Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Not Your Grandpa's Church of Christ

So another first in my Sabbatical worship experiences. My wife and I attended a Church of Christ. Never done that before. In fact, I didn’t even know one member of a Church of Christ until I went to college.

I attended the University of Arkansas and prayed and prayed that God would provide me a Christian roommate as I moved into Yocum Hall. He got there before I did, and boy, was I glad to see a Bible on his bookshelf. But, shoot, he could have done that for mom or dad when they helped him move in. Once they head for home, his Bible might get tossed in some drawer and never taken out again. “Lord,” I whispered, “I think you’ve answered my prayer, but I’m going to hold judgment on that until I meet him, if that’s okay.” O me of little faith. When he got back to the room, we met and I found out that he was not only a Christian, but a serious Christian—a go to church Sunday morning, Sunday night, and even Wednesday night kind of Christian. Heck, I figured he was even a better Christian than I was. “Thank you, God!”

But he was a Christian from some off brand called the Church of Christ, and I knew nothing about the Church of Christ (except for the fact that they maybe had the best name). His name is Danny, and he filled me in on some of their beliefs and practices. He told me he was taught you had to be baptized to be saved. He told me they didn’t allow musical instruments in the worship because they weren’t in the Bible. “What about the psalms and all that jazz about praising God with stringed instruments, clanging cymbals, and such and so?” I asked. “That’s Old Testament,” he said, “we just practice the New Testament, and you won’t find any of those stringed instruments and cymbals in there.” We also disagreed on whether a saved person can lose his or her salvation: Danny said yes; I said no. He told me that “unlike you Baptist churches, we follow the pattern of the early church and serve the Lord’s Supper every Sunday morning. And without saying it outright, he implied that the Church of Christ is confident that they’re the only ones who truly believe and practice what the Bible teaches. “So does that mean that Baptists like me won’t be saved and won’t make it to heaven?” Well, he sort of hem-hawed around on that one—didn’t say yes, didn’t say no. I think he wanted to say that his kind were the only ones who were going to make it; I think that’s probably what he believed, but Danny was a nice guy and he didn’t have the heart or the edge to just come out and say it. So we had some interesting conversations, sharing our beliefs and why we believed the way we did. I loved Danny then. I love him still. But that was my introduction to the Church of Christ. They struck me as narrow, short-sighted, and off target in some key areas (especially their baptism is necessary for salvation doctrine).

I hadn’t really thought much more about the Church of Christ until just a few years ago, when I struck up an acquaintance with a local Church of Christ pastor, a young man, who had spoken to a group in our church about the beliefs of his church. We corresponded via email concerning some of our differences, and one day he came to see me with an elder. They spent the better part of an hour trying to convince me from the Bible that they were right on baptism as necessary for salvation and we Baptists were wrong. While we Baptists teach that baptism is closely linked to salvation, is very, very important, and that the New Testament knows nothing of an unbaptized Christian, baptism is not necessary for salvation. Salvation is by grace through faith, period. Baptism is for a believer, by immersion, and as an act of obedience, not as a way we can secure our salvation, as if Christ’s blood was not quite sufficient. So this young pastor and his elder left the meeting on, I think, friendly terms but obviously disappointed they had not swayed me to their interpretation.

So, you may be thinking, why did I go to a Church of Christ to worship? Well, for one thing, I know the pastor to some degree and consider him a friend and colleague in ministry. I met him first when we shared a funeral service. Recently we were in a study group together. I find him to be studious, serious, deeply devoted to Christ and the Scriptures and the church. He also has an engaging sense of humor and appeared to be much more open to differing views than any other Church of Christ folks I was acquainted with. So, since I knew the pastor (not to mention a few other folks that went to church there), I decided to attend their worship.

What a friendly church! We were greeted warmly by people at the door and by others we knew from the community. We took a seat at the back and waited for worship to begin. There were no piano or organ, so we knew the singing would be voices-only. I was looking forward to that and was not disappointed in my expectations. Following a prayer time for children and teachers as they begin a new school year this week, the singing began. Good stuff. I only knew a couple of the songs, It Is Well and I Will Rise, but I quickly learned and enjoyed them all. They showed the words and music on a central screen—no hymnals.

Next came the Lord’s Supper. I had never seen it in the middle of a service before, but that’s where it was. And much to my surprise, the worship leader announced that it was an open communion for all believers in Jesus Christ. (I don’t think my roommate’s church would have stood for that.) So we took communion with them. It was a worshipful time, if not strange to us on two fronts: one, no organ or piano music (only silence except for the rattling of communion trays as people retrieved the elements and as ushers stacked the trays), and two, there was what appeared to be a wasp resting on the hair of the man down the row from us. That was a bit distracting. That wasp sat there for the longest time before he finally had enough of that man’s hair or that worship service and flew away.

After the Lord’s Supper they took an offering, had another song as I recall, and then the pastor preached. Like everyone else he was dressed very casually. He preached from Ephesians 5 as apparently he is in a series on the family. When one considers how much the American church mirrors the culture in terms of divorce, we probably can’t preach enough on the family. This particular sermon was addressed primarily to husbands. The preacher had slides on the screen that included his text and his points and a picture or two that illustrated what he was trying to say. He used some humor (as is necessary when preaching on such touchy subjects) yet worked hard to show husbands that they can love their wife as Christ loved the church because of the power of Christ. It was a practical sermon with good theological rootage in Paul’s analogy of marriage as a picture of Christ’s relationship to the church. Most sermons I’ve heard and/or preached on this text often boil down to “three ways a husband can love his wife like Christ loved the church.” This pastor preached a bigger sermon than that. After the sermon we sang a song (not an invitation hymn) and then the music leader called on someone from the congregation to close the service in prayer. And we were done.

In reflection, I’m not sure I could have had that kind of experience in any other Church of Christ in our city. This one is different. It is not your grandpa’s Church of Christ in doctrine or in practice. Their doctrines are not widely different but different enough to welcome believers from other denominations to the Table of the Lord and not just to assume we were in a handcart to hell because were weren’t Church of Christ. And knowing this pastor a little, I don’t think they’ve made these changes to be popular; I think they’ve made them because they believe them to be in line with the Scripture. It was a joy to worship with these brothers and sisters in Christ.

As we were leaving a businessman I know in that church told me I how much he appreciated our church’s work in the community and that he had recommended us to a Baptist young woman who moved to town and took a job in his company. A Church of Christ person actually recommending a Baptist church to someone? What’s the church coming to? Perhaps to our senses: our sense of unity in the Body of Christ, our sense of playing on the same team even if we don’t agree on every jot and tittle. Could this be one small sign that Jesus’ prayer of John 17 is being answered? After praying for his disciples, Jesus prays for those of us who will hear His word through the message of the disciples: “I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” More and more, God is making His people one. And I praise Him for it.

Oh yes, one final footnote. You remember my roommate Danny? He’s now a deacon in one of the largest Baptist churches in Arkansas. He serves God in missions in the world and in ministry through his church. He claims that watching my life and sharing in all those faith conversations we had in college played a huge part in his decision to become Baptist. I’m flattered by that, but I don’t think that was the key factor in Danny’s decision. While theology was most certainly a factor for Danny, the trump card was this: he married a Baptist preacher’s daughter. Those two became one—a Baptist one. Oh for the day when all of God’s children are one—not a Baptist one or a Presbyterian one or a Church of Christ one, but a God-loving, Christ-centered, Spirit-filled one in Jesus Christ our Lord.


  1. Great blog John. Oh that we would become one.

  2. Enjoyed the thoughts. I do believe that salvation is through faith and baptism is an act of obedience to that faith! Maybe the next time you come to visit, we will have a guitar or piano...I can only hope!


  3. I had 3 roommates in college who were brought up in the Church of Christ--one of them was the preacher's daughter, and we had many "interesting" discussions. I attended church with her one time and they were interested in my views from my Baptist background. I enjoyed reading your blog about your most recent experience and knowing that God is continuing to work to make us one.

  4. John, the Church of Christ have wasp and the baptist have bats. Wonder which one God perfers? Have enjoyed your comments on different churches, maybe a thought for future blogs on what different religions believe.
    Doug E.

  5. Other than a peculiar emphasis on second syllables, the most damning thing about the CoC ultimately boils down to this: an immersant stands between sinner and salvation (shades of Romish priests, n'est pas?). Fantastical leaps of doctrine and conjured dispensations are required to explain away the undipped thief on the cross. On the other hand, they aren't all flabbergasted over a bunch of silly "left behind" eschatology. And, they sing pretty good, too...

  6. And now that I have offended everyone, let me offer my own emerging idea for how an interfaith dialog could happen... CS Lewis, in "Mere Christianity" wrote about the common faith in an imaginary hallway of Christendom where, at the end of the day, everyone could retreat to the sanctuary of their particular confession. I like that idea, but the better/fuller metaphor is the stereotypical boarding house in those old black-and-white feel-good movies, where an eclectic collection of oddballs rented rooms under the same roof. They ate meals together and took turns using the bathroom at the end of the hall, and they all rushed out of their rooms together whenever the phone rang. Like those imaginary boarders, there is much we can share in common with other believers, and even with non-Christians (Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, etc.), but we can't linger there forever. Sooner or later, we have to abandon the fleeting comaraderie of dining tables and hallways and retreat to the quiet introspection of our individual boarding-house rooms for a few hours of sleep and study and contemplation about the day's opportunities -- gained and lost -- to be Christ, and see Christ in a houseful (nay, a worldful) of also-eccentric companions...

  7. John, thanks for sharing.
    In Christ, Perry Robinson

  8. Thanks for all the comments. I love the image, Jacques, of the boarding house - much in common to celebrate, plenty of differences to debate, and no shortage of oddballs in the mix. If that doesn't describe the church this side of heaven, I don't know what does.

  9. John,
    Thanks for your blog.
    John Rogers

  10. Really enjoyed having you with us. Looking forward to the unity of believers you speak of!!! We all serve the same risen Savior so we can't be too different!!! And we are simply a church of Christ not THE Church of Christ.