Unity & Division in the Restoration Movement

In 1906 David Lipscomb agreed with the Director of the US Census that the Church of Christ was a group of churches distinct from the Disciples of Christ, and they were listed separately by the government for the first time.  This is the best we come up with as an official date for the separation, but in reality the two groups had been moving in different directions for over 50 years.

The establishment of the American Christian Missionary Society in 1849 proved to be a controversial development.  Some churches felt that since Scripture does not “authorise” non-congregational organizations then they are unbiblical.  The alternative view simply saw the Society as a practical way to conduct world evangelism using resources that no individual congregation had at its disposal.  However, this did not result in widespread division within the Restoration Movement.  Even those opposed to the establishment of the Missionary Society were known to speak at its annual meetings.  Unity remained a compelling value.

The debate concerning the missionary revealed a more significant disagreement regarding the reading and interpretation of the Bible.  The above discussion demonstrates that one side of the debate sought biblical “authorisation” for everything they wanted to do, while the other side implemented what the Bible commanded but felt free to make practical additions in other areas.  This fundamental hermeneutical debate that  proved to be closer to the core of the subsequent division than the individual disagreements over musical instruments in worship and missionary societies.  Richard Hughes (p48) quotes David Edwin Harrell Jr. as aptly observing that if the churches “had not disagreed over instrumental music and missionary society, they would have divided over something else.”

In the end, however, its seems more human motivations precipitated the division.  During the civil war the American Christian Missionary Society, which was based in the north, passed a resolution that said in part,

Resolved, that we unqualifiedly declare our allegiance to [the United States] government, and repudiate as false and slanderous any statements to the contrary.  That we tender our sympathies to our brave and noble soldiers in the field who are defending us from the attempts of armed traitors to overthrow our government….

In the tit-for-tat that followed the ACMS was criticised by the southern churches, and the issue of biblical authorisation became the primary rationale for that criticism.  More importantly, the tolerance of differences that had existed prior to the civil war evaporated.  Support for a missionary society now became grounds for breaking fellowship.  The debate regarding instrumental music in worship followed a similar path that became grounds for breaking fellowship after the Civil War.

This is not to take sides on the biblical discussion of either of these issues, but to point out that one of the major changes was not the teaching on the issues, but the importance attributed to the issues.  The attitude of tolerance and love was replaced by one emphasising doctrinal uniformity.

Considering the church structure and teachings of the Disciples of Christ today and comparing them to the Churches of Christ, division would eventually have occurred no matter how committed each side was to unity.  The original plea of the Restoration Movement contained the seeds of conflicting values and over time this conflict became more obvious.  But I’ll write more about that next week.

The issue of who we fellowship with is a big one.  Most Christians would have problems joining in worship with a Buddhist.  But how about a Catholic or someone from another denomination?  Should members of the Church of Christ fellowship with all other churches that have the same heritage and name?  If you were on holiday in a town with a broad choice of churches, but no Church of Christ, who would you worship with?  What guidelines do you use in deciding who you will fellowship with?  How does the Bible help you with this choice?

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One comment

  1. benoverby

    Excellent questions. How does the bible help us decide who we’ll worship/fellowship with? I believe you’ve highlighted another issue, one that’s more fundamental, namely how do we approach the text, and do we read our own conclusions into the text. Lots of people (i.e., all of us) have prejudices built into their system and use the bible to validate their choices about who to worship with. If someone has been brought up thinking the instrument is sinful, then often that person will cobble a couple of passages together to support the preconception—actually, they’ll typically just accept the the cobbling of another cobbler.

    Churches of Christ should fellowship with all who trust in King Jesus and stop attempting to manage the kingdom with a handful of sectarian boarder markers. But this inevitably circles back around to what the bible describes as trust. Reading God’s word with an awareness of our own blind spots (yes, it’s possible) becomes one of the most important tasks of any congregation; and especially its leaders.

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