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Biblical Worship and Mission in Context: Mission and Churches of Christ in Crisis, 1967–1988

Author: David Lemley
Published: Summer–Fall 2017

MD 8.2

Article Type: Conference Article

Mission aimed at invigorating Churches of Christ theology and ministries during the cultural changes of 1967–1988. Mission’s open editorial policy made it a unique witness to this period. This article reviews Mission’s content and circulation, as well as interviews with staff and board members. Mission’s challenges to traditional gender roles in congregational worship practice and polity illuminate both the critical connection between corporate worship and effective mission in a changing context and the significance of this issue to Mission’s history and legacy.

Historian Samuel Hill’s 1966 Southern Churches in Crisis described the impact of cultural and social upheaval during the 1950s and 1960s on southern American Evangelicals.1 He was especially concerned over the response of southern white churches to the social effects of the Civil Rights Movement.2 In navigating a sustainable future for conservative Christians in this context, Hill suggested five “ways out” of crisis for southern churches. These would be means of distinguishing the core of the Christian faith from cultural commitments. To summarize, Hill proposed:

  1. developing a sense of history, allowing the church to see itself as a finite movement with limited ability to restore Christianity;
  2. theological objectification, accepting the church’s theological fallibility (perhaps most significantly a fallible hermeneutic);
  3. liturgical objectification, dislodging worship practices from theological and hermeneutical infallibility; and
  4. increased ecumenical involvement.3

Mission was a magazine set on renewing and energizing Churches of Christ, whose membership centered in the American south. Mission’s first issue arrived within a year of Hill’s prescription for southern conservative evangelicals. Hill’s proposal dovetailed neatly with Mission’s editorial policy, described in its inaugural issue and reprinted on each issue’s inside cover: “to explore thoroughly the Scriptures and their meaning; . . . to understand as fully as possible the world in which the church lives and has her mission; . . . to provide a vehicle for communicating the meaning of God’s Word to our contemporary world.”4

Mission’s final issue arrived the same year as Robert Wuthnow’s diagnosis of the new social reality of American Christianity, The Restructuring of American Religion.5 Wuthnow described American denominationalism from World War II through the 1980s, noting the impact of changes such as increased education levels, expanded ecumenical intermarriage, formalized state-supported social services, social and political divisions set by social unrest in the 1960s (e.g., Hill’s crises), and proliferation of parachurch religious organizations. Wuthnow concluded that parachurch and special interest groups became means of social and political activism for politically conservative and liberal Christians, while most denominations remained diverse in terms of congregations’ and congregants’ political alignment. Interdenominational groups such as relief organizations, lobbyists, or evangelistic campaigns created new post-denominational social patterns among American Christians. These organizations were clearly marked along partisan lines, and Christians increasingly identified with Democratic or Republican political platforms. Wuthnow’s social history tracked the formation of the religious right, and the growing alignment of American evangelicalism and conservative politics.

In 1999, Hill reassessed the state of southern churches in comparison to his 1966 proposal. While the crises of the 1960s were forced on churches by cultural changes beyond their control, Hill described southern churches at the turn of the century as the source of the current crisis:

The recent religious upheaval is just that, a religious one—initiated by the churches and having to do with parochial matters, quite pointedly their doctrinal orthodoxy. A large and growing number of leaders throughout the churches, especially in the Baptist and Presbyterian bodies, asserted that theological teachings and ethical values had drifted off course into heresy, relativism, and liberalism (functionally synonymous terms), all spelling faithlessness. A crisis of promulgation was occurring. This situation necessitated a forceful strategy for turning from erroneous ways to paths of truth.6

Southern Christianity and American evangelicalism shifted from defensive positions to aggressors in the culture wars, with clear ties to conservative politics. These decades solidified a cultural vision of the church’s mission and the nature of the gospel that echo in the cultural and political tensions forty years later.

Mission’s editorial vision and years of operation make it a unique resource for viewing how Churches of Christ responded to the social crises of the late 1960s, and the emergence of politically conservative evangelicalism in the following decades. Mission’s leadership reflected the shifts in American Christianity noted by Wuthnow, and Mission’s content paralleled Hill’s “ways out:” Mission regularly critiqued Churches of Christ for a primitivist a-historicity (lack of a sense of history), denying its own institutional identity. Mission challenged Churches of Christ biblicism, hermeneutical limitations, and theological emphases (theological objectification), including the tripartite hermeneutic of command, example, and necessary inference that grounded worship practices and congregational leadership models and emphasized New Testament liturgical patterns to the neglect of public prophetic witness (liturgical objectification). Furthermore, Mission brought readers into dialogue with texts, ministers, theologians, and Christian leaders beyond Churches of Christ, through influences named, books and media reviewed, and interviews published (ecumenism). Mission’s open editorial policy makes the journal a unique record of how Churches of Christ navigated this period. Dialogue between mainstream Churches of Christ readers and Mission supporters and contributors parallels tensions among American evangelicals in the post-war era, through the 1980s.

This essay describes a unique relationship between Mission’s rejection by mainstream Churches of Christ and Mission’s content that challenged shared worship practices, particularly the matter of women’s participation in worship leadership. I will explore this through an evaluation of Mission’s thematic emphases, patterns of circulation, and leadership characteristics. I review Mission’s content and history, and interviews with editors and board members ten to fifteen years after Mission’s end. Hill’s prescription for “ways out” of 1960s crisis and Wuthnow’s diagnosis of American religious changes in the 1980s provide contemporaneous voices evaluating this twenty-year period. Churches of Christ’s biblicism and restorationist focus on worship practices and polity correlate to Mission’s most significant conflict with their mainstream Churches of Christ readership. These conflicts indicate an important qualification of Churches of Christ among southern evangelical Christians, and the significance of liturgical practice in attempts to renew discipleship and doctrine.

Churches of Christ and American Evangelicalism

This historical-theological survey suggests points of convergence and distinction between Churches of Christ and American evangelicalism. One can expect a variety of conclusions about the relationship of Churches of Christ and evangelicalism, given a lack of consensus on an authoritative representation of either. In the case of evangelicalism, I will largely defer to theological rather than sociological boundaries.7 However, the social context of the discussion that follows will account for many of American evangelicalism’s sociological characteristics. The evangelical tradition of southern churches, as Hill describes it, is also congruent with the theological definitions that follow. Perhaps an attempt to define evangelicalism without addressing all its objectors is tenuous, but I will attempt to make use of these common categories in describing the theological community addressed below.

If nuanced, British church historian David Bebbington’s quadrilateral offers a limited but useful summary of evangelical theological characteristics: biblicism, conversionism, activism, and crucicentrism.8 Several alternative models affirm versions of each of these characteristics. Biblicism, or the final authority of Scripture, is frequently recognized.9 Further, some definitions note the importance of affirming the historical quality of the biblical witness.10 Conversionism recognizes the centrality of individual commitment to Christ, as well as the personal and experiential qualities of evangelical faith.11 Activism assumes individual responsibility for one’s piety and faith development, but is most often expressed in personal evangelism.12 This category might also include one’s commitment to a church community.13 Finally, crucicentrism points to a common theology of atonement and accompanying hermeneutical lens, emphasizing the sacrificial death of Jesus, sometimes to the exclusion of his life, teachings, or resurrected presence.

In a 2002 consideration of whether Churches of Christ are evangelical, Edward P. Myers concluded, “In short, yes.”14 However, his take on summarizing the characteristics of various definitions is telling, as he concludes that evangelicalism consists of two basic qualities: “(1) Affirmation of history: events described in the Bible happened in real time; . . . (2) Affirmation that God really speaks in Scripture. Hence, Scripture is authoritative. All else flows out of this.”15

In the midst of his argument, Myers takes time to critique Stone-Campbell historian Richard Hughes’s affirmation of Churches of Christ as conforming to evangelicalism during the late twentieth century. Hughes distinguishes foundational restorationist and reformation theological emphases, noting that the former presumes human initiative, and the genius of the latter is an affirmation of God’s gracious initiative.16 The general commitment to restore the practice and polity of New Testament Christianity perhaps privileges biblicism over all other aspects of Bebbington’s characteristics, with the assumption that not only the Bible but its common-sense interpretation is authoritative. When Myers summarizes evangelicalism in a way that suits his understanding of Churches of Christ, he solidifies this.

Further, the quadrilateral would have to be set in the framework of what the Stone-Campbell founders considered the central means of the Restorationist task. In describing their plans for unity and apostolicity, the Campbells frequently demonstrate a central interest in the primitive church’s polity and practice.17

Churches of Christ biblicism is qualified by their restorationism, and their restorationism is qualified by a focus on polity and practices. What is consistent in the survey of Mission below is conflict within Churches of Christ when each characteristic of evangelical Christianity is folded into a vision for restoring New Testament polity and practice. Perhaps the quadrilateral only describes the Churches of Christ with some qualification related to polity and practice. The atoning sacrifice of Jesus and conversion of the individual is rightly celebrated in baptism and the Lord’s Supper. The active faith of the believer is demonstrated through preserving and sustaining the church’s patterns and boundaries. Evangelistic effort emphasizes bringing others into the right way of performing the acts authorized by Scripture.

While Hill’s “ways out” were intended to respond to the church’s intersection with social turmoil, the way in which each is implemented by Mission becomes increasingly challenging as each impinges on these restorationist priorities. Readers and critics were not as challenged by Mission’s accusations regarding failures on social and political matters as they were troubled by the implications of Mission’s historical and theological challenges to polity and practice. Mission’s decline in readership and distancing from mainstream Churches of Christ was affected by promoting historical awareness, theological objectification, and ecumenicism, but was centered in liturgical objectification that challenged the heart of Churches of Christ biblicism. The role of women in the Sunday assembly is a highly charged intersection of hermeneutics, cultural bias, and congregational mission which serves as a focus of this distinction.

Way Out Number One: Developing a Sense of History

From its first issue in July, 1967, Mission brought a new sense of both the historic church and the church’s place in its present context. Throughout its two decades, Mission consistently named the cultural figures and forces to which the church must respond, calling the church to see the kingdom of God over and against these historical-cultural sources of power and identity. Mission modeled a deep self-awareness when it came to Stone-Campbell history and theological heritage and the political and philosophical narratives it privileged. In a 1980 editorial, Mission editor-in-chief Richard Hughes saw the magazine as examining how Churches of Christ had historically viewed social responsibility, and exhorting the church “to accept in faith the ambiguities of the present world and to work toward their alleviation.”18

Robert Wuthnow describes the changing role of religion during this transitional time, noting that Americans in the early twentieth century viewed religion as the keeper of cultural values. Churches and other religious institutions were a critical part of socialization regarding these values.19 Mission regularly addressed the weakness of a gospel that traded history and congregational context for nationalism and individualism. Walter Burch described the milieu in which Mission emerged:

Many black Americans had recently embraced the concept of black pride as a new force in their unfinished struggle for racial equality. The grinding human needs of the underclass were impressed deeply on the national consciousness. . . . The Vietnam War was heating up and arousing a storm of protest about its legality. World powers were accelerating the nuclear arms race. The youth counterculture . . . was in full bloom while the drug subculture was beginning to surface. Emerging issues such as women’s rights, ecological concerns, consumerism, and the Third World cried out for attention and action.20

This milieu was represented through inviting a variety of voices, particularly in Mission’s early years, to respond to these social realities. “An image for me as editor,” said Victor Hunter, “was to convene the conversation.”21 This meant bringing those progressive influences into dialogue with mainstream conservative perspectives. Mission illuminated, and perhaps exposed, the relationship of Churches of Christ to the depth and breadth of both its theological and cultural commitments. Readers were given the language to identify themselves as members of an American Christian movement, rather than simply recipients of the pristine Ancient Order.

Mission frequently featured and engaged Stone-Campbell history both by challenging readers’ assumptions and mining for the best of its heritage. Although the first decade of Mission often engaged history by exposing the human tradition beneath certain doctrines and practices, Hughes’s years often focused on claiming and celebrating historical figures that fit Mission’s aims. Hughes’s editorship appeared to reposition Mission among its potential subscriber base, featuring a more tempered tone compared to preceding years.22 Hughes drew on the Churches of Christ’s trust in Scripture and familiar figures within the historical fellowship to continue facing contemporary issues. Interviews and contributors outside Churches of Christ featured emerging and prominent historians of American Christianity such as Nathan Hatch and George Marsden. It also regularly featured prominent and emerging Stone-Campbell historians including David Edwin Harrell and C. Leonard Allen, both members of Churches of Christ. The larger tabloid-style covers in the early ’80s featured cover models such as David Lipscomb, James A. Garfield, and Alexander Campbell.23

By December 1978, Mission’s circulation was less than half of what it was in December 1973.24 Hughes’s editorial strategy, beginning in 1979, may have kept the publication afloat during a period of decline for evangelical print generally and Mission in particular. The recovery of history threatened the relationship of Mission to their mainstream readership when confronting the absorption of church history into biblical or American historical narratives. However, the use of heritage-specific historical models of Christian faith and life offered a means of addressing contemporary political and social issues that sustained the magazine’s relationship to mainstream Churches of Christ, despite its consistent progressive tone. By insisting on engaging the mainstream in dialogue and focusing on historically reliable witnesses, Mission promoted this “way out” of crisis with some success.

Way Out Number Two: Ecumenism

Expanding ecumenism could sustain southern churches in crisis by developing a stronger sense of connection to a broader Christian tradition, enriching a sense of the models for Christian identity and community in the midst of cultural change.

Mission consistently represented Christians from outside of Churches of Christ as reliable witnesses for New Testament Christianity. In 1968, Carl Stem interviewed Gordon Cosby of Washington DC’s Church of the Savior about the congregation’s response to community needs.25 Mission’s featured authors and topics called attention to its ecumenical and conciliatory work. The March 1970 issue featured an interview with Firm Foundation editor Reuel Lemmons and James DeForest Murch, a minister of the Stone-Campbell Christian Churches.26 Mission was conscious of its ecumenism as a challenge to the status quo within their heritage. A revealing comment about the community Mission represented appeared when Vic Hunter devoted the February 1974 issue to Francis Schaeffer, an evangelical intellectual. In describing the relationship of Schaeffer’s work and the readers of Mission, Hunter wrote:

We believe our family of readers is a searching group of men and women who have and are struggling with many of the issues and questions which Francis and Edith Schaeffer and their children have met in their own odyssey of faith. We believe you are people who desire to be committed to biblical Christianity but who struggle with the question of what is normative in the Bible and what is preserved by historical accident. We are aware that our readers take culture seriously and are concerned with the plight and problems of man as he faces the last quarter of the twentieth century. We, therefore, believe you are not willing to deny culture and opt for an “otherworldly” Christianity, but are attempting to develop a faith that confronts our culture with realistic Christian conviction. We believe you desire to be involved in meaningful Christian community which will be supportive and helpful rather than simply another institutional burden to bear. We feel that you have seen the inadequacies of rationalism to provide answers to the deep and multifaceted problems of modern man, but that you are looking for the relationship between faith and rationality. We believe many of you have seen the bankruptcy of old line liberalism as well as the arid barrenness of much evangelical Christianity.27

This reflected assumptions that continued in future years of the magazine: dissatisfaction with faith that was limited to one particular tradition, desire to look beyond a limited philosophical heritage, and challenging inaction due to a theology insufficient for its context.

Mission’s reliance on ecumenical sources reached a breadth perhaps unseen since the first generations of Restorationist thinkers. Before featuring the Presbyterian author and pastor Schaeffer, Mission granted pages to New Testament scholar G. R. Beasley-Murray and New York’s historic Riverside Church pastor Ernest T. Campbell. Mission pursued an interview with Pat Boone, the once beloved Churches of Christ celebrity regularly condemned after embracing Pentecostal tongue-speaking. The entire July 1974 issue was devoted to the impact of progressive Swiss Catholic theologian Hans Küng.

This ecumenical range of public figures and scholars had much to do with the theological education represented among editors and contributors. Board member Dwayne Evans described the impact of neo-orthodox theologian Karl Barth on his thinking.28 Editor Roy Bowen Ward’s major advisor at Harvard was Swedish New Testament scholar and ecumenist Krister Stendahl, whose “strong concern for social matters” and stance on women’s leadership had an impact on Ward.29 Ward and editor Victor Hunter also indicated the influence of Ward’s Harvard professor Paul Tillich.30 Hunter was influenced by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and the diverse theological setting he experienced in London in the late 1960s. Hunter attended Union Theological Seminary, and studied under Brazilian liberation theologian Rubem Alves, social ethicist Roger Shinn, feminist theologian Beverly Harrison, and black theologian James Cone.31 Board member Larry James indicates the importance of studying liberation theology at a non-Churches of Christ seminary, including a class with Cone. James also identified the influence of neo-orthodox theologians and Anabaptist ethicist John Howard Yoder.32 These contributors stood within the Stone-Campbell circle and spoke with voices that few contemporaries in Churches of Christ had recognized as New Testament Christians.

American Christians experienced an education gap developed during this decade, dividing religious people along religious, social, and political issues. This divide is represented in Mission’s relationship to Churches of Christ, as well. Americans were becoming more educated during the later twentieth century. But, increased levels of higher education correlated to a decline in commitments to traditional tenets of evangelical faith. Surveys of college graduates showed they were less likely to hold traditional evangelical views about the authority of Scripture, divinity of Christ, or necessity of baptism.33 College educated individuals were also more likely to affirm liberal political views regarding women’s rights, legalized abortion, and overspending on national defense, while de-prioritizing traditional moral standards regarding sexuality.34 To top it off, education levels correlated to a decline in church attendance.35

Mission regularly addressed the issue of losing a generation of church members from Churches of Christ, noting declines in membership and the absence of younger members. In part, Mission offered a reasoned, studied, “realistic Christian conviction” with the disillusioned in mind, recognizing the impact of education in non-Christian institutions. To the extent that Mission’s ecumenism was driven by its relationships to liberal theology, ecumenism challenged sectarianism and threatened a hermeneutical commitment central to Churches of Christ. But Mission served as a safe place to continue a family dispute rather than announcing divorce. Like Mission’s relationship to deepening an awareness of history, this way out of crisis had mixed results but was not decisive.

Way Out Number Three: Theological Objectification

Decontextualized or dehistoricized theology and practice made it difficult to evaluate tradition and to discern cultural bias from religious principle. Therefore, Hill’s “theological objectification” served southern churches in cultural transition by detaching culturally received ways of seeing the world from the authority of Christian revelation.

Mission typically engaged Scripture with the hermeneutical priority on the “weightier matters” of justice in the Gospels and the Prophets. This represented not only a hermeneutical shift but a shift in theological emphasis. The new emphasis was born of both the historical-critical view of Scripture and liberal political vision typical of those on Mission’s side of the education gap. Larry James, who joined the board in 1985, asserted that Mission’s supporters represented a politically liberal minority within their congregations and describing Mission as “the Democratic party at prayer inside the Churches of Christ.”36 Both this new view of Scripture and Mission’s political leanings resulted in some of Mission’s heaviest criticism from its historical fellowship. Both matters, in fact, may be seen as challenges to an orthodoxy peculiar to the Churches of Christ and American evangelicalism.

Articles regularly appeared credited to “Pseudo-Amos” (editor Roy Bowen Ward). The first, composed in the style of a minor prophet, critiqued various denominational groups before getting to the Churches of Christ:

because they sell the inner city for suburban sanctuaries

and the ghetto for heated baptisteries and soft lights

that they trample the head of the indigents and immigrants

and turn aside the way of the addicts and alcoholics

And, he concluded, they “are not grieved over the ruin of our people!”37 As Hunter further reflected on his image of an editor, he described Mission as attempting “to balance ‘convening a conversation’ and ‘calling for a commitment.’ ”38

Wuthnow’s discussion of division regarding social issues during this period plays out in Mission’s pages, as well. Wuthnow notes that American Christianity divided between denominational commitments on support of the Vietnam war. Denominations with higher education rates and more liberal political and social perspectives critiqued or opposed the war.39 For the conservative, Vietnam was a war on communism, communism was a direct threat to the American way of life, and the American way of life was the purview of conservative Christianity as the caretaker of social morality. Thus, Mission’s stance on Vietnam and critique of conservative politics lined up with not only different theological opinions but also different denominational identities. Alignment with the anti-war movement during Cold War anti-communism amounted to (a) using Scripture to defend a denominationally heterodox cultural critique and (b) alignment with the denominations, as opposed to Churches of Christ. Association with modern hermeneutics, suspect among conservative Christians and Churches of Christ, grounded the co-indicated political commitments.

Mission’s March 1974 Nixon cover, depicting the president in an overcoat lined with surveillance and recording devices, resulted in a large number of subscriber complaints and cancellations. To use a Churches of Christ periodical to criticize and cartoon the American president violated not only partisan voting lines but also an interweaving of Christian identity and the American way of life.40 A political attack on a theological basis failed a test of unwritten American Christian orthodoxy. The months which followed saw the end of Mission’s peak circulation.

However, circulation managers Tom and Dorothy Olbricht remembered a greater reaction in subscription cancellations resulting from Neil Buffaloe’s “God or Evolution?” in April 1969.41 Buffaloe, a biology professor at State College of Arkansas in Conway, asserted the possibility of a figurative, literary, or spiritual reading of Genesis 1–3 that would alleviate the tensions between evolutionary science and Christian faith.42 Of the three articles mentioned in interviews as generating reactive reader letters or being detrimental to subscription numbers, including a critique of Harding University’s tie to conservative politics and the 1975 Nixon cover, Buffaloe’s represented the greatest direct challenge to a biblicist view of Scripture’s authority. Declines in Mission’s readership correlated most strongly with challenges to political identity, a correlation of Christian faith and American values, and biblical interpretation, particularly influenced by the hermeneutic taught in non-Christian colleges and universities.

Buffaloe’s promotion of evolution against a literal reading of Genesis and the Nixon cover were, in the minds of his opponents, both threats to theological infallibility. Articulation of progressive politics and evolutionary science were the last straws for many readers. These topics’ challenge to theological and hermeneutical infallibility broke family dialogue with Churches of Christ. The drop in subscriptions and resulting reduction in civil dialogue within Mission’s pages was, for all intents and purposes, a slow disfellowshipping of the publication.

Way Out Four: Liturgical Objectification

The process of liturgical objectification allows a church to recognize and evaluate the boundaries created by commitments to worship practices. In Hill’s view, “liturgical objectification” issues from a shift in hermeneutical and theological emphases, providing “a church structure which facilitates penetrating self-evaluation and requisite change.”43 This employs the posture of theological objectification in viewing what churches consider normative Christian worship, the site of revelation, communion, and commitment that gives shape to discipleship, ethics, and lived Christian experience. The capacity to evaluate worship practices contributes to cultural exegesis, potentially strengthening congregational mission. As liturgical theologians assert, the law of prayer is the law of faith—lex orandi, lex credendi.44 To shift worship practices is to effect doctrinal change, and vice-versa. The simple assumption that these practices are historical and contextual, open to reflection and reform was particularly challenging for Churches of Christ, given the focus of restoring the primitive church regarding worship practices and congregational polity. Mission authors asserted that this hermeneutical priority had given the Sunday morning assembly too great a weight in the balance of Christian identity and witness. They also recognized that the hermeneutical shift necessary to address these practices would challenge the foundations of the Churches of Christ’s particular restorationism.

Pseudo-Amos’s indictment above captures a frequent theme of critically addressing churches’ tendencies to focus on the pattern of Sunday morning, rather than the pattern of Christian life in the world.45 Pseudo-Amos’s criticism echoed in Don Haymes’s “The Christ of the Gospels,” but to a more specific end. Haymes, a theological librarian, was a friend and frequent collaborator of Mission’s founders, whose focus was often social justice: “No matter how cleverly we rearrange the liturgy, no matter how valiantly we proclaim the newly-exhumed Holy Spirit, no matter how dynamically we preach sermons on race relations, no matter how adventurously we propose new programs, we are left with the essential fact that the church is still primarily interested in the church, in the perpetuation of itself as an institution and the preservation of its comfort.”46 Mission often contrasted the weightier matters of social justice with patternist readings of Scripture aimed at crafting a biblically faithful Sunday assembly. Mission’s reflection on liturgy and worship rejected attempts to make acceptable worship forms and styles the central task of the church. Following the Old Testament prophets, the call to justice set the Sunday morning service and the local ministries of the church in its sights.

For Churches of Christ, the public role of women in the Sunday assembly was a matter of great importance as it tied together commitments to American moral values (i.e., traditional gender roles), the denominational identity marked by common worship practices, and both the theological emphases and hermeneutical perspective that defined an authoritative reading of Scripture. Mission’s consistent gender egalitarianism was more prevalent during the critical years of its break from mainstream Churches of Christ than any other matter on which it served as the “loyal opposition.” When asked to reflect on which social issues received the most attention during his editorship, Ron Durham exclusively named “the injustice of Churches of Christ practice regarding the role of women,” listing thirteen individual articles as important examples.47

The chart below marks the occurrence of articles and responses, including published letters, devoted to each social issue noted during the entire run of Mission.48 Ward’s years evidenced the greatest participation from varying perspectives among Churches of Christ, Hunter’s years began the unrecoverable decline in circulation and diminishment of published counter-perspectives, and Holley’s marked the end of the magazine’s run.


Race & Civil Rights

War & Peace

Civil Disobedience

Civil Religion

Political Activism

Women’s Equality

Ward (1967–1972)







Hunter (1973–1975)







Durham (1975–1979)







Hughes (1979–1982)







Holley (1982–1988)







Table 1: Selected Social Issues Appearing as Article Subjects during Mission Editorships

Occurrences of content related to women’s rights and women’s roles in public worship spiked during the years of Mission’s disfellowshipping-by-subscription-cancellation. Articles on these subjects rose again, above any other political issue addressed, as Mission concluded its run.

During Bobbie Lee Holley’s editorship, social justice issues were often framed not only as the responsibility of Christians in the world but also as the responsibility of Christians toward one another within the local church and throughout the fellowship of Churches of Christ. Articles in this era often addressed power, agency, and diversity in the congregation, especially regarding women’s participation in public worship and the norm of male eldership. Given the editor-bishop tradition of authority49 among Churches of Christ, Holley’s position itself challenged a traditional women’s role in the church without the aid of a literal pulpit. Holley was also the first (and only, throughout her editorship) female editor-in-chief among Churches of Christ publications with comparable circulation.50

After the circulation drop of the mid 1970s, it became apparent that Mission’s readership and its larger ecclesial heritage were, metaphorically speaking, no longer reading Scripture together. An increasing number of authors and board members were also no longer attending Churches of Christ.51 The tension between Mission’s voice and the Churches of Christ, heightened by challenges to political commitments and the denomination’s biblicism, reached a peak as Mission challenged the polity and practices of individual congregations. Perhaps it was this turn from what church members should be doing in the world to how the church should be performing their shared identity in Sunday morning worship that sealed the separation of Mission from its family of origin.52

The Unique Challenge of Gender and Worship

Wuthnow identified feminism as a unique disqualifier for evangelical orthodoxy during the period of Mission’s publication. In a 1973 study,

only 38 percent of those who explained events in terms of traditional beliefs about God said they favored equal rights for women, compared with 64 percent of those who explained events with a combination of ideas from secular sources. . . .

Rooted as it was among the better educated, feminism functioned much like the liberal, egalitarian values of the “new class” more generally. It ran counter to the more traditionalistic values that had been prominent in the churches during the 1950s.

To the more conservative parishioners in the churches, the feminist movement seemed too much a part of the recent counterculture, too closely associated with sexual experimentation, too much in sympathy with abortion and permissive moral standards to arouse support.53

Wuthnow’s description of evangelical reactions to feminism suggest that Mission’s affirmation for women’s rights, and women’s rightful role in public leadership, was an issue that presumed every previous “way out.” On the matter of providing a “way out” of liturgical objectification, Mission offered historical and Scriptural means of rethinking practices of a capella singing and traditional service structures, which were, after all, arguments from silence. However, to suggest that women should take on a biblically prohibited role in public worship was a block to that way. Only those who had embraced theological objectification could cross this final bridge. The feminist assertion embraced liberal scholarship and a new hermeneutical emphasis, simultaneously displacing biblicism and liturgical patternism.

This resonates with what occurred in Mission’s relationship with its Churches of Christ readership. It also illuminates the nuance required in describing Churches of Christ as theologically evangelical. Loretta Hunnicutt has described women’s roles for much of the Churches of Christ “tied to issues of hermeneutics and cultural practices that vary from congregation to congregation.”54 John Mark Hicks identified the effect of southern culture in limiting interpretations about women’s public roles in worship in the early twentieth century. According to Hicks, the “Tennessee Tradition” and the “Texas Tradition” imposed a cultural ideal of womanhood—the “Cult of True Womanhood” that reigned in the deep postbellum South—that discouraged interpreting the two key biblical texts about women’s silence in any other way.55 Stephen C. Johnson and Lynette Sharp Penya reported that tradition, lack of consensus, and factors related to preserving congregational unity were the most frequently cited barriers to gender inclusion among churches they surveyed.56

However, Johnson and Penya also note that there were more inclusive congregations in the south than any other region,57 confronting a “myth” that presumes gender-inclusive Churches of Christ are unique to parts of the country more inclined to progressive social and political perspectives. These findings suggest that congregational culture is more binding than cultural context in the early twenty-first century. This seems congruent with Hill’s reflection that the crisis faced by the church following the restructuring of the late twentieth century is one imposed by the church on the culture, rather than incited by historical and contextual shifts. If Churches of Christ are unique among southern evangelicals due to a restorationism focused on worship practice and polity, then they are uniquely resistant to Hill’s “ways out” of crisis once those ways confront the Sunday morning assembly.

In fact, Hill observed this peculiarity in an August 1980 contribution to Mission. Hughes aimed the issue at addressing Churches of Christ southern roots, featuring David Lipscomb on the cover. Hill’s article considered “sources of estrangement between the Churches of Christ and the mainstream popular churches.” First, Hill observed a withdrawn, standoffish posture on matters of political involvement and interchurch cooperation. This, of course, would connote a reticence regarding ecumenical dialogue. Second, he described a unique approach to the Bible’s authority. In this regard, Hill viewed Churches of Christ belonging to a category of southern churches he identified as “truth-oriented conservatives” who carried not only a commitment to scriptural authority but a particular epistemological position that “it is possible to know perfectly what the truths are which make up that truth.”58

Hill offered a typology in which the Truth-oriented type was distinguished from Service-oriented, Spirituality-oriented, or Conversion-oriented southern churches.59 His categories may be correlated with the quadrilateral categories of biblicism (Truth), activism (Service, Spirituality), and crucicentrism blended with conversionism (Conversion). His observation recognized the alignment with evangelical biblicism as the clearest correlating characteristic to Churches of Christ.

But, said Hill, late-twentieth-century Churches of Christ differed from others in the southern Truth-oriented type. To clarify this, Hill described the way in which the Bible was employed in worship: “Being quintessential rationalists, these people go to church to hear the truths of belief and practice spelled out from the Bible; and being profound objectivists, they contend that the texts of the Bible speak their own truth, needing only to be held up without alloy, in fact, little more than read.”60 Hill’s observation pointed to a challenge for employing theological objectification given the lack of a clearly articulated theological framework.

Hill continued by recognizing a third characteristic that was a bit of a mystery to him. Hill described southerners as carrying a rich tradition of storytelling, which he believed was comparatively absent from the experience of Churches of Christ. Rather than viewing the Christian life in story form, he believed Churches of Christ viewed “the Christian life as principles and axioms to be believed and laws to be observed.”61 Hill identified this as a somber quality unique to Churches of Christ religious life, but he observed that outside of religious practice, “in their ordinary rounds, the members of those churches are very nearly as southern as the mainstream church members. Perhaps it is this disparity between church style and ordinary life style which distinguishes the Churches of Christ as much as any single factor.”62

In addressing the lack of women in public worship leadership, Johnson and Penya employ a lex orandi, lex credendi implication of this practice: the law of prayer is the law of faith. The authors observe that inclusive congregations invite women to participate vocally on a progressive pattern beginning with Scripture reading, then congregational prayers, then communion thoughts, and then finally (and only rarely) preaching. They conclude that this indicates an assumption about which practices carry the most authority by directing the congregation: Scripture is pre-selected, prayer is speaking to God, but communion comments direct the congregation’s thoughts.63 “We hear women speaking; however, we do not hear their voices (their ideas, beliefs, opinions, and feelings).”64 A church engaged in this practice does not have to articulate a theology privileging gender; they embody it liturgically. A pattern of worship is a culture. By Hill’s assessment, late-twentieth-century Churches of Christ were uniquely bicultural, with one foot in the human-storied world, and the other in the biblicist assembly.

Mission’s various challenges to Churches of Christ social and political allegiances were certainly cause for tension, and the tone with which those challenges were often delivered was also cause for mainstream Churches of Christ disapproval. But, as seen above, the eventual separation of Mission from mainstream readership is tied to challenges of polity and practice, as much or more than challenges to politics, ecumenism, or even liberal theology in general. Readers of Mission, among Churches of Christ, shared much of the experience of conservative American Christians during this period, as described by Wuthnow in the 1980s. Mission provided an interesting test-case of Hill’s “ways out” for southern churches during the social unrest of the 1960s and 1970s that sparked Mission’s birth. But a renewal of the church’s mission is also linked to the church’s faith and worship. As later liturgical theologians assert,65 lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi: the law of prayer is the law of faith is the law of lived Christian experience. A sustainable change to a way of believing must be accompanied by a change to the way of worshiping and a change to the way of Christian living. A church without a place in their worship for the voices of Mission’s concerns, whose bicultural nature made the link from worship and faith to missional context more difficult to trace, was in a uniquely difficult position to make sense of Mission’s invitation “to explore thoroughly the Scriptures and their meaning; . . . to understand as fully as possible the world in which the church lives and has her mission; . . . to provide a vehicle for communicating the meaning of God’s Word to our contemporary world.”66

David Lemley is an assistant professor of Religion at Pepperdine University. He teaches practical theology and ministry, with an emphasis on spirituality and worship. His primary research interests include worship music and spirituality in American culture. He has served in youth and worship ministries of Churches of Christ and as Pepperdine University Chaplain 2007–2013. He serves the adult education ministry for University Church of Christ (Malibu, CA).

Adapted from a presentation at the Thomas H. Olbricht Christian Scholars’ Conference, Lipscomb University, Nashville, TN, June 8–10, 2016.

1 Samuel S. Hill Jr., Southern Churches in Crisis (New York: Rinehart and Winston, 1967).

2 Hill reflected on his 1966 work three decades later in Samuel S. Hill, Southern Churches in Crisis Revisited (Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 1999). His foreword clarified that the original work failed to recognize the diversity of individual faith, denominational variety, the experience of women, and in particular the contributions to southern religion by black churches. The description of these “ways out” as strategies for white evangelicals suits Hill’s later observations but remains relevant to the majority of Mission’s leadership and authors. Hill would also see in hindsight that the cultural shifts of the late 1960s far exceeded his focus at the time (xxxix).

3 Hill, Southern, 203–6.

4 The original Editorial Policy Statement appeared in “The Task of Mission,” Mission 1, no. 1 (July 1967): 3, and occurred in the same form from 1967 to 1988.

5 Robert Wuthnow, The Restructuring of American Religion (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988).

6 Hill, Revisited, xxx–xxxi.

7 Richard Hughes asserts the alignment of Churches of Christ with evangelicals occurring as the two groups evidenced a common social ethic and political commitment. I would generally agree. This alignment is detailed in Richard T. Hughes, Reviving the Ancient Faith: The Story of Churches of Christ in America (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 254–269, and more concisely argued in Richard T. Hughes, “Are Restorationists Evangelicals?” in The Variety of American Evangelicalism, ed. Donald Dayton and Robert Johnston (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1991): 109–34.

8 David Bebbington, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1989), 2–3.

9 For example, some aspect of Scripture’s authority or sola scriptura is included by George Marsden, “The Evangelical Denomination,” in Evangelicalism and Modern America (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984); Martin Marty, “The Revival of Evangelicalism and Southern Religion,” in Varieties of Southern Evangelicalism, ed. David Edwin Harrell (Macon: Mercer University Press, 1981); Alister McGrath, Evangelicalism and the Future of Christianity (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1995).

10 E.g., “the real, historical character of God’s saving work” (Marsden, “Evangelical,” x).

11 E.g., “an intense experience of Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Marty, “Revival,” 10); “a spiritually transformed life” (Marsden, “Evangelical,” x).

12 Like scriptural authority, the obligation to evangelize others is included in all the examples noted here.

13 E.g., “the importance of Christian community for spiritual nourishment, fellowship, and growth” (McGrath, Evangelicalism, 56).

14 Edward P. Myers, “Churches of Christ (A Cappella): Are We Evangelical?” in Evangelicalism and the Stone-Campbell Movement (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2002), 67.

15 Myers, 54.

16 Hughes, “Are Restorationists Evangelicals?,”127.

17 As Douglas Foster summarizes the Churches of Christ understanding of apostolic authority, he surveys founding documents such as Thomas Campbell’s “Declaration and Address” (1809), Alexander Campbell’s The Christian System (1835), and James C. Creel’s Plea to Restore the Apostolic Church (1902), describing their concerns in each case with, in my observation, nearly exclusive interest in polity and worship practices. See Douglas A. Foster, “The Nature of the Apostolicity of the Church: Perspectives from Churches of Christ,” in Ancient Faith and American-Born Churches (New York: Paulist, 2006): 71–80.

18 Richard Hughes, “Great Expectations,” Mission 13, no. 9 (March 1980): 8.

19 Wuthnow, 63.

20 Walter Burch, “The Birth of Mission: Remembering the Way We Were,” Mission 20, no. 3 (September 1986), 10.

21 Victor Hunter (Mission editor-in-chief, 1973–1975), interview by author, 10 April, 2000. Faxed typed response to interview questions in possession of author.

22 Hughes states in an interview that he intended to “reach out to the mainstream,” a strategy which drew some accusations from readers and trustees that he was taking a more conservative approach. Richard Hughes (Mission editor-in-chief, 1979–1982), interview by author, March 1999, Malibu, California. Tape recording in possession of author.

23 See Mission 14, no. 2 (August 1980), Mission 14, no. 5 (November 1980), and Mission 15, no. 7 (January 1982), respectively.

24 Total actual mail subscriptions in December 1973 were listed at 4,111, Mission’s circulation peak.

25 See Carl H. Stem, “Interview of the Month,” Mission 1, no. 9 (March 1968).

26 See J. W. Roberts and Thomas H. Olbricht, “The Spirit of St. Louis,” Mission 3, no. 9 (March 1973), 262–68.

27 Victor Hunter, “What and So What,” Mission 8, no 8 (February 1974), 227.

28 Evans, interview.

29 Roy Bowen Ward (Mission editor-in-chief, July 1967–December 1972), letter to David Lemley, July 3, 1999. Manuscript in author’s possession.

30 Victor Hunter (Mission editor-in-chief, 1973–1975), letter to David Lemley, April 10, 2000. Manuscript in author’s possession.

31 Hunter, interview.

32 Larry James (Mission trustee, 1985–1988), interview by author, July 30, 1998, Abilene, Texas. Tape recording in possession of author.

33 Wuthnow, 169.

34 Ibid.

35 “Religious participation rates declined more rapidly” among the educated from the 1960s through the 1980s (Wuthnow, 170).

36 James, interview.

37 Pseudo-Amos [Roy Bowen Ward], “Oracles of a Nonprophet,” Mission 2, no. 2 (August 1968): 28–29.

38 Hunter, interview.

39 Wuthnow, 224.

40 Marsden states that the dominant American fundamentalist tradition “viewed God’s redemptive work as manifested by the spiritual and moral progress of American society” by the late nineteenth century, particularly of the comfortable middle class (Marsden, Fundamentalism, 38). Marsden considers this view as only challenged by the rise of premillennialism, of which Churches of Christ had been disabused by the early twentieth century (according to Hughes, Reviving, 137-167). Wuthnow, Restructuring, 67, notes Eisenhower’s significant contribution to equating faith and the American way of life.

41 Tom and Dorothy Olbricht, interview by author (Pepperdine University, Malibu, California, 28 October 1999), in possession of author. Burch, interview, recounted Lynch’s article on Harding’s conservative political ties as resulting in the most reader reaction. It should also be noted that Walter Burch’s October 1974 report to the readers on the state of Mission provides additional information about internal challenges in 1974. Burch notes the decline of subscriptions (reported at 4,223 in December 1973, down to 3,649 in May 1974). Burch states that the magazine lost fifty subscribers attributable to the Watergate issue, but the total loss of subscribers was almost 700. The board concluded that an “irregular publishing schedule” blamed on a “stubborn production logjam” resulting in the appearance of April, May, and June issues in the same 30-day period caused many subscribers not to renew in the first five months of 1974.

42 Neil Buffaloe, “God or Evolution?” Mission 2, no. 10 (April 1969): 17–21.

43 Hill, 205.

44 This maxim is taken from a fifth-century letter by Prosper of Aquitaine, a contemporary of Augustine and participant in early Christian creedal councils. The principle of the reciprocal relationship between worship and doctrine, or prayer and faith, is a central point of exploration for liturgical scholarship. It is employed by students of Christian worship from Orthodox priest and liturgical theologian Alexander Schmemann to trans-denominational Protestant worship leader and scholar Constance Cherry. See Alexander Schmemann, Introduction to Liturgical Theology (New York: St. Vladimir’s, 1996); Constance Cherry, The Worship Architect (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2010).

45 Pseudo-Amos, “Oracles,” 28–29.

46 See Don Haymes, “The Christ of the Gospels,” Mission 2, no. 2 (August 1968): 8.

47 Ron Durham (Mission editor-in-chief, 1975–1979), interview by author, 30 June 1999. Printed e-mail response to interview questions in possession of author.

48 This survey by no means exhausts all the occurrences of these themes but accounts for published material titled with reference to a subject. So, for example, while Richard Hughes included articles on historic church movements and figures that were exemplary of certain attitudes towards civil disobedience, these were not framed as editorial advocacy for a certain political activity for contemporary readers.

49 The concept of the editor-bishop describes the kind of teaching office authority attributed to editors and publishers in Churches of Christ, particularly through the early twentieth century. The phrase may be traced to Stone-Campbell pastor, educator, and editor W. T. Moore (1832–1926): “The Disciples do not have bishops; they have editors.” (Gary Lee, “Moore, William Thomas,” in The Encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movement, ed. Douglas Foster, et. al. [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004]: 544). See also Richard Hughes, “The Editor Bishop: David Lipscomb and the Gospel Advocate,” in The Power of the Press: The Forrest F. Reed Lectures for 1986 (Nashville: Disciples of Christ Historical Society, 1986), 23.

50 Robert Douglas, “Power, Its Locus and Function in Defining Social Commentary in the Churches of Christ, Illustrated by a Case Study of Black Civil Rights” (PhD diss., University of Southern California, 1980), 121. Douglas did not include Power for Today, or mention 20th Century Christian, both of which had female co-editors beginning in the 1970s. Holley’s position was unique, however, as an editor-in-chief.

51 Randolph, interview.

52 Mission, however, continued to write for a readership invested in Churches of Christ. During Holley’s editorship from 1983 to 1987, the Restorationist Serials Index tags more than twenty articles a year with the subject keyword “church.” The subject phrases Churches of Christ, Stone-Campbell churches, or the Restorationist movement are associated with eight articles each year, on average. This information was compiled via a search of subject keywords using the Restoration Serials Index,, accessed August 4, 2017.

53 Wuthnow, 227.

54 Loretta Hunnicutt, “What I Learned about Women,” Stone-Campbell Journal 16 (Fall 2013), 176.

55 John Mark Hicks, “Quiet Please: Churches of Christ in the Early Twentieth Century and the ‘Woman Question,’ ” Discipliana (September 2009), 14.

56 I include the authors’ reference to anticipating dissension, maintaining harmony, losing membership, and desire for slow change as factors related to preserving congregational unity. Stephen C. Johnson and Lynette Sharp Penya, “What the Other Half Is Doing: An Analysis of Gender Inclusivity in Church of Christ Congregations,” Restoration Quarterly 53, no. 4 (2011): 221–33.

57 Johnson and Penya, 229.

58 Samuel S. Hill Jr., “The Churches of Christ and Religion in the South,” Mission 14, no. 2 (August 1980), 14.

59 Ibid.

60 Ibid., 15.

61 Ibid., 16.

62 Ibid.

63 The designation of Scripture reading as the practice exercising the least authority affirms Hill’s description of Churches of Christ viewing Scripture reading as profoundly objective.

64 Johnson and Penya, 231.

65 E.g., Kevin Irwin, Context and Text: Method in Liturgical Theology (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1994); or Lester Ruth, “A Rose By Any Other Name,” in The Conviction of Things Not Seen, ed. Todd Johnson (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2002): 33–51.

66 “The Task of Mission,” 3.

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