This week I am starting a three part series on the Churches of Christ, the fellowship in which I grew up and with which I identify.
My heritage in the Churches of Christ is deeply rooted in both sides of my family tree—particularly those on my mother’s side who once called Kentucky, the heartland of the Restoration movement, their home. I have aunts and uncles, cousins, and great-something-or-anothers that identify with the Churches of Christ. My father was an elder. My father’s father was an elder. My mother’s father is an elder. For many years, my grandfather on my father’s side served as a missionary and as a professor of religion and biblical Greek. My mother has been involved in different women’s ministries. Both of my brothers worked as Christian camp counselors, we all attended Christian universities, and two of us attained degrees in Bible. I use to even pick up the attendance cards after worship.
I am deeply invested in this fellowship,
where it’s been,
where it will go,
where it is now.
To begin our examination of the Churches of Christ, we have to talk about language. At times, I can be belligerent in defending the idea that there must be assumptions and accommodations made in conversation; there is nothing worse than a person who expects everything that comes out of your mouth to be totally precise and accurate. Yet there is a power in words, in finding and utilizing the perfect word for a situation or to describe what you’re thinking.
The Church of Christ has historically been great at this. They take their words seriously. But that’s what makes it so disturbing when the topic of denomination comes up, and we have to have an understanding of this word before we can go anywhere.
The term denomination has two meanings, one historical and one sociological. The historical meaning refers to a group that is a branch or distinctive subgroup of a larger group. A sect is differentiated by either being smaller than a denomination or being so radically distinctive that it may not even belong to the larger group. This is the definition that has been adamantly rejected by the members of the Churches of Christ, claiming they are not a branch but the trunk. This slogan is riddled with problems, but that’s beyond our scope.
However, denomination is most often thought of in a sociological sense. A denomination in this sense is simply a group that resembles and interacts with all other subgroups of the larger faith (differentiated from a sect which separates itself from other groups). It is this definition of denomination that makes the word applicable to many Church of Christ congregations and the sense in which I use it. We are going to talk about the denomination of the Churches of Christ, those who claim Christianity alongside billions of others and are categorized by certain beliefs. As much as I’m thinking about it, though, I will try to default to “tradition” or “fellowship” to avoid offending.
The distinctive tenets—the denominational lines—of the Churches of Christ are autonomy, basing doctrine on the Bible alone, prescribing to “steps of salvation,” being a continuation of the first century church (mentioned above), and worshipping a cappella. The congregations of this tradition exist on a spectrum, from those who are exceptionally conservative and reserved to those who exhibit features of more mainstream evangelical denominations or even emergent churches (those on this end of the spectrum, often neglect or dismiss the tenets listed above).
This is a brief introduction to the fellowship the next two posts will be exploring. I am excited to look at their history, trying to find out how they got where they are today and then turn to where they are going, and I believe this will be a truly rewarding study.