Theology, the Church, and the Disciples of Christ
I spent much of the past week in Columbus, Ohio at the biennial General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Since I returned home to finish my vacation I'm not posting my usual Sunday sermon. Feeling the need, however, of sharing something with the blogosphere, I decided to continue my reflections that emerged out of the General Assembly. What has been on my mind and continues to be on my mind concerns the importance of theology to the life of the church. I know that there has been some resistance recently to putting much emphasis on doctrine in some circles, especially progressive ones. This is always an attractive option to Disciples who have a tendency to dismiss theology as being divisive. Unfortunately our avoidance of doctrinal conversations haven't prevented division, it has just changed the focus of our conversations.
As I noted in an earlier post several of us gathered at the Assembly had discussions about how we might encourage theological conversation in our church, in all its expressions (we don't have levels because we don't want to see ourselves as being hierarchical). In the course of one of those conversations, the name of Ronald Osborn came up. Ronald Osborn was one of the primary architects of what Disciples call Restructure. He presided over the 1968 General Assembly held in Kansas City, at which time a vote was taken to pursue a restructured church, and with that vote the old order essentially passed away and a new order emerged. From now on each manifestation/expression of the denomination would see itself as church and its ordained leadership seeing themselves as ministers of the church. In the years prior to taking this step a group of Disciples thought leaders gathered together for conversation and the production of essays that would help guide that process. It is also good to remember that Osborn created the iconic Disciples symbol of the Chalice with St. Andrews cross, which serves to remind us of the centrality of the Table and our Reformed heritage by way of the Scottish Presbyterian Church.
One of those essays was written by Ronald Osborn and focused on developing a theology of the denomination (for we were in the process of finally acknowledging our existence as a denomination). Osborn notes two axioms, which I've taken note of in a previous post. I want to return to the first axiom because it takes up my concern.
Any ecclesiastical institution must seek to manifest its best understanding of the gospel and of the nature of the church to the fullest extent that this is possible through a historic institution. Thus Disciples must search our minds and hearts, read anew the New Testament, study church history, examine our own tradition, enter into ecumenical discussion to come to as full and understanding as possible concerning the nature of the church. Building a denomination is a confessional as well as institutional task. If there is one cause for alarm in much of the popular attitude among us toward restructure, it is a tendency to shy away from the theological or confessional question, to assume that an effective denomination need not be concerned with common belief but only with what we belong to. [Ronald E. Osborn, "A Theology of Denominations and Principles," in The Revival of the Churches: The Renewal of Church, Vol. 3, Wm. Barnett Blakemore, ed. (St. Louis: Bethany Press, 1963), pp. 105-106.
It is clear to many of us that we must begin restructuring ourselves as a denomination. To some degree that is already underway with the announcement of Mission First. What we don't know yet is whether this is simply an institutional effort or whether it will involve serious theological conversation. What I want to take note of in this axiom offered to us by one of the key theological figures in the task of restructure -- Osborn warns against shying away from the "theological or confessional question." As I read this, Osborn, who was a liberal, believed that our existence as a denomination is thoroughly theological. If it's not then there's really no point in continuing on as a faith community.
So to those among my readers who are Disciples, will you join me in diving deep into the theology of our common tradition? After all, if we're going to engage in some form of restructure it will be a "confessional as well as institutional task."