Soldier On! w/Leroy Garrett   —  Occasional Essays

Essay 354 (3-5-11)


We in Churches of Christ share “our heritage,” which dates back to the first decade of the 19th century, with two other churches or denominations — the Disciples of Christ and the Christian Churches/Churches of Christ, often referred to as “Independent.” These three churches, which resulted from two major divisions along the way, comprise a total of some four million members in upwards of 30,000 congregations. All three groups have chosen to refer to themselves as a “Movement” rather than a denomination — the Restoration Movement, or in more recent decades the Stone-Campbell Movement, after the two major founders, Barton W. Stone and Alexander Campbell.

   From the outset we have had difficulty with naming ourselves. Some less friendly outsiders sought to settle that for us by dubbing us “Campbellites,” an opprobrium we have all rejected. But I know of one small congregation — in Australia back in the 1800s — that proudly claimed to be Campbellites. Our name had to be biblical. Alexander Campbell preferred Disciples, while Barton Stone insisted on Christians, believing it to be the divinely-appointed name, based on Acts11:26, “the disciples were first called Christians at Antioch.” It was one of their disagreements. Campbell believed Christian was a name used in derision by outsiders, noting that in Scripture the disciples never called themselves by that name, not even Luke, the author of Acts, after saying that the disciples were first called Christians at Antioch. He went right on calling them disciples, and never Christians. Hardly a divinely-appointed name, Campbell insisted, but he was nonetheless honored to be called a Christian, even if at first used in derision.

   Once the Stone and Campbell movements united and became one church, a story I shall be relating, they settled the name issue by calling themselves by both names, Christians and Disciples, and their congregations were variously known as Disciples of Christ, Christian Churches, and Churches of Christ. It was unusual — a church with three names! The cruel irony is that once this unity movement betrayed its own heritage and divided into three churches, a sad story that I will also relate, each of the churches ended up wearing one of the three names, and for the most part only that name.

   It is now the case that in thousands of towns and cities “our heritage” is represented by three distinct churches — Disciples of Christ, Christian Churches, and Churches of Christ. The Disciples, still comfortable in being known by all three names, managed to use two of them in their now official denominational title — The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

   “Heritage” by definition refers to values, traditions, stories, heroes, beliefs handed down to us from previous generations. Sometimes a heritage takes on epic proportions in that it is an ongoing story of monumental significance, with its heroes and challenges, its triumphs and defeats, and is preserved in narratives of poetic style and elevated language. We see this in an interesting parallel between our national heritage as reflected in Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, and our religious heritage as seen in the Declaration and Address by Thomas Campbell, father of Alexander Campbell, and a co-laborer in his work of reformation. While Jefferson’s masterpiece is one of the founding documents of our nation,  Campbell’s manifesto is one of the founding document of our religious heritage

   One can see Jefferson’s influence on Campbell. Jefferson’s document was composed in 1776, Campbell’s only 33 years later in 1809. Both are called a Declaration, and each is a declaration of freedom from tyranny. Jefferson’s is a call for freedom from political tyranny, Campbell’s from sectarian tyranny. Both documents were written under the pressure of epical circumstances, and in a matter of days, Jefferson’s to give birth to a nation, Campbell’s to launch a unity movement.

   And both documents are replete with lofty phrases and graphic descriptions. We are all familiar with the way the Declaration of Independence begins, “When in the course of human events it becomes necessary . . .” The Declaration and Address begins with, “From the series of events which have taken place in the churches for many years past . . .” And if Jefferson wrote of the need to “alter” or “abolish” a destructive form of government, Campbell called for action against oppressive sectarianism, “It is high time, not only for us to think, but also to act, for ourselves; to see with our own eyes, and to take all our measures directly and immediately from the Divine standard.”

   If Jefferson used such graphic language as “a long train of abuses and usurpations” and “absolute Despotism” against British policy, Campbell referred to sectarianism as “an express violation of the law of Christ, “a daring usurpation,” and “a gross intrusion.” Then there is the bold complaint, “sick and tired of the bitter jarrings and janglings of the party spirit we would have peace.” and “division among Christians is a horrid evil, fraught with many evils. It is anti-christian, anti-scriptural, and anti-natural.”

   In the Declaration of Independence Jefferson stated the moral principle for the founding of the new republic in these memorable words, “We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” We are inspired by these stirring words. They define our national heritage and remind us of who we are.

   Similarly, in the Declaration and Address Thomas Campbell articulated a biblical principle that goes far in capturing the essence of our unity heritage: “The Church of Christ upon earth is essentially, intentionally, and constitutionally one; consisting of all those in every place that profess their faith in Christ and obedience to him in all things according to the Scriptures.” He is saying that the church is one by its very nature. He is agreeing with the apostle Paul that Christ cannot be divided. There is but one body of Christ, the church! This means that our mission is not to create unity through ecumenical endeavors, but to effect and appropriate the oneness that is the church’s by its very nature. Unity is a gift of the Spirit, and we are to claim the gift. Unity is real, but it is not realized. It is like a dysfunctional marriage. The couple is already one by the nature of holy matrimony, but the blessings of their oneness are not realized.

   But thus far we have reviewed some aspects of only the Campbell part of our heritage.

   The Stone movement began in 1798 when 26-year old Barton W. Stone raised his hand and said, “I do insofar as it is consistent with the word of God.” He had been asked if he subscribed to the Westminster Confession of Faith, which was necessary to his being ordained as a minister in the Presbyterian Church. His equivocation broke with tradition. There was supposed to be an unqualified Yes, but the young candidate for the ministry had questions about some of the teachings of his church’s creed, and of creeds in general. His superiors, impressed by his sincerity, accepted his answer and he was ordained.

   The turning point in Stone’s role as a reformer came three years later, in 1801, at the great Cane Ridge Revival, near Paris, Ky., which attracted upwards of 30,000 to the camp grounds of the Cane Ridge Church (Presbyterian) where Stone had become pastor. The revival, which was part of the Great Awakening which had swept over much of the eastern United States, was unique in that it was ecumenical. The preachers for the revival, from multiple denominations, forgot their creeds and sectarian loyalties and simply preached the gospel.

   There were such phenomenal manifestations of the Spirit — healings, tongue speaking, miracles, charismatic “exercises” — that there were not only many conversions, including rogues and prostitutes, but such a spirit of peace and unity prevailed that the revival became a severe blow to the sectarian spirit. It may surprise some of us to learn that Churches of Christ can trace part of our heritage to a charismatic, Holy Spirit revival.

   This happened when five of these revival preachers, including Barton Stone, all Presbyterians, were so profoundly impressed by the revival that they eventually repudiated their sectarianism, gave up their creed, and resolved to preach the simple gospel of Jesus Christ and him crucified. They decided that sprinkling was not biblical baptism and were immersed — having no immersed minister to immerse them they immersed each other! — and they renamed their congregations Church of Christ or Christian Church, which they saw as the same. They were no longer Presbyterians by name but simply Christians. They did not claim to be the only Christians, but “Christians only.” And Stone now signed his name “Barton W. Stone, Elder, Church of Christ.” In those days our preachers were called Elders, even the young ones.

   Soon after the revival these men, now separated from the Presbyterian judicatory, created their own presbytery, which they named the Springfield Presbytery, made up of the few congregations they pastored. It was to be a witness to peace and unity among the churches, but they at last decided that what they had created might itself be seen as sectarian, so they resolved to lay it to rest. Perhaps with a touch of intended humor they prepared a will and testament for its demise, which they named “The Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery,” which takes its place alongside Thomas Campbell’s Declaration and Address as a founding document of our heritage.

   This document too was epical in that it gives us one of the monumental affirmations of our heritage — “Let this body die, be dissolved, and sink into union with the body of Christ at large.” Like Campbell’s document, it too affirms the essential unity of the church, but it also calls for the demise of all sects so as to realize that unity. It remains a challenge to the churches of our day. Are the Baptists, the Methodists, the Presbyterians, or our own Churches of Christ willing to say “Let this body die” for the sake of the one body of Christ. Let all the denominations die, and let there be just the body of Christ! That is who we are, or who we are supposed to be.

   From these humble beginnings the Stone and Campbell movements, both with a passion for unity, grew and prospered over the next 20 years with a combined membership of some 25,000 in hundreds of congregations, but unaware of each other. In 1824 Alexander Campbell and Barton Stone met for the first time, and their people began to get acquainted and came to realize how much they had in common. Six years later in 1831 the two churches formed a union, creating a formidable unity movement on the American frontier. It was a glorious moment in the history of our people, one that Barton Stone described as “the noblest act of my life,” a story I shall be telling you in this series.

   Once after I had presented such material as set forth herein, a gentleman said to me. “I’m confused. I’ve always been taught that the Church of Christ began on the day of Pentecost in 33 A.D., but you say we began in Stone-Campbell.” Then he asked, “Did we begin on Pentecost in 33 A.D. or did we begin with Stone-Campbell?” I answered Yes. Both are true. As part of the church universal, the body of Christ, we began on Pentecost when the apostle Peter proclaimed Jesus as the risen Christ and 3,000 were baptized, and the ecclesia was born.

   That is our capital “H” Heritage which we share with all Christians, and it is the basis of our oneness in Christ.

   But what we know as Churches of Christ today, like other church bodies or denominations, did not exist in 33 A.D. There was then but the one true church, and there were no sects or denominations. We grew out of the Presbyterian Church which in turn originated with John Calvin and the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century. Led by Stone and the Campbells we separated from the Presbyterians and became a separate church. This is our lower-case “h” heritage, as is anything that is unique to us, such as our singing acappella only. We err if we elevate a small “h” heritage into a big “H” heritage and make it a test . Alexander Campbell called this “the tyranny of opinionism” — making opinions tests of fellowship. We can believe we are right, even about instrumental music, without believing that everyone else is wrong.

   All denominations have their unique characteristics, which partly explains why each is separated from the others. The Quakers are pacifists and are known as a “peace church.” The Pentecostals stress charismatic gifts and are especially Holy-Spirit oriented. The Methodists began in camp-fire revivals and prayer meetings and have stressed spirituality. The Baptists began with John Smythe, who practiced re-baptism by immersing himself, and they have witnessed to baptism by immersion. The Episcopalians/Anglicans, who have emphasized ritual, began with King Henry 8th, who had a habit of murdering his wives. The more recent Community and Bible churches, who stress Bible teaching, are conglomerates, made up largely of people dissatisfied with their own denomination.

   All these are small “h” heritages and are not and cannot be the basis of unity. We have oneness only in our upper-case “H” Heritage, which is centered in faith in and obedience to Jesus Christ. No sect or denomination is the one true church. The one true church is made up of what our pioneers called “the Christians in all the sects.” That is our small “h” heritage, one to be prized, a people with a passion “ to unite the Christians scattered amongst all the sects and denominations.

   Our pioneers said it in a motto:

   In essentials, unity (capital “H” Heritage)
   In opinions, liberty (small “h” heritage)
   In all things, love.

News and Notes

This essay is the first of a proposed eight-part series on “Our Unity Heritage in Scripture and History.” These essays will substantially represent what is said in the lectures at my home congregation. A video will be made of the lectures and DVDs will be available. I will keep you informed as the time nears for this.

Next week I fly to San Antonio to do the funeral of Ralph Hancock in Hondo, Texas, a dear friend for sixty years. I will fly with other of his friends from this area. Ralph stood by me when my efforts for reform were tough going. I did his wedding and now his funeral. It is the way life goes.