Four Views on Unity: Part 2

In part one of this series, we looked at the first of the four views on unity. David Lipscomb’s position on unity and subsequently instrumental music became the majority view of the conservative branch of the Disciples of Christ known exclusively today as Churches of Christ. In this post, we will go to the other end of the spectrum from David Lipscomb.

J.H. Garrison

J.H. Garrison is important because he is on the opposite side of the spectrum as Lipscomb. Today, Garrison is mostly claimed by the Disciples of Christ. Like Lipscomb, Garrison’s chief contribution to the movement was through journals. He began editing the Gospel Echo in 1868. In 1872, he merged that paper with a paper which had failed, The Christian, and the new paper was called The Gospel Echo and Christian (clever, I know!). In 1874, he dropped “Gospel Echo” from the name. In 1882, he negotiated a merger with another paper, The Evangelist to form The Christian-Evangelist and he edited that journal until his death in 1931. He edited Disciples journals for sixty years!

I have been surprised in my research of the instrumental music question of the paucity of articles in the major journals from those who supported using instruments in worship. Garrison is one of the few I could locate. Vastly more was written by those who opposed instruments (Moses Lard, Benjamin Franklin, David Lipscomb, James Harding, J.W. McGarvey, etc.). However, when the division occurred, the members of the Disciples (who were mostly pro-organ) far outnumbered the Churches of Christ (who were mostly anti-organ). They outnumbered Churches of Christ 924,000 to 160,000. So, 85% of the Disciples were on the side of the movement that was pro-organ by 1906. How do we account for the lack of material from the pro-organ crowd? I think the answer might be simple. Most just didn’t feel this was an important issue. For example, Garrison was adamant that he didn’t want his paper The Christian to become a forum for discussing the instrumental music question. It just wasn’t a big deal to him.

Garrison had been converted to the Disciples while a student at Abingdon College. He read Alexander Campbell’s works and became enthralled with the Restoration principles. He believed in the plea of unity through restoration. Garrison believed the way to achieve the sought after unity was to exalt Jesus Christ to his original and rightful supremacy in the church and to make faith in Christ the only test of Christian fellowship. (Garrison, The Christian-Evangelist 1883:4-5) He made this explicit in an 1870 article:

What is it to take Christ as a foundation? It is to have a creed with this only article: “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved.” This contains all that is necessary to be believed by the sinner in order to secure his salvation. The man that adds to this any other articles of faith is laying another foundation. If he excludes any person from his fellowship who believes in Christ, but does not believe in the article or articles thus added, he is a schismatic and rests under the condemnation of God’s Word. (Garrison The Gospel Echo 1870:462-63)

He believed that Christians were united with all who were in Christ. Fellowship was not dependent on uniformity in worship, method of work, or models of church organization. He did not believe any of those things were legitimate reasons for breaking fellowship. (Garrison The Christian-Evangelist 1887: 370) Garrison believed that one of the greatest misconceptions of unity was that unity could only be achieved among those who thought alike. When he looked at the New Testament he saw churches that displayed a wide variety of practices and beliefs, yet they were united in faith despite their differences. (Garrison, The Christian Evangelist 1893: 34) He believed there was much latitude in the borders of Christian fellowship.

Since the beginning of the Restoration Movement a distinction had been made between the essentials which were matters of faith and opinions which consisted primarily of those things not taught expressly in the Bible. He did not believe that any matter of opinion could be required for Christian fellowship. He thought that the chief cause of division in religion was when people tried to bind their opinions on others through the use of human creeds. Garrison did not believe the Bible was a Christian rule book. He saw the person of Christ as being the the object of the Christian faith rather than a set of doctrines or propositions.

He believed it would be very difficult to get the denominational hierarchies to give up their creeds in order to unite. In the meantime, he advised his readers to regard the other denominational groups as Christians. He believed these groups were following God’s will according to their understanding of it. Because of this, Garrison was willing to cooperate with other evangelical Christians in good works (feeding the hungry, housing the poor, etc.). Garrison believed that if there was more participation among the different churches that it would be the shortest route to unity. (Garrison Christian-Evangelist 1888: 371) Because of this, Garrison would quickly endorse any organization that promoted Christian unity (YMCA, Christian Endeavor, and the Evangelical Alliance). (Garrison Christian-Evangelist 1897: 626) Many opposed cooperation with the denominations because they were afraid that cooperation with them would imply approval of their beliefs and practices. On the other hand, Garrison believed that cooperation with others was part of the Restoration plea because the basic plea involved effecting the union of all Christians. He believed cooperation would allow them to share the ideals of the Restoration Movement with others in an amicable atmosphere. (Garrison Christian Evangelist 1903:449) Garrison made it clear that he did not endorse the Disciples giving up ground on the Restoration plea: “…We have no thought of abating one jot or tittle of our plea for a return to the broader and purer Christianity of Christ with antedates all denominationalism and which offers a basis sufficiently broad for the oneness and cooperation of all Christians and churches.” (Garrison Christian-Evangelist 1897: 626)

Garrison said once, “the mightiest force which we can exert in behalf of so holy a cause is in the practical illustration among ourselves of the unity which we advocate for the whole church.” (Garrison The Christian-Evangelist 1891: 770) Garrison was under no presumption that there would cease to be differences of opinion in the church. He believed there would always be both liberals and conservatives. He believed that both groups could be unified despite their differences. Garrison doled out condemnation for both conservatives and liberals who were promoting division. He had harsh words for conservatives who denounced the progressives as unsound. He also condemned the liberals who tried to force their conclusions on conservative brethren who were slower to come around on some issues. With that said, he believed that the conservative faction was more responsible for the growing divisions. He said:

As long as there is any considerable part of our membership whose conception of Christianity is such that the adoption of any expedient for the furtherance of Christian work, or as an accessory to Christian worship, wounds their conscience, because not specifically authorized in the Scripture, these congregational strifes will continue. (Garrison Christian-Evangelist 1888: 739)

One of the main problem he saw was how both sides where interpreting the movement’s motto: “Speak where the Bible speaks and be silent where the Bible is silent.” The conservatives believed that only those things explicitly authorized were acceptable and everything about which the Bible was silent was forbidden. Garrison believed that in those matters in which the Bible was silent, God allowed Christian people to use their judgement. (Garrison A Modern Plea for Ancient Truths: 32) He believed that the conservatives had emphasized the restoration part of the movement’s plea to the exclusion of the unity part of the plea. (Garrison The Christian-Evangelist 1904:761)

Garrison, like many of his contemporaries, said little about instrumental music. In his earliest days, he had been influenced by the anti-organ arguments of Moses Lard. As late as 1877, he said that he thought instruments were more a hindrance to singing than an aid. (Garrison The Christian 1877: 4) However, as he got older, his views changed.

No one disputed that singing was a commandment of the Lord (not even the pro-organ folks). The debate centered over whether instruments were expedients which aided in the command to sing. Garrison came to believe that instruments were expedients and could be used as aids in carrying out the command. Each congregation should be left to decide for itself whether instruments would be an aid to their singing or not. Since instruments were in the category of expedients, he did not believe their use or non-use could be made into tests of fellowship. (Garrison The Christian-Evangelist 1888: 739) He thought the whole question was utterly opposed to the spirit of the movement and should be removed from discussion.

Garrison received a letter from a member of a church that had split over the instrument. He couldn’t understand how any church that was part of a Christian unity movement could divide over that issue. He responded, “What is the use of any religious body talking about Christian unity on a broad scale for the whole religious world, while it is divided on questions of Tweedledee and Tweedledum?” (Garrison The Christian-Evangelist 1904: 597) He believed that the principle that silence was prohibitive was the true cause of all the division. He regarded that principle to be very dangerous to Christianity. Garrison saw an essential principle at stake in the instrument question: Christian liberty in matters of expedience. He believed that if one conceded on the instrument question, then the implications would have a negative effect on a host of other issues.

Garrison believed this was caused by an even deeper seeded problem. The root of this issue was that many conceived of the New Testament as a Christian law book. With that view of Scripture, they believed that every minute detail of worship was regulated by it. Garrison believed this was a fundamental mistake in understanding the nature of the Bible. He also believed that many were more concerned about doctrines and propositions than they were concerned about devotion to Christ. He lamented, “Obedience to an external command, like baptism or the Lord’s Supper, has sometimes been taken more a test of loyalty to Christ than general conformity to his teaching as relates to conduct and character.” (Garrison Christian Union 148-50)

He said:

Herein is our difference with both parties to this argument [organ issue]. One believes that the particulars of both worship and work are prescribed, the other that only the particulars of worship. We believe that neither the details of worship nor the details of work are prescribed. The New Testament is not a book of prescriptions. Until we cease to treat it as such our controversies can not end. (Garrison Christian-Evangelist 1887: 194)

Garrison encourages us to ask some questions. As we asked in a previous post, what kind of book is the Bible? Does the Bible tell us the minute details of the method, worship, and organization of the church? The Bible is silent on many things. What things are permissible and what things are prohibited? Is Garrison’s view of “unity in Christ alone” right? Is there more latitude in unity than we have sometimes understood or shown others?

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