By Paul Blowers
Slogans are rare in the New Testament. One thinks of the Corinthians’ slogan, “All things are lawful,” which Paul carefully revised to “All things are lawful, but not all things are helpful” (1 Corinthians 10:23)1. It was a wise admonition on the apostle’s part and played a key role in his instructions to the Corinthian church.
Stone-Campbell Christians of the 1800s loved their slogans too, and many of those slogans stuck around well into the 20th century. They provided public shorthand for the principles, ideals, and aspirations of the movement’s followers, though sometimes they could also be “fightin’ words.”
My personal favorite, beloved by Thomas Campbell, was a phrase that originated with Lutheran theologian Peter Meiderlin in 17th-century Germany, at a time when Europe was fatigued by religious conflict. Its familiar abbreviated form is: “In essentials, unity; in nonessentials, liberty; in all things, love.” For Campbell and many others this phrase struck just the right chord for a movement for Christian unity. It acknowledged that churches have bitterly battled over “essentials” and “nonessentials” and must patiently work through those issues in a spirit of Christian love for the sake of a viable unity.
The old slogan “We’re not the only Christians, but we are Christians only” has mysterious roots. We don’t know exactly where it originated, but once it came into use in the 1800s, it quickly became a mantra. Some used it as a statement of conciliation, a signal that the Stone-Campbell Movement had repented of sectarianism and exclusivism, and was trying to identify with others seeking simply to be faithful to the gospel.
The phrase gained added meaning for some after the famous Lunenburg letter controversy of the 1830s, when Alexander Campbell publicly affirmed that believers baptized as infants were still Christians, even if not “perfected” through immersion. Some took “not the only Christians” as more than a concession based on a pained conscience, rather as a positive gesture toward harmony with the denominations. The phrase went right along with Meiderlin’s “in all things, love.”
Others, however, focused much more on the phrase “Christians only,” emphasizing that the mission of the Stone-Campbell Movement was to strip away whatever barnacles of theology (“human opinion”) or practice had encrusted themselves on the church, and to embody and exemplify untainted “New Testament Christianity” in the face of denominational distractions.
For them, “Christians only” went right along with another favorite mantra: “Where the Scriptures speak, we speak; where the Scriptures are silent, we are silent.” Hard-liners implied that devotees of the Stone-Campbell Movement might not have been the only Christians, but that they were the only Christians only, and were, unlike the denominationalists, free of the accumulated “baggage” of the past.
These two trajectories of the slogan “not the only Christians, but Christians only” signal a tension long felt across the churches of the Stone-Campbell tradition. Historians call it the tension between the ideals of Christian unity, on the one hand, and restoring New Testament Christianity on the other. For years, critics have said we have been caught in a fundamental choice between Christian generosity and legalistic biblicism, and that the Stone-Campbell churches have simply aligned themselves accordingly, either as ecumenical or as exclusivistic.
But today such a simplistic judgment seems cynical. There have long been conscientious Christians—and congregations—across the spectrum of our heritage that have tried to hold together their desire to embrace “other” Christians and their concern to adhere to New Testament’s standards of faith and practice. A majority, I believe, would concur that God alone ultimately judges who is and is not a Christian. Most, I hope, would agree that allegiance to Jesus Christ—and to the name “Christian”—demands we all take seriously the New Testament’s insistence on the absolute oneness of Christ’s body (1 Corinthians 1:10-13) right along with its norms for our worship, our sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, our doctrine, ethics, ministries and missions, and so on. Whether our performance matches our resolve, however, is for others to decide.
Meanwhile, our religious culture in North America has changed by leaps and bounds from the era when the Stone-Campbell Movement took shape on the trans-Appalachian frontier. In those days, Americans were just getting used to a new Constitution that prohibited a state church but opened the door wide for religious groups to contend for people’s loyalties. The culture was progressively saturated with Protestant Christianity, and the competition among denominations both energized the churches and complicated their mission. By the time of the Civil War, America witnessed a broadly “evangelical” cultural consensus that this was a Christian nation and that Christian (namely Protestant) morals would forever be its stability. Not just the Stone-Campbell Movement but other groups claimed to be holding forth the “plain truth” of Christianity and to be liberating believers from the ill effects of old orthodoxies.2
Claiming to be “not the only Christians, but Christians only” therefore had a different ring in those days. It appealed to a widespread popular craving for “simple” Christianity, a pervasive distrust of stagnant religious traditions, and a confidence that Americans were living on the threshold of a whole new glorious age in Christian history.
In the early 21st century, however, the landscape is dramatically different. As Robert Putnam and David Campbell report in their recent book American Grace, “Americans have become polarized along religious lines . . . increasingly concentrated at opposite ends of the religious spectrum—the highly religious at one pole, and the avowedly secular at the other.”3 The polarization appears in many aspects of our culture, including volatile battles over social and ethical issues, educational values, the family, and the public face of religious devotion. Conservative Protestant or Evangelical churches might be able to make claims about superior growth statistics, but they hardly enjoy cultural dominion as they did in the 1800s. The numbers of “nones” (those with no religious affiliation) are dramatically increasing, as are the pluralism of religion and even the pluralism of secularism. As Putnam and Campbell further note, religious affiliation in America today is much more fluid, as people routinely shift their allegiances between denominations, and even between religions. Loyalty often runs very thin.
So how might the mantra “we are not the only Christians, but Christians only” register in a culture like ours? I leave our many Stone-Campbell sisters and brothers from other nations and cultures to answer that question in their respective contexts. I’m only reflecting on American experience, but here are some things to think about.
Thoughts for Americans Today
First we must be realists about our own culture and resist nostalgia about the good old days when the Stone-Campbell plea seemed to meet with a friendlier cultural hearing. In the nonelectronic 1800s, slogans were the religious “sound bites” and “talking points” of their day, and though they could be polarizing even then, they could also draw positive attention and become rallying points and identifiers. Our postmodern culture, however, is deeply suspicious of sound bites and talking points that seem to oversimplify truth or that appear as rhetorical “slam dunks.” The broad assumption is that no individual, no single group (religious, political, etc.) has a corner on the market of truth.
Increasingly, too, our churches (especially megachurches) have members with little or no orientation to the history of the Stone-Campbell Movement, and who would need significant background to judge the significance of the catchphrases of the past. Realistically, perhaps simple slogans have run their course and may not serve our churches’ mission the way they once did.
Second, if we continue to want to use the slogan “We’re not the only Christians, but Christians only,” we would be wise to determine exactly what we want to convey with it. The late Robert Fife, a cherished teacher of mine, did this magnificently in his essay “Not the Only Christians.” If the spirit of Christian graciousness and humility does not underlie our slogans, if we fail to acknowledge that God’s grace is poured out beyond “our fold,” then our message falls flat, no matter our best intentions for instating New Testament Christianity. Furthermore, if we are going to claim we are “Christians only,” we had better be quite clear we are not saying we alone have remained “unscathed,” that we alone have no “baggage” of theological or even cultural biases, that we alone have at last discerned the meaning of New Testament Christianity and put it into practice. We dare not slide into insinuating that we are the “only Christians only.”
On the other hand, we also want to avoid the impression that we have nothing whatsoever distinctive in our aspiration to be “Christians only.” Although we cannot and should not claim, as have some in the Stone-Campbell Movement in the past, that we belong to some sort of “pure” apostolic lineage (which is the height of a sectarian spirit), many of those things close to the heart of this movement continue to be worthy of faithful witness. Important examples include the immersion of believers as simulating death, burial, and resurrection with Christ; the devotion to regular celebration of the Lord’s Supper where Christ himself is our host; the commitment to return habitually to the authoritative scriptural resources of Christian faith and practice; or the conviction that the church is by its very nature a missional body. Already these are things that have wide appeal and embrace beyond the Stone-Campbell churches.
Finally, our forerunners on the 19th-century frontier would surely have agreed that no one is converted by or to mere slogans. Identifying with a slogan can never substitute for entrusting our lives to Jesus Christ and cultivating the “mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2:16; Philippians 2:5) in our relationships with fellow Christians. Being “Christians only” is not about being correct on every point of doctrine and practice, though doctrine and practice are still vitally important; it’s about discipleship in the context of the church, in the community of fellow believers who encourage us as we too encourage them in spiritual growth. It means that we can learn things from “Christians only” outside the Stone-Campbell tradition, people of transparent and bold faith like 95-year-old Billy Graham or the late Corrie Ten Boom, a woman of impeccable Christian courage during the Holocaust.
In the 1830s, when Alexander Campbell and Barton Stone debated the name they wanted their churches to adopt, Campbell questioned Stone’s insistence on the name “Christian” not because it was inappropriate but, among other reasons, because it was so hard to live up to. “Disciples” seemed for him the better name to signify humility as perpetual learners in the schoolroom of Christ. Regardless, any name means little if we fail to manifest the commitments and conviction that go with it. And without Christian character, without godly virtues, without a sacrificial spirit, without hearts broken for the world—again, without the “mind of Christ”—any expectations about being “Christians only” are sadly in vain.
Maybe we should consider altering our historic slogan a bit: “We’re not the only Christians, but through faith, hope, and love we are striving perpetually to become Christians only.” By grace we may yet share with other Christian sisters and brothers, at the end of time, in the beauty and wholeness of the perfected bride of Christ.
1Scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version.
2See Nathan Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989).
3Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010), p. 3.
Paul M. Blowers serves as Dean E. Walker professor of church history with Emmanuel Christian Seminary in Johnson City, Tennessee.