Category Archives: Dialogue

Equally Honest…Different Approach

I am a minister in a part of Christ’s church known as the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Every other year, we gather for a General Assembly with delegates from all over the United States and Canada for worship, education, and the dreaded business sessions with its Resolutions.

Throughout my years of ordained ministry, I have grown more certain in my opinion that Resolutions at General and Regional Assemblies polarize folks far quicker than any sermon. Nevertheless, we find ourselves focusing more on Resolutions than hearing the Gospel proclaimed in the Service of the Word. Folks will ask me if I am “for” or “against” a particular Resolution. My answer is, “I’m against Resolutions.” They have no enforceability, as congregations have the right and responsibility to govern their own life and mission, own their own property, and call or dismiss their own clergy. Statistically, they only reflect the opinions of folks with the means or interest to attend said Assemblies and, I would suggest, do not reflect the diversity of the members of Christian Churches throughout North America. Even the debate time allotted for Resolutions is so severally lacking there, it functions more like a straw poll.

Still, I’m not the kind of preacher who gets worked up over these things. It is the curse of being a student of history. In the ongoing effort of making sure my home and office Libraries are somewhat contained, I am once again trying to cull books. In that endeavor, I stumbled across a book entitled The Disciples in Kentucky by A.W. Fortune. Fortune was a professor and dean at the College of the Bible, the forerunner of Lexington Theological Seminary, and Preaching Minister at Central Christian Church in Lexington for over 20 years. Published in 1932, his book outlines the history of the Christian Church In Kentucky beginning at Cane Ridge in Bourbon County, Kentucky. As he sketches the brief summary of Christian mission during the 100 years from 1832 to 1932, he touches on the debates between key leaders and institutions. Fortune hides very little of the rancor among the early founders of the Missionary Societies, Transylvania College and The College of the Bible.

Most historians consider Fortune a key player in helping to marginalize the leadership of J.W. McGarvey, President of The College of the Bible and Fortune’spredecessor, of sorts. McGarvey had been the preacher at Main Street Christian Church, the forebear of Central Christian Church. Although McGarvey was rather rigid, he was instrumental in securing the financial support for the founding of our own First Christian Church in Ashland. He traveled relentlessly around Kentucky, preaching and meeting with women’s groups to secure donations to support our church in the early years. Because of that, I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for him.

Some of the debates that are outlined by Fortune in his book are not that different than the ones we currently deal with in the life of our church locally, regionally and throughout North America. How should the church balance the call to evangelism with the need to care for the poor? What was the role of music in worship? How should local churches determine the qualifications for leadership as “bishops” (or elders), deacons? Is the role of the preacher to reach converts (grow the churches) or spiritual development (primarily, care for members)? What are the best ways to combat the “lack of spiritual fervor” among Christians (a perception that church members were not excited and motivated to be involved in mission and ministry)? “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun,” (Ecclesiastes 1:9).

Even in the midst of bitter differences, those early Christians in Kentucky maintained unity. How? “There were two different interpretations of the church which inevitably came into conflict. There were those who believed the church should move on with the world and adapt the spirit of the New Testament to conditions that were ever changing. They held that, when not forbidden by the New Testament, they were free to adapt their program to changing needs. On the other hand, there were those who believed the pattern of the church was fixed for all time, and the fact that certain things were not sanctioned was sufficient ground for rejecting them…both sides were equally honest, but they had a different approach to these issues that were raised,” (A.W .Fortune, The Disciples in Kentucky, pp. 364-365).

“Equally honest…different approach ” is a helpful phrase in avoiding the pitfalls of division. Ecclesiastes also says, “And though one might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand-threefold cord is not quickly broken” (4:12). Perhaps, if we considered that our opponents are not “demonic” after all, but they simply have a different idea of getting to the same place, we would be better off. Can we be “equally honest,” and consider that there may be a “different approach?”

Revolutionary Preachers

My colleague at First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Ashland, the Rev. Larry Sivis,  is a huge Revolutionary War buff. Recently, he loaned me a 2-volume set entitled Political Sermons of the American Founding Era, 1730-1805 (Click on the title to link to our books section. To purchase books, click on the cover to go to Amazon). Notable 19th-century author and lawyer, John Wingate Thornton, credited the pulpit of the Puritan church (the forebear of many Congregational churches today) for giving the moral force to the Revolution.

The Rev. Benjamin Colman
Congregational Church

The first sermon in the book is by the Rev. Benjamin Colman, the irascible pastor of Boston’s Brattle Street Church.  Colman’s sermon, entitled Government, the Pillar of the Earth, was, in essence, a lecture to the Governor of Massachusetts, Jonathan Belcher, about the Biblical responsibilities of those in Government to both lend support and beauty to culture.

The Rev. John Wesley
Anglican Church

Likewise, the volume contains a sermon entitled A Calm Address to Our American Colonies, by John Wesley, the Anglican minister credited with the founding of Methodism.  His sermon outlined why the colonies should accept taxation by the British Parliament and that the freedom the colonists enjoyed in matters of faith and the safety the British military provided were reasons enough to submit to the Crown and Parliament.  Needless to say, American Methodists regularly rounded up copies of this sermon and promptly burned them, fearful that his loyalty to the crown would inhibit their evangelistic work.

The Rev. John Mitchell Mason
Reformed Church

The Rev. John Mitchell Mason, pastor of the Scotch Street Presbyterian Church and founder of the famed Union Theological Seminary, both in New York City, preached a sermon entitled, The Voice of Warning to Christians, on the Ensuing Election of a President of the United States. His sermon was a defense for opposition to the election of Thomas Jefferson as President.  Mason believed that Jefferson was unqualified to be President because of his unorthodox opinions on matters of the Christian faith and calls Jefferson a “confirmed infidel.”

The irony is that most of these clergymen were also strong supporters of freedom of religion.  Though it may be that theirs was nowhere near as diverse as our modern context, these preachers were able to maintain strong opinions while defending the rights of every person’s free exercise in matters of faith.  This defense did not soften their resolve to articulate their own worldview in a way that was both compelling and persuasive.  In some cases, this preaching led notable figures like Noah Webster, the man who edited the first comprehensive dictionary, to become committed to the church. The point of these historical summaries is to encourage us to balance a commitment to the evangelistic zeal of our faith while, at the same time, remain open to both our own growth and the freedom of expression of others.

This is the strength of Mainline Protestantism in general and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) specifically.  We are expected to hold fast to the core of our beliefs and remain respectful and open to dialogue.  Such debate has strengthened and informed our concept of freedom. It can be painful, but it is in the midst of passionate, well-articulated positions argued persuasively (classically defined as “rhetoric”) that will also strengthen the church.  It needs to be a part of every congregation as well. Unfortunately, congregations are becoming sub-cultures of like-minded individuals rather than the community whose faith is rooted in the revelation of God through Jesus Christ.  As Christians, our unity is neither rooted in our shared socio-political opinions nor in the freedom of self-determination. That is, we are not united by who we are, but by whose we are.  We belong to Christ. Christ is the host when we are invited to His Table. Each human being is different. There will always be someone more liberal or more conservative than we are. There will always be someone who says that we aren’t liberal enough or conservative enough. We hold fast to the Good Confession that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God. Along with a commitment to the Creed of Christ, the church has believed and taught that a return to the Christian discipline of prayer is essential.  True unity comes through personal and corporate prayer.  Our connection with God through the gift of prayer not only opens us to God’s work of molding our minds but opens our hearts to fellow believers and to those in our community who have not met Jesus Christ in a powerful and real way.

Perhaps, evangelistic zeal and the courage to carry the light of Christ into the shadows of a divided world begins with prayer. It may seem that I’m claiming the same privilege of the Revolutionary Orations of our forebears, but let me declare this: We will make no substantive headway until God’s people begin their apologetic efforts with the humility of prayer and service.

-Dr. Ike Nicholson is the Senior Minister of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

The original use of the megaphone

Edison’s original megaphone: used to hear

In his book, The New Adapters, Jacob Armstrong writes, “Thomas Edison coined the term megaphone in 1878 with a new device to benefit the deaf and hard of hearing. The first megaphone was actually three funnels. Two funnels that were over six feet long were inserted in the ear to aid hearing. The third, a smaller one, fit the mouth to project the voice.” It is a wonderful image of a device that was once used primarily for hearing that is now generally understood to be one for speaking. His context for the analogy is in helping congregations hear the issues and concerns in the communities they serve. However, the analogy works equally well in our day to day experiences. Some say that our nation has never been so divided. Although I understand the sentiment, that isn’t true. Consider for a moment the Civil War. That was a pretty divisive time in our nation. In the years leading up to the adoption of the Constitution in 1787, our nation was fiercely divided over the scope and authority of the federal government in the life of states. This division was primarily along socio-economic lines with vast differences between urban and rural voters. Sound familiar? Federalists like James Madison and Alexander Hamilton fought viciously with Anti-Federalists like Patrick Henry and George Mason. At one point, George Mason declared that he would “rather chop off [his] right hand than put it to the Constitution as it now stands.”

The media is often accused of partisanship today. Although history does have examples of newspapers that sought to be non-partisan, like the old New York Tribune, most newspapers were proudly advocating current events of their time from a partisan perspective. The Springfield Republican and the Cynthiana Democrat have in their history an intentional effort to report the news from their Party’s perspective.

As a pastor and preacher myself, I have had more than one person ask me what it is like to have a job where I get paid to talk. It is true that the time when most people see me in a large group, I’m the one doing most of the talking. Sunday mornings is, by far, the holy time our congregation gathers and by the nature of our worship style, the sermon is an important part of that time. The truth, however, is that throughout the week, I do much more listening than I do talking.

Today’s megaphone: used to speak

My point is that although we are certainly divided as a nation, this isn’t as foreign to our DNA as we might expect. Perhaps the difference is that social media has connected us far more than we were in the past. Think about your neighbors and those with whom you attend church or your co-workers. You may differ with them considerably on a whole host of issues, but you know them. Our children play together, we see each other at the store, funerals, weddings and at ball games. They are our friends and although we may have ideological differences, we know they are good and decent people. However, in this culture where we need to only open our laptops or turn on our tablets, we are given the means to engage in rigorous debate with people we don’t know. That makes it easy to ridicule them, demonize them and, ultimately, refuse to listen to them. We use our technological megaphones to speak and never listen. My suggestion? Take one week and just read what people are feeling and thinking. Or better yet, have a conversation with your neighbor or co-worker. What would it be like to listen and understand before we speak? To my congregation and those who join us for our live stream, I appreciate my congregation listening to me each Sunday and Wednesday. I put a great deal of time and effort into preparing what I will say. I pray that I will also put in as much time and effort listening throughout the rest of the week.