Four Views on Unity: Part 3

In part one and part two, we looked at David Lipscomb and J.H. Garrison who represent both conservative and progressive thought about unity and instrumental music in the Disciples of Christ in the late 1800s. In part three, we will look at the views of Isaac Errett who represents a more moderate position.

Isaac Errett

Alexander Campbell died on March 4, 1866. Since Campbell was such an iconic figure in the Disciples of Christ, he was able to hold the movement together as brethren debated about various issues. The Disciples were anxious to see who would step in and fill the prominent place of Campbell in the movement after his death. The name most often mentioned was Isaac Errett. At the time, he was a young Ohio editor and preacher who had spent much time with Campbell in his later years. One month after Campbell’s death, Errett began publication of the Christian Standard which he edited until his death in 1888. Under Errett’s leadership, the Christian Standard became the greatest supporter of the missionary society. The journal was the most popular in the North and even gained a great foothold in the more conservative Southern churches. The fact that his moderate views were gaining ground in the South frustrated David Lipscomb and the two often exchanged words (see for example Errett, “The David Lipscomb Fiasco” Christian Standard 1883:316). From 1857-1860 Errett served as the Corresponding Secretary for the American Christian Missionary Society. In 1861, he was made the co-editor of the Millennial Harbinger alongside Alexander Campbell.

What were Errett’s views on unity and fellowship? Errett attempted to diffuse the tensions in the movement in the late 1800s. Like all the founding fathers of the Stone-Campbell Movement (most notably Campbell), Errett believed that there were Christians in the denominations and that it was the job of all Christians to leave denominational structures because they were wrong and divisive. Errett could often be found participating in interdenominational activities. He did not believe his participation endorsed the denominational structures. He thought that through positive association with other Christians in denominations, he would convince them in a friendly atmosphere to give up their sectarian loyalties. Foster says:

The many contacts he had with other religious groups included membership in the American Bible Union and the International Sunday School Convention, he was a fraternal delegate to the Ohio Baptist Convention, chaired the response committee to the overture for union from the Bishops of the Protestant Episcopal Church, enthusiastically supported the YMCA, attended the Inter-Denominational Congress of 1885, and made frequent appearances in worship and revival services of numerous denominations. (Foster, Struggle for Unity, pg. 113)

Errett said of the possibility of union with other Protestants in an 1877 sermon:

We all hold to the imperative necessity of repentance toward God; we all acknowledge the divine authority of baptism as the ordinance through which the believing penitent enters into the church; we all insist on the fruits of righteousness in those who wear the name of Christ. Union simply requires that we rid ourselves of the tests and the practices which Christ did not authorize… Let us hold to the Bible, and drop the creeds; hold to Christ and drop denominationalism; and drop the sprinkling and pouring and infant membership, about which we can never agree. And then let a true Christian life rather than soundness in orthodox doctrine be the term of fellowship in the church, and all other questions will soon adjust themselves. (Errett, The True Basis of Union 1877:31-32)

Errett stressed that all the early leaders had taught that the only requirement for early Christians was confidence in Jesus Christ as the Son of God. That was the one thing that the Disciples had proposed to unite all Christians. Errett believed that no matter how right or wrong one might be on other issues, if they were right about Jesus Christ, the person was entitled to be in the divine fellowship of the church. (Errett, The True Basis of Union: 10, 12) Errett believed that faith permitted one to be baptized and baptism marked entrance into fellowship. Beyond that, no other doctrine could be a made a test of fellowship.

Errett believed there was unity in diversity. He believed that the only things enjoined upon Christians were those things which were clear teachings of the Bible. Beyond that, there was great diversity in what opinions a person was allowed to hold. He would say that there was latitude for different views on the Trinity, atonement, work of the Holy Spirit, etc. but it was essential that everyone believe in the “divinity of Jesus as the Son of God, his death for our sins, his resurrection from the dead, his exaltation to honor and glory in the heavens, and his supreme and universal kingly authority.” (Errett Christian Standard 1871: 121) Since these items were common in evangelical Protestantism, they provided a basis for dialogue toward union. He would say that Roman Catholics, Rationalists, Quakers, and Mormons were excluded because they didn’t affirm those basic principles of the faith.

Errett believed that it was the role of preachers and teachers to instruct the church on everything which the Bible teaches. However, those were truths to be learned for Christian maturity. They were not tests by which people should be admitted or accepted into the fellowship of the church. The only thing that could merit withdrawing from someone in the church was rejection of Jesus Christ or persistent refusal to obey his clear commands. (Errett Christian Standard 1881: 24)

Some accused Errett of “latitudinarianism”. They accused him of opening fellowship so much that many erroneous beliefs would have to be fellowshipped. Errett did not see it this way. He denied that any of the core doctrines of the gospel of Christ were at stake in his position. He didn’t believe that he was any more “latitudinarian” than the Apostles. He saw a great diversity of belief and practice in the early churches.

Foster points out:

Errett deplored the division in the Christian world. His assessment of why the evangelical groups who already possessed the elements of unity (acknowledgement of the divinity of Christ and the authority of the New Testament) were not united, was that they had added items as terms of fellowship which were never intended to be such. If the denominations would seek fellowship based on Christ alone, and leave people free to think and do as they pleased on all other matters, a closer fellowship than could ever be reached by trying to force unity on the basis of human creeds could result. It was virtual apostasy from Christ, he believed, to attempt to compel uniformity in thinking and practice where Christ and the apostles had not dictated. (Foster Struggle for Unity pg. 119)

Errett interpreted Thomas Campbell’s famous statement “speak where the Bible speaks, and be silent where the Bible is silent” in terms of fellowship. He said, “nothing was to be required as a term of fellowship but the express declarations of the word of God–either an express ‘thus saith the Lord,’ or an approved precedent.” (Errett Christian Standard 1880: 268). He did not believe this statement barred the addition or modification of certain beliefs or practices.

The only restriction placed on the freedom of fellowship was what Errett called the “law of love” based on 1 Corinthians 8:13. If any exercised opinion offended or injured a brother, the law of love directed that the person espousing the opinion to give it up in deference to his brother. Errett often spoke out against those who would bind their opinions on other Christians. However, he equally spoke out against those who caused offenses to other brothers by imposing their opinions. He thought both of those attitudes were sinful.

In the strongest terms, Errett stated in 1869 a view that he would hold for the rest of his life:

If a people pleading for the union of all Christians can not maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace in their own limited communion, and peaceably dispose of all such questions as are mentioned above [instrumental music in worship and a developing pastor system], and a great many more, then is this plea for union as ridiculous a farce as was ever played before the public. The Apostolic churches had much graver errors in doctrine and practice to dispose of than any that are troubling us; and many had a strong propensity to file off into parties. The lessons of Christian liberty, of tolerance and forbearance, of patience and gentleness taught by the apostles, need to be carefully attended to. No one should allow himself to indulge such fears or to utter them. As long as we are one in the faith of Christ and in acknowledging the supremacy of His authority, we will remain one people; and free and kindly discussion will bring us out of all our differences. (Errett Christian Standard 1869: 213)

Errett held a moderate view of the instrumental music question. Errett was personally opposed to musical instruments. He had four reasons for opposing them. First, Errett preferred a capella worship because that is all he had ever known. (Errett, Christian Standard 1880: 92) Secondly, he did not believe that music in worship could be inferred from the Scriptures which was the only authority in matters of faith and practice. (Errett Christian Standard 1870: 308) Third, he believed that the introduction of organs and choirs turned the worship more into a performance because they lessened congregational singing. (Errett, Christian Standard 1870:164). Finally, and most importantly, he opposed instrumental music on the grounds that it was an offense to a large portion of Disciples. (Errett Christian Standard 1870: 204) He said that even if a majority of a church votes to add the organ, the conscientious objections of the minority will be forcibly violated. The minority has no other option but to violate their conscience and worship with instruments. He advised dispensing with instruments for the sake of peace. He said, “better is poor singing where love is, than the grandest tones of the organ and hatred therewith.” (Errett, Christian Standard 1870: 148)

Although Errett was opposed to the instrument personally, he did not believe the opponents of music in churches had been fair in their criticisms. He denied that the pro-organ churches had all been motivated by a loss of “reverence for divine authority, a lapse into formalism, a love of popularity, a desire to be like the sects, a weariness of the spirituality and simplicity of New Testament worship, and a craving for sensuous and carnal attractions.” (Errett Christian Standard 1881: 100) He believed that instruments had legitimately been brought in to aid in poor congregational singing. The motives of those who had introduced the organs into the churches were pure. He believed that the only way to stop the introduction of instruments was to diligently train the members to produce better vocal music. If they had better congregational singing, people would not be clamoring to add the instrument.

Although Errett was opposed to instrumental music, he did not use the same arguments as other opponents like David Lipscomb. Lipscomb and others believed that because the Scriptures were silent on instruments. Adding them would be unlawful and forbidden. Errett pointed out that the Bible was silent on a host of other issues which the conservatives (like David Lipscomb) accepted:

The New Testament is just as silent about tuning forks, hymn-books and note-books, as about organs. We have no intimation about the existence of any of these things in the primitive churches, and, according to Bro. Treat [the conservative preacher who had written of “non-fellowship”] those who use them are to be disfellowshipped. (Errett Christian Standard 1880: 116)

Errett believed the underlying command in Scripture was to sing. No one denied that (even the pro-organ folks). This implied that Christians could use anything necessary to obey the command in an orderly and edifying way as long as the aid did not violate any clear precept of God’s word or the tenor and spirit of religion itself. (Errett Christian Standard 1870: 205) He said the real question was not about violating God’s command to sing, but whether instruments were effective aids to congregational singing. Errett’s own position was that instruments were not necessary or expedient to carry out singing. However, he also believed this was a matter of expediency and therefore should not be made into a test of fellowship. He did not believe the church should divide over this issue.

The solution he proposed was that both sides needed balance. The pro-organ side needed more emphasis on the law of love so that they were not forcing their views on those conscientiously objected. The anti-organ side needed more emphasis on the law of liberty with regard to matters of opinion. They shouldn’t be making their opinions about instruments into tests of fellowship.

Errett’s views spur some interesting questions. What is the ultimate basis of Christian fellowship? What is our relationship with evangelical Protestant denominations? Can matters of opinion be made into tests of fellowship? Which issues are matters of opinion and which issues are matters of faith?


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