One of the core axioms of Church of Christ theology is the supremacy of reason in discerning matters of doctrine. It is said that, while our emotions may lead us into all sorts of danger, the faculty of reason can always be trusted, if applied honestly.
For my part, this thread started to unravel when I began to look at the history of the Restoration Movement (from which come the Churches of Christ, the independent Christian Churches, and the Disciples of Christ). It is said that Alexander Campbell, one of the primary founders of the movement, carried a copy of John Locke with him in his saddlebags, next to his bible. As you might imagine, he believed that scripture should be read in a very rationalistic way. This has produced one of the core tenets of Church of Christ belief, which is that that anyone who approaches the scriptures rationally and with honesty will reach the same conclusions about belief and practice as anyone else who does the same. It is believed that if we can use reason to agree on the true meaning of scripture, we can unite the Christians from all of the denominations into the one Church of Christ. The only hinderances to this process are the existing traditions, creeds, and biases that men (and women) bring with them when they read. Thus, creeds and traditions must be rejected outright. It is believed that such an approach to God’s word will enable us to fully recreate the church of the first century, which is now so long obscured by the abuses of history that we must discard all we have inherited and start afresh. Indeed, the New Testament is viewed as the blueprint for the Church of Christ, sent down to us by the Master Architect, and we must follow its pattern exactly. This is sola scriptura, par excellence.
The problem with this framework, as it has turned out in practice, is that men do not and cannot read the scriptures alike. To make matters worse, if two individuals disagree on an interpretation of scripture, it follows that at least one of them is either mentally deficient or perverse in some way. This lends a serious air of vitriol and superiority to any debates on doctrinal issues.
The truth is that it is not possible to read the “plain” meaning of scripture, because it is not possible avoid the coloring of our reading that comes from our own experience. It is interpretation “all the way down.” The postmoderns among us would say, “well, duh,” but I think the Orthodox do a little better than that in pointing out that our reason is just as much a part of our fallen nature as, for instance, our emotions. That is not to say that reason is useless, but in practice it fails to be authoritative. Even within the Church of Christ, there are the mainstream, the non-institutionals, the one-cup non-Sunday school crowd, the progressives, and so on, and all claim an authoritative reading of scripture based on reason.
To further emphasize the point, the mainstream churches of Christ have changed dramatically over the last century, though from what I can gather, we have no idea of it. A Church of Christ 125 years ago would have been functionally non-institutional, non-Sunday school, and had one-cup communion. Its women wouldn’t have dared show up without their heads covered, and only the elderly and infirm would have prayed while sitting in a pew. Everyone else would have been on their knees when praying, or occasionally standing. There would have been no located salaried “minister”, rather, the preacher would have varied from week to week or month to month, as preachers were itenerant and focused primarily on evangelism and church planting. Many congregations would have been staunchly pacifist, and regularly heard pacifist sermons. All of these practices were considered “scriptural” and based on a rational reading of scripture, just as today, we base our non-practice of them on a rational reading of scripture. Clearly, something is wrong with our basis of authority!
This, however, is where I find myself in a pickle. Once you reject the authoritativeness of a rationalistic reading of scripture, where do you go? Where do you get your authority? At the moment, I can see three basic options, represented by three groups: the Charismatics, the Emergents, and the Orthodox.
The first option, represented by the Charismatic and Pentecostal churches, is the direct and immediate guidance of the Holy Spirit. That is, the Holy Spirit speaks to us directly as individuals to give us guidance in all matters of belief, practice, and life. If there seems to be a contradiction between those directions and the scriptures, we should go with the more recent orders of the Spirit, who is the final authority. From the little experience I have of the Charismatic movement, this does not look like the way for me to go. The situation is ripe for abuse, as when I visited a Charismatic mega-church a few years ago, and one of the pastors got up to say that he was receiving a message from the Holy Spirit at that very moment that the congregation needed to be putting more money in the collection plates that were being passed around. Often times, it all seems to devolve into “Jesus made the light turn green for me,” or, “I can hear the Spirit telling me to move on to this bigger paycheck and buy a new SUV.” Perhaps I am being unfair, but for multiple reasons, this option is unappealing. How do I discern between the messages of the Holy Spirit and my own delusion?
The second option, which I have said is represented by the Emergents, as far as I can understand them and as far as they can be pinned down, is that I myself become the final authority. Of course, they would never put it that way, but the practice seems to be to take (for instance) a little contemporary worship music, a little Orthodox artwork, a little Reformed theology, a little classical spiritual formation, a little Quaker discernment, all from different “traditions”, and roll them up into one until you get a church. (Anything edgy like a soul patch or a tattoo is a bonus.) In full postmodern style, whatever works for you is OK, as long as you don’t judge the way I choose to respond to the story of God. So for instance, one might hold that the Virgin Birth is true, not because it actually happened, but because it is beautiful. Again, perhaps I am being unfair, as I know some Emergents who are good, loving, righteous believers and whom I consider friends. But the final authority in this model is what I consider to be beautiful and helpful, and as we all know, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. This seems too much to me like the days when Israel had no king, and “each one did what was right in his own eyes.”
In addition, I don’t think it is fair to scavenge ideas from all of the existing Christian traditions to piece together your own hybrid church. The pieces you are scavenging were formed within the context of the tradition from which you scavenged them, and only reach their full expression within that same context. Thus, to play Gregorian chant to create a “mood” of reverence before the praise band starts jamming at the beginning of service is to do a disservice to both the Catholic church which originated the musical style and the participants in the service, who get musically and cognitively lurched around a bit.
In this model, as there is no authority outside the individual, there can be no heresy either, as we all are just in “different stages of our journey towards God.” Therefore, even though I am a generational Millennial, I’m afraid I cannot go along with the forecasters for my demographic into the trendy new Emergent churches. Whatever authority I end up accepting, I’m pretty sure it’s not supposed to be me.
This brings us to the Eastern Orthodox. Most of what I’ll say here could be applied to the Roman Catholic Church (and to a lesser degree the Anglican Church) as well, but for multiple reasons the Orthodox are where my interests lie. The interpretation of scripture that the Orthodox hold to be authoritative is the one they received from the previous generations of believers, all the way back to Jesus and the apostles. This is a part of what is referred to as the Tradition. Tradition and scripture are not at odds for the Orthodox; rather a part of the Tradition is a particular reading of scripture that is purported to have been given by Christ directly to his disciples. For more on this topic, I point the reader here and here.
This view of the matter is very appealing. For one thing, it makes a place for history in discussions of the life of the Church. Indeed, as G. K. Chesterton said, “Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to that arrogant oligarchy who merely happen to be walking around.” It also relieves some of the burden I’ve placed on myself of having to have it all “figured out”. I don’t have to fully comprehend everything, I just need to accept what has been faithfully passed on to me. It is possible for distortions or impurities to enter into the Tradition, but there is also the ongoing work of the Spirit and of the bishops to repent and return to the purity of the Faith that has been delivered to us. When problems arise, Christ is seen as still active in his Church through the Holy Spirit, and this is particularly manifested in the collective discernment of the bishops in councils. Thus, the doctrinal purity of the Kingdom is preserved by Christ himself. Of course, the things that matter most for me are those that pertain to communion with God, to salvation and sanctification, and these are clearly established and do not change.
I mentioned the work of Church Councils, and this topic points to an important reality that we have long ignored in the Church of Christ: as much as we like to claim that we have restored the New Testament Church, we are deeply beholden to the believers who have come before us, indeed to the Tradition which they have passed on to us, despite the fact that we normally consider them to be apostates. The canon of scripture was established by the painstaking work of the early Church Councils, as they sought to determine which books and writings were consistent with the Tradition that had been passed on to them, and which were heretical or superfluous. The canon was later revised by the Reformers (also “apostates”), and this version of the canon we have accepted unquestioningly. The way we generally explain this (if somebody asks troubling questions) is to say that the Holy Spirit was at work in these men, even though they were apostates, so that the pure canon would be faithfully delivered to us a few centuries later, who could rightly discern it. This is an extraordinary exercise in hubris, to say the least.
As I have said earlier, reason is not without a place in the life of the Christian, it is just not our final authority. And it so happens that many of the “new” conclusions that Campbell and others reached about the life of the Church are those that Orthodox Tradition had taught all along: for instance, weekly Communion, baptismal regeneration, and acapella worship. To me, this is a good sign. In fact, with the exception of this core matter of interpretation, as far as I’m aware there is little-to-nothing the Church of Christ teaches or practices that Orthodox believers would find problematic. (Obviously, the reverse does not hold.) Yet, the beauty of the faith and practice presented by Orthodoxy is absolutely stunning to me. These people really know how to be in the presence of God, to partake of his Body and Blood, to worship, to repent, and to pray. Orthodoxy has been described as “the fullness of the Faith”, and when confronted with such richness and fullness, it is hard not to feel sometimes that one has been living in theological poverty.
So then, what’s the dilemma? Why have I not yet jumped on board with the Orthodox Church? There are multiple reasons, one of which is that my wife and I are attending a Church of Christ congregation that we love very much. We have formed some wonderful relationships with the Christians there, and we can see the image of the “family of God” at work among us. Such ties should not be dissolved lightly or quickly. More deeply, the Church of Christ is my heritage; it is what I was raised to believe. I am chafed by the idea of following the generational herd and ditching my parents’ church for whatever is new and exciting to me. Again, such decisions are often made too quickly, and care is advised. I must “count the cost”, lest my latter state become worse than the former.
Finally, in good Protestant style, I have a “hang-up” with the Tradition as delivered to me by Orthodoxy, and that is infant baptism. The topic has taken up all the more importance as my wife and I begin to think about having children. I have read arguments for both sides, and both sides have some darn good ones. It is not my desire to start a debate on this issue here, but simply to say that I am not ready to embrace this practice. The Orthodox baptismal liturgy itself, which is quite beautiful, seems so much more meaningful if engaged in by an adult catechumen, rather than a proxy godparent. And yet, here I judge myself, for I am elevating my own Reason to the place of final authority against the claims of Tradition.
There may be yet another option, besides the three I have discussed. I have seen it referred to here and there as “re-traditioning”. The idea is that we (the Church of Christ) let go of this paradoxical stance of being an a-traditional tradition and rather embrace the tradition from which we have come. Reaching back into our past, we dust off our copies of Cambpell, Stone, Lipscomb, Sommer, Lard, Richardson, Srygley, and all of our other “Fathers”, and allow them to critique who we are today. We drop the pretense that our interpretations are authoritative on the basis of Reason, and accept that they may be quite valuable, nonetheless. This would also allow us to accept the idea that we may not be the only True Christians while at the same time affirming that the issues on which we disagree with others still matter. Closely related to the strict Church of Christ re-traditioning option is to reach back even further and embrace what we have rejected from Christian history. This would include things such as liturgical worship, the works of the Church Fathers, and the communion of the saints. We could do either one, or both.
This course is not without its own perils, though. Any Church of Christ congregation which started to do this would quickly find itself anathematized by the rest of the brotherhood, “congregational autonomy” be damned. My own attempts (in conjunction with a few others) to introduce some old-style Church of Christ as well as some liturgical elements at our congregation have not been very successful. According to Father Stephen, the liturgical side of these attempts are misguided, and I’m somewhat inclined to agree with him. And once again, I am judging myself, for like the Emergents, I am pulling practices I like out of their ecclesial contexts and trying to get them to take hold in a place where they don’t make sense. But perhaps a strictly Restoration Movement re-traditioning may yet yield some valuable fruit. I point here to the work of Richard Hughes, John Mark Hicks, and many others.
To conclude, it seems I cannot escape making myself the ultimate authority in some sense, because I am the one who has to decide to which authority I will ultimately submit. For now, I am biding my time, praying and repenting with the Church, and waiting for more clarity in my path. The only thing that is clear right now is that I cannot stay where I am, theologically speaking, forever. Thus, I welcome your comments, readers, especially if you see other options I have not considered, or if you believe I have mischaracterized something or someone. And I put the question to you: what’s a Church of Christ boy to do?