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.