The Stone-Campbell Movement began as a unity movement. Barton W. Stone and Alexander Campbell’s groups united in 1832 despite major differences among the two leaders over the Trinity, atonement, open/closed communion, and appointing ministers. Their goal was to invite all Christians to leave their denominational affiliations and be Christians only. They wanted to see a united Christianity. They wanted to see Jesus’ prayer for the unity of His disciples in John 17 fulfilled.
One of the tragic realities of this unity movement is that it has divided multiple times over the last 150 years. The Disciples of Christ/Churches of Christ are historically and currently a very divided group. I can hear someone asking now, “Why would you talk about this? This just makes the Churches of Christ look bad.” I’m sure you’ve heard the old adage, “Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.” I think we have to talk about this instead of pretending our history doesn’t exist. If we are to make any progress forward, we have to openly and honestly confront the reality of our past.
I want to briefly sketch some of the major divisions that have occurred in our history:
- 1850-1906 Cracks in the dam started to show as early as the 1850s. This was only twenty years after the two groups united. Over these 50 years of growing division, numerous issues were debated on the pages of the major Disciples of Christ journals. Most of the preaching in the early movement was conducted by itinerant preachers. During this period, churches increasingly began hiring paid, located preachers. Many of the Disciples began to link this with the one-man pastor system the model for many of the denominations. Another major dispute during this period was over the missionary society. As the Disciples of Christ grew numerically, they began to question how they should effectively conduct overseas missions. The society was an organization which collected money from the local churches and distributed the funds to missionaries. The society had elected officials which oversaw the missionaries and their work. Alexander Campbell initially opposed missionary societies, but later served as the first President of the American Christian Missionary Society. Opponents of the missionary society believed it subverted the work of the local church. Even above located preachers and missionary societies, the greatest division during this period occurred over instrumental music in worship. Proponents of adding instruments argued that the Bible was silent about the matter and that instruments were aids to the singing. Opponents argued that the Bible commanded only vocal music and that instruments didn’t aid the singing, but actually detracted from it. By the early 1900s, the movement was officially divided. The 1906 United States Census Bureau reported that the mostly pro-instrument/missionary society group (Disciples of Christ) numbered 924,000. The anti-instrument/missionary society group (Churches of Christ) numbered 159,000.
- 1920s Discussions about the legitimacy of Sunday Schools had begun in the late 1800s. Many of those who were opposed to instrumental music blamed Sunday Schools for their introduction. Some churches were using melodeons and pianos in their children’s Sunday School program to teach the Bible lessons. Those opposed to instruments argued that Sunday Schools were the means that brought instruments into the church. Some began to be militant about the argument silence is prohibitive. They believed that everything about which the Bible is silent is prohibited. Since the Bible was silent about Sunday Schools, they were prohibited. There are still no-Sunday-School Churches of Christ today.
- 1910-1940s The Disciples of Christ had a long history of espousing different millennial views. For example, Barton W. Stone, Walter Scott, Moses Lard, James Harding, David Lipscomb, and T.W. Brents all held premillennial views. Alexander Campbell and many of the early restoration leaders held postmillennial views. His first journal was named the Millennial Harbinger (announcer of the millennium). In 1909, R.H. Boll began editing the Gospel Advocate with David Lipscomb. He was the front page editor of the column entitled “Word and Work”. In 1915, he began writing a series of articles on interpreting Revelation which set forth some of his premillennial interpretations. In that same year, Boll was removed from his editorship of the journal. He started a new journal Word and Work which was named after his column in the Gospel Advocate. It was centered in Louisville, KY. Some of his co-editors were Stanford Chambers, H.L. Olmstead, and E.L. Jorgenson. Splinters began occurring in and around churches in Louisville over premillennialism. Foy E. Wallace Jr. arose in prominence during this period as the greatest defender of the truth against the false teaching of premillennialism. J.N. Armstrong was the President of Harding College from 1924-36. He had been a student at the Nashville Bible School as had been R.H. Boll. Wallace Jr. began calling on colleges to renounce “Bollism”. Armstrong and Harding College initially refused to renounce Boll. Although Armstrong said he didn’t agree with Boll’s premillennial views, he thought that Wallace Jr. and others were equally wrong for the way in which they were attacking Boll and his supporters. In the early 1990s, it was reported that there were 74 premillennial Churches of Christ in the United States and over 195 premillennial churches overseas.
- 1950-60s In the postbellum South, Churches of Christ were booming. The Second World War reminded us just how big the world really was. Renewed discussions about foreign missions began. One of the suggestions for effectively doing missions was called the “sponsoring church” model. Churches A, B, C, and D would send collected funds to Church E who oversaw the mission work to a particular country. The elders at Church E were “over” the funds and the mission work. Opponents (like Foy E. Wallace Jr.) said that this model was just the missionary society all over again and subverted the work of the local church. Many were on high alert for anything that reeked of “institutionalism” and stood apart from and/or above the local church. Thus, the legitimacy of supporting Christian colleges and orphan homes from the church treasury began to be questioned since these institutions were not under the oversight of a local congregation. It was during this time that Churches of Christ began numerous preaching schools. The preaching schools arose in an era of great disdain that Christian colleges were training preachers. During these decades, two groups took shape. There were those who believed that organizations like Christian colleges and orphan homes were not only acceptable, but necessary to carry out the work of the church. The second group has been commonly referred to as “non-institutional” or more derogatorily, “anti’s” (since they are anti-support for Christian colleges, anti-supporting orphan homes out of the church treasury). As many as 10% of Churches of Christ are considered non-institutional.
- 1970-1990s Chuck Lucas was the campus minister in Gainsville, FL. He implemented a discipling methodology at his campus ministry. One of the campus converts was Kip McKean. He was impressed with the discipling methods and saw how powerful they were at the Crossroads Church of Christ in Gainsville. The church quadrupled in size in only about 7 years. In 1979, Kip took a preaching job in Boston, MA. While there, Kip developed the system of discipling and the church grew from 50 members to over 3,000. Mainline Churches of Christ were skeptical of the discipling technique. Flavel Yeakley published a book entitled Discipling Delimma in which he reported that those in the “Boston Movement” exhibited “unhealthy personality changes” due to brainwashing. The Boston Movement also began receiving negative national media coverage as major news stations went undercover to expose the invasive and shady discipling techniques. Mainline Churches of Christ wanted to distance themselves from all this negative attention. To make matters worse, McKean began requiring those coming to the International Churches of Christ (Boston Movement) from mainline Churches of Christ to submit to re-baptism. It appeared that the ICOCs did not regard those in COCs as Christians. By 1993, the ICOC had officially split with Churches of Christ. Currently, the ICOC has approximately 103,000 members in 650 churches in 155 nations.
- And, of course, I would be greatly remiss if I did not bring up the racial divide that has been a major part of the history of Churches of Christ in America. How could I not mention the discussions about slavery in the 1800s or Jim Crow Laws and the segregation of the 1950s-1970s? I have a post on this forthcoming.
All of the above examples are just a smattering of the divisions that have occurred in Churches of Christ. As you have been reading this blog, you’ve probably been thinking about divisions you have personally experienced in Churches of Christ. There is almost not a week that passes without hearing about another “church split”. Is this the legacy that Churches of Christ will be remembered for?
I leave you with a quote from Isaac Errett from 1869:
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, and a great many more, then this plea for union is as ridiculous a farce as was ever played before the public. (Errett Christian Standard 1869: 213)
How will we be able to achieve the union of all Christians when we can’t even get our own limited communion unified?
Written by: Garrett Best