Why Nathan Loewen and other gospel-believing Disciples of Christ pastors are attending the North American Christian Convention in Indianapolis this year.
By Michael C. Mack
Much has changed and much has remained the same in the Restoration Movement over the past 90-plus years. The separation was set in motion, many say, over a two-year period beginning with the 1926 Disciples of Christ convention in Memphis, Tennessee, and then the response by the more biblically conservative church leaders who organized the first North American Christian Convention in 1927. Over the next 45 years or so, the two groups drifted apart more and more. Each had their own mission societies, magazines, colleges, conventions, and “distinctive” viewpoints.
If you attend this year’s NACC in Indianapolis, however, you might run into several Disciples pastors. And, it seems, more are attending each year, despite the risks involved.
At last year’s NACC, I met Nathan Loewen, senior pastor of First Christian Church of the Beaches in Neptune Beach, Florida, a Disciples of Christ church founded in 1945. Loewen, who started at the church in 2016, grew up in Disciples churches in Texas, went to Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth, and ministered at First Christian Church in Cleburne, Texas, before moving to Florida.
I was intrigued by Loewen’s story and wanted to know more. Why are he and other Disciples pastors coming to the NACC? Is their attendance a sign of something bigger occurring? Is reunification, at least with some in the Disciples stream, possible? These were a few of the questions I had for this 35-year-old who calls himself a gospel-believing Disciples of Christ pastor.
Let’s start with the most obvious question. Why is a Disciples of Christ guy like you attending the North American Christian Convention?
In seminary, in the Disciples history class we had to take, we learned about the entirety of the Restoration Movement, and our textbook talked about the North American beginning in 1927, so I had a knowledge that it existed and continued.
I’ve been pretty frustrated with our [Disciples] General Assembly that meets every other year. It wasn’t life-giving for my ministry, so I was looking for something to attend that was still within the Restoration Movement, where I could hear the gospel and be poured into, and worship alongside [other like-minded leaders]. So I thought I’d give the North American a try [in 2017], and it was fantastic. It met all my expectations and more.
One of the things you and I discussed at the 2017 NACC was that “unity is the polar star” for many Disciples churches. What do you mean by that?
The Disciples branch of the Restoration Movement has moved into ecumenism in wanting to include everybody.
Unity for the sake of unity is hard, I believe, when it’s not based on the gospel of Jesus Christ. Because it’s the gospel of Jesus Christ that brings that unity, that causes that unity. When we believe that Jesus is the Son of the living God, our Lord and Savior who died on the cross for our salvation and was resurrected to life, we become brothers and sisters in the faith. [When we] understand the Bible that way, as it’s written as an infallible text, it’s hard to have unity with someone who doesn’t believe that. Because that’s not true Christian unity. [Instead] you’re wanting unity with someone who has believed a false teaching or is promoting false teaching.
It’s easier for the Christian churches and the a cappellas to come together because they have that unity in the gospel, whereas Disciples, I believe, are viewed as a whole as people who have thrown away the authority of the text, and because we’ve done that, it makes everything else questionable.
But I’m one of those who teaches on the infallibility of the Word. And quite a few of us exist who hang out quietly within the Disciples.
No kickback here in the local church. More so when I get together [with other Disciples pastors] on a regional level. I’ve learned to take the attitude and posture of a missionary, knowing that I have the gospel and not everyone [else] in the room does. Not to hate them, but to love them and point them back to the gospel.
There have been some struggles. There’s always talk within Disciples of, “Well, if we could just get rid of our conservative pastors!” I was at a Disciples gathering with 36 other pastors who are in the top 100 in size—which is not that great a thing within Disciples, because I think you only have to have 200 in worship to be in the top 100 [see sidebar, “Disciples Churches by the Numbers”]. The new general minster and president of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in the United States and Canada, Teresa Hord Owens, was there, and I was struck by what she said. I recall her saying, “If you can’t confess that Jesus Christ is the Son of the living God, our Lord and Savior, then you’re not a Christian. I don’t know what you are, but you’re not a Christian.” Within Disciples, that probably hasn’t been uttered in such a matter-of-fact way in decades.
From your perspective, what would be the most difficult part of reunifying Disciples with the other streams of the Restoration Movement?
The hardest part, I believe, is that the other streams, the a cappella churches of Christ and the independent Christian churches, believe the infallibility of Scripture is an essential. The Disciples want everyone to take it as a nonessential, so that there’s liberty in our interpretation and understanding. As a whole, as a denomination, Disciples are not willing to move on that. That “Jesus Christ is the Son of the living God, our Lord and Savior” is our lone essential, and so unity around that confession [alone] would require the other parts of the Restoration Movement to [set aside] something they believe to be an essential, which would be an extreme move, and it’s not one evangelicals will make.
Where would you consider your church right now: as an independent Christian church, as a Disciples church, as both, or as neither?
We are a Disciples church until we can’t be in the Disciples anymore. So far, they haven’t told us that based on our beliefs we can’t be a part of them.
Its official name, First Christian Church of the Beaches, does not include “Disciples of Christ.” [The church] was founded before 1968 [when the Disciples adopted the “Provisional Design of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)”; this is also the date of the final redaction of the Disciples Year Book, removing independent Christian churches]. Our church doesn’t have a history of participation within the denomination. The sign in front of our church does not identify the church as Disciples. The sign does have the [Disciples of Christ] chalice symbol on it, but it’s coming down. That’s the only place you’ll find the chalice on anything we have. You won’t even see a link to the Disciples [denomination] on our website.
It sounds like you identify more with independent Christian churches, and yet you still consider yourself a Disciples church.
Yeah, that’s probably 100 percent accurate. I have more things in common with the average independent church than I have with most Disciples churches.
I was born and raised in Disciples, but I am blessed that my dad, who became a Disciples pastor, is also evangelical. He was born Mennonite, they were Nazarene when there wasn’t a Mennonite church around, and he joined a Disciples church because he married a Lutheran!
When you get into rural towns, those [Disciples] churches tend to be more evangelical. Where you see the strongest difference is in our clergy, because we go to [theologically liberal schools such as] Brite Divinity School, Lexington Theological Seminary, Christian Theological Seminary in Indiana. I went to Brite Divinity School, which might be the lighthouse for liberal theology, especially within the Restoration Movement. When I was in seminary, I was buying liberal theology hook, line, and sinker. I was like, yeah, universalism, let’s go!
The change happened [as I was] reading my Bible [and I found it] really hard when I had to take in all these academic exercises to try to understand it. I just wanted to take the Bible at its word and read it and see what happens. It was a freeing experience; I felt freedom in the discovery of the gospel for the first time as a clergy when I did so. So that’s where I ended up.
We have Bibles in the pews [at First Christian Church of the Beaches], and I tell everyone every Sunday, “If you don’t have a Bible, you need to take that Bible that’s in that pew; it’s yours.” We tell people, “What’s more fallible, you or the Word of God?”
You told me about a “movement” within the Disciples churches that are gospel-centered. Talk about that.
I found myself as an evangelical pastor within Disciples [feeling] isolated, and so I have resources and wherewithal to find other pastors I can identify with, and I’m not stuck to Disciples tradition to find those. I’m willing to go to the North American to find other people I can relate to. I just wanted to create an affinity group within Disciples of gospel-centered clergy.
So my buddy, Paul Carpenter, who’s at First Christian Church in Lubbock, Texas, and I started this [Facebook] group with just a handful of people we knew. There are 70-plus members [who are pastors of Disciples churches] in it now, and we haven’t even reached a year of doing this. It’s all [through] word of mouth that it’s spread. We’re just there to support each other. And I believe there are more out there; not all of them are connected on Facebook, especially those who are older.
When we see someone who may be a youth minister at a church, and when we hear their sermon online, we post it in the Facebook group and we say, “we need to start praying for this young man and start pouring into him,” and we do, because we know if we don’t, they’ll end up at a Disciples seminary, and we’ve all been through that.
How many of these 70 Disciples pastors do you think will be at the NACC this year?
Maybe 10. Some of [these pastors] are afraid of backlash from denominational structures, and if they need to go find another job, the regional ministers may not be willing to put their [résumé] in front of all of the churches [that have openings]. So you may sit without a pulpit for a long time. And Indianapolis is where our headquarters are, and some of them may be fearful.
So you may be taking a risk by coming to the NACC.
Yeah, that’s fine. I’m not worried about anything. My job as a minister is to stand up for the gospel and preach the gospel. Unashamedly and boldly. I can’t do so if I’m afraid of denominational structures or hierarchies or anything that may happen to me. Because if it does, it does. Missionaries all across the world risk their lives because they preach the gospel and they may be killed for it. If I’m too afraid to preach the gospel and make connections with other pastors who are preaching the gospel because I’m afraid my résumé may not end up in front of another church when it’s time for me to move churches, there’s not a whole lot of courage there.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Yes. For my independent Christian church brothers and sisters out there, if there’s a Disciples church in your town, go reach out and talk to that pastor. You may be surprised. You may have to make the first move, but there may be great kingdom things that come out of it because you did so.
Michael C. Mack is editor of Christian Standard.