By Steve Carr
“What religion are you?”
“Well I get that, but what kind of Christian?”
“Um, just Christian.”
Growing up on Cincinnati’s west side, where Roman Catholicism reigned supreme, I constantly had this exchange with kids at school. Raised in a Restoration Movement congregation, I was taught that our church was simply Christian—nothing more, nothing less. It wasn’t until years later in seminary that I learned another biblical name that could describe my tribe.
Alexander Campbell was repulsed that some referred to his group as “Campbellites,” so he sought a more biblical description of our fellowship. Terms like Presbyterian or Episcopalian described a system of church governance, and no one in the New Testament claimed those titles. Additionally, names like Lutheran and even Campbellite emphasized an individual over Christ. Seeing that Disciple was frequently used to describe believers in the New Testament, Campbell used this term and it stuck. And yet, by the late 1970s and early 1980s, the moniker Disciples was despised by many Bible-believing Christians in the Restoration Movement. Many avoided it because they felt it had been misappropriated.
In this final installment of this series, I want to discuss the fortification of the Restoration Movement.
A term more familiar than fortification is gatekeeping—the idea that certain people get to define who is in or out of a group. Fortification was well established in the movement when I was reared: While we were Christians only, we were also extremely selective about whom we partnered with or read or listened to. Growing up, I thought fortification was always part of the movement’s identity. Apparently I was mistaken.
The Origins of Theological Liberalism
Detailing the events that led to our split with the Disciples of Christ is challenging; it spans nearly a century, and most of the events that led to the fracture were anticlimactic—the result of smaller tremors that occurred years before. Additionally, many issues behind the rift were theological in nature and tend to be more complex than most of us care to explore. But more than anything, the conflict was over theological liberalism.
First, let’s define liberal in this context. In America today, liberalism bears political baggage. In a political context, liberal is a comparative term—a position away from the median—meaning the opposite of conservatism. Generally conservatism is associated with tradition and liberalism with freedom.
When thinking about the three streams of our movement, the median is regularly ascribed to our stream, the independent Christian churches. The more conservative position is that of the churches of Christ (noninstrumental), and the liberal position belongs to the Disciples of Christ.
Theological liberalism is a counter-orthodox view of the Bible. It turns its back on thousands of years of biblical interpretation and considers the Bible to be more human and less divine. Its roots stem from Europe and developed years before our movement existed. Numerous books have been written on this topic, so I’ll refrain from going deeper now, but historical criticism, the social gospel, and Darwinism influenced some church leaders to create new ways of viewing the Bible. As a result, the authority of the Bible was weakened and the eternal mission of the church was minimized.
Eventually this theology made its way across the Atlantic Ocean and, after the Civil War, changed the way churches would preach and teach the Bible. For a movement that spent its formative years calling for a return to New Testament Christianity, the stakes could not have been higher.
The Infiltration of Theological Liberalism
The influence of theological liberalism slowly appeared through various issues, but the simplest way to frame this conflict is to examine how it impacted pastoral training.
While there were plenty of seminaries throughout America at the turn of the 20th century, very few taught our movement’s ideals. In the late 1800s some of our movement’s ministry students started to enroll at the University of Chicago. A robust gift from John D. Rockefeller helped establish Chicago’s divinity school as one of the Midwest’s most respected seminaries. Not only was it a Baptist institution, it was also a hotbed for theological liberalism.
Herbert Willett founded the Disciples Divinity House at the University of Chicago in 1894. He wanted ministry students from the movement to have a stable base from which to navigate their theological training while gaining exposure to Restoration ideals. While Willett was educated at Campbell’s Bethany College, he also studied at Yale Divinity School, where he became a proponent of theological liberalism. Though the Divinity House taught the traditions of our movement, students were encouraged to integrate a theologically liberal view of the Scriptures into their ministry philosophy. The high view of the Bible, which was once inseparable from our movement, was taught as an archaic inconvenience.
The theology taught at Chicago subsequently infected the College of the Bible in Lexington, Kentucky. Founded at the conclusion of the Civil War, it rivaled Bethany College as one of the most respected ministry training centers in our movement. At about the time Willett started Divinity House, J.W. McGarvey was named president at College of the Bible. McGarvey was an unquestioned conservative and made sure professors used the Bible as their primary textbook. Still, within just a few years of McGarvey’s death in 1911, the entire faculty at the College of the Bible was populated with professors influenced by the theological liberalism of the University of Chicago.
The shift at the school was largely unnoticed by movement churches until a student there mailed a letter to all the college trustees and supporting churches to reveal the liberalism. Immediately, movement publications began to argue about the teaching at College of the Bible; the controversy played out in the pages of Christian Standard. College trustees were coerced into conducting an investigation of the faculty, but the proceedings were a farce—the trustees were firmly behind the faculty and determined that they were without fault.
This was a pivotal moment in our movement. To offset the theological liberalism taught in Lexington, ministry schools were started in Cincinnati, Louisville, and Grayson, Kentucky. Within a four-decade period, approximately two dozen new Bible colleges and seminaries were established. The battle lines had been drawn, and our movement fortified for the fight.
The Fight Against Theological Liberalism
Other church networks found themselves in similar fights with theological liberalism; in the following decades, many mainline denominations rejected biblical orthodoxy. In response to the erosion of both cultural and theological liberalism, many in our movement embraced fundamentalism.
Fundamentalism elevated certain fundamentals of faith that one needed to endorse in order to be considered orthodox; this included affirming the inspiration of Scripture, the virgin birth, substitutionary atonement, and the belief in biblical miracles. Many in our movement fought under the banner of fundamentalism in their battle against the Disciples. My alma mater, Cincinnati Bible Seminary, became the movement’s flagship institution for fundamentalist values.
As in any conflict, there will always be collateral damage, but the fight with the Disciples was far more traumatic than the split with the churches of Christ. The break with the Disciples not only included personal attacks but the filing of lawsuits; some movement leaders were forced to retain legal representation when they were sued for libel. The fight was so vicious people were forced to pick a side: Are you for or against the Disciples? In the late 1940s, Christian Standard began printing lists of leaders, churches, and organizations that were faithful to the Scriptures. And when these became too long, the McLean family in Springfield, Illinois, began publishing The Directory of the Ministry to serve as a more complete listing of the Bible-believing institutions in our movement.
In 1948, a Disciples commission was created to explore a potential restructuring of their churches. Twenty years later, at the International Convention of Christian Churches, the Disciples of Christ voted to become a full-fledged denomination. Conflict continued to occur after 1968, but the fracture was complete; there were now three distinct tribes within the Restoration Movement: the churches of Christ, the independents, and the Disciples.
Yet even after the split, our fellowship’s fortifying posture was not abandoned. Church leaders lived in fear of the next theological scandal and became paranoid of anything that had even the appearance of liberalism. While we insisted we kept “no creed but Christ,” there definitely was a creedal approach to our essentials. Fifty years after the split, our fortification prohibits us from living out our movement’s plea for unity.
Breaking Down the Walls
So how should our movement seek unity while not losing our soul? Obviously, we must not waiver from our high view of Scripture, but we must create space to walk with other believers.
We could learn much from the ministry of James DeForest Murch (1892–1973). I’ll admit straightaway: Murch is my movement hero. Even though he passed away before I was born, I feel a kinship toward him. He wasn’t perfect, to be sure, but he was thoughtful—if not a tad arrogant. A few years ago, I was talking with an older movement leader who had spent considerable time with Murch. I asked him if my idolization was misplaced. “Was he a good man?” I inquired. And much to my relief, I learned that he was.
Murch’s professional life took place in the midst of the Disciples conflict. While he was passionate about biblical fidelity, he couldn’t bring himself to vilify his opponents. He lifted up the authority of the Scriptures while refuting the Disciples’ positions in the pulpit and in publications.
But Murch always led with love.
As the Disciples became more liberal, Murch continued to fellowship with them; he disagreed with their view of biblical authority, but was convinced the Disciples would never return to the true faith if they were shunned. He refused to blacklist people and, unfortunately, this hurt his reputation; he was routinely criticized for his resistance to fortification.
Murch championed Restoration values beyond the conflict with the Disciples. While many in our movement built fortifications, he viewed the unity plea as an opportunity to collaborate with the growing evangelical movement. In 1950, Murch convinced a young revivalist named Billy Graham to come to Cincinnati for a crusade. Even though the event was a huge success, nearly all the movement churches in the city refused to participate.
Until his dying day, Murch lived for the movement. In his autobiography he wrote,
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I love the Brotherhood. . . . Throughout the years I have maintained fellowship with a great company of brethren across extra-congregational lines—a fellowship which has not in the least caused me to compromise my convictions grounded in the Word of God. I shall continue to do this because I think Christ would have me do it and regardless of whether others like it or not.
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Not only am I a disciple of Jesus, when it comes to our movement, I think I’m a disciple of Murch as well.
Steve Carr is vice president of ministry development with CDF Capital. His thoughts on the Restoration Movement and ministry can be found at houseofcarr.com.