Wednesday, July 29, 2020

A Deep Dive Into Disciples History

All history is biased. Whether the subject is paleolithic Africa, the Ming Dynasty, or the medieval church of Western Europe, even the best scholars will bring their own biases with them in the analysis. With that in mind, The Disciples: A Struggle for Reformation by D.Duane Cummins gave me exactly what I was looking for when I bought it; namely, a Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) perspective on Stone-Campbell history. I was ordained a minister by an independent Christian Church, having graduated from a Church of Christ university with a degree in ministry. Those two branches of this tradition has their own perspectives on what their history was an meant, but the Disciples angle was one I had never really examined.

When I moved into a Bible college dorm in August 1994, I really didn't know what I was getting myself into. The plan was that I would take one class at the Bible college per semester to qualify to live in the dorm (paying room and board, of course), while taking a full course load at the local community college. I was a young evangelical full of conviction, and everything seemed like it mattered so much. I was shocked within a week or so of living at the dorm to discover that the denomination that the Bible college identifies with doesn't believe in original sin, and connects salvation to the immersion of adults. Heresy!

With time and a great deal of resistance on my part, I came around to the perspective of these churches. By the way, they do not like being referred to as a denomination. Often they say they are 'undenominational,' meaning that they object to denominations on principle. Their narrow definition of 'denomination' requires a formal hierarchy over the church, while the general definition is what we find in Merriam-Webster: "a religious organization whose congregations are united in their adherence to its beliefs and practices." The independent Christian Churches and Churches of Christ most definitely are a denomination. 

It seems likely that the insistence on not being a denomination comes not just from the roots of the tradition in the religious foment of the 19th century United States, but also and perhaps especially from the split between the Independents and Disciples that took place in the 20th century. Not long after I started college a noted and quite elderly leader of the Independents in Missouri died, and it was big news on campus. I'd never heard of the guy, and quite frankly can't remember his name, but what we heard from professors was that he was one of several who led the charge against the liberal, 'denominationalizing' Disciples. He was an old warhorse who had seen many religious battles in his day, including over ownership of church property and the authority of the Bible. We the students (particularly the men) were called on to step up and try to fill his shoes, being the leaders of the next generation.

That was my introduction to the history of the conflict between the Disciples and Independents throughout the 20th century. I did my research, though all from the perspective of the Independents, learning that the Disciples had embraced liberal theology early on and then moved to consolidate power in a formal super-congregational organization that could then be positioned to merge with mainline Protestant denominations. That wasn't entirely wrong, but it was told from a very biased perspective that shaded it all very negatively. One could almost imagine the evil Disciples leaders of decades past snickering over their evil deeds.

Cummins' portrayal of the Independents in his book was at least as uncomplimentary.

"Alexander Campbell advocated reading the Bible and analyzing it like any other book. But to twentieth-century scholastics the Bible was the product of divine revelation, not subject to this sort of human analysis." p196

The implication here is that Alexander Campbell, a 19th century Lockean who took the Bible almost as a blueprint for Christian civilization (as it was sometimes called in those days) would have endorsed or at least gone along with the higher criticism adopted by many Disciples leaders in the early 20th century. Since Campbell was dead by then, there's no way to be sure how he would have handled it, but it appears a bit presumptuous to claim him for the Disciple's side in this matter. The use of the term 'scholastics' was also troubling to me.

"McGarvey's College of the Bible, by contrast, was a center of pedagogical indoctrination with instruction on an undergraduate and junior college level. Students who studied under McGarvey were required to use his four volumes Class Notes on Sacred History as their textbook. Colby Hall, a former student who became professor and dean of Brite College of the Bible, recalled, 'Never did he suggest we use the college library.'" p 197

Here we're presented with a picture of a domineering leader of the Independents and his shabby education methods. The academic level was low and the right answers were learned by rote. For all I know, that might have been true. The presentation of this information in this manner, however, makes it highly suspect. I've read some of McGarvey's work and am familiar with the theological efforts of Independents of that period, and it wasn't all sub-par given the limited imaginations of religious conservatives. 

"The Christian Standard, now the confirmed voice for the McGarvey methodology, resented the apparent superior learning at Chicago and sensed a threat to the old model of biblical scholasticism. It relentlessly attacked the Campbell Institute and its magazine." p 199 

This is where it gets ridiculous. Again referring to the theology and pedagogy of the Independents as 'scholasticism,' we're to believe that the Independents 'resented the apparently superior learning' that the Disciples had. Now Cummins would have us imagine Independents grumbling among themselves about the high quality academics of their Disciples counterparts. As if the Disciples were right, the Independents knew it, and so the latter attacked the former for it. In reality, based on my experiences as an 'Independent' in times past who was also of that mindset, what the Independents saw was some slick apostates deceiving others by undermining the Bible in preposterous ways. Not that such is what was really happening, but rather that's more like how the Independents would have seen it. The work of the movement was being attacked and destroyed through criticism and unbelief, in their minds. 

As I said at the outset, it's this bias that I was looking for when I acquired this book. Fortunately, the negatives about the Independents aside, I found the reading truly illuminating in terms of understanding why and how the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) came into being, and particularly in terms of understanding their ecclesiology. One example of this was how they view what elsewhere would be considered the hierarchy of their denomination.

"Late in the plenary session national, regional, and congregational 'manifestations' were proposed and approved. The word manifestation was used to help the membership avoid thinking in terms of 'levels' of church life, and particularly to relieve congregations from thinking of themselves as the bottom level, subservient to the other two. Rather, everyone was on an equal playing field, one church without top or bottom." p 211

Reading this provided an 'aha!' moment for me. The first of two that I'd encounter in Cummins' book. With their anti-hierarchy heritage, coming from the very founding of the tradition with the Cane Ridge revival and the departure of Thomas and Alexander Campbell from Presbyterianism, it's only natural that the Disciples would want to avoid a 'leveled' understanding of church. Instead, they think of them as 'manifestations' or—as I've read online recently—'expressions' of the church. It's to be considered a flat organization. The other light that was turned on for me with this book was with regard to 'covenant.'

"'Covenant,' Teegarden emphatically and repeatedly proclaimed, 'is the most significant accomplishment of restructure.' For Disciples, the authority of the church is understood through covenant; God initiates the covenant and members affirm this through the preamble to The Design - "We rejoice in the covenant of love which binds us to God and one another." It is a call for trust, compassion, and forgiveness. It was the heart of Restructure, the heart of biblical faith: God and God's people bound together in a solemn promise. It was clearly a biblical concept and therefore not at all unexpected for Disciples to express their restructure in covenantal relationships. One of the important intentions of restructure was to replace 'autonomy' with 'covenant.'" p 220

The commitment to congregational autonomy inherent to the Stone-Campbell tradition that led them to create a church of three 'expressions' was also seen as a hindrance to cooperation. The concept of covenant was brought in to replace it. Previously I've read with some amusement where contemporary Disciples were referring to 'covenant' as a special aspect of their tradition. Unitarian Universalism also has 'covenant' as a core concept, referring back to the Cambridge Platform of the 1600s. I had formed the opinion that 'covenant' was probably a shared concept in ecumenical circles, given that the United Church of Christ also bandies it about with pride. While there could well be contemporary cross-pollination going on, covenant in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is tied into its restructure and The Design. The latter is essentially their foundational document as a denomination, and a living constitution for them as a church body.

Covered in this book is another group with which I have some direct familiarity. Disciple Renewal, known for years now as Disciple Heritage Fellowship, is an evangelical group within the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) that claims the 'heritage' while importing a contemporary interpretation of evangelicalism that, to me, resembles the Free Will Baptist theology more than the position of previous generations of the Stone-Campbell Movement.

"At the 1985 Assembly in Des Moines a resolution urged acceptance of belief in biblical infallibility. The General Board submitted a substitute resolution affirming the centrality and inspiration of the Bible. Richard Bowman, a pastor of the congregation submitting the original resolution and deeply offended by the substitution, within two years formed a group known as Disciple Renewal. The group submitted a resolution [8728] at the next General Assembly declaring Jesus Christ as the only path to salvation. The Commission on Theology received the resolution by referral, formulated a response, and reported to the 1989 General Assembly 'eligibility for salvation is God's decision and human judgment in the matter is inappropriate to the gospel - human judgment cannon place parameters on the grace of God.' Disciple Renewal people were again indignant. This time the question, referred to Reference and Counsel, was modified to include the words 'no statement of faith speaks for everybody in the church. The report is one resource...for study and response.' When final approval of the report came, Dr. Humbert asked for personal privilege to lead the Assembly in reading the Preamble to The Design. Later in the same Assembly, the Special Rules of Procedure for General Assembly were amended to read 'A Sense-of-the-Assembly resolution is out of order and shall not be considered...when it contains doctrinal statements as a test of fellowship.' By 1990 Disciple Renewal had employed a full-time executive, Kevin D. Ray, and soon was publishing its own journal, Disciple Renewal, with it states purpose of 'changing the theology of our denomination.' It later developed its own pastoral placement process, established its own national and regional assemblies, its own seminary ties, and links to its own missionaries." p 256

In my twenties I saw evangelical renewal movements in mainline Protestant denominations as heroes, valiantly fighting for the faith once delivered. There was some disillusionment along the way, though. In 1999 I was on an email discussion list (ah the days before Facebook and Twitter!) dedicated to DHF, and one evening someone shared about a racist incident in a church. As the story was told, a black family had attended a white church for a few weeks, when one of the leaders came to them and suggested they might be 'more at home' in a black church. I was outraged, and said so. Someone else then commented that it was for the best, since people are better off in churches with others like themselves. He went on to say that we were wrong for criticizing. Someone else, a youth pastor, joined with me in arguing with this bigot, and we were blocked for it. Contacting the administrator, someone with DHS who I knew by name responded, saying that the other guy and I were out of line, and could rejoin if we promised not to engage in debates over racism. I declined, and also requested to be removed from DHF membership roles.

It's only with the era of Trump that I've come to understand that white evangelicalism was racist all along.

In retrospect, I now understand that the dissenters in the Disciples were motivated by a desire to defend and promote a conservative re-interpretation of their faith that excludes people who do not conform to white patriarchal expectations. Sure, there could well be some people of color among them (not that I ever encountered any), but the system is geared to favor white supremacy in that soft way that most evangelicalism practices. I have no reason to believe that they were insincere. I don't know what was in their minds and on their hearts then, and much less now.

The end of this book on Disciple's history is sort of a 'downer.' It's all about the decline of the denomination in membership and revenue. I kept expecting some hope, and got very little as I read the final pages. It is, indeed, an ugly situation. However, it is not entirely hopeless.

It simply isn't true that progressive, inclusive theology kills churches. This is something I commented on late last year regarding the Falls Church Episcopal congregation which lost nearly all of its membership to a split with conservatives.

"Boiling it down, 90% of Falls Church Episcopal’s parish voted in 2006 to disaffiliate from the Episcopal Church in the United States of America. For several years the majority occupied the historic church building, while the continuing ECUSA parish was in ‘exile’ meeting elsewhere.

'Just 35 people had decided to remain Falls Church Episcopalians when the church split. During the years of the court battle, that number grew to 80, who moved back into the contested building when the ruling came down in their favor.'
A tiny group of a mere 35 managed to grow to 80 without their church building and the resources it housed. That’s pretty great. Separately, a minister of the ECUSA parish had this to say later in this timeline:

'What I mean by that is when I started here in 2012, there were about 100 members, almost all of whom attended church almost every Sunday. And almost all of them were actively connected to their church — regularly volunteering in a ministry and/or actively engaged in discipleship/growing in the faith/learning to be an apprentice of Jesus.'
Okay, so according to that there were roughly 100 parishioners with Falls Church Episcopal, back with their own building, in 2012. In March 2014 on the website of Episcopal Relief & Development, an astonishing number is mentioned.

'The congregation has seen tremendous growth since moving back into its buildings after a lengthy lawsuit over ownership, from an average Sunday attendance of ninety to now almost two hundred people. While there are many factors that contributed to this growth, one area that has become particularly vibrant is the youth and children’s ministry.If all the foregoing is correct, then the congregation nearly doubled in just two years. I’ve never seen growth like this in any church I’ve been around, and we usually attribute such to conservative evangelical churches, while we expect churches with more liberal theology to wither and die.'

But wait, there’s more, and it’s buried in the article from The Washington Post.

'Today, The Falls Church Episcopal, less than a mile from the new building of its conservative counterpart, has almost 600 members, according to the Rev. John Ohmer, who has been rector since 2012, but recently announced he will leave for another church position.'
Holy moly kiddos, this parish went from 35 in 2007 to almost 600 in 2019. In 2012 it had about 100, so it’s gained an average of about 70 new members each year."

If a progressive Episcopal parish can pull off that astonishing feat of growth, I have to think that the Disciples of Christ denomination could have a chance as well. According to some of the reading I've done recently about governance in a congregational setting, this might come down to improved organization.

"Many of the congregations I work with are located on the liberal side of the theological spectrum. They read their scriptures flexibly; claim no corner on salvation; and believe, like the United Church of Christ, that 'God is still speaking.' The trend for such congregations has been poor in recent decades. Nonetheless, I reject the view that 'liberal theology' is the source of liberal congregations' troubles. I think something like the opposite is true: Liberal theology has lost prestige because so many liberal congregations run so poorly. Right-wing churches flourish when they run well, but well-run congregations thrive across the spectrum. Thriving congregations understand that they have something vitally important to share with others. Invigorated by that understanding, they dare to let go of ways of organizing that don't work. Liberal congregations' problem is not liberal theology; it is their doubt that other people need and want a liberal faith. A congregation that lacks confidence in the value of the gift it offers to the world clings to customary ways of doing things and resists the changes that would convey its benefits to a wider public." —Governance and Ministry: Rethinking Board Leadership, Dan Hotchkiss

Sure, I'm comparing congregational growth to that of a denomination, but I think that there are similarities that are worth attention. Also, given the energy that has been spent over the years trying to figure themselves out, I imagine some would groan at my apparent naivety in suggestion better governance. As much as I like their 'manifestations' understanding of the church, based on Cummins' work it seems that might be part of the problem. Congregations don't chip in well for the larger effort, generally, and this leaves the region and national organization in financial straits that require downsizing and canceled projects. Lacking 'pull,' these extra-congregational expressions of the church seem to be largely at the mercy of the congregations. Perhaps this is why the Disciples Mission Fund is now in its second year of promoting a 'DMF Day' to raise funds.

On the anniversary of the Cane Ridge revival, we are celebrating DMF Day – a giving day to support Disciples Mission Fund, which helps fund over 70 ministries of the Christian Church.
In the past few months, Disciples Mission Fund has provided:
  • Grants for churches and support for pastors in crisis
  • Resources and support for online worship
  • Help for congregations and regions applying for financial aid assistance
  • Virtual church camp experiences
  • Prophetic statements and action in the racial justice movement
  • Support for our global mission co-workers as they serve around the world
  • Weekly prayer opportunities with our General Minister and President
An odd and, in my opinion, seriously risky approach to church growth is by acquisition. The denomination is actively recruiting existing non-denominational or even affiliated churches into its fold. As I observed earlier this year regarding the Northeast region:

First, from at least the looks of it, these churches are not being integrated into the Disciples tradition. Even UCC/DoC affiliated congregations make an effort to recognize both heritages. It seems very unlikely that these churches are or will be made to feel part of the denominational family. I hope I'm wrong about that, and that they're working some angle to help them feel at home.

Second, the Disciples over the years have worked at becoming lgtbq+ friendly, anti-racist, theologically progressive, and so forth. Their success at that has been spotty, with many Disciples churches just as conservative and traditional as they've ever been. How long will it take for the leaders of these 'new' congregations, predominantly quite conservative theologically, to realize the nature of the denomination? I doubt they'll want to uphold or further Disciples progressivism.

The outcome seems predictable. Some will decide that whatever benefit they're getting from being connected to the DoC isn't worth the association with the political, social, and theological positions of the denomination. Many others, I suspect, will continue on with little or no awareness of the denomination, and remain on the list of member congregations without any real participation in the larger life of the church. The worst thing that could happen for the DoC is for these churches to truly become active, opposing the openness of the denomination. This seems unlikely to me, but it is a risk.

A tempting way out for the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) could be merger. I've thought it likely for years, and have been a little surprised it hasn't happened yet. The United Church of Christ is hemorrhaging members, as are the other mainline denominations but perhaps at a faster pace. It has also long been a partner of the Disciples of Christ. 

"In 1961, the UCC General Synod voted to begin union conversations with the Disciples 'at the earliest mutually convenient time.' Official conversations began immediately and continued until 1966, when bilateral discussions were delayed in favor of energetic participation in the Consultation of Church Union that envisioned a wider union based upon an emerging theological consensus. In 1971, the General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), meeting in Louisville, received a resolution calling for an 'acceleration of conversations with the United Church of Christ, looking toward early union.'" p243

Among the older generation of the Independents I've heard it said that the point of restructure was merger, and since that hasn't happened the denomination has languished. That could well be, given how history has played out. I really don't think the original generation expected there to be a Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) for too long after their time. Although I think it would be sad for the distinctiveness of the denomination to go away, and I doubt it would do anything to slow the membership loss of the future merged church, I'll be surprised if they haven't come together completely with the United Church of Christ within two decades. 

Although this was more of a layperson's history of Disciples history, I found it very informative and worthwhile. Even the barbs clued me in to the worldview of the writer and his faith tradition. It's good to now be able to see the past of the Stone-Campbell tradition with something of the perspective of its three major branches.