Bob Wetzel ‘Found a Home in the Christian Church’
Bob Wetzel ‘Found a Home in the Christian Church’

As a “Reflections” writer in 1999, C. Robert Wetzel wrote four columns, all of them somewhat personal. This column was the most autobiographical.

C. ROBERT WETZEL

Wetzel was serving as president of Emmanuel School of Religion in Johnson City, Tenn., at the time he wrote this. He served in that capacity from 1994 to 2009. For the past decade, he has served as chancellor of the school (now called Emmanuel Christian Seminary at Milligan College.)

Here’s some biographical info about Wetzel that isn’t revealed in this column:

Wetzel received a BA from Midwest Christian College (now Ozark Christian College), an MS from Fort Hays (Kan.) State College, and a PhD from the University of Nebraska. He held pastorates at churches in three states.

He taught philosophy and humanities at Milligan College from 1961 to 1980, and was academic dean from 1970 to 1976. He was instrumental in founding Springdale College in Birmingham, England, and from 1980 to 1991 served as principal of that ministerial training school for the Churches of Christ in Great Britain.

At Emmanuel, prior to his presidency, he was dean, professor of ethics and philosophical theology, and initial director of the school’s Doctor of Ministry degree program.

He and his wife, Bonnie, have two children.

That’s a hefty bio, but you’ll come to realize Wetzel has a spirit of humility.

_ _ _

Knowing Where Your Umbilical Cord Is Buried

By C. Robert Wetzel
June 13, 1999; p. 4

They might have been Methodist, Baptist, or Pentecostals but they weren’t. They were boys from the First Christian Church of Hugoton, Kansas. In the summer of 1946 they stopped by my home and said, “Let’s go to Vacation Bible School.” Still being relatively new in town I was anxious for acceptance and gladly went with them. At 12 years of age, one needs the acceptance of peers. I could hardly have realized that the invitation was to shape the rest of my life.

My family were good people but had no connection with the church. Vacation Bible School led to Christian service camp and regular attendance at Sunday services. Standing before a group of young people and reading the clipped lines from the Christian Endeavor lesson was my first occasion to speak in public. During a revival about a year later one of my friends said to me, “Shall we go up tonight?” It seemed like the thing to do. When the invitation hymn was sung, we walked forward together and made the Good Confession. The next night we were baptized.

A NEW HOME

Over the next few years the church became a second home. All of this might have happened in a different church had those boys who recruited me for Vacation Bible School been from the local Church of God or Baptist Church. But they weren’t. They were from First Christian Church. Today, more than fifty years later, most of those who shaped my early Christian life have joined that Cloud of Witnesses the writer of Hebrews talks about in chapter 12. They were the Sunday-school teachers, youth sponsors, ministers, elders, and others who were a part of that community of believers. And they continue to encourage the race I run.

There was a good relationship among the various churches of our small western Kansas community. And yet, through a good teaching program, we understood something of the uniqueness of the witness of the Christian Churches. Even in high school we knew the names of Campbell and Stone and the basic ideas of the Restoration Movement. Many of us were led through C. J. Sharp’s New Training for Service and received the certificate issued by Standard Publishing. The appeal to reason and evidence in understanding Scripture seemed compatible with the assumptions of the science classes I enjoyed in school. In fact, given the influence of the churches in our community there was no sense of passing into an alien, sectarian world when one went from church to school.

All of this reminiscing and reflecting is to say that I found a home in the Christian Church. Bible college led to ministries in local churches, and graduate school led to ministries in Christian higher education. Milligan College, Springdale College, and Emmanuel School of Religion are the three Christian Church-supported schools where I have spent my life. They all exist because Christian people from Christian Churches have confidence in the ministries they perform and hence contribute to them. The opportunity my colleagues and I have to fulfill our teaching ministries is very much dependent upon the stewardship commitment of these brothers and sisters in Christ.

FAMILY AFFAIRS

Readers of the Christian Standard will readily recognize the churches I have in mind when I talk about Christian Churches. We sometimes identify ourselves as Christian churches/churches of Christ. Or we still hear what has become a misleading anachronism: Independent Christian Churches. The divisions that have occurred in what I originally knew as the Restoration Movement have been especially embarrassing to a people who wanted to see the church united as Christians only.

So today we are forced to speak of “the Stone-Campbell Movement with its three streams: Churches of Christ, Christian churches/churches of Christ, and Disciples of Christ.” Of course these are all good biblical names just as is “Church of God.” But we find ourselves doubly sad in the way we are forced to use them. They too easily become in practice “denominational names,” if not in our minds, certainly in the minds of those who view us from beyond our own circles.

Besides, if our experience with one of the other streams has been particularly unhappy, the good biblical name becomes a pejorative. Think of what we have done with the term “Disciple.” Thank God for those among us who continue to work for internal unity among the three streams of the “Movement,” whether we call it Stone-Campbell, Restoration, or the Reformation of the 19th Century! The Restoration Forum, Victor Knowles’ Peace on Earth Ministries, and the World Convention of the Churches of Christ are just a few of these noble efforts.

Although I look for opportunities to fellowship with brothers and sisters among the a cappella Churches of Christ and among the Disciples of Christ, my roots and my primary ministry are among Christian churches/churches of Christ. Just as the Downtown Christian Church in Johnson City, Tennessee, is my “church home,” so I am at home when I share in the North American Christian Convention, the National Missionary Convention, and other such gatherings of “our people.”

At the same time I am grateful for those opportunities to worship and work with brothers and sisters in the Movement at large. And I praise God for that wonderful fellowship that occurs at TCM’s Haus Edelweiss when evangelical Christians from a variety of denominations come together to learn. During those precious two weeks, we simply know each other as brothers and sisters in Christ.

Furthermore I am thankful for what other Christian traditions have taught me about the rich variety of worship that has existed and continues to exist in the church at large. The British Churches of Christ as well as the Anglicans certainly opened my eyes to ways of observing the Lord’s Supper that enriched the experience of this precious feast. I had known the Lord’s Supper primarily as an “ordinance,” something that was commanded. Participating in services where the Lord’s Supper was in fact central to the service helped me see better its sacramental and communal nature. I better understand and appreciate why many congregations affiliated with the Disciples of Christ have moved toward a more liturgical form of worship.

At the same time, I experienced among the independent charismatic churches the joyful exuberance of worship in what we now call the “contemporary service.” One of the few criticisms that I would make of the trend toward contemporary services among Christian churches/churches of Christ is that we borrowedth this kind of worship from denominations who, by and large, do not have a tradition of the weekly practice of the Lord’s Supper. Hence one detects a struggle to determine what to do with the Lord’s Supper in the “seeker-friendly” environment that the contemporary service attempts to create.

It would be good to hear from leaders of churches with contemporary services on how they have retained and enhanced the observance of the Lord’s Supper in their services. It is being done, and in many churches it is done remarkably well. . . .

There has always been a certain amount of pragmatism in the Restoration Movement. The concern for sound doctrine tends to be balanced by a willingness to try new methods in order to get the job done. It is only by accident that the churches of the Stone-Campbell Movement allowed themselves to be defined sociologically by a common style of worship with a common hymnology. That cultural unanimity is dead, and I do not mourn its passing. But I do pray that the doctrinal unity and our love for each other remain vital.

A CONTINUING CHALLENGE

The historic plea of the Restoration Movement constantly challenges us to return to the New Testament for our knowledge of the Christ and our understanding of the church. The plea also challenges us to see the church as transcending denominational lines, even when those denominational lines are of our own making! And if we are to give witness to the genius of the Restoration Plea, we must be willing to take that witness into the “marketplace of theological ideas.” But those who go to market must have a home to which they can return. It is a mistake to become so fascinated with what is happening in the market that we forget where home is. Others have said it; I read it in “Peanuts.” Linus proclaimed, “I love humanity. It’s people I cannot stand.” Something like this can happen in our understanding of church when we proclaim our love for the church, the body of Christ, but we cannot stand local congregations or the fellowship of churches we once called home. These congregations are the body of Christ! One of the surprising things to discover in reading the history of theology is to find how many recognized theologians had no church life. Is it any wonder that so much of theology lost touch with the reality of Christ at work in His body, the church?

If I speak about these things with a certain passion, it is because they are questions with which I have had to wrestle in a lifetime of ministry. Thankfully, there is no question in my mind where home is. Locally, I am now a part of the body of Christ that meets at 335 East Main Street in Johnson City, Tennessee, and calls itself the Downtown Christian Church. Most of my ministry takes place in congregations and educational institutions that are identified with Christian churches/churches of Christ. But this heritage has given me an understanding of what it means to be a Christian that enables me to participate in the church universal wherever I find it.

All three of these expressions of the body of Christ will have their problems. But they are family, immediate family, and extended family. And like family there is an effort to deal with problems within the family circle. But when the family is attacked or simply depreciated from without, we very quickly come to its defense.

Dr. Kiptolai Elolia of the Emmanuel faculty told us recently of a saying from his Kenyan culture. “If you do not know where your umbilical cord is buried you do not know who you are.” My spiritual umbilical cord is buried at Sixth and Van Buren in Hugoton, Kansas, in a piece of ground where once stood the original building of First Christian Church. There is a new building now, but it is still the same church. That church is still a part of the same fellowship of churches in which I have ministered over the years and which opened my eyes to the church universal. It is good to know who you are.

Some people never leave home. They never have to. Others seem destined to follow pilgrimages. But pilgrims must always remember where home is and must never travel beyond the voice of the Father who calls them home. As T. S. Eliot wrote:

With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
—T. S. Eliot, The Four Quartets

_ _ _

You shouldn’t be surprised to learn that in 2008 Wetzel served as president of the World Convention, the global gathering of the three streams of the Restoration Movement—Christian churches, churches of Christ, and Disciples of Christ—whose ministry is to build fellowship, understanding, common purpose, and effectiveness within and among those churches.

—Jim Nieman, managing editor, Christian Standard

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1 Comment

  1. Paul "Pat" Mooney
    July 19, 2019 at 5:17 pm

    I now serve as Senior Minister at Downtown Christian Church in Johnson City, Tennessee. Dr. Robert Wetzel is one of our wonderful Elders and is one of the most humble men I have ever met. Dr. Bob, as I call him, has the gifts of encouragement and compassion as well as being a great leader. Thank you, Dr. Bob, for your faith, service, testimony, and wisdom.

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