The Churches of Christ have a serious problem with division, and we’ve had this problem for a long time. The controversies that are brewing today are merely symptoms of much deeper problems that are of very longstanding. Ultimately, these problems must come from a misunderstanding of the Bible and God’s will for us. Nonetheless, we can gain helpful insights into our situation by reviewing the history of our movement. Why are we the way we are?
In the early 1800’s, a number of religious movements developed in the American frontier, which then consisted of such “western” states as Kentucky and Illinois. Among these was a movement led by a former Presbyterian minister, Barton W. Stone. Stone came to reject the strict Calvinism1of 19th Century Presbyterianism as well as the constant division of the Presbyterian churches over doctrines and opinions. Stone called for Christians to give up their denominational ties and become Christians only. Differences of opinion would be tolerated among church members so long as the members professed faith in Jesus and evidenced their salvation by living the Christian lifestyle. Stone was a strong believer in the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. He felt that the one true test of salvation is whether the Holy Spirit has been received by the believer as evidenced by Christian living.
Shortly after Stone began his work, a similar movement was founded by Thomas Campbell and his son, Alexander, who worked unaware of Stone’s efforts. Thomas Campbell was also a former Presbyterian minister who had also come to reject Calvinism and the divisive attitudes prevalent in the Presbyterian Church of the day.
Alexander soon became the intellectual champion of this movement and developed a national reputation for his debates on religious issues. He came to the conclusion that baptism by immersion was essential to salvation. Thus, Campbell emphasized baptism as the true test of whether a believer has been saved. Campbell believed, however, that a penitent believer who, out of ignorance, had not been baptized would be saved. Stone shared this view.
These conclusions caused Campbell to cooperate with Baptist churches. The Baptists,like Campbell, taught and still teach that baptism is to be administered only to believers and,therefore, not to infants. Moreover, like Campbell, they teach that “baptism” in the Bible means immersion and do not consider sprinkling or pouring to constitute baptism in the Biblical sense.
The Stone and Campbell movements soon overlapped territories, with many towns having congregations of both persuasions. Many within the Stone movement became persuaded as to Campbell’s beliefs regarding baptism, and soon efforts were being made to unite the congregations into a common fellowship.
Campbell was initially reluctant to condone a merger. However, the churches were eager to merge, and many merged without his blessings. Because both movements also stressed that each church is completely independent (congregational autonomy), neither leader had any authority to prohibit or compel a merger of the movements. But eventually the two men came to recommend the merger gladly. The combined movements came to be known as the Restoration Movement. Today, scholars usually refer to the “Stone-Campbell Movement,” as there are otherdenominations that were founded in an effort to restore First Century Christianity.
Among the issues that had concerned Stone and Campbell was the differing emphasis on the Holy Spirit by the two movements. The Stone movement emphasized each Christian’s relationship with the Spirit. But Campbell was clearly uncomfortable with the non-rational nature of the indwelling. Campbell emphasized that the Spirit did not provide any revelation other than through the Word of God as revealed through scripture. Campbell thus saw the Spirit as working exclusively through the Bible, denying any supernatural agency separate from the Bible.
The leaders also disagreed on the name of the church (Christian Church vs. Disciples of Christ) and the name of the members (Christians or Disciples). Stone rejected the usual statement of the nature of the trinity (God in three persons, but one essence) found in the Nicene Creed and seemed to many to be a Unitarian (God in one person). Campbell held premillenialist views(Christ will return and reign for 1,000 years). They disagreed on the nature of the atonement(how man is saved) and the necessity for ordained ministers. These and other more subtle differences were put aside, with the men agreeing to “think and let think” and to preach and write only on those subjects that would edify the church. Although each was the publisher of a periodical that was highly influential in the Movement, in the interest of unity each chose to avoid the temptation toward controversies over theological speculation.
When the merger was approved by the leaders of the two movements, a large portion of the Stone movement, perhaps more than half, refused to go along. These churches refused to accept Campbell’s insistence on baptism as essential to salvation and his minimization of the role of the Spirit.
The combined movement, known most commonly as the Disciples of Christ or Christian Church in the North and as the Churches of Christ in the South, was greatly invigorated by the merger and spread rapidly throughout the country as the young nation expanded westward and into the Deep South.
Unlike most denominations, the movement did not divide over slavery during the Civil War. Following the war, while the northern churches were prospering, the southern churches remained relatively poor due to the losses caused by the Civil War, Reconstruction, and related factors.
By 1900 many of the northern churches had begun to build elaborate church buildings and use organs and pianos. Very few Protestant churches had the benefit of either before the Civil War, because the frontier cities were small and instruments were expensive. Moreover,most of the Protestant churches had long histories of rejecting the use of instruments in congregational worship. (In fact, Huldrich Zwingli, among the earliest leaders of the Reformation, rejected congregational singing as well as the instrument, believing the Bible taught Christians to make music in their hearts—only. Martin Luther personally opposed the use of instruments but felt that the Bible did not bind a prohibition and refuse to approve insistence on First Century practices.)
The wealth and size of the northern cities allowed the northern Restoration churches to afford not only buildings and instruments, but also nice clothes for Sunday attendance and fulltime preachers. Alexander Campbell was a scathing critic of dressing up for church! (“Worshipping Assemblies—No. I,” Millennial Harbinger (1839), reprinted in John Allen Hudson, editor, ThePioneers on Worship (The Old Paths Book Club, 1947).
Moreover, many of the northern churches organized a national missionary society to solicit funds and support foreign missions. A national missionary society had been begun before the Civil War and had been strongly supported by Campbell himself. Campbell had been elected president of this society, but he was too infirm from age to actively serve in this capacity. The opponents of the society claimed that Campbell’s support was the result of infirmity due to his old age and that the young Alexander Campbell would never have supported such an innovation.However, Campbell plainly supported the founding of this institution.
In the late 19th Century, the Gospel Advocate, published in Nashville, Tennessee, became the most influential periodical among the southern churches. For many years, David Lipscomb served as its editor, and his writings have a tremendous impact on the southern churches even today. Under Lipscomb, the Advocate stoutly rejected the instrument and missionary societies,and the southern churches followed its lead.
The southern churches and not a few of the northern churches found these changes to be unscriptural as adding elements to the worship not authorized by scripture (instrumental music),as wasteful of God’s resources (elaborate church buildings and Sunday finery), or as creating institutions to do the work that the Bible contemplated would be done by local churches(missionary societies). Because both branches of the Restoration Movement insisted on congregational autonomy, neither group could formally “join” or “leave” the Restoration Movement.
By the turn of the century, the division was very real in the minds of most churches. In1906 the Advocate advised the Census Bureau that the Churches of Christ (as most southern churches were known) were no longer affiliated with the instrumentalist churches and should be considered a separate denomination. This decision formalized what was already largely an accomplished fact.
Just before the “formal” split, the Restoration Movement had some 1,600,000 members and was one of the largest Christian organizations within the United States. Between 150,000and 300,000 of these were members of non-instrumental churches.
Many within the instrumentalist Disciples of Christ came under the influence of liberalism in the early 20th Century. Liberalism is the view that the Bible is not inspired, that Jesus was not a real person, but an ideal, and that most of the Bible is not historical. This view came to dominate most mainline denominations in the early 20th Century, and still carries a great deal, of influence within many of the older Protestant Churches. This thinking eventually led the Disciples to divide into the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) (which has a denominational structure, does not require baptism, and while not formally liberal, accepts those of liberal beliefs) and the conservative independent Christian (which is very similar to the Churches of Christ except for the use of the instrument and, in many cases, missionary societies).
Until about World War I, the Gospel Advocate counseled a broad view of fellowship,teaching that the Baptists’ practice of baptism to obey God (as opposed to the Churches of Christ’s teaching that baptism is for remission of sins), although reflecting an erroneous understanding of baptism, is sufficient to save. The Firm Foundation was founded in Texas to oppose this teaching. However, sometime after World War I, the Advocate came to teach that only those churches that followed the Biblical patterns of worship (meaning the assembly) and congregational organization were a part of the true church of Christ, and that those churches that use an instrument, join missionary societies, or the like do not bear the “marks” of the true church, are not the true church, and are not saved.
Under this line of reasoning, many churches sought to assure their salvation by taking great pains to do nothing not specifically authorized in the scriptures. After all, any “going beyond that which is written” (1 Cor. 4:6) would cost them their very souls! Thus, at various times some churches chose to reject the following as unauthorized:
• Paid preachers (as being equivalent to a single elder, when the Bible requires a plurality of elders).
• Use of multiple communion cups (Jesus only used one; single cup promotes unity).• Use of song books (not found in the Bible).
• Sunday School (a denominational practice not used by anyone until the 19th Century, not found in the Bible, and contrary to the Biblical example of teaching all church members in a single class).
• Christian colleges (the local church is the only scriptural educational institution).
• Sunday School literature other than the Bible (they didn’t use lesson books or flannel graphs in the New Testament).
Many churches divided over these and similar issues. It was felt that division was better than “condoning” sin by staying together with those who insisted on participating in unauthorized practices. Those who objected to a practice were called “anti’s” by those who approved the practice. Those who opposed a practice called those favoring the practice“digressives” or “liberals.”
The experience of the Disciples of Christ with actual liberalism was well known.Influential periodicals argued that those who disagreed with a more conservative view could not disagree for Biblical reasons, since the arguments made by the conservative must be obvious to even the densest of readers. Therefore, those who disagree must do so by doubting the truth of what the Bible so plainly says on the subject. Therefore, all who disagree are liberals. And all liberals are going to hell. Thus, although the Churches of Christ had no denominational organization or structure, the editors of Church periodicals became de facto archbishops, with the power to excommunicate those who dared disagree with a stroke of a venomous pen.
During the 1930’s, a concerted effort was made to re-unite the instrumentalist independent Christian Churches with the non-instrumentalist Churches of Christ. These efforts were led by Claude E Witty, of the Westside Central Church of Christ in Detroit, and James DeForest Murch, of the independent Christian Church. The issues that the participants considered to be the basis of division were: instrumental music, missionary societies and similar organizations, the organized Sunday School, the pastor system, raising money by giving suppers,choirs, solos, and similar special singing, and the name of the church.
A number of “unity meetings” were held seeking a reconciliation of the two branches of the Restoration Movement. The largest of all the unity meetings was planned to be held in Detroit—the “big meeting”—in an effort to bring the reconciliation efforts to a head. The Gospel Advocate published articles by Witty and also articles by those who opposed the unity efforts.Typical of those opposing the efforts is an article by W. E. Brightwell, stating,
Did it ever occur to you, Brother Witty, that with the same amount of sacrifice of convictions necessary to unite with the Christian Church we can fellowship every sect on earth that acknowledges the name of Christ? In preparation for the big meeting, invitations to prominent church leaders were sent out.
H. Leo Boles, the editor of the Gospel Advocate, was chosen to give the keynote address for the Churches of Christ. Boles spoke to the assembled men and women of the Christian Church who had traveled to the meeting to seek unity in Christ, and said, 'You know where you left the Churches of Christ; hence you know where to find them; come back and unity is the inevitable result. There will be no compromise or surrender on this point. The Churches of Christ, as long as they are loyal to the New Testament, cannot compromise on this or any other point so clearly taught in the New Testament.'
The Witty/Murch unity effort soon collapsed.
After World War 2, the South began to prosper, due to the benefits of the military experience, education becoming available under the G.I. Bill, the development of the South under such Roosevelt programs as the Rural Electrification Authority, and perhaps most importantly, the invention of air conditioning. At the same time, the Churches of Christ grew rapidly and probably caught up with the instrumentalist branch of the Movement (exact membership data is impossible to get).
The dramatic changes in American society and the entire world following World War II made many Americans open to Christianity. The Churches began a number of important initiatives, including the establishment of orphans homes (especially needed following World War II and the Korean War) and the “Herald of Truth,” a national television show sponsored cooperatively by many members and congregations of the Churches of Christ.
Many churches came to believe that orphans homes and television programs could not be supported from church funds (since these were not works of a local congregation but of distinct institutions). Soon countless congregations had divided over these very emotional issues.
During the 1950’s another unity effort was made, with the primary focus being to cause the two sides of the orphans home and “Herald of Truth” dispute to recognize one another as brothers and cooperate. This effort was lead by W. Carl Ketcherside of St. Louis, who was anticooperative,anti-Christian college, and anti-fulltime preacher. Although the cooperatives have since largely come to accept the salvation of the anti-cooperatives, during the 1950’s, when emotions were high, both sides tended to consider the other lost in sin for its false teaching, both sides seeing no distinction between the anti-cooperative controversy and the instrumental and missionary society disputes. Ketcherside’s efforts were rejected by the Churches of Christ as a whole, so much so that even today many preachers opposing unity efforts conclude their published articles by branding their opponents guilty of “Ketcherside-ism.”
In 1976 Monroe E. Hawley’s Redigging the Wells was published, sounding similar themes to Witty and Ketcherside:
'However, many do not realize that God also extends his grace to doctrinal matters. Some reason that when doctrinal error is persisted in there is no repentance displayed and without repentance there can be no forgiveness. This betrays a misconception of the nature of repentance. ...One cannot repent of what he does not know to be wrong. ... Likewise, many honest people persist in doctrinal error because they have never learned that it is error. If they were convinced they were wrong, they would change. Who has the right to avow how far the Lord will or will not go in extending clemency to his children in either moral or doctrinal error?'
Many members of the Churches of Christ became persuaded of the soundness of Hawley’s arguments through his writings (Ketcherside’s writings did not receive wide circulation among the cooperative churches), but at least in the South, his views were distinctly a minority position until recently.
During the 1970’s and 1980’s, under the editorship of Reuel Lemmons, the Firm Foundation began publishing articles along the same lines as Hawley’s views, and thus the Texas and other western churches (where the Firm Foundation had the greatest influence)became much more likely to agree with the “unity” position. In the South, where the Gospel Advocate continued to be the trend-setting publication, very few congregations accepted the seviews, but rather the narrower view of grace was still considered not only sound, but unquestioned. Very few southern Church of Christ members were even aware that there had been or continued to be any controversy, because the ongoing efforts toward a reunification of the Restoration Movement were largely ignored by church periodicals widely read within the southern churches.
Thus, Rubel Shelly’s publication of I Just Want to be a Christian in 1984 was a major event in the South but less so out west. Shelly had been a respected preacher and author for many years and was considered very conservative in his views. His “soundness” was beyond question. Some even considered him to be something of a legalist. However, this book placed him squarely in the Witty/Ketcherside/Hawley camp and did so in a manner that could not be ignored.
Shelly wrote, "The universal church of God is made up of individuals—not groups, parts of groups, subsets within larger units, etc.—who have turned from Satan to God, from error to truth, from evil to righteousness. Specifically, it is made up of every person who has been born anew of the water and the Spirit. ...[A Christian] breaks his or her fellowship with the body by embracing adoctrine which denies one or more of the essential elements of the Christian faith. These 'essential elements' are the fundamental issues identified by Paul in his famous unity passage of Ephesians 4:4-6. Having these seven things in common, Christians really are in partnership with one another in spiritual things."
The unity question had been swept under the rug in the South for many years, but now the issue became very public indeed. Many who had harbored views similar to Shelly’s were emboldened to take more public stands, and the issue struck a responsive chord among many members other than preachers and intellectuals.
The controversy continues today, with the issues being debated vigorously and, at times viciously.
From 1980 until 2006, the Churches of Christ grew 2.6% (total, not per year). This is all the more remarkable in light of the fact that sociologists and church growth experts have determined that people are most receptive to the gospel or a change in church affiliation during times of change, and these have been three decades of great change.
During this same time, the Baptist, Pentecostal, independent Christian Churches, and Mormon churches have grown greatly, as have many other fundamentalist churches.
Moreover, thousands have left the traditional “mainline” churches, such as the Presbyterian and Methodist Churches, to form independent congregations, each seeking to restore New Testament Christianity as well as they know how. Never has the United States been more receptive to the historic plea of the Churches of Christ that Christians come out of the denominations and be Christians only.
But we have been too busy fighting among ourselves to be effective in letting the world know what we stand for. We aren’t even sure ourselves.
By the 1970’s, many in the “mainline” Churches of Christ, those that reject missionary societies and instruments but accept congregational cooperation, congregational support of orphans homes and missions, Christian colleges, full-time ministers, and Sunday Schools, had begun a fresh study of the Holy Spirit and the doctrine of grace, driven in large part, I believe, by the loss of members to Pentecostal churches and concern over the lack of evangelical zeal within the Churches of Christ, as well as the increasing availability of modern-English translations. The new translations and continually increasing educational standards made church members much less reliant on preachers and editors for interpretation of scripture.
The mainline Churches of Christ now appear headed for another split. Some would say that the split has already occurred. Many churches still follow the narrower view of grace promoted by the Gospel Advocate. Others wish to take a much freer interpretation of God’s grace and come closer to the views of Stone and Campbell. Both accuse the other of basing their views on emotion (an alleged unhealthy attachment to the past versus an alleged undisciplined, false concept of “love”). Those pursuing a broader view of grace have sometimes been guilty of “cheap grace,” the notion that grace allows Christians to be lazy and uncommitted to Jesus, since God’s grace will supposedly cover this sin. The conservatives’ fear of being wrong often closes their minds to persuasion. Moreover, since the conservatives often believe that any error at all will lead to damnation, the less conservative teachings of the others are considered by them to be not only wrong but extremely dangerous.
This perception of both danger and error is driving the Churches toward a split that maybe irrevocable. Once the two sides divide and, therefore, stop talking, there will be little chance for either side to learn from the other or to reconcile.
After all, there has never been a doctrinal split within the Churches that has later beenhealed. We still have no-Sunday School congregations, anti-cooperative congregations, one cup congregations, foot washing congregations, and holy kiss congregations.
While I was finishing work on this book, a congregation near my home town split overexactly these issues. The preacher implied in a sermon that the Baptists are saved. One side chose to follow the preacher while the other side declared their intention to be a “mainstream Church of Christ.” They evidently concluded that they could not meet as one church of our Lord while they disagreed over this matter.
Jesus tells us that a house divided against itself cannot stand. He was referring to Satan and his demons, but he could just as well have been referring to the Church of Christ today. We are divided against ourselves if anyone ever has been, and our fate has been prophesied if we donothing about it!
Discussion Questions1. Why did the Restoration Movement split over instrumental music and missionarysocieties? What caused the two sides to reach different conclusions from the samescriptures and with a common history of Bible interpretation?
2. Is it possible for all those within the Restoration Movement to agree on all Biblicalissues? Could all members of the “mainline” Churches of Christ ever agree on all Biblicalissues?
3. If we can’t all agree, what determines whether a church must split when its membersdisagree and can’t come to an agreement? Are there some issues that we must agree on?Are there some that we can agree to disagree about?
4. How can the excessive influence of the editors of church periodicals be remedied?
5. How can the various divisions within the Churches of Christ and the RestorationMovement be healed?
6. Would God’s kingdom be better off if these divisions were healed? Why or why not?