I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes.... For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”
-Romans 1:16-17 (NIV)
So I’ve officially been called a hobbit. And I think I like it.
Ted Campbell, who’s a Professor of Church History at Southern Methodist University, writes a blog called “Heartcore Methodist.” Recently he’s been looking at the practice and theology of various denominations and religious fellowships under the title “Why the name of denomination here Were Right.” Early last month, he focused on the Churches of Christ.
Having grown up in Churches of Christ, I think sometimes I might focus too much on our faults and eccentricities, so it was refreshing to me to read an “outsider’s” positive thoughts about us. Read the blog entry yourself if you’re interested in the particulars, but here’s a thumbnail sketch of what Campbell suggests are the areas in which we may see a little more clearly than some other fellowships.
He says, first, that we “have a profound insight into Christian music and its place in worship,” and wonders if the church has “gone too far with our instrumental fetish in worship.” Sometimes I think that the vocal music for which we’re known might be more about tradition than it is any “profound insights,” but I appreciate as well our focus on simple, unadorned human voices glorifying the One who gave us voice. (Of course, I suppose he gives talent for playing musical instruments as well, doesn’t he?)
He says that we’ve “got the right name.” He says that the name “Church of Christ” sounds “pretty straightforward by contrast” to other denominations and fellowships. He writes, “Like the New Testament, they just name their congregations for the places where they meet....” I don’t really know if the New Testament church really named themselves like that, but I see his point. And I’ve always liked the fact that our name reflects that we belong to Jesus. (Even if our lives don’t always.)
Campbell also appreciates that we “celebrate the Lord’s Supper every Sunday.” He points out that we “haven’t fallen for Protestants’ quirky idea that words can suffice in place of bread and wine,” he says. He appreciates the “simple prayers” that we say over the bread and cup. While I suppose our prayers aren’t always so heartfelt, and maybe our words can still get in the way of the Lord’s Supper, I, too, would list weekly celebration of Communion as one of our strengths. Nothing calls us together, and reminds us of who we are and why, like gathering around the table together with our Lord.
Campbell also likes our historic insistence that “there really is only one Church of Christ.” He goes on to explain, “that’s one of the cardinal claims of the ecumenical movement of the twentieth century, and the Churches of Christ were way out front in making us aware of that claim.” True enough. We’ve advocated for the unity of the church from day one, even if we haven’t necessarily always had attitudes that were actually very conducive to unity.
Campbell’s last point is that “The simplicity of the Churches of Christ allows them to focus on what is most important, namely, the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” I started thinking about the number of invitations I’ve heard in my lifetime, “invitation songs” I’ve sung. While some might think our theology too simple, not nuanced enough - and sometimes rightly so - I think maybe Campbell’s correct. It’s hard to walk away from one our worship services without hearing the gospel of Christ proclaimed.
That’s where Campbell calls us the “hobbits of the Christian world: not a lot of technological razzmatazz, not a lot of heavy emotion, not an elaborate or sophisticated liturgy, they just get the job done.” I can live with that. Our churches are characterized by a “primitive simplicity,” he suggests. “We’d do well to learn from them and thank God for their witness.”
The fact is, of course, that Churches of Christ are far from the first to witness to the “primitive simplicity” of the gospel. And we’re as likely as anyone else to get distracted by peripheral concerns. But the best we do, the most faithful we get, is when we remember that the power of God is revealed in the gospel of Jesus.
As a matter of fact, come to think of it, the other four things that Campbell commends us for have value only to the degree that they help us to focus on the gospel. There’s always the danger that our churches can start to imagine that our identity has mainly to do with vocal music or the name on our signs or the weekly celebration of the Lord’s Supper or Christian unity. And, in fact, we have at times imagined exactly that. But none of those practices or aspirations mean much, do they, if we lose sight of the gospel?
Wherever we may go to church on Sundays, whatever traditions we embrace or resist, may we never forget that the power of God is revealed to a broken, unraveling world through the gospel. It won’t be through our innovative evangelism methods or inspiring music or moral uprightness or faithfulness to whatever interpretations of whatever Scriptures we deem central to the faith that people come back to their God. It’ll be because the power of God is unleashed in the message entrusted to us. When we find our identity in historical, doctrinal, or institutional peculiarities, the best we can say is “Look how righteous we are.” But when we look to the gospel to find who we are, and faithfully and without embarrassment proclaim that word, we say to world around us, “Look at what our God has done for all of us!”
How evident is the gospel in your church’s ministries, activities, committees, budget, and mission statement? Whatever the historical record of our congregations or denominations in proclaiming the good news of Jesus, in each generation we must make the decisions anew regarding who we’ll be and what will matter to us. What can you do, in the roles that you play in your church, to make sure that the gospel is front and center? How can you help your church to be known for their proclamation, in word and deed, of the gospel of Jesus?
Related, of course, is the question of how evident the gospel is in your life. Do your words, your actions, your values, and your priorities reflect that you are unashamed of the gospel? That you believe God’s power is revealed most completely in that story?
“God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be,” wrote Paul. That being the case, we might expect that no one group or fellowship of believers at any particular time and place in history would adequately represent the height and depth and width and scope of God’s grace. But we can - and must - all bear witness to the gospel as he gives us opportunity.
Even us hobbits.