The Heretics are Restless: A Call for Theology Transformation


by Bill Cooley & Robert Aubrey


We are disturbed.� The cause of this discomfort is the growing difference between what we believe to be true and important as followers of Jesus, and the apparent understandings and practices in our Disciples of Christ churches.�


In March of 2004 we wrote an article for Disciples World titled �Heretics in the Pews� in which we argued that the progressive theology held by an increasing number of disciples differs from the theology that is practiced and preached in our churches. It�s a different that strains both clergy and laity. We believe this trend will continue, driven largely by globalization that increases our interaction with other cultures and religions; and by our increasing awareness of modern scholarship that stresses our understanding of Jesus� divinity and our broader theology. Although many clergy will justifiably claim �these ideas have been taught in seminary for years,� the trend among laity to study with intellectual integrity and question fundamental church precepts increases the number of �heretics� in our pews. This increased awareness motivates a desire to acknowledge the evolving and progressive theology in our worship service. We believe that unless the Disciples discuss and embrace progressive Christian theology, we will continue to strain the theologically engaged, ensure membership trends stay firmly linked to the current decline, and threaten �reason� as a source of revelation and understanding[1].� In short, the heretics are restless.


In this article we explore the context of Disciples theology, in theory and practice, and provide several recommendations for local, regional, and the general church to consider as we corporately strive to simultaneously do Gods will and seek truth.


To help frame this discussion, Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong[2] argued in 1998 in his article[3] �A Call for a New Reformation� that:


[Between the] two poles of mindless fundamentalism and empty secularism are found the mainline churches of Christendom, both Catholic and Protestant.� They are declining numerically, seem lost theologically, are concerned more about unity than truth, and are wondering why boredom is what people experience inside church walls.� The renewal of Christianity will not come from fundamentalism, secularism or the irrelevant mainline tradition.� If there is nothing more than this on the horizon then I see no future for the enterprise we call the Christian faith.


Spong�s assessment of mainline Christendom is grim, but the undeniable truths � numerical decline, mindless fundamentalism, empty secularism -- together with other theologian authors including Marcus Borg, Bart Ehrman, and Disciple theologian Robert Funk and Daryl Schmidt, motivate an honest review and assessment of theology in our denomination. Spong�s words cited above are not meant to endorse his assessment, but serve as a starting point for the discussion, particularly his assessment that mainline churches �seem lost theologically.��


Mainline Church Context:� To understand and appreciate this theological discussion, we must place it in the context of our society. The first most readily apparent trend is the declining membership of mainline protestant denominations, and the Disciples in particular.

According to the American Religion Data Archive ( using 1970 as the basis for comparison, the seven mainline denominations have declined to an average of 78% of their 1970 membership by 2001, and the Disciples declined to 57% of their 1970 membership [see graph for details].� Further, the decline of the Disciples between 1970 and 2001 was 1.4% per year.


Despite the downward trend in mainline church attendance, our society appears very interested in understanding who Jesus was, what he taught, and how the early church evolved.� The numerous books on early Christianity appearing on the New York Times best seller list including Bart Ehrman�s book �Misquoting Jesus� (reached No. 5, April 2006), �The Gospel of Judas� (No. 3, April 2006), and the fictional �Da Vinci Code� (over 160 weeks in the top 10 including a year at No. 1) perhaps indicate the degree of interest.


Within this broader trend in society, the mainline Christian denominations appear exceptionally interested in understanding Jesus in context and with intellectual integrity. This is known as the �emerging paradigm� or �progressive Christianity.� The �prophets� of this movement, including Marcus Borg & John Spong, enjoy �Rock Star� status when lecturing within the mainline denominations, and numerous sermons, studies, and discussion groups across the US mainline denominations are just a Google away.


The trends in mainline Christianity were recently captured in Hal Taussig�s book titled �A New Spiritual Home: Progressive Christianity at the Grass Roots� in which he observed that thousands of churches and Christian communities across North America, including mainline churches, Catholic, and independent communities are evolving beyond the way church has been practiced over the past century. They posses five identifiable characteristics:

1)      A spiritual vitality and expressiveness (new & different worship expressions & experiences).

2)      An insistence on Christianity with intellectual integrity: interrogate Christian assumptions and traditions in order to reframe, reject, or renew them.

3)      A transgression of traditional gender boundaries: includes a strong commitment to feminism and affirmation of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people.

4)      The belief that Christianity can be vital without claiming to be the best or the only true religion.

5)      Strong ecological and social justice commitments.


Although not directly linked to Hal Taussig�s book, the Center for Progressive Christianity ( appears to respond to Spong�s call for a new reformation in which the fundamental Christian precepts are re-examined and the very substance of our faith �refocused and re-articulated so as to continue living in this increasingly non-religious world2.�


Disciples Context:� A �theological transformation� is familiar ground for Disciples given our experience during the early part of the last century.� At that time the central theological discussion was biblical infallibility�an idea nearly all Disciples now reject in light of our reason and experience. As Duane Cummins put it in A Handbook for Today�s Disciples (page 14):


The most telling influence upon Disciples during these years came from a new theology, which advocated thorough historical research of the scriptures and an intellectual awareness of contemporary cultural trends.� The outcome� established the new theology as the predominant intellectual force among Disciples.


The point is that the Disciples previously experienced a �theological transformation� that fundamentally shifted our understanding in the direction of reason and contemporary scholarship. The Disciple�s recent �transformation� initiative focuses on revitalizing programs and mission, not transforming theology.� Although this is a vital and worthwhile effort, it does not address the more fundamental shift: transformation of our church theology.


Restless Heretics:�

Many Disciples will rightfully argue that a single �orthodox� understanding of theology does not exist in the Disciples church, and recite slogans from Barton W. Stone and Alexander Campbell� �in essentials unity, in non essentials liberty, in all things charity� and �where the bible speaks, we speak and where the bible is silent, we are silent�. Dick Hamm suggested the phrase �in faith unity, in opinions liberty, in all things love� as a contemporary version. The updated slogan �unity of faith,� however does not address the assertion that we are �lost theologically� and does little or nothing to affect worship services. Indeed, the Disciples are well poised to accept a broad theology. However, in practice, most churches stick to the tried and true worship service based largely on atonement theology not far removed from 1960�s version of worship. Further, the phrase �in essentials unity, in non essentials liberty� begs the question, what are the essentials? Alexander Campbell wrestled with this and concluded that the only essential is the �belief that Jesus is the Christ, the son of God and that we accept him as savior.� As we suggested in �Heretics in the Pews,� these words demand etymological gymnastics for many and merit review and re-writing.


The core of the theological shift we are advocating is away from atonement theology toward a �follower theology.�� Simply put, atonement theology believes Jesus� purpose was to be a divine sacrifice and appease God for our sin, enabling us to leave our guilt and enter into salvation.� This understanding is simply not adequate to many of our members not to mention our broader society.� If on the other hand Jesus was not divine, than his purpose seems to have been to preach and teach a way that opened and extended the Jewish tradition and spawned a new religious tradition.� If that is the case, calling ourselves "followers of Jesus" means we should focus our efforts on understanding Jesus� teachings and direction to bring about the Kingdom of God in the here and now.� Addressing poverty, homelessness, affordable housing, access to medical care and medical insurance, and other social issues are the contemporary problems Jesus would be very concerned with that the "church" doesn't seem to be willing or able to productively confront.� Our emphasis on atonement limits our capacity to build God�s Kingdom.


Recommendations:� Before making any recommendations, we must clearly state that we do not know the right answer. We can only share our bias based on understanding, experience, and a sincere desire to see the Disciples move forward in a way that is true to the life, teachings, and spirit of Jesus.�


1)      Discuss:� That local churches, regions, and the General Church should sincerely ask themselves the question: How should we respond to the macro trends in our society and new understanding that comes from contemporary scholarship? If we as Disciples advertise, �Bring your Brain to Church,� then we must be willing to engage in a theological discussion that includes secular ideas and reason. In short, do Spong, Borg, and Ehrman, among others, present credible ideas and insight sufficient to modify what we believe, say and act on, or did the 1960�s church have it all right?

2)      Communicate: Churches that are currently evolving to become what Tausig would call a �Progressive Christianity� church should communicate to the broader Disciples denomination their experience�successes and failures.� If �model� progressive Disciples churches already exist, learning from their worship service format, progressive programs, and other means to communicate a progressive theology could aid other churches in a similar evolution.

3)      Hymn Theology: Hymn selection communicates your congregation�s theology.� If the hymns are based in atonement theology like �The Old Rugged Cross� (No. 548 in the Chalice Hymnal) rather than progressive hymns like �Let Hope and Sorrow Now Unite� (No. 639 in CH), members and visitors will conclude the theology of the congregation is �old school.� Hymns are arguably the cornerstone of church theology and should be appropriately considered and carefully selected.

4)      Communion: Rather than a blood sacrifice demanded by an angry God, communion is the �symbol and embodiment of a radical egalitarianism, of the absolute equality of people that denies the validity of any discrimination between them and negates the necessity of any hierarchy among them.[4]� The Disciples weekly observance of communion is a strong statement of progressive theology as well as a strong link to the earliest Christians. Borg points out that �one of his [Jesus�] most characteristic activities was an open and inclusive table.[5]�� If we are to recast communion for progressive Christian theology, rather than using the atonement words of institution, we provide here alternate words of institution for your consideration in a leader�people format:

L:����� On the night of the Passover feast, the community of faith gathered with Jesus and shared a meal.� We are all invited to this table to share these symbols of faith and community.� In the breaking of the bread,

P: ���� We unite as one body.

L: ���� In the Sharing of the cup.�

P: ���� We cleanse and renew our spirit.�

All:���� We celebrate our communion with God.

5)      Invitation to join:� Joining a church community should not require assent to questionable statements or vague arcane terms with unclear meaning.� Rather than using the question �Do you accept Jesus as the Christ the son of the living God and accept him as your personal Lord and Savior?�, we propose the following invitation for your consideration: �Do you dedicate yourself to be a faithful member of this community, demonstrate selfless love and bring hope to those Jesus called the least of his sisters and brothers?[6]


There is no guarantee that the membership trend will change if the Disciples follow these recommendations, however, an oft sighted definition of insanity comes to mind--doing the same thing but expecting a different result.


A final thought to consider in this discussion: we can�t have it both ways. We are aware of sincere attempts at a seamless merger between �old school� theology and �progressive theology� with the hope that both can co-exist in a worship service in a way that both theologies are included. The separate, distinct, and incongruent understanding of Jesus represented in atonement theology versus the principles that under gird progressive theology make such a merger difficult, if not impossible. The path of conflict avoidance is, as always, appealing. But the courage to seek and embrace truth, even though it initially seems foreign and uncomfortable, is surely the right path.


About the Authors:

Cooley, a lifelong Disciple and son of a Disciples minister, lives in Northern Virginia and serves as an Air Force officer currently attending National War College in Washington DC.

Aubrey is a lay minister and youth and young adult minister at Monte Vista Christian Church in Albuquerque NM, and in addition to directing youth programs and camps, has served as key note speaker throughout the Southwest and Great River regions.


[1] Hamm, Richard L. �2020 Vision for the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Chalice Press, St. Louis, MO, 2001, p. 51

[2] see

[3] Spong, John Shelby, �A call for a New Reformation,� The Fourth R� Vol 11, No. 4, July � August 1998. p6.� For Spong�s �Twelve Theses� see

[4] Crossan John Dominic, �Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography�, 1994, p. 27

[5] Borg, Marcus J., �Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time,� 199X, p 55

[6] Adopted from the 8 Points defined at the Center for Progressive Christianity (