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?”