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.

Osborn writes:

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."


Brian Morse said…
Thank you, Bob. I’ll contribute to this discussion with a couple of points. I believe that the Disciples need to rediscover our passion for eschatology. We also need to be intentional about encouraging each member to contribute to the discussion without fear of public shaming. The high school cafeteria worker with a GED needs to feel safe sharing in a group with seminary deans.

We would be wise to recapture a love for eschatology. Our founders took eschatology seriously. They disagreed with one another, of course, but they didn’t let the disagreements hinder union. I was rereading Joined In Discipleship:The Shaping of Contemporary Disciples Identity, by Mark G Toulouse. He dedicates an entire chapter to what he calls the “Eschatological Principle”. In the conclusion to that chapter, Toulouse shares, “In their eschatological faith, Campbell and other early Disciples saw beyond themselves to the edge of God’s time, that time beyond time, and they learned the meaning of Christian hope. They also learned the meaning of Christian discipleship and the responsibilities accompanying it. The eschatological perspective requires of Christians a special orientation toward the mercy and justice found at the center of the kingdom of God”.

I get the impression that the current most vocal elements find eschatology to be escapism and avoidance of the here and now. I notice that many come from fundamentalist backgrounds. Perhaps they are still emotionally equating eschatology with Left Behind. I hope that this is not the case. We cannot be fully in the here and now without a deep passion for eschatology. Christians have the Holy Scriptures, and the wisdom of the saints, to remind us that what we are currently seeing are shadows on the wall. Eschatology points to ultimate reality.

Here’s what is most important to ensure that meaningful theological conversation occurs. We need to assure individuals and congregations that they will not be (formally) kicked out of the Disciples if they are at odds with the most common views. We need to build trust so that people can share honestly their theology. We’ve made a mistake in creating a snarky community. This goes back decades. It is the danger of being such a small and inbred community. We need to be intentional about creating a safe environment. A majority voice will arise. This is normal, but we must be gracious to the minority voices within the community. I believe that it was Clark Williamson who said that our freedom for thinking theologically has turned into a freedom from thinking theologically. I agree with him, but I think that it is us, the leaders of the church, who have created this. People are afraid to speak. There is always someone at the ready to publicly shame the trembling voice.

In conclusion, I believe that we need to recapture the love for eschatology. A love for eschatology guards against mere reaction to what is trending on Twitter. It ensures that our actions in the here and now are rooted in a vision of eternity. (I’ve been reading and meditating on the Beatific Vision.) Secondly, we need to be intentional to create a safe community for people of all education levels and social background to speak theologically. I don’t mean that nobody will be challenged, but they will be challenged in non-cliquish ways. We need to dial down the eye rolling and snark. Such behavior creates an ecclesiastical gated community. We have a community who loves Jesus, and has the wisdom of the Holy Spirit. (John 16:13) Let’s act like it.
Robert Cornwall said…
Brian, thanks for the response! In my forthcoming book I pick up on Mark's discussion of eschatology. Tony Dunnavant also emphasized it. I will have to do some writing on the topic!!
Joshua Jeffery said…
I am new to this conversation as well as to the Disciples, but as a lifelong adherent of the Stone-Campbell Movement, I agree wholeheartedly with Brian. Disciples (and the rest of the movement, too) must re-engage eschatology as a core doctrine. I would propose that outflowing from eschatology, however, should be a reappraisal of ecclesiology. If eschatology and ecclessiology, along with Christology, are core doctrines of the church, then doesn't that mean that the church is called to be Christ's eschatological community? If so, how does this understanding affect the way we view and do this church thing? I would argue that folks form our history, such as Campbell, Stone, Pendleton (W.K. his son D.L.), and even someone like David Lipscomb, can provide us with some starting points for answering that question in our own context.
Robert Cornwall said…
Josh, thanks for sharing. Disciples and other parts of the movement have tended to shy away from theologizing, but it remains an essential vocation. Both ecclesiology and eschatology are necessary conversations -- and go together.

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