Campbellite Education  

Posted by The Metzes in , ,

I've been reading through Nathan Hatch's The Democratization of American Christianity, an incredibly important study of the early populist American movements, and had some thoughts spurred that I thought would be relevant for discussion here. Hatch's work is interesting in that he compares some early American Christian groups that we typically may not connect in discussions today (especially in throwing in Joseph Smith's Latter Day Saints group) and considers the sociological implications of what was going on in the new republic. There is so much good in this book it is difficult to focus on just one aspect. However, there is one subject matter that I have been thinking about lately that Hatch spurred me on further.

One of the most consistent tenets of the early populist Christian movements was a thoroughgoing resistance and outright dislike for traditional theological academia. Nearly all of these early reformers were reacting against the clerical establishment that they believed had become overly corrupt. Much as Luther and Calvin reacted to the papal establishment, these early American groups saw the same corruption and shortcomings in the Protestantism.

Alexander Campbell has a rather unique place in this setting in that he was one of the only "products" of the established theological training. The vast majority of these early Christian leaders were self-taught and self-trained, decrying the established centers of theological training. Campbell was so committed to this anti-academia philosophy of theology that when he established his college at Bethany he made sure that no chair of theology would ever be established.

Hatch's whole discussion on this matter has helped me better understand my experience in Churches of Christ. I graduated with my M.Div from Lipscomb back in 2003, and while I in no way believe that I have some kind of special insight into any text or concept, I did spend about seven years of my life entirely focused on theological training. I have found, that for the most part in churches, that training is pretty insignificant to folks. Sure, people respect my opinion, and generally appreciate listening to what I have to say on things, but when it comes down to interpretive weight - we're all on equal footing.

I suppose my question is . . . is that a good thing? More specific to the issue at hand, was Alexander Campbell correct in leveling the play field of biblical interpretation? Should everyone have equal say in the meaning of a text? Hatch notes that this was a major component of each of these early groups, in his great chapter (worth the price of the book to me!): "The Right to Think for Oneself."

I feel the pull in both directions here in considering the situation in Churches of Christ. On one hand, we seem perfectly poised for the postmodern matrix of meaning and interpretation without a central governing body to cast decisions down the denominational ladder. On the other hand, so much of the discussion taking place within the leadership of churches is making a theological degree more and more important. I, sometimes, find myself using language that those without the "formal theological training" can't follow. I then realize I'm a dope. Beyond that, I hope to pursue a D. Min degree next year and am forced to ask myself - why? Does that further the problem of distance between myself and my congregants? Am I muddying the waters of simple matters as Alexander Campbell and others were so skeptical and worried about?

I don't know if I've put this post all together in a way that makes any sense, but let me try to boil down the situation I'm trying to comment on.

Theological education in the Churches of Christ seems to be rising at a fast pace. Scholars within Churches of Christ seem to slowly be making inroads into the broader theological conversation. Education is seen as more and more of a priority in potential ministers' perquisites. Discussions of philosophy, sociology, and other disciplines have joined the ranks of theological discourse and are common place among bloggers. This all seems to imply one of two situations that I would propose for discussion:

(1) Alexander Campbell failed. His grand project of calling Bible things by Bible names and throwing out creeds and -ologies was a well-intended project, but has failed the test of time. Churches of Christ have gotten off course and need to be brought back on. It seems to me, this is where the extremely conservative/traditional Churches of Christ fall. They remain very skeptical of formal education. They remain committed to Bible School and Preacher School training centers, still believing just the Bible and only the Bible should be the object of our study.

(2) Alexander Campbell was wrong. Perhaps we are better-suited to state that Alexander Campbell was wrong, or at least mostly. Perhaps he over-reacted to the shortcomings of the theological situation of his day. Sure there was corruption, and sure there were shortcomings, but wasn't there still a place for the trained clergy?

This is where Hatch's insight is invaluable. The real driving force behind where Campbell and the others were coming from is this: the democratic voice of equality. It was within the construction of the federal republic of democracy these early leaders formed their thoughts on Christianity. The church structure they had inherited from the forefathers was so . . . undemoctratic! Politcally, the people had been taxed without representation, spiritually, the people were taught and led by spiritual elites and lofty liturgy.

It seems to me a real rub in the development of localized postmodern theology will be the interface of democracy and theology. Does majority rule in matters of interpretation? Is that our guiding light in biblical studies?

In the end, I keep coming back to this question that first emerged in my thinking in grad school: how does a Christian group who was formed at the height of modernity, firmly upon modernistic principles survive the downfall of modernity?

This entry was posted on Tuesday, July 28, 2009 at Tuesday, July 28, 2009 and is filed under , , . You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments feed .


Yes, I think majority rules. But I like to think of it as "community rules". The elders of each independent community most often lead by consensus, a great model. At the same time, I am not a huge fan of hierarchy. I am in favor of a flatter and decentralized leadership model, where the position of leader is not present. "The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations" is an insightful book and sparks my imagination for the future of restoration churches.

As for education, I am not that supportive of the Bible College model in the restoration movement. To me, they all seem a little inbred and myopic. Except in the case of Emmanuel, perhaps our most liberal graduate seminary?? Why go to a school that is dedicated to teaching one point of view? Seems the antithesis of education to me.

Glad to see another Emergent blogger from the restoration movement! You can check mine out at

August 8, 2009 at 4:24 AM

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