This document is intended to be part of an ongoing internal "family" discussion among people associated with the Church of God (Anderson, Indiana). It is assumed that the reader of this paper has read and has access to Dr. Stafford’s book, Church of God at the Crossroads.
Let me begin by simply saying that I believe Dr. Stafford has done the church a great service by opening discussion on the issues he brings forth in this book. While it will become clear in this paper that I differ with his analysis at various points and with a few of his proposals, it would be the furthest thing from the truth to conclude that I do not respect, love, and admire Dr. Gilbert Stafford. I believe his points are sincerely made and that he, as much as I, loves our history, heritage, doctrine, and fellowship. I am the great-grandson of a pioneer woman preacher in our movement, and have absorbed much of that heritage through my pores. My grandparents on both sides were church planters in the early days of the twentieth century. My mother worked for Anderson College President Dr. John A. Morrison, and later as a Christian Education director at a local church before marrying and starting her own family. One uncle. Dr. Robert Clark, has been a missionary, pastor and educator in the church, another, Dr. Val Clear, was a scholar, teacher and thinker with considerable influence, and still another, Dr. John Buehler, served tirelessly for many years as both a teacher and a pastor. And though I went my own way for a few years, the church has welcomed me and provided me a home.
So let none of my comments be thought of as harsh or in any way antagonistic to Dr. Stafford personally, whom I have known for more than thirty years, nor to our anyone else affiliated with the Church of God (Anderson, IN). I agree that we are at a crossroads. Where we go from here, and why, is the question we must carefully consider.
I will follow Dr. Stafford’s outline and respond to him point by point. While most of these responses will be to material presented in the book, some may reference the presentation made at Reardon Auditiorium on June 21, 2000.
1. Challenges: Self-Understanding
Dr. Stafford addresses the question of whether it is legitimate to call ourselves a Movement, and rightly points out that "Movement" is a sociological, not a theological or a biblical word. While I am not married to this term, it seems important for a well-rounded discussion that we take note of some characteristics of a movement beyond what Stafford mentions. This will help us to determine if we are, or ever were, a movement in a real definable sense of that word. For him (p. 13),"a movement is a group of people within a larger whole who are so motivated to bring about change in the larger whole that they are willing to commit themselves sacrifically to bringing it about. "
I want to suggest that this leaves out something critical about what a movement is: namely that a movement cannot be defined organizationally or as a clear-cut subset of any existing organization, but attracts followers without regard to pre-existing boundaries. Hence, for example, the Democratic Party is not a movement, though political movements may arise both within and beyond it. The recent resurgence of political conservatism in this country had the characteristics of a movement in the 1980s because it reached beyond the organizational limits of the Republican Party and embraced many Democrats, including those "New Democrats" who reshaped their party’s platform on more conservative lines in 1992 and thereby regained the presidency; whether it remains a movement in the same sense of the word is perhaps an open question as of this moment.
The point here is not to comment on politics but to point out that a movement of necessity crosses organizational boundaries. Did the Church of God, in its earliest decades of flying missionaries, dynamic regional campmeetings and "come-out-ism" do that? In many instances, it did. Do we do that today? This seems more difficult to assert.
Secondly, he rightly asserts that "Members of movements share a common vision." Certainly there was, at one time, a common vision driving this reformation, a vision of the Church and of our calling within it. It is that very vision which I find to be tragically absent from most of Stafford’s presentation.
The vision of the Church as both universal and local, both divine and human, both transcendent and visible, both manifest in the church’s local expression and at the same time fully defined by no local or human manifestation, a vision which sees the Body of Christ as an organic unity wherein each of us plays an important, even an historic role, making God’s Holiness visible in these last days — this is what drove the pioneers of the Gospel Trumpet Company and many others to make the sacrifices they saw so necessary in bringing about God’s plan. To these pioneers, the testimony "I have seen the church!" meant something profound and precious. And I am confident that no one, making such a testimony, was thinking of "the church" as being limited to or defined by any listing in any annual publication, but was more likely to think in terms of God’s Book of Life.
But let me make one thing very clear: to the extent that we define ourselves (as Stafford most explicitly did for his Reardon Auditorium audience) precisely and only as those local congregations which are legally recognized as affiliated with the Church of God (Anderson) by virtue of a listing in an annual publication, the Yearbook of the Church of God, we most definitely (again, according to such a definition) are not, and cannot be a movement. No movement is so narrowly defined, nor can any movement qua movement be defined in its membership by any centralized authority.
Now I understand that for the purposes of the discussion he proposes, Dr. Stafford has defined us, not theologically according to the vision referenced above, nor even sociologically in the broadest sense, but narrowly and organizationally exactly in terms of Yearbook listing. He begins with that, and then asks: Is this a movement?
No, of course not, we must reply. If, in order to know whether someone is a part of our so-called "movement" we must first check and see if they are listed in an official organizational publication, the answer must always be no. Defined as Yearbook listing, we are not a movement. More importantly, as I will argue later, defined in such a way we are not a church either, in any sense that is true to the biblical witness. The Yearbook is, after all, not a dynamic document, but a snapshot of who we say we are on say, August 1 of a given year. In a snapshot, nothing moves.
So I will give to Dr. Stafford his assertion that being listed in the Yearbook does not necessarily say much about a particular congregation. All it says is that through some process or other which may or may not be clearly defined, a regional credentials committee has declared that church to be "in harmony" with the Church of God and its annual General Assembly which meets at Anderson, Indiana. However, I do want to say a word or two about self-understanding and whether or not we as (at least) a fellowship of cogregations associating together, have something to offer to the church at large.
First I must question whether the thing we should be looking for is a "common religious culture" (p. 15) such as that which, according to Stafford, defines the way persons attending churches in various "church fellowships" (or what we used to call "denominations" — both terminologies that are at least as extra-Biblical and non-theological as our word "movement"). I’m not sure that commonality of religious practice makes for a healthy or a holy fellowship. It may make for a recognizable retail experience for religious consumers, but it is questionable to me if that is a desirable goal. Rather, unity of vision within a diversity of culture may be a much better thing for us, especially if we desire to be a movement that is a microcosm of what God’s whole church should look like. That, it seems to me, seems to be a better goal than becoming as recognizable in the outward forms of our worship as, say, the Episcopal denomination.
So to the question: "Do we, as a church fellowship, have anything precious that we hold in common?" I would steer away from attempts at answering this question which focus on such things as worship style and practice, or hymnody. But I would say, in agreement with some of what Stafford himself asserts later on, that we do have something precious. I would hold up two things in particular.
One: In our vision of the church (not as reported in the Yearbook, but as instituted by Christ) we hold to a doctrine that brings together unity and holiness. Holiness teaching, apart from an emphasis on unity, tends to divide, as individuals and groups can form highly idiosyncratic understandings of what constitutes real holiness. On the other hand, teachings on unity, apart from an emphasis on holiness, can reduce the church to a feel-good association where neither doctrine nor practice matters very much. By holding these two key doctrines in tension and in dialogue, we commit ourselves to an ongoing effort at living and understanding the larger truth that encompasses both. Being a living model of that struggle can be, and I would suggest already is, a way in which God has used and is using us to speak to the larger Christian movement.
Two: We hold to a doctrine of the Kingdom of God that is neither political nor exclusively futuristic, but which sees the Kingdom as having come in Jesus, still arriving through God’s present work in the world, and yet to come in fullness with the Parousia, the appearance of our Lord at the end of the age. We see the church’s ongoing task in every age as one of being involved in proclaiming and making visible the inbreaking of God’s kingdom in the present day.
With regard to this we are at something of a crossroads, however: having seen that the church-historical approach to biblical prophecy espoused by some of our more influential pioneers, with our movement as the culmination of history, is fading in its influence over the present generation of our people, do we allow it to be replaced by an even more spurious (but very popular) imaginative futuristic eschatology, which now fills the shelves of religious bookstores (including, I noted this year with dismay, our own Campmeeting tent) with speculative fiction? Or do we insist that even though some (not all) of our pioneers may have gone overboard on imaginative interpretations of their own, we will yet maintain the principle that God’s reign is for today, and prophecy has to do with us as individuals, and cannot be relegated to speculations about worldwide conspiracies and other convenient fictions which tickle the ears of those who would like to have some religious knowledge, without calling them to personal repentance, holiness, and love?
There is a paradox at work with regard to our sense of identity. Precisely because I take seriously the slogan/soundbyte of hymnodist C.W. Naylor, "We Reach Our Hands In Fellowship to Every Blood-Washed One," my sense of unity is not just a sense of being at one with so-called "Church of God" people, that is, people who know the same songs I do, identify with the heritage of my immediate forebears or, perhaps, can be identified through a listing in the Yearbook. Rather, I have a peculiar commitment, based precisely on this heritage, to the idea that I can be, in fact must be, one in spirit and worship with any group of people, however identified, that names Jesus as Lord.
Informed by a Church of God heritage, we have the ability to live out the unity that we preach, not in a religious ghetto characterized by a particular religious culture or set of doctrines or practices, but wherever the people of God may gather. Our challenge is: how do we rescue this particular heritage from mere sound-byte status, so that we can give it away, effectively, both to our children and to the larger church, and further, so that we do not unlearn the truth that has brought us this far, or even worse, learn from others to base our unity on matters of organization or worship style or culture or doctrine or hymnody, rather than on the Biblical vision of the church that, as our heritage teaches us, Jesus has called into being?
2. Challenge: Congregational Independency
The points that Dr. Stafford makes with regard to the problem of congregational independent autonomy are all well taken. I take it as a symptom of our having forgotten the vision of what the Church is, and borrowed (from, perhaps, the Baptists and others) a much narrower view which focuses on the local congregation as being the sum and substance of church life. Our pioneers had language, taken from the Book of Revelation, which allowed them to talk about this kind of phenomenon. If the Roman Catholic Church was identified as "Mystery, Babylon, the Mother of Harlots" then the Protetstant churches were seen as her "daughters", each individually partaking of her sins. Chief among these sins was the notion of what was called "man-rule", that is, the idea that some individual human being could be the "head" of any particular expression of the church. Persons who railed against Popes and then in their own turn set up pastors as supreme authorities within their own domains were seen as perpetuating the sins of "Babylon." But a church which recognized the Holy Spirit’s rule would set no man, or board or committee for that matter, in the place of God; rather mutual submission (a phrase we now replace with words like "accountability") dictated that all God’s people, including God’s pastors, recognize their need for one another and submit to one another in love.
Again, the remedy for the present circumstance is, in my view, a renewed lifting up of the Biblical vision of the church as God’s worldwide movement in which it is true of the whole, and not just of the individual congregational parts, that "when one member suffers, all members suffer together, and when one member rejoices, all rejoice together" (1 Corinthians 12:26). Only a vision of God’s church as a living organism will engender a true interdependence which does not have within it the shadows of humanly-dominated power structures which are characteristic of earthly kingdoms but not of the kingdom of God.
3. Challenge: Anticreedalism
Dr. Stafford is right to point out that the anti-creedalism of our pioneers did not reflect a disinterest in doctrinal matters; in fact, quite the reverse was true. But he reports to us only one dimension (albeit an extremely important one) of the pioneers’ discomfort with creeds, namely, that along with sectarian associations they represented the basis for unbiblical divisions within the Church. Surely it is true that, historically, churches and denominations have separated from one another based disagreements about official doctrinal statements. But I think there is another thing about creeds which bothered our pioneers; at least, this is what bothers me.
Our pioneers celebrated an experiential, first-hand faith. The best of creeds, if taken second hand, are merely statements of doctrinal opinion, and no set of doctrinal opinions will by itself give a person the saving experience of life of Christ, even though such a saving experience, combined with proper investigation of the Bible, may well produce a strong doctrinal persuasion! In this sense, then, the creeds were bothersome because they are not foundational enough. No doubt the historic creeds, when first formulated within what are now ancient cultures, were passionate testimonies of personal faith for those who articulated them. But as Jacob Boehme (1575-1624) says,
The confession or acceptance of a thing is not proper faith, much less [is] knowledge, but faith is that out of which the creed arises… (emphasis mine)
Hence it is not just the tendency of the creeds as symbolic of historic divisions among Christians, but their nature as static documents which all too often serve to tragically substitute for a vibrant faith (just as membership in a denomination or "sect" also can serve to substitute for a real membership by faith in Christ’s own Church), which raised a warning flag for our beloved sound-byte generator, Brother Naylor, and others.
Now I agree that the problem of doctrinal drift is a real one, and I am not one to argue for a rigid legalism. I would caution, however, that in Dr. Stafford’s proposal of a third way there lies a hidden danger, embedded in some historical assumptions which we would do well do examine in an active dialogue. Specifically, I would like to raise the following questions for Dr. Stafford and anyone else who may want to respond:
Is the "historic Christian faith" to be defined by creeds which were articulated three hundred years after the the New Testament was formed? What would be the basis for holding documents devised in the fourth century, after Christianity had already very much changed in character from New Testament days, more sacred than those developed much later, say the Westminster Confession or some other "denominational" document? Or does the venerable sound-byte slogan of our heritage, "no Creed but the Bible" have something to recommend it still?
To the extent that, for example, trinitarian formulations are to be found in the New Testament, I am happy to embrace them, and in fact do so in my own preaching and teaching ministry. In fact for myself I can say an "Amen!" to the words of the so-called Apostles’ Creed, as one example of a venerable (but, strictly speaking, not Biblical) testimony of faith. But as a minister of the Gospel in our heritage, it is still my earnest desire to help people come to a saving knowledge of Christ. Having them come to a intellectual agreement with a third party’s testimony is not for me a reliable measure of whether or not we have achieved that goal. And I do also take it that there may be those whose understanding of their own journey from death to life in Christ does not yet allow them to say a full "Amen!" to all parts of particular documents which were formulated by fourth century theologians. I would rather look for the life of faith than for the trappings of intellectual agreement, as a basis for practical fellowship in the church. (But see my comments below on matters related to credentialing ministers)
4. Challenge: Behavioral Codes
I find Dr. Stafford’s analysis here to be on target. Shared behavioral standards can arise within a particular faithful community (local congregation) as the message of the Gospel is lifted up. Particularly as attention is paid to putting the teaching and example of Jesus, and the implications within and beyond the church of the love of God for all persons, into the daily life of individuals and families in all interpersonal relations, the community of faith itself becomes a place where the faithful meaningfully dialogue with the text, and can thereby overcome both extreme legalism and unaccountable do-your-own-thingism. Well said.
5. Challenge: Consumerism
Well said. Agreed.
6. Challenge: Worship
Good analysis. All worship should and must be first about God, about Christ’s living presence, and only secondarily (or less) about style, presentation, etc. Almost any form of worship, music style, any way of structuring a worship service can be "sanctified" and blessed by the presence of the Holy Spirit.
7. Challenge: Ministerial Credentialing
Here is one arena where I find Dr. Stafford and I are on the same page. A tremendous responsibility lies with our credentials committees, and therefore with all of our state and regional ministerial assemblies, to "lay hands on no man suddenly" and exercise great care in the conferring of ministerial credentials. In my view, there is absolutely nothing wrong (and a good deal right) with the idea of requiring candidates to read and respond to a standard list of doctrinal books; to be familiar with the history and heritage of the Church of God and its unique setting within the various cross-streams of the Christian movement (about which more later); and to indicate their position on matters of doctrine and practice that have historically been of high importance to us. I believe that exercising strict care at this level will actually serve to preserve and protect the openness and inclusiveness that is itself a part of our heritage. The reason for this is that a proper inclusiveness is one that is founded on a real understanding of Jesus Christ, the resurrection, the Church, the present Kingdom of God, the role of the Holy Spirit, the nature and effects of salvation and of holiness; and is not to be found in, for example, a tendency to ride the popular bandwagon about unusual manifestations or speculative end-time doctrines.
Let me provide just one example of how a group can be extraordinarily inclusive in its ministries while maintaining high standards for its leadership. The Salvation Army is a group which is very inclusive in its outreach and ministy, such that it is world renowned as a humanitarian agency even though it is actually a religious denomination with strict doctrinal views and a very tight, exclusive leadership structure. Anyone can contribute to the Salvation Army; anyone can benefit from its ministries or volunteer time to support them; but not just anyone can lead and teach the principles which form the core impetus for the organization itself. Similarly, at the level of leadership I believe it is not at all inappropriate, and in truth may be quite beneficial, to apply a much higher standard than we would at the level of fellowship.
8. Challenge: Mobility
This section is about three things really: the mobility of our society and the challenge we face in providing consistent teaching to our people from place to place; the problem of teaching our congregations to provide Christian hospitality; and the question of whether we can instill in our people enough of a theology of worship that they will gather on the first day of the week, as the earliest Christians did, to celebrate the resurrection of the Lord even though it was a workday and not recognized as anything special by the larger culture. It seems to me that it is not just within our particular fellowship, but generally in North America these challenges exist. However, I do suggest that strong teaching about the nature of the church, consistent with our heritage, is something that can help us meet each of these challenges.
First, since we teach that when a person becomes a Christian they without any second step gain membership in God’s church, this means that it is to be expected as the norm that when one is traveling, there can be a fellowship of people who are prepared to welcome the traveler as someone who is already a member among them. This is what happened in the case of traveling ministers in the New Testament, reported simply with words like, "some disciples" were there (e.g., Acts 19:1, 21:4). Our teaching about church membership is a precious doctrine, showing that just as our salvation is by faith, and our sanctification is by faith, so also is our membership in one another. In dynamic reliance on the Holy Spirit we accept one another by faith as Christ does, and not by any "test of fellowship" (remember those old words?). A real ongoing dynamic teaching about the nature of the Church, as Christ’s Body not just in its local manifestation but among "all that in every place call upon the name of Jesus Christ our Lord" ( 1 Cor. 1:2) will go a long way toward meeting the challenges posed by mobility, just as it did for the highly mobile Paul and his associates in the first century.
Do other churches, movements, or fellowships now teach this?
Yes, some do. Is it part, then, of the generic "saving gospel of Jesus Christ" spoken of back in Chapter One, and thus not to be pointed to as a distinct contribution for us to make to the whole church? Well, I believe it is in fact a part of that saving gospel, and that it is a part that is perhaps less neglected generally today than it was a hundred years ago. Yet, to the extent that these mobility issues are a problem, there is room for it to be lifted up even more. I would suggest that we demonstrate how "Church of God" we are precisely by how well we can, based on our proper theological understanding of the church, participate with a worshiping congregation that calls itself Presbyterian, or Episcopalian, or Methodist, or whatever, without needing ourselves to become Presbyterians or Episcopalians or Methodists, because we recognize that to whatever extent that congregation is composed of believers in Christ and worships in "spirit and truth" it is and should be recognized (by us, at least) as "Church of God." And I further suggest that the ability to go about in such a way within the larger Christian movement demonstrates how "Church of God" we are, perhaps more than our tendency to associate only with congregations that can be found listed in our Yearbook.
Section Two: Opportunities
I applaud Dr. Stafford for this section and urge that it receive a wide readership. I especially want to draw attention to the three arenas of our pivotal positon, multicultural diversity, and women in ministry. Of these three the first deserves a special note.
First, I would almost have wanted to see this issue of our unique position within the various streams of Protestant Christianity discussed in the Challenges section, for the simple reason that to the extent that we have begun to lose sight of our heritage, the tensions between these several components tend to be resolved in favor of one at the expense of the rest. Indeed, perhaps that tendency is at the core of some of the concerns that were brought out in the Challenges section, particularly under the topic of our identity or self-understanding. I am concerned that Evangelicals in general understand little of the Holiness tradition, less of the Anabaptist tradition, and can be overtly hostile to anything that smacks of the Ecumenical tradition; yet the danger of us becoming absorbed into the larger culture as a loose collection of more or less Evangelical congregations causes us to drift toward a participation in that collective form of ignorance or amnesia. Our rootage in the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition on the one hand, and the Anabaptist/Believers Church tradition on the other, as well as the theological basis for our passion for unity, must be actively taught to incoming generations of leaders, or the warnings of the first chapter of Stafford’s book may take hold.
Section 3: Possibilities at the Crossroads
It is at this point in Stafford’s presentation that I must pause to take serious issue with his mode of setting up his presentation. At issue, for me, is precisely the vision of the church which I spoke of earlier, and which I understand to be the driving passion behind our movement (when it was a movement) and the only legitimate rationale, in my view, for us to continue to exist as anything other than a "loosely collected association of churches."
On pages 55-56, Stafford sets up the problem with these words:
The church can be considered from at least two points of view. The first is to look at the institutional life of the church from the first century down to the present. ….. the second way to think about the church: the church that is pleasing to God.
Now, let me say quickly that of course, being pleasing to God is something that we do want to be concerned about, and much of what Stafford follows with is worthy material. But look at how he sets up his argument. First, what he presents as "at least" two points of view become, in his actual presentation, the ONLY two POSSIBLE points of view under discussion. And, he makes the second a subset of the first. In other words, according to Stafford’s presentation, THE FUNDAMENTAL NATURE OF THE CHURCH IS ITS INSTITUTIONAL OR "EXTERNAL" MANIFESTATION. And for him, the problem that presents itself is precisely the problem of how we are to be an INSTITUTION that pleases God.
With respect, my dear brother, this is all wrong. It may be a nice sociological analysis, but it is a departure from Scripture of a much more radical nature than the use of a word like "Movement" to describe what we once saw, and would like to see again, God doing among us.
A steeple, however symbolic, does not tell me where the church is. Christ’s Spirit does not reside in a building with a steeple, and may well be busy manifesting in some place which is not so easily located or identified.
Christ’s Spirit resides in people, not in buildings, organizations, institutions, or cultures. The church of God is not an institution. It is a living organism, a Body, a living witness to the living Christ. If we cease to proclaim this with every fiber of our being, then we might as well try to find out what sort of a political, organizational entity we want to be, but we are already far from being pleasing to God.
When I see this kind of language propounded as the basis for serious discussion, I have to give thanks to God once again for the way in which our pioneers rightly proclaimed themselves unqualified to organize God’s church, and were careful to distinguish between God’s activity in setting the members in place as it pleases Him, and our activity, admittedly fallible, in organizing the "work" of the church. Now I think that what Dr. Stafford means when he talks about the institutional life of the church is the various attempts made through history wherin people set up institutions and structures, each initially intended to be obedient to God in getting the necessary work done, whether of evangelism, caring for the poor or the sick, teaching, or whatever. But because, beginning in the fourth century (about the time that some of the "historic creeds" were promulgated) there came about an institutionalization of the church which married it, in its most visible aspect, to the political structures of the day, diluting the spiritual message of the gospel, and, according to the analysis of most of our pioneers, driving the true Church of God into an underground existence for many hundreds of years, many of the institutions which arose in the guise or under the name of Christianity had characteristics which were much more of the nature of "the kingdoms of this world" than those of the kingdom of Christ. Therefore I submit that beginning our view of the church with a look at its institutional, external life, to the exclusion of all else, will bring us to a flawed analysis and a limited range of options which eclipse the powerful spiritual vision of the church of the living God: a church which depends not on human institutions but on the power of the Gospel for its very existence.
Okay, okay. I know that Dr. Stafford told us at the beginning that he is only talking about the Church of God as defined by Yearbook listing, namely in terms of its own institutional life. No doubt, he will agree with me about all this spiritual vision stuff, and politely and patiently want to kindly point out that I’ve just pretty much missed his point. But this also is, in some measure, my point. If we are reduced to talking about ourselves as a church among churches, that is, "church fellowship" among "church fellowships" (or, as I read that, a "denomination" among "denominations" – let’s call them like we really see them, please), namely, a flawed human institution among flawed human institutions, so be it; but let us then find some nice marketable name for ourselves and quit confusing the issue by taking upon our little group God’s own Name.
But if we are to talk about the church of God, let’s talk about the church of God, about the church that consists of all the saved in heaven and earth, the church that in actual fact is visible wherever two or three gather in the name of Jesus; that is visible to those who look not on what is seen but on what is unseen. Let’s stop claimng that we ARE the church of God, perhaps, but let’s find the courage to say that we BELIEVE in God’s Holy Church, and it is NOT, NOT, NOT an INSTITUTION that we believe in, but rather the LIVING FELLOWSHIP of all in every place who call upon the name of the Lord. Let’s do that loud and long, boldly and without apology, and then see whether or not we really need to worry about growing up enough to become like the Presbyterians or the Episcopalians in this or that detail.
Now I believe that if we recover enough of our message to be able to proclaim without apology the true nature of the church, all of the recommendations Stafford makes about what a "church that is pleasing to God" entails will apply to us and will follow logically from our convictions. But please, let us not lose sight of what the Church really is, or let our worries about our "institution" — or even observations about seemingly great historic institutions — become more important to us than God’s holy Church.
One of the things that I have always loved about being part of the Church of God is that when people ask me what church I belong to, it is an immediate opening for me, not to make some denominational reference, but to present the Gospel. It should never be easy for us to tell people, by reference to some human institution, what church we belong to. The question of church should always, for us, be a Gospel question, and a Biblical question, not an institutional question.
The last two sections, Guidelines and Concluding Comments, I will leave for further comment at a later date. On many of these practical matters I am in agreement. But just as "no other foundation can be laid than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ" (1 Cor. 3:11), and just as surely as it is on this foundation (the apostles and prophets, with Jesus Christ himself being the chief cornerstone, Eph. 2:20) that the Church itself is built, we cannot have a practical discussion of where we go from this crossroads without a solid theological foundation concerning the nature of the church.
There is a profound paradox for us here, perhaps best captured with the words of Jesus: "Whoever seeks to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s the same shall save it" (Mark 8:35). Might not that apply specifically to our institutional life? If we seek to save our institutional life by coming up with ways that religious consumers can distinguish us through specific practices of religious culture, thus making us easily distinguishible in outward apperance from other so-called "church fellowships", do we not thereby make ourselves practically indistinguishible from them in a more fundamental sense, placing our priorities on matters of appearance and practice rather than on the great truths revealed to us through the Word of God? But if, on the other hand, we are willing for the sake of Christ and the Gospel to acknowledge that our special heritage which "sees the church" belongs to the Gospel itself, and to the whole Church, and if we remain true to that vision even though it means letting some of our cultural distinctiveness and separate identity fade into the background — might that not in fact bring us back into focus and allow us to be once again a leading voice calling God’s entire movement to more complete understanding of and faithfulness to that vision?
To bracket aside that solid theological foundation in favor of a seemingly more practical "institutional" view of the church will serve only to cause further drift in a direction away from what is best in our heritage. — because it would be a drift away from Biblical truth. We should rather be looking for ways we can lift up that vision of "a glorious church, without wrinkle or spot or any such thing" ( Eph. 5:27) and striving through personal and corporate holiness to be, in microcosm, God’s church, that is to reflect in our practical life together, the characteristics of the true, living, holy, church of God.