Churches of Christ: Quick to Speak and (Too Often) Absent to Listen...

A screenshot of the metrics on my website for the days after I originally posted An Open CONFESSION to the Churches of Christ

The last couple weeks have been interesting here. I typically write for a handful of people who actually read my writings. My writing for me is usually more a cathartic experience that enables me to try and articulate something that has been on my mind for quite a while. Most of my writings never leave the draft folder, either because I don't think they are of the kind of quality that I expect of myself, because they are underdeveloped, or sometimes even because they should never be made public. 

So a couple of weeks ago when I wrote An Open CONFESSION to the Churches of ChristI expected that the few readers that I have might read it, but I ultimately didn't care. It was important for me to attempt to articulate what I was feeling in the wake of all the nasty, uncharitable, character maligning that I was reading. Now, that post has been read by more than 45,000 people, by far the most "popular" thing I have ever published here. (I say "popular" because you don't need to spend long in the comments to see that it really wasn't all that popular.) But it was what happened after that in the following days that has fascinated me. 

I spent a couple of days trying to respond to each and every comment submitted. I wanted to make clear that there was no bait-and-switch here. That people of all convictions on this issue (and any other that I discuss here) are welcome to hold to and even advocate their understanding of a particular issue, granted that they do it in a way that is honest, loving, and seeks to address the issue without maligning one's character or fast-tracking their eternal destiny. (You should see the private emails from people unwilling to post their comments on the blog. "Glorious" I tell you.)

Then I began to repost an edited version of some work I had done previously on 1 Corinthians 14:34-35. This is one of the "trump cards" that is often played in this conversation. It is one of the texts people run to in order to say, "There is no is forbidden. Move on. Stop talking about it. Repent of your wrong interpretations.)

Side Note: If you (actually) read 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 in any English translation you will see that the text says absolutely nothing about teaching or preaching. It speaks only to learning. This in itself, is a great illustration of how we (mis)use texts in order to fit our already pre-determined interpretive positions.

But the thing that I noticed that was so stunning was this:

Thousands of people stopped by the share their reaction to the rather open-ended confession that I had posted and a small, small, small fraction of them actually stayed to engage in an exploration (whether or not they agreed with my conclusions) of the actual biblical text. 

This is what I have called in my academic work, The Silencing of the Voice of Dissent. (I have an enhanced form of this paper originally delivered at the Stone-Campbell Journal Conference in 2013 being prepared for submission for publication.) This is the phenomenon in which groups, individuals, and perspectives in any religious tradition that are aberrant experience a threefold movement from marginalization, to removal/expulsion/silencing, to a revisionist history to deny that they (whoever that is) were never a part of that religious tradition. This is exactly what has happened in the Churches of Christ. 

And in this season, where this conversation is re-emerging we are learning two things that I think are the result of the kind of paradigm that I suggested in that paper:

  1. Most people in our tradition are fundamentally unaware of the diversity that has long been a part of our movement on this question, even in our beginnings, and that a number of women made massive contributions to our movement and to the Kingdom of God as preachers, teachers, and missionaries. 
  2. We find ways in our revisionist history to also make sense of the present. This is why we have single women as missionaries all over the world who can serve "over there" but could never do so at home. We are able to learn from, read, and even share with our congregations the insights of women from books and other resources though it would be "sinful" for the author herself to get up and do so. 
  3. And finally, in order to authorize the revisionist history we must draw the lines even harder than they were before. This is why we don't allow women in many Churches of Christ to do things in our worship gatherings that they were clearly doing in the first century church, such a reading Scripture and praying! 

I think that this issue in the Churches of Christ has the potential to be more fragmentary than any in the history of our particular branch of the Stone-Campbell Movement. In my opinion there are three reasons for this:

  1. As a movement, we have become so polarized, and for so long have abandoned or maligned others within our tribe that have significant and sometimes important interpretive differences that we simply don't know how to speak to one another. 
  2. Our (unhealthy in my opinion) focus on congregational autonomy has translated into an extreme sense of isolation unless there emerges a common enemy. This means that the possibilities of constructive, generative engagement of people with different interpretive understandings of any issue is excruciatingly limited. 
  3. These things simply take time, and our culture, our churches, and our lives simply aren't willing to make that kind of sacrifice that is fundamental to the hard work of asking serious questions about God, the church, and the life that we live together for the sake of the world. 

Is it possible? With God all things are possible. Will it be difficult? Absolutely. Will it happen? I don't know. But if there is a movement that has the resources within its own history to have these kinds of engagements with one another and who are unwilling to be merely the next denomination (yes, I used the "D" word) to break up over theological issues... it is the Churches of Christ. 

Maybe we should take to heart one of the fundamental statements from Alexander Campbell as our marching orders for the near future:

"The spirit of all reformation, is free discussion."
-- Alexander Campbell