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Can the Restoration Movement thrive in a Post-denominational world? Yes. But will the Movement support institutions which enhance identity and sustain health?
That is a more problematic question.
Our brotherhood depends upon mediating institutions which create and enrich the space between individual Christians and a movement at large. These institutions – CIY, regional minister meetings, state conventions, Bible colleges, church camps, family camps, Bible Bowl, a national convention – are the microcosms that provide actual community (as opposed to virtual community) for congregations and their leaders in our affiliation. Don’t misunderstand, there is nothing wrong with virtual community, unless and until it passes itself off as a substitute for actual community.
Douglass C. North in his book, Violence and Social Orders: A Conceptual Framework for Interpreting Recorded Human History, writes that pluralism is the idea that power should be distributed widely within an association. That nearly all things we associate with healthy, modern societies are attributed to the multiplication of institutions.
When you only have a small cadre of “stakeholders” in a society – “usually the high priests, the property holding aristocrats, or the military” – power is defined by the personal relationships between this tiny handful of elites. They, in effect, form a ruling coalition against the masses and they design the social order for their own benefit. Additionally, the author demonstrates that the most successful social orders will be open entities that attract institutional decision-makers from as broad a base as possible.
North conceptualizes social dysfunction by the rise of social elitism within its body politic, thus providing tremendous insight into the recent developments within our own RM community. His description of maladaptive social order is remarkably accurate when applied to the decline of, say, the North American Christian Convention. North’s theory provides a forensic roadmap for how our national gathering transformed from an institution of decentralized committees into a centrally controlled enterprise dominated by a tiny group of financial asset-holding aristocrats.
This newly formed social class manipulates our brotherhood, even today, from behind the scenes, deflecting direct criticism away from their parent companies and onto a class of charismatic frontmen, boastfully presenting themselves as the high priests of our Movement. Witlessly exploited, these credulous showmen are highly susceptible to flattery and praise – weaknesses to be found in obvious abundance all over their more handsome but need-riddled faces.
These rivals, steering what few national institutions remain, are Church Development Fund Capital, the Solomon Foundation, Spire, and the Christian Standard, respectfully led by Dusty Rubeck, Doug Crozier, Rick Rusaw, Jerry Harris, and the host of multi-site mega-church high priests listed here. Whatever label you ascribe to this group, they become a real threat to the larger community when they claim the power of their administrative positions for their own agenda at the expense of the rest.
This Rubicon was crossed in 2015 when, with the caprice of a despotic king, the aforementioned aristocracy unilaterally altered the doctrine of our national convention. And in an unfortunate turn of events, what was once an expression of our association’s identity, beliefs and values, became a cynical tool to enhance the bottom line for a tiny minority.
Beyond addressing this issue of social order, comes the second great issue in the RM’s bid to thrive in a Post-denominational era – worldview.
What school of thought should guide us as we go?
The oldest and most venerable answer is to maintain status quo. This is known as Protectionism. Of all the schools of thought, it has the oldest pedigree.
Protectionism originally sprang from a view of our movement as spiritually superior to all others. We were too good to be corrupted by extra-Biblical authorities or contaminated by the trappings of a secular culture.
Today, however, Protectionism is an ideology of fear. Fear of cultural differences, fear of ethnic differences, fear of disagreement, fear of the Other. Protectionists want, not a subculture, but a counterculture that is wholly Christian in nature.
Here, the Christian Standard(CS) documents this mindset which once existed, not only in our past, but in the past of nearly every religious group, political group, and civic group of that era. While it’s beneficial to reflect on, I do not share the CS’s opinion that we are in danger of returning to it.
It may still exist, but only at the fringe of our movement. Not only because of its brutal intellectual reductionism, but because it is so obviously inappropriate for the world in which we live – a world of massive population flows and modern technologies. Innovations so advanced that they effectively erase “over here” and “over there.”
Protectionism is a path to nowhere, not simply because it is intellectually obsolete, but because it is spiritually bankrupt.
Who then leads the Restoration Movement?
Tribalism – The New Order
Members of this worldview refuse to preach what they practice. Even though their quotidian faith is expressed in much the same way as other Christians, they can not bring themselves to say it for fear of sounding fanatical.
Here LeRoy Lawson reviews a book on evangelism: “A long time ago I developed a pretty ingrained suspicion of books on this topic. . . I was afraid Christians would come across to their non-Christian friends as mere peddlers of religious pap. I’m still afraid. This is how some of my friends view us.”
In other words, fear of being identified as an overly-zealous colporteur, Tribalists put a premium on evangelism by example, rather than by openly associating with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Disturbingly, LOVEtheLOU – an urban RM missionary group operating in St. Louis– presents an anodyne version of Christianity which omits any overt recognition of Jesus Christ.“What if we don’t even say the name Jesus on our website and just say love?” Rouggly asks triumphantly. “Deeds that cause the resulting response of praise.” This school of thought is synonymous with liberal theology. It traces its pedigree to Richard Ely’s Christian utopianism, and includes today’s Social Justice Movement.
Incongruously, Tribalists appeal to the department of social sciences – heavily emphasizing market research – over and above the authority of scripture. Intimidated by those who are overtly hostile to Christianity, far too often they harmonize their Christian faith by reading their Bibles through the lens of political agendas. To them, concerns for sound doctrine are lower class – publicly tolerated but privately derided.
Intervention on issues of orthodoxy are puritanical, counterproductive and to be avoided at all costs. Here Cincinnati Christian University sinecure turned ex-board member, Tyler McKenzie, creates a false dichotomy between unity and truth. He writes, “I see this movement’s leaders fighting publicly for truth or sometimes with one another over truth, but I see few fighting for unity.”
First of all, when two or more people are contending over concerns of orthodoxy, exactly why shouldn’t that be characterized as “fighting for unity?” It seems to me that his objection isn’t about a lack of unity, but about a lack of security in his own position. If he were honestly concerned about unity, he would encourage more of these spirited exchanges (indeed, sometimes debate is the road to unity), rather than characterizing them as “fights.” Despite his claim, unity and truth do not exist in constant tension. Nor are they mutually exclusive.
Moreover, McKenzie condemns those who take part in public doctrinal debates as out-of-balance interventionists, needlessly prioritizing sound doctrine over peaceful compromise.
And yet, quite astonishingly, when these Tribalists came to power over our national convention and national periodical, they turned almost hyper-interventionist. They coerced us – and our institutions – to conform to feminist agendas, social science ideologies, and a superimposed ecclesiology inspired by corporate America.
How to explain this amazing transmutation of doctrinal peacemakers to sudden hyper-interventionists?
The crucial and obvious difference is this: feminist’s agendas, social science ideologies, and social justice are humanitarian ventures, fights for right and good, devoid of self-interest. Because only humanitarian intervention is morally pristine enough to justify coercing others to conform.
This posture appeases the world while refuting the lazy notion that liberal theologies have an aversion to intervening on any issue for any reason. They do not. They have an aversion to intervening for reasons of doctrinal purity.
Why then the obsession with women preachers, and speakers from other ideological or doctrinal tribes?
Their obvious net affect is to temper biblically sound doctrine. After all, who is most constrained by these inclusions? Turning the spotlight on Pastor Jodi Hickerson in 2015 was aimed squarely at ICC congregations faithfully honoring God’s design for marriage, family, and the complementarian view of church polity.
Look, it’s one thing to say the Restoration Movement doesn’t provide the meaning that I want, it’s another thing to unilaterally impose upon our convention (and thus the Movement at large) what I believe the Restoration Movement should have.
But that, you see, is the whole point of Tribalism’s enterprise: to reduce the faithful majority’s freedom of expression by making it subservient to, dependent on, constricted by the will—and interests—of other tribes. To tie down Gulliver with a thousand strings
They well understood, welcoming tribes into our convention not aligned with us on doctrine was not a way to broaden a movement – it was a way to abolish it.
This aversion to RM interests may well be attributed to self-doubt and self-loathing. I don’t know. What I do know is that, today, it is a mistake to cast Tribalism as deriving from anti-Christian sensibilities, or lack of loyalty, or a late efflorescence of 1970’s ecumenicalism. On the contrary. The liberal aversion to doctrinal arguments stems from an idealism, a larger vision of Christendom, a vision of some ambition and nobility—the ideal of a true national Christian community.
And to create such a true community, you have to temper, transcend and, in the end, abolish the very idea of scriptural authority and sound doctrine. Hence the antipathy to scholarly articles, exegetical preaching or the pluralist expression of local church consensus. If you are going to break the RM to the mold of an evangelical community of tribes, you have to domesticate its single most powerful influence.
You have to abolish Biblical authority, not only as an affront to other individual tribes but also as the greatest obstacle to a unified evangelical system, where all live under self-enforcing evangelical norms.
This vision is all very nice. All very noble. And all very crazy. Which brings us to the third school of thought: Realism. Realism emphasizes doctrinal purity. It looks at this great new order and sees a hopeless illusion – turning a jungle of tribes into a quiet, integrated evangelical subdivision requiring a revolution in human nature. Not just an erector set of new institutions, but a revolution of human nature. And Realists do not believe in revolutions of human nature, much less stake their future, and the future of the next generation, on them. Realism believes in taking off human nature and putting on the nature of Christ.
Realism recognizes fundamental fallacies of adopting the strength-through-diversity dogma, saturating social science departments throughout academia.
First, what holds a diverse group together is a supreme central authority wielding a monopoly of power and enforcing norms. In the Tribalist view there is no such thing. Our diverse secular society – upon which they base their model – may look like a place of self-regulating norms, but if somebody breaks into your house, you call 911, and the police arrive with guns drawn. That’s not exactly self-enforcement. That’s law enforcement.
Second, tribal institutions rest on the shared goodwill, civility and common values of its individual members. Beyond “Jesus saves,” what values are shared by, say, Charismatic, Calvinist, and Missional churches—all nominal members of this fiction called “evangelicalism?”
What would hold a tribal order together? What might keep it from degenerating into total chaos? Not the phony assurance of mutual respect, not the best of goodwill among the tribes. In the Post-denominational world we inhabit, Realists understand that any stability we do enjoy is owed to the overwhelming power and authority of the Word of God.
In this new era, the closest thing to a centralized authority, to an enforcer of norms, is sound doctrine—and the work of the Holy Spirit. And yet, ironically, sound doctrine is precisely what Tribalism wants to constrain and tie down and subsume in pursuit of some brave new Post-denominational world.
Moreover, those at odds with the pluralistic nature of RM unity have made the two means of maintaining it—public debate and the representation of all local church leaders—the focus of unrelenting criticism. The doctrine of public correction (described in 1 Thessalonians and demonstrated in Galatians 2), in particular, has been widely attacked for violating Biblical norms.
But the Realist asks, what Biblical norms? The ones under which, for example, the Spire Network, and the Christian Standard universally promote women preachers? The ones that eliminate baptism from any sacramental purpose —does anyone today believe that our great Biblical scholars and a majority of our churches agreed that these were the right things to do, either strategically or morally? It always amuses me when those who have little respect for even the idea of sound doctrine, instruct those who highly value it how they should behave in accordance to sound doctrine.
The other great Tribalist objection is the way RM institutions express consensus by its openness to all Christians at the local level. (I dispute the incessant accusations of insecurity and jealousy.) Advocating for pluralistic committees of the willing, hardly qualifies as an expression of jealous insecurity. One conflicted by fear and the insecurity of their position would advocate for more centralized control – not for decentralized control. So ask yourself, who appears more insecure?
Moreover, public criticism, as has already been mentioned, is often the very road to unity and harmony. As we learned from divisions of the past, it was the leadership within our movement —and their willingness go it alone if necessary—that galvanized the Independent Christian Church(ICC) coalition into existence.
Without Biblical scholars like R.C. Foster quoting Joshua in 1950, “Choose you this day whom ye will serve, but as for me and my house, we will serve Jehovah,” we would not have enjoyed the gift of harmony which his very public, confrontational cri de coeur provided. Foster actively condemned the apostasy which had gained a foothold in our movement through the NACC’s continuation committee. And his scrutiny spawned a great period of unified tranquility.
For most Christians within our affiliation, the will to doctrinal purity might be a correct approach when dealing with current internal leadership issues—and I agree – but it cannot be a prescription for success in this new era.
It cannot be our purpose.
We cannot and will not live by sound doctrine alone. Our way forward must be driven by something beyond the purity of Realism. Unless our leaders present ideals to challenge the Tribalist ideal of a generic Post-denominational community, we will lose the debate.
Which is why among ICC congregations, another, more restoration oriented school of thought is necessary. A view that sees the way forward as an expression of values.
To be sure, the astonishing thing about our affiliation is not that it’s an affiliation, it’s that it consists of permanent truths, explicitly Biblical, which are open and applicable to anyone in any era. And the greatest exemplar of those Biblical truths in the world today, I believe, is the Restoration Movement.This, then, is the final question: Where and how do we intervene?
[This is the second of Three Essays On The Restoration Movement And Post-denominationalism. To make sure you don’t miss the final essay please consider subscribing.]
Terry Sweany has served as senior pastor since 2006. His education includes a MA in Miarriage, Family, and Child Counseling from Hope International University and a BA from Cincinnati Christian University. He is author of the book Life In Ministry and his greatest joy is helping people deepen their relationship with God. Terry lives in Westchester, California and is a member of the LAPD Pacific Division Clergy Council. He and his wife, Patty, have been married 32 years and have a daughter and grandaughter