Early inspiration for what became the Alliance for Renewal Churches came from overseas experiences where Christians were a minority and denominational differences on non-essentials became insignificant. The writings of Anglican missionary to India, Rolland Allen, and others calling for New Testament models for church and mission became compelling. Jesus’ call to unity (oneness) was provoking in the light of diversity and hostility in the church as we experience it in the U.S. Francis Schaeffer’s ministry, his L’Abri community and his writings also had a profound impact on the early leaders.
In 1970 Gordon Walker and Ray Nethery began the work-study program for young adults (modeled after Schaeffer’s L’Abri) at Grace Haven Ministry Center in Mansfield, Ohio. This fruitful era of ministry was paralleled by a vision toward planting churches. The ministry was fueled by the fervor and upheaval of the young people associated with the Jesus revolution in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. Grace Fellowship Church evolved from this ministry and grew from a small body in 1970 to seven home churches. Each home church had its own elders. The elders met monthly in a city-wide presbytery and the home churches met together once each month for a united worship. Ray Nethery served as presiding elder followed later by Tim Barber. Over time, home churches formed in Columbus, Toledo, Bucyrus and Elyria, Ohio. Also home-size churches were initiated in Amherst and Salem, Massachusetts; in Kidron, Ohio and in Lynchburg, Virginia. A church in Evanston, Indiana also became part of this association.
During the 1970’s the driving and shaping values for the associated churches were as follows:
- Discovering and projecting the essentials of the faith (the creeds) as the necessary content for unity,
- Endeavoring to practice the unity of the believing church world wide and historically,
- Expressing the church as family (community),
- Corporate leadership (elders) for the church,
- The priesthood of the believers expressed in worship and service, and
- The significance of the presence of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer.
During this time (1972-1976) an extra-local confederation of leaders began to meet. The largest meeting was in Dallas, Texas with approximately 60 Christian leaders from various ministries. From this evolved a corporate leadership of seven (the Council) with a commitment to explore the historical roots of church belief and practice. The council consisted of Dick Ballew, Kevin Bervin, Jon Braun, Peter Gillquist, Ray Nethery, Gordon Walker and Jack Sparks. This became the New Covenant Apostolic Order (NCAO). During these years there was an in-depth effort to rediscover essential elements of faith and practice over the first five centuries of the church. All of the early church writings were read, papers were written and exchanged. A sincere effort was made to capture anew the life and practice of the “early” church with primary consideration for the early New Testament churches.
In 1976 some men on the NCAO council began to speak in terms that implied a move toward Eastern Orthodoxy. At a council meeting in Jackson, Mississippi Ray Nethery challenged the rest of the men with his sense that premises being established would lead to Eastern Orthodoxy. A forum of the NCAO was called six months later in Sacramento, California. In the interim it was agreed that papers would be exchanged detailing various theological issues that would affect the future ministry of this body.
Prior to the forum the seven council members met in Goleta, California at which time it became apparent that six of the men were bent on a position parallel to Eastern Orthodoxy. Ray Nethery took a counter position. The Council amicably agreed that Ray and the constituency he represented would not attend the conference. Thus, there was no forum to discuss the papers and the six moved forward with the NCAO. In the aftermath, relationships between the NCAO leaders and the constituency that left became distressed. Two years later a formal reconciliation occurred with agreement for each group to follow its understanding of Scripture and church history and the dictates of conscience. Following the NCAO conference in Sacramento, the NCAO established the Evangelical Orthodox Church movement and became Eastern Orthodox.
In the Midwest Ray Nethery and the constituency he represented continued to explore the values embraced through the study of Scripture and the early centuries of the church. Out of this evolved the Assembly of Covenant Churches. Its values were articulated in what is now known as Common Concerns. This association of churches and leaders was committed to the renewal of Biblical truth and practice with the acknowledgment that each generation needs to take a stand for renewal in areas where the church tends to drift as it is influenced by our human condition and culture. A primary concern was that the association express an orthodox Christianity, that is, the understanding and practice of those truths clearly espoused in Scripture and historically agreed upon by the church in the creeds expressed in the early centuries and the Reformation. These truths, that the church has uniformly and at all times believed, are the prime elements of an orthodox faith. Other theological matters are important but secondary. In these areas of diversity Christians dialogue and discuss, but endeavor not to let diversity become sources of division. A corollary to this is the unity of the church built around the content of the creeds and based upon Jesus’ prayer in John 17 that all believers might be one that the world would know. His prayer becomes the filter for how the church does its theology.
Two areas of heart-searching discussion and debate during the 1980’s were baptism and the roles of males and females in leadership in the Christian home and the church. Historically, baptism has been a source of conflict in the church between those groups who are committed to baptism of believers and those who are committed to baptism of infants each with their unique theological underpinnings. After a great deal of discussion and debate, it was agreed to take a position to be open to God’s people on both sides of this debate. This was not to be an issue of orthodoxy. The call was for everyone to respect believers on both sides of this discussion. Further, the Assembly of Covenant Churches would be open to churches of other persuasion within the group.
The next difficult issue faced was whether the ACC would take an egalitarian position of openness to women in the primary role of elders (pastors) or would embrace the traditional role of male leadership in the church and home (a complementarian position). This was debated in the early 1980’s. Position papers were exchanged. A year later at the next conference the majority of leaders in the ACC decided to embrace a position that they felt was biblically clear for a man to be the leader in the home and for male elders in the church. It was the conviction of the majority that an association of churches or missions such as the ACC could not be built and maintained with diverse views of church government and of the home. This resulted in a three-way split. The church in Salem, Massachusetts left with an egalitarian stand. The church in Evanston, Illinois and the churches in Columbus, Ohio decided to take a middle position, that this was an area of freedom. The rest said that they would relate to the former with grace and blessing, but felt it unwise to try to build together organizationally. The church in Salem became independent and the churches in Evanston and Columbus became Vineyard Churches.
Since the early 1980’s, the church association has tried to champion those truths which are essential to orthodoxy and allow for diversity on important but secondary issues. Some of these secondary issues are problematic and may not permit building together organizationally; nonetheless the churches and individual leaders can still relate with fellowship and benevolence with those who disagree on secondary matters.
This episode later led to the dissolving of the Assembly of Covenant Churches and the formation and incorporation of the Alliance for Renewal Churches. At this time the ARC established an informal relationship with the Sword of the Spirit and its local community expression, the Word of God in Ann Arbor, Michigan. This ecumenical community expression was compelling in that they embraced in a very practical way many of the values expressed in the Common Concerns. Among these were a most attractive expression of unity in essential matters and respect for one another in areas of diversity, of community, spiritual gifts and worship, corporate leadership, and pastoral care for leaders. Out of this era, through association with people in the Sword of the Spirit, the ARC became more open to the gifts of the Spirit, and richer in appreciation and understanding of worship and the priestly role of believers in worship. The relationship established with believers in this ecumenical community blessed the new association in the understanding of the unity of God’s people built on the foundation of the essentials of the faith. Community and family life in the ARC churches were enhanced by observing corporate life of the people in this ecumenical community. This relationship with the Sword of the Spirit and the Word of God lasted until they became divided over the issue of authority and control.
The Ministry and Missions Council, composed of a subset of the ARC elders and leaders, is the governing body for the group and meets twice yearly. Ray Nethery served as president and presiding elder of the ARC until 2000, when Ned Berube of St. Paul MN was selected to serve in this position. on February 1, 2017, Tom Kelby, former pastor of Cornerstone Church, Spooner, WI, became the president of the ARC.