By Jim Estep
The United States is becoming increasingly divided politically. Conservatives keep moving further to the right, liberals are gravitating toward the left, and those in the center are stretched between the two. It’s similar to what has happened to the Restoration Movement.
A Formula for Effectiveness
When I attempt to describe the Restoration Movement to someone, I draw on this formula:
Biblical Authority + Church Unity → Global Disciple-Making
The Restoration Movement affirms biblical authority and binds it to a strong commitment to church unity (beyond the level of unity by agreement), all for the sake of making disciples around the world.
First, our movement affirms the authority of Scripture above all else, including creeds, counsels, or any human authority. Candidly, the people of the Restoration Movement make use of certain credos to guide or aid our understanding of Scripture, but these are not a substitute or rival to the Bible. Here are two of these guiding principles: “No book but the Bible, no creed but Christ” and “Where the Bible speaks, we speak; where the Bible is silent, we are silent.” Scripture admittedly is the common theological denominator for all denominations; the Restoration Movement is unique, however, in its Scripture-based appeal for unity.
Second, we were founded as a church unity movement. Our tendency these days is to underestimate this fact. A movement of this sort can be less than ideal; it must go beyond uniting only with other believers who agree with us. When we explore the history of the Restoration Movement, we see that even Alexander Campbell and Barton W. Stone had sharp disagreements on matters of interpretation, doctrine, and even church governance, but they remained united due to their common commitment to Christ and the Scriptures. These men recognized that unity in Christ should trump many points of division present in the church of their day, as it should for us now. “In essentials, unity; in opinions, liberty; but in all things, love” became one of our most challenging principles to fully embrace and embody, but it has served us well as we remained focused on disciple-making.
Third, our ultimate aim was global disciple-making. The inevitable result of embracing Scripture and seeking unity was our movement’s embrace of Jesus’ final commission to his followers:
All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age (Matthew 28:18-20).
When the church is divided and its message is skewed, its focus on the prime directive of making disciples is lost. A unified church with a simple, singular message would be far more effective at reaching nonbelievers than the nuanced messages of evangelism and equipping held by various denominations. Hence, another credo, “We are Christians only, not the only Christians,” describes the result of our endeavors. Campbell and Stone both saw this as the ultimate aim of the church, one being hampered by fragmentation within the body of Christ.
Whenever I share this, people typically respond with excitement; it makes sense. But what happened?
Around the turn of the 20th century, significant changes in society, culture, and even biblical-theological studies occurred. Some of our churches began to prioritize biblical authority over the call for church unity; they began gravitating more and more to the right, increasing the number of elements essential to the faith, and with greater specificity. This group, which focused most intently on biblical authority, eventually became the a cappella churches of Christ.
Other churches from within our movement adopted the modern shifts and began to value the call to church unity over affirming biblical authority. The number of elements they saw as essential to the faith, and strict adherence to those elements, declined; they began gravitating more and more to the left by allowing more room for the liberty of opinion. This group, which focused most intently on the unity of Christ’s body, eventually became the Disciples of Christ, now headquartered in Indianapolis, Indiana.
The churches in the Restoration Movement that neither gravitated toward the right nor shifted to the left formed a set of congregations in the center of the movement. These churches endeavor to balance the tension of biblical authority and church unity. This rather broad spectrum of congregations became the independent Christian churches and churches of Christ. [These are the churches this magazine continues to serve.] As one person observed, our churches are as broad or narrow as you want to make them.
Debates and divisions are a sad part of the Restoration Movement’s history, but sometimes lost is that our focus on them distracted us from the true goal. While we debated amongst ourselves, we failed to leverage the principles of biblical authority and church unity to achieve global disciple-making, which is the very thing Jesus instructed us to do.
The Restoration Movement’s message remains relevant after more than 200 years. But as we move further into the 21st century, let’s restore the mission of making disciples by upholding biblical truth as our guide and love for one another as our plea.
Jim Estep serves as vice president of academics with Central Christian College of the Bible, Moberly, Missouri, and as resource director with e2: effective elders.