Tuesday, January 15, 2008
Churches of Christ and Civil Government: How we went from Sect to Mainline
The last post got a discussion going on the nature of civil government. So I have done some research into where Churches of Christ have stood historically on this issue (though we have never been uniform on anything). I think you will be surprised. But first, some working definitions to keep in mind:
An outlook on life whereby the believer gives their allegiance to the Kingdom of God only, not the kingdoms of this world, and lives as if the final rule of God were present here and now. Such a perspective generates a countercultural lifestyle.
A religious group which insists that it, and it alone, constitutes the entire body of Christ, and is thus the “true church.” Typically, a sect believes it has restored primitive Christianity and thus stands in judgment of other religious groups, and has not made peace with the larger culture in which it exists.
A church that is only a part of the universal body of Christ. A denomination has typically made peace with the culture in which it exists.
During the 1800’s the apocalyptic outlook of Barton Stone characterized Churches of Christ in the American south. The more rational (and legalistic) impulses of Alexander Campbell characterized the northern churches. David Lipscomb (1831-1917) was the most influential preacher/editor of the late 19th century. (I also believe he is responsible for the split in 1906 between Churches of Christ and Disciples of Christ – evidence of his influence.) Lipscomb was the founder of Nashville Bible School (now Lipscomb University), and founding editor of the Gospel Advocate. He was a staunch pacifist. During the Civil War Lipscomb discouraged “his boys” (students) from joining the Confederate cause. He insisted that he had no enemies in the north, and would make no enemies in the north because politicians told him to. He mourned the fact that Christians from the north and the south were killing each other for political reasons. After the war he wrote a book (that has been purged from Churches of Christ) called “Civil Government.” Here are a few excerpts.
“He who maintains and supports an institution is responsible for the general results of that institution. The general and necessary results of human government are war and the use of carnal weapons to maintain the government. Every one that actively supports human government is just as responsible for the wars and bloodshed that grow out of its existence and maintenance, as are the men who actively wage and carry on the war. Every one who voted to bring about and carry on the war is just as much unfit for service in the kingdom of God as is any soldier in the army."
“To vote or use the civil power is to use force and carnal weapons. Christians cannot use these. To do so is to do evil that good may come. This is specially forbidden to Christians. To do so is to fight God's battles with the weapons of the evil one. To do so is to distrust God. The effective way for Christians to promote morality in a community is, to stand aloof from the political strife and conflicts, and maintain a pure and true faith in God. To go into political strife is to admit the leaven of evil into the church. God has told his children to use spiritual weapons, has warned them against appealing to the sword or force to maintain his kingdom or to promote the honor of God and the good of man. When they turn to the human kingdoms and their weapons, they turn from God, reject his help, drive him out of the conflict and fight the battles for man's deliverance with their own strength and by their own wisdom. Human government is the sum of human wisdom and human strength.”
“The Christian should take no part in the administration or support of the government. Jury service is a part of its administration, and frequently lays on the juryman the duty of determining the life or death of his fellow man. Some say that clerkship in the executive offices are not political - but they are part of the essential elements of the administration, and make the holder a supporter of the government. Yet there are employments sometimes given in carrying on government operations that a Christian might perform. Teaching school is no part of the administration of the government. It seems to me a Christian might teach at a government school as an employee without compromising his position. As a rule he may work as an employee of the government but may not be an officer or supporter. As a rule the government exacts an oath of its officers, to support the government but it does not of its employees. This work constitutes no part of the government administration and requires no affiliation with or obligation to support the government.”
This extreme position characterized most Churches of Christ a hundred years ago. I know it’s hard to believe! But it’s true. So what changed? Lipscomb died in 1917 - the same year the U.S. entered WW1. J.C. McQuiddy took over as editor of the Gospel Advocate. The same year Congress passed the Espionage and Sedition Act, and U.S. Attorney General, Lee Douglas, threatened McQuiddy with imprisonment for publishing “seditious” articles. Suddenly the Gospel Advocate started publishing articles encouraging patriotism: “Be careful that you do not say anything against the government of the United States during the present crisis," and “manifest your love for your country and show patriotism in every way.” This was a complete 180-degree turn from the historical tradition of Churches of Christ. Not all our institutions buckled. In 1918 the Selective Service Board caused Cordell College in Cordell, Oklahoma to close because the president and faculty would not cooperate with draft regulations.
Also, between WW1 and WW2 a number of other changes took place. After Churches of Christ broke from the larger body of Disciples, we lost a considerable amount of money, church buildings, and people. All over the south we started over from scratch in tents and storefront buildings with only a few poor members. We wanted to regain the social respectability we had under the umbrella of the larger Disciples of Christ movement. So, to make a long story short, between WW1 and WW2, the center of gravity for Churches of Christ moved from Tennessee to Texas (sorry my Nashville friends), we rebuilt social acceptability with the establishment of new schools and the flourishing of new congregations and new elaborate buildings in the 1920’s, the Cambellite wing of the movement (rational, legalistic, and argumentative) took control of the journals and papers from the Stone/Lipscomb wing of the movement, and men like Foy E. Wallace Jr. (editor of the Firm Foundation) destroyed all remaining premillenial tendencies in Churches of Christ. Premillenialism was the theological foundation of the pacifist apocalyptic worldview. During WW2 the Bible Banner encouraged Churches of Christ to call in all existing copies of Lipscomb's Civil Government and "burn them." In 1941 Foy Wallace lambasted pacifists as "impractical," "misguided," "freak specimens of humanity," having "dwarfed minds," a "screwy philosophy," and being "idiotic drivel and unpatriotic rot."
So, by the end of WW2 we had made the transition from countercultural sect to mainline denomination. In the 1950’s we declared that we had finally got everything right, and by the 1960’s we were bolding declaring ourselves to be “the fastest growing religious group in the U.S.” And then came a new band of rebels in the 1970’s. But that’s a different story.