Unity in Diversity

The American Restoration Movement did not appear out of thin air. In the late 1700s and early 1800s, Americans living on the frontier were experiencing religious revival. There were several reform movements occurring in various parts of America including those of Elias Smith, Abner Jones, and James O’Kelly. All of these reform movements centered around having “the Bible as the only creed” and the only sufficient rule of faith and practice. The idea of “going back to the Bible” was not original to Barton W. Stone or Alexander Campbell. They benefited from drinking at the same watering hole as other reformers during the Second Great Awakening.

Barton W. Stone was a Presbyterian minister who became increasingly dissatisfied with the Presbyterian Church and its teachings. Particularly, Stone could not fully affirm the Westminster Confession or the doctrine of predestination which was an important part of Calvinism at that time. Stone eventually broke off from Presbyterian Church and formed his own group. They wanted to be Christians only and thus referred to themselves as Christians. By 1830, the Christians numbered around 16,000 in KY, AL, TN, IN, and OH.

Thomas Campbell was a Presbyterian minister who came to America from Scotland in 1807. He settled in Pennsylvania. When he became at odds with the Presbyterian Church because he offered communion to Non-Seceder Presbyterians, he was censured and left to form his own group, The Christian Association of Washington (PA). In 1809, he was commissioned by the Association to explain the group. Thomas called this document Declaration and Address (a title reminiscent of the Declaration of Independence). There are several themes which pervade the document: the unity of all Christians; condemnation of division among Christians; belief that existing doctrinal divisions were not based on the express teachings of the New Testament; confession of faith in Jesus was the only requirement to join, no creedal confessions; desire to return to the purity of the early church; and love and understanding were important for Christians. Christian union through truth was the driving idea for the Christian Association of Washington. The motto of the group was “Union in truth”. You can read the entire document here. The opening line reads:

DEARLY BELOVED BRETHREN: That it is the grand design and native tendency of our holy religion to reconcile and unite men to God, and to each other, in truth and love, to the glory of God, and their own present and eternal good, will not, we presume, be denied, by any of the genuine subjects of Christianity.

Later on, he wrote:

O! that ministers and people would but consider that there are no divisions in the grave, nor in that world which lies beyond it! there our divisions must come to an end! we must all unite there! Would to God we could find in our hearts to put an end to our short-lived divisions here; that so we might leave a blessing behind us; even a happy and united Church.

While Thomas was here in America expressing these views about religion, his family remained in Scotland. In 1808, his oldest son, Alexander, and the rest of his family set sail from Scotland to join Thomas in America. During the voyage, they shipwrecked off the coast of England. They were forced to spend a year in Glasgow which proved fortuitous for Alexander because he had the opportunity to study at the University of Glasgow. There, he came under the influence of James and Robert Haldane and Greville Ewing who imparted to him many of the principles he would accept and preach for the rest of his life. In England, Alexander became increasingly dissatisfied with the exclusivism of the Seceder Presbyterian Church and eventually refused communion with them. The family was reunited with Thomas in October of 1809 in America. Both Thomas and Alexander had independently left the Seceder Presbyterian Church and were surprised to learn that they had come to many of the same conclusions about the Bible. When Alexander read the Declaration and Address written by Thomas, he pledged to give his life to the principles expounded in that document. The Campbells’ eventually formed the Brush Run Church which joined the Redstone Baptist Association. In 1830, the Brush Run Church joined the Mahoning Baptist Association. They were known as the “Christian Church”, “Disciples of Christ”, “Reformers” and “Church of Christ”.

In 1832, Campbell’s “Reformers” united with Stone’s “Christians”. Both groups took the Lord’s Supper together in Georgetown to solidify the union. The unified group would come to be known primarily as the “Disciples of Christ”. The new united group had around 25,000 members primarily in two states (KY and OH).

Barton W. Stone and Alexander Campbell disagreed about several very significant issues. First, both disagreed on the Trinity. Stone rejected the orthodox view of Trinitarianism. He was accused of being Arian although he denied any association with Arianism. Campbell held the orthodox view on the Trinity. There are entire works written on this subject including this book which I hope to be able to read at some point. Second, the two disagreed on the nature of the atonement. Campbell subscribed to the penal substitution theory while Stone affirmed the moral influence theory. Third, both disagreed as to how ministers should be appointed in the churches. Stone believed that only elders could appoint ministers while Campbell believed that a congregational vote on a minister was sufficient. Fourth, and probably most contentious, they had divergent views on open and closed communion. Stone practiced open communion to the unimmersed while Campbell had closed communion. Stone explained, “We therefore teach the doctrine, believe, repent and be immersed for the remission of sins; and we endeavor to convince our hearers of its truth; but we exercise patience and forbearance towards such pious persons who cannot be convinced.” While Campbell admitted the possibility of the pious unimmersed being a Christian and the possibility they would be able to enter the kingdom of eternal glory in the afterlife, he denied access to unimmersed individuals to the kingdom of grace in this life, the church.

Yet, in spite of what are seemingly significant differences,  the two men united. In 1829, Stone would say, “We have nothing to prevent a union and if they have nothing in them in opposition to it, we are in spirit one. May God strengthen the cords of Christian union.” They united because they agreed on what they considered to be the essentials. Their main goal was to unite all Christians through a return to the truth of the Bible. Returning to the Bible was not an end in itself. It was a means to an end. The goal was Christian union and the means was returning to the Bible.

I am thinking out loud here as I reflect on where Churches of Christ are today. Are Churches of Christ known as a unity group? Or, are we more known for division? Has “going back to the Bible” become the end itself? Have we lost sight of the main goal of the movement, “to reconcile and unite men to God, and to each other, in truth and love”? Is there a place in our churches for theological diversity?

The truth is that unity is more difficult than division. When we disagree, it is easier just to pick up our toys and go play in another sandbox. Unity in the midst of diversity requires us to sit down and engage in open and honest dialog. In my estimation, one question has given our movement trouble since its earliest days: “What do we do when good brothers interpret the Bible differently than we do?” Is it possible to be unified with someone whom we believe to be “in error” on a matter of doctrine? It was for Stone and Campbell.

Since Christian unity was the driving force behind the early Stone-Campbell Movement, the rest of the series will focus on various topics in our history dealing with unity and division.


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