Are Restorationists (Churches of Christ/Independent Christians) “evangelicals?”

Are Restorationists (Churches of Christ/Independent Christians) “evangelicals?” December 5, 2011

Today I received an e-mail from a Church of Christ member chiding me for saying (in the book Four Views on the Spectrum of Evangelicals) that I do not consider Churches of Christ “evangelical.” There I mentioned that, by and large, they seem to have a theology of salvation that borders on legalism or works-righteousness. The e-mailer disagreed and said he grew up in and was educated in a Church of Christ context.

This is one claim I have made about which I would be very glad to be corrected. As anyone knows who has read me, I want a “big tent” view of evangelicalism, but not one that is so flexible as to be meaningless. Many people want now to claim the label “evangelical” as it is enjoying something of a surge of popularity (at least in certain religious circles).  I am often asked whether I think a certain person or organization is really evangelical.  My tendency is to say yes, IF he/she/it CLAIMS to be evangelical and fits the traditional broad profile of evangelicalism. However, I can’t always be so generous.

So much depends on what meaning of the word “evangelical” is meant. It has become an essentially contested concept with at least six distinct uses.  (I detail those in my The Westminister Handbook to Evangelical Theology.) The typical journalistic use of that label is quite different from, say, the typical evangelical theologian’s!

Some years ago I was invited to be on a panel discussing religious responses to the 1990s Gulf War. I found myself sitting next to the region’s Lutheran bishop. He asked me why I was on the panel and I said I thought I was invited to represent the community’s evangelicals.  He drew himself up indignantly and said superciliously “Evangelical? WE’RE the evangelicals!” I once met a Unitarian who claimed to be “evangelical.” So, obviously, this is a problem.

Two specific problems emerge when trying to answer the question whether Restorationists (individuals and churches that trace their roots back to the Stone-Campbell movement in the early 19th century) are evangelicals. First, there is no evangelical magisterium to decide that. Second, there is no Restorationist magisterium, written or personal, to decide that. So, it is always at best a sociological and/or theological value judgment.

IF a Church of Christ or Independent Christian Church member says to me “I’m an evangelical” I’m not going to argue with him or her.  I’ll gladly embrace the person as a fellow evangelical.  However, when asked if the Restorationist Movement AS A WHOLE belongs under the “evangelical tent” I have two questions for the person asking it: 1) Do they WANT to be included there? and 2) Do they AS A WHOLE tend to display characteristics we associate with evangelical Christianity?

My experience over at least 40 years of paying attention to evangelicalism is that MOST Churches of Christ/Independent Christian Church people and churches DO NOT want to be included among the American evangelical movement.  For example, historically they have not supported Billy Graham crusades or joined the National Association of Evangelicals (although one small offshoot of the Stone-Campbell Movement is among the NAE member denominations).  Generally speaking these churches have stood apart and even criticized evangelical churches and organizations as inferior to them spiritually, theologically and ecclesiastically. They have often actively evangelized among evangelicals. TODAY there are many exceptions, however, and so the picture is much less clear today than some years ago.

Now, as to theology. I said (in the book mentioned earlier) that Churches of Christ tend to have a legalistic view of salvation.  My basis for that is their traditional belief that baptism is a necessary part of salvation (“for the remission of sins”) such that a person not baptized in water (and often not baptized in one of their churches!) is probably not saved.  I have had many experiences of conversations with Church of Christ/Independent Christian Churches people about this.  Often they will not say right up front “People not water baptized are not saved,” but it’s not difficult to tell after some conversation about the matter that’s what they do actually believe. The result, of course, is that people not yet baptized are headed to hell until and unless they get baptized.  And many of the Church of Christ people I’ve talked with will reluctantly admit that only their own water baptism “counts.”

Now, having said all that, I realize it is very possible that this is changing quickly and I’m simply not “up with the times.” So, I’m very open to correction. I have met some Church of Christ ministers who do not believe these things and who do have fellowship with evangelicals and seem to want to be considered evangelical.  Fine, I have no problem with accepting them as fellow evangelicals.  My statement was about Churches of Christ/Independent Christian Churches as a whole–as movements/informal denominations. My experience has been that those Church of Christ ministers who do not believe water baptism is necessary for salvation are “on the outs” with their associations.

So, now my answer to the question is “It depends. How much time do you have to talk about it?”

What do you all think?

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