'Christian' Is Enough

Sermon for June 25, 2023

I hope most of us know that this building was built as a Congregational church, and it’s got a rather prominent position on the corner of the town square. If you go to Burton, you see the same thing: the Congregational church right across from the town square. And it’s the same thing if you go to Painesville. In fact, the presence of a Congregational church building in the middle of town—or at a major crossroads in a rural township—is very common throughout northeast Ohio.

There’s a reason for this, and that’s that northeast Ohio was once the Western Reserve of Connecticut, a New England State that was settled by Congregationalists, and where the Congregational Way was the established religion. Others quickly moved in and the Congregationalists never held sway as they did in New England. But we can still see the original pattern.

In other parts of the American frontier, patterns were different. In fact, there were many places where people were so widely dispersed and came from such diverse backgrounds, that it was not really possible to gather a church, much less call a pastor. And where this was the case, Congregationalism was at a distinct disadvantage. More hierarchical churches were much more successful, because they had a regional or national organization helping them send preachers and pastors into the wilderness. Methodists were especially successful at this, but even Presbyterians fared better than their Congregational cousins.

In Kentucky, people were spread out all over the place and it was difficult to make their way to an organized place of worship. So when certain Presbyterian and Methodist pastors started holding camp meetings, people responded in large numbers… in such large numbers, in fact, that a so-called “Second Great Awakening” took place. Unlike the first one, this one wasn’t preaching a single orthodox creed (such as the Calvinism of Jonathan Edwards), but found people of many different Christian churches gathered in the same place to hear sermons, pray and fellowship with one another, and even share in the Lord’s Supper.

One of the leaders of these camp meetings was a Presbyterian pastor named Barton Stone. To be honest, he was never particularly interested in the finer points of theology. And so, when he moved to the frontier, he was happy to ignore the doctrines that divided people. Eventually, he started encouraging people to let go of their denominational titles and just refer to themselves as Christians.

And this became a real thing in the newly independent United States. It was happening in Kentucky, and at the same time a movement was growing in Virginia and North Carolina that was started by James O’Kelly, a former Methodist minister. At first his group called themselves Republican Methodists. But that name was soon dropped and the name Christian was adopted.

At the same time, a father-son team named Thomas and Alexander Campbell were associated with the Baptists in Pennsylvania. But they wouldn’t agree with certain statements of faith, and found themselves as preachers without a denomination. Alexander, the son, independent of Barton Stone farther south, began to encourage people to look only to the Bible as the source of all belief. He preferred the name Disciples of Christ.

All three of these groups found each other, and began to be referred to as the Restoration Movement—that is, a movement that wanted to restore New Testament Christianity in its purest and simplest form. While the Christian Connection gradually fell out of close fellowship with the other two, Stone and Campbell united their two movements. Stone was strong in the south, while Campbell was stronger in the north—especially in this area.

The Stone-Campbell Movement was very broad. There were some churches who were very conservative—even to the point of not allowing musical instruments in worship. And there were some churches that had fancy pipe organs and pastors who didn’t take the Bible literally.

Where I grew up, my hometown was dry. Once, when we were having a referendum on whether or not alcohol could be sold in town, one of the supporters of the wet movement stated that he felt that the question put to the voters was so mild that even the churches could support it. Well, almost immediately, every pastor in town signed an open letter printed in the newspaper stating that they would absolutely not support a Yes vote… every pastor, that is, except three: The Roman Catholic priest, the Episcopal priest, and the pastor of First Christian Church—generally thought of as the most liberal church in town. But there was a Church of Christ congregation in the same city that was probably the most conservative church in town, and both of them were from the same tradition: the Stone-Campbell Movement.

These churches coëxisted because, for most of their history, they considered themselves to be non-denominational. They had a common history and some common beliefs, but were not formally connected. That changed in 1968 when the more open-minded churches formed a denomination—the one we’re part of, called the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). This used the names preferred by both Barton Stone and Alexander Campbell.

This brings up that other movement I mentioned a while back—the ones calling themselves the Christian Connection. Uniting into a more formal union (even one that just called itself a “connection”) rubbed the others in the movement the wrong way. And when they formally came together with the Congregationalists in 1931 to form what was called the Congregational Christian Churches, that finally closed that door.

So you can see, one of the strongest parts of our own DNA is the notion that it’s enough to be called Christian. We have it on both sides: We are Christians from the Stone-Campbell Movement. And we’re Congregational Christians, tracing our roots back to James O’Kelly. So it’s no wonder that when Chardon Christian and First Congregational joined together in 1950, they chose to describe themselves simply as Christian. Christian was enough.

And that’s a lesson for all of us… probably especially me. It’s enough that we call ourselves Christian. Perhaps dwelling on the past is unnecessary. Maybe God frowns on the sort of pride that preaches a sermon series on “our heritage.” But the thing is, I like knowing where we come from, and I like knowing where others come from. When I meet somebody else who calls themselves a Christian, I think it’s wonderful to find out what kind. I don’t ask because I think we’re the real Christians and they’re not. I don’t want to know so that I can feel superior to them. Knowing what church they go to tells me about their spirituality, and sometimes even about their own history. God made us different, so I think we ought to know more about each other and appreciate each other’s differences.

But there’s another lesson in the name Christian—one that I think pertains to all of us: And that is that is the incredible responsibility of taking the Name of Christ for our own. I have a cousin who’s had some success as an author. I don’t see anything about his books that is at all shameful, but he still uses our middle name and a shortened form of our last name as his pen name. He didn’t want to embarrass the family, he said. Using a name is important because it says something about you and it connects you to other people.

Think about bumper stickers. Bumper stickers on your car are great. But you’d better be a good driver if you have them. The way most people treat other drivers, advertising their political views ain’t doing their favorite politicians any favors. So if you have your opinions on your car, make sure you are a courteous driver. Let people into your lane. And never display road rage. Maybe then people will associate kindness with your politics… or vice versa.

But what does it mean when we walk around calling ourselves Christian—that is, taking Christ’s Name as our own. Remember something Gandhi said: “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians.” When you look at some of the things the British Christians did in India, it’s very easy to see why not many Indians converted to their religion. And when we look around us and see people protesting in the Name of Christ, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that more and more people are giving up on the name Christian. People screaming at each other, banning books, introducing legislation intended to hurt unpopular people… I don’t want to be associated with that either.

So let’s wear the Name of Christ, and let’s be Christlike in our actions, our words, and our thoughts. If the name Christian is enough, then it is also enough to be like the One we’re named after. Jesus was no pushover. He often disagreed with people. But he was never vengeful or ugly, and he never made anybody into a scapegoat. Let us be the kind of Christian Christ was. And let us give no one a reason to say, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians.”
—©2023 Sam L. Greening, Jr.