Christian Unity is our Polar Star—The Disciples Watchword


                In reading a new book by Andrew Root and Blair Bertrand titled When Church Stops Working (the book brings the message of Root’s Ministry in a Secular Age series to a more general audience), Root and Bertrand speak of the need for a watchword (and not a mission statement). They note that this concept of the watchword is not prominent in the church today, which gives them room to define it for our day. A watchword is, they suggest, “shorthand for a story of a deep experience that has shaped a group of people. The person with the watchword is called to watch with that word, to look at the world and interact with the world in and through this shorthand story” (When Church Stops Working, p. 105).

                As I was reading their chapter on the need for watchwords rather than mission statements, I was in a Facebook conversation with Jeff Gill and others regarding his midrash on the proposed changes to the Design, the governing document for the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Jeff has done an excellent job taking note of some of the changes in this document and their implications for the future of the church. As I engaged in the conversation, working from the perspective of being the chair of the board for the Disciples Christian Unity and Interfaith Ministries unit, I realized that the Design only implicitly mentions what has been for most of our history, going back to our founding in the early nineteenth century, our watchword. That is, our reason for existing as a movement (and as a denomination) is to pursue Christian unity (on this commitment see the chapter “Unity—The Disciples Vocation” in my book Freedom in Covenant]. That sense of purpose that has defined our movement is captured in a particular watchword, that derives from a declaration by founder Barton Stone, who declared that “Christian Unity is our Polar Star.” That is, it is our guiding principle. But I wonder is this still true? So, while we engage in ecumenical work and have ecumenical partners, is unity still our polar star?  

                Thinking about the suggestion by Root and Bertrand that churches need watchwords rather than mission statements, my thoughts go to the identity statement developed several years back that declares that we Disciples are “A Movement of Wholeness in a Fragmented World. As part of the one body of Christ, we welcome all to the Lord’s Table as God has welcomed us.” I actually like this identity statement. We do live in a fragmented world, and our calling is to pursue wholeness, starting with the Table (I’m writing a book about the connection of Table to Mission). While the pursuit of unity is included in this identity statement, that commitment to unity seems to have gotten lost in the breadth of this mission statement. Thus, I offer Stone’s declaration as being our watchword, if not the only watchword, it should be considered foundational.

                That call to pursue Christian unity that emerged as the movement formed envisioned a ministry devoted to breaking down walls between denominations. While we started by embracing a restorationist methodology (see Chapter 3 of Freedom in Covenant), our branch of the larger Stone-Campbell Movement discovered that this methodology was flawed. So, we’ve pursued other avenues toward unity. My concern is that we’ve become too comfortable with our status as simply one more denomination that is marked by our lack of creeds and weekly communion. As a result, our commitment to pursuing Christian unity, including working toward full communion with other denominations, is given less emphasis.  So, when shrinking dollars are allocated across the denominational structures, the ministry that leads this conversation (Christian Unity and Interfaith Ministries) doesn’t get sufficient funding to fulfill its calling to create new relationships and partnerships across denominational and religious lines.  

                As we ponder our future as a denomination, I believe we need to consider carefully our reason for existing. Barton Stone and his colleagues dissolved what was known as the Springfield Presbytery, believing that this entity should dissolve into union with the larger Body of Christ. Thus, they prepared the Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery, which declared: “We will, that this body die, be dissolved, and sink into union with the Body of Christ at large; for there is but one body, and one Spirit, even as we are called in one hope of our calling.” I’m not sure we’re ready to do this quite yet, but their resolve does remind us that unless we understand we exist, then we struggle to maintain our purpose. Now it’s possible that this original watchword still matters, but for me, a committed ecumenist, who seeks to build bridges of unity across denominational lines this calling remains close to my heart (see the chapter “How Blessed It Is to Live in Unity—An Ecumenical Vision” in my book Called to Bless: Finding Hope by Reclaiming Our Spiritual Roots).

                So, here is my question for fellow Disciples, as we ponder our future, might we reclaim as our watchword: “Christian unity is our polar star?” Can we embrace this watchword as our guiding principle, our reason for existing? If we do this, then we have something important to offer the broader Christian community. It can be our gift to a fragmented Christianity. While we might not embrace the entire program suggested by Barton Stone or by Thomas and Alexander Campbell as being the best path to fulfilling the promise of this watchword, the message remains clear. To be a member of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is to bear witness to the message of unity in the body of Christ in fulfillment of Jesus’ prayer in John 17:

“I ask not only on behalf of these but also on behalf of those who believe in me through their word,  that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.  The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” (Jn. 17:20-23).

 May this be so in our lives and in the life of this church we call the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).