Just to establish a bit of context: from 1999 until late 2005, I was a member of the Sydney Church of Christ, affiliated with the International Churches of Christ (ICOC). Without going into too much detail, the ICOC had a bit of a reputation as a cult. Over the course of a couple of years centred on about 2003, the church’s reputation finally caught up with it, and a series of apologies, resignations and restructurings turned it into a completely different church. The effect worldwide was inconsistent, but one of the more common changes was that individual congregations started running more or less independently, where before there was a well-defined hierarchy of which churches were accountable to which. The result is that now it’s difficult to say which congregations still belong to the ICOC, or whether the ICOC even exists as such.
Recently there have been a few attempts to re-unite the scattered remnants. The latest (I’ve mentioned before that I still get the church newsletter) is a document called A Plan for United Cooperation, the end result of six months of deliberation by an elected group of nine leaders, with an accompanying set of questions and answers. In summary, they’re calling congregations to agree to a common statement of beliefs and an outline for a new leadership structure.
I left the Sydney Church because I no longer believe in God, not because of any of the ICOC’s particular abuses. I have no desire to use this blog to join the ranks of people declaring the past or present faults of the ICOC. For one thing, I joined long after the most serious period in the early to mid 90s, and although I could tell a few horror stories, they’re really quite ordinary compared to what you’ll find with a quick visit to Google; at any rate, most of those practices are long gone in the majority of ICOC congregations. Also, while most of the church’s critics describe the abuses from a Christian perspective, I believe its most serious problems are those common to Christianity in general, so most of what I’d say about the ICOC would apply equally well to other churches, and possibly (although I’m less familiar with them) other religions. I hold no (…okay, very few) grudges against the ICOC specifically.
But this unity proposal is worth commenting on. Obviously it’s not going to affect me directly. But as a former member, I hope that my thoughts on the subject might at least be relevant. I don’t expect that the comments of an unbeliever will be given any weight in the decision process. But one can hope.
The first thing that stands out to me about the unity proposal is the amount of effort that’s gone into it:
We have worked on the Plan For United Cooperation for about six months. For the first eight weeks, we collected and reviewed about 40 proposals and submissions on the topic of unity from disciples throughout our worldwide fellowship. We are very grateful to all who took the time to study God’s Word, formulate their thoughts and submit them to us. We also studied Scriptures, sought other advice from in and outside our fellowship, and read various books on church government including one entitled Perspectives on Church Government: Five Views of Church Polity, describing in detail how other conscientious religious leaders in the past wrestled with similar issues. It was helpful to see that we were not the first to wrestle with issues of church government, but rather a part of a long list of many who have struggled with these very same things for centuries. We then met on November 14-17 to pray and discuss the various submissions and then develop a comprehensive plan to represent our churches, one based on sound biblical principles and the perceived needs within our fellowship. (p2)
After hundreds of hours of prayer, study, reading, discussions, and edits as well as soliciting many ideas and much counsel, we can honestly tell you that this plan is our very best effort. (p4)
While I applaud the sheer magnitude of this effort, I think there’s a question that needs to be asked: Why is it so hard? I have often been told that the defining aspect of Christianity is that it is God’s attempt to reach out to man, rather than the other way around. But I can’t imagine that this process would have required any more effort if it was an entirely human endeavour. The committee says that they prayed and studied the Bible intently, and I have no doubt of that. But did this really make their path any clearer, if they also had to spend half a year processing and evaluating proposals, discussing and (no doubt) arguing with each other, and dissecting church history? And apparently other churches have been doing the same thing for centuries. What has God actually done in this process? From the outside, you could be forgiven for concluding that he hasn’t had any influence one way or the other. I’ll come back to this later.
On the subject of other churches, the Unity Proposal is also interesting in light of the ICOC’s former position that they were the “one true church”, and that all other churches had lost the true meaning of Christianity. They have noticeably backed away from this in recent years, as seen in the following statement:
We have no desire with this process to formulate judgments about any of those in other fellowships. We agree that, “We are not the only Christians but are Christians only”. (p4)
The document’s statement of beliefs, of course, necessarily excludes people who do not share key beliefs. For example:
4. Our salvation totally depends on the work of God, prompted by his own mercy and grace, not our good deeds. That work redeems those who hear, believe and obey the Gospel message through baptism into Christ through their faith in God’s power and continue to remain faithful unto death. (p5)
The necessity of baptism is the posterchild doctrinal sticking point of the ICOC and the Restoration Movement in general. The above statement says (among other things – I’m picking on the most obvious example) that baptism is a critical part of the Gospel message, and therefore implies that anyone who hasn’t been baptised as an adult believer has not been redeemed. Of course, one would always expect a positive statement of beliefs about salvation to exclude anyone whose beliefs about the matter are different. But I can’t help but wonder why, in a plan for unity among believers, not even a mention is made of the fact that there are millions of others who believe in the same God and read the same Bible, but don’t share these beliefs. The top of the statement of shared beliefs quotes Jesus on unity:
“May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” John 17:23 NIV
However, it is clear that even the most ideal outcome of this plan is a long way short of “complete unity” among believers. The best possible outcome is complete unity among the fellowships of the former ICOC. From a perspective outside Christianity, this is a difference of a couple of denominations in a sea of thousands. What does this “let the world know”? I’m also interested in this position:
With holiness in mind, the romantic and marriage relationships of Christians are to be pursued with only those who “belong to the Lord” as defined by Scriptures (2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1, 1 Corinthians 7:39). (p6)
The “one true church” doctrine has always meant in the past that dating and marriage was only endorsed between two members of the ICOC. But in what way has this changed? This is not an abstract question – the dwindling numbers of the Sydney Church (and I’m sure other congregations) in the last few years have basically forced people to look outside the church for any hope of finding a partner. So the exact meaning of this statement will be important to a lot of people. Do members of other denominations “belong to the Lord”? Contrary to what the statement says, the term is notably undefined by Scriptures. (Unless we’re allowed to marry the firstborn males of our livestock, on the basis of Exodus 13:12.) If “belonging to the Lord” is claimed to be well-defined by Scriptures, then what about the Gospel, salvation, or our earthly mission? Why does the statement of beliefs need to define these, but not “belonging to the Lord”? If these are also supplied entirely by Scripture, then the whole collection seems redundant beyond number three, “The Bible is the inspired and infallible Word of God.” Or are those who “belong to the Lord” only those who share this statement of beliefs? Or are there people who don’t share these beliefs but do belong to the Lord, which would suggest that the stated beliefs are too strict?
Maybe I’m nitpicking, but it seems that, despite claiming not “to formulate judgments about any of those in other fellowships”, the writers of this proposal have drawn an assumed boundary around the former ICOC, and have formulated statements that make the most sense under the assumption that Christianity does not exist outside that boundary. As another example, consider the “call to arms” later in the document:
Even a cursory glance at our membership figures from DisciplesToday.net shows that our churches have become less and less evangelistic for almost a decade. Many churches have not grown numerically in seven or eight years. While it is crucial to experience Christ in our daily walk, it is equally crucial to proclaim him as well. Both maturity and mission matter. We cannot just know God, but we must make him known as well. That is both the command and the example of Jesus. That is certainly the example of the first century church. Surely, lack of numerical growth is not a sign of maturity. (pp11-12)
I know first-hand that many of the former members who have left the ICOC during that time have gone on to join other churches. In more recent years, many have even gone, with the church’s full blessing, back to congregations of the “mainline” Church of Christ, who share essentially the same beliefs. If these people are still considered part of the Christian body, then the dropping membership statistics are not an evangelistic failure at all. I don’t know whether the ICOC’s declining numbers can be entirely accounted for by those who are still Christians but have gone elsewhere; but it seems obvious that the DisciplesToday.net membership figures are not the full story. Unless, that is, we draw a boundary around the ICOC as those who are saved. The fact that these issues aren’t even considered seems to suggest that this is the boundary that writers had in mind.
So why do I care? Surely the finer doctrinal disputes between different Christian groups are irrelevant to someone who doesn’t believe in God at all. Well, situations like this are some of the places we would most expect to see the fingerprints of divine intervention. Christians sometimes argue that unbelievers shouldn’t expect God to perform miracles in front of them, because the gesture would be wasted on someone whose heart is already hardened. But when believers come together and genuinely, wholeheartedly seek God’s guidance about something, you would expect God to at least consider pushing in one direction. When the issue the believers ask for guidance about is the very doctrinal foundation on which their faith is based, it is hard to come up with a reason why God wouldn’t want to intervene. Look at the lengths the Unity Proposal Group have gone to to try to bring God into the process:
We are asking each church leadership to prayerfully consider ratifying this plan after discussing it with their members… We are also asking all disciples and churches to pray and fast on Wednesday, March 29th for a day of unity, repentance, forgiveness and renewal. Please join us so that together we can allow our light to shine brightly before men so that they may see our good deeds and glorify our father in heaven (Matthew 5:16). (p1)
And yet, despite it being unambiguously in God’s own stated interests to make this process as fruitful and successful as possible, they have completely ignored this most obvious opportunity to come to a definite position on the issues that separate them from other churches. I’m not saying that they should state what they believe about other denominations; I’m saying that they should find out what God thinks about other denominations. A time of widespread church restructuring, utter humility and repentance before God, prayer and fasting for his guidance, and great interest in the proceedings by outside churches would seem like the perfect time to introduce some real unity in the fractured mess of Christian doctrines around the world. To unite the former ICOC is, in short, thinking too small.
One observation I can make from my time at the Sydney Church is that the majority of members had some form of Christian belief before they joined the ICOC. Our basic Bible studies were mostly focused on proving our position against other churches’ doctrines, with a relatively small portion devoted to the basic truth of Christianity. Also, the ICOC’s most outspoken critics were Christians. If God accepts both the ICOC and its critics, then most of the efforts on both sides are frivolous infighting. Alternatively, if one or the other is wrong and not saved, then someone who is genuinely devoted to a relationship with God and living according to his will is completely deluded about what God actually wants, and is actively working against him. (One possible answer to this is that one side or the other is arrogantly clinging to their doctrine in spite of God’s attempts to show them otherwise. My response to this is that, although people like this certainly exist, I find it hard to believe that one side of the fence consists entirely of such people. I can’t judge people’s motives, but I’m as convinced as I can be that many, if not most, religious people I have met have a genuine desire to follow God, and not all of them belong to the same denomination.)
Either way, we are faced with a situation were God can’t (or won’t) make himself clear even to his own “chosen” people. The situation I described relates to the ICOC, specifically the ICOC before about 2003, but similar things could be said about the divide between any of the thousands of Christian denominations. All churches believe, at some level, that they are right about something where all the others are wrong. Many believe that some or all of the others will miss out on salvation because of their doctrinal faults. This has been true for the entire history of Christianity, back to and including the Judaizers mentioned in Acts 15, or Jesus’ own followers leaving at the end of John 6. Examples of churches splitting are in free supply throughout Christian history; examples of churches recognising their common purpose and recombining are much harder to come by. The same point could be extended to the dozen or so major and thousands of smaller religions worldwide.
Many people will say that this just reflects the faults of imperfect humans. I have no doubt of this. My point is that the situation does not reflect the influence of an all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving divine overseer of the process. Some debates, such as whether Jesus was divine or mortal or both, span all two thousand years of Christian history. One word from God would settle this once and for all. To return to the issue of whether baptism is necessary to be saved, think of how the Christian fellowship would expand (after initial bouts of “I told you so”) if this one issue could be settled unambiguously by the same God who knows himself whether he requires it or not. If you insist that God is there and has set down a path to salvation, then the only conclusion I can reach is that he enjoys watching us bicker over what that path is, because he seems to have made no efforts to clarify it himself.
My response to this as a Christian would have been that God has already told us the path to salvation, in the form of the Bible, so no new clarification is necessary. This would be a good answer, if the Bible was clear and unambiguous. Yet even the most staunch inerrantist says that the Bible’s message can only be relied on after applying the correct interpretation. The fact that different churches can read the same Bible and reach different conclusions on even the most basic issues (for example, are you saved by faith or deeds, or some combination?) means that the “correct interpretation” is, to put it mildly, not obvious. This is true without even visiting the fact that the Biblical canon was decided, by fallible men of the same calibre as those who can’t agree on doctrine today, based on which books supported the doctrinal directions fashionable at the time. For God to provide his ultimate plan for salvation through such a corruptible channel in a form that is open to varied and mutually incompatible interpretations, and then refuse to clarify his position on anything for the next two thousand years, seems petty to me. There isn’t even a consensus on whether the Bible is God’s final word – the Catholic church, the charismatic and Pentecostal movements, and the Latter-day Saints, among others, believe that God still reveals his will through various prophetic channels today. Members of these churches should consider why there isn’t unanimous agreement between them.
Actually, this last point raises another question: what form would a new message from God take? What should Christians look for? There are a lot of possible answers to this question, and I think that ultimately, if God does exist, then I’m not in a position to dictate how he should communicate. But there are many options. New prophecy, accompanied by miracles performed by the prophet, would be the most consistent with the authority claimed by the writers of the Bible. (Note that I’m talking about unambiguous miracles – faith healings of mild back pain and speaking in unintelligible tongues don’t count.) To remove the middle-man, God could create the document himself, along the lines of the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments. But it doesn’t have to be quite so dramatic. The Bible provides plenty of support for the idea that God guides people’s hearts and minds, for believers at the very least; if every Christian woke up one morning with an overwhelming conviction that, say, marriage to unbelievers is okay, it would knock down a lot of barriers. Or God could just show clear support to one particular group. Imagine if all of the outreach efforts of groups who teach infant baptism were thwarted by an unending series of coincidences that led them down dead end after dead end, but evangelism by proponents of believer’s baptism was effortlessly fruitful, always seeming to lead to people who were interested and willing to listen. This approach wouldn’t need people to agree or even notice that it was God’s intervention; after a while the numbers of some groups would dwindle while others would flourish, until doctrine became uniform by default.
These are just a few rough ideas; but it doesn’t really matter specifically what method God uses to communicate with us. The point is that it’s possible. There’s no obvious reason why an omnipotent, loving God wouldn’t want to put his people on the right track, and probably in a more effective way than I could come up with. Certainly, the coordinated efforts of tens of thousands of believers praying for this outcome would give God little reason to deny the request. A coordinated, growing union of churches coming to an agreement on what they believe would stand out against the background of divisiveness between denominations and religions, and would, I’m sure, draw a lot more positive attention from unbelievers.
So here is my response to the ICOC Unity Proposal.
- It is too human-centric. It sends a message to the world that creating a coherent body of like-minded believers is man’s responsibility, not God’s. It says, in effect, “God has not helped us, and God will not help us, so we need to agree to help each other.” As it stands, it is unapologetically a result of people’s planning efforts; it asks congregations to discuss among themselves, pray for guidance, and then respond indicating whether they accept it or not. Instead, congregations should be praying for God to make it obvious to everyone whether this church structure will be successful, and whether this statement of beliefs is correct. Better still, they should be praying for God to provide his own version of this document. If done unambiguously, this would pretty much put an end to the discussion, and the congregations could move on with no doubt that they are part of an organisation that is built for success and according to God’s will.
- It is too narrow. It seeks to unite a group of churches that already have (apart from small recent deviations) the same doctrine, and until a few years ago were part of the same organisational structure. While this is a challenging task, it is definitely on the scale of what humans can and have achieved on their own. It ignores the possibility of cooperation and doctrinal agreement with a much larger body of churches. Even a tiny amount of intervention from God in giving unambiguous favour to specific interpretations of doctrine, or even just indicating which doctrines are important to salvation, would have enormously positive consequences for Christianity across the world. Aiming lower than this is an admission that there is no higher power involved in the process.
If there’s one overall point that I want to make, it’s this: I can’t understand how an attempt to unite people under the name of a loving, all-powerful God looks so much like a completely human endeavour. Well, that’s not true – I can think of one explanation for this. But I don’t think it’s one that Christians would like.75 comments