Nobody likes surprises. Maybe the dramatic turns and sudden detours of Rubel Shelly’s personal journey and public life as preacher, author, and teacher in churches of Christ have intensified the bumps he’s experienced on the road. Or perhaps the real reason Shelly inspires both admiration and anathemas is that he mirrors a movement embarked itself on a painful but redemptive quest for identity.
Finding in Shelly a “microcosm” of church controversies about how to hear the Restoration plea in Scripture, historian Richard Hughes traces Shelly’s metamorphosis as minister and scholar in his 1996 book, “Reviving the Ancient Faith.”
Hughes notes Shelly co-founded The Spiritual Sword, in 1969 with Thomas B. Warren, assuming the role of “celebrated spokesperson for the conservative wing of Churches of Christ.” But by the early 1980s, Shelly had transformed into “a leader of a new generation of reformers,” Hughes says.
Shelly continues to preach for the Family of God at Woodmont Hills, the Nashville congregation he has served more than 20 years. He is author of numerous articles and more than 25 books, from textually centered studies of Luke and Acts to theological analyses like The Second Incarnation, written with Lipscomb University professor Randy Harris.
Earlier this year, Shelly shared his perspectives on the nature of faith and the character of churches of Christ as the American Restoration Movement enters its third century.
In your estimation, what should Christ’s body look like today?
The larger body of Christ must be very serious about getting outside the “ghetto” that Christians have created for ourselves. Educationally, in publishing, congregational-wise, we’ve increasingly isolated ourselves. At the beginning of the new century, we have to be in the public arena.
We have to demonstrate that Christian faith is not a private experience. Although it’s very personal to each believer, it’s not private in the sense of being okay for those who choose it but irrelevant to the larger culture. Christianity was meant to challenge the world for its allegiance at every level. It’s salt and light in all the spheres where its people go.
I hope we create this sense of God’s sovereignty over everything for his people. My responsibility in the workplace, in the classroom, in everything I do is, to be the presence of Christ.
Just read the books, see the movies, and listen to the talking-head TV shows, and you discover that people are aimless and adrift. But they keep using this term “spiritual”— they want spiritual direction. That’s the business of the body of Christ.
How will our fellowship look if it conforms to this vision of Christ’s body?
It means we begin to try to have serious engagement at least in the larger religious community. We’ve been isolationist and sectarian in our approach.
Perhaps it’s our posture of theological isolation as a religious group that has led us to a lot of personal isolation. The Christian who is a CEO, a line-worker in a factory, or a third-grade teacher, a full-time mom, a graduate student in psychology, or a high school student trying to find her way, these people have to take the claim of Christ on their lives seriously.
Our task is not to stand outside the culture and wave our arms and shout and point in the direction. Rather, it is to model serious discipleship in the belief that other people will see that that kind of life has focus and meaning.
We can’t be quite so doctrinaire and start at the places we have traditionally wanted to. Selling our distinctives is not evangelism. Instead, evangelism is demonstrating the difference Christ makes in turning aimless lives into purposeful lives.
Who are we right now as a religious movement?
I don’t know. I see a lot of questing for identity in terms of theological distinctives that people want to keep in place.
If our identity is found in anything other than Christ, I think we’re going to remain confused about who we are. I don’t think we will have found our way even at the end of the 21st century.
The Restoration Movement started out with a goal of calling people back to fundamental commitment to Christ on the authority of Scripture alone. Trying to answer the question about our identity as churches of Christ is so far removed from that original goal, that they are two separate agendas. I used to be interested in the latter agenda. Now, I am interested almost exclusively in the former.
What does our fellowship especially have to offer the unchurched in view of today’s smorgasbord of spiritual options?
I think we have some historical and theological perspectives that are very valuable and that a number of mainline denominations can’t offer. Out of our tradition we offer people an opportunity to deal with a personal relationship with Christ that does not have to be filtered through a particular creed or set of sectarian, human understandings.
That was part of the genius that drove the early Restoration Movement. Those people of 200 years ago got a ready hearing by offering Christ on the authority of Scripture alone and leaving lots of issues to the best personal understandings that believers could bring to them.
But over time, we have done what every identifiable Christian group tends to do. For the most part we have not written our creed, but we have offered not simply Christ on the authority of Scripture, but a set of recognizable interpretations or what I have heard called “consensus beliefs.”
If we could get back to that more authentic restoration posture, without having to pass the orthodoxy tests we’ve superimposed, we would become immediately healthier in the process and be seen as evangelistically viable. The more explicit and rigid your set of interpretations becomes, the harder it is to do evangelism. The searching soul is just looking for a fundamental anchor for life.
Among the recent changes in churches of Christ, what shifts, if any, do you see in our fellowship’s concern about social issues?
The church must be more socially sensitive and active than it has been. The reason there are such racial divides in our fellowship is that we have not taken seriously the social ethic that’s supposed to go with discipleship.
We have not only been sectarian with our religious neighbors, but we have been racist within our own church culture.
In the church at the start of the 21st century, we’ve not made for our time the bold declarations that the first-century church made about reconciliation of Jew and Gentile. Martin Luther King was much more prophetic than any of our preachers, college presidents or editors of papers dared to be. We had to be drawn kicking and screaming into the acknowledgment of basic civil rights.
We have not been in the forefront of dealing with people with AIDS, the homeless, the working poor, the underemployed, the abused and battered wives and children. There are a few sterling exceptions, but they are notable only for being exceptions.
For the most part, we let the government or some private agency step up to those needs, while we hold church. The church is supposed to be on the frontlines of those issues. We don’t have the credibility to speak for Christ until the larger community has seen us acting like Christ.
How do you explain this lack of involvement?
It’s easier to debate the nuances of the scriptural statement than it is to take the obvious statements at face value about going out here to the poor, and the people in prison and the people without clothes.
I think we enjoy the comfort of being middle class. And in the places where churches have followed the primary flow of the culture, they have adopted its values of letting the marginalized stay on the margins. We make some grocery donations at Christmas, and we offer them the used coats we’ve discarded.
We do church and let these people fall through the cracks.
Historically people who are theologically conservative have essentially embraced the doctrine of salvation by good works, where the good work was theological hairsplitting until you got all the details just right. Again, that’s a fascinating distraction from salvation as I read about it in the New Testament, that immediately sets you down in community and makes you sensitive to the hurts of people around you.
Biblical theology sends you on a mission of relating to people in the way Jesus related to them. It is not an end in itself.