The Moral Problem
(Editor's note: After reading this report, turn to the editorial page.)
When the morals of an entire nation begin to crumble, and we find men in politics, in business and even in churches resorting to immoral practices, we may rest assured that some members of the Lord's church are going to compromise and practice some of these unholy things.
— J. D. Thomas
A regrettable by-product of the Billie Sol Estes scandal was the undeserved embarrassment cast upon the Churches of Christ, the 2,000,000-member movement in which he has been a lay preacher. Hypocrisy hunters had a field day contrasting the fraud-infested fertilizer tanks with Estes' strictures against mixed bathing. Thus the topic for Abilene Christian College's 1963 "Bible Lectureship," an annual event which is as close as the Churches of Christ come to holding a denominational convention, was ironically appropriate: "The Christian and Morality."
Although some fallout from the Estes episode quite naturally landed on the forty-acre Abilene, Texas, campus, lectureship director, J. D. Thomas, made it clear he was not singling out any one person when he said:
"Every Christian should learn for himself 'why he should be good' and 'he should also be able to speak forthrightly about how one can tell the difference between good and evil."
The forty-fifth lectureship attracted to Abilene last month some 7,500 Churches of Christ visitors from forty-one states and six foreign countries. Attendance at the five-day series was down slightly from last year, and Thomas said the college would go back to a traditional February date next year in an effort to draw larger crowds.
Abilene President Don H. Morris insists that the lectureships are not "conventions" but rather "teaching and fellowship meetings." "There is never any kind of resolution or proposal made for churches — Churches of Christ are absolutely autonomous."
Lectureships are a common event in Churches of Christ and on their college campuses. The Abilene series is perhaps the best known and features dozens of speakers, panel discussions, teaching classes, fellowship dinners, alumni meetings, missionary reports, forums, and musical programs. A tent this year housed church and commercial exhibits.
Churches of Christ have members in all fifty states, but they are predominant in Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia. They have been experiencing steady growth. Reuel Lemmons, editor of the Firm Foundation, predicted that growth will level off eventually but that strides are still ahead.
Expansion discussions are not just idle talk. One evangelist attending this year's lectureship also used the time to promote an "exodus" in early June to the Long Island, New York, area. He said about seventy-five families from Texas and surrounding states have plans to establish a ready-made congregation in the Bay Shore area of Long Island. Many are professional workers and college and university graduates who are resigning their jobs. Several families have already made the move. The Richland Hills Church of Christ in Fort Worth is reported to have underwritten a $52,000.00 guarantee for the purchase of land on which the Long Island church will be erected.
Churches of Christ missionaries are supported by individual congregations, also, and are not appointed by any boards.
Would Churches of Christ consider possible reunion with conservative elements of the Disciples of Christ (Christian Churches)?
"I think there's a good possibility they may come closer together," said Lemmons. "The ecumenical spirit in the air is having effect."
He said there has always been a feeling that both were "brethren," though each considered the other to be in error regarding Scriptures.
Morris predicted that many conservative Disciples will come back to the Churches of Christ position, but indicated it would have to be on an individual basis.
Churches of Christ make up the only major religious community left in the United States which has maintained its identity without resorting to coordinating agencies and officers. There is no organization beyond the local church.
Elders oversee the spiritual welfare of each congregation. Ministers are referred to not as "the reverend," but as "mister" or "brother." In worship, no instrumental music is permitted. The Lord's Supper is observed every Sunday, and no special significance is attached to Christmas Day or Easter. Baptism by immersion is regarded as essential to salvation.
Despite the lack of inter-congregation coordination, Churches of Christ run more national advertising than any other non-Catholic group. Another wide ministry is the radio and television programs under the sponsorship of the Highland Church of Christ in Abilene. Currently there are more than 300 station outlets in North America and several other countries.