By Jerry Harris
The Restoration Movement has faced critical junctures at least twice in its history.
The first time was after the Civil War. Deep wounds remained as the nation endeavored to reconstruct itself. Death had silenced the great leaders of our movement: Barton Stone in 1844, Thomas Campbell in 1854, John T. Johnson in 1856, Walter Scott in 1861, Alexander Campbell in 1866, and “Raccoon” John Smith in 1868. Division came from many voices that tore at the fabric of the simple principles of unity based in the restoration of the church of the New Testament.
It was into that splintering factionalism that Isaac Errett wrote “Our Position” in 1872. In a short but thorough article, Errett effectively communicated the Restoration plea, its grand adherence to the inerrant truth of God’s Word, and the purity of its New Testament model of church, all while contrasting it with the other religious systems of the day. It wasn’t a creed but a rallying point for the movement at a time when it stood on the brink of dissolution. James DeForest Murch declared that Errett and his “Our Position” was responsible for holding the movement together. (See “‘Our Position’ Revisited.”)
The second time our movement faced the possibility of demise was in the 1920s. In the aftermath of the First World War and a new global realization, voices sprang up from Europe that were heard and followed in America. The concepts of modernism, liberalism (higher criticism), ecumenism, and open membership once again tore at the fabric of Restoration unity. A growing apostasy created a great controversy, an ideological battle over the plea itself. As Victor Knowles recounted at the 2007 North American Christian Convention,
[P. H.] Welshimer put the axe to the root of the tree when he wrote in the Dec. 4, 1926 Christian Standard, “If you remove the authority of Jesus, you destroy the meaning of baptism. If you eliminate the inspiration and the all-sufficiency of the Scriptures, you take away the meaning and sacredness of baptism. . . . This is a fight for more than an ordinance. It is a fight for loyalty to Jesus Christ and for an appreciation of His authority, the inspiration of His word, and the compliance with stipulated conditions that remission of sins may be granted.”
In response to this emerging denominationalism and liberalism that threatened the movement, a gathering formed to hold onto the precious truths that formed out of the Second Great Awakening. It was called the North American Christian Convention, first held in Indianapolis in 1927.
Knowles recounted 35 Bible colleges forming in the wake of that first NACC, each committed to raising up preachers who would hold to the simple truths of New Testament Christianity. Many existing Bible colleges held these same convictions, and Christian Standard became a unifying voice. The Restoration Movement was on the brink, and once again, it stayed the course.
Today, we are again at the brink, with a social gospel threatening to replace the ancient one. Culture is creeping into our ranks, seeking to rewrite our plea in an effort to make it more palatable to the masses. Our desire for unity has blurred the lines that define the beauty of who we are; we face the threat of dissolving into the wider evangelical and denominational landscape with little to no understanding of what we might be sacrificing.
In some ways, we are drunk on our success. The independent Christian church megachurches have been growing in unprecedented ways, some measuring in the tens of thousands. In contrast, many small churches are closing their doors, unable to compete with the opportunities and amenities of the large ones. But as a movement, we are less connected and informed than we have ever been and we’ve grown weaker by the day.
In many ways we reflect the society in which we minister . . . more technologically and socially networked than ever before while, at the same time, more isolated and alone. This is not a time to give in to the anonymity of a generic, compromised, one-size-fits-all expression of belief. It’s a time to remember and embrace the beauty of our mottoes, our heritage, and our plea. They are as great today as they were 200 years ago:
“No creed but Christ, no book but the Bible, no name but the Divine.”
“Where the Scriptures speak, we speak. Where the Scriptures are silent, we are silent.”
“In essentials, unity; in opinions, liberty; and in all things, love.”
“We do Bible things in Bible ways and call Bible things by Bible names.”
“The New Testament is our only rule of faith and practice.”
“We are Christians only, not the only Christians.”
“The church of Jesus Christ on earth is essentially, intentionally, and constitutionally one.”
“Let Christian unity be our polar star.”
America was a grand experiment, and the framers of our freedom and liberty captured its genius on paper and in policy. Like the nation and our founding fathers, our movement was forged in that same crucible. Today, we live in the results of that American experiment, and those who identify with our movement and its leaders live in the bountiful blessings of their vision. Their desire for unity on these basic beliefs didn’t come cheap. Our unity doesn’t need to be cheap either. Our movement’s founding fathers were on to something great . . . something special. It’s time to embrace it again.