What About Christian Churches?

We asked former contributing editor Robert Wetzel to get answers from scholars to a question we have considered in several different ways in recent months: What is the future of our movement of churches?

By C. Robert Wetzel

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Newell Williams (top left), Doug Foster (left), and Paul Blowers (above) collaborated with the late Tony Dunnavant to produce The Encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movement a few years ago. These three men agreed to answer questions about the Stone-Campbell Movement’s past, present, and future for this issue of CHRISTIAN STANDARD.

The future always grows out of the past, of course, so this week we decided to put the question before three historians:

Paul Blowers, Dean E. Walker professor of church history at Emmanuel Christian Seminary, Johnson City, Tennessee.

Doug Foster, professor of church history; director, Center for Restoration Studies, Abilene Christian University, Abilene, Texas.

Newell Williams, president and professor of modern & American church history at Brite Divinity School at Texas Christian University, Forth Worth, Texas.

These three collaborated to produce The Encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movement (Eerdmans, 2004), another experience that gives them a unique viewpoint on where we came from and where we’re going.

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You three historians have your roots in the three streams of our movement. You seem to have developed a rich and productive friendship through your cooperative publications. The Encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movement has emerged as one of the most significant publications in the history of our movement. What came first, your friendship or the challenge to produce the Encyclopedia?

Foster: Tony Dunnavant (the original Disciple editor for the proposed Encyclopedia) and I knew each other from Vanderbilt [University] days and had kept in touch about various projects. Tony knew Paul from other Stone-Campbell events, and we agreed we should have a general editor from each of the North American streams, so we asked him to join us in the project. We soon became fast friends. When Tony died, Paul and I agreed that Newell was the person we wanted to join us as Disciples editor. The process of producing the Encyclopedia, with all its ups and downs, forged among us a powerful relationship of friendship, scholarship, and most importantly, Christian fellowship, that can never be broken.

Blowers: Our friendship goes back over a decade. Tony Dunnavant and Doug Foster invited me to participate in the Encyclopedia project in the early 1990s. When Tony died in 2001, Newell came aboard as the Disciples general editor. I already knew Doug, and I knew Newell slightly. Doug and I became fast friends the instant we began working together on the project, and my friendship with Newell deepened as we all three got together to do our editorial work.

Williams: For me it was the challenge to produce the Encyclopedia that produced the friendship. I had met Paul, but did not know him well, and had never worked with him on a project. Doug was a contributor to a volume I had edited some years earlier. I got to really know and deeply appreciate both Doug and Paul in our work together on the Encyclopedia.

You chose to use the name “The Stone-Campbell Movement.” Over the years other names have been used such as “The Restoration Movement,” “The Reformation of the 19th Century,” “Disciples,” etc. How did you come to prefer the designation Stone-Campbell Movement?

Williams: All of the other terms presented problems we wanted to avoid. “The Reformation of the 19th Century” could be heard as suggesting that, for us, the reforming of Christ’s church was over. When Alexander Campbell used this term he was pointing to the contemporary or ongoing work of reformation. We did not want to lose reference to that dynamic quality we believe has been a characteristic of this movement. “Restoration Movement” and “Disciples of Christ,” though both excellent names, had become “party” names within the movement. The term “Stone-Campbell Movement,” advocated in the 1980s by churches of Christ scholar Leroy Garrett, was an intentionally peace-seeking term that recognized the key roles of two leaders recognized by all streams of the movement and did not privilege or reject any of the three North American streams.

Foster: While we knew some interpreted the choice of terms as a rejection of the ideal of restoration, it was definitely not that. As a scholarly designation, “restoration movement” has been used by a number of groups through the years, including conservative Catholics, Mormons, and Universalists. As with any label, it has its strength and weaknesses, but it was intended to be a precise historical description.

Blowers: The name “Stone-Campbell Movement” is in many respects a corrective to the fact that sometimes the movement was called the “Campbell-Stone Movement,” though Barton Stone’s work was well underway before the Campbells arrived on the scene. “Restoration Movement” has the liability of the fact that there have been many streams of restorationism historically, some of which deviated into the “only true church” kind of mentality and burned ecclesial bridges in trying to connect with the primitive church.

In your opinion, what are the most significant ideals and insights of the Stone-Campbell Movement? And what do you see as the most positive achievements of the movement over the past 200 years in realizing these ideals?

Williams: Stone-Campbell Christians have understood that Christian unity is the gift of the Holy Spirit through faith in Jesus Christ. It cannot be achieved through human creeds and confessions or uniformity of practice. Hence, the most positive achievements of the movement have been in those moments when we have allowed the Holy Spirit to unite us in work and witness with each other and other Christians.

Foster: As with all reform movements throughout the history of Christianity, ours has focused on specific matters of belief and practice our early leaders believed had been neglected or misunderstood. In America, we reflected the optimistic attitude that here in this God-prepared land we could accomplish whatever was needed to restore the church to its intended ideal. This included a powerful emphasis on recognizing the unity of Christ’s church—not creating it, God had done that (“There is one body,” Ephesians 4:4)—but realizing it and acting like it so that the world might believe that Jesus really was who he said he was (John 17).

Blowers: The greatest single ideal of the movement is the one that its early leaders absolutely held in common: the ideal of Christian unity being, not an end in itself, but a means to the ultimate end of the reconciliation of human beings to God and to one another in Jesus Christ. Another strength is the consistent attention to the apostolic authority of Scripture, but our own history has made us more realistic about what it means to “restore” that authority. Furthermore, we have had a marvelous track record in Christian world mission if you look at our overall history.

What problems do you see with the ideals and expectations of the early leaders of the movement? Are these continuing problems?

Foster: As is always the case—whether with individuals, congregations, or movements—one’s greatest strengths also become one’s areas of greatest temptation. Too often in our striving to embrace the unity of Christ’s church, even despite the best intentions of the founding leaders, many of us concluded we had fully recovered the true church in doctrine and practice. Those, therefore, who disagree with our understandings must be outside the true church and therefore cannot be counted as Christians. The temptation to accept this idea was, and is, powerful when we have seen Scripture as primarily and essentially a book of data that we master intellectually. If we have mastered it, then all must come to the same conclusions as we have. I think Barton Stone and Alexander Campbell both (as well as many others through the past two centuries) have seen the Scriptures not primarily as data that we master, but as a place where we encounter God’s Spirit that masters us.

Blowers: Looking at the early leaders of the movement, we have to be generous in allowing them to be persons of their own time and context. We shouldn’t hold them accountable to all of our perspectives. I would say that a strength—but also a liability—was their attachment to the culture of the Enlightenment and their passion for commonsense philosophy. Their sense that the Bible held forth “self-evident” truths about faith and practice, even in the optimistic times in which they lived, was still naïve. The idea that Scripture has a kind of internal logic, that it “plainly” conducts all “reasonable” persons from point A to point B, from evidence to undeniable verdicts about its truth, does not do justice to the magnificent complexity of the biblical revelation.

Williams: While both Barton Stone and Alexander Campbell were convinced that doctrinal uniformity was impossible for human beings—and surely was not the means of Christian unity—Campbell was more confident than Stone that agreement could and should be achieved on New Testament or apostolic practices. As a consequence, Campbell was convinced that any sincere Christian of reasonable intelligence would conclude from a careful reading of the New Testament that apostolic baptism was immersion upon a confession of faith for the assurance of the remission of sins. While Stone himself shared Campbell’s view of baptism, he believed that differences in the background and experience of sincere Christians led them to different conclusions on this matter. As a consequence of this difference, Campbell restricted church membership to immersed believers, while Stone preferred welcoming to church membership all who believed that they had received Christian baptism—even if that baptism had been an infant sprinkling. I believe that the predominance of Campbell’s view regarding practices has often stood in the way of Christian unity.

It is generally agreed that Alexander Campbell’s approach to theology was influenced by his confidence in the Enlightenment ideals of human reason and rational discourse. Hence he appealed to the “reasonableness of Christianity” both in evangelism and in the plea for Christians to return to “simple New Testament Christianity.” How is this plea to reason reconciled with the emotional fervor that has always characterized so much of our evangelistic witness?

Foster: I’m not sure it has been reconciled. My own experience has been that Campbell’s rational emphasis (but he also had a deep emotional spirituality as well!) has dominated. The churches and institutions with which I have been associated have been very uncomfortable with, and even opposed to, emotional fervor as inherently irrational and likely to lead people into error and false teaching. In my opinion, though Barton Stone and Alexander Campbell each had a primary emphasis (Stone, more emotive; Campbell, more rational), each balanced the two in their spiritual lives.

Williams: I believe Alexander Campbell’s appreciation for human reason has often been caricatured. Campbell never rejected the role of heart or will—what is sometimes called the affections. Rather, he saw the vital connection between what can be called heart and mind. For Campbell—as for Barton Stone—what we believe directly impacts how we feel. So, it was not a surprise for Barton Stone or Alexander Campbell that persons who believed that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, their Lord and Savior, would profess that faith with emotional fervor.

Blowers: According to some early sources, the “rational” appeal and discourse that characterized much of the preaching in the early movement could itself bring people to tears. Walter Scott’s preaching was very much of this type (neat, clean outlines, etc.), but he obviously moved many a heart to repentance. I wouldn’t say that emotionalism has been a major feature of preaching in our tradition, although it too was greatly affected by revivalistic preaching, probably more in the 20th century than in the 19th. Today the most striking contrast is that between the older rational appeal-type preaching and the newer “narrative” preaching form, as exemplified brilliantly in the sermons of Fred Craddock.

If we look at the three ages of a movement as being its youth, its middle age, or its old age, where do you see the Stone-Campbell Movement today? How so?

Blowers: Middle age, I suppose. The movement has greatly diversified and institutionalized in its 200 years, but in the broader landscape of church history, it is still very young indeed. But there are some signs of “midlife crisis,” to the extent that we have endured a number of internal fractures, generational shifts (and gaps) of leadership, and the challenges of adaptation to the paradigm shifts in modern and postmodern culture.

Williams: Middle age, I think: early middle age. We are mature enough to recognize some of the mistakes we made in our impetuous youth, but not so old as to be unable to change some of our behaviors which we now see as less than helpful.

Foster: Parts are definitely in old age. But the encouraging thing to me is that there are children and grandchildren who have been nurtured by their parents in the faith and who are now forging ahead with some of the same kinds of ideals seen in the birth of the Stone-Campbell Movement. Some among us are disturbed that what those young ones are doing often doesn’t look or sound a lot like what we assume is the norm. In many ways that is exactly what our founding leaders were doing.

What strengths characterize each of the three streams of the Stone-Campbell Movement? How can these three streams bless each other with the best of what each has achieved?

Williams: To different degrees and through different expressions, I see in the contemporary North American streams a deepening commitment to the reconciling and transforming power of faith in Jesus Christ and an expanding embrace of the diversity of God’s human family.

Blowers: For churches of Christ, the greatest strength is, I think, a relatively high level of biblical literacy in local congregations, and the continuing commitment to keep the New Testament front and center as the rule (and “study guide”) of faith and practice. They also have a marvelous track record in missions and higher education (especially Christian liberal arts education). For the Christian church (Disciples of Christ), the two great strengths are ecumenical involvement and commitment to social justice (racial reconciliation, care for the poor, etc.). For Christian churches/churches of Christ, I think the greatest single strength is a strong track record in overseas evangelistic missions, where organizations like Christian Missionary Fellowship have provided an exemplary model even for other Christian groups.

Foster: In my opinion we share several strengths—despite the opinions of some. We all share flexibility in that we have no hierarchical or coercive denominational structure that controls local congregations. We share a commitment to education—evidenced by the colleges, universities, and seminaries we sustain. We have shared a commitment to Scripture-—though with different approaches through the 20th century. Disciples now are undergoing an encouraging recommitment to evangelism and to the planting of new congregations in the 2020 Vision—especially among ethnic and minority populations in the United States. Christian churches/churches of Christ have grown the largest number of megachurches of any American Christian body. Churches of Christ have developed networks of support that are capable of rapid and massive response to disasters internationally. There are many other things that could be said, but the bottom line is that we need each other.

What are weaknesses that need to be addressed in the movement today?

Blowers: In North America, the single greatest weakness for our movement is the that we have been polarized left and right, or even more accurately between “mainline” and “Evangelical” religious cultures. This has greatly undermined our witness as a movement, but it also provides one of our greatest opportunities for the “ministry of reconciliation.” All three streams of our movement are in their own kinds of identity crisis because of a diminishing sense of their historical roots, often with no awareness that such diminution takes a serious long-term toll.

Williams: I think the challenge for the church in every time and place is to make the Christian witness in a way that intersects and addresses the specific culture without becoming captive to that culture. I think we have a ways to go as a movement in achieving this challenge.

Contemporary America is a diverse, changing, and increasingly secular society. How do we speak a distinctively Christian word in such a time and place? How do we stand for actions we believe are rooted in Christian faith without becoming foot soldiers in the culture wars that have been such a prominent part of American religious life in recent decades? In such a time as this, how do we witness to our unity in Christ and to the joy and love we have found through faith in Jesus Christ?

Foster: Many things could be said about weaknesses, but the bottom line is we need each other. We do not need to do everything the same way nor to assent to the exact set of doctrinal propositions to see Christ in one another.

What do you make of the phenomenon of the megachurch movement among Stone-Campbell churches today? What do you think Alexander Campbell or Barton Stone would make of it were they alive today?

Blowers: Megachurches do some great things, no doubt. There is strength in numbers, and these churches have the opportunity for extensive outreach and support of missions at home and abroad. Many have proven to be generous and visionary givers. One of the most significant challenges for them is not to become denominations in themselves, and to maintain accountability to other congregations in the network of the church.

Another concern I have is that more of our churches are “drafting” persons into ministry from the business or professional world who have no serious biblical or theological education. Still another concern is the tendency toward preoccupation with trends, which means sometimes (though not necessarily) an erosion in their sense of being historically and theologically rooted.

Williams: Having grown up in what was a large church for its day—a weekly worship attendance of between 900 and 1,000—I appreciate the breadth of program and the multiple opportunities for relationships within and across generations that larger congregations foster. I think Barton Stone would assess such congregations the same way he assessed the Great Revival. He would carefully observe the life of these churches for evidences of faith in Jesus Christ and increasing love of God and neighbor. If he saw evidence of these characteristics, he would pronounce it “good.”

Foster: I can see wonderful things that such large churches can do. They are able to bring resources together that serve their communities and the cause of Christ in marvelous ways—much more than small congregations could do.

Still, with every strength, there are temptations. They can become showplaces where people can come for an experience and never be plugged into a true community. That is not inevitable—small groups that become spiritually formative can and do form in large and small churches. But one can remain anonymous more easily in a huge church. Small churches have advantages and disadvantages too.

I think Campbell and Stone could not really envision churches of the size of some megachurches today. My sense is that they assumed intimate communities of faith in every village, town, neighborhood, etc.

Our generation has seen a serious decline of the church in Western Europe and Britain. These formerly Christian cultures are now being described as “post-Christian.” There is a concern that, with the current decline in church membership, the United States may become or has become a post-Christian culture as well. How do you assess the situation in America today? How should the churches of the Stone-Campbell Movement address this concern?

Foster: Yes—it is happening in the United States too. Perhaps this can be used by God to show us in more powerful ways than ever before that all who profess to follow Christ and who show that in their lives need each other! We are rapidly losing the luxury of being self-sufficient. Christians are, and in some places already have been, moved to the margins of the society. But being reduced to a marginalized and embattled community that brings people to faith in Christ through their teaching and modeling the gospel in their lives, rather than Christianity being the religion of choice for those who want to get ahead in the business and political world, will help us understand how the early Christians lived and were transformed by God’s Spirit.

Blowers: I don’t think America has ever really been a “Christian” nation, even if the numerical majority of religionists are Christians and always have been. The “Christianity” of the founding fathers was hardly a serious commitment to the hard-core gospel. America has always been a mission field, and it is so today, though perhaps not as dramatically so as Britain and Europe, which in some ways have embraced a post-Christian identity as supposedly necessary to truly be “tolerant” societies.

Williams: The greatest opportunity before the Stone-Campbell Movement today is to boldly proclaim and faithfully live the gospel of Jesus Christ from our doorsteps to the ends of the earth. The most serious threat is that we will lose heart. Though we have a promise that the gates of Hell shall not prevail against Christ’s church, growing religious strife and rampant secularization are fairly daunting. Both seem to crowd out the word of God’s reconciling and transforming love and justice made known in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

In recent years there have been many positive signs of reconciliation by the various streams of the Stone-Campbell Movement. Which efforts have you found particularly encouraging? What would it be like for all three streams of our movement to “dissolve and sink into union with the body of Christ at large”?

Williams: The efforts that have been most encouraging to me have been of two sorts: (1) occasions of sharing at some depth across lines that have divided us, and (2) occasions of Christians from across streams working together on some project as if we were members of one church.

An example of the first would be my participation in the now more than decade old Stone-Campbell Dialogue. These meetings have been the occasion for candid exchange over issues that divide us. I long for others in our movement to have the opportunity to come to know, as I have through this dialogue, the sincere faith, hope, and love of persons from other streams of the movement.

I have now been part of many occasions in which Stone-Campbell Christians from different streams participated in some project or event as if they were members of one church. I remember a Habitat [for Humanity] build in Indianapolis and our celebration of the Great Communion in North Texas. I also remember numerous times I have been a participant in a conference sponsored by some institution related to the churches of Christ or the Christian churches and churches of Christ. I have not felt like a stranger at these events, neither was I treated as such. Rather, I have felt like a member of the family.

I am pleased that Doug Foster, of the churches of Christ, is currently serving a term as an ecumenical member, with full voting privileges, of the General Board and General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). We value his contributions as a brother in Christ and hope that in these encounters in which we deliberate and act upon our role in Christ’s mission he recognizes us as part of his family in Christ.

Blowers: There will not be any collapsing of the three streams into a single stream any time soon, I don’t believe. Our best hopes for reconciliation are continuing engagement with each other—missionally, educationally, and congregationally. The Stone-Campbell Dialogue (now over 10 years old) is not the ultimate solution, but one of its most constructive achievements has been the identification of the need for congregations at the local level to get to know each other and interact with each other in ministry in their particular communities.

Foster: The Restoration Forums (1984-2007) and the ongoing Stone-Campbell Dialogue (begun in 1999) are two of the North American efforts that have had the most lasting impact on unity among the churches of the movement. In my opinion, there are a number of possibilities for us to “sink into union.” One that has happened in a few places is the actual union of two congregations in a locality. Another is the intentional effort to do together things that we can do together without violating one’s conscience. That could include joint community service to the poor and marginalized, worshipping together monthly or quarterly to get to know and love one another, or using the study material produced by the Stone-Campbell Dialogue to conduct a local dialogue in your location. (Go to www.disciples.org/ccu/programs/stonecampbell/ and click on Stone-Campbell study guide.) The main point is to embrace one another as fellow travelers and joint heirs of the promises of God and seek ways to grow closer to one another.

What is your highest hope for the churches of the Stone-Campbell Movement?

Foster: That we are transformed into the image of Christ. That when outsiders from the world or fellow followers of Christ from other heritages think of us, they think, See how they love one another, and See how they love all people.

Blowers: My highest hope is that our churches would regroup and root themselves once more in the basic appeal of our movement: Christian unity for the sake of world mission. Success in that effort would ultimately mean we would retain some of our own distinctiveness while also learning constructively from other traditions.

Williams: My highest hope for the churches of the Stone-Campbell Movement would be to “dissolve and sink into union with the body of Christ at large.”

C. Robert Wetzel serves as chancellor at Emmanuel Christian Seminary in Johnson City, Tennessee.

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1 Comment

  1. June 13, 2011 at 9:59 am

    I appreciate the great effort that went into this article and for the contributors sharing their views.

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