Frontier gossip: Christian identity in a renewing word

Sam Curkpatrick

Words are inseparable from Christian proclamation. By the immediacy of words, good news is introduced personally and into occasions of possibility. Yet as time and culture changes, so does language. Language always needs renewal so that good news is spoken to be heard and precipitates ongoing witness on every new frontier.

Inherited language is a gift, shaping our world through image and concept, and we find much inspiration in words of the past. But language is also littered by expressions in various states of obscurity and incomprehension. This can lead to confusion and avoidance. Old language often requires critical interpretation to wrench it into the present.

The early Restoration Movement challenges us to renew our words of Christian witness; its approach to language can energise our thinking and doing as a renewal movement known as the Churches of Christ. The early Restoration Movement sought a vibrant Christian identity which: trusts in God’s word that speaks through our words, without the need to fix our words into authorised creeds; embraces a poetic imagination to invoke life on the cusp of God’s Kingdom, where language impels movement and decisions of faith; pursues theological reflection that extends from relevant, practical situations, alongside an appeal to common sense interpretation of the bible.

Underpinning this approach to language was a view of the present time in direct contiguity with that of the first apostles. Somewhat paradoxically, restoration was understood to be living forward from the ever-new reality—the new frontier—of Jesus Christ, and not from the intervening centuries of church, state, theology, religion and politics. Seeking to be disentangled from the heavy, tired language of Protestant orthodoxy, Restoration Movement writers, ministers and evangelists spoke on this frontier, inspired by a creative and courageous Spirit.

Two Campbells

 

Declaration and Address of the Christian Association of Washington

"Let none imagine that the subjoined propositions are at all intended as an overture towards a new creed, or standard, for the church; or, as in any wise designed to be made a term of communion; nothing can be farther from our intention. They are merely designed for opening up the way, that we may come fairly and firmly to original ground: upon clear and certain premises: and take up things just as the Apostles left them. That thus disentangled from the accruing embarrassments of intervening ages, we may stand with evidence upon the same ground on which the church stood at the beginning.

That the Church of Christ upon earth is essentially, intentionally, and constitutionally one; consisting of all those in every place that profess their faith in Christ.

That although the Church of Christ upon earth must necessarily exist in particular and distinct societies, locally separate one from another, yet there ought to be no schisms, no uncharitable divisions among them.

Nothing ought to be inculcated upon Christians as articles of faith; nor required of them as terms of communion, but what is expressly taught and enjoined upon them in the word of God."

Thomas Campbell, 1809

[abridged; complete text available here]

Thomas Campbell’s Declaration and Address (1809) is a foundational document of the Restoration Movement. In a climate of rigid church membership and denominational schism, Thomas Campbell sought a restored unity in the face of division and therefore ineffectual evangelical witness. His stated means of restoration was ‘disentanglement from the accruing embarrassments of intervening ages’ and the assumed authority of human structures and opinions. This was an appeal to faith built on nothing but the indigenously sufficient Word of God.

Individuals within the early Restoration Movement dissolved creeds and confessions of their power as terms of acceptance and distinction: these were seen as unduly sectarian, defining church membership by assent to rigid denominational doctrine. Assent to creeds had replaced the simple and sufficient confession of faith in Christ alone. Instead, Early Restorationists appealed to simple hearing and response to the Word of God as the only thing necessary to faith and membership of the universal church of Christ. This represented a great freeing-up of Christian witness and language.

Thomas Campbell’s son Alexander Campbell extended his father’s call for restoration into biblical hermeneutics. After Luther, Protestant Orthodoxy had moved to define fundamental truths of the faith, regarding certain principles or interpretations as essential, thereby fixing a point of reference outside the narrative flow of hearing. Against the objectification of good news, Alexander Campbell wrote of fluidity in hearing scripture ‘as a living language’ that ‘is constantly fluctuating’ (The Bible: Principles for Interpretation, 1846).

Gossiping the gospel

‘If it is worth saying, it is worth saying differently.’ (GR Stirling)

Today, there is a refreshing use of language within CCVT encapsulated by annual summit themes such as multiply and animate, alongside organic images such as multiplying-cells, clusters, distributed networks and centrifugal motion. These themes have inspired relational, missional and structural renewal within our churches. But how are they shaping our words of proclamation and witness?

Here, influential Churches of Christ minister Gordon Stirling (1914­–2010) has something valuable to say. A peculiar phrase that appears in his book Churches of Christ: Reinterpreting Ourselves for the New Century (1999) [book available here] suggests a starting point for conversation: ‘Gossiping the gospel.’ This phrase conveys a language of movement and energy, words that flow from the tongue to energise everyday conversation.

"We New Testament Christians somehow or other missed one of the most exciting bits of evangelism in the Book of Acts. It was when the Jerusalem Christians were so severely persecuted that many of them had to leave the city. We read of them that ‘those who were scattered abroad went everywhere preaching the word’ (Acts 8.4). The word used here for ‘preaching’ is ‘telling good news.’ It could be rendered ‘gossiping the gospel’ or telling it like it is for you ... In New Testament times there was much more gossiping the gospel than there was public proclamation." (Stirling, Churches of Christ, 43-4)

Gossiping the gospel begins in the meaningful relationships we have already been given and continue to develop as a community of hope and compassion. It is a language of mutual ministry, open to mature interpretation and creativity. In the positive sense, gossiping is a language of fellowship, seeking to give something that is meaningful and relevant.

Gossiping speaks to proliferate, to elicit testimonial relay, a word released from the control of the speaker to be carried into new situations—a vulnerable word resisting formulation and finding expression in strange stories of good news.

To trust fully in the power of God is to disentangle ourselves from words caught up in accumulated traditions, schismatic divisions or rigid formulations. We are challenged to offer clear, disentangled words in service to God, that a renewing word might be heard in the everyday, a renewing word that speaks for us, in intimacy and vulnerability. 

 

Sam Curkpatrick tutors in theology at Stirling Theological College and is the Vic Tas Partnership Coordinator with Global Mission Partners. Stirling Theological College is running an online unit on Churches of Christ Identity in Semester Two, 2017.