14 July, 2024

Bringing the Streams Together: A Call to Unity within the Restoration Movement

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by | 1 July, 2024 | 2 comments

By Orpheus J. Heyward 

The Restoration Movement has a rich history that rests on a pursuit of unity and biblical fidelity. However, the trajectory of this movement has led to three distinct religious bodies that share the same tree yet have become independent branches. A question has permeated the minds of believers who are part of this impactful movement: Can we return to an experience of communal unity? This article seeks to explore the possibility while acknowledging the obstacles. 

A Historical Context  

The Restoration Movement, also known as the Stone-Campbell Movement, is a significant chapter in the history of Christianity. It began on the American frontier during the Second Great Awakening (1790–1840). This movement was a response to the religious turbulence and denominational fragmentation of the time, with its pioneers seeking to return to the pattern of New Testament Christianity. The Restoration Movement had several catalysts. Noted men such as James O’Kelly, a Methodist Episcopal Church minister, sought after a more primitive Christianity, choosing to refer to God’s people as Christians. The spirit of restoration also impacted a man named Abner Jones, who became disgruntled with the Baptist name and found himself attracted to the movement that had begun with O’Kelly. 

This idea of a return to apostolic Christianity also was present in the work of Barton W. Stone, noted for his revival at Cane Ridge in 1801. In 1824, Stone met Alexander Campbell, and they found commonality in their desire for religious reform. Although these two men disagreed on some things, Campbell stated, “Our bond of union is neither opinion nor unity of opinion. It is one Lord, one faith, one baptism.” 

The Restoration Movement was initiated by men of varying religious backgrounds with divergent views regarding eschatology, church polity, salvation, and even which designation would adequately describe those who had subscribed to this belief system. Despite these differences, a sense of unity existed within the diversity. There was room to grow and learn as the movement matured. However, over time, the efforts of the early Restoration Movement developed into three distinct streams. These three streams are the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the Independent Christian Churches and Churches of Christ, and the a cappella Churches of Christ.  

Early symptoms of division began in 1849 regarding the issues of missionary societies and the implementation of instrumental music within the context of worship. Alexander Campbell strongly criticized missionary societies because of his convictions that nothing should take the place of doing the work of the church. He amended his position in 1850, as recorded in the Millennial Harbinger; he accepted that missionary societies could be an extension of the church represented by messengers. On October 23, 1859, the American Christian Missionary Society was formed. Concurrent with this in the 1850s, significant debates regarding the use of instrumental music began. The instrumental music discussions started as a social dispute, as reflected in the disagreement between Benjamin Franklin and L. L. Pinkerton. Franklin argued against instrumental music, contending it was being implemented by the social elite based on entertainment; Pinkerton argued that the singing had degenerated, which could result in worshippers being discouraged. Eventually, arguments regarding instrumental music became a matter of theological debate heavily predicated on divergent positions regarding the silence of Scripture and the application of biblical authority. A Christian movement that began and was motivated by a desire for unity became fragmented based on peripheral issues unrelated to the core essentials of the Christian faith. 

Biblical Principles to Reclaim Unity 

Unity has always been the goal of the New Testament church, for it is a reflection of the unity experienced within the context of the Godhead. Jesus articulated this desire for unity by using a purpose clause in his prayer, “that they may all be one” (John 17:21*). The nature of the oneness is of such intimacy that he qualified it by saying, “that they may all be one; even as You, Father, are in Me and I in You.” On the first Pentecost after the resurrection, the apostle Peter preached the first gospel sermon and established the New Testament church. More than 3,000 souls were converted that day, and Luke described those who believed by saying they “were together and had all things common” (Acts 2:44). Luke, the meticulous historian, documented the church’s unity as a portrait of Jesus’ prayer. Those who accepted the words of the apostles experienced communal unity predicated on the good news of the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ Jesus.  

Throughout the history of the New Testament church, inevitable moments of controversy and division surfaced. This new movement gained traction quickly but found itself trying to navigate the differences between a Jew and Gentile constituency. The Jews saw themselves fighting for the heritage of Judaism; they desired for the Mosaic law and circumcision to be obligatory upon Gentile believers. As a way of addressing this controversial subject matter, the apostles and elders convened in Jerusalem to discuss the significance and implications of the gospel. To safeguard the unity of the body, letters were sent out by chosen men to communicate the essentials vs. the unnecessary (Acts 15:30). 

Within the fabric of the Epistles, Paul implored Christ followers to maintain unity (Ephesians 4:1-3). The apostle said we are to show tolerance for one another and diligently preserve the unity produced by the Holy Spirit. There are times when the divide goes far beyond the issues of doctrine and relates more closely to issues of intolerance, negating the effort to fight for unity. This is drastically different from fighting for who is right, which often is fueled by ambition that is antithetical to the mind of Christ Jesus (Philippians 2:1-8).  

At the very least, New Testament Scripture suggests that unity is possible and desired by God. If the summation of Scripture is correct, then the church must pose a hard question to itself: How dedicated have we been to the efforts of communal unity among believers? 

Where Do We Go from Here? 

Sounds of unity echo in the early development of the Restoration Movement. In The Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery, Barton W. Stone and others moved to dissolve their association with the Presbytery and called upon all Christians of every name to join them in prayer that God would remove all obstacles to unity and the purpose of the church. In his Declaration and Address, Thomas Campbell stated that we must be essentially, intentionally, and constitutionally one.  

Throughout the developmental fluctuations of the Restoration Movement, the practical and theological intent of the movement has remained clear. This movement is rooted in the biblical ethic of communal unity through a commitment to apostolic teaching while wrestling to understand the difference between godly essentials and our preferences.  

How Do We Do it? 

The three streams of the Restoration Movement have the potential to experience unity again. While years of theological and practical differences have created barriers to unity, the prayer of Jesus must be considered possible. How do we arrive at biblical unity? Consider three necessary components.  

Honor the Essentials While Acknowledging Preferences. It is vitally important that the New Testament church never loses its biblical identity. This identity is found in the ethical and doctrinal essentials revealed by the apostles as the Holy Spirit led them. As in the Acts 15 controversy regarding circumcision, believers must learn to engage in intentional conversation to collectively take hold of the essentials that are the basis of our unity. Unity built upon essentials must become more prominent than differences based on preferences. Preferences must always be categorized as unnecessary. The local church should debate preferences, while the universal church experiences unity on the basis of the essentials of the Christian faith. To this end, believers must recognize that we are brothers and not twins, and allow for unity in diversity within the boundaries of apostolic truth.  

Magnify the Mission. Peripheral disagreements become minimal when the mission is maximized. The Great Commission, as articulated by our sovereign Christ Jesus, remains a centerpiece on the table of Christianity. It is a reminder of the mission’s centrality to expand the kingdom’s borders. In Matthew 28:19, Jesus commissioned his disciples to “make disciples of all nations.” This is accomplished through the participial phrase, “baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.” When differences become more significant than the mission, we slow the process of kingdom expansion. Additionally, we potentially forestall beneficial partnerships because fighting over preferences becomes more important than working for purpose.  

Revisit Bible Study Methodology. Part of our history has involved loyalty to a rationalistic approach to scriptural interpretation. Alexander Campbell was heavily influenced by philosopher and statesman Sir Francis Bacon, one of the early thinkers of the Enlightenment. Campbell intended to demonstrate that Christianity was a rationalistic religion guided by reason. While this has merit, the Bible is a book of various genres that are not simply sets of propositions to be rationally understood. To arrive at a proper understanding of Scripture, we must seek what the author intended to communicate under the sovereignty of the Holy Spirit within its literary context. Scripture divorced from context can mean anything. For our movements to experience unity, we must place the Bible back in its proper place as an authority, but also as literature that must be interpreted appropriately. 

Within Our Reach 

Although obstacles are present, unity remains within reach. Multiple efforts toward unity have included fruitful discussions and progress centered on the common root shared by our Restoration branches. God has consistently raised Christian voices to declare the heart of God. As God’s Word continues to go forward into the consciousness of men, he will always have a remnant that responds in obedience to his good pleasure. 

*All Scripture verses are from the New American Standard Bible, 1995.  

_ _ _

Bibliography  

Douglas A. Foster, Paul M. Blowers, Anthony L. Dunnavant, and D. Newell Williams (Eds.), The Encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movement: Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Christian Churches/Churches of Christ, Churches of Christ, (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004), 123, 531, 755. 

Daniel G. Reid, Robert D. Linder, Bruce L. Shelley, and Harry S. Stout, Dictionary of Christianity in America (InterVarsity Press, 1990). 

S. Michael Houdmann (Gen. Ed.), Got Questions? Bible Questions Answered (WestBow Press, 2014). 

Hoyt H. Houchen, “Sponsoring Church Arrangements: Herald of Truth (A Test Case),” in Their Works Do Follow Them: Florida College Annual Lectures 1982, M. D. Curry (Ed.), (Florida College Bookstore, 1982), 49. 

Richard T. Hughes and James L. Gorman, Reviving the Ancient Faith: The Story of Churches of Christ in America, Third Edition, (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2024), 58. 

2 Comments

  1. Ernest Ebak

    This is quite inspiringly education article. I am not just blessed but reminder of my faith-based practices and or belief system.

  2. Kelly

    This mindset is confused and is based on what is a faulty understanding of John 17:1 and the epistles passages pointing to “being one” with the Godhead. They are arguing basically over point of view and doctrinal issues. Being “one” can only be achieved by being led by the Holy Spirit.

    Jesus prayed (for all believers): John 17: (BSB)

    20 I am not asking on behalf of them alone, but also on behalf of those who will believe in Me through their message, 21 that all of them may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I am in You. May they also be in Us, so that the world may believe that You sent Me. 22I have given them the glory You gave Me, so that they may be one as We are one—…

    Jesus did not say or do anything He didn’t see Father say or do — hence He was “one” with the Father:

    John 5:19 Then Jesus answered and said to them, “Most assuredly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of Himself, but what He sees the Father do; for whatever He does, the Son also does in like manner.

    John 12:49 For I did not speak on My own, but the Father Himself who sent Me has given Me a commandment as to what to say and what to speak.

    The Church will never be “one” until we are all led by the Holy Spirit: Not doctrine (other than sound doctrine with the Holy Spirit will have us align with), not cultural difference demanded to conform or norms or rituals found in denominations but not until and unless we teach and train the body to be led individually in the Holy Spirit, which is taught randomly through the New Testament.

    Romans 8:14 New American Standard Bible
    For all who are being led by the Spirit of God, these are sons (and daughters) of God.

    Legalism and grace cannot operate in the same space. We have to teach how to be filled with the Spirit and live day to day out of His spirit. THEN we are one w/Him.

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