The D in [D]mergent comes from the Disciples of Christ. The Disciples are part of that larger movement within the Body of Christ known as the Stone-Campbell Movement. It also includes the non-instrumental Churches of Christ and the Independent Christian Churches. The Stone-Campbell movement has its roots in the early 19th century American frontier (Of course, any movement can trace its beginning further and further back in time citing different events and ideas that influenced it. My daughter recently took a course in American foundations and it took her a little while to understand why her class on American foundations began with the teacher talking about Greece and Rome.) The hope of the Stone-Campbell effort was to overcome the stringent denominationalism that was present at that time and unite Christians through a simple confession of faith in Christ and obedience to him “in all things according to the scriptures.” So in the beginning it was a unity movement. Sadly it has developed into three distinct and separate bodies. A unity movement that has split at least a couple of times. I put the phrase “in all things according to the scriptures” in quotation marks because if I was going to point to one matter that has influenced the division more than anything else it would be how the scriptures are interpreted. (I would also argue that egos have had a lot to do with it . . . but that’s a different article.)
I have spent the majority of my life, and my entire pastoral career, as a Disciple. My undergraduate and seminary education, however, happened at schools that are more closely aligned with the Independent Christian Churches. My only knowledge of the Churches of Christ have come through the study of the Stone-Campbell Movement and through parishioners who have come to the Disciples from a non-instrumental background. It was during my seminary education that I made a conscience decision to return to the Disciples of Christ, the church of my childhood. I want to share why I made that decision. But before I do, I want to tell you why I want to share it. I presently serve as the Regional Moderator of the Christian Church in Indiana, which has about 170 Disciple congregations. The Regional Moderator is like the Board Chair for a local church, but overseeing, in this instance, the structure that unites all the congregations in that region. There used to be a lot more Disciple congregations in Indiana but over time congregations have voted to leave this body and become independent. Usually, the reasons cited include the belief that the Disciples have become too liberal and the leaders “have an agenda.” As the Moderator, I have had the occasion to travel with our Regional Minister to a couple of these congregations who are considering leaving. To say the least, they are very interesting conversations.
I have had my own struggles with my church at times – from the cumbersomeness of the bureaucracy that has been created over the last fifty years to the sometimes lack of focus on what I think our priorities should be, but I still love the church I call home and here is why.
First, I believe in gender inclusive leadership at every level of church life. This underscores one of my deepest theological convictions that God is neither male nor female and that all people are created in the image of God. Not too long ago, my family worshipped at an Independent Christian Church while we were on vacation. When it came time for communion everyone who stood around the table was male. I asked my teenage daughter if she noticed anything different from our church and she said, “They are all dudes.” I asked how that made her feel and she said, “Not very good.” I don’t want my daughter, who is told in school that she can choose any career she wants as long as she works hard enough, to be part of a congregation where she is told she can’t lead because of her biological make-up.
Second, I am a Disciple because I believe very strongly in the idea of Christian unity and that unity is rooted solely in Christ. It is not creedal nor doctrinal unity, it is a unity rooted simply in Jesus. The Christian faith has never been monolithic. There has never been a single, pure expression of the faith. There has always been various understandings of the faith. We are bound together not by correct belief, but by our hope that Jesus of Nazareth is someone we can trust now and for all eternity.
Third, I have chosen to stay with the Disciples of Christ because of the commitment to social justice, which to me means that everyone gets treated fairly and has equal access to the bounty of this world. I have a firm faith there is more to this world than what can be seen, touched or tasted. I believe there is an eternity that awaits us all, but the faith I claim is one that is lived in this world and is concerned with the real world problems of people in the here-and-now. The prayer we say together each week doesn’t ask for us to be taken out of this world, but instead asks that the ways of God be made known upon this earth as they are in heaven. I have often said that the goal of our faith is not heaven. Heaven is the hope of our faith. The goal of our faith is to be like Christ – who was concerned with people’s hunger, their pain, their sorrow, their exclusion. As incomplete and as faulty as our efforts might be as Disciples, I know I am in a church that seeks to move forward the best we can in caring for the real needs in our world.
Finally, I am Disciple, because I don’t like anyone looking over my shoulder making certain I am “correct” in my belief about scripture, baptism, the atonement, etc. I think we are all on a journey of faith where we reason together what it means to follow Christ. I happen to think it isn’t correct belief about different matters that saves us, it’s Christ.
So, I’m one of those Disciple leaders now. One who believes in the foundation of Christ for our life of faith. One who believes in inclusive leadership which recognizes the image of God in us all. A leader who believes in the inherit unity of all who seek to follow Jesus – a unity not of doctrine, creed or structure – but of a way of life in which we are called by Jesus to love God, neighbor and enemy. A leader who believes that there is no more important witness to the love of God in this world than to care for the brokenhearted, to house the homeless, to provide food for the hungry, to embrace those who have been pushed to the edges. I don’t want to just tell them about a heaven that awaits them, I want them to know the love of heaven now.
So that’s why I am a Disciple. Now, if some folks want to call me a liberal I am absolutely fine with that. And if others want to say that the Disciples have a fuzzy theology, I don’t know how much more clear it can be than saying it is all rooted in Jesus. As our general Minister and President Sharon Watkins said recently, “Jesus is enough for us.” And if there are those who think there is “an agenda.” There is. I just spelled out my understanding of it.
I think in this day and time, there is nothing our world needs more than a church that simply tries to love God, neighbor and enemy. A church that seeks to follow Jesus. And the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) has the opportunity to be such a church for such a time. I am at home.