I grew up in Church of Christ, a branch of the Stone/Campbell movement (along with the Christian Church and Disciples of Christ with the Church of Christ being the most conservative). If you think of them as Southern Baptists without a formal denomination structure or musical instruments in worship, you would have a fair approximation. I grew up conflating Christianity with America, the Republican Party (particularly the Libertarian wing) and the military.
Among the strengths of the church were the desire to do the will of God, a strong theology of the priesthood of all (unfortunately just male) adult believers, and the willingness to be counter-cultural. They are officially non-creedal, but they have collected a set of traditions, especially of which parts of scripture are enshrined and which are explained away that can be at least as powerful as any written creed.
I was baptized when I was 12 and went to college intending to enter the ministry although I ended up with my primary major in computer sciences and a secondary major in vocational ministry. Along the way, my view of the Bible was broadened particularly through a class that taught me to attempt to read the Bible not through my worldview, but by first understanding what the original author was attempting to convey to the original audience in their particular situation—and to only attempt application to our time and our situation with the original context in mind.
The same professor that taught that course used to tell the story of the Good Samaritan with a homosexual in the place of the Samaritan to give the story the same emotional punch to us that it would have to Jesus’ original listeners. He left after my freshman year but he left a lasting impact on my perspectives. If nothing else, I was a lot more willing to say that I might not know the right answer about a fine point of the Bible where Christians differ—that argument and rational discourse might not solve all disagreements.
Hold on, it’s going to get more muddled. I’ll separate these streams out into my faith journey and intellectual journey but each plays into the other—at turns challenging each other and grafting new life onto the other.
I spent my mid to late twenties professionally developing but spiritually dry. When I was 28, I met my wife to be who went to another congregation across town—a more liberal congregation by our standards. After trying both, we switched to her congregation and married the following year. Three years later, our preacher, a couple of other guys and I all started a Friday study/breakfast group which is still going to this day.
We’ve tackled a number of books over the years from Slaves Women and Homosexuals to Borg’s Heart of Christianity to N.T. Wright to Richard Foster’s Freedom of Simplicity to Lee Camp’s Mere Discipleship and The Shalom Project.
I believe it was in reading Foster’s “Celebration of Discipline” and “Freedom of Simplicity” that I really began to glimpse that there might be streams of Christianity that might suit me better. Foster is a Quaker who infused me with such a bright glimmer of hope that I searched out Friends congregations here in town. However, I learned that the only one was of the liberal stripe that considered Jesus optional and didn’t practice communion.
By this point, the major force keeping me Christian was my increasing admiration of Jesus and his teachings. A church without Jesus seemed the worst of both worlds. I thought about looking into Mennonite churches since I was also realizing that we need a huge dose of simplicity, but I wrote that off thinking they were conservative and an egalitarian experience was a priority for my wife and me.
On the secular side of my journey, I had come to reject the anti-environmental view of my youth as I spent extensive time reading about climate change. I was involved in some inner city mentoring through a church small group and realized that all of my “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” answers were incomplete in some contexts and lives. I learned more of the damage that war and our form of capitalism can produce. I had become convinced that the earth was not young and faith must fit within the confines of what is, not the other way around. And I saw that the Christians I was around were often on what I felt was the side of empire, of death, of self.
There were bright counterexamples, but on the whole it felt like Christianity—which had started out pushing people toward agape love, greater equality, to the Two Greatest Commands that should center everything—had become the force that was among the most detrimental to life, let alone “life more abundantly.” It was around this point that I wrote my imagined modernized version of the Parable of the Sheep and Goats from Matthew 25. I was coming to view the church not as the heirs of Jesus, but of the Pharisees.
And when the Nickel Mines School shooting occurred, I saw how the Amish responded to the killer’s family. I cried to see such Christ like forgiveness. I remember one commentator writing to the effect that that is only possible when a community spends the years up to that learning peace and forgiveness—it’s not an accident.
I thought: “I want to be part of a community that chooses that kind of investment.” Slightly later, I ran into Kurt Willem’s Pangea Blog. I was particularly struck by two posts: one was titled “You might be an evangelical reject” and the second was on the subject of playing the national anthem at an Anabaptist college and why that was problematic. Both of these also resonated with me.
By this point, I was in my mid to late thirties. Into this tangle of thoughts and feelings I ran into Lee Camp’s “Mere Discipleship.” Lee comes from the Church of Christ, but studied under John Howard Yoder. His book did a wonderful time of both helping me better see the streams in the Bible that I thirsted for and how some of the common elements of the Church of Christ and Anabaptist models (e.g. adult baptism) fit in. His picture intrigued me about the Anabaptist models.
I then read Stuart Murray’s Naked Anabaptist, which was also very attractive. I read a biography of Menno Simons, as well as some writings by people in the Church of Christ that revealed forgotten aspects of it’s history: the founders’ admiration of Anabaptism, some early leaders that were Christian Anarchists (of the non-violent stripe). One notable preacher who has a university named after him refused to endorse either side of the civil war while living in the south and berated one congregation for refusing to let a black man join the church. But most of all, I was taking Jesus more seriously as a teacher. I was unlearning the ways that I’d been taught to minimize chunks of the sermon on the mount and other passages. I was being exposed to the idea that the kingdom of God is not just for some hereafter, that earth is part of God’s creation, not just another disposable product.
What I seemed to be finding in the Anabaptist, and particularly Mennonite perspectives, was a set of very Jesus like values that I was looking for: reconciliation, simplicity, forgiveness, love, the power of love and innocence over brute force. I conversed with my wife who had her own interest in finding a new church and then reached out the local Mennonite pastor as St. Louis Mennonite Fellowship. We visited on and off for a while, getting our feet wet. We had a little trouble developing relationships in a new group at first, but eventually, we came to love this church and the people.
The Christianity that I grew up with seemed focused on what Christians don’t do. In this body, I see people defined by what they do do. Avoiding the harm to others and/or God that comes from most forms of sin is good but Jesus seems to be calling us to so much more.
A doctor that takes the Hippocratic Oath and then decides to treat no one to make sure he/she “does no harm” is no doctor at all. A Christian whose defining characteristic is to commit no sin is no disciple of Christ at all. In this church, I found a ton of people that care about the poor, the “least of these,” the earth that we all rely on and that is the Lord’s. If the Two Greatest Commands and the Golden Rule are supposed to be the summation of the whole Bible, if Jesus is the incarnation of the Word, then this group seems like they’re at least groping around in the right direction.
Jason Lacoss-Arnold is trying to figure out what it means to be a disciple of Jesus and a father of two daughters living in an overextended empire that shapes a world that can’t comprehend ‘enough’, let alone the simplicity and sacrificial love shown by Jesus.