Atonement and the Stone-Campbell churches

This last week our class focused on inspecting the atonement theories we grew up with and then how those theories effect our ministries today. Since all of us have grown up in the United States in the last half of the twentieth it was not a shock that everyone had the primary theory of penal substitutionary atonement as central to their understanding of the cross. For some of us, as we went to some form religious undergraduate work, the idea of King Jesus’ victory over the demonic power and authorities has become more pronounced. And for a smaller number, the concept of theosis, or divination, has begun to play an important role in our understanding of God’s atoning work. I was surprised how often a singular teaching on atonement was stressed for many who had been raised in a local church. As I thought back on my childhood in my home church I began to recognize some distinctive characteristics about atonement in my own context of the Stone-Campbell churches I’ve come to appreciate.

First and foremost, the primacy of studying the Scriptures meant every one of the theories I have studied in this class was something I recognized. While we never identified 1st John 3:8 as a Christus Victor text, we certainly believed that King Jesus had triumphed over the demonic powers of Satan in this world. While we never called Galatians 3:13 a penal substitution text, we believed King Jesus took our place of punishment under the curse of sin and made us right with God. There could be other examples, but the point is that in our church’s dedication to the study of the Scriptures we simply accepted the text was telling us the truth no matter how many different metaphors the text used. While I don’t remember even the word “atonement” being used in my growing up years, we accepted that the cross was a multifaceted reality that had to be expressed in multiple ways for us to even begin to understand the work God had done through and in King Jesus for us.

The second thing I noticed was how the Stone-Campbell dedication to the sacraments of baptism and communion had the effect of rooting our understanding of salvation into community, history, and the physical world. While there was no doubt we wanted to go to heaven, especially when there were those suffering in sickness or heartache among us, there was a dedication to recognizing that King Jesus was ruling over this physical world and the outcome would be for the people of God to resurrect together to be with our King and God for eternity. This focus toward the world was often, sadly, warped into dispensationalism where God was acting in the world through end times prophecies and political action, such as elections and wars. But still, there was a “creational earthiness” as I grew up that challenged the evangelical escapism of heaven so common in American Christian culture that I can only attribute to the redemption of our bodies with and through the physical sacraments.

Lastly, the Stone-Campbell churches have always stressed obedience to King Jesus as the highest form of holiness. While some traditions of Christianity stress dedication to the liturgy or the importance of existential “Spirit” experiences, our churches have always held to the study of the Scriptures for purpose of learning to obey King Jesus. Comedic in its own way, the churches can easily fall into strange mixture of anti-intellectual and Gnosticism. They see knowledge of the Scriptures as bringing the person closer to God (“The more you know, the higher you go!” and proof texting in the worst ways) but they are also weary of academia as they wisely sense education is used by many to subvert the call to faithful, holy life.

The Stone-Campbell churches’ Scriptural saturation, sacramental “earthiness”, and stress on faithful obedience to the life of the people of God as revealed through King Jesus create an understanding and expectation for atonement to be something participated in by Christians rather than simply done on behalf of Christians. The cross forms a people, a kingdom, and the churches themselves. The atonement is seen as the work of King Jesus that results in our lives being able to express his presence in our lives. While there’s plenty of tweaks that need to be made in the area of theological language and cohesive teaching, these will only add a depth to the wide heritage of faithful participation in the atonement completed in the body of King Jesus on the cross and then poured in his kingdom-churches, his body in the world.

This idea of atonement deeply shaped my own teaching and ministry. My whole teaching career in ministry I’ve stressed participation with King Jesus, the presence of the Spirit, and graciousness in the constant call for obedience to the faith. While in undergraduate studies the Spirit gave me the gift of leading an intentional community of faith as one of my ministries. I can only describe this period of my life as a veritable Garden of Eden. There were plenty of challenges over the seven years of our community’s life, but the presence of the Spirit through our communal study of the Scriptures, the partaking of the sacraments, and the constant striving to obey King Jesus in life together created something that I cannot really begin to describe. What I can say is that every family and person connected to that community was fundamentally reshaped to become more like King Jesus than they were before. The Spirit has worked through our lives in amazing ways that simply would not have been possible if we did not live that communal adventure together, an adventure highly impacted and shaped by my own inheritance provided by my life in the Stone-Campbell churches. I would not say I grew up learning an atonement “theology”, rather I would say I grew up with an atonement way of life, and for that I’m grateful.

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