As the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) readies for this Sunday’s collection to support seminaries, the head of a new interdisciplinary institute at a connected theology school hopes to shift policy discussions in the public square from a “hyper-individualistic” view to a “more liberative framework.”
The Rev. Amanda Henderson, herself a beneficiary of the Disciples Seminary Foundation, will start her new job as director of the Institute for Religion, Politics & Culture at the beginning of the new year. Nonetheless, she’s already thinking about ways the IRPC can “move the needle” to advance politically progressive causes.
“I hope it will really push forward culture change to more liberative ways of understanding criminal justice reform, the environment, and reproductive rights — a lot of these issues that are highly influenced by religion and religious ideas,” Henderson, who wrote the book, Holy Chaos: Creating Connections in Divisive Times, told The Christian Post.
As an example of the causes she'll be advocating for, Henderson cited "economic justice."
“We bemoan paying something like taxes, but taxes are often how we support those who are most in need and the services we utilize,” such as streets, fire protection, police and schools, she said. Henderson added that she would like for the United States to have a guaranteed living wage and assure law enforcement and other public servants can afford their own houses.
The institute will be located at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado. Henderson said that during her first year on the job, she will be analyzing the greatest needs for her new group’s programming and doing podcasting and other public-facing projects. After that, Henderson anticipates offering classes, seminars and certifications to students, public officials and activists. She said the institute itself will not be lobbying government but it might provide consulting and educational services to advocacy groups that do.
The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) comes from the 19th century Restoration Movement that stressed the unity of all believers plus simplicity in worship and doctrine to return to Christianity’s roots. The movement also produced the Independent Christian Church and Church of Christ, which are organized more loosely.
The Disciples denomination historically has had only one point of universal doctrine — that members believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God — but other tenets have included believer’s baptism and frequently celebrating communion.
Most affiliates are on the progressive side, as Henderson is, but some are evangelical in nature. Some call themselves “Christian Church” rather than Disciples of Christ. In 2018, the denomination claimed about 382,000 members.
Henderson said that part of her work will likely be exploring the emphasis many born-again Christians have on an individual, personal relationship with God rather than a collective identity.
“A deeper analysis of that would be a really helpful way to start, and starting with people’s stories,” she said. “And this is a part of what I want to research: How do we move that needle? How do we better understand and communicate that none of us is an island?”
While Iliff is an independent theology school, it benefits from the Disciples Seminary Foundation. The Rev. Boyung Lee, senior vice president of academic affairs and dean of faculty, said the partnership "provides an empowering opportunity to cultivate and nurture future courageous theological leaders who place social justice, ethics, peace, and diversity at the heart of their practice.”
Henderson, who spent the last six years as executive director of the Interfaith Alliance of Colorado, is also a Ph.D. student at Iliff. The seminary this year started a new doctorate of ministry program in prophetic leadership, which she endorses. “So much of what we need to be thinking about in the future of Christian ministry is prophetic leadership,” she said. “It is beyond the walls of the church.”
Ordained by the Disciples of Christ in 2012, Henderson is grateful for the financial support she has received from the foundation. “It has been life-changing,” she said. “It has made me able to do the work I’m called to do in the world. … It’s been transformative.”