By Rubel Shelly
Did you ever agree to something—only to regret it later? As I begin writing this piece, that feeling hovers over me.
I will not characterize the Stone-Campbell Movement as others would. (Some have already been offended that I call it the Stone-Campbell Movement rather than the Restoration Movement; it is a movement of ideas and ideals, not particular historical characters, they say. Others were offended that I dared call it a “movement” at all; it is theological rediscovery and return, not a human program.)
See? I told you I didn’t feel good about this. I’m in trouble simply for trying. But I did agree to write it and gave my word to make a good-faith attempt to describe the spiritual DNA of our fellowship. Beyond that, I will try not only to describe it but to characterize it as I embrace it—as one who loves it and is thankful for it.
History is a strange thing. While not wishing to be enslaved by it or limited within its boundaries, we dare not be unaware of it. We are both informed and formed by history—national, regional, familial, spiritual, and personal. At one level, we simply cannot “rise above” it. We must engage it critically. That is, without either reverent captivity or arrogant iconoclasm, we must be willing to admit that history—even spiritual history—is filled with failures that should be confessed. Have we not all had the experience of affirming an inspired Scripture but confessing a failed understanding or application of that word to life?
The larger Protestant world is looking back over 500 years of post-Luther history now. We should both listen to and participate in that experience, for the Reformation is part of our heritage. So is the Enlightenment’s rationalism and individualism. And so is . . . ah, but to undertake something so broad as to go back and find all those contributing segments within our DNA is far, far beyond my ability or, thankfully, my assignment. I mention these factors only to say that the issue at stake here is incredibly more complex than I can grasp or convey. The best I can hope to do is to stimulate others to grapple with a few central ideas.
For the sake of manageability, I will suggest four components that seem central to the initiation and survival of this movement within history.
High View of Scripture
First, there is a healthy regard for the written Word of God that is central to our identity. The leading lights in the early days of the Stone-Campbell Movement emphasized the uniqueness of Holy Scripture as divine revelation. With Peter, they affirmed that the prophets of old were “carried along by the Holy Spirit” as they chronicled the activities of God in history (2 Peter 1:21). Citing Paul, they believed that “all Scripture is God-breathed” (2 Timothy 3:16, 17)—both in the Old Testament to which Paul was referring directly and in the New Testament to whose composition the Spirit was employing him. This is a vitally healthy component within our DNA—that was, however, subject to “genetic editing” because of the historical setting of such persons as Thomas and Alexander Campbell and Barton W. Stone.
Setting aside the later influence of higher criticism to biblical studies generally, those earliest and most formative years of the Restoration Movement embraced an approach to Scripture that has proved problematic. Our spiritual forerunners read the Holy Bible through their culture-specific spectacles. That is, they set about to interpret and apply Scripture from a set of assumptions they had received—sometimes consciously and, likely more often, reflexively within their culture. And that “culture” was what we now call Modernity or the Enlightenment.
Alexander Campbell, for example, expressly embraced the empiricism of John Locke and followed the “common sense” path of Thomas Reid. At their roots, the philosophies of Locke, Reid, and their kind were reactionary against the rationalism of René Descartes—and thus, for Campbell, the Calvinism of the American frontier. But there was a still larger package. Modernity not only rejected the nonmediated nature of truth (i.e., Cartesian innate knowledge or Calvin’s direct operation of the Holy Spirit upon the elect), but also affirmed human reason as the measure of all things, scientific inquiry as the objective arbiter of truth, the transparency of language, and personal autonomy.
That was quite an assemblage; it played out in Christian thought with mixed-bag outcomes. Modernity put us on an early path that took a “scientific view” of Scripture; people viewed the Bible as a book of religious facts to examine for the sake of its transparent, objective truths that all enlightened persons could see alike. This generated a high value on doctrinal correctness and a low tolerance for disagreement. This meant both a high value on teaching (i.e., faith comes by hearing the Word of God [Romans 10:17]) and a willingness to atomize both personal understandings and church life; this tended to foster disagreements that led to division based on “autonomy.” This led, in turn, to assigning a lower value to discipleship in some quarters than to correctness based on right understandings that are guaranteed through reason and argument.
Unity in Christ
Second, the goal of unity in Christ has been articulated from the time of conception for our body of Christ followers. As is evident from what has just been traced relative to the use of Scripture in our spiritual history, however, the unity goal has been under constant challenge from a method of reading Scripture that tends to value correctness and to allow very little divergence.
Indeed, it is Scripture that calls the followers of Christ to unity. Jesus prayed that his disciples would be united (John 17:21). The Father and Son are differentiated in being but united nonetheless. Just as they love each other and function lovingly with one another, Christians are to love each other and function harmoniously with each other. Some have understood this better than others in our history.
In the early Stone-Campbell years, it was apparent the unity path was littered with stumbling stones and potholes. On the one hand, those who were among the most diligent of Bible students believed that conformity to a “pattern” discernable in Scripture would generate unity. Thus, Alexander Campbell wrote The Christian System to delineate these things. Systematizing is the penchant of scientific methodology; the assured results of careful study are made public. But those whose equally “objective” study of Scripture reached different conclusions were inclined to separate (or be disallowed for their error!) rather than yield. True enough, there was a Stone segment in the DNA that called for a more relational unity based on the manifest fruit of the Spirit rather than doctrinal uniformity. But the tensions were apparent in various ways around one issue after another after another.
From a 21st-century perspective (itself influenced by time and place!), perhaps tribalism (i.e., denominationalism) is inevitable and not evil, per se. People have honest differences of interpretation, diverse tastes in music or stylistic elements of worship, and assorted ideas about how best to reach the unsaved with the message of the cross. But tribalism may (and did) become sectarianism very quickly.
Historian Sidney Mead opines that denominations have an inherent sectarian tendency because of the competition each feels to justify its “peculiar interpretations and practices” as closer to those of the first century than those of their neighbor-rival groups. Mead uses the very language of “a blueprint revealed in the Word of God” to describe each denomination’s claim of purity over others’ beliefs and practices.
Denominations must construct and maintain their separate identities by marking off clear boundaries—almost always negative and thus of a nature to invite alienation, if not animosity. Even in trying to be undenominational, it was necessary to mark and defend those boundaries. So, the language affirmed unity, but the path to unity was made difficult by historical context, our human tendency toward power, and a particular way of reading the Bible.
High View of the Church
Third, our DNA includes a high regard for the church as the locus of God’s outreach to the world. In the incarnation, Jesus came to seek and to save the lost. Upon his return to the Father’s right hand, the church—his spiritual body—is commissioned to take up that task. “You are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it” (1 Corinthians 12:27) is both affirmation and challenge to those who have chosen to follow Jesus as his disciples.
Whatever fragmentation we lament in the church, we have no desire to take the position of many in our culture—simply to be done with it and to pursue a personal and often idiosyncratic faith. We generally believe that faith is best lived in community, and the God-ordained community of faith is the local church.
At the same time, one is forced to ask if there has not been some tendency toward the Roman Catholic view of “no salvation outside the (true) church.” It is one thing to affirm that all those saved by Christ are added to the church—a body whose membership list is kept in heaven (Hebrews 12:23) by Christ himself (Acts 2:47). But it is something else again to hold that salvation comes by virtue of one’s correct choice of the correct church that is entered by the correct steps taken. In the latter case, the church becomes an agency of human power rather than divine grace.
Personal Responsibility in Faith
Fourth, we also have a pronounced commitment to affirm that faith is personal and requires engagement through holiness. We “carry each other’s burdens,” but we accept the fact that “each one should carry their own load” (Galatians 6:1-5). Again, as between the first two items above, this may be lived out in some instances so as to be at odds with the point just made. Let me try to explain.
Even if one’s view of the church is somehow misunderstood and confused with a “saved-by-membership” proposition, most persons in this tradition seem to get the point that following Christ must entail evidence of transformation. On the model of Modernity, discipleship may be understood principally as diligent Bible study, defense of our doctrinal correctness, and the like. Thus, to be a “faithful Christian” may translate to “he’s here every time the door is open.” That he is racist, abusive to his family, and disliked in the community may not be deemed relevant to altering that opinion and designation. The more legalistic a particular subset within our movement, the more pronounced this phenomenon.
In a world where Modernity has seen its heyday pass—and despite all the many shortfalls that attach to its postmodern (or, perhaps better, antimodern) replacement—the shallow move to equate church membership with Christian discipleship no longer has much currency. If one is a follower of Christ, the humility, compassion, and self-emptying of the Master are expected to manifest themselves in the lives of his confessors. Salvation is transformative.
Hope for Our Future
In our own historical setting, these four segments to our DNA give hope and confidence for the future. A reading of Scripture that is narrative rather than atomistic is encouraging. That is, we read to “get into the story” of God’s redemptive work in the world. There we are called to repent of self-centered sin for the sake of believing the good news that God’s love has opened the way to new life in Christ. Accepting that, we become less inclined to define ourselves by excluding others through doctrinal hairsplitting. We focus less on boundary edges than on Christ as the unifying center for his people. Accepting other Christ confessors and Christ followers to be part of his one church, we encourage one another, forgive one another, and strengthen one another. As joint heirs with Christ to the glory that will be revealed at his return, we purify ourselves and exhibit Christlike character as evidence of the Spirit’s transforming presence.
Informed by our history, we stand in a fortunate position to face the future. The person and principles to which we have given imperfect allegiance are able to lift and empower us for the future. So, let us not grow weary in our faith—or of one another. This is a time to believe and to encourage one another. This is a time to experience and model unity to a fragmented world. Indeed, this is a time to witness the faithfulness of God in bringing still greater fruitfulness through this movement that will give far greater glory to him.
These four positive qualities to our DNA—perhaps understood more clearly at this point and lived with greater consistency by all segments of the Stone-Campbell Movement—are needed now more than ever.
Rubel Shelly is a distinguished professor of philosophy and religion at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tennessee.