Living Together in Sweet Unity
Living Together in Sweet Unity

By Victor Knowles

 

“How truly wonderful and delightful to see brothers and sisters living together in sweet unity!” (Psalm 133:1, The Passion Translation).

 

The year 1906 is memorable to me for a number of reasons—even though I wasn’t born until 1945. It was the year of the great San Francisco earthquake; the year one of my heroes, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, was born; and a year the Chicago Cubs went to the World Series (and lost). Finally, 1906 is the year a division occurred in the American Restoration Movement.

“Conventional wisdom” today is that David Lipscomb, editor of the Gospel Advocate, acting unilaterally for some churches that opposed instrumental music (as well as the American Christian Missionary Society), sought and received a separate listing for churches of Christ in the Census of Religious Bodies published by the U.S. Department of the Census. Not everyone agreed with this decision. T. B. Larimore refused to take sides, saying he preferred to “sit on the issues and stand on Jesus Christ.” James B. North, author of Union in Truth: An Interpretive History of the Restoration Movement (Standard Publishing, 1994), believes that issues like instrumental music and the missionary society were only symptoms of the real issue: biblical authority and how it is applied. Some saw the silence of the Scriptures as prohibitive where others viewed silence as permissive. I personally believe silence is passive. How is it possible to interpret silence? We have spoken where the Scriptures are silent and the result has been confusion and division.

 

Efforts at Rapprochement

In his pamphlet The Greatest Tragedy in 1,000 Years, Walter Stram wrote, “Division in the church is treason against Christ.” That is a strong statement, but it is true because Jesus fervently prayed for the unity of his church (John 17:20, 21). By the 1930s, several efforts at rapprochement (“the restoration of cordial relations”) had begun by interested brothers and sisters on both sides of the keyboard. (See “Don’t Know Much About History: Reviewing 70 Years of Rapprochement Between A Cappella Churches of Christ and Conservative Christian Churches,” a paper I presented at Pepperdine University in 2006; it can be downloaded at www.poeministries.org.)

A new national unity effort called the Restoration Forum began in 1984.

“Like the flash of a weaver’s shuttle, 34 years have passed since that first meeting in Joplin,” recalls Ken Idleman, former president at Ozark Christian College. “My frequent reflections on that historic meeting are always accompanied by an emotional rush. Those pioneers who were a part of it will identify with me. There was an atmosphere that can only be described as a foretaste of glory divine. Highlights of the 1984 meeting would be the loving confrontation of Reuel Lemmons and the emotional reconciliation of veteran missionary Max Ward Randall (Christian churches) and his preacher-nephew Dennis Randall (churches of Christ). The closing prayer time on our knees was the closest I have ever been to the spirit of Pentecost.”

Twenty-five Restoration Forums were held between 1984 and 2007, drawing thousands of concerned church leaders and members from across the United States, Canada, and several foreign nations. Calvin Warpula, a co-planner and frequent speaker at the forums, made six observations about the two fellowships. He said they were learning much about each other, encouraging joint participation in good works, emphasizing unity and love as Jesus commanded, coming out of isolation, researching and refining their positions (and maybe even abandoning them as they studied Scripture together), and realizing unity can exist in arguments on essentials while allowing diversity on other matters.

 

“We’re Going to Do Better Right Now!”

At the 2006 Abilene Christian University Lectureship, Royce Money declared, “For those of us in the Restoration Movement heritage, I doubt that many have looked at us in the last 100 years and said, ‘Behold, how they love one another.’ But we’re going to do better in the next 100 years; we’re going to do better right now! Unity for the sake of mission is essential if we are to successfully carry the light of Jesus into a dark world.” Indeed, unity for sweet unity’s sake is not enough. Jesus prayed, “That they all may be one . . . that the world may believe that You sent Me” (John 17:21, New King James Version). Christian unity is for the sake of world evangelism.

At the 2006 Pepperdine Bible Lectures, I delivered a speech (“Restoring Family Ties: How Churches of Christ and Christian Churches Are Serving God Together in the 21st Century”) in which I listed 101 activities and actions the two fellowships were doing together in Jesus’ name and for his sake. I quoted Rick Atchley’s remarks at the 2003 North American Christian Convention: “For a hundred years we have served God apart . . . only God knows what we can do the next hundred years serving him together.” Some of the 101 activities I mentioned include churches participating in 24-hour prayer vigils for their cities, prayer breakfasts on a monthly basis, local pulpit exchanges, worshipping together on Sunday evenings or fifth Sunday services, hosting seminars for elders, hosting luncheons for preachers, taking trips together to Restoration sites (like Cane Ridge and Bethany), conducting joint Vacation Bible Schools, joint observance of the Lord’s Supper with elders from both churches presiding, working together in a crisis pregnancy center, teaming up to take a stand against moral and social evils, cooperating in feeding the hungry, joining together in disaster relief aid, merging and becoming “one body,” planting new churches together, going on short-term mission trips together, doing field research and Bible translation together, and much more.

 

“God Knows We Are Better Together”

A missionary serving in Kenya said, “My mother remembered when her church in West Virginia split over the instrument. Both groups continued to share the same building and the same coal shed, but divided the coal. The youth group of which she was a part wrote on the coal shed: ‘One Lord, one faith, one baptism, and two coal piles!’” The missionary concluded: “I’m just so happy that I had the privilege to work in the atmosphere of one coal pile, and rejoice that my generation of church leaders is wiping off the graffiti on the coal shed!”

God knows we are better together. A new generation has no desire to fight the battles of the past. Here in Joplin, Missouri, we are enjoying a spirit of brotherly love and cooperation. In 2007, after the final Restoration Forum, which drew more than 1,000 people, my wife and I placed fellowship with a local a cappella congregation, the Mount Hope Church of Christ. They gave us a standing ovation the first time we visited. Gary Morrison, the former minister at Mount Hope, had been a key driver of unity efforts since 1984. I became a member of the preaching team. Karl Wendt, worship leader at Mount Hope, is on staff at Ozark Christian College. Curtis Prunty, who heads the preaching team, is a graduate of Ozark Christian College and also teaches a class at OCC. Naomi Hunter, a member at Christ’s Church of Oronogo, serves with Mount Hope’s Christian Counseling Center. A good number of OCC students attend or have placed fellowship with Mount Hope and are active in teaching, youth activities, and giving Communion mediations. Many guests from instrumental churches have spoken at Mount Hope, including the late Garland Bare, Boyce Mouton, OCC President Matt Procter, and OCC faculty members Woody Wilkinson, Terry Bowland, Gary Zustiak, and Kevin Morrow. The text is true: “How truly wonderful and delightful to see brothers and sisters living together in sweet unity!”

Don DeWelt (1919–91) and I started One Body magazine in 1984, the same year as the first Restoration Forum. Our journal has always featured writers from both sides of the keyboard. The late Thomas Langford, an elder with Quaker Avenue Church of Christ in Lubbock, Texas, wrote 55 columns for us before he died. He was replaced by Gene Shelburne, a minister with the Anna Street Church of Christ in Amarillo, Texas (and also a syndicated columnist for the Amarillo Globe News). One Body has published more than 1,100 articles and essays from Restoration writers, about half of them from the churches of Christ. Writers have included the late W. Carl Ketcherside, Leroy Garrett, Marvin Phillips, Douglas A. Foster, and Rick Atchley. Jimmy Hurd, an African-American minister serving with the Holgate Church of Christ in Seattle, Washington, is one of six columnists.

“Today, we are seeing churches of Christ and independent Christian churches cooperating for new church work!” says Canadian Jim Tune, director of Impact Ministries Group and associate editor of One Body. “God knows we are better together!” Other journals, like Christian Standard and The Lookout, have also been keen to emphasize Christian unity for the sake of world evangelism.

 

What Can We Do?

Paul admonished the believers in Ephesus and all “the faithful in Christ Jesus” to “make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4:3-6). We must make every effort for unity! We dare not make secondary what Jesus made primary—“That they all may be one . . . that the world may believe.” Years ago I wrote these words in my Bible: “The unity of all believers is essential to the conversion of the world.”

Carl Ketcherside (1908–89), former editor of Mission Messenger, may have said it best: “I have steadfastly set my face in the direction of the unity of all believers in Christ Jesus my Lord. I shall pray for it, plead for it, and proclaim it. I shall never be deterred. I shall never become discouraged. I will never be satisfied until all of us regard one another as God regards all of us. And when the time comes that the pen drops from my nerveless fingers, and my tongue cleaves to the roof of my mouth, I shall rest content, if on the gray marble above my head can be chiseled the words, ‘He preached peace to them that are afar off and to them that are nigh!’”

The Prince of Peace declared, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God” (Matthew 5:9). So, what can you and I do to promote peace, unity, and harmony in the church for which Christ died?

For starters, get acquainted with each other. Start on a friendship level. Friendship will beget fellowship. Invite a fellow believer to lunch. Few people will bite the hand that picks up the tab. Then find common ground. That which unites us is far greater than that which divides us. Gather your people and paint a widow’s house. Neighbors will notice and God will be glorified. Find creative ways to meet together and worship together. Love will find a way for “love never fails.” Have a picnic in the park. Churches that picnic with each other will not nitpick with each other! The early Christians were constantly “breaking bread together.” It’s much better than breaking heads!

We are all going to stand before God some day and give an account for whether or not we “made every effort” for Christian unity. I want to be able to say, “Father, I did my best to answer your Son’s dying prayer—‘That they all may be one . . . that the world may believe.’”

We can’t do everything, but we can do something! God knows we are better together!

 

Victor Knowles is founder and president of POEM (Peace on Earth Ministries), Joplin, Missouri. Since 1984 he has served as editor of One Body magazine. He is the author of 23 books, including Stand and Deliver (POEM Publications, 2017).

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