The Death of “We”: How to Proceed Together?

I recently spoke with a friend who is writing a book, and he made an interesting comment.  He said he is writing a book for a denominational publisher of a denomination that no longer exists—referring to the Churches of Christ.  That it no longer exists, he contends, is evinced by the fact the CofC publishers are going bankrupt.  The particularity of our identity has been lost, as have sales of books catering to that particularity.  He said that we’re not having an identity crisis in CofCs, because there has to be a “we” before “we” can have an identity crisis.

He also pointed to the fact that the recent discussion on women’s roles at ACU has not raised any sort of “brotherhood-wide” outcry, as it would have done a couple of decades ago, because there isn’t a brotherhood anymore.  Of course, there are extreme rightwingers who make outcry their primary agenda, but it is a noteworthy observation that on the whole, no one cares.

The corollary of this observations is that such publications or discussions are ineffective.  There has to be something to affect in order to be effective.

So just how far along are we in disintegrating?  Clearly, our universities provide some degree of cohesion—and this is done despite wide diversity essentially because they are the environments in which the conversation about identity is ongoing.  But looking at the output of the biblical studies programs is very indicative: we are less and less planting traditional churches, our students are more and more comfortable with transitioning to other faith traditions as adults, and there is a greater sense of “getting over” CofC preoccupations than ever before.

I am growing more convinced that this is all deeply rooted in the former “brotherhood” identity being thoroughly ecclesiological in foundation.  There were other doctrinal issues that defined us, of course.  But I continue to hope that there is in our heritage a more theologically substantial point of cohesion than beginning with ecclesiology can provide, by which we can proceed together.

Of course, the situation is complex.  That no one seems to care about issues affecting the theology and practice of RM churches also has something to do with the enervating relativism that characterizes our moment in history.  It’s not really that no one cares; it’s just that no one cares about what the other is doing.  “We” has not merely disintegrated.  “We” has fragmented and localized more radically than the congregational autonomy of RM churches ever intended.

An important question, therefore, is whether what we still have in common constitutes a distinctive ecclesiology.  If not, the question is whether our RM tradition as a de facto ecclesiology (read denomination) is a powerful enough influence to continue to identify us.  In part, Neo-Restoration is about identifying what these elements are or should be, in order to answer these questions.

But, there is a more important question that we have to answer even if one or both of these are affirmative. Is this distinctive ecclesiology—whether composed of past elements or present commonality or both—missionally consequential? In other words, beginning with ecclesiology is not the basis for proceeding together, because such an a priori way of being the church does emerge from the mission of God.  Therefore, Neo-Restoration is also about critiquing the neurosis of the RM “identity crisis” in relation to the primacy of God’s mission.

There are aspects of the SCM that comprise our historical baggage, which we dare not ignore; aspects that provide lessons learned, which are perhaps uniquely ours; aspects that merit appreciation, maybe even imitation.  Yet, all of these must be scrutinized in light of what God is doing in a particular time and place and our evolving understanding of God’s ultimate purposes.  And it is the willingness to let an ecclesiology die, to “sink into the Body of Christ at large,” that is most essentially restorationist anyway.  Our instinct, so to speak, is to seek and restore to prominence that which is more important than our ways of being the church.  It is altogether fitting that the “we” of RM churches should die to itself.  If we look radically diverse in ecclesiology for the sake of contextual mission, so be it.  Incidentally, it is the commitment to the mission in which we find our cohesion and our identity.  Let us pray that the cross and contextualization, rather than apathy and relativism, are what bring the “we” through death into new life together.

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