By Thomas Langford
We could have stayed true to the original principles of our movement, and we should have. These are best presented in Thomas Campbell’s Declaration and Address. The document sets forth the essential unity of the church and the importance of freedom from extra-biblical laws and restrictions. Note the following from Proposition 3:
Nothing ought to be inculcated upon Christians as articles of faith; nor required of them as terms of communion, but what is expressly taught and enjoined upon them in the word of God.
And from Proposition 5:
That with respect to the commands and ordinances of our Lord Jesus Christ, where the Scriptures are silent . . . no human authority has power to interfere, in order to supply the supposed deficiency by making laws for the church.
Further, from Proposition 6:
Although inferences and deductions from Scripture premises, when fairly inferred, may be truly called the doctrine of God’s holy word, yet are they not formally binding upon the consciences of Christians farther than they perceive the connection, and evidently see that they are so; for their faith must not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power and veracity of God.
Our divisions came because we went beyond the silence of Scripture and attempted to remedy the “supposed deficiency” by our “inferences and deductions.” More than that, we insisted on making these inferences and deductions the terms of fellowship.
Our Colossal Error
Our history demonstrates conclusively that we will never achieve unity if we expect unanimity of thought on all the issues that have troubled us. This is the colossal error of our movement’s history. Somewhere along the line, we departed from the biblical principle for unity and slipped instead into the attempt to unite everyone by coercion into conformity. It was a terrible philosophy, proven so by 100 years of sectarian strife and division.
Not enough attention is given to the greatest tragedy of all: the loss of souls disillusioned by the strife, and of those not won to Christ because of our disunity. Jesus prayed that we might be one that the world might believe. Because we have not been one, who can count the cost of souls not won, or those turned away in disillusionment? What we should have done was to count more seriously the cost of our divisions.
An Example from Lubbock
Efforts in one city illustrate how we could have avoided such division.
Churches of Christ in Lubbock, Texas, date back more than 100 years. But in about 1923 there was a division over whether it was scriptural to have Sunday schools. A separate anti-Sunday school church was begun. Today there are about 30 Churches of Christ in Lubbock, five of which do not have Sunday schools. There has been little fellowship or association between the two groups.
My own congregation, though non-Sunday school, had elders who were grieved over the lack of unity and prayed for guidance in addressing the problem. In 1987, we scheduled our own “Unity Forum,” inviting speakers from three distinct groups: Reuel Lemmons, G. B. Shelburne, Joe Barnett, and Ervin Waters. The theme was “Imperatives of Christian Unity.”
Lemmons and Shelburne were classmates at ACU in the 1930s, had been editors of influential journals, but because of the division had never shared a platform together. Waters was the former warhorse debater of the “One-Cup” churches, and Barnett was the highly respected former minister of Broadway Church of Christ. It was a glorious day with four positive speeches favoring greater fellowship in a house packed with Christians longing for peace.
After the event, our elders continued to discuss what might be a next step to promote the cause. They decided to draft a letter to the Broadway elders, deploring our division through the years and asking for their fellowship. The letter stated that while none of us was responsible for the original division, we were sorry for our part in having maintained it. We did not repudiate our fathers’ stand, but we were convinced it should not be the cause of continuing division. We welcomed an opportunity to cooperate in all mutually sanctioned efforts.
We soon received a gracious letter from the Broadway elders expressing pleasure at our overture and admitting the fault did not lie on one side alone. They expressed a desire to do something that would express to the Lubbock congregations and the community that we would no longer be divided.
Soon thereafter, in January 1993, a joint Sunday evening service was planned at the Broadway Church. I was invited to speak, and others from both churches also participated. I compared our 70-year division to the 70-year reign of communism and noted that the walls were coming down.
News of the reunion had circulated and many folks from surrounding congregations, in Lubbock and elsewhere, were present to make a full house. It was a thoroughly exhilarating gathering. Men and women who had known each other most of their lives, but had never worshiped together, were embracing in the aisles after the spirited service.
Since that time there have been two more joint services, and the two churches have worked together in various projects. A statement similar to that in the original letter was made at an annual citywide meeting of church leaders before the first joint service, and as a result, relationships have been quite cordial among most of the Churches of Christ in Lubbock.
At least partly as a result of these improved relations, the 2002 Restoration Forum was held in Lubbock, planned by a committee including representatives of the Disciples of Christ, the independent Christian Church, and Churches of Christ. We think it was because of this cooperation that Restoration Forum XX was hailed as one of the best to that point in the 20-year series.
No Convictions Sacrificed
I know from this experience it is possible to be united in spite of our differences. Such unity does not require the sacrifice of any honest convictions. We at Quaker Avenue are still a non-Sunday school church. And while we are cooperating with the Christian churches in town, we are still an a cappella congregation.
It is true we don’t make the same harsh, legalistic arguments against our brethren on these issues, but loving them does not mean capitulation. We are united in Christ, on the great facts of the gospel, while remaining free to study and interpret the Scripture and its implications for ourselves, as a free congregation in Christ.
What a wonderful privilege it is to be able to love the brethren, all of them, and in Paul’s words, to enjoy the “spirit of unity among [ourselves] as [we] follow Christ Jesus, so that with one heart and mouth [we] may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 15:5, 6).
Tom Langford is a retired English professor and dean of the graduate school at Texas Tech University in Lubbock. He has just concluded 30 years of service as an elder at the Quaker Avenue Church of Christ.