Relationships Prevent Misunderstandings

By James B. North

In Richard Hughes’s work, Reviving the Ancient Faith, he suggests that the core of the division that separated the noninstrumental Churches of Christ from the instrumental Christian Churches was not the instrument or support of missionary societies. Instead, he says division sprang from a theological core of values that went back to a “traditional Christian primitivism combined with Scottish Common Sense Realism and Lockean epistemology” (p. 48). Although I differ from Hughes in several applications of concerns in his book, I agree wholeheartedly with him in this respect. The division that resulted in 1906 was not merely organs and missionary societies.

David Harrell has argued that the 1906 division in fact has its seeds half a century earlier, in the tension that exploded in the Civil War. He sees the sectional divisions that were rife in this country in the mid-19th century as the seedbed that grew the later division. With some variation in the development of the theme, Henry Webb agrees.

My own interpretation is to push things back an additional half century to the years when Federalists and Anti-Federalists were arguing contrary views about the understanding, interpretation, and application of the U.S. Constitution. Elsewhere I have contended that the division that took place in 1906 can be traced back to strict and loose constructionists and their arguments about how to apply biblical authority, particularly on issues of biblical silence.

Within the Res-toration Movement, different groups have different presuppositions about how to approach the Bible and apply its authority. But my purpose here is not to discuss the different hermeneutics or the different interpretations that have been applied to the unfortunate division.

I mention all this merely to say that the issues leading to the 1906 division were indeed complex. Those issues were blended out of polarized hermeneutics, different personalities, and sectional cultures that went back more than a century into American history and culture.

It is easy to say that, given these disparate viewpoints, the 1906 division was inevitable. But perhaps that begs the question. The church of Jesus Christ was not meant to divide, or to have various portions of it live in separation. What could have been done to prevent the division?

Growing Apart

To consider the answers to this question, it is necessary to reconsider the factors that led to the separation. As we have said, they were rooted in personalities, hermeneutics, and cultural differences. But I would like to believe they were not inevitable.

All of us are products of our own cultural conditioning. I grew up on a particular side of the fence where I was indoctrinated into certain ways of thinking, and people who did not follow that way of thinking were dismissed as narrow-minded, self-willed, uninformed, and out of step with reality. I was conditioned to believe that such people did not have viewpoints that deserved serious consideration. I am sure people who grew up on the other side of the fence were brought to similar conclusions about us.

To go to a deeper level of personality investigation, however, both sides have stories to tell of how dastardly the other side was at the local level. A congregation voted not to use an organ, and then the other side sneakily brought one in on Saturday night, inflaming the controversy to the edge of violence. Other congregations voted to use the organ, only to have it surreptitiously removed on a Saturday night by the other side.

Perhaps what happened is that people grew apart. It is easy to be hostile and restrictive with people with whom you do not have close relationships. I have always been intrigued by a series of relationships that Alexander Campbell got involved in that I believe illustrates this very condition. This concerns Campbell’s relationships with Dr. John Thomas, Jesse B. Ferguson, and Aylette Raines.

Developing Relationships

John Thomas had developed views about re-immersion for those who did not understand the precise purpose of baptism at the time they were baptized, particularly Baptists. He also concluded that resurrection would occur only for the righteous; all others would remain forever only unconscious dust. Alexander Campbell sternly disagreed with Dr. Thomas on these subjects, and ultimately the two men separated fellowship.

In 1852 Jesse B. Ferguson of Nashville developed views, based on 1 Peter 3:18-20, that while Jesus’ body was in the tomb he preached to the “spirits in prison,” those who had been disobedient during and subsequent to Noah’s time. Campbell responded to the article by accusing Ferguson of heresy, calling upon him to recant, and urged the brotherhood to repudiate him. The situation further deteriorated, and ultimately Ferguson moved out of the fellowship of the Christian Churches.

An interesting contrast is Campbell’s experience with Aylette Raines. Raines was a Universalist preacher converted by Walter Scott in the Western Reserve in 1828. He was still convinced that ultimately all men would be saved, but Scott called this a “philosophy” Raines was still free to believe, which he did.

When several preachers at the Mahoning annual meeting expressed concern that Raines was accepted among them while still a Universalist, some members of the association wanted to disfellowship him. Campbell defended him, asserting that if Raines was allowed to hold his views as private opinions, Raines would surely give up these views in a short time.

Campbell was correct; within 10 months Raines had abandoned his Universalist views. That’s the way it was supposed to work. Unfortunately, the experience with Raines was the exception; the experience with Thomas and Ferguson was more the dominant pattern.

Yet in his debate with N. L. Rice, Campbell voiced a more lofty sentiment. There he stated:

It is not the object of our efforts to make men think alike on a thousand themes. Let men think as they please on any matters of human opinion, and upon “doctrines of religion,” provided only they hold THE HEAD Christ, and keep his commandments. I have learned, not only the theory, but the fact—that if you wish opinionism to cease or to subside, you must not call up and debate everything that men think or say. You may debate anything into consequence, or you may, by a dignified silence, waste it into oblivion. I have known innumerable instances of persons outliving their opinions, and erroneous reasonings, and even sometimes forgetting the modes of reasoning by which they had embraced and maintained them. This was the natural result of the philosophy of letting them alone. In this way, they came to be of one mind in all points in which unity of thought is desirable.

What a pity that this could not have been done on a broader scale throughout the movement. But notice that more is involved than issues and personalities.

Is it a coincidence that Campbell and Raines were able to cooperate, and in fact they were members of the same association, and had contact with one another? Is it another mere coincidence that Campbell could not be reconciled with either Thomas or Ferguson, both of whom lived some distance away, and in fact there was not the same personal level of relationship that had developed between Campbell and Raines? Personal friends make adjustments for each other; strangers who perceive some disagreement are not so accommodating. Where personal relationships of trust, camaraderie, and love are involved, there is a higher potential for harmony than when such feelings are absent.

What I am suggesting is that we develop relationships with people in order to prevent misunderstandings that escalate into separations. What could we have done differently? We could have trusted people more. We could have granted more liberty in areas of opinion, even in areas of doctrine, without making them tests of communion and fellowship.

The first Restoration Forum I attended was in 1985 at Garnett Road Church of Christ in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I had already read the writings of Bill Humble and Everett Ferguson, and I enjoyed getting to meet these brothers for the first time.

But this was also the first time I met Marvin Phillips and Calvin Warpula. Some of the things they said I did not completely agree with. And some of what they said used words with a bit more of an edge to them than I was comfortable with. But I could not deny the fact that they loved the Lord Jesus and were totally committed to the things of the kingdom of God. They were my brothers—God loves them, and so do I. We had built up a relationship that overcame the differences between us.

So what could we have done differently a century ago? We could have emphasized what we have together and allowed liberty on both sides of an opinion, an interpretation, or a hermeneutic viewpoint.

A century ago there were significant issues that caused discomfort with many people. In 1889 the Sand Creek Declaration called for the disfellowshiping of people over some of these issues. Instead I wish the folk on both sides of the issues could have been willing to say, “That fellow over there is my brother. He has some ideas I’m not comfortable with. There are practices over there that create an environment that I can’t worship in, but he’s my brother.”

Many years ago Edwin Markham penned a famous quatrain:

He drew a circle that shut me out—

Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.

But love and I had the wit to win;

We drew a circle that took him in!



Jim North is professor of church history at Cincinnati (Ohio) Bible Seminary and the author of Union in Truth, available from Standard Publishing.

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