Most of us love this old Restoration Movement slogan:
“We are not the only Christians, but Christians only.”
But Christian leaders from across the country contacted by CHRISTIAN STANDARD all wrestle with big-picture questions about what overarching principles flow from the adage.
Most generally agree with Bob Russell, retired senior minister of Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, Kentucky, about what to do when invited to attend or speak at an event outside the immediate fellowship. “I will go anywhere as long as I’m not restricted in what I can say or my presence doesn’t leave the impression I endorse false teaching,” Russell said.
Whether to reciprocate is a tougher call.
“We have no problem sending groups to organizations to help serve. But there’s no preaching being done, no attempts to proselytize our people,” said Daryl Reed, lead minister of DC Regional Christian Church in the nation’s capital and vice president of this year’s North American Christian Convention.
When it comes to joint services or inviting someone from another group to speak from the pulpit, church leaders must decide what to allow on a case-by-case basis as shepherds watching out for their flock, he said.
“Eventually somebody is going to have to make a judgment call . . . about who’s in the faith,” Reed said. “You can be so ecumenical that you can disobey that command to watch out.”
Longtime preacher Ben Merold, now
minister-at-large with Harvester Christian Church in St. Charles, Missouri, said the churches he has served have opened their doors to speakers on such specialized topics as pornography or abortion.
“I have had people in I’ve thought had something to offer my congregation,” he said. “I want to make sure they believe in the divinity of Christ. I want to be make sure they believe the Bible is the Word of God. I’m going to stay clear of things that are not of Christ.”
Sometimes things change, which means the leaders need to communicate tough decisions with the congregation.
“When Southeast decided to withdraw its support of the Boy Scouts because of their endorsement/tolerance of homosexuality, the media picked it up before the congregation was informed, and the leadership had to play catch-up,” Russell said. “Some people felt they had been left defenseless.”
Beyond a Narrow Definition
And sometimes leaders change a narrow definition of “not the only Christians.”
In his first ministry, Russell served on weekends at a country church outside Cincinnati.
“When one of our college students brought home her roommate, who had a Baptist background, and they sang a duet on Sunday morning, I was troubled about it and expressed my concern to the chairman of the elders.” Russell said the elder thankfully didn’t share his agitation about having an “unbeliever in the pulpit.”
“Someone said that if you never travel you have a backyard mentality. If we never fellowship with believers from other movements, it’s easy to have a sectarian attitude toward them,” Russell said.
“I began to read books and articles written by people from other groups, and as I listened to preachers from Evangelical churches and then met people visiting our church who came from denominational backgrounds, I realized their spirit bears witness with my spirit. They share the same basic beliefs about creation, sin, Christ, the cross, the Holy Spirit, the Bible, and the church.
“I also saw the world around me becoming increasingly hostile to the Christian faith and realized I didn’t need to be fighting with those who shared the same basic convictions.”
Russell played a lead role when the Billy Graham crusade came to Louisville in 2001, “even though Dr. Graham doesn’t emphasize baptism to the extent we’d like for him to,” he said.
“It’s estimated we baptized 100 responders at our church in the weeks that followed. If we had chosen not to cooperate, not only would we not have witnessed those baptisms, but it would have created a media stir about disharmony among Christians that would have had a negative impact on the crusade and given the enemies of Christ an occasion to blaspheme.”
Joe Boyd said, “My experience . . . is that we find the first part of that slogan easier to live than the second. We can be Christians only. But we tend just to tolerate that we are not the only Christians.” Boyd is founder and president of Rebel Pilgrim Productions, a film and television production company whose purpose is to tell stories that spark people to hope and action.
The fact that we are not the only Christians “is something to be celebrated as well,” said Boyd, who also is teaching pastor at Vineyard Cincinnati, the same post he held more than a decade ago at Canyon Ridge Christian Church in Las Vegas, Nevada. “The other Christians have something we don’t. . . . Why wouldn’t we want to experience that as well? And in the spirit of love and friendship, give them what we have in our heritage as well.”
Chuck Booher, senior pastor of Crossroads Christian Church in Corona, California, said, “We would support any effort that would grant us the opportunity to proclaim Jesus openly and clearly.”
Christians’ purpose as God’s chosen people—whether that purpose is shared by those with whom the church affiliates—“is to share his truth and love for we are his handiwork.
“With that being said, the only thing we should never compromise is our faith. We will remain firm and hold true to the Word of God,” Booher said.
Christian churches and churches of Christ in many places are finding ways to work with others without compromise. A sampling follows.
• West Side Christian Church in Springfield, Illinois, has led three public school makeover projects that have together poured $1 million into the public school system—including cash donations, professional labor, and building materials, lead minister Eddie Lowen said. That’s on top of volunteer labor from more than 1,500 people.
“For these projects, no doctrinal alignment is required. We welcome participation by everyone in our community, including some who do not believe our core message,” Lowen said.
He advises other congregations considering such ventures: “Know why you’re taking the steps you take. Evaluate often. Look for ways to be loyal to the Bible, while allowing other believers to do the same. Keep your list of deal-breakers short. Discuss these things with humility.”
• Brett Andrews, lead minister with New Life Christian Church of Chantilly, Virginia, helped transform the National New Church Conference to Exponential, where the attendance has increased to some 7,000 (with many more online), making it the world’s largest gathering of church planters. It has expanded to include many speakers and leaders from outside the Restoration Movement tradition.
“Exponential, I think, is in a lot of ways the Christian church at its best,” Andrews said. No denominational group could pull off such a gathering because they would want their “fingerprints” all over it, he said.
Despite participants from a variety of backgrounds, “If there is one thing preached clearly and taught clearly . . . we believe that the Bible is God’s Word and we are saved through Jesus Christ,” Andrews said.
• Rick Rusaw, lead pastor of LifeBridge Christian Church in Longmont, Colorado, has emphasized the externally focused church for almost two decades. LifeBridge has 54 partnerships with both Christian and non-Christian groups, and government agencies. Rusaw’s flock also provides 85 percent of the mentors for at-risk students in local schools, and half the foster homes in their county. Thanks to their help, Colorado could become the first state in America to have more openings than kids who have aged out of the foster care system.
Although many churches shy away from working with government, Rusaw said, “We’ll actively partner with somebody who is morally positive, but spiritually neutral.
. . . It’s opened phenomenal doors for us to have conversations about faith.
“We’ve discovered there is opportunity for partnership around an issue,” Rusaw said. “We want to be people of good faith working together with people of goodwill.”
Despite the openness to partnerships, Rusaw said, “We have said no to some groups we think are spiritually negative or antichurch.”
Still, he said it’s foolish to take the attitude that only “if you believe like I believe, then we can work together.” Rusaw said the key question for LifeBridge is, “Do you care about what I care about?”
The church’s building became a hub for emergency workers and home for displaced residents following the floods that devastated their community and surrounding area along the Colorado Rockies last September.
About the fourth night after the flooding began, Rusaw said, “I had a FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) official stand in our building and say if every church responded like this, ‘we would work with churches everywhere we went.’”
After helping the ravaged nearby community of Lyons, a city official decried calling the flood an act of God. That was an act of nature, he said; what LifeBridge did was an act of God.
In late November, Rusaw got a phone call from the National Guard commander for Colorado who wanted to attend a church service and express thanks for housing and feeding the troops for about two weeks. Rusaw said the commander admitted, “To be honest, we had no idea that churches could be this responsive.”
LifeBridge strives to let its light so shine that people will see God’s glory, which means members don’t wear church T-shirts or pass out tracts, Rusaw said. Their motto has become: “Good deeds provide goodwill, and out of goodwill you get to provide good news.”
And it has worked.
“Here’s the cool thing: We watched a number of displaced people come to Christ in the four or five weeks after the flood. They stayed in our facility and got connected to people in our church. And their first connection with us was through some of our flood (relief) efforts,” Rusaw said.
“We haven’t had to compromise anything.”
Darrel Rowland is an adult Bible fellowship teacher at Worthington (Ohio) Christian Church and public affairs editor of The Columbus Dispatch.