Christians often ask – are churches of Christ a denomination or a movement of churches and what is the difference? It’s an important conversation and one that is current in this environment of change, uncertainty and opportunity. There remain creative tensions in this conversation as we perceive how a movement functions depending on our vantage point. This season has many people switching into the family, so it is important that perspectives and foundations are clearly articulated.

This article addresses the movement’s primary design from a number of perspectives through collaboration as a network of churches committed to the Gospel and the cause of Jesus and His Kingdom.   

Historical Dynamics and Early Clues….

The early pioneers of churches of Christ in Australia were a mixture of Scottish Baptists, Wesleyan Methodists and members of both British and New Zealand churches of Christ.[1] Much has been recorded[2] about the early frontier days, to signify they were dynamic, ground breaking and faith-filled. A cohort of evangelists did their utmost to promote Jesus with apostolic fervour through simple gospel living.  

“We turn the leaves of that precious book from Genesis to Revelation and yet not one word about denomination, or denominational interests. When then we come before the great God and ask Him for wisdom and guidance, how can we dare set forth a purpose which is not given in his great revelation—the Bible? […] In turning the pages of that book we find that Jesus the Christ has been revealed, and that for a lost world there is salvation in no other name. Hence we will not be far wrong when we announce it as our purpose to plead the cause of Christ in its simplicity and fullness, to lift our voices on behalf of Christianity as it was in apostolic days.” [3]

The mission architecture and functionality of this era was compelling. Those who pioneered did not envisage a hierarchal or denominational institution but a contagious movement that worked together to establish new frontiers of gospel impact.

Implicit within the foundations, was a deliberate aversion to lengthy creeds or definitive doctrinal statements beyond a simple yet profound trust in scripture and in particular, the emphases promoted within the New Testament. This orientation towards New Testament practice was later promoted and identified as restorative in nature (ie. restoring people back to a right relationship with God), hence the phrase ‘restoration movement’ was initiated. The functional foundations were progressive rather than institutional.

“It has never been claimed that we understand the Christian institution completely. Our movement has been progressive. Sects that have been established upon definite creeds and confessions of faith are limited in the nature of the case to these statements. No such boundaries confined our pioneers as they started out on their work. They realised that their knowledge was imperfect — they had much to learn […] Hence our work is progressive. We still pray that the Spirit may lead us into all truth. The Bible contains the full and complete revelation of the will of God to man.” [4]

100 years later, A.W. Stephenson[5] consolidated the movement’s church practice into five general statements:

  1. The church on earth is essentially, intentionally, and constitutionally one; although meeting in local churches in various centres, all these local churches must be guided by one rule.
  2. The rule is the authority of Christ as set out in the New Testament.
  3. No command or ordinance ought to be required of a person other than set out in the New Testament.
  4. Church membership must be determined, not by knowledge of creeds or scripture, but by surrender and obedience to Christ.
  5. Division is due to the failure to do all Christ commanded and, or, to the imposing on members human opinions not found in the word of God.

These truncated historical headlines help capture a central tenant of the ‘restoration movement’ – there was no creed but Christ and they aptly progressed on mission for Jesus within minimal broader church bureaucracy or interference. It was this uncluttered and distributed orientation that propelled the movement forward across the nation with diverse and almost reckless abandonment.   

Evangelists operating house to house and later in tent missions seeded new churches with fervour and fearless courage, thus precipitating the expansion of the movement into every state and territory. Mother churches released resources, both human and financial, to plant new communities in surrounding suburbs and overseas. Eventually the scale of activity warranted the establishment of state/territory Conferences to coordinate home missions, welfare work, care of the aged and frail, indigenous work, men’s and women’s ministries, Christian education, children’s and youth camps and activities, oversight of properties and the training of men and women as ministers of the gospel.  

Suddenly the movement had expanded dramatically, with multiple expressions of life and mission across the length and breadth of Australia. Different persuasions, theologies, forms and practices emerged, precipitating a complex and diverse network of activity and ministry that is named the ‘Churches of Christ in Australia’.

Balcony Views – Micro and Macro, Central and Distributed:

The restoration movement seeded initially in Australia in the 1850’s within South Australia.[6] It has since grown to some 450 local churches nation-wide with broader multi-million-dollar social enterprises and ministry support functions located within Conference offices. Over 160 years later, we are growing, we are declining, we are sustaining, we are innovating, we are conflicting, we are determining, we are training and we are collaborating. This is normal family behaviour. Into this complex web of activity and relationships, there remains no panacea, no quick-fix formula apart from a passionate commitment to Christ and His church to guide us with intention into a rapidly changing future.

“Within a movement which tries to keep together the principles of authority and liberty and which emphasises unity rather than uniformity, there is a variety of views and emphases. Any statement on the position of the whole involves an interpretation, and the individual interpreter cannot entirely escape his own outlook and emphasis.” [7]

A mature dialogue enables clarity on how the micro and the macro co-exist in non-hierarchal collaborative ways, where each informs the other despite scale, size, location and ministry activity. A win-win orientation stimulates an ‘and-together’ or partnership mindset of inter-dependence rather than autonomy or independence. 

The balcony view allows a line of sight where different perspectives are appreciated rather than dismissed or overlooked. The balcony vista facilitates respectful dialogue rather than aggressive debate.

At a micro level, it’s hard not to envisage the broader church of Christ world as being more institutionalised than organic. The sheer scale of activity may create perceptions of centralist operations without due regard to the frontiers of local mission. Each church pays an ‘affiliation fee’ for the benefit of belonging to the network, and church properties are, almost universally held in trust to ensure wider assets are not squandered or illegitimately acquired. Micro contextual church mission is critical for the movement’s sustainability and Kingdom flourishing.

At a macro level, a critical conversation and priority is resource allocation and strategic partnership. The majority of Conference ministries exist because previous generations created start-ups to fuel ministry and mission on behalf of the wider church, where individual churches were unable to effectively resource those activities. Conference structures exist to serve church networks and participate in frontier thinking and spiritual leadership for future generations. They also assist when requested, in facilitation and conflict resolution, strategic conversations, property concerns, loans, emergency assistance, interim ministries and training, preaching and pastoral support and ministry assistance.

Currently churches of Christ in Australia are both centralist and distributive in practice and design.  

There are certain segments of the movement’s work that ‘feel’ more denominational and other parts where free and spirited ministry is encouraged and cultivated openly with no control or checks and balances. Movements distribute their operational frameworks by empowering localised oversight and contextual ministry.

Legislative Realities, Church Governance and Risk:

It is no longer possible or plausible to belong to a network or movement of churches and function outside of normative legal, governance and risk boundaries expected, mandated and asserted operationally within Australian society. There is a present reality that the movement is being managed externally by government and regulatory stakeholders as a denomination.

The early pioneers of churches of Christ would be dismayed at the array of requirements now prescribed for the ‘start-up’ of a new church. Whereas once it was permissible to build a church in a day (by the networked good will of qualified tradesmen), planning and building codes now make such an undertaking impossible.

The broader legislative realities imposed on church practice are reflective of a secular world intent on building competency and capability in order to mitigate risk. Legal frameworks impinging on church functions include:
The Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission;
The Australian Taxation Office;
The Marriage Act;
Fair Trading;
Safe Work Australia;
Child Protection post the Royal Commission into Institutions and their abuse of minors; and
The various legislative Acts and constitutions governing church assets and polity.

Church governance imposes important expectations into church boards with respect to insurances, risk management, safety, child protection, solid financial reporting, accruals of entitlements including payroll responsibilities, ministry benefits, audited accounts, building maintenance and compliance and professional staff and ministry practice and supervision.

It is rational and expedient for some of these externally imposed requirements to be benchmarked appropriately and for the movement to function from a ‘resourced centre’. The endorsement of religious marriage celebrants is one such example where delegated authority is prescribed via Conference to determine need, suitability and qualifications necessary to solemnise marriages on behalf of churches of Christ. Extra services and support are also offered to local churches when they lack the expertise to navigate regulatory environments. Similarly some functions such as theological training and care for the aged, require specialist skills in increasing regulatory environments.

The current worldview of government and community proposes the church as a potential risk, and therefore expectations and responsibilities on church leaders is increasing.

Community Expectations, Current Practice and Biblical Mandate:

From the outside in, Christianity is viewed with both suspicion and appreciation. The churches of Christ movement, is generally viewed on par with other groupings of churches, meaning community expectations don’t differentiate one group from another. Society is unable to distinguish the difference between a movement and a denomination.

Key shortcomings in ministry practice, the protection or lack thereof of children, the assumptions around qualifications for ministry and other scandals or misdemeanours amplify broader management procedures governing the ‘reputation’ of the movement in the current age. When one Christian denomination fails, others are implicated without due cause. When one local church has a serious breach of care, the movement too is impacted by association.

Church ministers and pastors are now expected to become voluntary subscribers to codes of conduct or ethics and be endorsed for ministry. Local boards are encouraged to still oversee and govern, but themselves seek assistance and support when conflicts of interest emerge. Abuses of children over 40 years ago are now relevant, causing critical conversations of redress for victims and how the church should respond transparently and in grace collectively.

Each of these scenarios emerge regularly requiring appropriate and reasonable intervention, remediation and restoration from both churches and the Conference in partnership and care. The movement collectively adjusts and responds to shifting presenting issues and community expectations.

The late Reverend Dr. Gordon Moyes wrote on rethinking restoration in 1965 as follows:
“Be honest with ourselves and the Lord by joining the Church in the quest for unity as a denomination. We are no longer just a movement within the Church. We have accepted denominational status, we enjoy the privileges of it, and yet we politely pretend to ourselves that we are not like the others.” [8]

Dr. Moyes correctly highlights the tensions between movement versus denominational thinking and design. These tensions are valid within current practice. For example, ministers, pastors, religious practitioners, chaplains and ministering persons are classified professionally as members of a religious order (provided they are suitably qualified in ministry and/or theology) and therefore have certain exemptions under reportable fringe benefits requirements for income taxation purposes. Here the movement acts denominationally to ensure guidelines are offered for churches to remain ‘above reproach’ with respect to the use of such benefits. Where churches breach such guidelines they potentially call the broader network into disrepute.

The functions of Trustees appointed under Property Trust legislation to hold title deeds and assets for churches is another example that is institutional in design due to legislative requirements in some cases defined by Acts of Parliament.

Our biblical mandate through restoration remains a given – we are called to preach the gospel to all peoples regardless of race, environment or culture. The movement cannot pioneer new frontiers of church life unless there is a passionate commitment to serve the whole including the individual parts. The resourcing engines of state/territory Conferences are able to generate momentum and impetus to stimulate action from local churches to engage in future pioneering endeavours where strategy is shared in distributed action or partnership and broadcasted intentionally to put future movement expansion onto the agenda for everyone.

A critical conversation for church remains – why do we exist and what is unique about a particular expression of the movement’s DNA going forward?

Spiritually Leading Forward while Managing Across:

“Over time every movement wanders from its founding charism (gift of grace) and can only be renewed by returning to it in a fresh way. That return must be both true to the movement’s unique calling and innovative in how that calling is lived out”. [9]

As the movement of churches of Christ in Australia is catapulted into next generational mission, those who have gone before must pass on our DNA and ethos without due concern around future forms of church. This applies to Conferences and local churches, who in many ways face similar challenges in partnership for kingdom impact.  

Our DNA and impact have a leading forward and a managing across dichotomy.  

Spiritual leadership is pivotal in leading us forward, listening to the reality of the Spirit’s prompts, cultivating dreams and aspirations for a vibrant future movement of churches. The broader vision beckons a kingdom network that equips and trains disciples for life, tied to the inspired Word of God in communities and cities within our nation. The signposts suggest for us both evangelism and entrepreneurship are foundational gifts. We need both gifts synchronised to multiply impact.

Managing across is essential to ensure reputational, legal, governance and community risks are clearly highlighted and shared from Conference to church and church to Conference in collaborated learning environments. The managed environments are about necessary accountability, informed challenges and ongoing learning that creates healthy best practice within ministry.

“The pioneers of Churches of Christ were the radicals of their day, saying in effect to the church in general, ‘Get relevant, get real, show the world that the gospel is in fact good news for our sort of world.’ Such radicalism is needed in Churches of Christ now.” [10]

A future movement is a hopeful movement. There is a radical imprimatur awaiting – time is of the essence; we must remain in strong partnership, each part of the body working together for gospel impact and expansion. In so many ways we are blessed because of our history and heritage. We are fluid and agile, capable of responsive mission in context and community. We empower all people, men and women to exercise their gifts as a ‘priesthood of all believer.’ We call people to follow Jesus as disciples, baptising them in his name and encouraging them to mature in Christ to serve, love and care for a hurting world.

The Apostolic age of the church captures our imagination. Mobilized, sent missionaries working across networks to innovate and stimulate evangelistic witness. A DNA that is agile, adaptive and adventurous with Jesus at the centre, as the head and as our rock. Who wouldn’t want to contribute and serve into that kind of movement?

Article by Dr. Andrew Ball

Dr. Andrew Ball is the Executive Ministry Director of Churches of Christ in NSW and the ACT. He has served previously as federal chair of Churches of Christ in Australia and has been intimately involved in the movement’s mission and ministry for over 30 years in local ministry and broader spiritual leadership roles.

 

References:

[1]   The Stone Campbell Movement – A Global History p. 109-113.  © 2013 Chalice Press

[2]   The Jubilee History of Churches of Christ in Australia.  © 1903 Austral Publishing

[3]   The Australian Christian Pioneer  Vol.1, © 1868.  Edited by T.J. Gore

[4]   The Romance of Churches of Christ – A Study in Origins. T. Scambler Austral Publishing  Accessed via: https://static1.squarespace.com/static/56331d61e4b070cd3843e9c0/t/56662f4ecbced644c8a289c3/1449537358301/Scambler+The+Romance+of+Churches+of+Christ.compressed.pdf

[5]   One Hundred Years.  Churches of Christ in Australia. A.W. Stephenson.  © 1946 Austral Publishing.  p. 10

[6]   Pioneering for Christian Unity in Australia and New Zealand.  A.W. Stephenson. © Austral Publishing. p. 19-27

[7]   A Biblical Approach to Unity.  E. L. Williams ©  1957 Austral Publishing p. 9.

[8]   Rethinking Restoration.  Provocative Pamphlet No. 128. © 1965 Austral Publishing. p. 7.

[9]    Movements that Changed the World.  S. Addison.  © 2011 IVP p. 61

[10]   Churches of Christ:  Reinterpreting Ourselves for the New Century.  Gordon Stirling.  © 2009 Vital Publications.