Why Churches of Christ Are Shrinking - Part 3: A Misplaced Identity and a Failure to Truly Believe in Grace

In case you missed them, here are the first two blog posts in this series:

Why are Churches of Christ Shrinking - Part 1: A Left-Brained Fello...

Why are Churches of Christ Shrinking - Part 2: Failure to Understan...

And, in a positive series, here is the first post:

Why Do Churches of Christ Have a Hope and a Future - Part 1: - A Re...

If you have followed this series, then you can dive right into this post. If you have not, I suggest that you go back and read the other posts. However, if you grew up in Churches of Christ, the following discussion will be totally familiar to you.

In this post, I would propose that a further reason that Churches of Christ are shrinking is due to a misplaced identity, which I will address first, and a failure to truly believe in grace (which I will address secondly). Jesus said that his followers would be known by their "love for one another." Here is the quote:

34 “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another" (John 13:34-35).

And yet, despite this clear command and the way that his followers will be known as his--their love for one another--Churches of Christ have tended to place their identity in something else. Churches of Christ have placed their identity--that which they hold most dear and which makes them "distinctive," the way that you know a church is a church of Jesus Christ--by something else entirely. That identity is not placed in Christ and our love for one another, but in having the right, well, you know what it is. The right name, worship, and leadership structure, and a host of other things.

Consider this sermon series that is on the web that is based upon Leroy Brownlow's book, Why I Am a Member of the Church of Christ:

  • What the Church is not
  • What the Church of Christ is
  • Because of its Builder
  • Because of its foundation
  • Becayse of the place it was founded
  • Because of the scriptural time it was founded
  • Because Jesus built only one Church
  • Because it is scriptural in name
  • Because it is scriptural in organization
  • Because the Bible is its only creed
  • Because it believes all the Bible is the inspired Word of God
  • Because it believes the Bible should be rightly divided
  • Because it is undenominational
  • Because it is scriptural in doing mission work
  • Because it teaches that the Kingdom has been established and Christ is now reigning
  • Because it gives scriptural answers to the question "What must I do to be saved?"
  • Because it teaches the scriptural doctrine of salvation by faith
  • Because it teaches salvation by the blood of Christ
  • Because it teaches that conversation requires a change of heart
  • Because of its teaching and practice regarding prayer
  • Because it is scriptural in what it teaches about baptism
  • Because it teaches that a child of God can so sin as to be eternally lost
  • Because it teaches that infants are born pure and innocent rather than depraved
  • Because it teaches that miraculous manifestations of the Holy Spirit have ceased
  • Because it is scriptural in its teaching an observance of the Lord's Supper
  • Because it is scriptural in the music it uses in worship to God

Now, I am not here to debate the above issues. I will simply point out a few things. First, in no instance is "love for one another" listed as an identifying mark in this list--and this is what Jesus said that the primary identifying mark of his disciples would be. If you were looking for the church of Jesus Christ, would you not be looking for the group that was just overflowing in its love for one another, since that is what Jesus said would mark his disciples?

Second, I would say that no distinction is made between matters of first importance and other issues. And yes, Scripture itself--and Jesus himself--made distinctions between matters of importance. Paul spoke of the gospel as being of first importance (1 Cor. 15:1f). Jesus spoke of the greatest and second greatest command (Mt. 22:37-39). And many of the things that we have emphasized most and made fundamental to our identity are simply not at the core of the gospel.

Third, historically, we have tended to be more zealous about many of the less fundamental items in Leroy Brownlow's list (and others like it) than we have about the gospel itself. It is hard to imagine finding someone in the first century who is facing death for his or her faith in Jesus Christ thinking that their primary task, that the center of the gospel, was to spread the good news about having the right leadership structure and the right organization and the right church name. This was not why the women ran out of the tomb on Resurrection Day! This is not what the disciples took their stand upon and gave up their lives for. 

In this discussion of passion,  am reminded of Paul's words about his Jewish brothers. He said this in Romans 12:1-4:

"Brothers and sisters, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for the Israelites is that they may be saved. For I can testify about them that they are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge. Since they did not know the righteousness of God and sought to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. Christ is the culmination of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes."

The Jews' problem was not that they followed the Old Testament. It was that they misapplied their zeal. They were zealous for God, but they thought that the way to be right before God was to be right. Rather than accept Christ and his sacrifice as the way to be right before God, they sought to establish their own righteousness--a righteousness of being zealous for the Law. Now, before we are too hard on the Jews, let us remember that the Law was their Bible. Have you ever read Psalm 119? It is an acrostic written in Hebrew, with 8 verses for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet talking about how much the Psalmist loves the Law (or teaching or doctrine--these all mean the same thing) -- of the Lord. It is very easy to get misplaced zeal, including people who love God. And Paul does not deny that the Jews very zealous for God. He loved them and wanted them to find true salvation--which did not come through law/teaching/doctrine, but through Christ.

You see, Christ was the culmination of the law/teaching/doctrine. He was the one that all of Scripture pointed towards. Jesus said, "You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me" (John 5:39). Jesus was speaking to people who knew their Bibles backwards and forwards. After the captivity, and the Jewish people's failure to follow God, they thought that the pathway to salvation was knowledge of and obedience to the Scriptures. And Jesus said that they thought that that was the pathway to eternal life. But of course, it is not the Scriptures that bring eternal life. It is Christ. He is "the way, the truth, and the life" (John 14:6). Truth is centered in a person, Jesus Christ. All of Scripture pointed towards him, towards the absolute, fundamental need for a Savior, for the utter helplessness of humanity to save itself. And they absolutely missed him, though he was standing right in front of him.

I would not say that our people think that they can be saved without Christ. But we do seem to have huge swaths of people and churches that think that salvation is Christ---plus all of that other stuff above. And if you don't get that other stuff right, well, you are lost. Go through and read our periodicals, the transcripts of our lectureships, what is on website and bulletin articles, what is on the lips and hearts of our people. The incredible zeal behind all of these other issues is driven by a fundamental belief that we--or our children or grandchildren--are lost if they get these other things wrong--even if they are a believing, confessing, baptized follower of Christ.

This is a synergistic salvation--the blending of two different types of salvation together: salvation by Christ and salvation by being in the right church with the right name, leadership structure, worship, etc. This synergistic blend is very seductive, and we are hardly alone in this. In fact, this was the natural, intuitive view of much of the early church. Yes, salvation was by Christ. But people also had to obey the Law of Moses.

This was what triggered the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15. Paul had started converting the Gentiles, which was surprising in and of itself, that God would save them at all. But some well-intentioned, zealous, but misguided believers came all the way from Judea down to Antioch, telling people, “Unless you are circumcised,according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved" (Acts 15:1). And Peter rescued the church and the gospel from being hijacked by saying,

"8 God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He did not discriminate between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith.10 Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear? 11 No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are" (Acts 15:8-11).

Now here is something that I just noticed. Not only does Peter emphasize that salvation is given to us by God and the Holy Spirit, that it comes through simple faith/trust, and that it is by the grace of God. He says, that is not only how they (the Gentiles) are saved--that is how we are saved. We are saved by grace, not by the Law/teaching/doctrine/the Bible. That is a yoke which no one ever has been able to or ever will be able to bear. And yet, many seem to think that we can indeed perfectly follow God's commands, and that that is how we are saved. Yes, we are saved by Christ. But also by having the right structure, organization, worship, etc. And that concept of salvation being by Christ plus something else, as seductive as it is, is absolutely antithetical to the gospel. Paul says about those who promoted this synergistic gospel of works that he wishes that they would emasculate themselves (Gal. 5:12). The "other gospel" that Paul gets really worked up against in Galatians is not Mormonism (though that is a false gospel as well), but the gospel of salvation being Christ + something else. 

I think there are two events in my life that really taught me the gospel of grace, and that our identity is found through Christ and our love for one another. The first was the death of a sweet, innocent 13 year old girl named Chelsea. She was a girl in our youth group when I was a youth minister. She was very young for her age, and had a beautiful heart. The pages of her Sunday Bible school notebook were so God saturated. We found out that she had leukemia on a Wednesday--and by that Friday she had passed away. That was the very first funeral that I ever did. 

The second event was when I studied with the grandfather of one of our members. He was 82 years old, and he could not speak. But he wanted me to study with him and share the gospel. And as I did, tears streamed down his face. I asked him if he wanted to accept Christ and be baptized. He said yes. And so we baptized him that day in his bathtub. He died two days later.

I feel confident that both of these precious people will be in heaven. Chelsea as she was pure and innocent and had not yet reached that awareness of sin in her life. And the older man, who accepted Christ and was baptized at the end of his life.

Now, how much from Leroy Brownlow's list did this man know? Almost nothing. And yet, was he saved? Absolutely. Why? Because, as Peter said, salvation is a gift from the Holy Spirit that comes through faith and by the grace of Jesus Christ. That is it. And yet, in the thinking of so many of our people, if that older man had studied after his baptism and come up with a different view of say, Revelation and held a premillennial view, or went to a church that had the wrong structure or some element of worship, or any number of things, he would be lost. In such a view, it would be better for him to die or never leave his room rather than risk making a wrong decision or having a wrong belief and being lost!

So, why is our identity placed in the wrong things, and why do we find the gospel of grace so hard to accept? And how might this cause us to be shrinking? Well, first, our identity became placed in these things because these were many of the issues that were being discussed at the time our movement began. People then were asking, what is the right church? How do I know that I am saved? Etc. Now, there were a lot of other issues, like unity, not the only Christians, liberty, and such, but many of these other things were forgotten or re-directed.

Second, the gospel of works is very seductive. Grace seems to be too good to be true. I have fallen into this seduction before too. And so have other Christian fellowships--we are not the only ones who struggle with this. It is human nature to trust in ourselves and what we can see more than in God. The parable of the workers that Jesus tells, where the guy who works an hour at the end of the day (like the older man who was baptized) is paid the same as the guy who works all day, assaults our sensibilities. We like hanging our hat on something that we can see and touch. But this breeds either despair (at not being able to follow God completely) or pride, arrogance, and condemnation (because we think we have it altogether--that we have "fully" restored New Testament Christianity and others have not).

Third, the reason that this issue is causing us to shrink is multi-faceted. Our world today is no longer asking, which is the right church? They are asking, Do I believe in God? Which God is the right God? And, if they are thinking about church, which church is the most loving and the most like Christ? Which one is making the most impact upon the community? And the more that we push non-essentials and do not address these questions that people are asking, the more that people tune us out and push us away. And younger people in particular are being driven away by this. They truly are looking for a church (if they are looking) that is known for its love, grace, and centeredness in Jesus Christ. If they find this in our fellowship, they may just accept some of these other issues. But if we lead with the right name, structure, organization, worship, and this is why you should come here and be a part, they simply will not, by and large, care. And they likely will tune us out entirely.

I analyze culture, and so this is a cultural analysis. However, we must remember that God is at work in culture too. God used the civil rights movement to break down cultural barriers in churches. And he may be at work in our culture too, using this culture to tell us not to be judgmental and so certain in ourselves. That we ought to be more loving. That we ought to be concerned about the people that Jesus was concerned about. That we ought to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, heal the hurting, and free the captive. Remember, our identity is not found in our being right. Our identity is found in Jesus Christ--and we will be known as his disciples by our love for one another. Those are Jesus' words. And the Scriptures all point towards him.

Where do you think Churches of Christ have placed our identity? Where should our identity be found? What should be our primary "identifying" markers?

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Comment by James Nored on March 18, 2013 at 10:17pm

Jared, thanks for the thoughts! It is true that few people go around shaking their fists at God, saying, I earned it--give me my salvation. But you do not have to say that you believe in salvation by works to actually have this view in effect. We don't usually say that we gain salvation by doing all of Brownlow's list. But we do still have a tremendous number of people who say that unless you follow all or mostly all (I'm not sure how many you can miss in this view and still be "in") of this list, you are lost. Which means, of course, that salvation is Christ plus doing all of this list.

That is why, I believe, that this synergistic salvation is so dangerous. It is works based salvation, but because no one calls it this--except of course, that is what I am doing now--it is not objected to and people are not even conscious of it. But, though disguised, it is nevertheless just as much a false gospel, and we ought to call it such. That is what Paul condemned in Galatians--another gospel  of Christ plus something else.

Comment by Jared Berryman on March 18, 2013 at 6:06pm

I think in many ways this article is very helpful and very true.  Mercy is something some in the church of Christ have a serious problem exercising.  However, I think that realistically, and judging by the comments, my understanding is that in the Protestant church in general has really gotten the concept of grace.  No one in the Protestant churches (or Catholic for that matter) believe that we merit our own forgiveness and salvation.  I have yet to meet someone who does.  Additionally, the Pharisees did not even really believe this.  Only a few people believed that throughout history.  In Martin Luther's day, this is what some in the Catholic church were preaching, that you could buy with cash your way into heaven.  Martin Luther reacted in the opposite way, saying we receive salvation only through grace, and, as a result, has misinterpreted Paul in some ways, and thus we have been stuck with his interpretation when we read his letters.  NT Pauline literature is seen as a battle between earning one's salvation, or grace, when in fact the real gist of most of Paul's writing is about unity (i.e., Torah is not what defines a believer, but Jesus, so Jew and Gentile are one, quit making Gentiles become Jews).  That being said, lots of people are throwing around the term 'Salvation'.  To be saved does not mean that you will go to heaven when you die...that is certainly a part of it.  But to be saved means you will be resurrected into a new immortal body like Jesus's (Corinthians 15).  In the meantime, our salvation is leaking into the present in that we are being prepared and our character molded as we attempt to come into our immortality by eliminating the sin in our lives, and attempting to work out our salvation with fear and trembling.  No one in their right mind believes they earn their salvation--Jesus's saving act did that.  And you don't receive salvation by being in the right tribe and practicing religious things.  But we do in fact have to work out our salvation.  The rich young lawyer in Mark asked Jesus, 'What must I DO to gain eternal life?'  Notice that Jesus did not say 'Nothing.  You can't'. Jesus told him what to DO.  It involved extreme sacrifice on his part.  But without sacrificing his possessions and following Jesus, he would never begin to live his eternal life in his present time. As Christians, we are acting out what we will be in the future.  To not act out salvation is to deny what you will be in the future, and is utterly useless.  Until we start to do what God asks of us in his word (and not church of christ traditions, that doesn't count) on a consistent basis, we won't grow as a church because our eternal life is incomplete and lacking.  We are not actually practicing what we believe and should have in the present.  Anyone sold their possessions and followed Jesus somewhere new, for instance?  

Comment by Martha Wilkins on March 13, 2013 at 3:19pm
Learning to not be judgmental is an ongoing process. I face it everday and even more so at work. I think God puts it in my face on purpose So I will recognize what I am doing and am reminded on a daily basis that it is something I need to work on. I dont want to be that person who thinks they have it all together and have a corner market on salvation. I want to share Jesus and love others and help others. I want to be known by my love for others and my love for God. Thanks for writing this article. It has a lot of good information.
Comment by James (Rocky) Curtiss on March 9, 2013 at 11:50pm

without seeking to criticize, I noted the third to last item on Leroy Brownlow's list "defining" the Church of Christ is: "Because it teaches that miraculous manifestations of the Holy Spirit have ceased." I vaguely remember the argument against speaking in tongues and other manifestations of the Holy Spirit being that once the Bible was complete there waas no longer a need for Spiritual gifts. I think the argument came from I Corinthians 13:9-10, the Bible being "...the perfect..." I may be wrong on the argument, but i know through my own study and experience that Spiritual gifts are in effect, active, and powerful.

Comment by James Nored on March 8, 2013 at 7:50pm

Yes, Theophilus. Acts 15 is a great parallel and a passage that has a lot to teach us. For some reason, we fail to see ourselves in this--much like the Pharisees failed to see Jesus, despite him being right in front of them.

Comment by James Nored on March 8, 2013 at 7:49pm

Wow, Joe. I am humbled and so glad that the Story of Redemption helped you see God's love and grace for the first time. That is so wonderful! In a lost and broken world where people only take and do not give, in a world full of hurt and judgment, this is a powerful and touching message. It is truly good news!! Thank you so much for sharing.

Comment by theophilus.dr on March 8, 2013 at 6:38pm

James said, "Sadly, too many do believe that they are saved by Christ AND by doing all of these things and being right on all of these issues."  Interesting that this "Christ is necessary but is not enough" philosophy is exactly the doctrine brought up by the party of the Pharisees (who were also believers) in Acts 15 account of the Jerusalem Council when they said Christ plus obedience to the law of circumcision.  The Holy Spirit said it was Christ .... period!  It's amazing how blind we are and unable to see ourselves in that same situation, holding the same type of "Christ plus doctrinal demands" for ourselves and everyone else.  The "Jesus plus" doctrine is a form of humanism in the church.  (http://www.createdtobelikegod.com/2012/05/092.html).  To think otherwise is delusional.

Comment by James (Rocky) Curtiss on March 8, 2013 at 2:44pm

Thank you, Joe Diaz. An example of that thinking is when I was a student at York College (York, Nebraska) we used to jokingly say (with at least a half-measure of truthfulness); "that sermon was so good that when I went forward and asked for forgiveness then I hoped to be hit by a bus before I sinned again." Now I revel in the truth of the gospel, in a God of grace and mercy, a God who loves me and a savior who stands before God to this day defending me against the accusations of the devil which, though true, are already paid for and removed from God's judgement.

Comment by Joe Diaz on March 8, 2013 at 1:41am

I'm looking at the list of sermons from Mr. Brownlow’s book of which I've actually read a few chapters from and I'm wondering:  "How many of those doctrines must we get right before we are certain of our salvation?”  The list is surely incomplete for there must be hundreds of them and I don't believe that we will ever get them all right.  Thank God for his grace for we need it to comply with the list.  And the way I was taught, if we are wrong on one doctrine, say for example “a church with a wrong name” then we are in danger of perishing.  I grew up in the church of Christ fellowship and all I remember is hearing sermons on rules and regulations and how if we don’t do things right, then we are going to burn.  I can't ever remember really hearing sermons on the love of God and much less about grace.  I thought God was an oppressive God.  I became a Christian more out of fear than for the love of God.  Those lessons I grew up on, that sound like from the "age of reason", led me into being a Christian that was lacking in love, warmth, and lacking in passion to share the good news.

Now I had read the bible before but as I read it I would look for rules and regulations and I would completely miss the point on the gospel.  That's just the way I was taught.  I'm ashamed to say that it wasn't until my mid 30s that I finally understood the gospel.  When I read James's "Story of Redemption", I finally got it.  I finally saw it all come together.  I said "This is it!  This is what I have been missing."  Thank you James!  "The Agony of the Cross" by Charles Hodge is another great story teller of the gospel that moved me.  I love the sermons in the book of Acts because of how they teach about Christ.  It is the road to the cross, Jesus' death, burial, and being raised.  The gospel is what’s worth telling.  It is emotionally moving.  It is the story of Jesus and what he did for me that excites me.  It's the greatest story ever told.  I feel a passion to share it with people now.  It is a burning passion that makes me want to learn more about it.  It is the gospel that moves people.  Not rules and regulations.

Most of the kids I grew up with in the fellowship are now long gone.  Gone from the church.  They either left the fellowship, just don't go, or are "benchwarmers".  We grew up listening to the same sermons and I fear they have also totally missed the message.  The gospel was replaced with rules.  I believe that's why most of them are gone.  What is so moving about listening to rules?

What I'm trying to say is that I believe there are still churches out there that are stuck in the 1950s mentality, where the sermons are based more on issues.  But if they first don't start preaching the core gospel now, then the reality is what we have seen already, and that is church buildings being closed and boarded up because they have failed to preach the greatest love story ever told.  They need to create a fellowship that will foster close genuine personal relationships where the gospel can spread like wildfire.

Comment by James Nored on March 7, 2013 at 7:25pm

William, not everyone is as overt in their sectarianism as the church you cite, but this approach is far too common. And in a world that longs for unity and decries division and judgmentalism, this is not a fruitful approach.

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