In this increasingly post-denominational age, historic Christian groups often struggle to maintain their distinctive identities within the broader Christian church. I observe that general phenomenon as a teacher and elder within the Churches of Christ, among whom God has assigned me a home base. This fervor to perpetuate institutional identity is particularly ironic in my context, however, since the Churches of Christ spring from a movement that ostensibly rejects denominationalism, opposes human creeds and champions both the freedom of individual conscience and the autonomy of local congregations. Barton W. Stone, a founding father and hero of this “restoration movement,” once signed a document known as The Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery, in which that Presbyterian body willed to “die, be dissolved, and sink into union with the Body of Christ at large.”
For 150 years, the people now known as Churches of Christ have urged other Christians to abandon church names that mark off some believers from others, to follow the Bible alone and to be “Christians only.” For about 25 years now, an increasing number of Churches of Christ have taken their own advice, including such leading congregations as the Family of God at Woodmont Hills in Nashville, Tennessee and the Oak Hills Church in San Antonio, Texas. Meanwhile, a generation of youths raised in Churches of Christ on the ideals mentioned above has silently left home to join a host of nondenominational Bible churches, community churches and what I call “stealth” churches officially linked to some denomination but operating without any distinguishing name.
Seeing the handwriting on the wall, some leaders among Churches of Christ are quite naturally alarmed. The latest and most public manifestation of this concern appeared in the May 2005 issue of the Christian Chronicle newspaper as a full-page advertisement titled “A Christian Affirmation 2005”, signed by 24 professors from a variety of schools. In this ad, the 24 signers proposed “to clarify our Christian identity in a time of increasing uncertainties” by reaffirming their commitment to three doctrines and practices which traditionally identify Churches of Christ and distinguish them from other Christian bodies: baptism by immersion for remission of sins, weekly observance of the Lord’s Supper and rejection of instrumental music in church worship. Since that ad appeared, I have heard a talk by one of the signers who further warned that Churches of Christ are “rushing, Gadarene-like, over the precipice into the sea of evangelicalism” (near-quote if not exact).
I am grateful for the heritage I have received within the Churches of Christ, especially that embodied in its founding ideals. But my Christian identity is not defined by denominational membership — even in a nondenominational denomination. To clarify my own identity, it is simply and solely “to be found in Christ, not having a righteousness of my own . . . but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith” (Phil. 3:9). According to Paul, any competing identity based on “in-group” membership is destined for the dumpster (v. 4-8). If these truths resonate with your heart, I invite you to read my 22-page booklet titled “The Restoration Movement Fulfilled in Jesus Christ.”