The Tennessean’s Attack on the Churches of Christ

Written by Drew on February 2nd, 2010

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.


13 Comments so far ↓

  1. Justin says:

    I didn’t view it as an attack as much as a push to let other denominations, who surely have an interesting opinion of c of cs, fairly or unfairly, that many of us dot fit that old stereotype and that our restoration plea isn’t “we’ve got it all figured out, and if you don’t, we won’t participate in kingdom work with you” but “none of us have it all right doctrinally, but the broader issue (that churches of Christ understood pre ww2) is to join in with the redemption of
    creation, with acts of love mercy and justice, worship preferences and doctrinal issues aside.

    David lipscomb and the “fathers” if you will of the restoration movement understood this. Sometime after ww2 the church if Christ became more about doing corporate worship “right” and less about partiipating in the kingdom

  2. Brad says:

    I found it to be a great article.

    And has it ever bothered anyone else that “speak where the Bible speaks and be silent where the Bible is silent” is not in the Bible? Isn’t the phrase self defeating since it is speaking where the Bible is silent?

  3. Scott says:

    Thanks for the good rebuttal or at least giving balance to the message of the original article.

    Stereotypes about about every group. The great thing about autonomy is that each individual congregation is somewhat unique, while still holding to the certain unalterable truths found in God’s word.

  4. Drew says:

    Brad, the saying “speak where the Bible speaks, remain silent where the Bible is silent” represents a principle that permeates the Old and New Testaments. Its truthfulness should be obvious. See Galatians 1:8-10; 1 Cor. 4:6; 1 Pet. 4:11; Rev. 22:18-19; Prov. 30:5-6; 2 Tim. 3:16-17; et al.

  5. Jeff Madison says:

    Very well stated. I agree with your interpretation of the article.

    When I first read the headline, I thought it was going to be a story of the Church working with Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists or Jews because I foolishly thought that “Christians” basically were of the same faith. Don’t we all believe that salvation is through Jesus, hence the term Christian? So really we aren’t working with other faiths just other believers.

    Kind od silly I know, but nobody said anything about that point.

  6. Justin says:

    Surely you’re aware that the 2 Timothy passage was written well before the new testament was canonized, right? So are you of the position that Paul knew that what he was writing would one day beconsidered as inspired as Torah?

    And the revelation passage that you cited (WhiCh I can only assume is the “not adding or taking away anything from this book” passage) is not referring to the entire bible. It’s referring to the individual book of revelation, not the entire cannonized bible (which, again didn’t exist wen revelation was written).

    That’s part of the problem with many churches of Christ, and the reason this article was written. ANYONE can pull a scripture to prooftext their worldview. In fact, many dis it to justify slavery, segregation, and many other forms of oppression. The command, example, necessary inference hermenuetic as well as the “speak where the bible speaks” hermenuetic are faulty. They lead to division rather than unity, and the underlying premise behind them, that any one can read the bible without bias and come to the same exact conclusions is ridiculous. Scripture, since the beginning of Jewish faith, is intended to be read and discerned in community. And it must be interpreted, because it’s been translated multiple times and was written 2000+ years ago. Humanity has changed and has a completely different understandig of words and concepts, and when we try to read an ancient document with modem eyes, without any concept as to the worldview and cultural context of those in the first century, were bound to get some stuff really badly wrong.

    That being said, the restoration movement wasn’t always fundamentalist in the sense that thy are unwilling to conceed they could e wrong about their (nonbiblical) understanding of inerrancy. And putting all their emphasis on scriptural knowledge about corporate worship than being shaped into disciples.

  7. Drew says:

    Justin, your understanding of the NT canon needs some historical perspective.

    Paul’s epistles were already being circulated as inspired guidelines by the time 2 Timothy, his last work, was written (Col. 4:16; 1 Thes. 5:27). Peter even went so far as to call his writing “Scripture” (2 Pet. 3:15-16). If Peter regarded Paul’s work as inspired, I think we should too.

    Regarding your quibble over Revelation 22, see Proverbs 30:5-6.

    Your position that the Bible cannot be understood basically shakes the entire principle of biblical authority. Many people–not just those in the Restoration Movement–would take issue with what you are implying.

    Paul expected believers to follow his “ways” the same way in “every church” (1 Cor. 4:16-17).

    Also, why would Paul call curses down upon those who would bring “another gospel” if his gospel was impossible to understand? (Gal. 1:8-10).

    But I’m repeating myself. If you had taken the time to study the references I listed before with an open heart, you would not be making these points.

  8. Justin says:

    I never said the bible can’t be understood. I said that without context, without communal discernment, without awareness of ones own implicit cultural biases, one can easily misunderstand or manipulate the bible to say anything.

    The bible is narrative. It’s the story of god renewing annrestoring creation through his live of man and his coming to earth in the flesh to suffer with us. We could talk about the contradictions in the two creation stories in genesis 1 and 2, we can talk about the fact that Moses didn’t write the first five books of the bible, even though the bible says he did, (or really how there are multiple authors of sections of those books). We could discuss the glaring mathmatical and scientific errors in the bible (in one book in the old testament, the measurements of a circle are defined where pi equals 3… If it was “inerrant” why would go do poor math) or how each of te four gospels tells stories in different chronological orders.

    But that’s not the point. I don’t trust in the bible. I trust in god and use the bible as his tool to immerse me in his story, to let te spirit guide me through my reading to shape me and my community into the image of Christ. The bible isn’t a science book, it isn’t a fantasy novel, it’s the story of the people of god, given so that those that desire to be faithful can see what god has done and envision what he’s doing.

    And don’t fall into the trap of reading every verse that talks about the “word” as meaning the bible or scripture. There’s a really nice section of the gospel of John… The introduction actually, that talks about the word in a much broader sense.

  9. Dave says:

    Thanks for this Drew. Excellent response.

  10. Theophilus says:

    Obviously, Justin has a problem with an orderly and scientific method for Bible study. It seems that his problem is, “I don’t trust in the bible” (in his own words, not even capitalizing the word, “Bible”). His confidence is instead in God, but he uses God’s word only as “a tool to immerse me in his story.” But the God of the Bible says in the Bible that His word is more than that. By it we will be judged (John 12:48). One cannot leave it behind in any of his purposes (cf. Gal. 1:6, 7; 1 Cor. 10:31; Col. 3:17). We must live in it and give no encouragement to anyone who “does not bring this teaching” (2 John 9, 10).

    Pity the fool who tampers with God’s word. In addition to Prov. 30 and Rev. 22, see the warning of Moses to Israel in Deut. 4:2, which give us the idea.

  11. Great job, Drew. I used a quote from that same article in an introduction to my sermon about apostasy this past Sunday. By the comments here, I see that some emergent/emerging adherents have found your blog. To me, the difference is very clear. Some people want today’s culture and Christ, and some of us want the culture of Christ.

  12. GADEL says:

    Consider this people:

    I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I have delivered them to you.
    (1 Corinthians 11:2 RSV)

    To this he called you through our gospel, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter.
    (2 Thessalonians 2:15-14 RSV)

    Thank you.

  13. Woodard says:

    Not three paragraphs into your article and you are already asserting that the church of Christ isn’t a denomination. The CofC/cofC shares colleges, camps, history, conferences (workshops) and enforces disfellowshipping across congregations. Indeed, no creed, bylaws or central oversight authority officially exists but other congregations will cooperate to put an a nasty ad in the local newspaper if one of their congregations decide to go instrumental.

    In no way does a CoC member refer to “The Church” meaning some sort of universal Christendom. They mean their particular flavor of liturgical tradition and theology. When I am asked by CoC people where I attend church now, I am asked why I left “The Church” for a community church. The church I now attend has no affiliations with any governing body. They have no colleges or camps.

    I don’t think you are going to find a majority of CoC ministers willing to go on the record to say that they regard Catholics, Methodists, Presbyterians, and Catholics, Nazarenes, Assembly of God, Seventh Day Adventists or Mormons as part of the church of Christ. It is absolutely absurd to say they are non-denominational.

    You are not an apologist but a deceiver.

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