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Our Unity Heritage: Biblical Mandate for Unity part I by Leroy Garrett

Note: Leroy Garrett has made it his mission to remind those in Churches of Christ that our movement began as an effort to unify Christians rather than divide or exclude. This is one of a seven part series on the topic.

  From the beginning our people in Churches of Christ/Christian Churches have been known as “people of the Book“. When Lester McAllister did his biography of Thomas Campbell he appropriately titled it “Thomas Campbell: A Man of the Book,” but that could be said of all our founding fathers. They all had repudiated the creeds of men and had resolved to look to the Bible and it alone as their rule of faith and practice.

   They even came up with a motto that they believed said it all, “We speak where the Scriptures speak, and we are silent where the Scriptures are silent.” They cultivated a passion to “unite the Christians in all the sects” not only by experiencing the oppression of factionalism, but from the study of Scripture. In this installment, along with the next one, we will look at some of the Scriptures that influenced their thinking, especially in terms of the principles of unity and fellowship drawn from God’s word.

   Principle of brotherhood.

   We first see this principle in Genesis 13:8 where Abram said to Lot, “Please let there be no strife between you and me, and between your herdsmen and my herdsmen; for we are brethren.” There is also here the principle of magnanimity. Unlike Abram’s previous behavior, as revealed in the previous chapter, where he lies and connives about his wife being his sister — and even urges her to lie — in order to save his own skin, he is here magnanimous to his nephew. If he was little and cheap before Pharaoh about his wife, he is now big and gracious before Lot. When there was strife between them over land, it was Abram who yielded, offering his nephew his choice of the land. He based this on brotherhood. We are brothers! Brotherhood matters so much that it is reason enough for us not to be after each other.

   The story also shows that brothers can be separated and still be brothers, and still be united. Abram aid to Lot, “Please separate from me. If you take the left I will go to the right, or, if you take the right, I will go to the left.” They were now in “different churches,” so to speak, but still bound by brotherhood. Later when Lot was kidnapped by terrorists, Abram gathered a posse of 318 men and rescued his brother.

   In the same way we can “circle the wagons” and be there in time of need for other believers who meet in various locations across town — because they are our brothers and sisters. That we meet separately does not necessarily mean we are divided. It is a factional, party spirit that divides.

   Paul makes use of the principle of brotherhood in Romans 14 where he uses “brother” five times, such as “Why do you judge your brother? Or why do you how contempt for your brother?” And then adds the sobering truth: ‘For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ” (Romans 14:10). The apostle is saying in this context that we can disagree and have differences and still “Receive one another, even as Christ has received you, to the glory of God” (Romans 15:8). We sometimes ask if we can “fellowship” or be in unity with “brothers in error.” I see the apostle saying in this chapter that we don’t have any other kind of brothers except “brothers in error.” We all have our hangups, and who among us is right about everything?

   Principle of the fatherhood of God.

   The last book in the Old Testament states this principle in the form of questions: “Have we not all one Father? Has not one God created us all? Why then do we deal treacherously with each other (Malachi 2:10)? I also like the way the late Carl Ketcherside put it, “Wherever God has a child I have a brother or sister.” It is a persuasive ethic, to treat each person as if he or she were a child of God, and it is a compelling mandate for unity, not only for Christians, but for all creation. God the Father is the creator of us all, and as we draw near to him we draw near to each other.

   The apostle Peter also makes use of this principle but from a different perspective: “If you address as Father him who judges without favoritism according to each individual’s deeds, live out the time of your exile here in reverent awe” (1 Peter 1:16-17, NJB). His argument is that if one calls upon God as Father, it should cause him to lead a life of reverence toward God. This is a unity principle in that all who reverence God as their common Father are drawn to each other. This is also implied in the Lord’s Prayer, “Our Father, who art in heaven …”

   Practicality of unity.

   When Thomas Campbell scored division among Christians as not only anti-Christian and anti-Scriptural, but also as anti-natural, he was referring to its impracticality and to its obstruction to man’s finer instincts as a social being. By nature we enjoy and profit by each other’s company. The social virtues of friendship and companionship are hindered by the divisive spirit. Division among believers in the same family, hinders any discussion of spiritual matters. At family gatherings they can talk about their kids or football or the stock market but nothing religious. The party spirit hinders our natural desire to accept each other and to enjoy each other’s company.

   This must be why Psalm 133:1 reads, “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!” It is saying that unity has pragmatic value. It is a good and pleasant thing. The psalmist goes on to say that unity among brothers is like “precious oil upon the head, running down on the head.” The key word here is precious. When the ugly, irrational spirit gives way to sweet reasonableness, when mean-spirited rejection gives way to loving acceptance, and when sisters and brothers can once more praise God together it is indeed precious.

   One flock, one shepherd.

   It is Jesus himself who says it best in an impressive metaphor: “Other sheep I have which are not of this fold; them also I must bring, and they will hear My voice, and there will be one flock and one shepherd” (John 10:16). It is presumed that “this flock” is Jewish disciples and the “other sheep” are Gentiles, but what matters is that our Lord’s intention is that his followers will be united in one flock, one church. And in the most caring and loving relationship, that of a shepherd nurturing and watching over his flock.

   You will notice that the “other sheep” will hear the voice of the shepherd and not the voice of a stranger. To test that a shepherd was once persuaded to change clothing with a visitor. The visitor put on the shepherd’s robe and the shepherd dressed as if he were the stranger, and both called the sheep. Without any hesitation the sheep made their way to the shepherd.

   It is the way of unity. When each of us hears the voice of “the great Shepherd of the flock” rather than the cries of party leaders we will be one flock, one church.

   This is our heritage, this is who we are, a people with a passion for the unity of all God’s people, motivated by the biblical mandate that the Church of Christ on earth be one.

Our Unity Heritage: Beginnings by Leroy Garrett

Note: Leroy Garrett has made it his mission to remind those in Churches of Christ that our movement began as an effort to unify Christians rather than divide or exclude. This is one of a seven part series on the topic.

   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.