by Doug Foster
January – April, 2006
Editor’s Note: For two decades Doug Foster has been a steadfast proponent for unity among Churches of Christ, Christian Churches/ Churches of Christ, and Disciples of Christ, as well as efforts beyond the Stone-Campbell Movement. His tireless work includes unity efforts with organizations as varied as the National Council of Churches, the Restoration Forums, Baptist-Churches of Christ Conversations, and the Stone-Campbell Dialogue. Along with his writings in dozens of journals his most recent effort has been to help bring together people from all three streams of the Movement to celebrate the bicentennial of Thomas Campbell’s Declaration and Address. Part of that celebration in 2009 is a “Great Communion” where local churches and churches worldwide are encouraged to share the Lord’s Supper together in their communities.
On a day in March 2006 New Wineskins editor Greg Taylor caught up with Doug Foster between two of his three meetings that day: the first was with a very traditional Church of Christ editor in Nashville, the second was with Christian Churches/ Churches of Christ editors and representatives, and the third was with the Disciples of Christ Historical Society. We encouraged Foster to write this exhortation to unite with those on both sides of us as we believe Jesus would and prayed for in John 17. Jesus was a model of one who was committed to unity.
And Doug Foster is a modern-day model of one who, we believe, has given his life for the unity of the church.
Attack the Enemy – Not the Sisters and Brothers
This year marks the centennial of the 1906 Census of Religious Bodies that listed Churches of Christ as a “new denomination” formerly associated with the Disciples. That listing has become a symbol of the often rancorous division in the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement that continued to work its way through the churches. Leaders from all parts of the Movement have seen this anniversary as an opportunity to reexamine the reasons for that first division and to use the occasion to work for reconciliation. A second division occurred in the twentieth century in the separation of what became the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the “Independent” Christian Churches/Churches of Christ.
Many are excited about the possibilities for new efforts at unity with estranged sisters and brothers in the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement. This is good. There is reason for excitement. There seems to be a growing sense of the oneness of Christ’s body and a recognition of the identity we share in Christ. The February 2006 meeting of the Restoration Forum at ACU’s annual lectureship reflected a hunger and enthusiasm for reconciliation among the hundreds of attendees.
Yet in the midst of wonderful possibilities to reflect the truth that there is one body (Ephesians 4:4), Satan is hard at work to disrupt the good that might be done. There is a great potential danger in all this. It is two-fold and it threatens to do as much harm as good.
Realigning Our Guns
Rather than putting away our weapons of destruction – the prideful, arrogant, condemning attitudes that are the root of division – in too many instances members of Churches of Christ have merely shifted their aim. The tendency of some godly and influential leaders, in the process of embracing our sisters and brothers in the Christian Churches/Churches of Christ, has been to redirect the weapons of prejudice and condemnation exclusively toward Disciples.
There seem to be good reasons for this. Many among Disciples have written us off as narrow minded sectarians. Many in Churches of Christ and Christian Churches view Disciples as apostates in doctrine and practice—rejecting Scripture and openly rejecting the will of God. There is more than enough ignorance and stereotyping coming from every direction—largely because we do not know each other.
The point is, many in Churches of Christ used to say the same thing about those in the Christian Churches/Churches of Christ. The attitude of division remains. Now, however, it has been redirected against the “real enemy” – the true bad guys. At one time we misunderstood the Christian Churches, but now we know better. It was really the Disciples who were the bad guys all along.
Is it even remotely possible that we could have misunderstood the Disciples too? Would you reject and condemn out of hand a believer who would say:
We confess that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, and proclaim him risen Lord and Savior of the world.
In Christ’s name and by his grace we accept the mission to proclaim the gospel to all the world and live in loving service to all people.
We rejoice in God, maker of heaven and earth, and in the covenant of love that binds us to God and one another.
Through baptism into Christ we enter into newness of life and are made one with the whole people of God.
By the gift of the Holy Spirit we are joined together in discipleship and in obedience to Christ.
At the table of the Lord, each week we celebrate with thanksgiving the saving acts and presence of Christ and proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
Within the Body of Christ we receive the gifts of ministry and accept the authoritative witness of scripture.
In bonds of Christian faith we yield ourselves to God and one another that we may serve the One whose kingdom has no end.
[From the Confession of Sin and Affirmation of Faith: An Invitation from the Stone-Campbell Dialogue, June 2000. Full text and other documents available at http://www.disciples.org/ccu/Dialogues/dialoguedocuments/ 2000ConfessionStatement.html]
Christians from all three major streams of the Stone-Campbell Movement in the United States boldly and with full commitment made these statements of belief—including Disciples sisters and brothers. Let’s not claim to be committed to the truth of the unity of Christ’s church, but continue to harbor the same old divisive attitudes, just redirected to someone else.
Dismissing Those Who Fear the Unity Efforts
The second potential danger is the smug writing off those in Churches of Christ who are fearful of the unity efforts and refuse to support them. Many involved in the current unity efforts find it easy to reject and vilify sisters and brothers in Churches of Christ who believe the unity efforts pose a threat to the integrity of the convictions that they have held as central to their faith.
It is not hard to understand why. Some of those detractors are vociferous in their opposition of those who are leading the unity work. Yet we have no more right to quickly dismiss sisters and brothers who fear and even oppose the unity efforts than we do those we fear may hold beliefs we cannot support. Frankly such people have something important to say. Their concern is not without foundation — it is possible to toss aside long-held beliefs that are, in fact, important not simply for our traditional identity, but for how we fit into the great stream of Christianity. One is our high view of baptism. We are not out of step with the great Christian Tradition when we hold as articulated in the Apostles Creed, “one baptism for the remission of sins.”
On a much lesser level, and definitely in the realm of “non-essentials,” is our tradition of a cappella worship. I am not ashamed of that tradition, though I am deeply ashamed of how we have made it a point of division and condemnation. This way of worshipping is a wonderful contribution to the richness of Christian practice.
The point is, those actively involved in the unity efforts ought not to dismiss or to assume that they must train their weapons on those who fear and even oppose this work. One cannot assume the right to denounce and despise them any more that it does any other believers—in whose lives you discern the fruits of the Spirit. If it is clear that one’s life manifests the works of the flesh—there will come a time for admonition and withdrawal. But the manifestation of the works of the flesh is not confined to persons in any religious body or particular theological position. The admonition to maintain the unity of the Spirit does not apply only to the believers we like and agree with. When we are apart, when we stereotype one another and remain content in our ignorance of one another, we all are impoverished. Christians need each other – to learn from and hold each other accountable.
Disarmament Must Precede Dialogue
Finally, through this centennial year, as we focus on our history and the estrangement between those of us in the Stone-Campbell Movement, we must understand that the admonition to unity goes beyond simply the churches from our historic movement. Without compromising or giving up on any conviction, we must be proactive in bringing believers together for frank and open dialogue, to learn to love one another, and to do together everything we can.
However, if you don’t know and cannot articulate what you believe, why you believe it, and what would be lost if you abandoned those beliefs – you have no business in unity conversations.
If you are convinced that participation in unity conversations and reflecting unity with other believers in your actions means compromising your convictions, you have no business in efforts for unity.
If you think that other believers not part of your religious tradition are simply hard-headed people who think they have nothing to learn, or that they don’t care about truth, you have no business in Christian unity work.
IF, however, you are secure and mature in your convictions, though humble about your own perceptions, if you are always open to growth and understanding of truth, and you love others who sincerely want to serve God and show the fruit of the Spirit in their lives, then Christ would have you do the following:
1. Don’t judge your sisters and brothers
2. Love all your sisters and brothers
3. Be active in mutual encouragement and admonition across lines
4. Continue to grow into maturity in Christ
5. Maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
The oneness of Christ’s church is a given – we don’t create it. The church is one in its very nature because God made it so; its unity is a gift from God (Ephesians 4:4) Our responsibility is to maintain that unity and to make it visible! It is a calling we cannot ignore, unless we choose to ignore Christ and his message.
Dr. Doug Foster is a Professor of Church History in the Graduate School of Theology at Abilene Christian University, Abilene, Texas. In addition to teaching, he is also the Director of the Center for Restoration Studies at the University. Dr. Foster’s scholarly work has concentrated on the place of the Stone-Campbell Movement in American Christianity and the nature of the idea of Christian unity. His book Will the Cycle Be Unbroken? Churches of Christ Face the 21st Century analyzes the current and future shape of Churches of Christ. Other works include Crux of the Matter: Crisis, Tradition, and the Future of Churches of Christ (ACU Press, 2000) and Seeking a Lasting City: The Church’s Journey in the Story of God (ACU Press, 2005). He serves as one of three General Editors of the Encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movement (Eerdmans, February 2005).