At some point during the mid-20th century, the Churches of Christ were incredibly busy packing every piece of the doctrine into a package labeled “Things Required for Salvation.” I am unsure about the cultural forces that drove a segment of the Restoration Movement in this direction, but the concept has not aged very well into the 21st century. It has left, in my opinion, the Churches of Christ in a position that is increasingly hard to stomach for the Christians who are now ascending to leadership roles.
Growing up as a Church of Christ kid in the 1990s, I was peppered continuously by the questions from other kids that rooted from these decisions made decades ago. “Do you think that you’re the only ones going to heaven?” was by far the most prevalent, but I still fielded many others on the use of a piano, why we had no fellowship hall or gym, etc.
Some of these positions are sound in theology but get entirely crossways in the messaging we use to defend them. This confusion most often appears when we speak about the theological position from the point of what not to do. Many of these positions are much easier to illustrate when we use language and descriptors for how we arrive at what we can do.
A great example of this would be the common points made about musical instrumentation during church worship. The de facto standard is to fall back to Ephesians 5:19 as evidence of the absence of instruments, and thus continue the train of thought that suggests that we then rightly deduce that they cannot be used.
Whether it is theologically sound or not to use instruments in worship, there is undoubtedly no arguments being made in modern day Christianity that the lack of instruments is displeasing to God. Reframing our objections to a particular principal into affirmative statements as to our own choices keeps us from putting into the salvation box things that ought not to be there.
For this example, we can better communicate our theological position by merely stating that the elders of our autonomous congregation have decided to sing a cappella. There is no ground to stand on to refute this position, and we can start to focus on essentials instead of necessarily defending our view because of our messaging.
Even worse in my eyes are the divisions between our brothers and sisters within the Restoration Movement. The division over supporting para-church organizations like colleges and orphanages could have only come to be by requiring the decisions of every autonomous congregation to be forced in the “Things Required for Salvation” box.
For a movement that began with a call for unity in essentials and liberty elsewhere, it is quite a fall to divide over things we should be embracing freedom concerning. After all, the eldership at every autonomous congregation will have to answer for the decisions that they made for their flock, whether good or bad. If you are not of that flock, or even more specifically of that eldership, you have little to be concerned about for yourself.
Support of para-church organizations is again an example of a problem that is able to be reframed by changing our messaging. We don’t even have to change our principles or convictions on either side of the theological discussion.
By merely stating that the autonomy of congregations allows the freedom to separately choose whether we will support para-church organizations, instead of convicting each other over the legality of such, we can move past yet another instance where liberty should reign and move back to agree on essentials.
The continued need to stand and divide on these less defensible positions leaves our church in a less capable place to fulfill the mission that is given to us by Christ. If we instead want to focus more on work that produces results, we should file these disagreements under the column of liberty in non-essentials and collectively unite to reach out to the many lost souls around us every day.