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Wednesday, December 14, 2016

A Tree Uprooted: Why I am Leaving the Christian Churches and Churches of Christ.

When I entered college at a Cincinnati Christian University, I expected to spend my life ministering in the Christian Churches and Churches of Christ.

I enrolled in a university associated with this fellowship of churches (we avoid the word denomination) to prepare me for that future.

I was baptized in this brotherhood, as were my parents, my mother's grandparents, and virtually all the family on my mother's side.

I grew up in an independent Christian Church and deeply identified with our history, the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement.

Indeed, I read our histories, studied our leaders, attended our conferences, played Bible Bowl, am attending one of our institutions of higher learning, and attempted to understand our doctrinal trends.

This was my home.

But no longer.

And that hurts deeper than words can express.

In the past two years, I discovered the teachings of the Anabaptists, a 16th century restoration movement born in reaction to the Magisterial Protestant Reformers and the Roman Catholics.

As a general rule, they stressed non-violence, the separation of Church and State, cultural non-conformity, and the church as a covenanted community.

This manifested itself in refusing to serve in the military, shying away from political offices, plain dress and head-coverings for women (though the latter was common for all churches at the time), a serious cautiousness to worldly entertainment, and the exercise of shunning and disfellowshipping as a means of church discipline.

This tradition is alive today in the Amish, Hutterites, Mennonites, some Brethren groups, the Bruderhof, many independent churches, and more.

Similar groups include the Schwarzenau Brethren and their descendants, and the Quakers.

As I studied this history, the more I saw the similarities between it and my own.

Reading folks like David Lipscomb, Alexander Campbell, Tolbert Fanning on war and politics had convinced me that I could be a pacifist and politically neutral and remain in the Christian Churches.

There was a place for me despite these radical shifts in doctrine.

Yet there were still issues.

I loved how the Anabaptists had a distinctively Christian way of viewing the world, a robust Kingdom framework that didn't simply terminate in one's own personal salvation, invaluable as that is, and helped generate a consistent Christian way of life.

In contrast, the Christian Churches have fully adopted a Constantinian approach to the acceptability of war and the goodness of political involvement just like the rest of evangelicalism.

In addition, the issue of divorce and re-marriage had begun to haunt me, as well.

As I studied the issue, listening to the voice of the early church along the way, I came to believe that when Jesus said "whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery", he meant just that, precluding any remarriage after divorce as licit in God's eyes.

Sadly, I watched the elders of a Christian Church sit on their hands when a couple in their congregation, who had ministered in that congregation, divorced, only to have the brother involved promptly begin dating another sister in the congregation before the legal divorce was even final.

This spectacle unfolded as mature Christians who I had respected and thought better of fawned over this relationship as though nothing was wrong.

 "We didn't even mourn for that marriage", one sister said to me.

Not all Christian Churches are like this, but how many of our churches on the landscape would be willing to exercise church discipline if a couple was un-biblically divorced and refused to submit to some kind of counseling?

How many would want them to?

Furthermore, I realized after going off to college that I was one of a few young people who cared about the Restoration Movement and thought it important and relevant.

But it wasn't just that, I became jaded to churches and ministry programs that seemed to encourage young men to use preaching as a way to advance their fame, with our largest conferences being a who's who of the largest churches in our Movement.

The view of ministry held by the young men was totally centered on getting internships at the biggest and best churches, making connections and networking, and advancing personal ministry careers.

The concern for the universal church, the brotherhood, the evangelization of the world, and how our little lives fit into that big picture was few and far between.

And it is not that there weren't exceptions, but for those who did seem self-motivated, their M.O. seemed less like an aberration of the general approach to preaching and the pastorate taken in Christian Churches, but a logical consequence of it.

The approach is that the preacher serves as the face of the church and the great burden of the ministerial tasks, rather than being spread evenly, are put squarely on his shoulders.

We've seen this unfortunate trend borne out as pastors/senior ministers simply burn out and quit left and right.

The thriving mega-churches are the fittest who have survived where others have not and, even then, at what cost?

There were other issues like head-coverings, modesty, and women teaching Christian doctrine to Christian men, but up to the present, I had hoped I could plant a church with like-minded individuals from the Christian Churches where we could have and champion these distinctives while remaining a part of the larger Christian Church family.

I had zero intention of leaving. It wasn't even on the radar (I had been encouraged to join the Mennonites two years ago and wonder what would have happened if I had).

 What changed everything was the election.

We had a choice to be a different voice from above the fray of the most contentious election in our nation's history and we blew it.

When arguably the most influential and well-known preacher in our movement, as well as an even more well-known theologian all but baptized a vote for Donald Trump, the question was no longer "is there a place for me here?", but "could I stay here if there was?"

I finally answered the question no.

 In conversations with Catholics, Mormons, Witnesses of Jehovah, and secularists, I found myself able to dialogue as to why I disagreed with their community of choice, but unable to offer them an alternative community in good faith.

That stuck with me and was hard to shake.

 I wanted to be a part of a community that stood for something.

It was Rick Atchley of the church of Christ (a cappella) who cautioned the Christian Churches against becoming some watered down form of  non-distinct evangelicalism.

When I read that caution at the North American Christian Convention several years ago, I took it to heart, and now I fear we are far too late.

One Anabaptist author encouraged converts to Anabaptist thought to live out their convictions in their own faith communities.

I love that advice, but at some point I had to be honest with myself: I didn't want to.

 As I look at the (independent) Christian Churches, I cannot see myself here at age 50.

I cannot see the changes I so desperately want to see that would give me an excuse, any excuse, to stay.

 Attending the International Conference of Missions last month reminded me of all the reasons I loved the Christian Churches and it melted away much of my cynicism.

 I still believe that what that conference represents is the best hope for our Movement.

 However, I cannot wait.

If I was stronger, more hopeful, I'd fight it out and do what I could to point us back to our roots and suggest a place for people like me.

But my faith has suffered so much. I have felt alone and disconnected from what used to feel like home.

 I prayed and prayed for God to show me the way forward.
A Group of German Brethren at their Annual Conference

 And, as of now, I believe that way is the German Brethren (New Conference).

This decision has been one of the most difficult I have ever made and will change the course of my life majorly, from my career (there are no paid ministers in this movement), to whom I marry, where I live, and so much more.

 I will always be a child of the Restoration Movement and will always draw wisdom from its leaders, leading lights, and voluminous writings.

Yet, I am ready to move on, carrying with me all that it has taught me.

 Pray for me as I do so.


  1. I guess my heart is grieving too. Each person should work out their own salvation with fear and trembling, yet I can still find ways to disobey our Lord. I sometimes get caught thinking that believing is enough and forget that even the demons believe and shudder. Why do I do that? Why do I do the things I don’t want to do? Why does it feel like I am at war with my mind? Who can deliver me from the body of death I live in? Only though Jesus, our deliverer.

    I cannot control someone else’s relationship with our Lord nor can any religion. Only by staying in His word, being held accountable by my brothers in the Lord through fellowship, praying and looking for Him in every aspect of the day can I find Him and grow closer. I have to admit the things I do wrong, even when I did not mean to do wrong. All sin and fall short of the glory of God. Nobody does good, not one. The Lord tells us going to bed angry with someone is the same as being guilty of murder. Break one law and they are all broke whether its murder, adultery, idol worshiping, stealing, testifying falsely against your neighbor, coveting anything that belongs to your neighbor, and so on.

    There is unity in belonging to the body of Christ. We are one body; we have the same Spirit and the same glorious future. There is only one Lord, one faith, one baptism and only one God and Father who is over us all and in us all and living through us all.

    What will Jesus think when He returns and finds all of the religions that claim His name? I don’t know and all I can do is work out my own salvation with fear and trembling. As I draw closer to Jesus and the Father, that fear will be replaced with love because perfect love expels all fear.

    We need to hold tightly to the hope we have for God to keep his promise, think of ways to encourage one another, not neglect meeting together and encourage and warn each other especially now that the day of His coming back again is drawing near.

    A relationship with the Lord and Father will lead us to loving God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength as well as loving our neighbor as ourselves. We will provide the fruits of the Spirit to all people around us because of His Spirit. Jesus said on judgment day many will come to Him and say they prophesied, cast out demons, and performed miracles in His name. He said He would reply, I never knew you; depart from me. My trembling comes from the dread of having a potential to hear those words.

    I am sorry you feel that my fellowship is no longer worthy. My heart is breaking because I will be missing fellowship with a brother in the Lord. I will be in prayer for you until the day we meet in His glorious presence. I love you and will miss you Eric.

    1. I appreciate your words. I am not shunning anyone, nor am I avoiding the church I grew up in and which members of my family still attend. It is just that my relationship to the tradition it comes from has changed. Everyone who was my brother and sister before remains so. God has His people everywhere. We are still one body.