The early leaders of the American Restoration Movement (ARM) had the primary goal of uniting all Christians by means of a return to the Bible. One of the unfortunate realities of the ARM is that although we began as a unity movement, our history reveals a multitude of splits and divisions. One of the central theses I seek to show in this post is the real root of the problem which contributed to the divisions which have occurred in our movement. Someone might ask, “What caused all the divisions in our history?” One would be partially correct to respond, “instrumental music”, “the missionary society”, “premillennialism”, “noninstitutionalism”, “multiple cups”, “Sunday schools”, etc. While there have been divisions precipitated by all those issues and others, it is my contention that those were only the symptoms of a larger endemic issue present in the ARM from the very beginning.
Barton W. Stone and Alexander Campbell’s groups united in 1832. As early as 1855, professors at two of the movements most influential colleges were already clashing over a core issue. Robert Milligan was a professor at Bethany College (the college begun by Alexander Campbell). Tolbert Fanning was a professor at Franklin College near Nashville, TN. Robert Milligan was a regular contributor to Campbell’s journal, the Millennial Harbinger. In 1855, he wrote an article entitled “The Permanent Orders of Christian Ministry”. In the article he was exploring some questions about congregational leadership on which the Bible is silent. For example, we know that congregations are supposed to be governed by a plurality of elders, but the Bible says nothing about whether a local eldership can elect a president or a chairman. Milligan’s conclusion was that an eldership which elected a president was acceptable because the Bible is silent on such matters. He said:
Can any one produce a direct “thus saith the Lord,” for such an organization? With many, this is the only rule of action in ecclesiastical affairs. This school of interpreters have much to say in reference to the simplicity of the Divine law, and their strict adherence to its requirements. From their conversation and writings, the mere novice in Christianity would be apt to infer that the New Testament is a code of the most specific precepts. But the diligent student of the New Institution finds very few such precepts. He searches in vain for a direct “thus saith the Lord,” in many cases of paramount importance. It is well that it is so. Had the Divine founder of the Christian system attempted to govern his church wholly by specific laws, truly, indeed the world would not have contained the books that should have been written… What, then, would have been the magnitude of the Divine code, had the great Lawgiver of the universe attempted to govern his people in all ages, and in all nations, merely by specific laws!! (Millennial Harbinger 1855)
In doing this, God has made the New Testament a book of motives; he has enacted some very generic laws; he has illustrated the principle of his government and the rules of human conduct, by a great variety of authoritative examples; and whenever all these are not sufficient, then, and only then, may we confidently expect to find in the New Testament specific laws and ordinances. (Millennial Harbinger 1855)
When Tolbert Fanning received his copy of the Millennial Harbinger, he was shocked by Brother Milligan’s views on the nature of Scripture.
We regret that our brother did not define “generic and specific laws.” In the physical universe all laws are specific. Every particle of matter is attracted to the centre, with a power which is as the inverse ration of the square of the distance. In chemistry, Heaven has specifically ordained that so many equivalents of one simple with another, shall form a new substance. Thus, eight of oxygen and one of hydrogen form water; but no other amounts will answer the end. (Millennial Harbinger 1856)
In the New Testament, each obligation, in our view, is specific. We are commanded to believe, but there is nothing “generic” (or general, as we heard one maintain not long since.) The facts are all specific, special, particular, and no philosophy is to be exercised on the subject… We find nothing but specifics in the New Testament. (Millennial Harbinger 1856)
To be fair to both men, this discussion was not about whether the Bible was the authority for the faith and practice of the church, but how the Bible was authoritative. Milligan valued the Bible just as much as did Fanning. Is the Bible a rule book of specific laws as Fanning maintained? Or, is it a book of general principles meant to be lived out in each successive culture as Milligan believed? I imagine if Fanning and Milligan were locked in the same room and told them to discuss the Bible, they would disagree about a host of issues. Whatever disagreements they might have would be caused by the real underlying issue- they are interpreting the Bible differently because they understand the nature of the Bible differently.
Now, let us fast forward the clock over a century later. I recently spent some time in the library reading through four journals in Churches of Christ which were prominent in the 1970s and after. Two journals which represented the conservative strain in Churches of Christ were Contending for the Faith and Spiritual Sword. Two journals which represented progressive thought in Churches of Christ were Restoration Review and Mission. In scanning these documents I discovered some very illuminating quotes.
Contending for the Faith:
The Bible is an absolute law of right and wrong. The teachings of the Bible are the only ways that a man can tell if he is right and loyal to Christ or wrong and loyal to the Devil… The Liberal would have us reject the Bible as the means by which loyalty to Christ is to be determined. He mocks when you quote book, chapter and verse to prove a point… May each of us stand loyally with the truth and when the liberal comes along with his infidel philosophies, may we have the courage and knowledge to take the “sword of the Spirit” and cut him down. -William Cline (1976)
What seems difficult for many among us to grasp is the moral nature of the struggle now raging among us between those who really believe in the Restoration Movement- based strictly on what the New Testament teaches- and those who really do not believe in it- but would liberalize it beyond all recognition… As nearly as I can judge, their efforts are not based on any lack of character but simply upon unbelief! And because they no longer believe in restoring Christianity to the Bible basis, this accounts for their having arisen speaking “perverse things.” (Acts 20:29-30) -Ira Rice Jr. (1970)
Once the position is accepted that the New Testament is not the authority on church organization, doctrine, and worship there is no possibility of establishing New Testament churches today. Fellowship can be without bounds in the New Testament concerning the church. -James Bales, professor at Harding College (1973)
The Scriptures furnish the blueprint for the church or it furnishes us with “noprint” and we cannot speak of the church…. If the New Testament is not the blueprint, the standard, for church organization, doctrine and worship, how can anyone claim that it furnishes us with a blueprint (even though much of it is covered by principles) for the new life in Christ? No one could tell what the new life is or is not. If it is not the blueprint, one cannot say that any religious body in Christendom, or outside of it for that matter, is scriptural…. If the New Testament does not furnish the blueprint there is no limit to fellowship because a part of our doctrine is the new life in Christ. The impenitent immoral could not be disfellowshipped.” James Bales, professor at Harding College (1973)
Churches of Christ have historically called for unity on the basis of a return to the New Testament. For some the New Testament is viewed as a blueprint which is to be followed in exact detail in every age of history if the church is to be faithful to the Bible. For these Christians unity will only come when everyone agrees to the concept of a New Testament blueprint and then conforms to it. Others do not believe the New Testament was ever intended to serve as a blueprint for church organization and doctrine. For them such a concept and the way in which it has been advocated is one of the causes of division. These Christians also are concerned with being biblical, but if the New Testament is not a blueprint, then to maintain such a view would be unbiblical. -Opinion RSVP (1973)
See that you make all things according to the pattern shown you in the mountain. —Heb. 8:5. This passage has long been a proof text for the doctrine that the church of the New Testament, like the tabernacle of the Old Testament (which is what the above verse refers to) is to be built according to a detailed pattern or blueprint. And that pattern or blueprint is the New Testament. This view has been set forth in many Church of Christ sermons with some such title as “Building According to the Pattern.” I believe that this interpretation is untenable and indefensible, and one that has worked havoc among us in that it has contributed to division after division. Our umpteen parties within the Movement are due in part to what might be called “patternistic theology.” Once we assume that the New Testament is a prescribed pattern, with all the details of name, organization, work, and worship of the church spelled out, then it follows that all congregations must be alike, believing alike and conforming to the same prescription. Add to this the fact that each “wing commander” among us has his own idea of what the right pattern is and you have the making for more debates and more divisions. The logic is as flawless as it is severe: If the New Testament is the blueprint for the church and I read the blueprint aright, then my view of the church is the right one and all others must line up with the way I see it. This leads to the “only true church” mentality, and again the logic is unerring, for if I correctly read the pattern my church is right and yours is wrong. No diversity allowed! This is why we have divided over such matters as Sunday schools, choirs, instrumental music, societies, sponsoring churches, lesson leaves, and even whether we can eat in the church building or have a Christmas tree. It is assumed that the New Testament, as the church’s pattern, legislates in all such matters in one way or another… We can resolve this hermeneutical problem only by some hard, honest thinking. Is the New Testament really the kind of book that we are making it? If it is a detailed pattern, like unto the instructions God gave Moses for the building of the tabernacle, why are there such differences in interpretation? If it is as “clear” and “easy” as we make it out to be, why do we stand alone in many of our conclusions? There are not differences like that over the recipe for a chocolate cake? The fact is that the New Testament bears no resemblance to a recipe, pattern, or blueprint —because their prescriptive nature allow for no differences of opinion.” Leroy Garrett (1990)
Have we heard any of that before? It seems to me we are still asking the same foundational questions about the very nature of the Bible. My belief is that many of the tensions in modern-day Churches of Christ are due to the fact that we still have unresolved issues with how to understand and interpret the Bible. Both sides believe the Bible is the inspired Word of God and is important for faith and practice. Both sides love the Lord and want to serve Him. But, both sides disagree in some ways about how to go about that. What we have today are two sides staked out against the other. Both sides think the other side is dangerous. One side leads to liberalism and digression. The other leads to Pharisaism and legalism. Neither side has any intention of giving up ground.
American Restoration Movement historian Douglas Foster said:
While everyone in the movement believed the Bible to be the source of all legitimate religious belief and practice, a difference in approach to the scriptures was at the heart of the problem. This difference centered primarily around how to handle the silence of the scriptures, a matter noticed very early in the movement by Thomas Campbell’s statement, “where the scriptures speak, we speak; where the scriptures are silent, we are silent.” Did the fact of biblical silence on a specific item positively forbid its use or did that silence give leeway to use or not use as determined by varying circumstances? (The Struggle for Unity During the Period of Division of the Restoration Movement: 1875-1900, pgs. 66-67)
It seems to me that one of the underlying problems is that we as the modern man struggle to understand exactly how to appropriate ancient texts in our own day. The discussions we are having in our churches today about how to understand a document written nearly 2,000 years ago are the same discussions American citizens are having about how to interpret and apply the Constitution (1789). Strict constitutionalists argue that we should not go beyond the bounds of the original words and intents of the authors. Loose constitutionalists think that a 200 year old document can’t possibly speak to every situation in the modern age and thus, needs updating and changes in order to apply it in our day. The core issue which continues to befuddle us is how to apply and interpret ancient texts in the modern age.
So, I leave with you with some of my own questions, “What is the nature of the Bible” and “What do we do when good brothers interpret the Bible differently than we do?” These seem to me to be fundamental questions. In the weeks to come, we will see these foundational questions battled out over various issues: instrumental music, one cup, Sunday school, Missionary Society, Christian colleges, orphan homes, etc. ad infinitum. It is my belief that these issues were only symptoms of the more endemic problem- a difference in how to understand and interpret the Bible.