by Beth VanRheenen
January – April, 2006
Could members of the Churches of Christ be diagnosed as bi-polar when it comes to talking about unity?
I am part of this church that has historically been known for saying “The Bible means what it says and says what it means,” yet this church has largely not, it seems to me, taken this same attitude when we consider unity.
In our heads we know unity is important because Christ prayed for it the night before his death, as recorded in John 17. Jesus pleaded that “those whom you gave me out of the world … may be one as we are one” and that “all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.” Furthermore, Jesus prayed that his followers, both the current ones and those who would believe through their message, “May be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (v. 24). Jesus’ fervent words convey his desire for his followers to be united as well as his instruction that “complete unity” would aid the evangelism of the world.
Unfortunately, though, Churches of Christ have not generally shared Jesus’ desire for his unity. Many Churches of Christ I’ve known and participated in discuss the “brotherhood of believers” and normally mean only those within our fellowship, members of Churches of Christ. Rather than being concerned with unity, therefore, we have been concerned about maintaining our distinctiveness, a position that is often diametrically opposed to unity.
Many I’ve known have long believed that we are the guardians of truth and that true unity can only occur when others join us in protecting each aspect of the truth as we see it. I held this view myself for decades.
From 1976 until 1998, I worshiped with a very large Southern Church of Christ, one of many Churches of Christ in a small area. Our leaders and ministers often spoke of our distinctiveness and the need to “keep watch” against the infiltration of false teaching. This emphasis is, of course, biblical and important, but, I fear, misapplied.
Encouraged by this mandate from our leaders, I plied my devoutly Baptist running partner with questions about her faith. Yes, she had been baptized, immersed even. But was her baptism done to receive the remission of sins? No, she told me she had been baptized as an act of obedience and as symbolic of her death to self and to her resolution to make Jesus the Lord of her life. Hmmm. Regardless of her perfectly Christ-centered answer, I concluded that she could not truly be a part of the community of believers. She was in another group, outside the scope of brotherhood.
In 1998 my husband and I moved to southeast Michigan where we worshiped with a “mid-size” Church of Christ. Here, my work took me outside the warm embrace of the Church of Christ because our numbers were less than a third of the Arkansas church, and we were spread over a wide area: I once counted the names of forty-one different towns in the church directory. The culture of the Midwest, I quickly realized, may be generally decent and hard-working, but the widespread understanding of Christianity that pervades the Bible Belt is missing.
Among my neighbors, church attendance was extremely uncommon; thus, when I came across someone who had a genuine interest in Christ, I felt an unexpected connection. People who were part of independent, fundamental churches seemed surely to be our brothers; after all, the vast majority of their beliefs seem to parallel “ours.” Only dimly did I realize that the connection I felt with these believers might be the first stirrings of a new interest in unity—and what Christ intended for it to mean to his followers.
Then in 2004 Mark and I moved to the Lehigh Valley in southeastern Pennsylvania. Here, we worship with a tiny church twenty-five miles away from our home. Our Sunday morning attendance ranges from seventy to ninety and the closest “Christian” (by my former reckoning) is five miles away. I teach at Kutztown University, a state school of ten thousand students, a handful of whom are from Churches of Christ.
Yet in this potentially lonely setting, I have begun to see new possibilities for unity. One of my Presbyterian students invited me to attend the Kutztown Christian Fellowship, a group of about one hundred, comprised of all sorts of Protestants and even some Catholics, that meets each Thursday night for worship and that conducts rigorous Bible studies during weekend retreats. The night I worshiped with them, not another member of the Church of Christ was in the room, yet I strongly felt that I was among Christ’s people, my people.
What happened to me? Have I lost my initial faith and commitment? I don’t think so. Instead, my changing circumstances have led me to look at unity in a different light. In my large Southern church I had a virtual lack of concern about the topic, despite it being of passionate interest to Christ. In that huge church, unity was not an issue; it was merely a matter of cooperating with other Churches of Christ.
Yet even then some members would “draw the line” if that cooperation were to include the influence of preachers and authors such as Rubel Shelley, Mike Cope, or Max Lucado, all theologians and ministry practitioners I respect and have drawn deeply from over the years while many in churches of Christ view them as controversial or “liberal.” In the Midwest where the Church of Christ was much smaller, I gradually embraced the idea that my prior definition of the “brotherhood of believers” had been too narrow and that many fundamental community churches probably should be counted among Christ’s people. And now in the Northeast where the Church of Christ is smaller yet, I have begun to look at even major denominations and wonder why we can’t have some genuine ties of unity with them.
When I have tried to discuss my changing perceptions with people from church number one, I have gotten weird looks, frowns of worry, and even the direct question, “Why can’t the Church of Christ just keep its distinctiveness? Why should ‘unity’ obscure what the Church of Christ has always been?” At the time of those heartfelt questions, I unfortunately had little to reply. But in the months since, I’ve thought of several responses. One potentially thought-provoking response is that the concept of the “Church of Christ” as a stable, fixed entity is erroneous. Even a cursory reading of Distant Voices by Leonard Allen reveals that Churches of Christ during the Restoration held a wide range of practices and beliefs.
Further, the two major founders of what we call the Stone-Campbell Movement, Barton Stone and Alexander Campbell, differed sharply on major issues. The Apostle Paul and Barnabas disagreed sharply enough to separate and evangelize in different places. Unity comes not from full agreement; a transcendent unity comes by oneness with and in Christ who died for us to become one with him and one another.
Perhaps a better answer is that Christ did not call us to distinctiveness. Christ called us to complete unity (John 17:24). Discovering exactly what that means is a journey I’m committed to traveling the rest of my life.
Beth VanRheenen is assistant professor of English at Kutztown University in Pennsylvania. In addition to her academic interests, Beth writes creatively. She recently finished a three-act play based on the Gospel of Luke, and she is working on a novel about a dysfunctional family (not hers, of course). A movie review of Signs, published in New Wineskins, is representative of Beth’s interest in researching the Gothic genre, cultural studies, and spirituality. Reach her at email@example.com.