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The proper way to combat misinformation is not to hide the truth—truth cannot be veiled, anyway; but to publicize it. In the case of Mark Elrod’s “‘I Saw Fred Thompson at a Church of Christ’ Challenge,” it’s Elrod’s motive for posting the challenge that has been most questioned.

The fact that the denomination works, simultaneously, with rather strict criteria for membership but without any defined membership policy made the “Challenge” unusually prone to misinterpretation, especially by uninitiated readers such as WorldNetDaily. WorldNetDaily reproduced the reason for the Revealer’s third premise about reporting of religion in America. Reporters who do not approach religion with understanding and nuance reproduce a false narrative about how religion relates to the world and, vice versa, how the world relates to religion. WorldNetDaily read Elrod’s original post (also reproduced below) straight, as if Elrod were policing the denomination’s membership rolls. Certainly, it’s an understandable misreading, but only if one conducts no research into the writer or believe that denominations, even sectarian ones that nevertheless value democratic principles like the Church of Christ, do not speak in one voice. The latter assumption was committed by Andrew Sullivan and (as BG discovered) Michelle Cottle, both of whom managed to do even less research—and consequently worse reporting—than WorldNetDaily.

In large part because Elrod’s original posts are no longer available on his blog, this post is for those enterprising bloggers or reporters who are curious about researching Fred Thompson’s claims about his religion and his religion’s claims about him. Consider it an attempt to provide those reporters with a push in a direction that allows them to read fairly and to see why questions of membership in the Church of Christ do often boil down to self-assertion and hearsay. It isn’t all a reporter needs to know, but it should help in the formation of good questions to ask someone else.

  1. Mark Elrod: Mark Elrod is a professor of political science at Harding University, a Church-of-Christ affiliated university which is frequently cited as a feeder school for the conservative movement. (Disclosure: I received my B.A. there.) In spite of the tendency of the school’s administration and the political orientation of of its distinguished lecturers, however, Elrod, like most Democrats in the south, is a liberal who leans toward the center. On a day when one is being ungenerous to the school, one might call him the school’s token Democrat. He is supporting Barack Obama in Arkansas’ primary. Elrod is also an active, lay leader of the West Side Church of Christ, although his blog, markaelrod.net, focuses primarily on his professional duties as a teacher and political scientist. He is also a very responsive and candid e-mail correspondent.
  2. Membership in the Church of Christ: The denomination called the Churches of Christ, often referred to as Church of Christ (Non-Instrumental), has no central leadership; it holds no conventions to outline its general policies. It is by design congregational, although it has maintained through various means a remarkably succinct, defined orthodoxy across denominations. (For much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, this orthodoxy was accomplished through magazine publishing; now, it’s largely done through university leadership.) Because there is no central policy-making body, “membership” in the wider denomination of the Church of Christ is often verified by way of a pair of orthodoxy tests, which some congregations are more strict about than others. The first test is a question: “Were you baptized into Christ for the remission of sins?,” where baptism is adult immersion and for the remission of sins an often-necessary condition of baptism. For example, if someone were baptized as an infant, or if he were baptized by pouring, or if he were baptized as an expression of membership itself, then that person is not a member. Practically, this means that one must be baptized by someone in the Church of Christ, but that is not always the case—as I said, congregations sometimes differ. It is possible, however, for someone to pass the first test and not still be a member, which is why the second test is an evaluation of activity. Because the Church of Christ is a nominally lay denomination, and because it still reserves specific roles to specific genders, the second test is particularly significant for men: “What do you do in worship?” If a man has led congregational singing, voiced public prayers, acted as an usher, served communion, preached, or functioned in some leadership capacity as a deacon, then he is more a member than a man who pops in every other Sunday to say “Hi.” “Activity” is of course defined similarly in most denominations, but because the first test of membership is a logic problem about which a person could be lying, it is often verified by way of the second test, which, in the case of someone trying to prove his bona fides to a new congregation, is bolstered by references.
  3. markaelrod.net’s Readership: 60% of Elrod’s regular readers self-report as spiritually inclined, with a third of those respondents naming themselves as members of the UCC, which is not the same as the Churches of Christ (Non-Instrumental), but whose name is similar enough that it is probably a good bet that most of those were intended to be the Churches of Christ. According to his comments, moreover, more than a few Church of Christ members self-identified as “Spiritual but not religious,” which is entirely in keeping with the denomination’s mistrust of institutional identifiers. In other words, for anyone who bothers to ask, Mark Elrod’s blog is written within a particular religious in mind, and it is largely addressed to that tradition. The assumptions that Mark Elrod holds about his audience therefore inform what he feels is necessary to explain in his blogging. For example, in the “‘I Saw Fred Thompson at a Church of Christ’ Challenge,” Elrod offers $100 to anyone who can verify that Fred Thompson led 728b in a song service. “728b” is a reference to a hymn, popular among the Churches of Christ, by A. W. Dicus called “Our God, He is Alive.” For years, the most popular hymnal among the Churches of Christ was a later edition of Great Songs of the Church, which had a supplement that included “Our God, He is Alive” as song 728b; other hymnals popular within the denomination pasted it onto the book’s endsheets such that “728b” and “Inside back cover” are now symbolic of what is often considered a trademark song of the denomination. Mark Elrod wrote with the assumption that his readers would understand that context.
  4. Fred Thompson: The former senator’s current relationship to the Church of Christ is murky. That fact is politically significant insofar as evangelical parachurch groups such as Focus on the Family seek to maintain their powerful influences on national politics. It is nationally significant insofar as knowing the strength of a politician’s religious affiliations helps to understand the decisions he or she might make when in office. It is locally significant insofar as members of the Churches of Christ want to know whether one of their own is a viable candidate for President of the United States. To date, Fred Thompson is still not a candidate for President of the United States.

With that context in place, Elrod’s original “‘I Saw Fred Thompson at a Church of Christ’ Challenge” should make more sense. Elrod’s motive wasn’t a serious attempt to police denominational orthodoxy; rather, it was a tongue-in-cheek jab at the political machinations of both James Dobson and Fred Thompson’s then-fledgling political machine. Thompson’s Christianity was already a football being kicked around, and Elrod used the occasion to overlay the strictures of the denomination to which Thompson identified himself. As much as he took to task both organizations’ maneuvering, he also was gently laughing at the Churches of Christ. (The Churches of Christ are often a humorless bunch; the comments that followed his original post revealed that his laughter wasn’t especially welcome.) Laying out this context of course ruins the joke, but frankly, the joke was ruined long before we ever got to this point. In the interest of unveiling, then, here is Elrod’s original post (click for full size):

“The ’I Saw Fred Thompson at a Church of Christ‘ Challenge”



Very nice piece of work. Hope you’ve emailed a link to the offending bloggers/journalists. Also hoping this leads to a long bout of (non)denominational navel-gazing.

Yes, nice job. A nitpicker might take issue with the following, however:

“Because the Church of Christ is a nominally lay denomination, and because it still reserves specific roles to specific genders…”

Of course that’s true for the overwhelming majority of its congregations, but there are a number of outliers, especially (or, perhaps, usually) in urban areas outside of the Bible Belt.

Thanks! Navel gazing is dreamy.

2: I know about the outliers, but a denomination (especially one that refuses to define itself) isn’t defined by its minority. They may self-identify as CoC, but they’re not even close to an influence on the Nashville → Abilene axis. At the moment, they’re statistical aberrations.

(One counterargument to that, I know, is to say that a denomination that refuses to define itself is defined only as much as the nearest congregation defines itself. It’s the Walt Whitman church, though, and in it there is no orthodoxy.)


Maybe one of these knucklehead journalists will eventually call or write to ME to explain my side of this.

That has been the most valuable lesson in this for ME – the lack of accountability in blogging. Real journalists have editors and occasionally offer a retraction when they get something wrong.

4: A lot of that accountability is still being negotiated (e.g., just this weekend there’s been some interesting debate about blogging ethics with respect to Barack Obama’s secret, off-the-record meeting with bloggers at YearlyKos). Still, from journalist-turned-bloggers and journalists-who-blog, it’s more disappointing. (I have had positive associations with Cottle because of her reporting, though I can’t seem to find any articles I’ve read that would have given me those associations.)

(…talking amongst ourselves; journalists, please move on…)

3: I completely agree. I wonder, however, if a COC discourse in the more progressive parts of the denomination is growing more assertive… a competing narrative, if you will. If there’s a Nashville → Abilene axis (which there is, of course), I wonder if a Brookline → Manhattan → Detroit → L.A. axis is also emerging. In those places (and granted, I’ve only lived in 2 out of those 4 axis points) many congregations proudly and gladly derive their COC identity by what they aren’t instead of what they are. Maybe it’s something for social network theorists to study, but I know of a few COC folks during the Ma_y Wi_kle_ saga here at my employer (I’m thinking of someone who grew up in a SE Michigan COC, and another who grew up in NJ near NYC; both are about my age) who were stunned to learn that “some” COC’s still disallowed women to exert public roles in worship…no matter how many “you’re kidding me, right?” smirks I cast their way. In other words, there’s a small minority of folks in our denomination (esp. here at my local locale) who bristle when some of us suggest that a stronger connection to the COC’s may not be something to be uncritically admired. (The COC I attend now does not belong to the denomination of the COC I grew up attending.)

And now, back to our regularly scheduled discussion…

If what you see is indeed a trend (and when it comes to trends, I’ll defer to your experience and exposure over mine) may Godspeed its overtaking of the Nashville → Abilene line—the denomination will be better for it. But I’m by no means convinced that the establishment of another axis will yield supplantation or even theological cross-pollination. There’s still a strong likelihood of schism, for example, or just as bad, the establishment of two synonymously-named denominations which do a lot of things similarly but are by no means the same, in the same way the mainline southern, white COCs are akin to the African American churches, or likewise the Independent Christian Churches/Churches of Christ (Instrumental) are akin to the Churches of Christ (Non-Instrumental).


Bering Dr. in Houston has for close to 15, if not 20 years, rolled that gospel chariot right over the gender role thing. How far, I no longer know, as I took the flying leap into the D.O.C. and live halfway across the continent.

But, given the consistency of belief across the greater spectrum of CoC and the congregational nature, gender justice is a difficult Gospel to spread. When this first happened, at B Dr, it was like a bad rumor that petered out, except in the immediate area.

I wonder how much the trend is tied to the intertubes and the ability to carry on discussions like GAL3:28, so that like minded individuals can come together.

Though, many almost all of the very intelligent CoC theologians I know, who happen to be women, are no longer fighting the good fight, but living out their gladatorial retirement in more welcoming fields. (Granted, I don’t know that many CoC theology students who happen to be female.)

I would say that the schism is immanent. That it will break down along socio-economic fault-lines and rural/urban divides. Which really is nothing more than what our denomination has done from the beginning, it seems.

I will now change my name again to Status the Obvious… or Plain as my Schnoz

10: The only reservation I have with your prediction is that I don’t see ours as much of a schisming culture anymore (by which I mean both within the COC and in the general populace).

Notable exception: the greater Anglican communion vs. the Episcopal Church of America.

True, as a culture at large, but has the CoC gotten over disfellowshiping?

schisming s/b schismatic

It’s been several years since I’ve been near a church that has had the wherewithal to do it. Anecdotally, here in Iowa it never really came to that kind of animosity; even when there were some really poisonous people around, they eventually just opted out.

I am happy to point out that one of the foremost gender justice churches in the country is Cahaba Valley in Birmingham and that our own here in the Capital City is making up very good ground. Of course, we are outliers, but the axes you describe are not as geographic as may first appear.

As for schism, I think we are in a post-schism age, existing in the very problem you describe of “two synonymously-named denominations which do a lot of things similarly but are by no means the same.” I believe that the “liberal progressives” among us care quite little for name-affiliation, while the hard-liners still do and will not give it up. Thus, I do not see an official name change anytime soon.

Having been disfellowshipped at least twice, once personally and once by association, I can attest that it persists but that its effect is negligible, if not downright positive.

To JRB’s point: yes, that geographic axis as it relates to gender justice is breaking down all over the country, as there are several gender-inclusive COC’s not listed on the Gal328 site that are found outside the first wave of COC gender inclusiveness (I’m thinking of COC’s in Indiana, New Mexico, Texas, Colorado, Arizona, Washington, Virginia, and of course the ones you mention in Alabama…most of which are not well-known or publicized). But in most of those places they’re the only COC in town that’s gender-inclusive, which I suspect gives them a renegade reputation amongst other COC’s in their locales. In the places where the “first wave,” if you will, of gender-inclusiveness spread, several congregations in those areas are gender-inclusive. In those places (for example, Southern California), it can be more difficult to find a large COC that doesn’t practice gender inclusion than one that does. There, the social network accepts gender inclusion as normative behavior, which places COC’s in those areas at distinct odds with the rest of their denomination.

I agree that we’re a post-schism culture, but really I see three denominations emerging from the traditionally acappella COC’s: 1) theologically moderate/liberal urban churches (often that practice gender inclusion), a la Brookline, Manhattan, Culver Palms, etc.; 2) Suburban, theologically and politically conservative, radically evangelical megachurchy places like Richland Hills…places that conservative mainline COC’s view with suspicion but places that aren’t really that liberal anyway, and 3) rural, conservative, traditional congregations. I know it’s probably far too simplistic to break these down into urban, suburban, and rural categories, but it loosely makes sense to me.

Come to think of it, I think we have done all this before. Which makes me sometimes wonder why the churches in group 1 don’t just call it a day and mozy over into the DOC’s like BG has done. Group 2 is already moving towards the Independent CC’s.

Oh, and adding to this list, the CoC in Research Triangle allows full participation of women in service, though I doubt that they would be comfortable with a female head minister (maybe a minister of children).

Yeah, we might be beyond the schismatics and in something of laissez faire state, where the disgruntled conservatives leave the progressives to join the “more” conservative group (I wonder if the Antis will have an upswing in membership); and individual progressives simply leave for greener pastures.

I would say that the main reason this doesn’t happen congregationally is because of the strangeness involved with joining a much more organized denomination. Though the DOC remains congregational, it still has a putative governing body that passes resolutions, etc.

And, the reputation of the DOC national hierarchy is that it is quite liberal re such things as sexual preference. Though there certainly are congregations among the DOC that inveigh against the governing body and its resolutions, especially regarding sexuality.

So, the hurdle for joining the DOC seems a little higher than most, even progressive COC’s might be able to stomach.

And, honestly, I don’t know what would be harder, moving into a much more organized, if still somewhat democratic, denomination, or moving into a denomination that, like the Episcopalians, Lutherans, and Presbyterians is dividing up along sexual preference lines.

As long as we’re navel-gazing…

I think there is good reason to be post-schism (ahhh, the joys of academic post-speak). Having participated in a local schism/split less than a year ago, I now know all too well what I should have known all along — you can’t escape history or the people that made it. CofC’s are so in love with the idea of being a-traditional, bible-only that schisms and the new starts they promise are still very appealing.

Which is to suggest that JAW maybe right about having done this before.

17: My parents are now “anti.”

19: there is good reason to be post-schism

Do you mean that your experience has shown that moving beyond schism is a good idea that hasn’t happened yet, or do you mean that there are already existing good reasons that the denomination has moved beyond it?

I’m pretty sure you mean the former…

Regardless, I’m now intrigued by the hint of gossip that must exist surrounding JRB’s disfellowshipping(s!) and your chuchsplit. And FYI, because it’s who I am, I’m already speculating wildly and associating you both with tawdry affairs.


It’s definitely the former. That is, moving beyond schisms is a good idea that has not happened yet among mainstream CofC’s, especially those that take their Restoration history/doctrine seriously, because they still believe (wrongly, I think) that we can start over with a theological or cultural blank slate.

As to the tawdriness of my church split, you’ll find the real story quite disappointing. It had more to do with allowing the youth group to attend that great liberal love fest called “Winterfest” than it did with social taboos like gender equity.

Now disfellowshipping, that’s tawdry stuff. I am with you in imagining the wildest of possibilities.

Clearly, Winterfest is hell itself. I see why people were upset.

(Non sequitur: its web designer needs to learn how to use the “display” CSS property with javascript.)

Winterfest is indeed hellish, but for reasons that my previous congregation didn’t appreciate.

He ungenerously reads the political motives of liberals and conservatives, but Kyle Colvett nevertheless has a nice post about Elrod’s challenge. (That he links here from that post is quite ironic, n’est-ce pas?)

At risk of being exposed as especially ignorant, how would it be ironic for me to link to the above post?

it’s just that greg loves the word ironic… he doesn’t really know what it means either

It’s like rain on your wedding day, dude.