“Teacher,” said John, “we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us.”
“Do not stop him,” Jesus said. “No one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, for whoever is not against us is for us.”
In a recent conversation, a friend of mine mentioned his frustration with the Churches of Christ. He’s been reading authors from outside our churches, and he’s feeling that we’ve been a bit too exclusive in regards to Christians from other fellowships. He’s realizing that though we’ve often been certain we were right and they were wrong, in reality we haven’t always been right, and they haven’t always been wrong.
Historically, the only way we could be honest with ourselves about our reason for being was to say that we were all about Christian unity in Scripture alone. There was no other valid reason (in our own world view) for us to exist. That was a smokescreen, of course: other fellowships were always going to be found wanting, because we stacked the deck by making our own interpretation of Scripture - and not Scripture alone - the standard. And we honestly never considered the fact that other fellowships and denominations were trying to find their authority in Scripture as well.
It’s this historic exclusivity that’s bothering my friend. And maybe that’s nothing that you’ve ever experienced in Churches of Christ. If so, that’s good; in some ways your experience bears out the response I had for him. But I’m sure that some of us know exactly what he’s talking about. We’ve had our own experiences and frustrations with that same exclusivity.
That impulse toward exclusivity has always been there, I guess, even from the days when Jesus was here on earth. John sounds like one of our own preachers, thundering against someone who dared to drive out a demon using Jesus’ name without being part of the right group. “But don’t worry, Jesus. We told him to stop,” John said. Because, you know, it’s dangerous to have unauthorized believers running around helter-skelter, doing things in Jesus’ name.
Jesus must have stunned John when he said, “Don’t stop him! He’s on our side, if he’s not against us!” It came down to that, for Jesus. Someone casting out demons in his name was just one more witness to the power of God over the darkness.
I told my friend that I think things in Churches of Christ are changing. Having been closely acquainted with teenagers and young adults in recent years, it seems to me that the upcoming generation in our churches has absolutely no interest in fighting the “we’re right, you’re wrong” battles of earlier times. By and large, when they meet a Christian from another fellowship they recognize family. They understand that believers can disagree with one another without having to question one another’s standing before God. It’s not that they don’t think that disagreements matter, or that they don’t know what they believe and why they believe it; it’s that they understand that what we have in common with other Christians in Christ and the Holy Spirit matters more.
I’m acquainted with too many current leaders who preach in our churches and teach in our universities to give up hope. So many leaders I know are able to see the good in our movement without feeling the need to demonize other fellowships. A level of scholarship like I’ve never seen, across all disciplines, is getting done at universities and colleges associated with us - universities and colleges that a generation or two ago were disparaged as “Bible schools.”
Most encouraging to me is that many of our churches have changed their focus. They’ve left behind an attitude of alienation from the world and from other Christian fellowships. That doesn’t mean that they’ve bought in to the values of the world, or compromised any of their convictions. Instead of focusing on how they’re right, and how other fellowships are wrong, they’re lifting up Jesus in word and action. Instead of swelling by stealing sheep from other pens, they’re growing by connecting with unchurched people and introducing them to Jesus.
I've never seen such a narrow focus on Jesus in our churches. We read Paul through Jesus and the rest of the Bible now, and not the other way around. As America becomes more "post-Christian," we've become more likely to see other believers as allies, and not enemies. In the last twenty years or so, the Holy Spirit has begun opening our minds. In the process, we haven’t lost anything that’s central to the gospel. In fact, we’ve been freed up to emphasize the gospel.
To be sure, the exclusivist mindset that frustrates my friend endures here and there among us. But those who preserve it are now a minority - a vocal one, but a minority all the same. Their voices, once the mainstream, are now marginalized. The flattening of doctrine that made every issue, every opinion, every interpretation of every text as central to the faith as the resurrection of Jesus is slowly draining away. Our people are leaving it behind even now. It will be gone within the next generation.
It's not a liberal or conservative thing; those words mean nothing, or more precisely they mean whatever we want them to mean. They only serve to divide, to create alliances and conflicts out of thin air. It's not about whether we should accept every innovation or new direction, or reject everything older than 5 years ago. (Or vice-versa.) It’s a change that runs much deeper than that, a sea change that goes even to what we mean when we say that the Bible is our authority.
I told my friend that I have a lot of hope for the future of Churches of Christ. I believe that many of the teachings and practices that have characterized us will remain, because they’re good, biblical teachings and practices. I believe that many things will change, as well, as we learn to prioritize maintaining “the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” and recognize that disagreement, either internally or with Christians from other fellowships, doesn’t have to mean outright division. The church my son inherits may not look a lot like what I grew up with, but I'm optimistic that it will be more attuned to joining in the work of God in the world.
I, for one, am looking forward to it.