The 1920's were the best of times for Nashville churches of Christ.
The "digressive" Disciples had already divided the Christian
Churches/Churches of Christ over the contentious issues of organized
societies and instrumental music. The 1906 U. S. Religious Census
confirmed that where one church had existed, now two existed.
The official nomenclature identified the two fellowships as the
Christian Church and Churches of Christ. With the completion of
the 1968 "restructure" of the Christian Church, a Restoration
denominational church emerged named the "Disciples of Christ
(Christian Church)." Now there are three distinct religious
bodies identified with the Restoration Movement. The success of
the Hardeman Tabernacle meetings in 1922 signaled the fact that
the churches of Christ had come of age. The Boswell-Hardeman music
debate in 1923 put the Christian Church in full retreat in Tennessee.
Nashville was blessed with three large thriving churches in the
1920's: the Granny White Pike Church of Christ (the church that
met in the chapel of the Nashville Bible School); the Belmont
Church of Christ; and the Central Church of Christ. The "old"
Hillsboro Church of Christ was established a few years later.
The picture has changed drastically in the past twenty five years.
It is an uncomplicated story. Don Finto left the mission field
in Germany. He came to Nashville and began to preach for the Una
Church of Christ and to head the modem language department in
David Lipscomb College. The college paid half his expenses while
he earned a Vanderbilt Ph.D. His work with the Una Church of Christ
came to an end and his faculty tenure in the college was terminated.
He began preaching for the Belmont Church of Christ, whose membership
had been declining for some time. The church grew rapidly under
his leadership. The eldership of the Belmont church came from
the ranks of established congregations. At first no differences
were observable in the organization and worship of the church
as was commonly practiced by the area churches of Christ. However,
this state of affairs began to change in dramatic fashion.
Instrumental music was introduced into the worship at Belmont.
"Charismatic" elements began to crop up in church worship.
All connections with churches of Christ were severed, and the
name was changed to the Belmont Church. There is a spontaneity
and informality in the worship. The music service (a cappella
and instrumental) is not formal and liturgical. Its membership
is made up of many prominent Nashvillians. The top names in country
and pop music attend the Belmont services. The membership embraces
a large number of young families,
The word bizarre describes best what has come to pass in
recent years. Don Finto announced that God had called him to be
another "latter day" apostle. He was reluctant at first
to accept the call, but God compelled him to do so. He alleges
that his authority is the same as the apostolic twelve, and his
apostolic authority extends to and embraces all churches. There
are many such cultic groups with tenuous Christian connections.
The tragedy of it is that this church was at one time a church
loyal to the word of God. Other churches and cults dot the landscape
of this nation, each with its own perverted notions of scripture.
A New Star on the Horizon
Here of late another preacher made a meteoric rise from the site
of the "old" Hillsboro Church of Christ. Its new minister,
Rubel Shelly, traces his roots back to the strongest of church
of Christ conservative traditions in West Tennessee. He was a
Freed-Hardeman College faculty member. No one in Henderson quite
matched him in pulpit eloquence. His popularity with the college
students knew no bounds. He came to Nashville some twelve years
ago and earned a Vanderbilt Ph.D. in philosophy.
I accept Shelly's explanation that he has not changed positions
over the past twelve years-just his attitude. I am convinced that
he has been undergoing an identity crisis. His college mentors
early on encouraged him to believe he possessed the qualities
of leadership likened to Alexander Campbell and N. B. Hardeman.
He found himself during his advanced university graduate study.
He became illuminated by many points of light which were in reality
the refracted and reflected illuminations of the philosophies
of men. Brother Shelly came out of academia with an eclectic admixture
of New Testament scripture, church of Christ traditions, a limited
command of modem theology (Karl Barth, et al), and a good knowledge
of the history and content of philosophy. He specializes in Christian
apologetics and has a good command of analytical philosophy (logic).
How he puts all these elements in his sermons, lectures, forums,
debates, articles, pamphlets, and books is a wonder to behold.
The Worst of Times
Shed your tears first for two old Nashville churches that were
taken over "lock, stock, and barrel" from trusting memberships
by two itinerant preachers. There were indeed members in the Belmont
and Ashwood churches who left. Don Finto keeps a low profile.
The early membership of the Belmont church was drawn from area
churches of Christ. That was yesterday.
It is a different case with Rubel Shelly. He is in the church
of Christ where he grew up and where he means to stay. Years ago,
Leroy Garrett and Karl Ketcherside advised their disciples to
stay in the churches of Christ. Their modus operandi called
for a subversion of the old churches-not the establishment of
new churches. Don't burn the old churches down, but get in and
control them. Train zealous young preachers to pursue your goals.
Both Shelly and Finto are ensconced in their churches. The ranks
of the Ashwood (Woodmont Hills) Church of Christ have closed around
A church service in the Ashwood (Woodmont Hills) Church of Christ
is like any other in the area churches. Acquaintances tell me
there is no difference in the worship from that in other churches
where they attended. They all tell what a good preacher brother
Shelly is. Music is an important part of the worship. It is a
capella with stirring new songs with high entertainment qualities.
There may be some dramatization during the Lord's Supper. Some
may gather around the baptistery and applaud while the new convert
rises from his watery grave. (There was no applause at Jordan,
at the foot of the cross, and the resurrection.) What is the source
of all this raucous hand-clapping business? The prayers are like
all prayers. The unscriptural sermons are well-prepared and eloquently
However, the "worst of times" for the conservative churches
of Christ comes mostly from the "badmouthing" directed
at them from settings such as the Nashville Jubilee, articles
in Wineskins, lectureships, and forums around the
The traditional and conservative churches around this country
are just beginning to comprehend what they are up against. Their
chief adversaries are they of their own households. I am much
too realistic to think articles such as this one will change anything
at Ashwood or Belmont.
Conservative churches are cautioned to exercise diligence. The
"digressives" at the turn of the century were moving
into churches and just as suddenly moving in the organ. The anti-institutional
brethren a generation ago were peddling their wares.
There is a new breed in the land whose tactics are the same. Their
big "buzz" word is renewal. They are catching on that
"browbeating" the old traditional churches has a zero
level of expectation. Their tactics are not all that clear to
them or to us at present. This is all the more reason for the
conservative churches of Christ to be constantly vigilant. Like
Nehemiah, keep on building the wall, and keep a sharp eye at the
same time on those fellows down in the plains of Ono. Sanballat
and his cohorts sleep neither day nor night.
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