By Rick Atchley and Bob Russell
This is an excerpt from the book Together Again by Rick Atchley and Bob Russell. To order a copy from Standard Publishing, CLICK HERE.
A preacher in our movement once spoke to a ministers’ meeting where Bob was in attendance. The preacher dogmatically attempted to prove why all the ministers present were wrong on certain doctrines. When he was finished, there was an awkward silence. Bob finally said, “I get the impression that you believe if everyone would just put aside their preconceived ideas and take the Bible for what it is, we’d all agree with everything you just said.”
He said, “That’s right.”
How arrogant of us to believe that we alone have a handle on the right doctrine. We’ve been like the man who wrote,
Believe as I believe, no more no less,
That I am right—no one else—confess!
Feel as I feel, think as I think,
Eat what I eat, drink what I drink,
Look as I look, do always as I do,Then and only then will I fellowship with you.
The disciple John once said to Jesus, “We saw a man driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us” (Mark 9:38). Who did that guy think he was? He hadn’t learned the right formula. He didn’t have the right education. He wasn’t a part of the right circle of followers.
Jesus could have sarcastically noted the irony of the moment. Earlier that same day the disciples had failed to cast out a demon and had to come to Jesus for help. Jesus could have said, “John, I like the way that guy is doing it better than the way you’re not doing it!” How often we criticize those who are doing the work of Christ while our own efforts are fruitless!
But Jesus patiently corrected him. “‘Do not stop him,’ Jesus said. ‘No one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, for whoever is not against us is for us. I tell you the truth, anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name because you belong to Christ will certainly not lose his reward’” (Mark 9:39-41).
That man—the anonymous miracle worker—wasn’t a part of the right fellowship. He may not have done the exorcism exactly as the disciples would have. And it is accurate to say that he didn’t know as much truth as the disciples because he hadn’t been privy to their private conversations with the Master. But he had concluded that Jesus was sent by God, and that Jesus was in a cosmic struggle against Satan. And he took his stand with Jesus against evil in the world.
We don’t know how the man became a follower of Christ, but his success proves that his use of the name of Jesus was an expression of faith and not just the invoking of some formula. Later when the sons of Sceva tried to use Jesus’ name as a magical prescription to cast out a demon, the demon-possessed man beat them up (Acts 19:13-16). So this man in Mark 9 was a sincere believer, and the fruit of his work proved it.
The disciples wanted to stop him, not because he was a follower of Christ, but because he was not “one of them.” Jesus attempted to change their perspective: “He who is not against us is for us.” In essence, Jesus was saying, “You guys need to realize you’re not the only ones in my camp.” This teaching has long been central to the identity of Christian churches and churches of Christ.
Both fellowships affirm that we are not the only Christians
The founders of our movement did not consider themselves to be the only Christians.
Thomas Campbell’s famous Declaration and Address begins with this salutation: “To all that love our Lord Jesus Christ in sincerity, throughout all the Churches.” Campbell then refers to them as “Dearly Beloved Brethren.” At the time there were no “independent Christian churches” or “a cappella churches of Christ,” yet Campbell addressed those in the denominational world as his brothers.
His son Alexander Campbell wrote that if there were no Christians in other groups, then “for many centuries there has been no church of Christ, no Christians in the world; and the promises concerning the everlasting kingdom of the Messiah have failed, and the gates of hell have prevailed against his church!” He concluded, “This cannot be; and therefore, there are Christians among the sects.”1
We don’t intend to belittle the importance of our disagreements. People passionately defend the things they hold most dear. The world doesn’t understand why Christians disagree with one another so strongly at times, but it is because they don’t value the things we value. Doctrinal purity should be important to followers of Christ. Jesus prayed that we would be united, but he also prayed, “sanctify them by the truth—your Word is truth.” It is the truth of God’s Word that should unite us.
But a man does not have to be my twin to be my brother. In our disagreements, we should be as siblings who love each other and not as enemies who are out to destroy one another. Accepting someone as a brother does not endorse everything he says or does. It’s time we admit that grace had better cover errors in belief as well as practice, or we are all in trouble.
Let’s return to Thomas Campbell’s simple designation and call those who “love the Lord Jesus Christ in sincerity” our brothers. We will argue just as passionately for our beliefs, and we will seek to unite the churches on the truths of God’s Word. But if a group claims to be in submission to the Lord Jesus and sincerely seeks to follow his Word, then let’s call them brothers and sisters. Let’s do so in the hope and trust that God’s grace is sufficient not only to cover a multitude of sins but a multitude of doctrinal errors as well. In other words, let’s extend to them the same grace we know we need!
As with the anonymous miracle worker of Mark 9, we should ask, “Are the works of the devil being overcome? Is it being done in Jesus’ name, seeking his glory?” If so, then those deeds, and the doers of them, deserve our affirmation, not our opposition. “We are not the only Christians” has been our plea since the beginning, and claiming so has not demanded that we sacrifice our devotion to truth—only our temptation to pride.
Both groups agree that we should be Christians only
Though we agree there are Christians in other groups, our two fellowships still long for the day when believers will put aside their denominational distinctions and be known simply as “Christians.”
We are grieved that so many believers in Christ tout their denominational name—”I’m Baptist, I’m Nazarene,” rather than being simply “Christian.” The Bible warns, “One of you says, ‘I follow Paul’; another, ‘I follow Apollos’; another, ‘I follow Cephas’; still another, ‘I follow Christ.’ Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized into the name of Paul?” (1 Corinthians 1:12, 13).
Paul points out that some of those causing division were saying, “I follow Christ.” They were calling themselves Christians only, but were proudly distinguishing themselves from “those denominators.”
We have likewise been guilty of hypocritically looking down our noses at our denominational brothers and sisters while proudly maintaining our distinctiveness. We often feel the need to clarify how we are different from other Christians, admitting in the process that we are not truly “Christians only.” “Our church is a member of the ‘Independent Christian Churches and Churches of Christ,’” we will say. Or, “We’re part of the a cappella churches,” or “We’re affiliated with this or that convention.” In our worst moments of shameful arrogance, we have even referred to ourselves as “the true church.”
Our human nature and pride drive us to distinguish ourselves from others and join with those who are “like minded.” But the battle is too great! And the call—the plea—is too clear: We must unite with all believers for the sake of Christ and his gospel.
That means calling ourselves Christians only, even if we cannot easily distinguish ourselves from one another or other groups of Christians. After all, Jesus’ charge was not for his followers to argue about how distinct they are from one another, but to live distinct from the lost with the goal of leading them to the distinct message of the cross.
Such an understanding was once the foundation of our movement, going back to the days of Alexander Campbell and Barton Stone. When the movements led by those two great leaders merged in 1832, it was not because they saw everything alike on all points of Christian doctrine and practice. They disagreed about names, with Campbell’s followers preferring “disciples,” and Stone’s using “Christians.” They differed on frequency of the Lord’s Supper. The “disciples” practiced weekly Communion, while the “Christians” observed Communion less often. They differed on views of the Holy Spirit, which Stone taught played a much larger role in conversion than Campbell did. There was even a strong divergence of opinion on the rite of baptism. While both groups practiced baptism by immersion, most in the Stone movement did not insist it was essential for the remission of sins, while the Campbell movement did.
Despite these differences, though, Campbell and Stone held each other in high esteem, always attributing to the other the best of motives for the views they held. They shared sincere fellowship with one another, along with a passion for God’s Word and a hatred for division. They did not consider their disagreements unimportant or unworthy of further study and continued dialogue. What they considered more important, however, was the unity of the body of Christ. They recognized that their particular movements did not solely comprise Jesus’ camp. They were content to be Christians only, but not the only Christians.
We celebrate the revival of such a spirit among our churches today. In fact, we see many similarities between the days when our movement was birthed and today. More and more we notice followers of Jesus growing weary of labels, weary of division, and eager to focus on the battles that really matter. We rejoice that many of the denominational walls that so strongly divided Christians at the beginning of our movement show signs of crumbling, thanks in part to the strong opposition we face in today’s world.
Soldiers in the barracks can afford to bicker and fight over card games. But an army on the front lines must stand united against the common foe. Nothing unifies soldiers like a life-threatening enemy. Christians today face such bitter opposition in the world that they are much more likely to forget their denominational baggage and cling to their fellow believers regardless of background. We celebrate this modern-day “restoration” movement that is bringing Christians together in the name of Christ, and we glory in how God has used all things for his good. We call on all believers in our Lord Jesus to set aside petty differences, remove the names that divide us, and call themselves “Christians” only.
A knight appeared before his king and said, “Sire, I have just returned from pillaging and plundering all of your enemies to the east!”
The king said, “But I don’t have any enemies to the east.”
The knight replied, “You do now!”
Too often we have fought unnecessary battles and made enemies out of peaceful neighbors. It is time we return to practicing our plea. Let’s agree that we are not the only Christians, but Christians only.
1 Alexander Campbell, Millennial Harbinger, September 1837.
Rick Atchley is senior minister with Richland Hills Church of Christ in Fort Worth, Texas. Bob Russell has just retired after 40 years as senior minister with Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, Kentucky.
To order a copy of Together Again, CLICK HERE.