Archive for the ‘ICOC’ Category

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ICOC Cooperation Agreement: The Sequel

September 21, 2009

Our congregation has decided to affirm the August 2009 revision of the ICOC Plan for United Cooperation. I am fully in support of this decision. Since I rather famously objected to the original version, it seems appropriate for me to explain why I am comfortable with affirming the new document.

Each of the two documents begins with a statement of purpose. The original document states:

The purpose of the following paper is to affirm and enhance the unity of the family of churches known, since 1992, as the International Churches of Christ.

The revised document states:

The purpose of this document is to provide a structure for Regional and International cooperation among our family of churches around the world.

The difference in the two purpose statements is representative of the difference in the two documents as a whole. My original objection was that the first document defined a subset of the worldwide church based on a set of doctrinal beliefs and practices. I have always believed that there is a doctrinal boundary to the worldwide church, comprised of the basic gospel facts which must be understood in order to become a Christian. But the original document defined a narrower boundary in which a person had to agree with additional interpretations beyond the core gospel facts in order to participate. My objection was not over any particular doctrine on which that document called for agreement. Instead, my objection was over the principle of defining a subset of the worldwide church based on a set of beliefs in addition to the core gospel doctrines. To me, that seemed to create a faction in the church. While many have disagreed with me about that, it still appears that way to me.

The new document abandons that approach. Instead of trying to define a subset of the church based on peripheral doctrines, it simply seeks to establish a basis for cooperation among willing congregations. It calls for “sound doctrine” but it doesn’t attempt to list the doctrines on which there must be agreement. For example, our congregation can disagree with others in the co-op on topics like the role of women, without for that reason being excluded from the co-op. To me, that is a significant because it respects the consciences of churches and church leadership groups in a manner consistent with Romans 14.

Someone might object that the new agreement still references the old in the footnotes, and therefore affirming the second document is equivalent to affirming the first. I asked the same question, and was assured that the new document does not incorporate the old. That makes sense to me. They produced the new document to address the concerns of people like me, so we could cooperate with a clear conscience. It would make no sense to do that if they were going to still require agreement to the first document.

Here is my heart in the matter. I deeply appreciate the effort of those who produced a plan for cooperation which people like me can affirm. I believe they did this in order to address concerns like mine. I want to express my gratitude for that, and to demonstrate that gratitude by affirming the new document.

Despite not affirming the first document, our congregation has continued to cooperate in foreign missions, regional meetings, conferences, bringing in guest speakers, sending out guest speakers, and in many other ways. We strongly believe in the stated purpose of the new document, and can demonstrate that belief by our past actions. We affirm our desire to cooperate with these congregations to do God’s work around the world. May God bless our collective efforts.

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Growing Toward Unity

August 21, 2008

Today I had the pleasure to participate in a cordial leadership event including six leaders of four former ICOC congregations in the Atlanta area, plus leaders from several area independent Christian churches. The event was hosted by Mount Carmel Christian Church and organized by the Institute for Organizational Leadership. The individual who pulled it together is a former ICOC minister and missionary who is now a member of one of the area’s independent Christian churches.

We enjoyed warm fellowship and delicious food. We heard instructive talks about organizational leadership and also about pastoral counseling (by Dr. Lloyd Looney of Greenleaf Counseling). And we heard from a gentleman who has been instrumental in planting 33 different congregations of independent Christian churches.

These former ICOC congregations and the independent Christian churches have so much in common. I was incredibly encouraged to see all these folks from different branches of the Restoration Movement coming together. We need to be communicating and cooperating more.

Please pray that this will lead to much greater progress to bring the Lord’s prayer for unity closer to fulfillment in our day!

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The Maturing of the ICOC

June 2, 2008

Mike Taliaferro recently posted an article on ICOC Hot News titled “The Unity Proposal: My Church “Signed On.” What does that mean?” In the article he gave his view about what it means that some churches have “signed” that proposal and some have not. He wrote:

Does it draw lines between churches? No. While various churches decided not to participate for a variety of reasons, it does not influence our fellowship patterns here in San Antonio. We invite speakers here from ‘signer churches’ and ‘non-signer’ churches. I have been invited to visit ‘signer’ and ‘non-signer’ churches. It does not, nor should it ever determine with whom we fellowship. The Bible does that.

From the first time I discussed the UPC with Mike, I have understood that to be his perspective on the plan. I appreciate very much that he has stated it so clearly and so publicly.

I blog about unity because I care deeply about it. I care about it because I am convinced that Jesus cares about it. Ironically, my eagerness to promote unity was a significant factor in my unwillingness to “sign” the UPC. I want to see unity extending far beyond the boundaries of the former ICOC, to all those God has adopted as his sons and daughters. To me, it seems that the UPC might make that more difficult, since many congregations of baptized believers in the churches of Christ and independent Christian churches might be reluctant to sign such an agreement. On the other hand, the fact that many of the ICOC congregations have signed does not cause me to have any less desire for unity with them. I want to be unified with all my brothers and sisters in Christ.

I also recognize that people I love and respect have disagreed with my view on the UPC. That’s ok. It’s not a rare thing for me to disagree with those I love on some topic (just ask my wife!) But that doesn’t cause me to love less, and it absolutely doesn’t cause me to want to separate from those with whom I disagree, because love transcends those disagreements.

I wrote Mike a couple of days ago thanking him for his article. I understand that he has received numerous other appreciative comments from signers as well as non-signers. It seems to me that these churches are increasingly ready to accept one another without passing judgment over disputable matters. I’m very encouraged by this growth in our love and respect for one another. And I think Jesus must be pleased to see this small step toward fulfillment of his prayer in John 17.

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ICOC Progress Report

May 1, 2008

Mission Memo is running a series of articles on the membership statistics for ICOC congregations. Today’s article, the third in the series shows some fascinating charts comparing the number of growing congregations to the number that are not growing. The charts clearly show that the declining growth in the ICOC did not begin in 2003, but years earlier.

In 1998, 80% of the ICOC congregations reported growth in membership. But between 1998 and 2002, the number of churches reporting growth declined steadily to only 60% of congregations. That was a significant drop in only four years.

The Atlanta congregation was one of the best performing large congregations in the ICOC during those years, baptizing a combined 1,551 people in 1999, 2000, and 2001. The congregation also gained a net 138 people from move-ins, as more people were moving into Atlanta than moving out. Yet 848 people left the church during those three years. For every 10 people who were baptized in those three years, 5.4 people left the church. And remember, that was one of the best performing ICOC congregations. Many congregations were losing members almost as fast as they were gaining them.

Viewed against that backdrop, the good news in this year’s report is all the more remarkable. Despite the fact that the number of baptisms is dramatically lower than in the late 1990’s, many of these congregations are holding their own. No longer are members leaving these churches in droves. The bleeding has stopped.

There are some obvious reasons for that. The focus of many of these churches over the past few years has rightfully been on shepherding, taking care of the weak, feeding a more balanced diet of Bible teaching, and developing a deeper understanding of grace. As a result, people are feeling cared for and cared about. They feel safe. And so they are not leaving. These churches are healing.

What is even more exciting is that many of these churches are once again reaching the lost. Baptisms are happening once again, with increasing numbers. And these new Christians are coming into a healthier church.

As the Mission Memo chart shows, only about half of these congregations grew in 2007. But the trend is in a good direction. I believe our best days are yet to come.

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Liminality

March 12, 2008

Jay Guin taught me a new word.

In his recent post titled “The Future of the Progressive Churches of Christ: Part 4, Defining Our Challenges” he describes what the progressive mainline churches are currently experiencing. He explains that liminality is “the condition of a human society that has just experienced major change.” From Wikipedia:

The liminal state is characterized by ambiguity, openness, and indeterminacy. One’s sense of identity dissolves to some extent, bringing about disorientation. Liminality is a period of transition where normal limits to thought, self-understanding, and behavior are relaxed – a situation which can lead to new perspectives.

Some mainline churches are trying to move past legalistic confines of the past. In doing so, they need to redefine who they are and what they stand for. Along the way they are experiencing liminality.

I am struck by the similarity between their condition and that of the former ICOC congregations. Having thrown off the structures and rules that once defined us, we now are are seeking to discover the new boundaries. The Plan for United Cooperation, the disciplestoday.com web site, and the International Leadership Conferences (among many other things) are all efforts to create that new definition of identity, direction, and vision.

Fortunately, we have the scriptures to define what we need to become. And we have the Holy Spirit within us to produce the right fruits. Cooperating, communicating, and meeting together are all good things. But God has given us the only standard to define what the church should be.

Coming from such a clearly defined past, the ambiguity of the present is unsettling to some people. This is a test of faith. Do we really believe God is at work? Do we believe the scriptures are enough? Do we believe grace is sufficient? Are we still committed to seeking God’s will? If so, then everything is going to be ok.

Judah spent seventy years in captivity. Some of the greatest examples of faith occurred during those years. For example, just read the book of Daniel! Like Daniel, we need to live by faith through the period of liminality. God will never leave us nor forsake us. We’ll be ok.

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Papers and Public Discussions

November 5, 2007

In the modern Restoration Movement, the axiom is true: The apple has not fallen far from the tree.

In Restoration Review, April 1977, Carl Ketcherside wrote about the divided state of the church in that day:

Divisions do not happen. They are caused. Parties form around men who promote the separation and insist upon the segregation of their adherents. In the movement growing out of the ideal of restoration as enunciated by Thomas and Alexander Campbell, most of the divisions centered around men of prominence. In almost every instance they were editors of journals. They could use their journals as propaganda media and the United States mails as a distribution method. No party could long endure without an editor and a “loyal paper.”

Prominent papers of the Restoration Movement late 1800’s and early 1900’s included the Gospel Advocate, the Firm Foundation, the Octographic Review, and the Christian Standard. Each of these papers emerged to promote a certain view of sound doctrine. Because the Restoration Movement churches of that era were autonomous, there was no central body defining orthodox beliefs and practices. In such an environment, these papers carried enormous influence in defining orthodoxy–each paper defining its own view of what is true. Each paper drew a following. The boundaries between those followings became battle lines over time, lines which continue to be tenaciously defended and relentlessly attacked to this day.

A few of the early papers are still being published, along with many new entries. In the 1960’s, the churches of Christ added the Christian Courier. The ICOC, as the new kid on the block, has its own outlets, including Disciples Today, Mission Memo, and ICOC Hot News. Like those that came before, each of these outlets provide commentary and news from the perspective of the editors of the site. And numerous blogs such as this one have been started by individuals to promote a certain point of view that the site’s founder sees as important and perhaps under-represented.

Today, the landscape has changed dramatically. As this blog illustrates, it is now easy for virtually anyone to create a platform where he or she can promote their view of what the church should be and should do. Many people are taking advantage of that opportunity to publicize their points of view to anyone who will listen. That can be a good thing, or a bad thing.

We need to be careful not to use these platforms to create division. History has shown the potential that these papers have to promote factions in the church. On the other hand, through respectful public dialog there is potential for these papers to promote much needed progress toward unity. Of course there are some topics of a private and personal nature that must not be discussed in public. However, on topics that affect the whole community, respectful public discussion can be quite healthy. Public discussion makes leaders publicly accountable for making decisions that are in the best interests of the whole community. That kind of discussion can build trust, acceptance, and support for the direction leaders choose.

This public scrutiny can be uncomfortable to those who are used to a more closed style of leadership, where decisions are made in private and presented to the community as a done deal. Discussing alternative or opposing views in public can be personally risky, since leaders may occasionally have to eat their words, or at least publicly accept a view other than their own. The reward for taking that risk, however, can be increased trust and support from the community. And in many cases, public discussion can lead to better decisions.

For these public discussions to contribute to unity, rather than to division, we must:

  • treat one another with respect.
  • listen to one another, looking not only to our own interests but also to the interests of others.
  • be willing to accept another position on matters of opinion.
  • follow Romans 14 in matters of conscience, not doing anything that causes our brother to stumble.
  • acknowledge our own fallibility.
  • refuse to allow our publishing platform to become the rallying point for a faction.

I hope my previous posts about the ICOC Plan for United Cooperation are taken in that way. My intention in writing those articles was to promote discussion of the real issues standing in the way of broader cooperation, so that those issues will be resolved and we can work together in a greater way. My purpose, as always, is to promote the unity for which Jesus prayed on the night he was betrayed.

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Communication and the Plan for United Cooperation

October 30, 2007

Communication is hard. Sometimes I blow it.

Rom 14:1-4 Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters. One man’s faith allows him to eat everything, but another man, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. The man who eats everything must not look down on him who does not, and the man who does not eat everything must not condemn the man who does, for God has accepted him. Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls. And he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand.

Over the past two years, as I have blogged for the cause of Christian unity, I have repeatedly gone to Romans 14 to show how Christians should handle disputable matters. Fundamentally, we should accept one another without passing judgment. That is not just a good idea, but a command from God. I have made that point often and I should know it well.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a paper titled Why I Cannot Ratify the ICOC Plan for United Cooperation. In that paper, I tried to explain how I view that document and its effect on relationships between churches. In explaining that, I wrote:

… the document defines shared doctrinal beliefs and a federated organization of churches. Those who ratify the Plan will make up a functioning organization within the larger Christian church, through a system of delegates and regional discipling groups. The Plan defines who is in and who is out. Those who are in will interact and cooperate in a defined way. Those who are on the outside will be excluded from participation in many important ways. By definition, this is a faction within the body of Christ.

I continued by pointing out what Galatians 5 says about factions: that “those who create factions within the church will not inherit the kingdom of God.” (Gal 5:19-21).

Looking back at those words, I see that they communicate that the Plan puts the souls of all who ratified it in jeopardy–no if’s, and’s, or but’s. The way I wrote that, it sounds like I am passing judgment on all those who participate in the cooperation agreement. That is not what I intended. I apologize to all those who may have been hurt or offended by the words I wrote. Communication is hard, and this time I blew it.

Let me try to clarify. It does appear to me that the document has had the effect of creating a faction. But I might be wrong about that. People I love and respect disagree with me about the “faction” thing. Other people I love and respect see it as I do. So this question falls into the category of disputable matters. And I am committed to the principle of not passing judgment over disputable matters.

What I wanted to communicate is that, because it seems to me that a faction is formed by the Plan, therefore I cannot ratify the Plan in good conscience. That does not necessarily mean I am correct about factions. But as Paul said later in Romans 14:23, “But the man who has doubts is condemned if he eats, because his eating is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin.” That would be my state, if I were to ratify the Plan. Yet, I still must not pass judgment on my brothers who do not share my view on this disputable matter. And in all sincerity, I do not pass judgment on them. In fact I want to cooperate with them in all the ways that they are cooperating with each other–but somehow, without violating my conscience.

The task that remains is to find that way for people like me to cooperate without violating conscience. In the past few days I have had encouraging and constructive conversations with Mike Taliaferro and Roger Lamb about this task. In each of those conversations, we came to a common understanding of what will be necessary in order for people like me to cooperate. We all agreed that goal is within reach, and that we would work to reach that goal.

I think this is what Romans 14 looks like, in real flesh and blood. We have different views of a disputable matter, but we refuse to let that difference define our relationship. Instead we find a way to proceed together without violating conscience. It is not always easy. May God give us the humility and wisdom to finish the job so that we can proceed in full cooperation.