At the time of Restructure in the 1960s, the Disciples of Christ, my denomination, was known as the Christian Churches (Disciples of Christ). Note the use of the plural -- churches. To that point we considered ourselves a free and voluntary association of churches and agencies, all of which were autonomous. With Restructure we changed our name slightly, and adopted a new understanding of church – a church that existed within the Universal Body of Christ in three equal manifestations. It was a difficult transition, one that we’re still trying to embody nearly a half century later. We understand to some degree how the church exists as a local body, but how are regions and the General manifestation – now expression – church? We changed our language, but have we changed our theology or our practice?
Language is important. When I came to my current congregation our Constitution used the word “affiliation” to define our relationship as a local congregation with the Regional and General Manifestations. When we revised our Constitution shortly after I arrived, I encouraged the Council to exchange the word affiliate with covenant. Not only was it fit our denominational identity better, but it served to further our self-understanding as a member of this larger body.
In a recent revision of our organizing document, The Design (2005), Disciples gathered in a General Assembly sought to strengthen our sense of identity as a covenant people. The words “free and voluntary” were removed from the covenant statement as a means of recognizing that we are called together sacramentally by God. We also exchanged the word manifestation for expression.
So what does it mean for us, as Disciples, to be church? Here is the way The Design reads in a section that follows a theological definition of the universal church:
2. Within the universal Body of Christ, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is identifiable by its testimony, tradition, name, institutions, and relationships. Across national boundaries, this church expresses itself in covenantal relationships in congregations, regions, and general ministries of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), bound by God’s covenant of love. Each expression is characterized by its integrity, self-governance, authority, rights, and responsibilities, yet they relate to each other in a covenantal manner, to the end that all expressions will seek God’s will and be faithful to God’s mission. We are committed to mutual accountability. The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) confesses Jesus Christ as Lord and constantly seeks in all of its actions to be obedient to his authority.
Note the wording – within the universal Body of Christ, the Christian Church Disciples of Christ “expresses itself in covenantal relationships in congregations, regions, and general ministries.” If we take The Design seriously, then when we gather in Regional Assemblies or at General Assemblies, we are gathering as church. It is, therefore, fitting that we not only gather for worship, but share in the Lord’s Supper.
So when we gather in Orlando – or in any other venue outside the local church – in what way do we see ourselves as being church? What are the markers?
The Design speaks of these elements: worship, fellowship, and service; in varied structures for mission, witness, and mutual accountability; and for the nurture and renewal of its members.” In what way are these elements present in our gatherings as an assembly? Further still, how do those who gather in Orlando see themselves? Are the voting delegates representing the interests of autonomous churches, or do they see themselves as expressions of the diverse body that is the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), sharing their voices in worship, prayer, deliberation, study, and fellowship?
Why am I asking these questions? Well, sometimes I think we – me included – give lip service to our covenantal understandings of church. We don’t show up at Regional or General Assemblies. We don’t contribute financially. We don’t share our gifts. In other words, we don’t do the things that usually constitute participation in church. Many of our congregations are at best “non-participating members.” They don’t seem to value the covenant that binds us in unity with God and with another. I know that these can be frustrating relationships. Regional and General Church can seem distant and unresponsive. I, myself, often find greater satisfaction in my ecumenical relationships. That said, if I consider myself part of this covenant community, sharing in the work of God that is expressed in these three manifestations, then I have a duty to live this out with faithfulness.
So, as we gather to pray, to study, to worship, to fellowship, and to deliberate – in what way do we see ourselves as expressions of a covenant community that God has called together to bear witness to the unity of the body of Christ around the world?
Note: for more on this topic of covenantal ecclesiology, read the chapter “The Church as Sacrament of Human Wholeness” by Sharon Watkins and Keith Watkins in Chalice Introduction to Disciples Theology, Peter Goodwin Heltzel, ed. (Chalice Press, 2008).