Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Disciples Identity: Writing a New Chapter Part Two of Four

The only thing constant is change. Dr. Robert Cueni, President of Lexington Theological Seminary, once remarked that successful change occurs when organizations write a new chapter, not a whole new book. When the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) was founded, it was strongly rooted in Enlightenment philosophy and was strongly committed to not waiting for the Kingdom of God, but actually “building” the Kingdom of God. Campbell’s vision was that the world needed only the Gospel rationally explained to it, and humanity, as rational beings, would receive the Gospel and join in the transformation of our world into one of peace, justice and goodwill. He was committed to an isolated reading of the New Testament and wrongly appropriated his 19th century worldview onto the writers and compilers of the New Testament. At one point, he even argued that a remnant church like the Christian Baptist movement he was leading had existed in isolation throughout the 19 centuries since Christ. Of course, as scholarship, archeology, and translations of ancient second and third century writings became available in English, our movement began to retain the teachings of Campbell that still worked and adapted the teachings which wee obviously contrary to newly revealed information. Much like most denominations, the founders and leaders of these movements are human and therefore subject to error. The Stone-Campbell movement began to write a new chapter in its existence. Many of the ideals of the founders simply did not work and many are even less fruitful in the 21st century. Along the way, symbolically, “new chapters” of our history and identity were written. Musical instruments, baptisteries, stained glass, an organized clergy, and mission structures all became new chapters in the story of our identity. Of course, not everyone liked the new chapters, as our movement split, organized and realigned itself to meet the needs of being the one church in a diverse world.

The problem with this method is that as new chapters are written, the story becomes more and more complicated and sometimes contradictory. Can new chapters fix our identity issues in a constantly changing culture? At some point, do we not need to take a step back and re-read the whole book and re-assess the story? Are we simply writing new chapters to avoid finishing the book and closing it forever? Is it really so bad to simply begin a new story? We know who Disciples were in the past, but our denominational leadership seems reticent to cast an identity for today, perhaps because, as stated last week, the demographics are so vastly diverse. Has “diversity” become the new paradigm and the sole basis of our unity? What would a new book really look like?

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