Prompted by Brain McLaren’s Generous Orthodoxy, I have started a pretty intense study of many different denominations in hopes of gaining a bigger view of God and a bigger view of what it means to be the church. I start that study with the Disciples of Christ. Partly because they have in many ways been my arch-nemesis as an Assemblies of God guy in a vastly different world. I have often felt like Dorothy in the land of Oz. The rules are different here. Where I expect monkeys to hang in trees, they fly. Where I have expected the individual talking to me to be a human, he turns out to be a scarecrow. But a generous orthodoxy does not allow this to be only a dream that I will soon awaken from and find myself in Kansas. I find myself engaging this thinking head on and I have found something that is worthy of hanging my orthodoxy upon.
The Disciples of Christ was founded primarily on two principles: unity and biblical authority. Often times these two have a tendency to come in conflict with one another, precisely because we are not all unified on what the Bible says. Where conflict and disagreement exist, the Disciples have chosen to err to the side of unity. I think this is a valuable lesson for a Protestant church that would much rather just start another denomination as to work out disagreements and live with tension. Even when faced with what many would regard as blatant heresy, the Disciples have generally chosen unity. (There are a couple of splits in the history, so it wasn’t that clean. But the group that now exists as the Disciples have generally been the split from rather than splitters.
Since the Enlighenment, the church has often been concerned with having right theology, a formidable and “biblical” challenge. The early reformers were often splitting into different groups based on theogical differences, political differences, and sometimes simple geographical/cultural differences. The founder of the Disciples, Thomas Campbell, found himself identified with a church that was carrying political differences that were twice removed from the New World in which he ministered. While a product of the Enlightenment himself, he chose to put off differences for the sake of unity. Frankly, Campbell thought that if everyone used the same rules of interpretation, then they would all come to the same conclusion about scripture. But, when this didn’t happen, he and the early Disciples did maintain their commitment to unity.
Can the modern church exist with tension between those on different sides? I hope so. The Campbells main motivation comes from the prayer of Jesus for all the believers in John 17. He is motivated by the idea that a church united with itself and united to Him will be a powerful source of redemption and reconciliation to the world. The world will know that we are His disciples if we love one another. Some will cite the many times when the Epistles give instructions on how to deal with heretics and false teachers. I get that. I see those scriptures and I affirm their validity within the canon of inspired writings. What I question is where we can draw the line between heretic and the simply different? Just remember that the traditions that make up Protestantism were mostly rooted in some movement that at one time of another was considered heresy. Luther was a heretic. The Anabaptists were heretics. Arminean theology is heretical. But who decides what is orthodox…the church that is in power. In America today that is the conservative evangelical church. Sometimes I wonder if we are too busy condemning Martin Luthers. Where would the church be without the heretics of yesterday? …I am not sure the church would be.
I imagine a church where Calvinists and Armineans, Charismatics and fundamentalists, liberals and conservatives, and Catholics and Protestants can worship together. Each celebrating their unique theologies and traditions and holding firmly to their own unique convictions. I think this church has some things to learn from the Disciples of Christ.