Discovering a Forgotten Past (Jan-Feb 1993)

By Matt Dabbs

by Michael Casey
January – February, 1993

Michael Casey, Associate Professor of Communication, Pepperdine University, reviews C. Leonard Allen, Distant Voices: Discovering a Forgotten Past for a Changing Church (Abilene, TX: ACU Press, 1993)

9Until recently biblical scholars have dominated the intellectual scene in churches of Christ. The biblical scholars knew the original languages of the text and were expected to confirm the truths of the restoration movement. In reality the scholars often challenged, or at least reexamined those truths. Changes that they and others initiated have overtaken both the scholars and the church. Now that we recognize the reality of change, Allen and a variety of other historians have taken over the leading scholarly role. In the midst of this change the historians can give the church a sense of identity, direction, and tradition.

Allen’s newest book is the most significant of the four that he has authored or co-authored for ACU Press. It shows that far more diversity existed in the restoration tradition than previous historians have acknowledged. The book is also significant because Allen’s distant voices also have far greater breadth of view than previously admitted.

What will surprise many readers is that these distant voices are not negative about the primitive church. In fact the opposite is true; they are all enthusiastic supporters of the search for the primitive church. They did not all agree about the specifics, but they all favored the concept of the primitive church and tried to emphasize neglected aspects of it. As the church changes some of their ideas have begun to speak again and find a legitimate place. That alone will make Allen’s book controversial, because it challenges the supremacy of many privileged and powerful ideas of the movement.

Two of the most thought-provoking chapters focus on the role of women in the church. Chapter four, “Your Daughters Shall Prophesy,” traces some of the early female preachers or exhorters of the early restoration movement. Nancy Towle and others were motivated by the Great Commission to take the gospel to the world. The idea that females were to be passive in the church and defer to males was “contrary to the word of God.” Interested readers should also consult Louis Billington, “Female Laborers in the Church’: Women Preachers in the Northeastern United States, 1790-1840” Journal of American Studies, 369-394, a source Allen overlooks.

Chapter 17, “The New Woman,” tells the story of the remarkable Silena Holman who battled David Lipscomb and other male leaders who wanted to keep women in their place. This chapter was excerpted in an earlier issue of Wineskins (August, 1992).

One of the most troubling questions for restorationists has been the question of who is a Christian or who can Christians fellowship. Chapters on, “The True Measure of Fellowship,” and “Who is a Christian?” will provoke those who have comfortable answers to rethink them. For most, baptism is the key to these questions, but for both Barton Stone and Alexander Campbell it was not so simple. Both recognized some of the unimmersed as Christians. They also thought that the presence of Christian virtues or spirituality in people was a sign that they were Christians.

In a similar vein, Chapter 21, “What Is the Gospel?” tells the important story of K.C. Moser who was ostracized for years for emphasizing grace and the centrality of Christ instead of a rote, mechanical “plan of salvation.” Moser tried to restore the central biblical message that God, not man, saves. If one is more interested in Moser, read Michael Casey, “K.C. Moser: A Path-breaking Preacher,” Leaven 2 (Spring 1992), 41-43.

Many in the church are troubled by the authoritarian, bureaucratic models of leadership that are predominant. As a child I complained of this to my mother. She responded that elders were in control because that was the biblical model and nothing could be done to change it. Chapter 14, “Faithful Shepherds,” explodes that myth. David Lipscomb and other restoration leaders opposed the “corporate” model of the eldership. The elders had no authority or power except that of “moral authority rooted in character and faithfulness.” Church decisions should be made by the church as a whole, not by “arbitrary rulings” from the elders. The corporate model is so strongly rooted in today’s church that I suspect most will be shocked by this chapter and consider Lipscomb’s ideas unworkable.

One of the current topics of discussion by many preachers and scholars in the church is the role of rationalism or reason. Underlying several chapters of this book is this same theme. Chapter two discusses the revivals at Cane Ridge. The next chapter explroes Stone’s call for unity based on the Spirit rather than on all believers agreeing on what the Bible teaches (what Stone described as “Head Union”). Robert Richardson’s ideas on the Holy Spirit, unit and spirituality are explored in Chapters 9, 10, and 11.

Another insidious effect of the rationalism of the Restoration Movement has been our inability to deal with differences and division. The reasoning goes like this: If all people are to understand the Bible in exactly the same way, then those who differ from our understanding are in error. Because they see things differently from us, then it’s too bad for them. They must come to believe the Bible exactly the way we do and repent of their ideas. As the Restoration Movement began to fracture and divide, people were forced to choose the “correct” side.

T.B. Larimore is a notable example of one who tried to defy the natural tendency of our rationalism to divide us. Chapter 20, “How to Deal with Division,” explores Larimore’s refreshing and exceptional example of resisting division.

In several chapters Allen leaves out many crucial sources that will help teachers and interested readers to place the stories in a more understandable context. Often Allen tells the story so briefly that one wishes there was more, so the discerning reader will want to consult Allen’s sources and others as well. For example, in connection with Chapter 12, “The Peaceable Kingdom,” a reader should also consult Michael Casey, “From Pacifism to Patriotism: The Emergence of Civil Religion in the Churches of Christ,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 66 (July 1992), 376-390 and David Edwin Harrell, Jr. Quest for a Christian America (Nashville: The Disciples of Christ Historical Society, 1966), especially Chapter 5, “Pacifism and Patriotism – The Cleavage Deepens.”

Because of the brevity of the chapters and significance of the themes, I would suggest that Sunday School teachers and discussion leaders circulate copies of the original sources that Allen cites to class members the week before a chapter is taught. Most of the original sources and most of the articles and books are available at any of the Christian colleges. Many preachers or church libraries will also have these materials.

Read this book. Use it in your church classes and discussion groups. Allen shows that restorationism need not be abandoned in this time of change. Instead it can be a creative force and assist thoughtful change as people seek the truths of Scripture. The church is at a crossroads which many see as offering a dead restorationism or vacuous tame Christianity. Allen points to a third way – a way in which our own restoration heritage engages us and helps us in that search for authentic biblical Christianity in today’s world.Wineskins Magazine

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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