By Clint Gill
In the Declaration and Address, Thomas Campbell defined the nature of the unity proposed by The Christian Association of Washington (Pennsylvania) in 1809 and later promoted by the Campbell-Stone Restoration Movement. The movement created excitement in the religious climate of 19th-century America by challenging all Christians, regardless of party affiliation, to unite by restoring the church ideal presented in the New Testament. The cultural and religious climate of the early 21st century combine to create the most receptive audience for this plea that has existed at any time since its inception.
It was Campbell’s contention, stated in the first proposition of his Declaration and Address, that “The church of Christ upon 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 that none else can truly and properly be called Christians.” The first of this three-part series discussed the practical significance of the term essentially, as used in this first proposition: the unity that constitutes Christian fellowship is the very essence of the church. This week goes a step further to consider how this unity is the inevitable consequence of God’s reconciling purpose in Christ. God intended that the church be one.
The Pharisee who thanked God that he had not been created as a Gentile, a slave, or a woman was giving voice to the ubiquitous bigotry of the human race. We align ourselves against one another on the basis of ethnic origin, cultural preferences, language groups, political boundaries, economic and social class distinctions, and even gender.
It was the apostle Paul’s contention that, in Christ, these distinctions, imposed on people by those who are dead in sin, have been done away (Galatians 3:27, 28).
Paul had not always held this view. When Stephen asserted that God had always been concerned for all people (Acts 7:1-53), Saul of Tarsus led a holy war against the church. Saul was repelled by Stephen’s claim that the Messiah of the Jews was equally concerned for the salvation of Gentiles. To him this was unthinkable, as was the idea that God’s anointed had actually been executed by the despicable exhibition of crucifixion. All this was blasphemy of the lowest order.
After nearly stamping out the believing community in Jerusalem, Saul was appointed as an apostle of the Jewish high priest for the purpose of finishing what he had started. While traveling to Damascus to continue his rampage, he was knocked to his knees and blinded by this same crucified Christ!
Face to face with the risen Lord, Saul did what any other honest man would do—he completely reevaluated his thinking about the death of Jesus. In 2 Corinthians 5:14-21, Paul elaborates on that reevaluation; “The love of Christ is controlling us having concluded this, that one died on behalf of all; therefore all had died and he died on behalf of all in order that the ones living may no longer live to themselves but on behalf of the one having died and been raised” (vv. 14, 15; Scripture references are the author’s translation unless otherwise indicated). The truth about the cross, revealed by Jesus’ resurrection, drove Paul to the obvious practical application of itself. “So from now on we are knowing no one according to flesh . . . so that if anyone is in Christ [there is] a new creation; the old things have passed away, look, they have become new in kind.”
In Ephesians 2:14, 15, Paul spelled out what he meant by becoming “new in kind.” “For he is our peace, the One having made both [Jew and Gentile] one . . . in order that he might in himself create the two into one new humanity making peace.” Those who have been reconciled to God in Christ cannot but be reconciled to one another. There is “one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4:6, New American Standard Bible). The closer we draw to God, the closer we are drawn one to the other.
Far from seeing the church as a religious institution, Paul understood it as the creation of a new kind of human race! Since the new race is created from the dead material of the old, there is a real sense in which the church is all that’s left of the human race!
The “new kind” of creatures in Christ do not evaluate people according to the fleshly distinctions practiced by the old race who died in sin (2 Corinthians 5:16). “For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus; because as many of you as were baptized into Christ put on Christ. There cannot be Jew nor Greek, there cannot be slave nor freeman, there cannot be male nor female; because you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:27, 28).
In Antioch, as a result of a year of such teaching by Paul and Barnabas, “the disciples called themselves Christians” (Acts 11:25, 26). Some have said the name Christian was given in derision by enemies of the church. In the context in which the name was coined, there is no mention of opposition. The name was coined by the disciples as a result of apostolic teaching.
The new kind of person required a new name. If I am not a Jew or a Gentile, slave or free, male or female, what am I? The disciples called themselves after the Christ in whom all such distinctions are broken down. It is possible that the new name was divinely given in fulfillment of Isaiah 62:2.
A Plea for Reconciliation
As a teacher in New York Christian Institute, it was my privilege to engage regularly in conversation with the late Dr. Dean Walker, who was one of our directors. When we were preparing the curricula, our conversation turned to what we should teach concerning the Restoration Movement. Walker sorted through his voluminous vocabulary for a few minutes and then said, “Everything God has done in human history since the garden of Eden has been for the sole purpose of reconciliation.” In this statement, he expressed the conviction of both Thomas Campbell and the apostle Paul. “The church is intentionally one.” “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting against them their trespasses and placing in us the word of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:19).
Understood as the Restoration pioneers understood it, the Restoration plea is essentially a plea for reconciliation based on the church ideal found in the New Testament in its doctrines, ordinances, and fruit. Such unity as we have just visited in the writings of the New Testament cannot be expressed by institutional division any more than it can be expressed by distinctions of culture, economic status, or gender (Galatians 3:28).
Paul recognized as much in 1 Corinthians 1:11-13 when he chastised his readers for lining up behind certain Christian leaders rather than behind Christ. His question, “Were you baptized into the name of Paul?” sounds the death knell of denominationalism.
Some have suggested that the Restoration Movement is passé in the 21st century, that the plea is irrelevant in today’s world. However as long as Sunday morning is, as the late Martin Luther King Jr. affirmed, “the most segregated time in America,” something needs to be said about being one new humanity in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 2:15).
So long as our congregations are economically stratified we need the New Testament admonition, “Let the brother of humble circumstances glory in his high position; and let the rich man glory in his humiliation” (James 1:9, 10, New American Standard Bible).
So long as there are congregations in which half or more of the members are deprived of the privilege of participation in the “ministry of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:18) because they are female, something needs to be said about restoring the new kind of humanity that made up the New Testament church. (No, I’m not advocating women elders and/or preachers!)
There is still a need to follow the examples of Brush Run and Cane Ridge. There is no place in such a plea as that made by the Campbells and Barton Stone for fundamentalist legalism whose chief stock in trade is condemning and shutting out anyone who does not agree with their interpretation of proof texts. Stone and the Campbells began by subjecting their own presuppositions to the probing light of God’s Word. Their plea, expressed so eloquently in the Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery, was that all professing Christians should “go and do likewise!” Only when we capture a fresh dedication to self-examination in terms of God’s reconciling purpose in Christ can we claim our churches are intentionally one.
Next week: The Church is Constitutionally One.
Clint Gill lives in Taylorsville, Kentucky, and serves as an instructor with Christian Training Ministries (www.ctmministries.com) based in Greenford, Ohio.