There can be no reformation without change – Alexander Campbell

I’m not saying I know how Campbell would have voted, or that his record should serve as a pattern for us. We’ve hardly felt the need to emulate every aspect of his theology. But I do find him an interesting citizen. His ventures into policy opinion included an appeal against war (even anticipating MLK’s famous concern about national military spending), upholding of indigenous rights, and the moral obligation to public (moral) education. He even gives a nod in that last one to his Persian inspiration.

We think of him as kind of an anchor for us, so there’s a sense that he’s the most conservative of us all. In fact, he’s more like our founding change agent. He was so committed to reinvention that he was willing to reform his own opinions at a few critical points.

I mostly hear Campbell’s name used to remind us that there were frail human opinions and perspectives at the root of our attempts to restore New Testament Christianity. Rarely, but occasionally, I hear a reference to Campbell’s remarkable clarity and objectivity in discovering the New Testament pattern. The innocent illusion that this is even possible is our inheritance of Campbell’s philosophy more than his theology. Mostly, though, our ahistoricism has served us in not making a theological monolith out of Campbell’s doctrinal opinions, and allows much variety in whether he is loved, feared, or entirely ignored.

What I find compelling about Campbell is his courage and conviction expressed in constant, dynamic conversation. A couple centuries before the Emergent “conversation,” Campbell was experimenting with simple, populist Christianity, bypassing institutions and denominational traditions, and conducting most of his reform movement through the publishing and public speaking circuits that predated our current 24-hour global network of digitubes.

The Stone-Campbell churches do well to evaluate Campbell’s better ideas, but we sometimes lose sight of one of his best practices: keeping the conversation going. I would say that in some corners of the Churches of Christ, our more critical brethren and sistren are succeeding in holding us together through dialogue, because they continue to name names as if their objects of complaint still mattered. In some sense, just by pointing out the gravity of someone else’s error, they affirm that they still have feelings for even our blackest sheep.

Maybe @JohnPiper just loves @RealRobBell enough to get irritated. As long as you’re still getting written about, you’re still in the family.

Maybe Campbell, even in his harder statements “correcting” other believers, has some gracious vision at heart. He hoped, ultimately, that what he had to offer was for the sake of all humankind, the whole big little c church, and towards the unity of God’s people. A debate doesn’t always connote mutual admiration, but sometimes in the very invitation is an affirmation that, though we disagree, it matters that we still talk. Although there may be some correspondence between civility and the ratio of font size for names to topics on the fliers.

Maybe I’m just coddling the cruel, and I must admit I’m working out my own resentments towards our worse angels. I’ve been hearing about how evangelicals tend to use social media as a pulpit rather than a connecting point [citation pending]; we’re used to preaching people into pews. When I feel threatened by a different perspective, I am often really protecting the way I want others to see me when I begin to react. Either forcefully or graciously, I am hoping to change them while allowing me to stay the same. In those cases, my content is fear driven. Unfortunately, the distance between me and my avatar makes me think about putting things in print I’d never say eye to eye. But the potential of broad, gracious dialogue is great.

Perhaps the use of more immediate, dynamic media for conversation – from debaters and papers to bloggers and TEDtalks – means that our ideas themselves continue to progress, and our wide web keeps us accountable. Perhaps we can stock our evaporating feeds with content that reaches out with reconciliation rather than the block-worthy, buckshot assertions that drive others to unsubscribe rather than engage differing opinions. Maybe an authentic, hospitable virtual presence avoids hard divisions set in stone, or designed on church signs.

Sometimes out of fear for doctrinal dilution, we miss opportunities for spiritual formation. Online, the good and the bad news is 1) our flaws are potentially exposed and 2) we can expect (as any long-term Facebook user can attest) that everything changes. Online is in process.

Even as we continue to argue over the value of permanent ink over open-ended digital “drafts,” our immediate, intercultural connectivity gives us an amazing opportunity to engage in mutual iron sharpening.

It also gives us the challenge of avoiding mudslinging and information obesity. It’s a difficulty to be managed. But, thankfully, we have a long history of differing opinion to remind us that things change. People change. We change.

I might even look back at myself and realize I’ve said or posted something I just don’t agree with anymore. In many cases, that is my great hope.

Here’s where anybody’s welcome to chime in with a better idea.

This post was started before having read it, but Greg Taylor’s Alexander Campbell: Millennial Blogger is a better, more thorough consideration of my impulse here.


2 responses to “Progress

  1. As a person who has been through several iterations of “what I believe” — and finally, hopefully, know that how much I am loved has nothing to do with whether I’m right about anything — I am grateful for the open, lifelong learning spirit exhibited herein. You challenge and comfort me in the same post. Thank you for being your contemplative and hopeful self.


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