What Is the Identity of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)?

I got involved in a conversation on a Disciples of Christ clergy Facebook Group that raised the question of why increasing numbers of Disciples clergy seem not to understand the basics of who we are as a denomination. There's concern that clergy and thus congregations don't have sufficient knowledge of our history and beliefs. I agree with this in great measure. There's also concern that many clergy and congregations lack an understanding of our ecclesiology as it exists beyond the local congregation. Since it's difficult to fully express one's views in FB comments, I decided to take my portion of the conversation to my blog. If you're part of the Disciples community, this might interest you. If not, it still might interest you to see how at least one denomination has conceived its identity and what that means for today.

Some of the respondents to the question suggested that the problem might be attributed to growing numbers of non-Disciples serving congregations, as if pedigree was the key to understanding our identity. To some degree it might be true that congregations are calling pastors from outside the denomination who don't understand who we are. There are a variety reasons why this is true. As the chair of the Michigan Region's Commission on Ministry, I've run into some of this issues. But, I think the problems we face when it comes to identity are more deeply rooted in our denominational history and ethos. When we were born, were a strictly congregationalist tradition. I also should note that we are also a non-creedal tradition. We may have "restructured" our institutions, but the ethos of congregationalism has yet to dissipate in our congregations. So what defines our identity as Disciples? If not doctrines, what values and practices that distinguish our lives together? I've raised this question in a book on Disciples, values and practices that I've titled Freedom in Covenant: Reflections on the Distinctive Values and Practices of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), (Wipf and Stock, 2015). I recommend checking it out to see how understand our identity in greater detail than I can share here.

It should be noted that the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is one but one stream of a movement that emerged in the 19th century. Our founders envisioned the creation of a "movement" of congregations, without the overarching structures that permeated their neighbors (Presbyterians, Methodists, etc.). Over time the portion of the "Movement" of which I am a member (and an ordained member of the clergy) began to take on more of a denominational ethos. That is, we began to look more like our neighbors in our structures and in our self-understanding. We baptized this move in a process we call Restructure, which was consummated fifty years ago. During that period compromises were made that were designed to protect congregational autonomy while attempting to envision structures beyond the congregation as church. Unfortunately, despite changing titles and the name of the denomination, that was designed to signal that we were more than a collection of congregations, for the most part, we've remained a collection of congregations. I recently read a book published by our publishing house titled Seeking God's Design (a review of which will be up soon) that includes interviews with key players in those discussions. One of the participants in that process, Myron Cole, noted with regard to Regions, that they "weren't to be particularly different after Restructure. The nomenclature changed. It was still doing the same thing, only better, because they were responsible to one another." [Seeking God's Design, (CBP, 2019), p. 80]. As you read this book you discover that the seeds of many of the problems under discussion in that FB conversation are rooted in decisions made in the 1960s in order to move us forward. 

I would venture to say that for most congregations within the Disciples, very few things changed after 1969. Some gave greater attention to the extra-congregational structures, especially Regions, but there was little  So don't blame folks coming from outside the denomination for messing things up. It may be true that many pastors within the Disciples have little understanding of our traditions, but how do we address them in a way that remains true to our ethos as a unity movement that chose not to embrace creeds and instead embraced freedom as a core value? In my book, I emphasized our covenant language. Interestingly, in the Seeking God's Design book, the interviews that took place mostly in the 1990s by the then President of the Disciples of Christ Historical Society, suggested that there was little consensus as to the meaning of the word. Howard Dentler, who was a long-time General Church official, notes that with regard to the word covenant: "I think we have not learned what that means. Yes, the word was used extensively. It was certainly one of the themes of Ken Teegarden as he led us on through the latter processes of The Design. ... We should have had opportunity, we did have opportunity to know what it meant to be in covenant, but we have never acted it out, in my estimation" (Seeking God's Design, p. 71).   

So, here are, at the present time. Many of our congregations are struggling to survive. In order to have someone serve as pastor, they often turn to local folks who have some training and a sense of call to fill the pulpit. They can't afford seminary-trained pastors, so they adapt. We have growing numbers of congregations that are joining us because we seem to offer a welcoming home. That is, we don't have as many rules and regulations as some others do. Accountability is difficult to maintain in a community that finds too many rules confining and not in line with our ethos. As chair of a Regional Commission on Ministry, I can try to encourage deepening the ties that bind clergy to the wider church, but ultimately congregations have the final say in who they wish having as their pastors and their level of involvement.  For the most part, the self-understanding as a Disciple church is deeply rooted. I happen to serve a congregation that takes its relationship with Region and General Church very seriously. We are strong givers -- well beyond our numbers -- and a goodly number of regional leadership comes out of the congregation. But, I think we're unusual in this. 

I'll close with this --- I am not a life-long Disciple. I was born and raised Episcopalian (baptized and confirmed). I joined with a Pentecostal Church in my teens and stayed with it until my senior year of college (I am a graduate of Northwest Christian University, which is itself something of an anomaly). I served an Independent congregation as a youth minister, and hung out with the Evangelical Covenant folk in seminary (and I went to a non-Disciple seminary -- Fuller) until my final year when I pursued ordination with the Disciples. Even after my ordination I spent time hanging out with Baptists and Presbyterians before finally settling in as a Disciples pastor. One of the values that I treasure as a Disciple is the opportunity to merge all of this "baggage" into my Disciples identity. Thus, I have embraced the principle of Freedom in CovenantThis is my extended response to the question posed as to Disciples' identity.  


Jeff Gill said…
You didn't mention creeds! ;-)
wise said…
Jeff=we don't have one may be why not mentioned ;-)
Robert Cornwall said…
Jeff, creeds are for another day!!
Steve Kindle said…
Along with the diminution of the General and Regional presence, the emphasis on Christian unity has generally subsided. I think it's because interest in Interfaith issues have taken over, especially since 9-11. Add to this that our unity efforts have had little success. We've concentrated too much on visible unity at the expense of the inherent unity of the faith. One is entitled to ask, is it still our Polar star? I know I've moved on.

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