OK, look, I'm Church of Christ. There I said it.
CoC isn't a cult. It's less non-denominational than it was when I was a kid, since the people that call themselves "non-denominational" started naming their churches after geographic features (Willow Creek, Saddleback), or throwing together a spiritual discipline and the word "Bible", e.g., Grace Bible Church (nice people all). Christianity has gone open-source in the last quarter-century, just download the distro (pick a Bible translation that works for you), get some training in life or in a seminary and strike out on your own.
By and large, Church of Christ folks aren't front-and-center in life in the US. There are exceptions, like bazillion book-seller Max Lucado, Senator John Cornyn, DC Court of Appeals Justice Janice Rogers Brown, champion ice skater and commentator Scott Hamilton and, possibly strangest but most welcome of all, "Wierd" Al Yankovic. If we believe in the Bible as the sole source of authority, it's probably because the extent of Jesus' Recommended Books list is "The Old Testament". Much like our conservative Southern Baptist cousins, we frown on drinking to excess, general lasciviousness and significant deviation from a Biblical life as a lifestyle, being human and cognizant of our own sin doesn't really give us a sense of moral superiority. Done improperly, fundamentalist Christianity can create the Modern-Day Pharisee. Done properly, with humility and recognition that the only way we can really express our love to God (besides worship, which is a small part of expressing love) is to love others like He has loved us, you'd be hard-pressed to find more self-sacrificing, and self-effacing people on the planet.
So now this preacher's wife in Selmer, Tennsesse takes a shotgun to her husband and we're on the top of the threat profile, at least according to Nancy Grace of CNN. Her "investigation" into the possible role of the "cultish" Church of Christ began simply enough on March 24, 2006 with this exchange:
Let`s go to Kelly in Illinois. Hi, Kelly.
CALLER: Hi, Nancy.
GRACE: Hi, dear.
CALLER: I was just wondering, the victim`s family seemed very religious. And I know some religions are viewed to be as a cult. And perhaps her family was viewing that religion as cultish, and she was driven to murder to get out of that cultish situation.
GRACE: Hmm, now, I have never heard of the Church of Christ being "cultish." But I do believe that the religion and the stress of being a pastor -- in this case, a minister`s wife -- will play into it. But I believe the Church of Christ is widely respected across the country. There`s no Jim Jones action going on here.
Fair enough. Evidently this intrigued her enough to call a "friend of the show", Pastor Tom Rhukala (note: on the Feb 3, 2006 Nancy Grace show she gives a shout out at the end of the show to "And a special goodnight from friends of the show here all the way from Finland, Pastor Tom Rukala (ph), his wife, Linda (ph). Thank you for being with us." I believe the likelihood of there being another Baptist pastor in Finland with the first name Tom and a last name that can be spelled "Rukala" phonetically to be low.) and the March 27, 2006 transcript:
I want to go to pastor Tom Rukala, joining us tonight, a special guest, a Baptist minister. I`ve been researching the Church of Christ. I don`t know that much about it. What can you tell me?
PASTOR TOM RUKALA, BAPTIST PASTOR: Well, the Church of Christ is a relatively new church. It was started about 150 years ago by Alexander Campbell (ph). And it`s, unfortunately, a very legalistic sect, and they tend to use methods of intimidation and pressure tactics. They claim that they are the only ones going to heaven, and all other people are condemned to hell. So in case...
GRACE: Uh-oh, I`m in trouble. But I already knew that.
GRACE: Now, wait a minute. What more can you tell me?
RUKALA: Well, they claim that if you`re not baptized by one of their ministers, that you`re doomed to hell, even if you`re a believer in Jesus Christ, which, of course, breaks completely from the traditional Christian view that all those who call upon the name of the Lord Jesus Christ will be saved because we`re saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, who died for our sins and rose again. For the Church of Christ folks, that`s not enough. You have to be a member of their narrow sect. It`s a very exclusive group. And if you`re not a member of their sect, you`re condemned.
GRACE: You know, Pastor, you keep saying "sect." "Sect." You make it sound like a cult.
RUKALA: It kind of is a borderline cult, unfortunately. I don`t want to make it out to be some kind of Hare Krishna group, but it has cult-like characteristics and...
GRACE: In what sense?
RUKALA: Well, in the sense of the exclusivism, the attitude that they are the only ones who know the truth. The tactics that they use are sometimes just -- not only un-biblical but unethical, and they can be very ungracious, unfortunately.
Apparently, not quite as ungracious as Baptist ministers to Finland. Unfortunately.
Also apparently, "unfortunately" is Finnish for "bless their hearts", the All-Purpose Texas Attempt-To-Get-Out-Of-Tacky-Comments-Free Phrase. It doesn't cover Pastor Rhukala's misstatements and distortions of our practices, um, unfortunately. If you're not considered baptized unless it's "by one of their ministers", I've been laboring under a delusion of salvation since my father baptized me in April of 1980. The snarky comments about "being the only ones going to heaven" are a couple of decades out of date, at least. The baptism issue is not one I see him taking up with Rick Warren, for one, and he shows no inclination to give a biblical example of salvation without baptism. And why he wouldn't want to make a public gesture identical to the one his Savior made is beyond me, but then, I don't have to deal with 9 months of winter a year, it's possible he's a bit around the bend -- or more likely he's quoting what he learned about the CofC back in seminary in the 1960s, again, unfortunately. He may be mistaking the mainstream CofC for Kip McKean's International Churches of Christ a branch that split off in the 1980s, which does have a cult-like reputation, one that is well-deserved and most loathed by those of us who lie in the mainstream of the CofC movement.
I'll say this about Nancy Grace, she at least has the common decency to have an opposing view on the show rather than simply letting slander lie. So on March 29, 2006, she had Rubel Shelly on to present the Church of Christ side to the have-you-stopped-beating-your-wife-esque question, "Are you a cult?" Dr. Shelly gave a pretty well-reasoned response:
GRACE: Is the Church of Christ a cult? Is it cult-like? Did that play into this murder in any way?
With us, Dr. Ruble Shelly, professor of philosophy and religion at Rochester College. He`s a Church of Christ minister. He knows the Winkler family. Let`s take a look.
Single leader, cult-like qualities, trying to isolate members, members happy and enthusiastic -- I don`t think that`s a bad thing -- experimental rather than logical, hide what they teach, say they`re the only true group.
Dr. Shelly, response?
DR. RUBLE SHELLY, CHURCH OF CHRIST, PROFESSOR OF PSYCHOLOGY: It certainly doesn`t fit the criteria you just gave. We certainly have never created those charismatic personalities. We`re a network of independent, local churches.
And your guests so far, I`m the only one who has to plead guilty to being a member of the Church of Christ. And Churches of Christ certainly are not cultic in any of that classic sense.
We`re a conservative, religious group in the Christian tradition. You`d ask one of our members, and we`d say we jump right off the pages of the New Testament. Historically, we come out of what`s called the American Restoration movement, but the cultic label -- I can`t imagine anyone sticking that label.
GRACE: Dr. Shelly, what is the role of women in the Church of Christ?
SHELLY: Well, we believe that God created the human race male and female in his image and that Paul said there is no male or female in Christ. There are some male leadership options, in terms of elders of churches, and most preaching ministries that are reserved to males, but that`s not a cultic fact.
GRACE: Why? Why?
SHELLY: Well, that`s because of a biblical interpretation issue that Southern Baptists and many other groups share in common with Churches of Christ about male leadership in local churches. Churches of Christ are a conservative religious group.
GRACE: OK, wait, wait, wait. Dr. Shelly, no offense, by why, why only male leadership? Does anybody remember Mary Magdalene, ding ding?
SHELLY: Well, Mary Magdalene was not an apostle. All of the apostles were, in fact...
GRACE: Well, Judas was, and that certainly isn`t saying very much.
SHELLY: Well, we don`t want to quarrel with gender issues, with regard to salvation. And probably, I`m more broad-minded and a bit more liberal in terms of things that I would affirm that women have a right to do in church leadership than some of the people in our churches, but generally...
GRACE: OK. Dr. Shelly, let me move on, because I agree with you.
SHELLY: No, you asked the question as to where it came from.
GRACE: Yes, and I`d love an answer.
SHELLY: First, Timothy 2:11 and 2:12 talks about male leadership in churches. And that text has a great deal hung on it by religious conservatives to say that fathers in homes and elders in churches as male leadership, protective leadership, not abusive leadership.
GRACE: Dr. Shelly, do members of the Church of Christ church believe that that is the only way to heaven?
SHELLY: No. Churches of Christ began in an historical movement whose slogan was, "Christians only, not the only Christians"...
GRACE: No, no, no, wait, wait, wait, wait, don`t need a history lesson, as much as I appreciate it. We`re only an hour long. Do you believe that Jews and Muslims...
SHELLY: Well, you asked the question. The answer is no, because our slogan is...
GRACE: ... will also go to heaven?
SHELLY: Christians only, not the only Christians. We don`t believe we`re the only Christians or the only ones going to heaven.
GRACE: OK, now, you know...
SHELLY: There may be individuals who do.
GRACE: You have got a great sense of career as a lawyer.
SHELLY: Churches of Christ are a loose network of independent churches. And I suspect you could find someone who believes most anything on your scale.
GRACE: Reverend, yes, no, do you believes that Jews or Muslims can go to heaven?
SHELLY: I believe that Jews and Muslims are to be shared the gospel of Christ. Now, that`s a much larger issue.
GRACE: Gotcha, OK. All right. I get it.
SHELLY: I do believe that Jesus is the only path to heaven, of course. Conservative Christians believe that.
No disagreement there. Notice how Ms. Grace seizes terrier-like on the role of women in the church. Somehow, I'm thinking that shooting your husband in the back is not much of a theological argument for women leading more prayers in worship. Anyone who knows anything about the CofC could tell you that the women are the most active, participatory and evangelical part of the church, and that more happens in a given week under the guidance and direction of women in the 167 hours we don't spend in congregational worship than happens under the "direction" of men during the hour in worship. Women are the cornerstone of every vital and active church, there may be some outliers (some CofCs are REALLY conservative) but overall the woman's role in the church is vital and highly regarded in the CofC even if they don't preach on Sundays or serve communion.
The truly funny thing about this is that if she wanted to know about the Church of Christ, all she had to do was ask her guest of March 28, 2006, a certain Max Lucado, whom she asked to comment on the Terri Schiavo matter a year after her death.
And funny enough, given a free shot to bash the stuffing out of the Church of Christ, Bob Jones, Chancellor of Bob Jones University, (mostly) passed on the opportunity, on March 29, 2006:
GRACE: OK. I want to go very quickly now to a very special guest, Bob Jones, chancellor of Bob Jones University. Welcome, Reverend. A couple of questions. This case has highlighted a very serious concern, and that is, when you look to your religious leader, in this case the pastor of their church, people look to them and their family for religious guidance. They are somewhat examples to the members of the flock.
How serious is this? How serious a blow is this to this church`s flock? And also, many people have suggested the Church of Christ is a cult. Now, they deny that. What do you think?
BOB JONES, CHANCELLOR, BOB JONES UNIVERSITY: Well, Nancy, it`s obvious that when your Christian leader, be it pastor or whatever he may call himself, falls into sin, it`s a terrible -- it`s a terrible blow. And in this case, the pastor`s wife has obviously disappointed her Lord and her congregation. And just like all over the world, there are very disillusioned Catholics whose priests were revealed as pedophiles, and when that all got revealed, it just shattered everybody`s confidence. And so yes, it is very disconcerting.
The Church of Christ is a legitimate national denomination. Their beliefs about salvation, in particular, would be one of the things I would have vast differences with them with personally because I think, you know, it`s very clear from the scripture that we`re redeemed to Christ through the blood of the cross, not by the baptismal waters. But I could not personally call it a cult in any way. It`s just a denomination who has doctrines that I personally don`t subscribe to because they aren`t biblical.
So at least from Bob Jones, we aren't a cult. And he should know. ba-dum-dum! The non-biblical thing is, as always and ad infinitum, debatable.
So basically, Nancy Grace is probably not done with us yet, I think she can squeeze another segment out of this. At least she had the fairness to have on a couple of Church of Christ ministers, one apparently unknown to her for reasons unrealted to the Winkler murder.
And I take more than a little solace in knowing that even if she declared the mainstream CofC a cult, almost nobody would find out. Bill O'Reilly beats her better than 3:1 in the same time slot. :)