The Hierarchy of Discipling Churches
Gospel Advocate / November 5, 1987
By Flavil R. Yeakley Jr.
The gap that separates discipling churches from other churches of Christ has grown much wider recently. Some critics of the discipling movement may rejoice because they now can say, “I told you so.” Some of these critics never have recognized anything good about discipling churches or any need for improvement in other churches of Christ.
My purpose is not to express such a view in this article. I believe that much of what the discipling churches are doing is good, and I know other churches of Christ need to improve in many ways. This, however, does not justify the recent developments in the discipling movement.
An ecclesiastical hierarchy is developing among the discipling churches. Other congregations that grew out of the work of the Crossroads Church of Christ in Gainesville, Fla., are being taken over by the Boston Church of Christ.
This takeover is not just an informal matter of influence. It involves a new organizational structure in which one congregation officially assumes the oversight of another congregation. In this new system, the evangelists and elders in one congregation control, direct and exercise authority over other congregations. This hierarchy extends through several levels so the Boston Church of Christ has direct or indirect control over a large network of churches throughout the world.
The bulletin of the Boston Church of Christ for Jan. 4 mentioned the levels in this new hierarchy. The plan is for the Boston church to exercise direct control over several key congregations known as “pillar churches.” The pillar churches control “capitol city churches.” The capitol city churches control “small city churches.” The small city churches control “countryside churches.”
The Aug. 30 bulletin listed the pillar churches in the United States and drew the boundaries for their “spheres of influence.” Seven such pillar churches were listed. These are the discipling congregations in Atlanta, Chicago, Denver, New York, Providence, San Diego, and San Francisco. In addition 17 pillar churches outside the United States were assigned various foreign spheres of influence. The Boston Church of Christ was not listed among the pillar churches; it is at the top of the pyramid directing the 24 pillar churches.
The new ecclesiastical hierarchy is a clear departure from the doctrine of congregational autonomy taught by churches of Christ since the early days of the Restoration Movement. That is not really being denied by Boston. Instead, the church there is denying the validity of the congregational autonomy doctrine as it has been taught and understood among churches of Christ.
A recent sermon titled “Authority and Submission” by Al Baird, elder at the Boston Church of Christ, used the same argument advanced by Gordon Ferguson in the Aug. 23 bulletin of the Mission Church of Christ is San Diego. According to this argument, the evangelist is an officer of the universal church and not just of one local congregation. Both evangelists and elders were charged with the task of maturing the whole body and not just the local congregation. This is a radical departure from the doctrine taught by other churches of Christ.
The doctrine of congregational autonomy is based on the New Testament pattern. That pattern includes independent local congregations. It does not authorize any level of church organization above that of the local congregation. It does not authorize one congregation exercising authority over another congregation. The departure from this pattern and the development of an ecclesiastical hierarchy were major factors in the apostasy that turned the church of the first century into the Roman Catholic Church by the sixth century.
The doctrine of congregational autonomy has been very important in the history of the Restoration Movement. Churches of Christ and Christian Churches divided in the late 1800s. One of the issues involved in that division was a missionary society that functioned on a level of church organization above the level of the local congregations. In the 1950s and 1960s a division occurred between the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the more conservative independent Christian Churches. Many issues relating to theological liberalism were involved in that division, but the final break came over a “restructure” plan that shifted control from the local congregations to a central denominational organization.
Churches of Christ cooperate with one another, but the typical practice is to exercise great care to avoid any appearance of anything that would violate the autonomy of a local congregation. When congregations send out missionaries to start a new congregation, for example, they have oversight of their work which they support, but they do not claim to have oversight of the congregations established by the missionaries’ work. They might offer advice to a new mission congregation if asked to do so, but they never would exercise authority to direct or control that congregation. They would regard any such action as a violation of congregational autonomy.
The recent development of an ecclesiastical hierarchy among the discipling churches is a clear break with their roots in the heritage of the Restoration Movement. What they are doing now is a clear violation of congregational autonomy.
The Nov. 23, 1986, bulletin of the Boston Church of Christ included this statement: “We are excited to announce that the Elders of the Boston Church of Christ, a two-year-old mission effort originally planted by the Miami-Gables congregation.” IN a pattern that soon was to be repeated throughout the United States, the preacher for the Kingston congregation was moved to Boston for further training, and the Boston church sent in its own preacher.
One week later, the bulletin announced another takeover. In 1985, the Crossroads congregation had targeted Vienna, Austria, for a new church planting. Sponsorship of that mission team, however, was shifted from Crossroads to Boston, and the leader of that team moved to Boston for further training.
The Gateway Church of Christ in St. Louis was taken under the Boston umbrella April 29. The Shandon Church of Christ in Columbia, S.C., started that congregation 11 months earlier. After the takeover, one of the preachers went to Boston and the other to Chicago for further training. The bulletins of the Chicago Church of Christ for May 3 and July 19 announced that the Chicago Church of Christ had assumed oversight of the St. Louis congregation. They sent in their own preachers to direct the work. They changed the name of the congregation to the St. Louis Church of Christ. They described this as a “replanting” of the work in that city. The psychological function of the name change and the “replanting” terminology seems to be similar to that of the “rebaptism” required of so many other churches of Christ; both serve to deny the validity of the previous religious experience of those involved.
The bulletin of the Boston church for July 26, announced a takeover attempt that was not completely successful. Kip McKean said:
At the invitation of Sam Laing and the other evangelists of the Atlanta Highlands congregation, the Elders, the Lindos and I sought to inspire an evangelistic revival in the congregation. However, due to opposition from within the congregation to such Biblical principles as the authority of the evangelist, one-on-one discipleship and the calling of every member to evangelism, the Elders and I were asked by these same evangelists to consider planting a new congregation where the before-mentioned principles would be taught and practiced.
What happened in Atlanta, according to personal correspondence and telephone conversations with those involved, is that some of the members of the Atlanta Highlands congregation refused to accept the claim that the Boston Church of Christ should have authority over the Atlanta Highlands congregation. They told the leaders of the Boston Church that if they wanted that kind of congregation in Atlanta, they would have to start one of their own.
This case followed the same pattern seen earlier. Most of the evangelists moved to Boston for further training. The Boston church sent in its own team including an evangelist and 15 full-time interns. The Boston church assumed the oversight of the “remnant” that formed this new congregation. Those who wanted to be a part of the new congregation were required to sign a statement accepting this arrangement. Those who refused were told they could attend as visitors while being shown the error of their ways, but that if they did not sign the statement within a reasonable period of time, they would be disfellowshiped.
In the July 26 bulletin of the Boston church, McKean said concerning the new congregation, “my vision for the Atlanta congregation is become the pillar church for the entire Southeastern United States.” He then went on to list nine cities where this pillar church would plant new congregations. The pillar church status of the new Atlanta congregation raises the question about the status of the older Crossroads-type congregations in the Southeast. McKean listed eight such churches and said the Boston church planned to help these congregations while training the Atlanta church so it would be “more than capable of meeting all their needs.”
A report of another takeover was included in the Aug. 16 bulletin of the Boston church. This one was in Berkeley, Calif. In June, the preacher who started that church went to Boston for further training and decided to stay in Boston until he could plant a new discipling church in Los Angeles. The Boston church sent a preacher to initiate what was called the “rebuilding” of the Berkeley congregation.
In August, the Boston church officially began directing the church in Berkeley. Tom Brown, Baird and McKean outlined for the congregation the plans for the “Reconstruction” Aug. 2. All three of these men were members of the Boston church, not the Berkeley church.
Three elements composed the reconstruction plan the Boston church imposed on the Berkeley church. First, the church had to move from Berkeley to downtown San Francisco and become “the San Francisco Church of Christ.”
Second, all the evangelists and women’s counselors had to resign and become interns. McKean explained that this was required so that “when they are appointed in the future, they will be recognized in Boston as well as in our church plantings, such as in Bombay or New York.” He went on to say, “I foresee this to help form a uniform standard of recognition throughout the multiplying ministries.”
The third requirement in this reconstruction was that “every individual who desires to be a member of the new San Francisco congregation will need to count the cost of being a disciple.” If this requirement means what it did in Atlanta, the members will have to sign a pledge of loyalty to the Boston church.
Another takeover recently was announced in the bulletin of the Mission Church of Christ in San Diego. They said they had agreed to follow the Boston church “with a true disciple’s heart.” As insiders in the discipling movement know, that language means total submission without question. One the Mission church submitted to Boston, it was recognized as the pillar church and given oversight over California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas.
One of the congregations that new reports to the Mission church is the East Valley congregation in Phoenix. I recently interviewed a preacher who had been invited to move to Phoenix as an “elder intern.” He declined the offer when he learned that the East Valley congregation was directed by the Mission church in San Diego which is directed by the Boston church.
A similar situation now exists with the Denver Church of Christ, a discipling church started recently by the Crossroads congregation. Leaders I interviewed in the Denver area told me the Denver church now has joined the Boston hierarchy as a pillar church. The Boulder church has been told it must merge with the Denver church, and other discipling churches in that area are expected to work under the oversight of the Denver church.
A very revealing statement appeared on page 5 of the Jan. 4 bulletin of the Boston church. This note appeared at the end of a two-page spread listing all the church plantings that had taken place and that were being planned by the Boston church and by other discipling churches:
As discussed at the Leadership Meeting at the 1986 Boston World Missions Seminar, here are the mutually agreed upon guidelines for targeting a city: 1. Prayer and fasting. 2. A man (of intern status) who is qualified and commended by the brothers. 3. Contact churches in the targeted city. 4. If another congregation has a planting in that nation, no targeting of those cities. Exception: if the initially planted church agrees, then there may be another city targeted from another congregation.
The third and fourth rules are incompatible unless one understands that two different kinds of churches are being discussed. The third rule means that the discipling churches have to let other churches of Christ know they are going to plant a new church in their city. That is all. No cooperation is contemplated. They can move in next door to a congregation not identified with the discipling movement, and all they have to do is to notify them of their plans.
The fourth rule, however, is talking about discipling churches only. In that case, they cannot even send a mission team into the same nation where another discipling church already planted – at least not without that church’s permission.
This statement clearly shows that in the thinking of those who lead the discipling movement, discipling churches now constitute a totally separate fellowship from the fellowship of other churches of Christ. This attitude is reflected even more clearly in their frequent use of the team “remnant” to describe themselves. They see themselves as a remnant sent by God to call the faithful out of the “mainline” churches. Still more recent developments suggest that the circle is being drawn even tighter. The older discipling churches, started as a result of the work at Crossroads, are being excluded if they refuse to join the ecclesiastical hierarchy headed by the Boston church.
Some of the leaders of the original discipling movements who came from the Crossroads congregation now are resisting the takeover attempts by the Boston church. John C. Whitehead of the Crossroads church recently wrote a booklet, “Stop, Look, Listen,” in which he warned against the Boston takeover attempts. Then, in the Aug. 30 bulletin of the Boston church, came the announcement that the Boston church, came the announcement that the Boston church plans to start a new congregation in Miami.
What is happening now, however, is only the logical extension of what was taught at a different level earlier throughout the discipling in a hierarchical discipling system within a local congregation, why not insist that every congregation must be disciplined in a hierarchical discipling system that puts one congregation in a position of authority over another? As little Bible authority exists for one of these ideas as for the other.
Now, however, the Boston church has started teaching a doctrine of authority that goes far beyond what was taught earlier in the discipling movement. The Boston church is teaching that Hebrews 13:17 applies to matters of opinion. The church is claiming this verse gives authority in matters of opinion to evangelists and elders, zone leaders, house church leaders, Bible talk leaders, and disciplers. Baird told members of the Atlanta Highlands congregation that to refuse to obey the instructions of a discipler would be a sin – even in a matter of opinion with no biblical justification at all – because “God has placed that discipler over you.” Some observers believe this is what was being practiced all along in the discipling movement, but they did not admit it or try to defend it until recently. What seems to be happening here is that doctrine is following practice. – 834 Green Valley Drive, Abilene, TX 79601.