By Clint Gill
Someone once wrote, “The church began in Israel as a patriarchal fellowship. It went to Greece and became a philosophy. It went to Rome and became an institution.” We may add: “The church went to Europe and became a plurality of institutions. It was transplanted to North America and became a chaos of sects and denominations.” It was this chaos and the consequent religious confusion preventing effective evangelism that brought about the Campbell-Stone Restoration Movement.
In 1809, at the request of the Christian Association of Washington, Pennsylvania, Thomas Campbell wrote The Declaration and Address. Its purpose was to advocate a scriptural basis upon which to challenge the division and religious bigotry characterizing the religious scene in the infant United States. The document became the Magna Carta of a movement that swept across the American frontier and shook denominationalism to its foundations. By 1811, it became apparent that the association must, in order to practice the ideals that bound them together, form a functioning congregation. May 4 of that year marked the birth of the Brush Run, Pennsylvania, church.
Dr. Henry Webb, in In Search of Christian Unity, asserts, “The most significant section [of The Declaration and Address] sets forth an eloquent plea for [Christian] unity . . . and incorporates thirteen propositions that have merited consideration of Christians who were and are concerned with the divided state of the church.”
The first of these propositions seems most effective in challenging the present-day heirs of the movement with the need to reexamine the nature of the church. The concepts set forth there are foundational to any church that is to be restored on the basis of Scripture alone. This is especially true in light of some mistaken presuppositions of many proponents of the “Restoration plea.”
It’s All About Relationships
After more than half a century of ministry within the movement, I have concluded that a major reason we have not accomplished our goal of Christian unity is that we have too often tried to restore something that never existed, namely a biblical religious institution. We have assumed that, if we can diagram a chart with appropriate proof texts to describe the “New Testament pattern” and get enough people to conform to our chart, we will restore the correct New Testament institution. Some mistakenly assume they have accomplished exactly this. We further assume that Christian unity can be achieved if we simply persuade enough people to transfer from their incorrect denomination to our “undenominational” institution. Of course, when necessary, we will immerse them in the process.
The fatal flaw in this approach is that the church ideal found in the New Testament was not an institution at all! It was primarily a new race of people re-created in Christ (Ephesians 2:14-17). The race was a family whose Father was God (Ephesians 1:3-6; Galatians 4:4, 5). The family was a flock (Acts 20:28) guarded and tended by shepherds (1 Peter 5:1-4). From these and other Scriptures, it is obvious that the church is all about relationships.
Functionally, the church found in the New Testament was a living organism with the Father’s only Son as its head (Ephesians 1:22, 23). Structurally, the body, as any other living organism, was organized for growth and reproduction (Ephesians 4:11-17). This is a far cry from the totalitarian power pyramid that is characteristic of religious institutions. Jesus himself expressly forbade such authoritarian leadership (Matthew 20:25-28).
Campbell’s first proposition states:
The church of Christ on earth is essentially, intentionally, and constitutionally one: consisting of all those in every place that profess faith in Christ and obedience to Him in all things according to the Scriptures, and that manifest the same by their tempers and conduct, and of none else as none else can truly and properly be called Christians.
This three-part study examines the key descriptive terms in Campbell’s proposition as they characterize the church we seek to restore.
Unity Is Fellowship
First, Campbell affirms that the church is “essentially one.” He saw the church as one in essence. Unity is the church’s inward nature. Its very existence is defined by its oneness. The plea that brought the Restoration Movement into existence is a plea for unity accomplished by restoring the church’s essential nature. By practicing that which is the essence of the church and eliminating the extraneous, the pioneers of the movement proposed to provide a ground of unity upon which, in Campbell’s words, “all those in every place that profess faith in Christ and obedience to him in all things according to the Scriptures” could ” . . . keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3, author’s translation).
The essence of the apostolic church was fellowship. The Greek, koinonia (fellowship), specifies a relationship between people who hold something in common.
A few years ago, I was invited to attend a reunion of the crew of a World War II naval vessel. It was an experience of nostalgic fellowship among men who hold common memories of serving aboard that ship at a very crucial time in our lives. No one else can have part in that fellowship because it is grounded on a common experience shared only by that crew.
Church membership is like that! It is a fellowship created by a common faith in and obedience to Jesus as Lord and Christ. It is a unique relationship available only to those who hear and believe the word of Christ and “who manifest the same by their tempers and conduct.” It is anchored in the testimony of the original 12 witnesses of Jesus Christ and Paul. These men were handpicked and prepared by the Lord for exactly this purpose (Luke 24:48; Acts 1:8;
Galatians 1:1, 11-16; 2:8). It is intensely practical (Acts 2:41-47; 1 John 3:16-18).
Christian fellowship is the unity for which Christ prayed, for which Paul pleaded, and for which the Restoration pioneers labored. The defining characteristic of this relationship is agape, (love—John 13:35; 1 John 4:10-12). Those reconciled to God in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:19) are reconciled to one another (Ephesians 2:13-16). The manifestation of obedient faith (Romans 1:5) in Christ that sustains the fellowship known as “church” requires humility, gentleness, patience, and the acceptance of one another (Ephesians 4:1-3).
The Restoration plea is, in essence, a plea for a restoration of relationships, for the restoration of fellowship, as Campbell wrote, with “all those in every place that profess faith in Christ and obedience to Him in all things according to the scriptures, and that manifest the same by their tempers and conduct. . . .” This being the case, the unit in Christian unity is the individual member of a living organism called “the body of Christ” (1 Corinthians 12:11-14). Christian unity so defined is synonymous with Christian fellowship.
If the plea of the Restoration pioneers is to have meaning in the 21st century, we must reexamine some basic presuppositions.
First, the plea is for the unity of individual believers, not institutions. It is essentially a plea for restored fellowship in the family of one God. It can never be accomplished by insisting on union in terms of membership in a religious institution.
Second, the plea is not for unanimity defined as absolute conformity of opinion. Scriptural interpretation that fears dialogue with those who disagree with it has more in common with Muslim fundamentalism than with the Christian family of the first century or with the writers of New Testament Scripture.
Third, the plea is not for uniformity. When we become so enamored with supposed New Testament methodology that we assume the methods are themselves the church, the movement stagnates and/or fragments.
The restoration of the New Testament church ideal must begin with concentration on and examination of our own most cherished beliefs and traditions. The longer we hold those beliefs and the more deeply we cherish them, the more we must subject them to reexamination in light of renewed study of the texts upon which they are supposedly based.
The birth and proposed “baptism” of Alexander Campbell’s first child did not drive him to the Presbyterian creed upon which he had himself been weaned. Rather it drove him to an intense study of the New Testament’s teaching about baptism. He concluded that he had been wrong in his own assumptions about infant baptism. The result was the immersion of the entire Campbell family!
Perhaps the most difficult task facing those who plead for scriptural restoration as the ground of Christian unity is to find the faith and courage to be consistent in the application of their own principles. Ridicule, derision, and disassociation by those who believe they have already discovered and completely restored what is essential and have already eliminated the extraneous can be a powerful deterrent to honest self-examination.
If the Restoration Movement is to have the impact in the 21st century that it had in the first half of the 19th century, we must again realize the truth expressed by Thomas Campbell: “The church of Jesus Christ on earth [still] consists of all those in every place that profess faith in Christ and obedience to Him in all things according to the scriptures, and that manifest the same by their tempers and conduct. . . .”
Only then will our church, as that one modeled in the New Testament, be “essentially one.”
Next week: The Church Is Intentionally One
Clint Gill lives in Taylorsville, Kentucky, and serves as an instructor with Christian Training Ministries (www.ctmministries.com) based in Greenford, Ohio.