You Might Be A Sectarian If…

By: Garrett Best

In 1891, a book was published entitled The Old Faith Restated: Being a Restatement, by Representative Men, of the Fundamental Truths and Essential Doctrines of Christianity as Held and Advocated by The Disciples of Christ in the Light of Experience and of Biblical Research. Catchy title right? The book is composed of eighteen chapters authored by notable men in the American Restoration Movement like J.W. McGarvey, J.S. Lamar, I.B. Grubbs, J.B. Briney, W.K. Pendleton, J.H. Garrison, et. al. J.H. Garrison wrote chapter 17, “Lessons from Our Past Experience, or, Helps and Hindrances”. He had grown up a Baptist, but while attending school at Abingdon College, he decided to abandon his denominational loyalties and join the “Reformation” (the name used by early Restoration Movement leaders to refer to the movement). Later, he edited the Christian-Evangelist for several decades.

In this chapter, Garrison identifies what he believes are the three main characteristics of the “spirit of sectarianism.” Garrison believed that a spirit of sectarianism (or partyism) had been the root cause of the splintering of Christianity into denominationalism. Each denomination had its pet doctrines and creeds. He believed that those in denominations were more concerned with promoting their party’s creeds, opinions, and traditions than following the Bible. He was concerned by the fact that the Disciples of Christ had started as a unity movement, but seemed to be developing the same sectarian spirit they sought to abandon in the denominations. He believed partyism was a virus that had invaded the movement. Garrison had heard people in Disciples of Christ churches say that they were the only constitute members of the kingdom of God and there were no Christians in the denominations. Garrison could not understand how members of a unity movement could display such a sectarian attitude. He provided three marks to know if one was infected with the virus of sectarianism.

1. You might be a sectarian if you are incapable of appreciating and rejoicing over all the good that is being done in the world outside the religious body with which you claim identification. He believed Christians should rejoice when an unbeliever has been shown the light of Christ and has left the worship of idols even if the unbeliever doesn’t attend your particular church. According to Garrison, it’s always a good thing if an unbeliever turns toward Christ. The sectarian “takes no satisfaction in the conquests of the gospel, at home or abroad, unless its party banner is thereby exalted” (429). He believed that a groups ability to do good in the name of Christ is not nullified by certain doctrinal errors they might have. Garrison believed that Christians should be rejoicing anytime another party accomplishes something good or learns something new about the truth of the Bible; that just moves us one step closer to the unity for which Jesus prayed. Garrison believed that Jesus had taught this very principle when he said, “he that is not against us is for us.”

2. You might be a sectarian if you have abandoned the quest for truth and are resting satisfied with what has been gained. Some Christians manifest “an unwillingness to accept new truth because the fathers did not see it, and the desire to make the opinions, teachings and customs of the fathers a bar to further progress, a sort of unwritten creed whose authority must not be questioned” (430). Garrison believed that it was a good and healthy thing for Christians to question the religious traditions handed them from predecessors. Is this not what the Disciples were asking the denominations to do? Question their traditions? Why should the Disciples not question their own traditions? Garrison rejected the idea that Christians should conceive of restoration as a fossilized movement. Instead, he believed it was a living movement that encourages Christians to continually yearn and long for truth in every new generation. He called it a “continual and never-ending progress in the knowledge of the truth, and in adjustment of life, teaching and practice” (431). Restoration didn’t end with Alexander Campbell or Barton W. Stone. We all have a responsibility to continue restoration. He said, “There is, therefore, probably no form of error that more effectually perverts the aim and genius of our religious movement, to the extent of its prevalence, than a slavish obedience to the opinions, traditions and customs of the fathers, or a stubborn unwillingness to surrender an old prejudice for a new truth” (431). Garrison believed that the ideals of the movement encouraged Christians to follow the truth, even if the truth might conflict with what has been taught.

3. You might be a sectarian if you cannot recognize the image of Christ in those who are not in your party. Don’t mistake Garrisons aim here. He did not believe we should not challenge the wrong doctrines of those in denominations. He believed that it was praiseworthy to teach those in denominations the truth as we understand it and to call them to leave their denominational loyalties. However, he believed one can teach people the truth and still recognize how Christ is already manifest in the person’s lives. Some tend to vilify those with whom they disagree on matters of doctrine. Garrison identified this attitude in some brethren: “it is difficult for them to believe in the honesty and sincerity of those who differ from them” (431). He believed that through God’s grace, this sectarian attitude can be overcome. He referred to this attitude as the “dead fly in the ointment of social and religious life” which was poisoning possible relations the Disciples of Christ might have with those in denominations. Just because we might disagree with someone on a matter of doctrine does not mean that they don’t love Jesus or seek to live a life of faith.

What do you think? Has Garrison accurately diagnosed the spirit of sectarianism?

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3 comments

  1. I think Garrison did a great job. Thanks for sharing this.

    I’m sure there are more signs that one might be a sectarian. But these certainly aim at the hearts of the sectarians in Restorationism churches.

  2. This is an insightful list, Garrett. I am continually amazed (and disheartened) by how many articles against and descriptions of sectarianism offered by our RM forefathers can actually be applied to modern RM churches. I recently read Robert Richardson’s “Principles and Objects of the Religious Reformation…” and saw many of his denunciations of sectarianism directly applicable to RM churches today. Concerning item #2 in Garrison’s criteria, Richardson offered this similar description (although applying it to the denominations of his day): “Confident that his [the sectarian’s-mc] favorite creed-makers have secured the treasure for his use, he cares but little for the casket, which he thinks himself unable to lock. Believing them to have traversed the whole area of revelation; to have settled authoritatively all its difficult questions; guarded all its essential truths, and unfolded in a few brief, sententious articles of faith, all its deep and hidden mysteries, what inducement can he have to prosecute research, or bring his mind into direct communication with the word of God?” (Kindle Location 274-285). I have noted this mindset for some time now in various sermons and articles produced among RM churches. It essentially declares, “If brothers [insert well-known preachers or editors] never came to this conclusion, then clearly this conclusion is not true.” As Garrison noted, this disposition evolves into an “unwritten creed whose authority must not be questioned” which naturally becomes “a bar to further progress.” Appreciate these articles and the research behind them, Garrett.

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