by Michael C. Armour

All three groups gathered for this dialogue have known their share of division and rancor. But of the three, those of us in a cappella Churches of Christ have had the greatest struggle with division. Unable to find a successful formula for unity among ourselves, we’ve had little involvement with the cause of unity beyond our borders.

The twentieth century saw something like 20 recognizable lines of division emerge in our ranks, some more serious than others. The result was an assortment of “sub-groups” existing side by side, living in an uneasy alliance. All too often sub-groups separated themselves in everything but name from other a cappella churches, even those meeting just blocks away.

Not all of these sub-groups survived the twentieth century. Some dwindled or became marginalized until they lost significant influence. Others (most notably the congregations in the so-called “Boston movement”) chose to sever ties completely with the Churches of Christ. Yet, as we begin the twenty-first century, pronounced differences and divisions still persist, and one travels but a short distance in a cappella churches before sensing the tension.

The result has been what we jokingly refer to as a “Yellow Page fellowship.” That is, the only place we are all together is in the church listings in the yellow pages! Even the most popular national directory of Churches of Christ uses a coding key to indicate congregations whose views and outlooks align them with a particular sub-group.

But this system of classification tells only part of the story, for it identifies groupings that coalesce around specific doctrinal issues. Not mentioned is a greater rift which defies classification and which is our primary challenge to unity today. What makes this rift deceptive is that it often cloaks itself in the guise of doctrinal disagreement, yet seems to be fueled by differences that are only secondarily doctrinal. The primary differences appear to be philosophical, attitudinal, and stylistic.

One observation in particular supports this assertion: once you recognize the contours of this rift, you can expect those fault lines to remain stable even when the doctrinal issues change. And the issues do change. One year the hot topic may be new approaches to interpreting the Bible. The next it may be participation in Promise Keepers. The next it may be support of some brotherhood event such as Jubilee. But whatever the issue, the fault lines follow the same general contours time and again.

And nothing defines these fault lines more clearly than the answers to three questions. First, who should be considered part of the universal body of Christ? Second, what constitutes unity? And third, how should we pursue it? Not only do perspectives on these questions differ widely, the differences are all but irreconcilable. One’s views on unity, indeed, may be sufficient cause for those who hold some other conclusion to withdraw their fellowship. Thus, in an irony of ironies, unity itself has become a divisive issue in Churches of Christ.

On one side of that divide are people who feel comfortable, or even excited about participating in a discussion like the Stone-Campbell Dialogue. In this quarter there is a general notion that all baptized believers are part of the universal body of Christ and therefore brothers and sisters in the Lord. There may be differences of opinion as to what constitutes a “baptized believer.” But the prevailing consensus is that Christians are to be found meeting on the Lord’s Day in buildings with a host of different names over their door.

This group, drawing on the language of Ephesians 4, sees unity as something created by the Holy Spirit, not by us. Our duty is to maintain the unity which the Spirit proclaimed when He placed us all in one body. To maintain this unity, we must submit to the Spirit’s judgment who, by making us part of the same body, affirmed that the differences between us are not so great as to preclude oneness. Our challenge, therefore, is to find ways to transcend our differences and work together as one.

Congregations of this persuasion often encourage members to participate in a variety of interchanges and joint efforts with believers from other backgrounds. You will find these churches promoting Bible Study Fellowship, Promise Keepers, community prayer breakfasts, joint efforts at benevolence or community renewal, and similar activities that bring together a diverse array of men and women dedicated to following Christ.

Yet there is another element that voices strong dissent to such efforts, even those centered on dialogue and prayer. And this dissent is no less vocal when our partners in the initiative are from other streams of the Stone-Campbell movement. From the very outset there were pointed objections to the Restoration Forums, which for two decades have brought a cappella and independent churches together. Not surprisingly, the Stone-Campbell Dialogue has evoked a similar response. And if there is opposition to dialogue even with those who share our commitment to restoration principles, it’s hardly surprising that dialogue with those in other fellowships is rejected out of hand.

How, then, did we become a “house divided” over the subject of unity? The answers to that question trace back to the very earliest stages of American restorationism, when the language and terminology that would shape us were taking form. Within Churches of Christ there is a distinctive view of that era that differs in its details from the way Disciples and Independents typically portray it.

Most notably, when Churches of Christ look at those formative years, they see it almost exclusively through the eyes of Alexander Campbell and to a lesser extent his father. (I’m speaking here of what you would find in the typical congregation and among many ministers, not what is necessarily the case in academic circles and among devoted historians.) Although Barton W. Stone is mentioned whenever these early decades are discussed, his contributions may be passed over lightly, if recognized at all. Some even tell the Restoration story as though Stone served merely as a precursor or forerunner of the “real” Restoration Movement which (in this view) began with the Campbells.

Several factors contribute to this focus on the Campbells rather than Stone. First, the Cane Ridge Revival does not fit easily into the self-perception of a cappella churches, who historically have been ardent opponents of the charismatic movement. Cane Ridge is a bit too “Pentecostal” in flavor for Churches of Christ to be comfortable with it as part of their heritage. Thus, there has been a tendency, rising from the unconscious mind, I believe, for a cappella churches to distance themselves psychologically from the revival at Cane Ridge by paying it little attention. Sadly, this has also led to a neglect of Stone himself.

One consequence of that neglect is that Churches of Christ have not profited from Stone’s readiness to accept those who differed from him and his emphasis on the Spirit’s work in our lives. This latter quality in particular was missing from much of Campbell’s work, especially in the earlier phases of his ministry. Stone noticed this deficiency in his first encounters with Campbell’s colleagues. And it concerned him enough that he hesitated to ally himself with the Campbell reforms until, after extended investigation, he discovered that Campbell’s teachings about the Spirit closely matched his own.

Secondly, Campbell left behind a more prolific set of published materials than Stone. And because so many of his writings have remained readily available in print, almost from the time they first appeared, his mind has been more easily accessible than the mind of Stone. Earlier generations in the Churches of Christ took advantage of Campbell’s accessibility to steep themselves in his thought and logic. Consequently, his intellectual, rational, deductive approach to communication has had a telling impact on how questions are processed and settled in a cappella churches.

For instance, Campbell’s legacy is still seen in the theological climate of our congregations, a climate that is distinctly cognitive rather than relational in tone. In fact, the term “relational theology” is rarely heard in a cappella circles. This is altogether intriguing since unity is consummately about building relationships, i.e., blending lives and hearts together. By minimizing relational theology, however, Churches of Christ have treated unity as more nearly a product of the head than of the heart. The most prevalent view in a cappella churches is that unity is found by standing on common ground doctrinally. Or conversely, if we do not stand on the same doctrinal ground, we cannot otherwise join hands. From this perspective unity results from all parties reaching the same conclusions by doing the right things cognitively, intellectually.

To Campbell this concept of unity would have seemed far too simplistic. Yet, his imprint is seen all over it. For him, going “back to the Bible” meant restoring the ordinances of Scripture to both their original design and form. A cappella churches have taken his agenda to heart and built on it. We have focused intently on matters of design and form. Objections to the missionary society and instrumental music are the best known examples. But they hardly stand as isolated incidents. For decades we struggled over the formation of Christian colleges and whether it was Biblically appropriate for congregations to support schools from church funds. Later the most bitter division of the mid-twentieth century (and one that still persists) was over the cooperative support of orphanages, extended care centers for the elderly, and other extra-congregational institutions.

In Campbell’s mind the purpose for restoring New Testament forms and ordinances was hardly an end in itself. To him this approach offered the most sensible way to transcend division and thereby hasten the prospect of global evangelism. In Churches of Christ, by contrast, the cause of world evangelism was disengaged from restoration. Restoration became a final goal in itself, not a means to a greater goal. In this climate Campbell’s emphasis on forms and ordinances has translated into a view of unity that is itself “form-centered.” Many in Churches of Christ can envision unity only in a setting in which everyone holds the same doctrines and “does church” the same way. If this sounds like a confusion of unity with uniformity, the observation is well-founded. But it is a confusion that runs deep and is thoroughly entrenched.

Compounding the situation are three critical transitions that began in the late nineteenth century. One was a realignment in how principles from Thomas Campbell’s Declaration and Address were applied. Campbell had identified three sources of Biblical authority: direct commands, apostolic precedent, and inferences properly drawn from commands and precedents. But he was quick to add that direct commands should be accorded more authoritative weight than teachings derived from precedents and inferences. Derived doctrines, he cautioned, must never be used as tests of communion (or “tests of fellowship,” as we would say today). Instead, precedents and inferences lead to truths that properly belong to the “after edification of the church,” to quote his marvelous phrase.

Nonetheless, as the nineteenth century unfolded, many began to ignore Campbell’s distinction. And in the wake of the instrument controversy, the distinction generally disappeared in churches supporting the a cappella position. In recent years a respected professor of rhetoric, Mike Casey, has demonstrated how the instrumental debate elevated “necessary inferences” to co-equal authority with direct commands in the theology of Churches of Christ.

This was the first critical transition. The second was the language we borrowed to describe those who endorsed instrumental music in worship. Congregations that opted for instruments were labeled “digressives.” That label is still commonly used by many in Churches of Christ to describe the Disciples and the Independents. Within the past few months I’ve received letters questioning my role in the Stone-Campbell Dialogue, wanting to know how I justify an association with “the digressives.”

When used this way, the term “digressive” means someone who has departed so far from core truth that he is no longer seen as a brother. “Digression” may even carry the sense that the “digressor” is no longer part of Christ’s body. Once unity is equated with doing the same things in the same way, anyone who “digresses” from the accepted pattern automatically breaks the fellowship and destroys unity. The only way for unity to be restored is for the “digressor” to give up his “digression” and return to the fold.

Unfortunately, having learned how to fire the “digressive” fusillade during the music controversy, we continued to blast away with it as we moved on to other issues, except that now we fired at others in our own ranks. Anyone who moved outside accepted methodologies invited an attack for being “digressive.” While these attacks are less common today than a generation ago, they are still all too frequent. Raising hands in worship is “digressive.” Having women on ministerial staffs is “digressive.” Having a special dedication service for newborns is “digressive.” In short, being “progressive” is “digressive.”

These two parallel developments, giving necessary inferences the same authoritative weight as direct commands and labeling those who violate those inferences as “digressives” have made it difficult for Churches of Christ to find unity in their own community, much less contribute to the broader search for unity in the religious world around them. Thomas Campbell himself had foreseen this very hazard. Recognizing that doctrines derived from inferences and apostolic precedents depend on carefully constructed arguments, Campbell warned against requiring agreement on such doctrines as a condition of unity. Doing so, he argued in the Declaration and Address, pins a person’s salvation on the ability to make proper deductions, not on responding to straightforward principles of Scripture. In a word, salvation is placed out of reach for those with simple minds or impaired reasoning.

Our history in the Churches of Christ clearly confirms the validity of Campbell’s concern. None of our divisions has come from one party or another choosing to set aside explicit Biblical injunctions or principles. Instead, we have divided over teachings drawn by inference from Scripture or differences of opinion about certain New Testament examples and whether they are normative for today’s church.

Compounding this situation has been a third critical transition from the late nineteenth century, namely, a narrowed perspective on what constitutes a valid baptism. We know from Alexander Campbell’s famous “Lunenberg” exchange that this question led to controversy among the earliest advocates of the restoration plea. As the nineteenth century progressed, this controversy did not go away. And in a cappella churches it gave rise to a contention that baptism is valid only if it meets three criteria: 1) it has to be based on one’s personal conviction; 2) the mode has to be immersion; and 3) the subject has to understand that the purpose of his or her baptism is the remission of sins.

This third point touched off a controversy in Churches of Christ that persists to this day. From the outset David Lipscomb stoutly opposed such a narrow definition of New Testament baptism. He repeatedly used the pages of The Gospel Advocate to argue that immersion based on any Biblical rationale was all God required. But The Firm Foundation, begun in Texas in 1884 as a rival to the Advocate, staked out a counter position and made this very restrictive concept of baptism the cornerstone of its editorial viewpoint. During the early twentieth century the restrictive view gained increasing sway until it became the dominant position in most parts of the country. Its influence seemed to peak about 30 years ago and began to wane, but it has hardly disappeared.

Where it still endures, it thwarts any impulse to explore unity with other religious bodies, for neither the non-immersed nor vast millions of the immersed meet the three criteria. And since anyone without a Scriptural baptism is seen as outside the body of Christ, it is pointless to talk about unity with them. The more appropriate approach is to evangelize them.

In addition two other attitudes complicate the challenge of unity in Churches of Christ. First is the persuasion that fellowship equals endorsement. And second is the belief that association equals fellowship. When added together, these two attitudes yield an equation in which any joint effort with other believing communities is seen as fellowshipping them, which in turn is tantamount to endorsing all that they stand for and teach. Of course, there truly is a certain overlap between association and fellowship, and fellowship does indeed connote some level of endorsement. But to translate any association whatsoever into total endorsement is the worst kind of reductionist logic. More importantly, it closes the door for even tentatively exploring areas of common ground with those from other spiritual traditions.

This association-equals-total-endorsement equation also yields an interesting corollary: anyone who is part of a congregation that teaches or does things we oppose is ipso facto beyond the pale of fellowship with us. The very fact they are part of that congregation makes them guilty of everything we perceive as wrong in that church. Overlooked is the lesson from the church in Sardis, a congregation variously described by Jesus as asleep and dead. Yet he noted that some in Sardis had not soiled their garments. “They will walk with me in white,” He promised, saying in effect that people can go to heaven from a church bound for perdition.

It is against this backdrop, then, that we examine the topic on which this session of the Stone-Campbell Dialogue centers: what is our view of unity within Churches of Christ? By now, it’s obvious that the answer to this question depends on the person you happen to ask. In settings like this one you are most likely to deal with those who fully endorse the age-old formula, “We are not the only Christians, but we want to be Christians only.” They are therefore open to finding ways to link up with other Christians and devout seekers wherever they are found.

On the other hand, those of us who explore such linkage do so knowing that our views represent only one segment of our brotherhood. It is a large segment, and a growing one. But in some parts of the country it is by no means a majority view, much less a consensus view. In thousands of congregations the unspoken philosophy is, “Unity on our terms, or no unity at all.” Their only formula for unity is for those who differ with them on particulars of the faith to abandon their “errors,” leave their misguided churches, and accept the singular positions of the Churches of Christ on matters of polity, worship, baptism, the plan of salvation, charismatic gifts, the work of the Holy Spirit, and the millennium.

If this sounds like a pessimistic assessment, let me hasten to add a counterbalancing note. At present the weight of momentum seems to favor those who yearn for opportunities to work collaboratively with believers outside the Churches of Christ. These people have always been present in our congregations, often in larger percentages in the pew than in the pulpit. Lamentably, for decades many who supported broader dialogue with other believers remained relatively quiet, intimidated by the power of major brotherhood periodicals that defined the body of Christ quite narrowly.

Today no editor or periodical in the Churches of Christ carries such intimidating clout. Journals with a distinctively doctrinal slant scramble to find enough subscribers to stay afloat. Two inspirational and devotional publications, 21st Century Christian and Power for Today, command a significantly larger circulation, but neither of them delve into doctrinal issues. By far the broadest readership in Churches of Christ belongs to The Christian Chronicle, a newspaper that restricts itself (outside of its editorial page) to news items. The Chronicle has consistently reported the details of the Restoration Forums and of the Stone-Campbell Dialogue and has posted complete sets of documents from this Dialogue on their web page.

Thus, individuals and congregations who want to advance unity feel far more freedom today than they did 30 years ago. Across our brotherhood there is a growing sense that cultural pluralism threatens the very existence of our faith unless all Bible believers transcend their differences and make common cause together. For every person who has criticized my role in the Stone-Campbell Dialogue, twenty have commended me for it. Among young adults in Churches of Christ, many have no memory of our exclusivist past, for they have no experience with congregations of that stripe. Moreover, they seem to have returned instinctively to Thomas Campbell’s original distinctions. Like him they see no Biblical grounds for drawing lines of fellowship on anything apart from absolute core doctrines. And again like him they feel comfortable praying, worshipping, and working in ministry alongside those who differ with them in various doctrinal details. They are the harbinger, I believe, of a great and thriving recommitment to building bridges of unity in Churches of Christ, both among ourselves and to our religious neighbors.