Last Sunday Bob Smietana, a reporter for the Tennessean, published a vicious attack on the churches of Christ. The headline itself was an insult: “Churches of Christ drop isolationist view, work with other faiths.”
The article begins with the same old accusation of “they think they are the only ones going to heaven,” couched in a quote from Doug Sanders, the associate minister of Otter Creek Church of Christ in Brentwood.
When he was growing up, Doug Sanders learned there were two kinds of people in the world.
Those who belonged to the a cappella Churches of Christ, who were going to heaven. And those who didn’t, who were going to hell.
“In the Church of Christ, we had all the answers,” said Sanders, associate minister at Otter Creek Church in Brentwood. “And if we had the answers, that meant everyone else didn’t. It’s kind of embarrassing to admit it, but that’s the way it was.”
We haven’t gotten three paragraphs into this article and already it is clear that neither Smietana nor Sanders understands that what makes the churches of Christ special is that they are fundamentally nondenominational.
When members of the church of Christ speak of their fellowship, they are not talking about some small subdivision of Christianity, such as a denomination. They are speaking generally of the universal body of Christ. With this frame of mind, saying the churches of Christ are going to heaven is the same as saying Christians are going to heaven. The idea that only Christians find salvation is a controversial point of view in its own right, especially when it confronts worldviews outside the Christian faith. But most professing Christians will insist that Jesus is the only way to the Father (Jn. 14:6).
The churches of Christ were practicing nondenominational Christianity long before it was in vogue. Today the trend is away from denominations. In fact, the fastest growing churches in America last year claimed no denominational affiliation. But many of these independent churches combine biblical authority with cultural norms to form their fellowship. The churches of Christ are unique. They arrive at nondenominational Christianity through conformity to the Scriptures, speaking where the Bible speaks, remaining silent where the Bible is silent.
The article printed in the Tennessean reflects this nondenominational approach in an excellent summary of the Restoration Movement. But then it returns to poor journalism, cherry picking anecdotal hearsay as evidence to demonstrate that the church of Christ is no longer the Bible-based movement of Stone and the Campbells but rather a judgmental, isolated cult filled with bitterness and wrath.
The lowest blow came from an interview with Lee Camp, a Bible instructor at Lipscomb University in Nashville.
Wearing shorts was cause for damnation, Camp said. He recalled going on a youth group trip as a teen and passing a man wearing jogging shorts. “Our preacher said, ‘He looks real nice in those shorts. They’ll look real nice in hell,’ ” Camp said.
The article then reports that Camp is “grateful” for his upbringing in the church of Christ. If his story about shorts in hell was truly indicative of what life in the church of Christ is like, why would he be grateful for that? The only explanation that is given is Camp’s admission that most people in the church practiced a “kindler, gentler form of Christianity” than the preacher in his example.
Could it be possible that he gave a poor example? Every religious group has its share of zealots. I can’t help but wonder if Smietana would have printed this story if his article had been about Baptists or Catholics. There are hundreds of these kinds of stories in all faiths. Loading an article with one of them to make the subject distasteful is slander’s oldest trick.
Much of the article deals with the church of Christ’s “isolationist” approach to the world. Sanders points to his work in the Nashville area as a new trend in the church. But the truth is, members of the church have always cooperated with community leaders, non-profit groups, and even denominations to address poverty, suffering, and natural disaster.
Right now in Haiti, Christians are working with medical personnel, the military, and charitable organizations to bring relief to those who were affected by the earthquake. It would be impossible to get involved in any other way.
I have a friend who works for a non-profit organization that promotes familiy values. He is a member of the church of Christ. Others on the staff attend denominations. It is possible that some of his coworkers do not even attend a church. Nobody is criticizing him for the work he is doing.
It’s true that most leaders in the church of Christ would shy away from interfaith worship settings, such as a community Easter gathering or anything else that might detract from their devotion to simple New Testament Christianity. Call it isolationism, but decisions like this are a result of having convictions. And any group without convictions will eventually fade into oblivion.
The church of Christ is accustomed to bad press. On the bright side, the exposure given by the Tennessean produces a healthy dialogue. The best way to view the article is to see it as an opportunity rather than a setback. The questions raised by the article should afford teachable moments to spread the message of the value of restoring the church of the New Testament.