By Sam E. Stone
“At this meeting I’ve found that I have about a million brothers and sisters I didn’t even know about!” That was one person’s reaction after attending his first Restoration Forum.
Those in churches of Christ share essentially the same faith and practice with those in the Christian churches/churches of Christ, with one obvious difference. Most of them do not worship with instrumental music accompaniment. The churches of Christ have been listed separately in the U.S. Census since 1906, although both groups trace their roots back to the same Restoration Movement of the 1800s.
The a cappella churches of Christ resisted instrumental music, feeling it is an unauthorized change from the practice of the early church. Many felt that if a congregation used a musical instrument, the members could not even be considered Christians. On the other hand, those who worship with instrumental music viewed this as a matter of opinion that should be left to each congregation to decide. They have considered those in the a cappella churches as their brothers and sisters. For too many years, however, each group moved along with little recognition or understanding of the other.
But things have changed.
Today many in both fellowships are becoming better acquainted with each other. In the past there had been overtures (no pun intended!) and unity discussions from time to time, but little had been accomplished since the break in 1906.
A Unique Effort
A significant series of meetings began in 1984, however. Two a cappella church of Christ preachers—Alan Cloyd and Dennis Randall—contacted Don DeWelt, professor and publisher in Joplin, Missouri. Soon he and Ken Idleman, president of Ozark Christian College, met with them. From their conversation, plans developed for a “Restoration Summit.” Fifty leaders from each fellowship were invited to meet in Joplin on the Ozark campus for three days of study, prayer, and discussion. This began what later was called the “Restoration Forum.” A total of 25 meetings were held, the final one last September.*
Before attending that first gathering, many leaders of the a cappella churches of Christ were only names to me. One was Reuel Lemmons, editor of Firm Foundation. His message was the highlight of the meeting. This 82-year-old man had just completed an overnight flight from Paris.
He said things like, “In our zeal for our cause, we have sometimes forgotten our Christ. . . . We have maintained the unity of basic faith, but on the side issues we have been no more successful than our denominational neighbors. . . . Scripture does not teach all the opposing views that opposing brethren hold. . . . After the grave we will leave every one of our divisions here, along with every other sinful thing. . . . I don’t care if you like me or agree with me, but I do care if you leave me. . . . We will always differ on some things, but we can still be united.”
I sat there saying, “Amen . . . Amen . . . Amen!”
He encouraged those “from both sides of the keyboard” to have a better attitude. That spirit marked the forums that followed. Dr. Leroy Garrett, church of Christ historian, observed, “The Restoration Forum, thanks to its quarter of a century of providing a venue for open and free discussion, will take a noble place in our ongoing history of reformation.”
A Strong Impact
After the initial session in 1984, an open invitation was offered to any who wished to come to future gatherings. Thousands of different people have attended. The crowd size has varied, depending on where each year’s forum was held. The best-attended, church-hosted forum was in 2002 when about 900 attended Restoration Forum XX in Lubbock, Texas. About 1,100 people (including OCC students) from 30 states attended the final forum at Ozark Christian College in Joplin, September 4-6, 2007. (See news report, Christian Standard, October 21, 2007.)
An ad hoc committee planned the meetings. Victor Knowles has been a key leader over the years, encouraging it through the magazine he has edited since its beginning in 1984, One Body. The planning team for the Restoration Forums has included equal representation from both fellowships.
While those from Christian churches met little opposition because of their participation in these meetings, some brothers from the churches of Christ found themselves “written up” in various brotherhood journals. Many were ostracized by their more legalistic brethren for daring to associate with folk from the Christian churches. Some even lost their jobs.
The recent Restoration Forum in Joplin concluded this series of meetings. The planners felt that the Restoration Forum, in its present format, had achieved the objectives set out in 1984 (getting interested members from churches of Christ and Christian churches together for discussion, study, prayer, and fellowship). As Victor Knowles put it, “In recent years we have seen the two fellowships of churches move from conversation to cooperation.”
Dr. Jim North, professor of history at Cincinnati Christian University, observed,
The Forums have been very significant in breaking down walls. People have spent time together—they have worshiped together, eaten together, prayed together, sung together, even argued together! Recognition of names has led to nodding acquaintances, which in turn have led to strong friendships. Friendships have crossed lines of division and have led to open hearts and open arms. Today there are many good relationships between the two fellowships; I do not think this would have happened without the beneficial influence of the Forums.
Many other unity discussions and projects have sprung up here and there on the local level. Brothers and sisters from both fellowships have joined to learn from one another, listen to each other, and together plant churches, send missionaries, and serve those in need.
While this gathering alone is not responsible for the present climate of increased openness, fellowship, and trust between the two groups, no one can deny that it has played a key role in the process.
A Personal Testimony
The importance of seeking to maintain the unity of the Spirit became real to me more than 40 years ago. Our family was returning to Cincinnati from a vacation trip, driving through Illinois in a rainstorm.
Suddenly the car coming toward me started going sideways in the road. I slammed on my brakes, but couldn’t stop. In the collision one person in the other car was killed. My wife was most seriously injured in ours. She had a skull fracture and was taken to the intensive care unit at a Bloomington hospital. My boys escaped injury, and a nurse from the ER took them home with her until my brother-in-law could come from Chicago to get them.
In the impact, my glasses were shattered. The doctors removed 21 pieces of glass, put medicine in my eyes, and bandaged them.
There I was many miles from home, my boys with someone I didn’t know, and my wife fighting for her life in ICU. The first person to visit me took my hand and said, “Brother Stone?”
I said, “Yes.” He introduced himself as an elder in the church of Christ there. The TV news report of our accident mentioned I ministered with the Western Hills Church of Christ in Cincinnati. He wanted to see if they could help.
I explained that the church where I served was one of the churches of Christ that did use instrumental music. He said, “I thought that might be—but that doesn’t matter. We just want to help a brother in Christ.”
And help us they did! Their elders brought Communion; their church sent flowers; they kept our relatives in their home; I stayed with them part of the time after being released until Gwen was able to travel. It reminded me that we are all a part of one family—God’s family. That is what the Restoration Forums have done.
Dr. Doug Foster, Abilene Christian University historian, summed it up well:
The Restoration Forums represent the longest-running effort at Christian unity in the history of the Stone-Campbell churches, and arguably the most effective. God has worked the Forums over the last two decades to bring Christians from the divided streams of the movement together in love. God will continue his work of reconciliation through the lives of people whose hearts are turned toward him—like those who gave themselves to the work of the Restoration Forums.
*For a list of dates and locations, along with messages from many of the Forums, go to the Web site, www.poeministries.org.
A native of New Mexico, Sam E. Stone graduated from high school in Albuquerque, and attended Ozark Bible College (now Ozark Christian College) where he received his BA degree. Later he received the MDiv from Cincinnati Bible Seminary (now Cincinnati Christian University). He has received honorary doctorates from Kentucky Christian University and Milligan College.
After 19 years in the preaching ministry (serving in Missouri and Ohio), he became dean of Cincinnati Bible Seminary. Then on January 1, 1978, he was named editor of CHRISTIAN STANDARD magazine, a position he held for 25 years. Over the years he has written six books. His most recent, Simply Christians, was published by College Press and is now in its second edition. He continues to write “This Week With the Word,” the weekly Sunday School lesson column for The Lookout.
A former president of the North American Christian Convention, he serves on the board of Good News Productions, International and Christian Arabic Services.
He and his wife, Gwen, will have been married 50 years in June. They have two sons, both in the Christian ministry, and six grandchildren. Jeff and Johnnie minister with Discover Christian Church, Dublin, Ohio. Dave and Beth serve with Southeast Christian Church, Louisville, Kentucky.