Four Views on Unity: Part 1

This four part series is the result of reading Douglas Foster’s 1987 dissertation at Vanderbilt University. Don’t you love it when someone has already done the research for you?! I give him all the credit for these next few posts.

By 1906, the Disciples of Christ were formally divided into two separate groups. The issues which ultimately precipitated the division had been discussed heavily during the fifty years leading up to it. In this series of posts, I intend to show four different views on unity that existed during this period of turmoil. As a test case to show how their views on unity played out, I want to look at what each of these men said about one of the most divisive issues at the time: instrumental music in worship. Foster chose these four men as exemplars because they all edited journals in different sections of the country for Disciples of Christ. Certainly, these four do not comprise all the views on unity, but they were selected because they were major thought leaders during the period of division. David Lipscomb was selected because he represents the conservative views of Churches of Christ. J.H. Garrison was selected because he exemplifies the progressive position of the Disciples of Christ. Isaac Errett represents the moderate position of the Christian Church. T.B. Larimore is more difficult to pin down for reasons which you will discover. More about all this will be said later.

David Lipscomb

David Lipscomb was probably the most important thought leader in the South in the late 1800s and early 1900s. His views on unity and instrumental music would be accepted principally by the conservative, Southern churches. In 1866, Lipscomb began serving as editor of the Gospel Advocate which was a position he held for nearly fifty years. As the divisions among the Disciples grew, Lipscomb entered the fray to prevent division.

Lipscomb imbibed the desire for the unity of all Christians that had been the driving impetus behind the Stone-Campbell Movement. He wanted to see a united Christian faith. He believed that religious division had been caused by the addition of innovations to the word of God. In his mind, the cure for religious division was simple, “Reject from the service of God anything not required by the Scriptures, and all serve only as the Scriptures require. This will unite Christians, save men and honor God.” (Lipscomb Gospel Advocate 1892: 196). Lipscomb believed this was the meaning of Thomas Campbell’s expression, “Where the Scriptures speak, we speak; where the Scriptures are silent, we are silent.”

Lipscomb believed that some who claimed to be followers of Christ were not satisfied with the commands of God and sought to supplement God’s will with their own innovations. This group presumed that things not forbidden by the Word of God were permitted.  He believed that this was the true source of all division. “For Lipscomb the only safe ground, to which no one could object, was to obey all that was positively enjoined in the New Testament and to insist on nothing beyond that.” (Douglas Foster The Struggle for Unity: 230).

Lipscomb believed that dividing God’s church was one of the greatest sins. “There is no sin more frequently and persistently condemned and warned against as fatally evil in its results by both Christ and the Holy Spirit than that of dividing a church of God.” (Lipscomb, “Queries” Gospel Advocate 1880: 69) Many felt that Lipscomb’s refusal to allow anything not expressly commanded in the New Testament was the real cause of division. Lipscomb, on the other hand, felt that it was actually those bringing in unapproved elements who were causing division.

As much as Lipscomb hated division, he believed that Jesus had come to bring division. He believed that when one departs from following the Word of God, he cuts himself off from Christ and thus from the fellowship of the Church. He wrote in 1890 that even if all churches which profess to be Christian were united, but their union involved even the slightest departure from the teachings of the Bible, it would be under God’s curse. In fact, he said it would be no union; rather, a schismatic and sectarian group.

He addressed the issue of instrumental music in worship in 1910 in his book Queries and Answers. He said:

The test of a church of Christ is: It recognizes God as the only Lawgiver. “Thou shalt worship the Lord they God, and him only shalt thou serve.” (Matt. 3:10) When it consciously changes the smallest appointment of God, it dethrones God as the only Lawmaker and ceases to be a church of God. (pg. 227)

Lipscomb knew that there were differences between good Christians about the Bible. He believed that free and open discussion was the only way to remedy this. Because of this, as editor of the Gospel Advocate, he opened its pages to contradictory views for open and free discussion. He believed that the teachings of the Bible were plain and simple and after open discussion, Christians could and should understand the Bible alike. “Where differences exist, the discussion of these differences is the only hope of union. The suppression of discussion is the direct and open road to division.” (Lipscomb, Gospel Advocate 1906: 552)

Lipscomb believed there was no union in heresy. He said:

God is the only law-making power. Any act of worship not ordained by God, the observance of any ordinance or the performance of any act as religious service not provided for by the authority of God, is treason against God,… the proposition to form a church, or to unite with anyone on anything else than complete surrender to the will of God, and a full obedience to his requirements, is treason of the grossest type. (Lipscomb Gospel Advocate 1885: 402)

It is not difficult then to imagine what Lipscomb said when it came to instrumental music. Lipscomb believed that instruments were detrimental to congregational singing. He believed that they tended to replace singing rather than aid it. Some who favored instruments argued that they had been approved in the Old Testament. Lipscomb argued that instrumental music had never been approved by God, even in the Old Testament. They were introduced by David, and God tolerated them for a time even though it was not His will (Lipscomb Gospel Advocate 1895: 340-341).

The “progressives” argued that since instruments were not expressly forbidden, they were permissible as aids to the singing. Lipscomb responded by asking whether we could add meat to the Lord’s Supper or sell indulgences? (Lipscomb Gospel Advocate 1895: 693) The reality was that he believed that instruments had been expressly forbidden since God had commanded the specific work to be done- congregational singing. Anything else was expressly forbidden.

At the end of the 1800s many were calling for a division of fellowship from the pro-organ churches. At first, Lipscomb opposed division. In fact, Lipscomb often preached at churches which used the instrument. They usually would stop using the instruments when he was with them, but he always explained that they didn’t have to stop them just for him. “If they could not cease its use for his [God’s] sake, they need not for me.” (Lipscomb Gospel Advocate 1894: 159) By the mid-1880s, Lipscomb had reversed his position on open division. In 1889, he said that he did not understand how a Christian opposed to the instrument could worship with instruments. He said that the person who violated his own conscience by worshipping with an instrument was a worse sinner than one who worshipped with instruments but believed them to be acceptable. (Lipscomb, Gospel Advocate 1889: 71)

Someone wrote a letter and asked Lipscomb whether it was wrong to attend an organ church to visit their children or grandchildren who worshipped there. Lipscomb responded:

… to go with them is to affiliate with and build up the wrong and to encourage them in the way that leads to ruin… It will be no alleviation of the torments of hell to us or them to think we encouraged our children and friends in the course of rebellion by going with them. (Lipscomb Queries and Answers pg. 229)

He would say in another response to a question about instruments:

Then my faith is that it is the duty of those who believe a church sets aside the order of God to strive to correct that wrong, to be patient and forbearing in it; and if they fail in this, to withdraw and at once go actively to work to form a true church and observe the true service of God. (Lipscomb Gospel Advocate 1901:696)

For Lipscomb, the addition of instruments was not a matter of opinion, but a matter of faith. He believed that if a church added an organ, it showed that the church no longer respected the divine authority of God and recognized Him as lawgiver and thus had ceased to be a true church. All those who agreed with Lipscomb and were conscientiously opposed to instruments, should try to correct the error and if the church insisted on using the organ, they should leave and form a true church. Unity cannot involve blatant disregard for the authority of God. Thus, there is no unity with those who use instruments. He did not believe there were any indifferent doctrines or nonessentials. He believed there were only essential things and unlawful things. He believed that a person might reach a point where they refuse to accept the truth and must be abandoned. Foster says, “Eventually he held out more hope and kindness for sincere believers in denominational bodies than he did for those he viewed as traitorous Disciples.” (Struggle for Unity pg. 331)

In 1906, the United States Bureau of Census reached out to David Lipscomb to ask if the two groups should be listed separately. He responded to the director of the census, S.N.D. North, “There is a distinct people taking the word of God as their only sufficient rule of faith, calling their churches ‘churches of Christ’ or ‘churches of God,’ distinct and separate in name, work, or rule of faith, from all other religious bodies or peoples.”

Lipscomb regretted that the division happened. He believed he had done everything in his power to prevent it. Ultimately, he believed that the progressives had given up on the word of God and added innovations and there was no choice but to separate. Because of this, Lipscomb was accused by many of having been the main cause of the split. He responded:

We have done nothing to bring about the present condition of affairs. We have done nothing save try to be true to God and his word. We expect to do nothing save this. We then leave all in the hands of God. If you will be true to him, you shall not separate from me. If you are not faithful and true to him, you will separate from all that are true to God. (Lipscomb, Gospel Advocate 1908: 57)

He declared that if his detractors abused and misrepresented him as causing the split, he would gladly bear the stigma of standing for the Word of God for the sake of his Master.

Some mistakenly believe Lipscomb advocated a truth-for-truth’s sake attitude. That is false. Lipscomb was passionate about unity. He believed that unity could only be accomplished through obeying only those things positively enjoined on Christians by the New Testament. I wonder if it might be said of those who follow in the Lipscomb tradition that we are “passionate about unity.”

His views also invite us to ask other questions. Was Lipscomb right about Christian unity? Is there more diversity in Christian unity than Lipscomb allowed? Are those things not directly commanded or discussed in the New Testament expressly forbidden because of the silence of the Scriptures? What are the practical implications of his views on unity and division for our churches today?

Stay tuned for the next post.

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