T. J. Liggett–An Ideas-Driven Leader
Most of T. J. Liggett’s years as president of Christian Theological Seminary took place before personal computers had become ubiquitous, but T. J. was a master in using a typewriter for his communications with staff, faculty, and professional colleagues. People who worked with him quickly became accustomed to receiving the notes and memos that he whacked out on the portable typewriter that sat on the credenza behind the swivel chair at his office desk.
T. J. also used his typewriter to work up his ideas on the important matters of seminary, church, and public affairs. He had great skill in getting his thoughts down in logical order, thus demonstrating his analytical power and revealing one of the reasons why he was so persuasive in his relations with faculty, trustees, church members, ecclesiastical leaders, and people in business and politics.
Of course, T. J.’s ideas were much more important than his typing skills. His educational background, including completing residence for the Ph.D. degree, his years of missionary service and executive leadership, and his work as theological educator were driven by his strong theological understanding and his passion for the Gospel. T. J. was an ideas-driven leader.
When an agreement was reached for the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) to enter into a series of bi-lateral conversations with the Roman Catholic Church, T. J. Liggett was a natural choice to be the person who could explain the Disciples to the Roman Catholic delegation, most of whom would know very little about this minor body within the Reformed Tradition. T. J. had worked in Catholic cultures and with Catholics. He moved easily among people of power, whether that power was exercised in church, business, or government.
Furthermore, he had his own way of understanding his church, the predominately English-speaking body that in North America has been known in recent times as the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).
At the first convocation of the Disciples-Roman Catholic Bi-lateral, T. J. made his presentation. The version later published in Mid-stream (the quarterly journal of the Council on Christian Unity) bears the marks of T. J.’s “typed by hand” notes. More important, however, is the fact that this paper show his incisive ability to describe the essence of things. He begins with a simple disclaimer:
This profile is excessively brief and utilizes generalities which are not universally valid, nor do they represent the consensus of Disciples leadership. It is, rather, the summary of one person’s evaluation of the present status of the Disciples of Christ. Hopefully, it will serve the purpose of stimulating the dialogue which we are initiating and which will provide multiple opportunities for assessing the accuracy of these generalizations and the relative importance of the salient features of the profile.
In the body of the paper, T. J. provides his own summary of how the Disciples came to be. Incisively, he discusses mission strategy and the issues of culture that necessarily shape the life of any church. T. J.’s long involvement in the Disciples’ missionary enterprise helps him emphasize the international aspects of the Churches of Christ-Disciples of Christ church that he represents. His final paragraphs depict the stance that he hopes Disciples and Catholics can adopt as they move into their conversations.
In this theme of church and culture, the Protestant-Catholic dialogue could be very fruitful. Protestants seem to have been successful in contextualizing the Gospel in each culture, but we have done so at the expense of catholicity. The Roman Catholic Church has sought and achieved an expression of catholicity, but often at the expense of the indigenization of the Gospel in each place. Each of us is now striving to recover the “lost dimension,” and we could be mutually helpful.
The Disciples, born of a passion for Christian unity and acknowledging the normative character of the Church of the New Testament, with involvements in 28 nations of which only nine have identifiable “Disciples churches” (the other 19 are united churches), and with organic church union being seriously considered in three of these nine (Great Britain, New Zealand, and United States), enter into dialogue with the Roman Catholic Church not with pride in a growing denominational strength, but in the evidences of the emerging oikoumene.
T. J. Liggett, who was born in 1919, died March 27, 2012, in retirement at Pilgrim Place, Claremont, California. With the permission and support of Robert K. Welsh, president of the Council on Christian Unity of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) which publishes Mid-stream, I have prepared a new electronic version of T. J. Liggett’s paper “A Profile of the Disciples of Christ.”
To read the paper, click A Profile of the Disciples of Christ.