Ecumenism and the Stone-Campbell Movement

19 Oct

Read this:

And now read this:

Well now that you have read those two Wiki articles, (in their entirety, I’m sure) I’ll begin my post  The topic is, as you may have gathered from the title, ecumenism, and specifically the approach to ecumenism and Christian unity advocated by the Stone-Campbell movement (also called the Restoration movement; I’ll abbreviate it here as the SCM).  Some of you are familiar with the SCM, where the Churches of Christ, independent Christian Churches, and Disciples of Christ all find their ancestry.  The Christian Churches is the group that the college I went to, Nebraska Christian College, descends from.  I also have attended Christian Churches from some time in high school to somewhere around my sophomore year of college (and I have also worked with many Christian Church congregations for various ministry things through NCC).  So through all of this, I am quite familiar with this particular tradition and it’s approach to attempting to unify Christianity (I even took a course on the history of the SCM in college).

But, to take a step back, what is ecumenism?  Wikipedia says that it, “mainly refers to initiatives aimed at greater Christian unity or cooperation.”  Approaches to ecumenism vary, and goals vary from group to group, but a greater unity within Christianity is the common factor within ecumenism.  While most Christians would agree that unity is a good thing, some Christians view the problem of the disunity with a far greater sense of urgency than others.  For many Christians, this problem isn’t something that much thought or concern is given to.  This is not to say that they don’t care at all about it or that they are against unity, but rather that it isn’t as high up on their list of important things.  So why is a greater unity within Christianity important?

While this could be developed much more extensively, I would like to briefly look at a couple of places in Scripture that speak of the importance of the unity of the Church.  In John 17, Jesus prays to the Father for His followers in what is commonly referred to as the high priestly prayer.  He says: (20-26)

“…I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.  The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one,  I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me. Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.  O righteous Father, even though the world does not know you, I know you, and these know that you have sent me.  I made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”

While this passage ought to be given a much more extensive treatment, I will suffice to make a couple brief points.  First of all, Jesus’ followers being “one” is very important to Him.  Second, Jesus relates the unity of His people, to the unity between Him and the Father.  Just as their is a unity of love between the Son and the Father (and all of the Trinity, we would believe, though not stated in this passage), so there is to be a unity of love between those who belong to Jesus the Son.  Third, this unity serves in order that the world will believe that Jesus is sent of God.  Peace and unity between Christians shows the world the truth of its message.  Experience tells us that the converse is equally true, Christian disunity serves to make the Christian message of reconciliation less believable.

Another passage of Scripture that speaks to the importance of Christian unity is St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians.  Read this passage from Chapter 2, verses 11-22

Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands— remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone,  in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.

 A few observations from this passage: First, the context within which Paul talks about Christ’s work here (and in other places) is the Jewish-Gentile issue.  He is addressing the question of whether the Gentile converts to Christianity need to adopt Jewish practices such as food laws and circumcision.  He refers to these as “the dividing wall of hostility” and emphatically answers this question with a “no”.  Paul places his teaching here on salvation (soteriology) within the context of his teaching on God’s people, the Church (ecclesiology), which for him are inseparable.  Ephesians is known for having a very high ecclesiology.  There is no room here for an individualistic, “just me and Jesus” approach to the Christian faith.  Being a follower of Jesus (if we believe Paul) is a matter of being a part of God’s people.  Thus, the unity of this people is of crucial importance.  Here Paul connects the oneness of the Church to the fact that “through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father”.

The Wiki article on ecumenism describes the approaches by ecumenism by the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church, and Anglican and Protestant churches.  While I would like to get into these differences, that must be left to another post.

Now that we have seen why ecumenism/Christian unity is so important, and why so many Christians realize this, the time has come to take a look at the SCM’s approach to this problem.  The movement itself was a response to this problem.  To quote Wiki, “the movement sought to restore the church and “the unification of all Christians in a single body patterned after the church of the New Testament”  What this means is that the movement took the approach of what has been called “primitivism,” the idea that the Church should look back to the 1st century, to the roots of the Church, and restore it to a more pure form of Christianity (with the implication that subsequent developments and traditions have only served to corrupt this original, “pure”, form of the Church).  This approach also has the assumption that the New Testament contains an authoritative, prescriptive blueprint for how the Church is to organize itself, and that it is the only necessary source for Christian doctrine (thus their rejection of all creeds as being impediments to unity since they are not Scripture).  So the plan to unify Christianity was to take the essentials of what the Bible taught clearly (in their view), and to strip away all extra things that got in the way of Christian unity, such as denominational structures and identities, and creeds and theology as essential for fellowship. The unifying factor for the SCM was the Bible itself.  Their rejection of denominational identities led them to simply call themselves Christians or Disciples, however over time “Christian Church”, “Church of Christ,” and “Disciples of Christ” became their own labels for denominating a particular kind of church congregation.

Now while not universally applicable, one way of judging the truth of something is to look at its results.  I can recall one of my professors at NCC (who was not particularly gung-ho about the SCM tradition) saying that he found it ironic how the movement was founded upon Christian unity when in practice it has been one of the most anti-unity groups in Christianity.  While this may be a bit of an overstatement, the movement has been average at best when it comes to fostering Christian unity and cooperation.  Sometime after the civil war, the movement split between more conservative congregations, called Churches of Christ, who were against any sort of innovations not specifically prescribed in the NT, such as the use of instruments in worship services, and the more progressive Christian Churches, who accepted innovations.  In the early to mid 1900s, much like many other Protestant denominations, the Christian Churches split along the lines of the Liberal/Fundamentalist divide.  The more liberal side became known as the Disciples of Christ, and the conservative side, while not as conservative as the extremely conservative non-instrumental Churches of Christ, were still relatively conservative.  Thus, you have a movement formed on the idea of creating Christian unity, that has split into three main factions, not a very impressive record when it comes to bringing about unity.  In practice today, many Christian Churches tend to do very poorly when it comes to practicing Christian unity, often focusing on differences between themselves and Evangelicalism more broadly on issues such as the relation of baptism to salvation, church polity such as the rule of a local group of elders, congregational autonomy from denominational structures, as well as Calvinist and Arminian theological disagreements, weekly celebration of communion, and many other issues.  While those within these churches would say that they believe in Christian unity, they would say that the unity is based on what the Bible “clearly” teaches.  In practice this means what they interpret the Bible to be saying.  In the end, this says, “We can have unity when you agree with my interpretation of the Bible,” which serves to bring Christianity no closer to unity than any other Christian group does.

Part of the problem with this approach is its underlying philosophical approach.  It is widely recognized that the philosophy underlying this movement is what is known as “Scottish Commonsense Realism”.  This approach has a very high view of human rationality, and believes that with a little common sense, any person can understand and interpret anything objectively, and have objective knowledge.  Also, from this objective knowledge, any person should be able to logically deduce truths from the facts found within the Bible, and come to the same understanding on issues relating to Christian doctrine and Church polity.  The application of this is that any Christian should be able to read the Bible and come to the same understanding on basic issues that those of the SCM did.  However, as has been shown in the history of the movement, this simply does not work in practice.  Not only have these philosophical ideas been abandoned in philosophical circles, but its application in the Church has proved its impossibility.  The fact is that genuine Christians, trying to seek nothing but the truth, reading the Scriptures, trying to be as unbiased as possible, not just to support a preheld theological commitment, still continue, time after time, to come to very different understandings of what Scripture teaches.  The problem with having only the Bible as the center of Christian unity, is that all this does is leave us with the question of what the Bible actually teaches.  There is no such thing as “just the Bible”; every reading of the Bible is by necessity an interpretation of the Bible, and interpretations differ.  For this reason, we have 50 bazillion (speaking in hyperbole) different versions of “just the Bible”.  How on earth does this provide a foundation for Christian unity?  Without any authority to judge the legitimacy of certain interpretations of Scripture over others, there will not be Christian unity on the basis of the Scriptures.  While many, including those in the SCM (and much of Protestantism more broadly) would recoil at the idea of an authority governing interpretation of Scripture, impinging on the rights of individual Christians to interpret the Bible as they each see fit, I see no way around this.

The SCM, while being founded upon the noble idea of bringing unity to Christianity, has not only failed to do this in practice, but I believe was destined to fail because the method at its foundation is faulty.  The Bible cannot serve as the authority that is at the center of Christian unity, because it never sets out to do that.  It never claims to be the only authority for Christians.  It never claims to set out a systematic, exhaustive, repository of teaching on Church polity, doctrine, and practice.  So to assume that the Bible tells us everything we need to know in a prescriptive way will leave us coming up with our own prescriptions, and finding them very different than our brothers who take the exact same approach.  To assume that because we read the same Bible, we will come up with the same conclusions on even fundamental issues, is a philosophically and practically flawed assumption, and has shown itself to not work in history.

While I have (I think) shown the impossibility of the approach to unity of the SCM, this does not solve the problem.  Please comment with any thoughts on either defending this approach or positing an alternative approach.  My only claim that I am making is that unity of the Church must be centered around some form of authority, and that the Bible cannot, and was never meant to function as that authority.  Agree or disagree?

P.S. Hopefully some more posts will come on the topic of ecumenism, but we’ll see.


2 Responses to “Ecumenism and the Stone-Campbell Movement”

  1. Cecilia Rziha October 19, 2011 at 8:10 am #

    If understanding the Bible were all it took, then the faith would be an application of knowledge and intelligence, instead of a relationship of trust and faith. It seems that belief should come in the context of relationship.

  2. Joshua Copper October 20, 2011 at 11:09 am #

    My comment became to length for your comment section. I blogged my thoughts on it, and you can find them here:

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