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A Tale of Two Churches:
Belmont and "Old" Hillsboro

By J. E. Choate

religion, articles, christianity

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.

What Happened?

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 brother Shelly.

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 delivered.

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 country.

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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Published December 1992