When I first learned about the Christian Affirmation, I thought that there would be a lot of tradition-minded folks shouting hearty “amens” to it, and that the people who understand the increasing irrelavence of the concerns that it expresses would just ignore it, operating under the assumption that there are bigger issues that require our immediate attention.
Boy, was I wrong.
The long string of hearty “amens” is there, to be sure. But I didn’t anticipate the enthusiastic and open responses that are being made by our tiny community of emergent-minded CoC bloggers. Our little corner of the net, it seems, has lit up like a Christmas tree in response to this relatively benign document.
I hadn’t expected to ever say anything on this subject here (or to even give it a lot of thought, to be honest). But it seems that the CA has now become a big enough issue that many of you are weighing in on the subject, so I guess this will serve as my obligatory Christian Affirmation post.
I’m tempted to say a lot of things that others are saying, but guys like Chris Gonzalez and Mike are already making (or, in Mike’s case, pointing people toward) most of the salient points, so I’m just going to hit on one issue that is close to my heart. It is a point, really, that is addressed to my emergent-minded brothers and sisters more than to the CoC community in general, and I hope that you will all take it to heart as well.
Here it is.
Insofar as CoC doctrinal declarations go, the CA is about as benign as it gets. The CA doesn’t really say anything that hasn’t been said…and said…and said for the last fifty years or so. What is driving the fervor over the CA has nothing to do with new ideas, and everything to do with a fear of the death of our small, short-lived fellowship of churches.
There is nothing wrong with joining in on the debate on a substantive level (though, I think, the effort may be destined to failure, since the whole framework driving the CA is very “modern” in nature). But, in the end, we need to be speaking very clearly to that fear.
During the last thirty years or so, CoC fellowships have slowly been losing our distinctiveness from other evangelical denominations. Ideas about our exclusive claim to salvation, about exclusive reliance on the KJV, and about the extent to which we should consider ourselves in fellowship with other denominations, have been slowly unraveling during our lifetimes. I think that most of the folks who are sympathetic with the CA have probably been in agreement with such un-ravelings, but there has also been this assumption on their part – all along – that after all of the dust settles, there will still be something that is different about us. Something that demonstrates that, even though we believe in a God who will be graceful toward those who don’t “get it” the way we do, we still have access to some truths that others don’t understand.
Once that idea vanishes – the notion that there is nothing in the practices that either made or make us distinct is worth holding onto – so, for all practical purposes, vanishes the Churches of Christ themselves.
There is some serious emotional whiplash that comes with this thought. Don’t forget that, during the massive growth that we experienced in the 1950s, a lot of CoC leaders fully expected that – by this decade – the CoC would be a dominant force – if not the dominant force – in American protestantism. And as things turn out, our ideas are on the brink of extinction.
There is also an understandable sorrow that comes with this realization. After all, our parents, grandparents, and great grandparents, whom we love dearly, held strongly to the convictions that drove the American restoration movement. They believed that their distinctive practices – in the way they baptized people, in the way they worshipped, in the way they shared in the Lord’s supper – were important. To say that they were overly enthusiastic or too dogmatic on a point or two, which have now been lovingly corrected, is one thing. But to say that the entire assumption on which their efforts were based (the restoration of the New Testament church) was either erroneous or unattainable (or, worse yet, that it was correct and attainable, but that they failed) brings with it a very uneasy dissonance. I feel – I mean I truly feel – for the folks who are experiencing this dissonance because – in a way – it is my story, and my dissonance, as well.
And here is my point. Lets keep in mind that the CA is an effort to address that dissonance. It isn’t powerful because of what it says, but because it is a flagpole around which those who wish to hold onto our distinctiveness can rally. If you doubt me, just go and read some of the things that have been written by those who have commented on the CA thus far.
I suppose that, on one level, the issue that lies at the heart of the CA is this: is God calling present-day Christians to engage in an effort to “restore” the New Testament church in the manner that was conceived by our forefathers and foremothers, and – if He is – did they get it right? But the powerful emotional issues behind the CA, which long to affirm the convictions of prior generations – convictions on which many institutions and relationships (not the least of which are our educational institutions) have been built – are the things that need to be addressed in the end.
For the most part, the distinctiveness of CoCs as a denomination is probably going to disappear completely within the next 10-20 years. The same thing will happen to most other evangelical denominations. I think that most of those who read this blog realize this, and count it as a blessing. After all, we’re going to need each other in the world of the twenty-first century.
But these changes will happen whether we “win” the CA argument or not. On that level, participating in the CA dialog is a waste of time. But there is value that can come from our participation: we can help our brothers and sisters continue to embrace their faith as emergent culture begins to chew up and spit out some of the assumptions that undergird the restorationist belief system.
Before people will seriously reconsider the restorationist belief system, they are going to have to be capable of giving themselves “permission” to do so without dishonoring the legacy that was so important to their ancestors. I hope that, in the dialog over the CA, at least some of us will find a way to speak to that issue with sensitivty and charity.