The other day I experienced a most disconcerting juxtaposition that left me with one very big question concerning the future of Churches of Christ.
I was teaching a maymester course for ACU called BCOR: The Search for Meaning. The course is designed to help students develop philosophical and theological frameworks for interpreting narratives. Every BCOR section has been a little bit different, depending on the expertise of the presiding professor. My sections of BCOR this year studied Christianity as a system of meaning, followed by an examination of Islam as a system of meaning (affording the generosity of love for neighbors in our assessment), and then we concluded the class with an analysis of American nationalism as a system of meaning. In the final portion of the course, we synthesized all of the segments together and asked, “How do these narratives interact? Are they compatible?”
As we dove into difficult conversations on religion and politics, these juniors and seniors began to disagree with one another in a spirit of shared curiosity and investment. I watched students sharpen their arguments, I watched opinions crumble under faulty assumptions, and I watched these students take care of one another in an effort to reach a common goal. Their common goal was the pursuit of truth (and let’s be honest, probably a good grade in the course). The students wanted to make sense of our present context, and they figured out that the journey to understanding is stronger and more worthwhile when they journey together. As one of our required readings from Rodney Clapp’s A Peculiar People so aptly argued, we are called to participate in truth as something to be sought, not objectify truth as if we could fully grasp it or manipulate it. And thus, my students participated with humility and diligence.
I remember leaving our classroom on the last day of the course with tears of joy as I imagined how the skills my students developed during our course might permeate their daily lives. I got home, immediately dove into my pajamas (judge not, lest you be judged! You know you do it too), and embraced a most welcome celebratory rest.
As I sunk into my couch, I made the mistake of logging into social media.
I happen to be a part of several Church of Christ groups and forums on social media, where I often observe as a bystander in order to keep my fingers on the pulse of our diverse and shifting denomination. I read most of the conversations that emerge on these pages, until they turn ugly.
And here’s the problem: they often do turn ugly.
Generally, some debatable topic is thrown out for discussion. I think sometimes people start these conversations with sincerity, acknowledging conversation and debate as worthwhile components of truth-seeking. However, it seems like sometimes people throw topics on the table with a divisive spirit, hateful words locked and loaded. Whatever the initial motivation may be, the conversations often start with a peaceful acknowledgement of our lack of consensus. But things rapidly tumble downhill from there. What could have been a meaningful and mutually challenging discussion turns into a showcase of our very worst behavior, often carried out between ministers.
The truth is, usually people disagree over matters like instrumental worship, gender roles, biblical interpretations, and matters of social justice, because we are approaching Scripture and theology in vastly different ways. It’s not so much that we disagree about women in the church, specifically; the disagreement runs much deeper than that. The disagreement is actually in how we read Scripture, and how we understand Scripture to function in our present context. The disagreements are often deeply theological: how does God speak through Scripture? Does God speak beyond Scripture? How might we discern God’s work in the church today?
Yet, our conversations turn so ugly so quickly, that we become certain that our differences land us in two distinct camps: those who are being faithful, and those who are unfaithful pagans. In our distinctions, we assume that our differences are indicative of the amount of truth obtained and heeded.
In short, we objectify truth, rather than participate in it. We grab onto what we believe is true, and with a white-knuckled grip we wield it as a powerful weapon, dividing our movement’s identity and throwing down boundary markers in an attempt to establish a fortress around those things that most affirm our perspective.
So in one day, I caught a hopeful glimpse of young adults putting their differences together in a constructive conversation in an effort to seek truth in humility and diligence, and then I saw a bunch of Church of Christ ministers condemning one another with hateful speech and name-calling.
This left me with one troubling question: how is it that a bunch of deeply opinionated and precocious college students can achieve healthier dialogue than some of our Church of Christ ministers?
There are probably countless reasons for why this is the case. One reason may be that students are guided under the authority of a professor. Being under shared authority creates space for common ground. Yet, wouldn’t we hope that being under the shared authority of Christ would have the same effect on Christians? Or perhaps we have replaced the authority of Christ with something else entirely.
Another difference is that my students are considerably younger than many of the ministers who go head-to-head on these social media forums. Youth necessitates a certain level of humility that is easily cast aside once a person reaches a certain age, or gains a certain amount of experience.
Perhaps another difference is the medium for the conversation: people might behave better face-to-face in a classroom than they would on social media. I often relate peoples’ behavior on social media to road rage. When you’re safely protected behind a large machine (or a small machine, in the case of your computer), you feel a level of freedom to behave selfishly and boldly when things don’t go your way.
None of these differences between my students and the badly behaved ministers offer me any resolution or peace of mind. Churches of Christ are at a weird juncture in our story. Who are we? How do we define ourselves? What holds the movement together? Are we even concerned with togetherness?
I don’t believe that addressing this matter in one measly article will solve the problem. In fact, the majority of ministers who behave badly on social media will probably never read my work. However, I do write about this observation in hopes of promoting healthier dialogue concerning Church of Christ identity. Are we identified by our stances in certain debates? Are we identified by a theological approach? Are we identified by certain theological professions? Our loosely connected coalition of autonomous churches is facing a particularly challenging chapter in our story. Who are we, and who will we be?
I would like to argue that these questions cannot be sorted out by the loudest bidder in an online forum. I think our future resides in our ability and/or willingness to have meaningful conversations with the aim of participating in truth. I have seen strong efforts emerge from some of our ministers and scholars at church conferences, lectureships, and academic forums. So for anybody out there who has been frustrated or jolted by the battlefields of social media, let’s aim a bit higher. I would love to see our conversations move from the branches down to the roots: I want us to shift from how we do what we do, to why we do what we do. Let’s stop fighting over gender roles, and let’s start talking about the modes of authority by which we might determine gender relations in church. Let’s stop condemning each other for our differences in worship style, and let’s have a conversation about the nature of worship. For the sake of the movement, it’s time for our conversations to evolve. As a practical theologian, I cannot imagine that our conversations on practice and identity would progress much further without a closer look at our theological differences.