A Document for Today

 

by Joni Sullivan Baker

A lot can happen in 200 years.

That’s plenty of time for a family to launch, prosper, and stretch out around the world.

But it’s also plenty of time for punches to be thrown, hearts to break, and feuds to start and then to fester through many generations. And although most are too polite to say it, those outside the family puzzle or scoff at cousins who share the same name and same family mottoes but still can’t figure out a way to get along.

It’s especially strange when a lot of those mottoes are about unity. It’s hard for people to get excited about how the family values unity when the family itself seems to ignore the unity mottoes, or adds a lot of conditions onto their individual definition of the word. After all, no one said you had to agree about everything to sit at the same table at a feast, whether it’s at Thanksgiving . . . or Communion.

By now you’ve recognized the family being described. It’s probably yours.

And after 200 years, the cousins are starting to figure out how to work together in some important areas they agree upon.

Which brings us to a document called the Declaration and Address. This year is the 200th anniversary of the publication of this seminal document credited with helping to start it all. You may have never heard of the Declaration and Address, but even if you have, chances are you’ve never read it. And if you are totally honest, you might be wondering what all the fuss is about over a 200-year-old document no one at your church has ever heard of or read.

But this year we’re discovering and celebrating it, with lots of opportunities to talk about it and our unity, as well as plans to sit at the same table . . . the Lord’s table.

One such opportunity to talk about the document and whether it speaks to Christians today occurred last spring at a symposium held during the Stone-Campbell Journal Conference hosted by Cincinnati (Ohio) Christian University.

This article is a report on that discussion.


 

 

 

“Two hundred years ago, Thomas Campbell wrote a document that became one of the foundational documents of what we today call the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement,” Doug Foster said as he welcomed the audience.

“It was a call for Christian unity. People have talked about this being an inspiration, and yet despite that deeply imbedded call for Christian unity, we too often have not reflected the attitudes imbedded in this document.”

With those words, Foster, a church history professor and director of the Center for Restoration Studies at Abilene (Texas) Christian University, introduced and moderated “Celebrating 200 Years: A Symposium on Thomas Campbell’s Declaration and Address.”

The symposium was one of a number of events being held across the country this year to celebrate the bicentennial of the publishing of Thomas Campbell’s Declaration and Address, culminating with the Great Communion services October 4.

Although Campbell’s Declaration and Address didn’t make too big a stir when published, it later became recognized as the defining document of what remains today a vibrant, growing Christian movement with approximately 3 million members in the United States across three branches—the independent Christian churches, the churches of Christ (sometimes referred to as a cappella churches), and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Worldwide, there are an estimated 10 million members in 180 countries, according to material posted at www.greatcommunion.org.

In addition to events, a diverse group representing all three streams of this movement produced a book called One Church (Leafwood Press,2008; www.leafwoodpublishers.com) to celebrate and interact with this important 200-year-old document. The symposium at the SCJ Conference featured panelists drawn from the editors and contributors to One Church.

Foster and Clint Holloway, staff member with the World Convention, edited One Church, along with Glenn Thomas Carson, president of the Disciples of Christ Historical Society in Nashville, Tennessee.

Foster and Holloway started the symposium by explaining some historical highlights of the Declaration and Address for the church today, and then two other participants provided contemporary reflections on the Declaration and Address.

 

Seeking Unity

 

Holloway provided a brief history and context. He recapped the story of Thomas Campbell immigrating to the United States, only to find the same sectarian divisiveness he thought he left behind in Ireland. Soon in hot water again for his views and practices on unity, he separated painfully from the Presbyterians.

As he and others with whom he was involved formed a new organization that sought unity among all churches, he was asked to write a purpose statement for the new effort. He called it the Declaration and Address of the Christian Association of Washington. (Washington is a city in southwest Pennsylvania.) The gist of the document is found in 13 propositions that deplore the divisions in the body of Christ and outline how that was to be eradicated. The first proposition contains the majestic descriptive phrase, “that the church of Christ upon earth is essentially, intentionally and constitutionally one.”

But a short time later, when that reform organization met with opposition to its message of unity, the group retreated and reorganized as a congregation. Brush Run Church thus became the first church in what developed as the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement.

“Surely this was a disappointment to Thomas Campbell,” Holloway said, “but it cannot be counted as a total failure, since it did succeed in attracting the interest and energy of one man: Alexander Campbell.

“It would be in the son that Thomas Campbell’s opus would have its most profound impact,” Holloway said. “The Declaration and Address would be the genesis for a life’s work to which he devoted his time, considerable energy, and vast mental resources.”

 

A Contemporary Version

One of the highlights of this year’s focus on the Declaration and Address is the contribution Foster made by developing a contemporary restatement of the 13 Propositions, aimed at communicating in contemporary language the passion Thomas Campbell had for unity.

In his comments on this project, Foster explained that this new version is not simply updated language, but more accurately a “dynamic equivalent” translation of the significance of Campbell’s words to the current day. He explained that Campbell was a man of his times, reflecting a worldview of the American frontier in 1809, and his viewpoints and language sometimes obscured the impact of his words.

The contemporary restated version is included in the book One Church, is posted on the www.greatcommunion.org Web site, and is also printed on leaflets available from Leafwood Press (www.leafwoodpublishers.com).

 

A Message for the World

Two other contributing authors evaluated the message of the Declaration and Address in light of their own ministry experience.

Daniel Rodriguez, associate professor of religion and Hispanic studies at Pepperdine University and, as he put it, “a recovering missionary,” admitted where he started when asked to contribute to One Church.

“I was honored to be asked to contribute,” Rodriguez said, “but I had to confess I’d never read this document, so how could I reflect on it? It was an honor but also an incredible surprise to find out how refreshingly relevant this document turned out to be.”

Rodriguez sees Thomas Campbell through a missionary’s eyes, reflecting that in Pennsylvania in 1809, Campbell was on the western frontier. In this context, people were going by on their way to the new world, places like Ohio and Indiana, and then beyond.

“And I asked myself, what are we taking to the new world? Are we exporting the same division as in Ireland and that he found in the U.S.? It’s the same division we have grown up with our whole lives.

“As a missionary in Mexico, it was so heartbreaking to see some of the churches that we became familiar with. We had exported our same problems. You could see all the groups in Mexico, working separately, church of Christ, the Disciples, the Baptists, the Methodists.

“Friends in Africa said the same thing. My sons are in China now as missionaries and they say the same things.

“Not only are we exporting the men and women who love the Lord and are trying to share what they understand is simple New Testament Christianity,” Rod-riguez continued, “but we are also exporting our divisive DNA, and that’s sad.

“Thomas Campbell said over and over, and I appreciated so much this oft repeated phrase, ‘It’s time,’ he said, ‘it’s time to associate, to consult, and to advise together in a friendly and Christian manner exploring the subject of unity.’

“That’s the kind of message we need to take to China, Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia where young missionaries are preparing to go,” he concluded. “Let’s not encourage them to take with them our divisive attitudes. Let’s send them instead with what Thomas Campbell called simple evangelical Christianity and humility.”

 

Influenced by Culture

Veteran church planter Rick Grover, senior minister with Owensboro (Kentucky) Christian Church, then discussed the emerging church and the unity plea.

Grover led a church planting team as lead pastor of Journey Christian Church in the New Orleans area that was identified by Relevant magazine as a leading emerging church. The Owensboro church where Grover now ministers is still involved with church planting in the New Orleans area.

Grover looked at similarities and differences between Thomas Campbell’s views in the Declaration and Address and the emerging church, seeing parallels between Campbell’s place in his day and today’s emerging church leaders: all of them have been considered radicals within the church who go against the grain. Yet both Campbell and the emerging church leaders are people of their time. They are not outside their culture, but are part of it and influenced by it.

“And a third similarity,” Grover said, “is that in Campbell’s time there was also this great frontier mentality. Thomas Campbell was very much a part of that. And I believe that’s the same with the emerging church—it’s focused on moving forward.

“One of the things I see in this document is that Campbell was very much focused on the whole process, that this document wasn’t completely fleshed out, but was a conversation starter, a way to engage in dialogue. That idea resonates with the emerging church leaders, who talk about ‘the conversation’ as they explore how to live out the embodiment of Christ in our culture.”

On the other side, there are also some areas of critique that the Declaration and Address can speak to regarding the emerging church.

“One critique of the emerging church movement is that it’s such a fluid movement—such a dynamic, not static movement—it’s difficult to have any sense of boundaries. In fact, they define themselves as more center-positioned than boundary-positioned.

“Within the emerging church movement there is a resistance and this radical focus that we don’t want to hold onto anything. But when we come to the Declaration and Address, we see Thomas Campbell is very committed to the standard of God’s Word and scriptural study.

“There needs to be a critique of the emerging church movement, and it can be done beautifully through the Declaration and Address,” Grover concluded.

________

The symposium at the SCJ Conference was sponsored by ACU Press, Disciples Historical Society, and the Center for Restoration Studies at Abilene Christian University.

Selected audio files from the 2009 SCJ Conference are available at www.stone-campbelljournal.com.


 

 

Joni Sullivan Baker is the managing director of Buoyancy Public Relations in Loveland, Ohio.

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