By Kent Williams
I have spent my entire life in the Christian church. I graduated from a Christian church college, as did my wife. Both of my sons attended that same college. I ministered for 25 years in Christian churches. In my family and my wife’s family there are ministers and missionaries serving in Christian churches. I have led revivals, spoken at conventions, served on boards, and written articles almost exclusively with organizations associated with Christian churches. Almost all of my friends in ministry serve Christian churches.
But a couple of years ago I left the Christian church. I was not angry or bitter, and I didn’t burn any bridges. Many of my Bible college classmates have severed all ties with the Restoration Movement, but that was never my intent. In fact, it has never been my intent to leave the “Christian church” at all!
Living the Principles
In the spring of 2004, God called me to serve as senior pastor with Christian Fellowship Church in the Greater Washington, D.C., area. It is the largest church in the fastest-growing county in America. Since its founding more than 29 years ago, it has been an independent, nondenominational church.
Though few of the founding and current members of Christian Fellowship Church have heard of the Restoration Movement, the church is actually living out the principles that once made it the most rapidly growing movement in the nation. The church has united around the person of Jesus and the essential teachings of the Word. It has allowed liberty about the nonessential teachings, and has, above all, maintained a spirit of love and grace. This has resulted in an international, interracial, intergenerational, and interdenominational fellowship where Christ is glorified and lives are transformed.
Both Bob Russell, retired senior minister of Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, and Ken Idleman, former president of Ozark Christian College in Joplin, Missouri, have preached in our weekend services. Both were warmly received. Neither they nor members of our church who have transferred here from other Christian churches and churches of Christ have noticed any discernable difference between Christian Fellowship Church and churches of the Restoration Movement.
Actually, I believe that Christian Fellowship is exactly what the founders of the Restoration Movement envisioned. In his Declaration and Address, Thomas Campbell refers “to all that love our Lord, Jesus Christ, throughout the churches.”1 Time and time again he refers to “our brethren in all the denominations,” and at least once he refers to them as “our dear brethren in all the denominations.” In that document he proposes that the true church transcends any denomination and that “the church of Christ upon earth is essentially, intentionally, and constitutionally one.”
He spoke very clearly against a judgmental and legalistic spirit that tears at the heart of unity when he wrote, “We are also persuaded that as no man can be judged by his brother, so no man can judge his brother: but that every man must be allowed to judge for himself as every man must bear his own judgment;—must give account of himself to God.”
He wrote plainly against a sectarian spirit or exclusive attitude that destroys the witness of a church and keeps it from fulfilling its God-given calling, “What awful and distressing effects have those sad divisions produced! What aversions, what reproaches, what back-bitings, what evil surmisings, what angry contentions, what enmities, what excommunications, and even persecutions!!! . . . Have we not seen congregations broken to pieces, neighbourhoods of professing christians first thrown into confusion by party contentions, and, in the end, entirely deprived of gospel ordinances: while, in the mean time, large settlements, and tracts of country, remain to this day entirely destitute of a gospel ministry.”
Drawing Bigger Circles
When I was in Bible college I read an article describing a man who kept drawing the circles of who he considered to be “true brethren” smaller and smaller until, by the end, it was only “me and myself” in the circle. Those early Restoration fathers, on the other hand, drew their circles larger and larger until their teachings had spawned a unity movement that encompassed the globe.
Perhaps the true spirit of those spiritual pioneers is still at work. Perhaps God will open our eyes to see other believers in a new light. Perhaps growing churches that God is blessing are drawing bigger circles. Perhaps some will see that the Christian church as they envisioned it is much larger than they imagined. Perhaps this is what God revealed to John the apostle when he “looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb” (Revelation 7:9).
As the end draws near, the church must draw together. In peacetime, soldiers often engage in a healthy rivalry between forces, but in wartime they must pull together or die. It seems apparent that in this current uncivil war against biblical morality and absolute truth we need each other more than ever and we cannot afford to remain divided over trivial issues or semantics.
May each of us strive to fulfill the prayer of Thomas Campbell: “Oh! That ministers and people would but consider, that there are no divisions in the grave; nor in that world which lies beyond it: there our divisions must come to an end! we must all unite there!—Would to God, we could find in our hearts to put an end to our short lived divisions here; that so we might leave a blessing behind us; even a happy and united church.”
And, if you’re ever in the Washington, D.C., area come by and see that I didn’t leave the Christian church at all but that the Christian church just got larger!
1The Declaration and Address can be viewed at: www.mun.ca/rels/restmov/texts/tcampbell/da/DA-1ST.HTM.
Kent Williams ministers with Christian Fellowship Church in Washington, D.C.