Disciples -- A Cumulative Review

Disciples: Reclaiming Our Identity, Reforming Our Practice, (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2009), ix + 146 pp.

I have been working my way through each of the chapters of Michael Kinnamon and Jan Linn's very important book Disciples. Most Disciples, clergy at least, will know these two names quite well. Michael Kinnamon is currently General Secretary of the National Council of Churches, but years ago now, he stood for the position of General Minister and President of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). While having a plurality of votes, he lacked the 2/3rds majority needed to be sustained. It was a most difficult period of time in the church, but he and we have moved on from there. Jan Linn taught practical ministry at Lexington Theological Seminary -- being a colleague there with Kinnamon -- and no is pastor of a Disciple church in Minnesota.

They write a book that will prove challenging to all who read it -- not challenging in the sense that it is difficult to read or understand, because its not -- because it is a shot across the bow, attempting to get our attention at a crucial time in the life of the church that they and I call home. They write this not as part of some opposition movement, for both have been regular contributors to the life of the church. But they write out of a concern for our future, concerned that as we try to remake ourselves (something they agree we should do) that we not forget who we are as a people.

As I began to blog my way through the book, in anticipation of writing a more focused review, I did not address the first chapter of the book, which is entitled "Why We Are Disciples." That's not put in the form of a question -- it's a declarative statement. They are both committed to living ecumenically and affirming the universality of the church, but they understand that just as Jesus represents the particularity of God's presence, so does the church.

We are a paradoxical people -- we are a church, with all the trappings of a church, but we're also a tradition that never intended to become a denomination. The founders saw this movement as one of reform within the body of Christ, a witness to "the gospel of reconciliation" (p. 2). Our identity is designed to be non-sectarian and a movement of healing, and while we've developed our distinctive patterns and practices, we do not, at our best, see ourselves separating out from the rest of the body of Christ, but believe that what we bring as our particularities are a gift to the body. We are, as we've long held, "not the only Christians, but Christians only."

The authors declare their purpose is simply to "reclaim the identity of the Disciples movement in a way that encourages reform of our worship, fellowship, and mission" (p. 3). The make this offering at a most appropriate time -- the bicentennial of Thomas Campbell's Declaration and Address, one of the founding documents of our movement. A century ago the Disciples gathered in Pittsburgh to celebrate the centennial of the movement, and set forth a series of statements concerning the nature of this movement, many of which still ring true today, though priorities and emphases may have changed here and there.

Our authors suggest that ours is a dynamic identity, that is able to adapt to new realities. That may be due to the fact that were born on the frontier. While we have a strong heritage to build on, there is also need of significant reform, both in structural terms and in terms of mission and purpose. The chapters that follow provide both an explication of the heritage, and proposals for reform. Reform that is rooted and couched in the belief that we are a free people living together in covenant relationship.

As they begin the journey through the heritage into the present and on to the future, they recognize the danger of focusing too much on who we are, but at this point, we seem more likely to lose our bearings than become overly focused.

We believe that strengthening our own identity as disciples of Christ can enhance our participation in God's mission of peacemaking and compassionate service. Surely Bonhoeffer is right: a preoccupation with self-preservation is antithetical to a faith that has the cross as its central symbol. In Bonhoeffer's words, "the church is the church only when it exists for others," only when it gives itself away in witness, service, and advocacy. May it be so for us, for this movement called Disciples. (p. 8).

With this as the introduction, I invite you to explore each of my reflections on the chapters that followed their claim of Disciple identity. You may click on each and read through at your leisure. I would invite you to return here to begin a conversation about the nature of the Church, and its mission, whether or not, you are a Disciples. If you a member of this community, then I especially welcome your thoughts and responses.

Chapter 2 -- Covenant

Chapter 3 -- Scripture
Chapter 4 -- The Lord's Supper
Chapter 5 -- Baptism
Chapter 6 -- Unity
Chapter 7 -- Mission
Chapter 8 -- Congregation
Chapter 9 -- Leadership
Chapter 10 -- Being Disciples in the Twenty-first Century


Anonymous said…
Well, as a new member. There has been no "buyers' remorse" from my family.

Thanks for putting it all together.

David mc

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