When I was at Harding, I was a member of a social club that could sing. And boy did they sing. I sang, too, but not as well as those in the chorus of folks that surrounded me. While my voice didn’t add much to the quality of what was being sung, I did feel as though I belonged, and that my voice was welcomed and perhaps even useful, and that I was a small part of something that mattered, and that in the end I did contribute something unique.
On Rich Little’s blog, a few folks (including friends of mine that I really respect, like Mark Moore, Dusty Rush, Sara Barton, and Mary Beth Picker) have expressed some concern about the appointment of Dr. Bruce McLarty as our new president. The concern is not with Dr. McLarty, mind you, but with the priorities used by the majority of Harding’s Board of Trustees to make the appointment. As I’ve read all of these very powerful (and equally gracious and hope-filled) posts that have articulated so well some of the thoughts and feelings that I have about Harding (and the Church of Christ in general), the thought that I should add my small voice to this chorus of very strong ones has lingered. Perhaps I’m still looking for my place to belong at my beloved alma mater, longing for my voice to be both welcomed and useful, desiring to be a part of something that matters, and that in the end, perhaps I do have something to contribute that is unique.
So here I put on a robe and join this chorus of great singers on the risers, hopefully harmonizing with them, and perhaps with one small solo – that is, one more angle on this that has yet to be presented, and one that I feel uniquely positioned to give a voice.
I write as a proud Harding Alumni, like all of these others. I cherish my experience there, for how it grew me up in Christ, gave me a spiritual family, and launched me into a life of Kingdom impact and ministry. They were simply the greatest four (and a half – I’m slow, and didn’t want to leave) greatest years of my life.
I write as a parent of three kids who already want to go there, following in the footsteps of their dad, their grandmother, and their preacher great-grandfather. So my hopes are significantly invested in Harding’s near-future, since the most important people to me and my wife will be saturated in the environment that Harding creates.
I write as a former youth minister. I spent 14 years with “the next generation” and have not had one year where students that I have been blessed to call friends haven’t been at Harding, most of them now alumni themselves.
I write as a minister of a “mainstream Church of Christ.” At least I think I am after reading the Christian Chronicle’s interview with Dr. McLarty. Our church family practices what he lists there as “the distinctive convictions of baptism for the remission of sins, acapella music in worship, and male spiritual leadership in the congregation,” making us the very kind of church that Harding specifically says it wants to show solidarity with, as stated in their “Expanded Mission Statement,” that he quotes. Further, our church family has Harding alumni on staff, in our eldership, and in our membership. We have students that have returned from Harding, are currently at Harding, are about to attend Harding, and our youth group is taking a trip to visit there this coming weekend. We are a real life, living and breathing brochure of what Harding wants to produce, complete with an atmosphere that promotes and ensures Harding’s continuation into its bright future.
I write as a follower of Christ. While this is the most important identity marker for me in my life, and in this list, it is not the last one I’ll mention, because this next one (which is the natural result of this and the previous one) is more to the point of what I’m compelled to contribute to this conversation.
I write as a minister trying to serve the Church of Christ in a way that is faithful to both the Church of Christ and to Jesus Christ. And it is from this experience that I offer one more verse to this chorus that has been present in many of these posts, but not stated explicitly, and it is this:
When our loyalty to a Church of Christ value and our loyalty to a Jesus Christ value collide, it is the Church of Christ value that should give way.
Ironically, I learned this from my Church of Christ heritage. I grew up being taught to be wise concerning any religious belief suggested, to never blindly put the weight of my salvation upon other people’s convictions without weighing them against scripture. I, and a vast army of my peers, took this to heart. But when we applied this Church of Christ teaching to all Church of Christ teachings, we found that some of our teachings were only “distinctive convictions of the Church of Christ” (who we rightly love, appreciate, and want to be faithful to), but they were not Biblically-unquestionable distinctive convictions of Jesus Christ (whom we rightly love, appreciate, and want to be faithful to even more).
Since Bible demands this, it should surprise no one that the mainstream Church of Christ has begun to demand this, because we are above all else, people of the Book. It is our continued study of and persistent faithfulness to the living and active contents of this Book that keeps our movement faithful to its heritage. This and only this will help us to remain faithful to our name, that is to remain a church that is “of Christ.”
Dr. McLarty, in the Christian Chronicle piece, makes this powerful observation and corresponding commitment: “As part of my doctoral work, I studied the tendency of faith-founded colleges to drift away from their founding church, to abandon their core mission, and often, to become enemies of the ideas and principles on which they were started. This solidified my resolve to do all I could do to see that this does not happen to Harding.”
I love our new president’s resolve to not allow Harding to drift away from the Church of Christ. Let’s stay a family, and keep Harding in the family. We can remain open to all without having to drift away from the Church of Christ. And let’s certainly not throw this association to the wind in order to attract more students or become more academically or athletically prestigious. Amen! While I appreciate his concern, I don’t sense Dr. McLarty will have to fight as hard as he is preparing to protect this. I’ve not heard any among our Harding family that wants to go the way of Duke, or Yale, or Harvard, each of whom did lose their attachment to their founding church affiliation, and then eventually lost their attachment to Christ and the Bible. If a call that threatens this comes from some segment among us in the future, I will gladly be counted among the folks who will ensure that he does not stand alone in his resolve. But I haven’t heard anyone call for or even have a desire for this. I know that I and those like me do not. All we are asking for is that Harding would (officially) agree that when loyalty to a Church of Christ value and our loyalty to a Jesus Christ value collide, it is the Church of Christ value that should give way.
What is the “core mission” he doesn’t want abandoned? Is it the mission to exalt Jesus Christ? Or is it the mission to exalt some distinctive doctrines of the Church of Christ?
What are the “ideas and principles” he is resolved to keep Harding from becoming an enemy? Are the person of Jesus Christ, the Kingdom, and the Gospel message the ideas and principles upon which Harding started? Or, are a distinctive set of Church of Christ doctrines and worship practices the ideas and principles upon which Harding started?
This really matters.
The mainstream Churches of Christ, many of which are full of Harding students – past, present, and future – has necessarily learned from the Bible that it must distinguish between these things. Only the “rigid legalism on the Right” in our fellowship would assert, for example, that there is no difference between the Gospel message and our historically distinctive Church of Christ worship practices. One is centered on Christ; the other is centered on Sunday morning gatherings. One is worth dying for; the other is an edifying practice that our churches utilize to worship God. One saves souls, the other does not.
Dr. McLarty continues by saying: “In the reflection chapter at the end of my dissertation, I wrote that my research had crystallized within my thinking the following goal: ‘To prepare Harding University to remain Christian in our core identity until Jesus returns.’”
There is none of us in any Church of Christ, even those who are extremely “Right” or “Left,” that would disagree with this crystallized goal as it is written. Further, this is not even a uniquely Church of Christ statement.
Why is this important to note?
Because, another historical heritage marker of our fellowship is the taking of universal, Biblical, and Christian words and packing them with uniquely Church of Christ meanings. If his phrase “remain Christian” means “remaining faithful to the life and teachings of Jesus Christ,” then great. But if he intends the phrase to actually mean, “remaining faithful to the distinctive doctrines and worship practices of the historical Church of Christ,” then many of us in the mainstream Church of Christ cringe, concerned that Harding is not being faithful to a Word of God that is still living and active, and to a scripture that is still useful to teach us, rebuke us, correct us, and train us to a fuller and truer righteousness as a fellowship.
In the article, Dr. McLarty quotes the 2008 Expanded Mission Statement (proving, I guess, that we can expand our mission statement should our followership of Christ call for it) when it says: “Though we live in a time of significant confusion over our brotherhood’s identity, we are determined that Harding University will become captive to neither a rigid legalism on the Right nor a formless liberalism on the Left. ‘With gentleness and respect’ (1 Peter 3:16, NIV) we continue to affirm such distinctive convictions of the mainstream Churches of Christ as baptism for the remission of sins, a cappella music in worship, and male spiritual leadership in congregations.”
The mainstream Church of Christ that I serve has not changed these distinctive practices, but we have prayerfully and necessarily moved with regard to our distinctive convictions. With gentleness and respect, we affirm such distinctive convictions as Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, Christ-honoring music in worship, and Christ-centered spiritual leadership in congregations. This shift has come, not from some slippery slope caused by a move away from scripture’s authority, but by a slow, methodical, and diligent study of scripture and a stricter adherence to it. As a result, our traditional tight grip on baptism has become tighter, but with a focus on Christ rather than on baptism. Our traditional practice of acapella music has not been replaced, but moved from being a Biblical requirement for salvation (demanding our judgment of those who practice differently) to a beautiful and chosen preference, allowing us to better follow the Biblical requirement of not passing judgment on disputable matters, which has kept lessor issues from hijacking our soul-saving focus Christ who saves. Our tradition of male spiritual leadership in the congregations is still practiced organizationally and positionally, but we are learning how to not hinder the powerful exertion of spiritual giftedness that is so obviously placed in both men and women by Christ, who’s Kingdom seems to operate in a way where it doesn’t distinguish between male and female (Galatians 3:28), and seems to teach and promote the priesthood of all believers, not just male believers.
These are examples of the tension that is currently present in the mainstream Churches of Christ.
It is our faithfulness to scriptural authority, the most important and cherished value of the Church of Christ, and the one upon which all others are measured by, that has moved us here. If Harding wants to stay connected to the mainstream Church of Christ, well, this is what we are doing and learning and struggling with.
As a child of this movement, a son of Harding, and a minister out here working to be faithful to both the Church of Christ and Jesus Christ, I really need Harding to help me. I don’t need it to be super sure of itself regarding where our constant Bible study will lead us in practice, nor do I need or want it to be hasty about dismissing our conclusions or practices from the past. What would be useful is for Harding to use its talented resources and faculty, its momentum in successfully ministering to our kids, and its powerful Kingdom influence to lead and provoke these hard introspective conversations that our brotherhood’s constant Bible study demands. It is exhilarating to experience Harding when it is the instigator of such honest, probing, and integrity-filled faithfulness to Bible study. But it is disheartening and discouraging to experience Harding as the entrenched guardian of the honest conclusions of our father’s and grandfather’s Bible study.
It is important to note that among almost all Christian movements, a commitment to an external religion, with all of its forms and rituals, attempts to replace that movement’s commitment to Jesus Christ alone. While I am somehow encouraged that we in the Church of Christ do not have a monopoly on this problem, I have been discouraged by our movement thinking that its commitment to scripture made us immune to it. This is hard for all of us to swallow, but humble Bible study demands it, and humble Bible study is doing so in the mainstream Church of Christ, to the praise and glory of God.
Some of the comments on Rich’s blog are asking why so many students, including those who’ve posted concern on his blog, are leaving Harding so spiritually successful, and why enrollment continues to grow, if this commitment to traditional Church of Christ doctrine and worship practices are so desperately needing to be revisited. They suggest that Harding “must be doing something right” or this kind of fruit could not be produced. Let me conclude my thoughts by offering another possible explanation.
When I was at Harding, there was a distance between the Board (and the values that they voted to have officially sanctioned by Harding) and the students (with our need to have the space to safely question everything if we were, in fact, to be “educated for eternity”). It was this distance, not Harding’s stance, that allowed me and my peers to find our own faith in Jesus Christ. So instead of Harding’s officially stated core convictions being the proactive, involved, and fully alive instigators of my spiritual growth, they served instead as representative of a static, entrenched, and superficial set of church practices that I was actively searching for a God to save me and the world from. Much like Christ, who chose to use the Pharisee’s Bible-justified, but non-life-giving, non-soul-saving, missing-the-point religious convictions as a backdrop for his disciples to learn about the real and vibrant Kingdom of God, I suggest that Christ had created space on campus for students to use Harding’s Bible-justified, but non-life-giving, non-soul-saving religious convictions as a backdrop to teach me about the real and vibrant Kingdom of God, too.
So I’m in a dilemma, because I agree with the observation that there are many alumni who went through Harding’s environment (that at least half of the Board has now voted to maintain) and have come out the other side very convicted, Christ-centered, Kingdom-promoting, Gospel-sharing citizens (as opposed to very convicted, CofC-centered, CofC-doctrine promoting, CofC-worship-practice-sharing ones). Something about this environment works to produce people committed to creating truer environments.
So the dilemma: do I want to change this backdrop that Harding’s official positions provide to create this faith-forming space between the Board and the students? Might this be a developmentally appropriate environment for the 18-22 year old to be in? Do our sons and daughters, like the disciples, need a somewhat rigid-Right institutional position to use for their own spiritual “teething,” providing a useful, off-the-mark ecclesiology upon which to discover a truer, more scriptural one? I must admit, nothing drove me into the scripture more than when my honest questions about deeply entrenched Church of Christ doctrines were met with pushback from some of the powers that be at Harding. It was perfect timing for me, and a perfect environment for me to zealously find my own faith in Jesus Christ. I don’t need an answer to this dilemma. I’m grateful for it, because it makes me both unafraid of and hopeful about, and finally, trusting God for where this all goes.
I can disagree with some convictions of some of the Board and still trust them as powerful and loving and Godly contributors to our student’s spiritual growth. One thing is for sure, and I want to be absolutely clear about this, I believe the motives behind their convictions are the exact same as mine. A desire to love God and be faithful to scripture.
That said, I would much rather Harding be a place that has stated core convictions, a Board, and a president that teaches our students, in institutional word and institutional deed, that the mainstream Church of Christ is all about faithfulness to Jesus Christ, no matter what. And this, even when that means that the Church of Christ must itself be transformed by the renewing of its corporate mind, because our movement-long commitment to being people of the Book will not be abandoned, even if that Book requires that we abandon other, lesser, movement-long commitments once seen as requirements of that Book.
While these thoughts and feelings are addressing issues that pre-date my knowing Dr. McLarty’s name, since I have mentioned him and his words in this piece, I wanted everyone to know that I am sending him these thoughts in letter form, addressed to him for his consideration. I don’t know Dr. McLarty personally, but people that I respect, respect him greatly, and I intend to continue to support Harding and him during his tenure there, which I know, one way or another, will exalt Christ and advance the Kingdom. I will be forever grateful to him for being willing to serve the Kingdom in this way.
May God bless us all, and may His grace fall over us, and may love abound even in our disagreements.