Our Vision as Disciples of Christ

Our Vision as Disciples of Christ:
To be a faithful, growing church,
that demonstrates true community,
deep Christian spirituality,
and a passion for justice.

“Learning to see the kingdom in the church with God’s eyes.”

Vision is about what we see as we look into the distance, out onto the horizon of our faith and future. The weather report often includes “visibility = 7 miles” which is really about how far pilots can hope to see while still below the clouds. How clear is the view? Can you glimpse the shining city of God in the far distance, or only the middle and near geography? Vision is less about what we are, than what we aspire to be – a snapshot, a “future story.” Its like asking the questions, “What do we want to be when we grow up?” only the focus is on God’s will and desire for us – we want to be whatever God has created, called, and charismed us to be.

At the beginning of the restoration movement which birthed the Disciples of Christ was a vision for unity of the Body of Christ – a vision born from reading and praying through the scriptures and hearing the call of God in the words of John 17 and Ephesians 4. Seeking this unity, Thomas and Alexander Campbell and Barton Stone joined with other reformers of the church in quoting: “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.” The question remained, of course, “What are the essentials?” They practically concluded that the most practical answer was the narrowest, focusing on the simple profession of Jesus as the Christ to be the cornerstone of shared Christian faith. Agreeing that there certainly must be more to say, however, these early reformers proceeded to emphasize a focus on a scholarly study of the scriptures, believing that if faithful people would study the New Testament, they could come to agreement on its meaning. This proved to be naïve.

The early divisions in the movement were over church practice and structure, specifically whether to organize for mission and whether to use musical instruments in worship – as neither of these are specifically prescribed in the New Testament. One group sought to do only that which is commanded or expressly permitted, while the other believed faithful practice included avoiding those things expressly prohibited, and using reason to discern those things neither commanded nor prohibited. These groups began with the same vision, and took the same approach toward it, but ended up with very different conclusions on how to live out their faith. Only since the 1990s are these two streams of tradition coming back together for dialogue and growing in mutual appreciation.

While we as Disciples of Christ continue to aspire to the vision of Christian Unity, we also have an increasingly focused vision through which to pursue that calling:

true community,
deep Christian spirituality, and
a passion for justice.

True Community: The biblical witness to God’s work in the world focuses on the formation of a people set apart. Beginning with the call of Abraham and Sarah (GN 12) this peculiar people (1 PTR 2:9) understood their role as receiving blessings so as to be a blessing to the world. They grew to understand that this was not a gift and calling given to each individual, but a shared ministry and mission given to the community. Only as we grow to be “true community” are we able to fulfill our mission – “to be and to share the good news of Jesus Christ, witnessing, loving and serving, from our doorsteps to the ends of the earth.” Jesus said that the way we love each other will be a direct witness to the world of Jesus’ active presence in our lives (JN 13). Paul talks at length about serving one another (1 PTR 4:10), honoring one another (RM 12), bearing with one another (COL 3), submitting to one another (EPH 5-6) out of love for Christ and each other. I think these virtues are particularly difficult to practice in cultures that are so individualistic and highly valuing of privacy and autonomy. We do not want other people in our affairs, and frankly would just assume stay out of theirs in the particular, even if we like to prescribe rules for others generally. The precondition for the specific submission of any one person to another is the shared commitment to practice mutual submission (EPH 5:21). Jesus models this submission for us in the incarnation itself, submitting his divinity to our humanity (PHL 2) and by the Master coming as a servant (LK 22). This service is foundational for our shared life as the Body of Christ (1 COR 12) as exemplified in the Last Supper when he washed the disciples’ feet (JN 13).

Deep Christian Spirituality: Many of teachings found in Exodus through Deuteronomy focus on how people are to treat their neighbors (LEV 19). Still others focused on how the people were to relate to God – i.e. to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and strength” (DEUT 6). Israel was given religious rituals, worship forms, acts of sacrifice, and prayers to shape their practice. Most of the Christian community has assumed that the specifics of those laws are left behind under the new covenant, though their spirit remains. The New Testament only has a very few specific mentions – such as the end of keeping a kosher diet (MK 7; ACTS 10), and the removal of the need for sin sacrifice with the death of Jesus (HEB 10). Many other spiritual practices are left for us to discern – prayer, fasting, study, singing, offerings of first fruits, tithe, devotion and vow. Jesus teaches on some of these, for instance in MTW 6 and LK 11. A deep Christian spirituality follows the example and teaching of Jesus, and is consistent with the spirit of the practices of Israel and the early church, even if it is not identical. Jesus regularly went to worship with others (LK 4) and regularly took time by himself to be with The Father in prayer (MK 1, 6). There is room for much variety of opinion regarding how we are to practice these spiritual disciplines. What is without doubt is that we are to take this aspect of our lives seriously and that our practice is to be both individual and communal.

A Passion for Justice: The bible recognizes a difference between helping those in need and doing justice. Both are called for. LEV 19 focuses on both by legislating that the fields must not be picked clean so that the poor have some access to gather food, and that business practices must be fair and impartial, not oppressing one group or favoring another. Economic practices that oppress the poor and favor the rich were apparently so common that these themes are repeated in DEUT 25, PROV 20, MIC 6, The two main sins of the Israelites, were idolatry, and oppressing the poor (2 Kings 21 & ZECH 7). In ISA 58 we hear the people complain that God does not honor their prayer, fasting and worship. The prophet names their sins of idolatry and oppression as hindering them from receiving God’s blessings – “9 Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.”

Though the church seems to have been unable or unwilling to maintain the practices with the same intensity, the descriptions offered by Luke at the end of Acts 2 and 4 are often held up as models of how the church should look, of a vision of the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven. Luke said this:

ACTS 2: 42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43 Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 44 All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45 they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46 Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

ACTS 4: 32 Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. 33 With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. 34 There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. 35 They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.

We might ask ourselves why the church has not maintained this way. Whether we are meant to live our shared faith in quite that way, we certainly are called to be a peculiar people set apart through our faith in Jesus Christ to offer the world a new way to live in covenant love with self, God and one another. As we seek to grow to maturity in Christ, we will

become true community,
practice deep Christian spirituality,
and live our a passion for justice.

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