How would you react if you left the only home you had known, found a new home, knew it was better, yet part of you longed to go back? Those are my thoughts as I look back on being reared in the Churches of Christ. This church came out of the nineteenth century Restoration Movement, a Christian movement that spawned three churches: the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), of which I was a member three years after leaving Churches of Christ; the Independent Christian Churches, and the Churches of Christ. Churches of Christ are noted for their belief in believer’s baptism by immersion for the remission of sins, the Lord’s Supper being celebrated every Sunday, and not using instrumental music in worship. None of these beliefs are unique in the Christian community. Primitive Baptists sing a capella, as do some Reformed Churches and some Eastern Orthodox Churches. Believer’s baptism is shared with Baptists, Anabaptists, and with the Independent Christian churches. Baptism for the remission of sins and having the Lord’s Supper every Sunday is shared with the Independent Christian Churches, Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox Christians, and some Anglicans. Lutherans and some high church Calvinists also have the Lord’s supper every Sunday.
What is different about Churches of Christ is their belief (at least in the majority of churches today and in almost all when I was a child) that they are the restored New Testament Church. They considered the New Testament to be a pattern to follow as a rulebook for doctrine and practice. Since they believed that obedience to the precepts of the New Testament was necessary for salvation, and since they included the beliefs mentioned above (including a capella music in worship), they held that all churches who did not accept the entire “New Testament pattern” were lost. Although if you asked a preacher to his face if he thought Baptists, Methodists, and all other “denominational” people were going to hell, he would say, “Well, you realize God is the ultimate judge,” which really means, “Yes.” When my Grandpa Potts, who was Southern Baptist, died in 1977, I was afraid he would go to hell. I prayed God would make an exception..
“The Church,” as many members called it (at funerals Church of Christ members might ask one another about the deceased, “Was he a member of the Church?”) believed that works play a role in salvation and not faith alone. I have no problem with this as long as it is understood that works are not works of merit and we do not earn our salvation. But Churches of Christ tended to be so legalistic that I wondered if I had done enough works, and I agonized over my many sins (“many” is true–I may have been a goody-goody for the most part in school, but at home I had a tongue like a sailor and still do sometimes). When I was twelve I thought I’d committed the unpardonable sin, blasphemy against the Holy Ghost, and I was going to hell. As a teenager I tried to be more traditional than the traditionalists and was totally rigid in my legalistic output. It was not a spiritually healthy situation.
After three years at David Lipscomb College (now University) and three years at Harding Graduate School of Religion, I was convinced that pattern theology was incorrect. I found that my beliefs did not square with Churches of Christ, and I was too honest to remain in them. So I joined the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). After three years there, I found them way too theologically liberal, and I have been a member of the Anglican Catholic Church since 1989. Ironically, the ACC believes in both baptism for the remission of sins (although they also believe in infant baptism) and in having the Lord’s Supper (the Eucharist) every Sunday. Thus, if I argue with Baptists over the nature of baptism, I use the old arguments I learned in the Churches of Christ in favor of baptism being for the remission of sins. I have had fundamentalist Baptists tell me I am going to hell for believing that.
The Churches of Christ have changed a great deal, at least among large urban churches. Between the bubble-headed “praise and worship” services they have adopted and the traces of theological liberalism among some Churches of Christ scholars, I prefer the old-fashioned Churches of Christ, legalism and all. I love singing the old gospel hymns, even if they are about our feelings about God rather than about God. I love the simplicity of the service which has its own kind of beauty. I love the logical reasoning preachers use which was a refreshing difference from the emotional Baptists and Pentecostals. Churches of Christ may have begun with the wrong premisses, but their rationalism is part of me to this day. It is one reason I am a philosopher. Churches of Christ accept the key teaching of Christianity such as the Trinity, the full divinity and humanity of Christ, the bodily resurrection of Christ, and the Virgin Birth. They are also sharply anti-Calvinistic, which I believe is a good thing. To this day, not only do I believe Calvinism to be theologically wrong, but I believe its conception of God to be evil. It is a system I personally loathe, and I believe part of that loathing came from my background in the Churches of Christ.
I am not bitter toward the Churches of Christ. I visit my aunt’s church in Tennessee when I return there to visit my parents. I believe that members of the Churches of Christ who are faithful to Christ will go to heaven–they might just be surprised at whom else they see.