Mission was a progressive journal that began in 1967 with a threefold purpose: “(1) to explore thoroughly the Scriptures and their meaning; (2) to understand as fully as possible the world in which the church lives and has her mission; and (3) to provide a vehicle for communicating the meaning of God’s Word to our contemporary world.” The social upheavals of the 1960s raised serious concerns that Churches of Christ were not able to address theologically with their well established hermeneutic at that time. This paper argues that Mission attempted to offer a new hermeneutic that might reshape the identity and mission of Churches of Christ in order to address contemporary social issues.
Mission, a progressive journal that began in 1967, sought to address two separate but related crises within Churches of Christ and society. First, there were serious questions and concerns as to the validity of the hermeneutic that had been well established within Churches of Christ up through the first half of the twentieth century. Founded upon Lockean rationalism and Baconian empiricism, the hermeneutic focused on doctrinal details and ecclesial patterns to the neglect of the central, overarching message of Scripture. This hermeneutic forced Churches of Christ to adopt hostile postures as it increasingly became more sectarian and less engaged with the secular and religious world around them. Second, the social upheavals of the 1960s raised serious concerns that Churches of Christ were not able to address because they lacked the theological resources. The sectarian hermeneutic and its ineptitude to provide theological resources to address social issues threatened the church’s relevance to contemporary society.
Churches of Christ and the Stone-Campbell tradition thrived in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries because their purpose and mission addressed the social and cultural context of that time.Mission journal sought to provide a new hermeneutic that might reshape the identity and mission of Churches of Christ in order to address contemporary social issues.By the second half of the twentieth century, a rapidly changing world combined with a reading of Scripture that could not address those changes left Churches of Christ in an identity crisis because it generally failed to respond to the social issues within the church’s broader cultural context. Therefore,
The Need for a New Hermeneutic: Changing Context, Limited Resources
The first issue of Mission was published in July 1967. In the opening pages, the editors make clear their intent for the journal. “This journal shall have three purposes: (1) to explore thoroughly the Scriptures and their meaning; (2) to understand as fully as possible the world in which the church lives and has her mission; and (3) to provide a vehicle for communicating the meaning of God’s Word to our contemporary world.” The threefold purpose of the journal reveals the editors’ concerns that led to its publication and its attempt to provide a new hermeneutic that might reshape the mission of Churches of Christ in order to address contemporary social issues.
Mission’s first concern remains true to the back-to-the-Bible tradition of the Reformation and the Stone-Campbell Movement. Their concern is not as much about the authority of Scripture as it is about its meaning. Hermeneutics was a primary concern for the journal because Churches of Christ had built their identity around Scripture. Specifically, their identity was shaped around a particular way of reading the New Testament that was formed by a Puritan religious heritage and Enlightenment philosophy. Combining the Puritan principle of “positive law” that focused on proper ceremonial acts with a theory of knowledge based on essentials found in explicit commands and on the Enlightenment’s inductive method of gathering all the facts to obtain certain knowledge led to the development of the threefold hermeneutic of command, example, and necessary inference.
Mission’s second concern focused on a deeper understanding of the contemporary world in which the church exists and carries out its mission. This purpose was a recognition that major changes were occurring in society that the church could no longer ignore. By the 1960s, the epistemological shifts of postmodernism that had begun in the late 1800s were manifesting in fundamental changes in the social structures of society. These shifts occurred in multiple arenas of social life.
First, the civil rights movement exploded onto the scene in the 1960s, and Churches of Christ were generally resistant to the changing racial attitudes that accompanied the civil rights movement.The civil rights movement also raised awareness over economic disparities in the United States. These disparities were not only connected to racial tensions because of the economic gap between African Americans and Caucasians but related to the general recognition that the “American Dream” had failed a large and growing portion of society, especially in urban areas.
Second, gender equality and the expanding role of women in society were also issues gaining much attention in the 1960s. Because of the significant public role women played during World War II, women began to see themselves as capable of taking on public roles and responsibilities traditionally assigned to men. While women in Churches of Christ began playing a more significant role in society, they were limited and placed in subordinate roles within their local congregation.
Finally, the Vietnam War dominated the public media more than any other concern during the late sixties and early seventies. The American population had become disillusioned with the growing body count and questioned the legitimacy of the war itself. Churches of Christ, by and large, had either taken a nationalistic approach to their relationship with US military action or were altogether indifferent to the issues.
The third purpose of the journal was to communicate God’s word to the contemporary world in new and relevant ways that would address the significant issues society was facing. This purpose suggested that the church lacked the hermeneutical and, thus, the theological resources to address such issues. The Churches of Christ obsession with restoring the New Testament church primarily in name, admission, and organization, and the anthropocentric view of salvation, provided the church with a limited understanding of the church’s mission and social engagement.Mission attempted to provide.From this limited perspective, the “social gospel,” as it was called, threatened to pull the church’s focus away from the true gospel that centered on the correct doctrine of the church and the saving of souls. In order to address the social issues of the day, Churches of Christ needed a new hermeneutic, which
New Hermeneutical Lenses for a New Identity and Mission
At least four hermeneutical lenses emerge from Mission as the journal set out to explore the Scriptures, understand the world in which the church lives and has her mission, and provide a vehicle for communicating God’s word in the contemporary world. These hermeneutical lenses were an attempt to help the Churches of Christ identity and mission conform with a different understanding of Scripture that would address the cultural and social issues of the day.
1. The Lens of the Cross
While the traditional hermeneutic of Churches of Christ had focused on the actions of the church, Mission focused its hermeneutical lens on the acts of God. At the very center was a hermeneutic of the cross. The acts of God were not defined by power as the world conceived of power but were summarized in Christ’s crucifixion. Taking the cross of Christ as a hermeneutical lens was an attempt to reshape the church’s identity and mission toward solidarity with those marginalized by racial discrimination, economic scarcity, and gender inequality. It also meant that in the face of violence, suffering love was God’s way of redemption in the world. In other words, the hermeneutical lens of the cross did not require a mastery of church doctrine and practice but a particular way of life centered on the cross of Jesus.
2. The Lens of Discipleship
Since Mission recognized that the core message of Scripture was the acts of God culminating in Christ, the call to discipleship became a key hermeneutical lens. A disciple of Jesus is one who gives her whole life to the radical demands of Christ. According to Ray Chester, “The cross is a deliberate choice, our voluntary self-denial for Christ’s sake.” Discipleship is choosing to bear one’s cross as Christ did in radical obedience to the Father and for the sake of the world.
Reading Scripture through the lens of discipleship had implication for the church’s identity and mission in the world, according to Mission. For the disciple, Christ’s authority comes from his love. Disciples are therefore concerned with God’s love, which is defined by justice, mercy, humility, kindness, and faith. Identifying with the crucified Christ meant that disciples have to identify with the poor and marginalized in society, those who have the most need. Identifying with Christ by identifying with those at the margins of society is a mark of a disciple.
3. The Lens of Experience
The traditional hermeneutic of the Churches of Christ assumed that one should read Scripture from the neutral, unbiased viewpoint of human reason. Mission recognized that human experience shapes all readings of Scripture and accepted it as a necessary hermeneutical lens. The role of the Holy Spirit as an active agent in the world and in the lives of believers was justification for giving attention to experience. Christians were called to look into their own lives and the lives of others in order to see the reality of both the brokenness of the world and God’s presence in it. In order to address the brokenness of the world, the journal called for the church to listen to the experiences of the poor, women, and African Americans in order to address issues of justice, equality, and reconciliation. Recognizing the work of the Holy Spirit in a variety of people and their experience meant that a plurality of voices was necessary to interpret the work of God in the world.
4. The Lens of a Diversity of Voices
While the traditional hermeneutic of Churches of Christ was committed to a homogenized view of truth, Mission valued a diversity of voices as a hermeneutical lens for discerning truth. Mission’s hermeneutic was dedicated to welcoming differing conclusions in an open discussion in order to separate truth from tradition. The journal sought to explore the restoration ideal as a commitment to truth and unity through diversity of interpretations. Freedom of expression was thought to be essential for spiritual vitality and growth in churches, and truth was to be found in dialogue with a diversity of voices in the church.
Dialogue between a diversity of voices was not limited to the church. Victor Hunter proposes that the dialectic between the church and the world is the task of theology.Mission looked at a variety of social issues in the world around them and attempted to bring them into dialogue with Scripture in order to communicate “the meaning of God’s Word to our contemporary world.”The task of theology is to understand both the church’s response to Jesus Christ and the present situation in society.
Churches of Christ, from the 1960s up to the present, have slowly begun to change their understanding and practice of the church’s mission as it relates to social issues. Although it is difficult to determine the influence Mission has had on these changing attitudes within Churches of Christ, the journal had enough support and interest to publish its ideas from 1967 to 1987. Its twenty-year run inspired the journal Leaven, first published in 1990, which carried on many of the conversations that Mission began. Victor Hunter provides a broad summary of the hermeneutical and missional task that Mission envisioned for the church: “Since the mission of the church is always toward the future, it is not one of restoration (of a golden past) . . . but of liberation, transformation and inauguration—making all things new.” Through a strong commitment to the word of God, Mission attempted to provide a hermeneutic of Scripture that would reshape the identity and mission of Churches of Christ in order to understand and address contemporary social issues.
Ben Langford is the Director of the Center for Global Missions at Oklahoma Christian University. Ben and his family served as missionaries for 6 years in Uganda, East Africa.
† Adapted from a presentation at the Thomas H. Olbricht Christian Scholars’ Conference, Lipscomb University, Nashville, TN, June 8–10, 2016.
1 See Leroy Garrett, The Stone-Campbell Movement: The Story of the American Restoration Movement (Joplin, MO: College Press, 1994), 29; Leonard Allen, The Cruciform Church: Becoming a Cross-Shaped People in a Secular World (Abilene, TX: ACU Press, 2006), 42–45.
2 For example, in the late nineteenth century, the Stone-Campbell movement addressed the social issues of religious sectarianism through a “back to the Bible” movement.
3 Walter E. Burch, Ray F. Chester, Hubert G. Locke, Thomas H. Olbricht, Frank Pack, J. W. Roberts, and Roy Bowen Ward, “The Task of Mission,” Mission 1, no. 1 (July 1967): 3.
4 Craig Van Gelder, “Mission in the Emerging Postmodern Condition,” in Church between Gospel and Culture, ed. George R. Hunsberger and Craig Van Gelder (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 123.
5 Mission devotes many articles to the issue of race relations in the church and society. See Vernon Boyd, “Race Relations,” Mission 2, no. 1 (July 1968): 7–11; Carroll Pitts Jr., “Politics and the Negro Revolution,” Mission 1, no. 12 (June 1968): 7–12; Victor L. Hunter, “Desegregation, Education and the Churches: The Memphis Story,” Mission 8, no. 2 (August 1974): 4–9.
6 See Michael W. Casey, “Pacifism,” in The Encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movement, ed. Douglas A. Foster, et al. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 587; and Larry James, “The Church of Christ and Public Issues in the 1980s,” Mission 17, no. 11 (May 1984): 7–8.
7 The combination of the threefold hermeneutic and the Puritan concern for ceremonial form created a theological tradition, known as the “Texas tradition,” that came to dominate Churches of Christ. The Texas tradition gave Churches of Christ a distinctive theological identity that was largely unquestioned from 1945 until the 1960s. Based on the hermeneutic of command, example, and necessary inference, the tradition “focused on the marks of the true church found in Acts and the Epistles, such as its name, terms of admission, and organization.” The Texas tradition also viewed humans, not God, as the primary agent of salvation, with human obedience through baptism as necessary to obtain salvation. See D. Newell Williams, Douglas A. Foster, and Paul M. Blowers, The Stone-Campbell Movement: A Global History (St. Louis: Chalice, 2013), ch. 8.
8 This sentiment within Churches of Christ dates back to the beginning of the twentieth century. See Austin McGary, “What Would Christ Not Do?” Firm Foundation 16 (May 15, 1900): 312–13; and Austin McGary, “What Would Christ Not Do?” Firm Foundation 16 (June 19, 1900): 392. See the development of this thought within Churches of Christ from 1900 through the 1960s in Richard T. Hughes, Reviving the Ancient Faith: The Story of Churches of Christ in America (Abilene, TX: ACU Press, 1996), 278–80.
9 Thomas Olbricht, “Biblical Theology and the Restoration Movement,” Mission 13, no. 10 (April 1980): 9.
10 Don Haymes, “Good News? What’s Good about It?” Mission 7, no. 6 (December 1973): 9–11.
11 Everett Ferguson, “The Discipline of Discipleship,” Mission 1, no. 2 (August 1967): 7–10.
12 Ray F. Chester, “The Cross of Discipleship,” Mission 1, no. 2 (August 1967): 4.
13 J. Harold Thomas, “The Power for Discipleship,” Mission 1, no. 2 (August 1967): 9–10; Craig M. Watts, “Christian Commitment and Middle Class Mediocrity,” Mission 7, no. 12 (June 1974): 16–17; Dan Anders, “Risk Your Life for Jesus,” Mission 2, no. 1 (July 1968): 13–15. Arlie J. Hoover, “The Gospel and Nationalism,” Mission 1, no. 12 (June 1968): 13–16.
14 Daniel Keeran argues that the kingdom is for the poor and the rich are to enter the kingdom by divesting themselves of their wealth for the sake of the poor. See Daniel M. Keeran, “Social Realities in the Kingdom of God,” Mission 8, no. 11 (May 1975): 3–6, 17; Daniel M. Keeran, “Decisions for the Poor,” Mission 17, no. 9 (March 1984): 12, 14–16.
15 Steven Spidell, “Seeing a Separate Reality,” Mission 8, no. 12 (June 1975): 10–11.
16 See Phillip Roseberry, “A Skinny White Christian Moves to the Ghetto,” Mission 8, no. 12 (June 1975): 3–9; Alice V. Morrill, “The Work of Our Women,” Mission 13, no. 1 (July 1979): 9–11; Marquita Moss, “Women in Christ Today – A Seminar,” Mission 8, no. 9 (March 1975): 5–7; Paul Young Jr., “The Restoration Movement amongst Blacks Then and Now,” Mission 8, no. 2 (August 1974): 13.
17 Warren Lewis contends that the diversity of voices in the text offers a model for a healthy diversity of voices within the church. Warren Lewis, “Let’s Look at the Text – Again!” Mission 8, no. 3 (September 1974): 21–24.
18 Perry C. Cotham, “Freedom of Expression,” Mission 4, no. 10 (April 1971): 12–18.
19 Victor L. Hunter, “Some Thoughts on Theology and Mission,” Mission 5, no. 9 (March 1972), 6.
20 Markus H. McDowell, “Leaven, a Journal of Ministry,” in The Encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movement, ed. Douglas A. Foster, et al. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 468.
21 Hunter, “Some Thoughts,” 7.