Thursday, January 19, 2006

The Restoration Plea

As most of you know, I am a Church of Christ preacher. We are part of the Stone-Campbell Restoration movement - a movement comprising three groups - Churches of Christ, Disciples of Christ, and conservative Christian Churches. On Wednesday nights I am teaching a class called "Reviving the Ancient Faith: The Story of Churches of Christ in America." I am having the time of my life! History rocks! Here's why.

Like most people, including preachers, I too get disillusioned and fed-up. Conservative Churches of Christ can be a tough place to work - people tend to get sqeaky about silly things! The line between tradition and doctrine tends to get blurred out when anti-sectarian sectarians rage against sectarianism and the traditions of denominational trappings and artificial structures with the sectarian weapons of tradition and artificial structures! Go ahead, wrap your head in duct tape! However, history has given me a whole new appreciation for what lies at the core of Churches of Christ - Christian unity. We are a unity movement - sometimes off course, sometimes confused, sometimes too uptight, sometimes too traditional - but our reason for being is Christian unity. That is noble. That's why I love Churches of Christ. That's why I preach for the Church of Christ. The early restoration leaders did not see restoration of NT Christianity as an end in itself, but rather as a vehicle for the goal of Christian unity.

For the past two weeks I've taught about Barton W. Stone. He preached for the Presbyterian Church in Cane Ridge, Kentucky from 1796-1804. In 1801 he and other Presbyterian ministers held a revival meeting. Between 20 and 30 thousand people came! For five days no one cared who was Presbyterian, who was Methodist, who was Baptist! Stone was inspired by this event. Of course the Presbyterian hierarchy was not, and, to make a long story short, he and 5 others left the Presbyterian Church in 1804. They simply called themselves "Christians," committed to the principle that if all Christians could agree on a few essentials, and ditch everything that caused division, we could at last honor Christ's plea for love and unity. What a goal! What an ideal! Two hundred years later that goal is still held up by some of us in the Restoration movement. Like Linda Ronstadt sang, "I don't know much, but I know I love you, and that may be all I need to know."


Mike Exum said...

I go to church at the Vandelia Church of Christ in Lubbock, TX. We are known around town as the most wack liberal church (of Christ) in town. Even among ourselves I here commented from time to time that "we are the last stop for those who are leaving" CoC for some other denomination, because of being fed up with doctrinal traditions.

Vandelia is extremely ecumenically minded. We have a Baptist evangelist leading a Baptist evangelist service in our auditorium every Wednesday night, and the house is beginning to fill. We had more people for our Wed night Christmas program than we get on average Sunday mornings.

We are a neighborhood outreach church. We serve and feed and cloth and tutor after school, hundreds of poor people from our surrounding neighborhood.

I tell you all this so that you will understand that when recently we had a guest speaker from on the the big and very conservative churches of Christ in town to come and raise money for the missions program that they are having at that conservative church, we raised over $1000 dollars on the spot. I heard it commented that our elders had decided that it is important for us to "reach out with our right hand as well as our left".

I have many thoughts on unity and many more questions about it than a comment on a blog is good for, but I figure with your passion about it, you should have this anecdotal story for your hopper.

Many blessings...

Charles North said...

Thank you Mike. I appreciate your spirit as well. Thanks for reading and commenting brother.

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Ray said...

As you know, I feel very much the same way. Although you and I come from different backgrounds, I always enjoy fellowship with you.

I do believe there are things that are important enough to breakl fellowship over, but they are far less than the items the church is divided over today.

I am teaching the youth about church history right now, and yesterday we talked about Polycarp and Anicetus' disagreement over whem to celebrate the resurrection of Christ (Polycarp being a Quartodeciman, and Anicetus taking the Roman line), and the fact that at the end of their discussion they still disagreed, but took the Lord's Supper together to show their unity as Christian brothers.

Good post (as always, informative as well as interesting).

Ryan said...

I enjoyed reading about your church. I love that it is more important to you that you be Jesus to a lost and suffering world than what the name on your sign says.

"The line between tradition and doctrine tends to get blurred out when anti-sectarian sectarians rage against sectarianism and the traditions of denominational trappings and artificial structures with the sectarian weapons of tradition and artificial structures!"

-Quality stuff!

J-Lo said...

I didn't know there was such a thing as "blog spam," but apparently there is. Don't get me wrong, I'm thankful for the investment tips. Just wasn't quite sure how she ended up here. Hello, Charles :-) Okay, so I have a question that in my not-so-humble opinion is tangentially related to the question of Christian unity. When do we wade out too far into the tidal pool of "not being a stumbling block" and find ourselves caught in the undertoe of "letting too much go unchecked?" (Okay, so I really would like to go to the beach.) In other words, where do we draw the line between "Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors" and "God is a butterfly?" I'll be clicking 'refresh' incessently awaiting your response... peace ;-)

Charles North said...

Ryan and Ray:
As always boys - thanks!

Blog spam - yeah. I get so irritated! How??
I really like your beach thoughts. I too want to go to the beach, but I really appreciate the underlying question. I agree with Ray that some people should not be fellowshipped, but it's interesting that in the NT the only criteria given are deep moral concerns and people who deny the person of Christ - either his divinity or his humanity. So the list is pretty short!

My standard text would have to be Romans 14. Most people gloss over the full implications of the text by saying these things were "matters of opinion." But were they? The NT teaches, as a matter of Christian doctrine, that no food is unclean, and yet Paul tells the "strong" to leave the "weak" alone. So the people who are doctrinally "right" have to back down. As far as causing people to stumle - there's a big difference between stumbling and grumbling! For Paul, people who may stumble are new Christians who may lose their faith entirely and revert back to paganism, not older, more mature, faithful people. Complaining when you can't get your way or when others do things you don't like is not stumbling, and yet it seems to be the reason for most church fights today.

I understand that there has to be a healthy tension between maintaining and defending orthodox doctrine, and unity. But most of the tension I have experienced has not been over doctrine, but rather over selfishness and pettiness. It's encouraging to realize that God creates the unity, we're just told to maintain it.

Thanks for reading and commenting, and I'm sorry for replying so late (my wife had me painting all day, so the computer was off limits!)

Ray said...

Charles -- I agree; the list is very short, and the items you mentioned are the primary ones -- the Person and Work of Jesus Christ (I expanded a bit).

There are also some things that might make me not want to hang with you, such as denying that the Bible is the Word of God, and a few other items, but I actually have a fairly diverse circle of friends and we all love the Lord and enjoy our time together immensely.

Charles North said...

We certainly do enjoy our time - even if it's mostly "digital time."

James L. (J-Lo) said...

Hey there, C-Diddy!
Thanks for answering my question. I have to apologize to the Methodists and to a certain someone you and I know for stealing their ideas. (Open Hearts, God is a Butterfly) Your insight is always appreciated. While I'm here, let me say hello to Ryan. Hello Ryan, and tell your wife I said, "Howdy!"
Okay, I have to me when you have a few minutes, Charles. Take care and God bless.

Kent said...

Wow! A Michael Exum appearance! Sounds like my old Greek classmate Ex is doing some great work in Lubbock.

Anonymous said...

Disunity, Disharmony, Division, And/or Chaos Factors Within The Restoration Movement And A Search For A Modality For Seeking Unity Among Believers.

The churches of Christ, the Christian Church, and the Disciples of Christ are three main branches divided off from a unity movement which arose in the early 1800s.

By 1906 the Restoration Movement (RM) as it was called was clearly divided into these three branches recognized as fully independent bodies. Now after 200 years there has recently been a long awaited (overdue?) but substantial effort at reunification. Praise the Lord! However, that is what any unity movement should do.

Tragically, this is still only a partial or limited reunification effort. This effort at best unevenly embraces some within its family group and the effort itself is rejected in some quarters by others. Finally almost no one within this family tree has reached out to its original taproot, the Presbyterian Church. It was that denomination from which the founders of the RM had arisen.

These stumbling efforts seem to raise some questions. Can such a halting effort truly signal any possible future success? Is there something inherently wrong with the way in which the RM attempts to facilitate unity? Or is there a pattern of delay and missteps, which reflects some unfaithfulness or a resistance to the leading of the spirit of God? Finally is there a more effective modality for unity? If so then what might it be?

The Restoration Movement Arose Over 200 years Ago Seeking Unity Among Believers

Barton W. Stone and Alexander Campbell lived and ministered in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries now over 200 years ago. Initially their efforts were independent of each other. Still they were each suddenly successful in calling people to unify.

Their methods varied but their results were similar enough. Their followers met and intermingled, compared notes and it was their followers that sought to bring their leaders together. After a period of time and delays Stone and Campbell came to combine their efforts as a joint venture. As a result they became conjoint founders of the Restoration Movement (RM), which quickly declared itself a unity movement. They were however very different men and their efforts while in the same direction always suggested different modalities.

On the one hand, Stone was educated in America. Impacted by frontier revivalism, Stone was himself a key player in the Cane Ridge Revival of 1801, which broke-out at his congregation. His life and ministry would bore earmarks of “being led by the Spirit” reminiscent of the later Charismatic Movement. It might be said that he sought a unity of the Spirit. In some ways Stone’s efforts might have foreshadowed the unifying movement that later arose at Azusa Street nearly a hundred years afterwards and has had a much wider impact on Christendom.

On the other hand and from another direction, Campbell proved to be the stronger force. He was university educated in Aberdeen, Scotland. He was a disciple of the English philosophers, John Locke and Francis Bacon. Campbell greatly admired Scottish Common Sense philosophy. This worldview he rigorously applied to his study of scripture. A powerful debater and logical mind Campbell’s approach was modernistic. His methods were the equivalent of a type of archaeological mining of scripture not for material artifacts but for an ancient ecclesiology or determining the ancient rules and principles for primitive church practices. It might be said that he sought for a basis of unity in understanding the pertinent doctrines and practices of the unadulterated, primitive church.

Both men were reformers from the reform heritage proudly touted by Presbyterians. Both were interested in a return to a simple nondenominational New Testament Christianity as broad as the universal body of Christ. Both were influential leaders of men. Each had a substantial following within the same general area of Kentucky, Ohio, and Virginia. These followers interacted on numerous occasions finally leading to their colluding to bring their leaders together. They did and eventually a union took place. Their approaches seemed to complement each other but in time Campbell’s surpassed Stone’s.

This movement was formulated around two key concepts. First was the unity of believers. The second was the discovery, and restoration of the long-lost, unadulterated, primitive, or true church. Pattern theology emerged from Campbell’s researching scripture using Lockean Logic in his attempt to recover the ancient order of things. In this the movement sought to find and reconstitute the body of Christ without divisions and without any of the latter ecclessiological trappings that had led to division and had denominated the church. This latter concept was thought to be the modality by which people might find a reasonable, common sense, common ground for unity.

It easily seemed to the founders that denominations unnecessarily divided believers. Therefore it reasonably seemed to follow that a return to the true, pure, and primitive church might provide a pathway to unity. That meant that they and their followers would generally embrace a stance that rejected all denominations and all their divisive practices. Some within the movement have been more highly committed and therefore with nobility have more avidly and exactingly pursued doctrinal purity and primitive church practices. This was deemed an essential truth, and a cornerstone or baseline for affecting unity. This view has been held most dear among the right wing elements of the movement. The downside to this dynamic is that it also tends to inhibit diversity.

The Results Are In

Today after 200 years the RM’s efforts have led to almost no bridges to unity except in the earliest times. Instead the movement has spun-off some 80 different groups that are both similar and disparate. In addition except for the effort among these main three branches there has been almost no overtures toward reunification among those within the movement let alone with other believers. Besides the main branches of the RM which include the churches of Christ (CofC), The Christian Church (CC), and the Disciple of Christ (DoC) there are also two generally unacknowledged cults with whom there are ties -- the International Church of Christ (ICC) and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS). Like a dysfunctional family some members talk with others within the family but refuse to even recognize other members. This record and traits do not support the claim of being a unity movement.

Ostensibly the Stone-Campbell movement was a unity movement, however, by the time of the American Civil War the movement divided geographically at the Mason Dixon Line and across a continuum from the more fundamentalistic churches of Christ, Christian Churches, to the more liberal the Disciples of Christ. Slavery and musical accompaniment vs. noninstrumental music tended to be among the more obvious issues masking deeper matters. The churches of Christ under the influence of “pattern theology” (as the revival of the ancient order of things came to be known) have resulted in a drive to recreate a pure primitive church. This approach has lead to repeated divisions up to some 80 times..

Background Strains Affecting Unity

The background of both founders shows a period in western culture when progress was the watchword and utopia was thought to be just around the corner. Presuming that the spirit of the times was moving mankind toward God and a biblical period of world peace Campbell optimistically published a newsletter he named “The Millennial Harbinger.” Both men were also educated under the tutelage of the Presbyterian Church. Both had previously served as ordained ministers for that church. Revivalism was spreading like wild fire and people everywhere were open to religious discussion. On a darker note, the Presbyterian Church, itself, had been imported from Europe bringing with it baggage reflecting its prior status as a state religion. In a number of ways this meant that the Presbyterianism lacked a certain relevance to the American religious experience. Instead the Presbyterianism of that era was infected with issues that fueled useless, artificial church wars. In addition, theirs was also a time marked by the rise of theological Liberalism, which intensified the deism that had already invaded the American scene. It was also a time of continuing warfare and conflict. The enlightenment was powerfully impacting the culture and these men.

In late life Campbell personally aligned himself with the Disciples (DoC), which always tended to more deistic and liberal. If Stone’s influence survived it is difficult to trace, albeit the desire for a more Spirit filled experience does continue and, perhaps, at times has facilitated the more nonrational extremes within the movement

The “True Church” Comes Under Fire from Within

History has shown that the “true church modality” as a basis of unity has not brought unity but rather division. Some within the RM have already abandoned that modality. In 1968 the DoC restructured and became the first if not only RM church to acknowledge its own denominationality. Otherwise, the movement has been in denial regarding its denominationality.

Just a few years later the senior preacher in an influential CofC congregation arose and announced from his pulpit in Abilene TX that the CofC “was a big sick denomination.” This, too, sent shock waves through the CofC. A reinvestigation of the CofC’s basic assumptions began to be taken seriously in some quarters.

The LDS and ICC churches are generally perceived as too extreme and unorthodox. They are generally not thought to be relevant to the others.

The modern CofC is experiencing an identity crisis of sorts. Elements like the North West Church of Christ within the Seattle area have combined with a nearby Christian Church to create a combo-church or joint venture church. While they are united they are at the same time they strangely two in one. The NWCofC already had a “church within a church” concept at work prior to this new arrangement

Other CofCs reflect a continuum of responses on the one hand some are continuing from a strict sectarianism stance while others on another hand seem to court other elements within the Restoration Movement including the DoC for the sake of unity. To my knowledge no one from the right wing of the RM has sought to include the original taproot Presbyterian Church back into their unity efforts.

Meanwhile the DoC seriously had marginalized themselves within the RM heritage. The DoC retained its high call to unity but changed its conceptual modality. Now no longer in pursuit of the one true primitive church as their modality for unity they now pursue followed the Ecumenical Movement. However this was seen as a betrayal of the nondenominationalism. Among the RM churches stylized definitions of words like “denomination” had developed which continue to facilitate “plausible deniability,” in regard to the CofC’s nondenominational fa├žade. This is central both to their identity and their vision of their mission.

In fact so dedicated are some of the more traditional RM members that they are unwilling to share in common activities with other believers whose church practices not compatible with their own. A pragmatic unity is in their eyes equates with selling out the true church and the importance of restorationism for unity. In their view doctrinal differences must first be addressed before any sharing can take place. To their mind there can be no unity unless the true church is restored and all believers adhere to that one true church. This purist position seems to block the very unity that they claim to seek.

An Unrecovered or Unrecoverable Model or Pattern

However, differing opinions continue to exist about whether there is or is not a definitive core model for the early church has never been finally determined. In addition, there are also differing opinions about what are the appropriate protocols for the hermeneutics used to ascertain that model. With the departure of the DoC from the true church modality and the failure of the avid restorationists to affect much more than additional divisiveness then seems that the true church modality is a failed model. It seems to have died never finding its true core. These disputes seem to make the task irresolvable.

The Ecumenical Modality Has Also Come Under Fire

The Disciples restructured and became an organized denomination in 1968. Out of their new Ecumenical framework they have resorted to being a part of the Ecumenical Movement. Perhaps as a result they have rejoined with the Presbyterian Church in some quarters for joint ventures. Nevertheless The Ecumenical Movement has itself come under fire for being to rigid and complex a model. While it has facilitated unity in diversity in some quarters it seems unable to reach others.

The Charismatic Renewal Movement Limitations

The Azusa Street Revival and subsequent efforts have been wide reaching and enduring but limitations have arisen around issues created by those that require specific signs of the Spirit, which are not uniformly subscribed to by even all Charismatics. The Charismatic renewal which had some resurgence in the 1960s and 1970s has passed on without the hoped for results.


Each modality discussed has pros and cons. Each has something that may well contribute to a better approach, but that approach has yet to be widely announced and tested.

A Transdenominational Modality

Meanwhile from another direction and sources has arisen a newer modality for reunification, which sidesteps the nondenominational and ecumenical modalities after a fashion. Transdenominationalism might see all churches much like scripture speaks of all believers -- as earthen vessels. That is they all contain a glorious treasure, i.e., the gospel. This view first of all presumes that God in Christ has created unity and that our mission is not to create unity but rather to maintain the unity God has already created. It would also focus on the body of Christ rather than the church and its ordinances. Further, it does not ignore any doctrinal error but approaches churches and people respectfully, calling them to a more radical discipleship. This modality has not as yet been previously published among those within the RM to my knowledge.