Campbell carried out frequent correspondence with religious folks all over the place. The Baptists were “brethren.” Campbell certainly took the Baptists to task, this is clear. But his chastisement was, ironically, over their dogmatism and narrowness. The Baptists disfellowshiped Campbell (See the Beaver Anathema), Campbell did not disfellowship the Baptists!

Campbell published the missionary reports of the famous Baptist missionary Adoniram Judson (1788-1850) and extolled him and his work. Campbell would engage in “social worship” (that is corporate prayer, praise, breaking the bread around the table) with anyone who claimed allegiance with the Messiah even while disagreeing on particulars.

Joseph Hostetler and his Dunkards are a classic example of the spirit of the Stone-Campbell Movement. Hostetler wrote Campbell a letter asking about his “Ancient Order.” Campbell states unambiguously that the “Ancient Order” is not some kind of creedal statement in which agreement is necessary for either being a child of God nor to be in fellowship with Campbell. Hostetler’s Dunkards practiced triune immersion (baptized three times), they took the Lord’s Supper within the context of a meal (love feast), they took the Lord’s Supper not weekly but only a couple times a year, practiced foot washing as a sacrament/ordinance, and other “quaint” notions. Campbell’s reply to Hostetler explains why he disagrees on these particulars. But before he says anything he makes this bold statement.

DEAR BROTHER — For such I recognize you, notwithstanding the varieties of opinion which you express on some topics, on which we might NEVER agree. But if we should not, as not unity of opinion, but unity of faith, is the only true bond of Christian union, I will esteem and love you as I do every man, of whatever name, who believes sincerely that Jesus is the Messiah, and hope in his salvation. And as to the evidence of this belief and hope, I know of none more decisive than an unfeigned obedience, and willingness to submit to the authority of the Great King” (Alexander Campbell, “A Restoration of the Ancient Order of Things, No. XI,” Christian Baptist, 1825, p. 223. Campbell’s emphasis)

Certainly, Barton W. Stone, Alexander Campbell and Walter Scott wanted nothing to do with “sectarianism.” But because they had meditated on numerous passages in the Bible like 2 Peter 2; 2 Timothy 2.14-28; 3.1-3, etc.

They realized that a false teacher is not primarily recognized by what is taught. A person can be incorrect and not be a false teacher. A false teacher is known primarily in the New Testament by his/her arrogant self-righteousness, harshness, eagerness to fight, lack of gentleness, love, and greed, etc. Barton Stone hit the nail on the head when he called certain over zealous and convinced of their own rightness brothers, “anti-sectarian sectarians.” What a wonderful phrase. Here is the quote.

The scriptures [sic] will never keep together in union, and fellowship members not in the spirit of the scriptures, which spirit is love, peace, unity, forbearance, and cheerful obedience. This is the spirit of the great Head of the body. I blush for my fellows, who hold up the Bible as the bond of union yet make their opinions of it tests of fellowship; who plead for union of all christians; yet refuse fellowship with such as dissent from their notions. Vain men! Their zeal is not according to knowledge, nor is their spirit that of Christ. There is a day not far ahead which will declare it. Such antisectarian sectarians are doing more mischief to the cause, and advancement of truth, the unity of christians, and the salvation of the world, than all the skeptics in the world. In fact, they make skeptics.” (Barton W. Stone, “Remarks,” [Christian Messenger August 1835], 180)

Can Brother Stone get an “Amen?”

Even the Gospel Advocate, throughout the life time of David Lipscomb, recognized those immersed in the name of Jesus as genuine Christians. Lipscomb noted the cancer of sectarianism that was growing among members of the Stone-Campbell Movement.

A sectarian is one who defends everything his party holds or that will help his party, and opposes all that his party opposes. This partisan takes it for granted that everything his party holds is right, and everything the other party holds to be wrong and is to be opposed. Hence the party line defines his faith and teaching. He sees no good in the other party. He sees no wrong in his own party . . .

A truth lover and seeker always looks into whatever party he comes in contact with, and will first look to see what truth the party holds … The love of truth is a spirit of kindness and love toward all, even to the holder of error. He loves the holder of truth because he receives truth and strength from him” (David Lipscomb, “A Sectarian and a Truth Seeker,” Gospel Advocate. June 27, 1907, p. 409.)

Can Brother Lipscomb get an “Amen?”

Our Fathers and Mothers in the Stone-Campbell Movement did not claim all love, loyalty, honesty and devotion to God’s truth was found only among “us.” They recognized most (yes most) of the ultimate devotion to Christ comes from the centuries of Christianity that had nothing to do with “us.”

They preserved the Bible (often on pain of death). They translated the Bible. They sacrificed life and limb for the Lord. They gave us the songs we sing. The prayers we pray come from them. As the Hebrews Preacher says of the Maccabees, “the world was not worthy of them.

It is the cursed sectarian spirit that produces the ugly fruit I grew up in and what is still thriving all over. Anti-sectarian sectarians are harsh and, as Stone pointed out, do more to hurt the cause of Jesus Christ than all the atheists combined … they make atheists. They make unbelievers of their own children! Why because, as Lipscomb said, they believe they already have all the truth and cannot learn a thing from anyone. They have no reason to grow or to change. They have no sin of which to repent, and yet live in abject fear.

Here I Stand: Disciples are Seekers on a Journey

But the genuine disciple of Christ is a seeker.

I can, and do, disagree on matters with other disciples of Jesus. I can, and do, press the case for what I think the Bible teaches on this or that with other disciples of Christ. But they are still disciples!

The wonderful vision of the Stone-Campbell Movement was that we are Christians Only. We are not the Only Christians. I do not have to “paganize” fellow believers and, like Campbell, I refuse to do so. If that makes me a false teacher in the eyes of a few then I am in good and holy company.

I am grateful for our heritage. I am equally grateful that I have rediscovered what it really is. May we all be brave enough to be like Stone and Campbell, brave enough to go to the Bible and say, “upon further study I think you were right and I was wrong.” Confessing that I misunderstood does not mean that I was previously lost but now I am ok. When God, in God’s grace, throws light on our eyes and we see afresh this is reason to praise and thank God that in the Spirit’s grace we were allowed to grow.


Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “Earth is so thick with divine possibility that it is a wonder we can walk anywhere without cracking our shins on altars.”[1] Consider the pace at which we tend to do life. The temptation is to plow through – make lists for the things, do the things, stress about all the things, and then go to bed and do it all again the next day. Taylor continues, “While many of [Jesus’] present-day admirers pay close attention to what he said and did, they pay less attention to the pace at which he did it.”[2] Jesus did a lot of walking. He had a lot of time to pay attention. Every day we are running past altars – sacred moments in which we encounter the divine. I am discovering that the door into spiritual rhythm, for me, is the practice of paying attention – particularly, paying attention with my feet.

Sometimes the call to “pay attention” hits hard and fast. George Mallory, when asked why he wanted to climb Mt. Everest, famously replied, “Because it’s there.” I will not soon forget standing in my kitchen, talking to my friend, Katy, while she and her family were on furlough from their mission base in Tanzania. My husband and I were planning to visit them in Tanzania a year or so from that kitchen conversation, when she drops this one on me: “When you guys come, are you going to climb Kilimanjaro, too, or is it just Brian who wants to do it? Because I would climb if you would climb.” I might have actually unleashed a minor emergency word, along with a laugh, and then realizing that she was serious, said, “Wait, what?”

For many years, thanks to John Barton, my husband, Brian, dreamed of climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro, and when our friends moved to Tanzania, he immediately began dreaming and planning a visit and a climb. He grew up in the mountains of West Virginia, cut his teeth on an adventurous expedition to the Sierra Nevada’s in high school, and regularly went on weekend rock climbing trips during college.


I read a lot of books and watch a lot of Netflix. But when Katy asked me that fateful question, something deep inside my bones stirred a bit. Knowing that we needed to choose dates for our trip soon, I did what I know best – become well informed: I ordered two books about Kilimanjaro, explored mountaineering blogs, and began researching equipment. Like Hermione Granger, the over-achieving-know-it-all companion of Harry Potter who, when nervously anticipating her first flying lesson, quickly found out, “This was something you couldn’t learn by heart, out of a book, not that she hadn’t tried,” I practically memorized a detailed guidebook aptly named, Climbing Kilimanjaro. And I made the decision: I’m going to climb Mt Kilimanjaro. Maybe George Mallory was on to something, and feeling particularly brave, bearing in mind that Mallory died on Everest during his third attempt to climb, hopefully our fate would turn out differently than his. We spent the next year preparing, saving, and hiking…lots and lots of hiking.

Backpacks loaded, water bottles filled, hiking boots broken-in, we loaded into a dusty land rover to make the 4-hour drive around the base of the mountain to the starting point of our 8-day journey. Said land rover consisted of Brian and I – American Christians, Katy –  Tanzanian-resident missionary, our guide Abdi Shirazy – native Tanzanian Muslim, our assistant guide Godfrey – native Tanzanian Catholic, and Sjoerd – the randomly placed Dutch atheist who was thrown into our group last minute along with his guide, Dullah – a native Tanzanian Muslim. We had the makings of Pentecost in that bumpy car ride – 3 languages, 3 religions, 7 varied worldviews. And even more so in our camps each night where tents of yellow, orange, and red licked the earth like tongues of fire from all over the world – we met hikers from Japan, South Africa, Korea, Canada, the UK, China, Australia, India, Germany. And there she loomed before us, Kilimanjaro – that 19,341 foot altar holding space for hundreds of seekers.

For days we walked. We began in rain forest, the sounds of birds and colobus monkeys providing our soundtrack. Each day, waking with the sun and sleeping with the moon, the rhythms of the mountain demanding our utter respect and fidelity. By days three and four, the landscapes changed, and the mountain got lonelier – less vegetation, less wildlife, more silence. We walked slowly, each step deliberate, each breath labored as the elevation rose. We hiked through rocks, sat still while clouds literally brushed our faces with cold damp, and settled in each night to warm soup and warmer company. Sjoerd taught us a Dutch card game, we laughed, we talked, and each night I read to our tiny cohort of climbers from my Climbing Kilimanjaro guidebook about what to expect the next day, exactly how many kilometers we would be hiking, and what kind of elevation shifts to expect. Truthfully, nothing written could prepare us for what lay ahead each day – it could only be learned through walking.

By day 6, we were preparing for our summit bid—temperatures hovering around 15 degrees. Abdi woke us up at 10 p.m. and by 10:30 we were walking, the first group to leave the Barafu base camp. Walking this time, in the dark, the path before us lit only by our headlamps. Our rhythm: walk for 45, break for 5…over and over again for hours. I remember looking out, at one point, and watching a lightning storm several hundred feet below us. And as the night loomed on, a thin line of tiny lights in a switchback pattern making their way toward us. The only thing in front of me was Abdi’s boots and his pace, crunching white snow, leading the way forward. With my hands frozen, nose runny, breath coming hard, spirit at the breaking point, Godfrey, like a mother hen tending her chicks, unzipped my pack and applied chapstick to my numb lips, wiped my nose, and helped me take sips of water muttering soft encouragement in a mixture of broken English and Swahili.

Step – God.
Step – Help.
Step – Me.

…became my sacred refrain that night. I repeated it for hours in the dark, entering a sacred rhythm of prayerful groundedness –bumping into an altar of snow and scree with each step. Up we climbed, hundreds of searchers. We crested Kilimanjaro just as the sun was rising, and made it to the summit with tears and laughter, me clinging to Abdi’s strong arm for the last 100 yards.

St Augustine said, “solviture ambulando, – It is solved by walking.” I think I understand what he was getting at. As I walked the earth, the real, lived experience of a common humanity moving toward something more expansive and at the same time beautifully particular woke me up to the divine.

During the height of the Civil Rights movement, Dr. Martin Luther King led a march from Selma, Alabama to Montgomery, Alabama. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel participated in the Selma-Mongomery march, and when Rabbi Heschel returned from Selma, he was asked by someone how he found time to pray while marching. Rabbi Heschel responded, ‘I prayed with my feet.’  As we consider what it means to practice sacred rhythms, may we learn to pay attention. May we learn to notice what gives us life and opens our eyes to the sacred. It may be a quiet time of Bible reading and prayer journaling, but it may be a walk through the woods or a march for justice – a prayer with our feet.

May God open our eyes, open our hands, and ready our feet.

[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World, 15.

[2] Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World, 66.

Mother God

This past Mother’s Day I worshipped at the church in which I grew up in Abilene, Texas. This is not a perfect church by any stretch of the imagination. It is not even a church that I agree with on issues that I may consider primary. But the thing that struck me so significantly on this Mother’s Day was its speech about God.

Elizabeth Johnson says that our speech about God is “the ultimate point of reference for understanding experience, life and the world. Hence the way in which a faith community shapes language about God implicitly represents what is takes to be the highest good, the profoundest truth, the most appealing beauty.”

This faith community where I grew up and where I worshipped on Sunday easily, readily, and naturally spoke of, preached on, and prayed to “Mother God” as an assumed truth. This faith community invited the congregants to consider, worship, and honor this Divine Mother as a window into understanding the Mystery of God. But this is not true of all faith communities.

I have been in ministry for my entire adult life. And throughout this time, I have been told not to speak about God as a woman, as a female, or as a Mother. ‘It is too controversial. It will offend people. It is propagating feminist theology,’ they told me. My experience is not unique. Many women have been accused of being too liberal or having a feminist agenda when praying to, preaching of, or writing about God in any female form. It is highly offensive to consider God with a womb or breastfeeding a child. I have been told that speaking of Mother God is even heretical to some and smells like idol worship to others.

As are all symbols, Mother God is not a perfect one. God is not a Mother anymore that God is a Father. Mother and Father are merely words used in scripture and employed today to give the faith community insight into, an idea about, or a reflection of who the complete God is. God as a Father tells us something about the nature of God, just as God as a Mother tells us something more about the nature of God, both drawing on our own human experiences. They are symbols representing a reality and like all symbols, they are limited and informative. They are descriptive but they are also prescriptive. In other words, they form us and our faith communities.

Church and Church Leaders, there is a supreme and grave danger in excluding images of Mother God from our conversations, our preaching, and most certainly our prayers.[1] And the danger is highlighted in Elizabeth Johnson’s words above:  speech and symbols about God represent the highest good, profoundest truth, and most appealing beauty. In only choosing male symbols for our speech about God, our picture of God is incomplete — we are inadvertently claiming that the highest good, profoundest truth, and most appealing beauty is found only in male-ness.[2] And a church’s distaste for female speech about God exposes a deeply engrained and unexamined misogyny that needs to be called out and remedied as any other sin.

Speech about God is of the utmost importance because it forms an ethic, a mindset and a practice for the community. In utilizing exclusively male speech for God our vision of God remains woefully incomplete. It is from this incomplete place that patriarchy, misogyny and other sins reign in a community of faith. You cannot pray to Mother God and not value the contributions and gifts that women bring to the table. You cannot acknowledge God as Mother and still tell a woman to be silent in the church.

It is time for the church to remember the Mother God who gave her birth.

“You were unmindful of the Rock that bore you,

and you forgot the God who gave you birth.”

Deuteronomy 32:18

[1] I am addressing “Mother God” specifically here. I realize that other female symbols are equally important. They just span beyond the scope of this article.

[2] I realize that this is not true of all churches. I am addressing ones in which speech about God happens in male only language.

Like many of you, I grew up in Churches of Christ. I knew what 728b was. I knew what a tract rack was (and used it as a resource as a child). I knew you weren’t supposed to clap. I knew who was going to heaven. We were and anyone else was suspect at best. I do not remember that last one being directly stated very often but it was the feel we had and was said often enough in private. We had the truth and if anyone wanted it (or not) we were going to inform them of it.

We got very good at a certain kind of evangelism. It was evangelizing people who already knew a fair amount about God, the Bible, Jesus, etc. It was evangelizing them to church rather than to Jesus. Maybe they had church wrong. Maybe the had baptism wrong. Maybe they had worship wrong. We were going to correct anyone who would listen (and many who wouldn’t or didn’t need to).

I engaged in those kinds of discussions for years. Then it finally occurred to me that there were Christians in other groups. I knew this because I met them and listened to them. I compared what they were saying with what the Bible said and saw no reasonable way to exclude them from the kingdom (as if that was my job anyway – the Lord adds to the church but we knew how to take away).

I finally realized that salvation didn’t hinge on having every issue right or else Paul got the introduction to all of his letters in the New Testament wrong.

This shift in thinking was the death of our evangelism. Not because we had nothing left to say but because of something else. Once we largely gave up converting “the denominations” we thought we had no one else to evangelize. This was because we had another faulty assumption. The first was that anyone not in our movement wasn’t a Christian. The second was that the people around us by and large had a knowledge of Jesus and were largely Christian.

But that wasn’t the case at all and still isn’t today. God has sent the world to us. We live in Acts 2 and 10 daily. What is more, the very people we need to be reaching are on the increase numerically (those who have fallen away and the non-affiliated, and those of non-Christian faiths). While those groups increased around us we lost our need to evangelize.

I believe we also lost our zeal for evangelism because we only knew how to talk to people about Jesus who were already mostly like us. They were already going to church (didn’t have to convince them to start). They already believed in the Bible and in Jesus. We knew how to take someone who was already pretty far along and get them the rest of the way (in our sectarian minded thinking). It was a smaller ask, an ask we were comfortable asking. But we didn’t know and largely don’t know how to have a conversation with someone who doesn’t believe in God or believes in numerous gods. These are the groups that are growing and we are ill-prepared to engage them.

We need to learn to contextualize the gospel and have the boldness to talk with people seemingly less like ourselves about Jesus. This means we are asking them to make bigger steps and larger commitments than we are used to. This is essential to our future but more than that, it is what we were told to do and even if we do it we are just unworthy servants, just doing our duty.

A great new theological series started this week on our YouTube channel with John Mark Hicks. You can watch the first two below. This will be a 50+ part series that will post Mondays and Thursdays for the next six months. I won’t be posting them individually here as we go to not flood this site with the videos but I will post the first two below to give you a feel for these.

If you want to get these, I encourage you to subscribe to the Wineskins YouTube Channel which has already doubled subscribers in the last month. God is affirming this new aspect of our ministry. Thank you for participating!

“No creed but Christ” or “No creed but the Bible” is something that comes up a lot in Churches of Christ. We have resisted having any documents outside the Bible that operate in any official capacity for the life and doctrine of the church. I think that is a good intention and I am not one to advocate a Church of Christ creed but I do want to offer two points that should be kept in mind that are related to our position on creeds.

Creeds established orthodoxy. The problem is everyone had different opinions on what needed to be in the list. I have a book of creeds in my office and it is several hundred pages long. This is why the Bible is so important. This means creeds force you to determine which matters are essential and most important and which matters are of lesser importance and liberty to come to varying conclusions on. More on that in a moment.

The reality is we have our own creeds. We just don’t write them down. We all know what they are. They are unofficial in that they aren’t documented but they are quite official in their consistency across autonomous congregations. You would think we had a creed even when we don’t in an official capacity.

Second, the thing we rarely worked out very well comes as a bi-product of our lack of creeds. We never wrestled with what constituted matters of first importance. Creeds force you to do that. We just say it’s the whole Bible (by that we mean the whole New Testament by that we mean Paul’s letters). I am being a bit silly but it isn’t far from the truth.

With our lack of emphasizing that not all things are of equal importance (1 Cor 15:3 – things of first importance and Romans 14 – the disputable matters) we made all things of equal importance. That has not worked in our favor. Because we don’t differentiate which things are core and which things are peripheral we elevate all things to the highest level of importance (even tradition, unfortunately). This approach lacks discernment and is actually not biblical.

Even if we don’t have a creed, we still need to work out which things are essential, core to the faith and which things are in the Romans 14 category of disputable matters. It is actually healthy (and again biblical) for us to conclude that some things are more important than others rather than make all matters DEFCON 1. Just try passing communion backwards and see what happens. The creed pops up again.

We never wrestled with what the groups with creeds wrestled with. One doesn’t have to have a creed to do this, mind you, but we just never did it and it has harmed our movement as a whole.

We need to spend time in our local congregations having some conviction about what it means to be a Christian and which things are essential to being identified with Christ. We have done a poor job of this, in my opinion, and if we can do this on a local level (not all churches will agree) we will be better for it and our standard for this must come from what the Bible itself says is most important (1 Cor 15:3-5 for example). It does not require having every teaching perfect to be “in” or else Paul wouldn’t have addressed any of his audiences as God’s church.

Recently, writers for a popular kid’s cartoon married a male character to another male. Someone suggested that since I work with children and write, I should tackle this episode so others will be encouraged to respond. It is, after all, imperative that we do so.

I’ve thought and prayed about our response and this is what is on my heart: 

What a wonderful opportunity for the church to teach our children how to love people who live and love differently.  What a holy moment for those who love the Christ to be able to say to our neighbors, “I love you and I’m going to walk this road with you. Let’s be friends!” What a blessed anointing on those who proclaim Jesus to have the opportunity to make Him look good to those who may not yet know his love!  What a beautiful time to teach ourselves and others how to love well. (We all need to work on that, especially me.) What an exciting hour to be able to build new bridges in a broken world! 

We want to change people but Jesus calls us to love them. It’s messy, uncomfortable, and doesn’t always make sense but it’s the only thing that matters.

I haven’t always been associated with the Churches of Christ. I didn’t know much about our roots or where we came from. I didn’t really care too much about our heritage until I heard Patrick Mead speak on it at a Campus Ministry conference.  When I was introduced to the Declaration and Address of the Campbells and The Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery, I saw how beautiful our tradition was.

Perhaps the thing I gravitated toward the most was our foundation. We are a people of the Bible – a people of the book – and we all seek to live out the Scriptures. The other feature of our movement that lit a fire in my heart was the fact that we are a unity movement. Many different streams of Christendom converged in unity and purpose.  The beauty of so many coming together from divergent backgrounds under the banner of Christ and His Church – it’s miraculous. That is why I’m proud to be a part of the Churches of Christ.

Yet, somewhere along the way, many left unity and pursued uniformity. There’s a vast difference.  Uniformity is a concept where everyone is the same. They share the same views, thoughts, opinions, and interests.  While that seems like a noble thing, it isn’t biblical. I’ve heard several well-meaning ministers conscript Acts 2:42-47 where “all the believers were together and had everything in common,” to make a case that all churches everywhere must be the same. That concept is foreign to Scripture. Uniformity creates clones.  Unity – well that’s something far more mystical.

Look to Jesus’ prayer in John 17.  After Jesus prays for the twelve, he prays for you and me.  He asks the Father that, “that all of them may be one, just as you are in me and I am in you.  May that also be in us…I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one…” (John 17:21, 22). He goes on to pray in the following verse, “I in them and you in me – so that they may be brought to complete unity.

That begs the question:  Why? Why is unity the thing Jesus asks for.  If you’re about to die, you have the right to pray for just about anything you want. He could have been selfish with His prayer.  He chooses to pray for unity in you and me.  Why?  Keep reading: “Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” Wow! 

Here’s why this matters deeply to Christ:  His church that will be made up of billions of people from every tribe, language, and background, will somehow come together in unity.  That unity will provide the greatest apologetic to our faith that has ever existed.  We can try all kinds of outreach and evangelism methods, but the one that counts is having unity, not uniformity in the church. Our unity provides the greatest evidence that Jesus is the Son of God.

Paul’s ‘body’ treatise in 1 Corinthians illustrates unity over uniformity.  Everyone, though different we be, comes together to form one cohesive functioning body. Every part different. Every part essential.  That God could do that, with so many different people, is truly miraculous.  That is why a watching world needs to see our churches in unity. Each church must evaluate its cultural context, adapt, and love one another with everything they’ve got.  If we can, by the grace of God, pull that off, then a world so desperate for hope and love will see the greatest display of preternatural power the world can ever witness. 

The roots of unity run deep in the Churches of Christ.  It is my challenge to you, wherever you find yourself, to seek unity.  To, “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3). To fiercely protect the beauty that God has provided through our diverse unity.  After all, the world will know Jesus is God’s son when we live in unity.

One of the greatest gifts that I received from growing up in the Churches of Christ is being taught a love and respect for Scripture from an early age. My father and the teachers at my little rural church made the Scripture come alive, and I saw the text lived out among the people around me. I had always considered myself to be a “Christian only” but one day at the lunch table in junior high a fellow student called me a ‘Campbellite.’ By the tone of the other student, I did not take this moniker as a compliment. I went home that evening and asked my father what my interlocutor meant by the accusation of ‘Campbellism.’ It almost sounded like some dreaded disease. My dad explained to me on a very basic level that Alexander Campbell was a man that lived in the early 19th century that helped restore New Testament Christianity. He informed me that I did not follow Alexander Campbell because he was a mere man, but we follow Jesus. I was happy with that explanation and continued unhindered until my college years. In my college years, the challenges to my faith came from more robust and nuanced arguments. During that stage in my life, I became ‘self-aware’ that I had certain biases when I read Scripture that differed with other people that claimed to be followers of Jesus. I also realized that I had a method of interpretation that differed greatly from my Roman Catholic and Episcopalian friends.

I remember reading F. LaGard Smith’s book The Cultural Church during that period, and that reading made me more aware that my interpretive grid for reading Scripture was something I had taken for granted. As I have gotten older, I have grown to respect my heritage in the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement. Part of respecting one’s faith heritage means to celebrate the good but also challenge the parts that are lacking, and that can be improved.

Alexander Campbell came upon the religious scene in America in a very exciting and liberating time. Along with the freedom and optimism of a new nation, the religious leaders of the early 19th century were also experiencing a new freedom and optimism as they approached the Bible. The freedom that came at the end of the 18th century and the dawning of the 19th century opened the door to religious possibilities that were unheard of just a generation before. Alexander Campbell came to America from Ireland and Scotland during this exciting time and was a visionary when it came to unity and the challenging of long-held religious traditions. Campbell published his book The Christian System in 1839 and in that volume, he laid out his view of the Bible and his method of interpretation. Much of the vision that he gives in that volume is still very influential among members of the Churches of Christ today. In this essay, I will discuss the influences upon Alexander Campbell in his views of interpretation, and I will provide an analysis of the worth of Campbell’s method for the church today along with some critique.

Alexander Campbell’s view of the Bible did not occur in a vacuum. Campbell’s view of the world was one of order and reason. Campbell shared the Enlightenment period’s optimistic view of the objectivity and power of reason. One can see that the early 17th-century thinker Sir Francis Bacon’s method of scientific inquiry and view of empirical epistemology was part of Campbell’s mental map. Bacon’s methods revolutionized how people in the Western world understood how they gained and organized knowledge. Probably the greatest philosophical influence upon Alexander Campbell was John Locke. John Locke began his work in the 17th century after years of religious wars and strife in Europe. Locke was searching for a systematic way to look at government and the Bible that would bring about peace and an end to the religious conflicts of his time.[1] Locke believed that government had no right to enforce religious orthodoxy upon its subjects. Locke also proposed that religion be reduced to a minimal set of principles that could be deemed as essentials. Locke believed that Christianity could be defended through evidence and that it was reasonable especially in the areas of Jesus’ Messiahship and obedience to His clear commands. One could embrace other doctrines outside those core essentials, but those nonessential doctrines could not be used as a basis to coerce others. Campbell differed with Locke on what he considered to be the essentials of the faith but took the Lockean principle of rationality and unity. Campbell was also steeped in the Scottish Common Sense method of Biblical interpretation that was especially popular in the Presbyterianism of his day. Scottish Common Sense proposed that words are a direct representation of the objects they represent. The strong connection from sign to referent may not sound revolutionary, but this tenant of Scottish Common Sense is in direct opposition to some of the concepts laid down by Jacques Derrida in postmodern deconstructionism.

When one reads Campbell’s view of interpretation in The Christian System, they can observe strong rationalistic influences upon his thought. Campbell states that the Bible is the “full and perfect revelation of God and his will, adapted to man as he now is” (Campbell, 3).[2] Notice that Campbell endorses the Protestant Reformation ideal of the perspicuity of Scripture. The knowledge of Scripture is attainable by all. Campbell’s anthropology shows the role of reason in his thought. Campbell viewed man as an animal, intellectual, and moralistic in his constitution (Campbell, 3). Campbell observed God’s revelation to be two-fold in that it is displayed in nature and in the special revelation of Scripture (Campbell, 2). Because man is an intellectual being, Campbell believed that reason should be employed equally in the study of nature and the study of the Bible (Campbell 2–3). One can observe that Campbell is espousing an almost scientific view of interpreting the Bible. Just as Sir Isaac Newton had reduced the universe to predictable laws, one could use a systematic approach to the Bible, and through that approach, all could come up with the same conclusions. Through Baconian logic when scientist stuck to the facts of natural revelation, all scientists came to the same conclusion and Campbell reasoned that the same should be true of the Bible. If one applies a systematic approach, then consensus in biblical interpretation can be attained. Campbell believed unity would be achieved by honestly applying reason to the text.

In The Christian System Campbell lays out seven principles for proper and rational biblical interpretation and these seven principles are based on the bedrock belief that one should build their practice and belief on a specific command from Scripture or an approved precedent (Campbell, xi). Campbell’s seven rules of interpretation have a lot in common with today’s historical-grammatical approach to biblical interpretation. In this essay, we will only examine a few of Campbell’s principles. Campbell’s first principle dealt with the historical situation of a specific book of the Bible (Campbell, 4). The historical concerns included the following: the historical order of the book, the title of the book, the author, the date, the place, and the occasion for writing the book (Campbell, 4). Another principle of Campbell dealt with examining the people addressed in the book (Campbell, 4). One should consider the addressee’s prejudices, historical situation, and religious beliefs when interpreting a biblical text (Campbell, 4). Campbell also believed that if a word had multiple meanings, then the context of the passage and other usages of that word in the Bible should be considered (Campbell, 4). In a sense, Campbell was applying Occam’s Razor to biblical interpretation.[3] Campbell’s seventh rule emphasized humility in the reader as they come under the lordship of the text (Campbell, 5). In his last principle, Campbell put great import in a humble disposition in the reader of the book (Campbell, 5).

Many times, we practice intellectual snobbery as we look back from our postmodern high tower and cast aspersions at Campbell and his rationalistic methods. I find it humorous to consider that the same rationalistic thinking that influenced Campbell was what produced much of what we take for granted like modern medicine and many scientific advances that we hold dear. As I wrote this essay I kept coming back to the question, “why have we made rationalism such the bogeyman of the Churches of Christ?” I don’t know many people that want to go back to premodern medicine because we feel that rationality is a bad thing. The problem of throwing out rationalism is that when one wants to get to the original meaning of the text as the author intended, we must employ many of the tools of rationalism. I also find it hard to believe that ancient interpreters did not use the same tools of rationality without modern labels. I can read the early church fathers such as Justin Martyr and his dialogue with Trypho the Jew and see rationality in his argument. I can look forward in church history and see robust rationality in the work of Erasmus of Rotterdam. Is rationality as bad as some make it out to be? Should we abandon the approach bequeathed to us by Alexander Campbell? In answering that question, I believe it is important to look at Campbell with a sense of charitableness that comes from a sense of thankfulness for our Stone-Campbell heritage. Some things that we have in common with Campbell is our love for Jesus, respect for God’s revelation in Scripture, and a desire for unity.  These commonalities make this venture a family discussion that is worth having.

Even though I see a lot of strengths in Campbell’s rationalistic approach, I can see many blind spots in his method as well. One place of improvement is to consider the prejudices and assumptions that the modern reader brings to the text. The realization of reader bias is a blessing that postmodernity brings to us by making us aware of our preconceived notions. It is foolhardy not to believe that our socioeconomic, educational opportunities, and theological grid of interpretation does not affect how we read the text. I found this principle to be true when I read Grant Osborne’s The Hermeneutical Spiral. Osborne demonstrates that many 19th century interpreters reinterpreted Jesus to be a type of paleo-liberal scholar of his day that had more in common with them than He did with a 2nd Temple Judaism Jew. In my ministry, I have noticed how the bias and prior conceptions of the people I minister to work as a sieve through which they read the text. For example, many people I have ministered to over the years filter the Apostle Paul’s anthropology through the lens of platonic Greek thought. They fail to realize the integrated view of the human person that a Jew in the first century would have. Because of this predisposition to Greek categories, the reader deemphasizes the value of the human body as an integrated whole and misses the power of what the Bible teaches about the resurrection. The point of this is to emphasize that Campbell’s method lacked this view of reader bias. Campbell’s concept that one could be a truly objective reader was a bit naïve. I am not saying that because of this one can never find the truth behind the text but I am proposing that to find that true teaching we must be aware of our bias and frailties.

I would propose another critique of Campbell’s method is its weakness in dealing with the Old Testament. One of the weaknesses of our heritage is a very minimalist approach to the role of the Old Testament in the life of a Christian. Just the phrase ‘New Testament Christian’ betrays that weakness. I propose that we should become ‘whole Bible Christians.’ It is very naïve to think that the church had the twenty-seven books of our New Testament in a Tommy Nelson leather-bound Bible by the end of the first century. The Scripture of the early church was the Old Testament. The earliest Christians learned to read the Old Testament Christocentrically. I am not advocating for bringing back the sacrificial system or Solomonic Temple, but I am advocating for understanding that the New Testament was written with the understanding that the reader is steeped in Old Testament terms, motifs, and theology. Our hermeneutic has been robbed by our lack of respect for the validity of the Old Testament. The New Testament writers are writing with a shared economy of words and thoughts that originate from the Old Testament. The entire Bible should be read as God’s grand narrative of rescue for humanity. N.T. Wright has done great work in this view of the Old Testament. Wright makes the point that to correctly interpret how to use the Old Testament in the life of the Christian is to understand what act of God’s drama that you are a part of in the story. If you are in the ‘church’ act or the ‘age of the Holy Spirit,’ then there are certain parts of the Old Testament such as Hebrew ceremonial law that doesn’t apply to you or they have been fulfilled in the work of Jesus. This method is much better than the watertight categories that I grew up with such as the Patriarchal Age, Mosaic, Age, and Christian Age.

There have been many advances in biblical scholarship in the last century when it comes to the New Testament’s use of the Old Testament. It is easy for us to make this critique of Campbell’s lack of nuance in interpretation as it relates to the Old Testament now because of the more recent contributions of scholars like Richard Hays and Michael Fishbane when it comes to the study of intertextuality. Intertextuality means that the New Testament writers used words and phrases that anchor the New Testament text to the Old Testament. Some early restoration leaders advocated that we should read the Bible as if fell from the sky. We are finding now that that is impossible. There is a shared currency that the New Testament writers have with the antecedents in the Old Testament. There are many echoes of older texts within more recent texts of the Bible.

It is easy for the interpreter to pick up direct quotes from the Old Testament that are given with introductory formulas such as ‘this was done to fulfill,’ but it is much more difficult to pick up on quotations that flow naturally in the text. For example, Philippians 1:19 has a section that is a direct quote from the LXX version of Job 13:16. When Paul quotes from Job 13:16 he is not saying that his suffering is a fulfillment of Job’s suffering. He is embedding an older text into his writing of Philippians to take the reader back to the situation of the writing of Job. Job was a fellow sufferer who was vindicated. The interpretation of Philippians 1:19 is enriched when the reader realizes that Paul wants you to take part in the ‘great conversation’ with the Old Testament text.

Another aspect of Campbell that I find lacking in his work is the absence of developed pneumatology. In the Churches of Christ, we have a great strength of being Christocentric in our theology of the church, but we have been sorely lacking in a theology of the Holy Spirit. I believe that it is almost unbiblical to champion a very individualistic reading of the Bible that takes it out of the heart to the Spirit-filled church. Biblical interpretation that endorses a radical individualism fails to take into account how communal the New Testament is. Even when John is bearing testimony of the veracity of his Gospel he does so with communal language when he states, “This is the disciple who is bearing witness about these things, and who has written these things, and we know that his testimony is true (John 21:24 ESV).” When one reads the Pauline epistles, it is staggering how much the ‘you’ admonitions are in reality ‘ya’ll’ exhortations. In other words, much of what we have read to be individualistic instructions are written to entire groups of people.

We quickly forget that the church is the temple of the Holy Spirit. In 1 Corinthians 3:16-17 Paul states, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple  (ESV).” The ‘you’ of verses sixteen and seventeen are plurals. The church is filled and animated with God’s Spirit. I believe that the interpretation of Scripture is best done in the heart of the church alongside other believers. This no guarantee that we are interpreting the Bible correctly but it does safeguard against fringe readings and interpretations. It is powerful to consider that the early church gathered for the communal reading of the text and the same Spirit that inspired the text of the Bible imbibes and animates the church.

Another aspect that I find troubling about Campbell is his suspicion of traditional readings. I understand that the religious divisions of his day influenced his thinking, but I believe we should turn to the wisdom of ancient Christians to help in interpreting the text. We have a treasure trove in the Early Church Fathers. Extensive writings by men such as Iraneaus, who was a spiritual grandchild to John the Apostle, are still available to us today. I am not saying that the Early Church Fathers’ writings are authoritative, but I am proposing that their writings give us some guidelines to how certain passages were interpreted in the period closest to the lives of the authors of the New Testament. G.K. Chesterton once said that tradition is the ‘democracy of the dead.’ Just as the church should read the Bible communally, I propose we should read it with the entire great cloud of witnesses that have gone on before us like the early Church Fathers.

In conclusion, much can be commended to Campbell’s approach to interpreting Scripture. I believe that members of the Churches of Christ should embrace and celebrate the heritage we have been given. Part of that celebration is to improve upon the methods of interpretation that we have been given. It is also imperative that we keep our spiritual ears open to the leading to the Holy Spirit. Leonard Ravenhill once said, “The Holy Book of the living God suffers more from its exponents today than from its opponents.” Let us prayerfully endeavor not to do violence to the text or misrepresent our Savior through poor exegesis. It is surely a noble endeavor to continue to strive to find the truth that God reveals to us in Holy Scripture. I can confidently say our brother Alexander Campbell would encourage us to do just that.

[1] For a good examination of John Locke and his influence on Alexander Campbell see C. Leonard Allen and Richard T. Hughes’s book Discovering Our Roots: The Ancestry of the Churches of Christ pgs. 78–80.

[2] All in text citations are from Alexander Campbell’s The Christian System.

[3] Occam’s Razor can be easily described as, “the simpler solution that requires the least speculation is probably the best answer.”