The title of this site carries an implicit ambiguity. Are we talking about a theological method that draws from premises unique to Churches of Christ? Is (a) Church of Christ theology simply the theological product of people formed by and/or concerned with Churches of Christ? How would ‘Churches of Christ’ or ‘theology’ be defined in the first place? Is the concept of (a) Church of Christ theology even coherent given especially our autonomous, if not fractured, ecclesiological state?
It could be argued, for instance, that there is not enough agreement either at present or throughout our history to speak meaningfully about what constitutes (a) Church of Christ theology. Without a centralizing ecclesial structure, congregations have been free to develop along divergent theological tracks. Where critical dialogue even still occurs—which it infrequently does beyond polemical potshots—it is often doomed simply because we are not working with the same set of theological or hermeneutical assumptions.
It could also be argued that (a) Church of Christ theology is unredeemably misguided in its (apparent) defining principles, such that we would do better to ignore the idea altogether. Implicit in the term ‘theology’, given our historical rejection of the term, is itself a rejection of previous norms. Also implicit in the term is the influence of modern academic theology in which concepts like patternist restorationism or radical ecclesiastical disassociation (both from one another and from the broader Christian tradition) are given little credence. Would we not be ironically better off, to paraphrase Thomas Campbell, letting this (theological) body die and sink into (theological) union with the Body of Christ?
The aim of this essay is to offer a series of reflections that could be used to determine the nature of (a) ‘Church of Christ Theology’. The aim is not to propose an understanding of the term as such, but to stimulate thought and dialogue. I am writing this as a little theological exercise, partly to model the kinds of short-form analyses and reflections we want to host on this site, and partly to invite readers to reason together on the topic. In this respect I will propose five interrelated, but distinct methods for determining (a) Church of Christ theology—canonical, exegetical, metamorphic, reconstructive, and ecclesiastical—with the explicit understanding that these methods are not mutually exclusive, comprehensive, nor fully fleshed out here.
One way of thinking about (a) Church of Christ theology is to look to the essential or “classic” writings of the tradition. We can call this the canonical option as it seeks to determine what ‘texts’ should be given the authority to inform a genuinely Church of Christ theology. Being the “Stone-Campbell Movement” we ostensibly look to writings like Thomas Campbell’s Declaration and Address or the various works by Alexander Campbell and Barton Stone, even though they have exerted more direct influence on the Disciples of Christ and Christian Church traditions than Churches of Christ. Or we might look to key figures like David Lipscomb or C. R. Nichol whose writings shaped Churches of Christ in the 20th century more than those of Stone or the Campbells. Sources in the recent past would also be as important to consider as they would be contentious, given the rapid state of development that marks the technological age. Determining what constitutes “classic” Church of Christ source material would entail our hallowed tradition of callous bickering. I do not mean to say that we should each formulate our preferred head-canon of the tradition, but rather consider those texts that seem to have made a substantial impact on the movement, and to derive from them some evolving set of principles and ideas about what (a) Church of Christ theology is.
Another way of getting at the idea of (a) Church of Christ theology, related in some ways to the thought above, is to determine the fundamental principles at the genesis of the movement. Let’s call this the exegetical option as the aim is to understand what the principles meant in their original articulation, which thereby guides what they can or should mean today. We thus again look to Stone and the Campbells and other significant first-generation figures. It is with these figures that notions of primitivism—the restoration of New Testament Christianity and Christian unity are formed and articulated. We can also look to this time for traces of religious populism, anti-tradition rhetoric, rationalism, and other secondary characteristics of the movement. We then would have to wrestle with questions of how much the original articulation of these ideas can or should control what they can or should mean over time. Some might see the evolution of these ideas in subsequent generations as a perversion, others an improvement, or a little yes and no depending on the case. It would be helpful, nevertheless, to have some notion of these ideas in their original context in order to say something meaningful about what (a) Church of Christ theology is.
A third option considered here would be to trace the ways that theology has developed over time in Churches of Christ, beginning ostensibly with its precursors and influences, and moving through subsequent iterations to the present. Let’s call this the metamorphic option. This project would inevitably face the disparate nature of this (and really, any) movement: as it has disparately developed due to factors like race, gender, socio-economics, geography, education, and the various historical issues that shape each of these interrelated developments. We may ask, for instance, how Churches of Christ outside of North America have developed theologically. Or we may ask how the advent of formal theological education has impacted Church of Christ theological development. No single Church of Christ identity or theology would emerge from this investigation, but perhaps other merited conclusions could help to determine the nature of (a) Church of Christ theology.
A fourth option would be to re-interpret the original principles of the movement. As opposed to the exegetical option, which sees the original principles as binding, this option—let’s call it the reconstructive option—looks to the original principles for guidance, but is neither limited by them or bound to their original meaning as essential for articulating what it means to express (a) Church of Christ theology today. We may agree, for instance, with the aim for unity, but reject the notion of unity based on an appeal to a patternistic reading of the New Testament. Or we may find the anti-elitism of Stone and Campbell that draws on Scottish Common-Sense philosophy and empowers individuals to read and understand what their Bibles say without needing the approval of authorized authorities praiseworthy. But we may also see how this effort has morphed into a profoundly anti-intellectual bent in our movement, and work against it. We might appreciate the way that sectarian religion takes its beliefs seriously and follows them to logical conclusions, but also reject a religion of us vs. them. The reconstructive option would seek to re-evaluate and reformulate essential features of the movement, without entirely dismissing them altogether.
A final option would be to draw connections between ecclesiology and theology, especially regarding investigations into the actual forms of worshipping communities that claim the title and heritage: ‘Church of Christ’. We can call this the ecclesiastical option, which asks what a Church of Christ looks like and seeks to reason from these structures and practices what (a) Church of Christ theology is. When we say Church of Christ are we talking about the usually small and rural “sectarian” churches with iconoclastic buildings and an arguably more spartan doctrinal temperament? Are we talking about the usually large and suburban “mainstream” churches increasingly indistinguishable from popular evangelicalism? Are we talking about the usually small and urban “liberal” churches that adhere to an odd mix of traditional acapella worship but otherwise increasingly akin, at least in terms of doctrine, to Mainline Protestantism? If we consider these options as points on a spectrum (left, right, and middle) then it is possible to account for the many iterations that combine one or more elements from these options. Or we can consider Churches that have dropped the name, but demonstrate obvious debts to the heritage, or church plants in present contexts that are adapting to a post-Christendom era where ‘brand loyalty’ to denominational names is considered to get in the way of Christian life and witness. And even with this vast array we are thinking only in terms of North America. What do Churches of Christ look like in Ghana or South Korea or Mexico or Canada? Taking on a theological anthropologists lens we can look at all these manifestations and attempt to make claims about what it means to be (a) Church of Christ, and thus develop (a) Church of Christ theology.
As this is just a little theological exercise I have not aimed for an exhaustive methodological inventory. There are other ways of thinking about how to determine what (a) Church of Christ theology is or can mean in our present circumstances. Considering all of these methods one of the main dynamics that runs through each of them is the implicit impossibility of formulating a singular Church of Christ theology. The movement has, either by vice or by design, become fragmented. Hence throughout I have insisted on the parenthetical ‘(a)’ to highlight that at some level the identity marker ‘Church of Christ’ means distinct and often incommensurable things to different people and communities. We have grown apart within our own movement becoming the equivalent of 2nd or 3rd cousins even to each other. If we are going to speak meaningfully about theology and Churches of Christ perhaps the one point we must all accept is that there is no such thing as the Church of Christ theology; only (a) Church of Christ theology.