Strengths of our Heritage (Apr-May 1997)

By Matt Dabbs

by Richard T. Hughes
April – May, 1997

26
Recently, my family and I visited the William Tyndale exhibit, on loan from the British Library in London to the Huntington Library in San Marino, California. We know Tyndale, of course, as the first Christian scholar to translate the New Testament from Greek into English. The first edition of that New Testament appeared in 1526.

What a thrill it was to see the very first New Testament printed in the English tongue, and then, in another display, the first complete English Bible. As I looked at those exhibits, I recalled how Tyndale and his colleagues paid the ultimate price for their commitment to place the Bible in the hands of the English people: in 1536, Tyndale was burned at the stake.

As I went from exhibit to exhibit, I could not help but contrast Tyndale’s commitment to the Bible and the eagerness with which the English people greeted its appearance, with the hundreds of thousands of people in our modern world for whom the Bible is nothing more than an ancient, obscure, and irrelevant book. And I was grateful for my heritage in the Churches of Christ.

A People of the Book

I am grateful, first, that we have been a people of the Book. Clearly, there are ways in which one can read and understand the Bible that are less faithful to the core biblical message than others, and we in Churches of Christ have sometimes read the Bible from skewed and distorted perspectives. Still and all, our allegiance to the Bible has encouraged us to focus our lives and our faith on God and on the redemption he has provided for us through Jesus the Christ. For that dimension of my heritage, I am profoundly thankful.

Open to Change

Second, I am grateful that in our best moments, we in Churches of Christ have not been bound to inflexible creeds and opinions but, instead, have remained open to a change in perspective if we find that change warranted by the biblical text. I vividly recall my high school days when I sought to convert my friends to the Church of Christ. My mother, a life-long member of the church and a woman loyal to her heritage, nonetheless advised me that I should be willing to change, myself, if my friends could show me evidence in the Bible that I had not considered. When she offered this advice, she meant it, and I took it to heart.

Years later, when I undertook a study of the history of our heritage, I found that many, especially in the early years of our movement, embraced the same attitude of openness to change that my mother urged on me. John Rogers is a case in point. The preacher for the church in Carlisle, Kentucky for many years in the early nineteenth century, Rogers charged that the fatal error of all reformers has been that they have too hastily concluded that they knew the whole truth…. We have no reason to conclude, we know all the truth,” he argued. “We have nothing to lose in this inquiry after truth. We have no system to bind us to human opinion.”

A Rational Approach to the Bible

Third, I am grateful that we have embraced a rational approach to the biblical text. This has not always been the case. In the earliest years of our movement, especially among the followers of Barton Stone in Kentucky and Tennessee, Churches of Christ behaved more like Pentecostals than like the churches we know today. Joseph Thomas, for example, visited many of those congregations in 1810-1811 and reported that these “Christians have an exercise… amongst them called the JIRKS. It sometimes throws them into the fire, into the mud, upon the floor, upon the benches, against the wall of the house, &c.” And the dentist-evangelist B. F. Hall recalled that “the religion of those days consisted principally of feeling, and those who shouted the loudest and made the greatest ado, were looked upon as the best Christians… We would clap and rub our hands, stamp with our feet, slam down and tear up the Bible, speak as loud as possible and scream at the top of our voices, to get up an excitement. I often blistered my hands by clapping and rubbing them together, and my feet were made sore by repeated stamping.”

When Alexander Campbell’s dominance over the Stone movement commenced in 1823, the extreme emotional aspects of our movement slowly began to disappear.

Granted, in the intervening years, we have grown so committed to a rational faith that we doubtless on many occasions have been guilty of quenching the Spirit. At the same time, in other ways our rational approach to the biblical text has served us well. It has freed us, for example, from extremely subjective ways of reading the Bible that allow the text to mean whatever I want it to mean, given my frame of mind at the moment. Instead, it has encouraged us to discover what the Bible means by discovering what the Bible meant in its original setting. This approach has not guaranteed that we would discover the core message of the Bible and, to be sure, there have been times when we have majored in minors and missed the Bible’s central meaning. But at least it guaranteed us a fighting chance.

Christians Only, Not the Only Christians

Fourth, I am grateful that the heritage of Churches of Christ includes a rejection of the proposition that we are the only Christians and a clear recognition that there are genuine Christians in all the sects and churches of Christendom. Alexander Campbell, Barton Stone, and virtually all the luminaries of the early years of our movement gladly acknowledged this point.

While many have concurred with this proposition over the years, no one put it better than F. D. Srygley, a turn-of-the-century preacher and staff writer for the Gospel Advocate. When the editor of the Firm Foundation claimed that “the law of Christ is a wall of separation between the church of Christ and all other religious bodies of whatever name or faith,” Srygley objected. “In the midst of all the denominations that beset this age and country, it would be absolutely miraculous if some Christians did not get into some of them occasionally,” Srygley wrote: “If there are no Christians in any denomination, it is the only place except hell they have all kept out of.” Moreover, there were Christians “in saloons, on the race track, at the theater, in the ballroom, around the gambling tables, in the calaboose, behind the jail doors, and in the penitentiary, and on the gallows.” Why, then, he asked, should we be surprised “If a few of the meanest specimens of them should occasionally be found temporarily in the most respectable and pious religious denominations of the desperate and God-forsaken country?”

In this marvelous passage, Srygley points to a fundamentally biblical theme that, while often forgotten in the course of our movement, has never been far from our movement’s heart and core. This theme is the recognition that all human beings—even Christians—are finite and therefore flawed and susceptible to gross imperfections. The apostle Paul put it best when he wrote in Romans 3:10-12:

“There is no one righteous, not even one;
there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God.
All have turned away, they have together become worthless;
there is no one who does good, not even one.”

Those in our movement like Srygley who internalized this biblical teaching were reluctant to claim perfection for Churches of Christ while judging harshly faithful men and women who labored in other corners of the Kingdom. They knew that even in Churches of Christ, “there is no one righteous, not even one.” That confession prevented them from making extravagant and exclusive claims regarding their own religious heritage.

Closely related to this, I am grateful that the heritage of Churches of Christ calls for the unity of all Christians. In the early years of our movement, there were few who claimed that the Church of Christ which centered in Middle Tennessee was the one true church outside of which there was no salvation. There were many, of course, who claimed that one could not be saved outside the church of Christ, by which they meant the universal Kingdom of God. This recognition inspired a genuine search for Christian unity that unfortunately was relatively short-lived among our people. Instead, a growing number from an early date began to confuse the Church of Christ with the church of Christ. Still, it comforts one to know that many of our people down through the years have worked passionately on behalf of the unity of all Christian people.

A Sectarian Spirit

Fifth, while I am grateful for the unity impulse in our movement, I also am grateful for the sectarian dimensions of our heritage. It is here that I am most likely to be misunderstood. How could I possibly celebrate the ecumenical thrust of Churches of Christ while applauding at one and the same time our sectarian agenda? Aren’t these two themes polar opposites?

The answer to that question depends on how we define “sectarian.” One can certainly be sectarian by claiming that his or her church embodies the fullness of God’s salvation and that all other churches are impostors and usurpers. One can think of this version of sectarianism as the true church versus the denominations. I have already made it clear that in my judgment, that kind of sectarianism stands fundamentally opposed to the gospel message which demands that we take seriously our own frailties and imperfections.

But there is another brand of sectarianism which squares wonderfully well with the gospel message. We can best understand this version, as the church versus the values of the world. How many New Testament passages call us to conform our lives to the values of the Kingdom of God, not to the values of our culture? One thinks immediately, for example, of Romans 12:2: “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”

Unfortunately, many in Churches of Christ have allowed the sectarian dimensions of our movement to become misdirected. They have spent their time opposing other churches instead of resisting the principalities and powers of this world. But the abuse of the sectarian ideal does not invalidate that impulse. It is still a biblical theme, waiting to be reclaimed by those in churches of Christ who seek to conform their lives to the values of the Kingdom of God.

The truth is that many in Churches of Christ, especially during the nineteenth century, embraced the sectarian spirit in its biblical sense. Here one thinks of a long roll call of the saints, running from Barton W. Stone to David Lipscomb to James A. Harding to J. N. Armstrong to R. H. Boll, among many, many others. To a person these people embraced simplicity instead of ostentation, advocated non-violent solutions to human conflicts, shunned material wealth, resisted racism, and risked their own well-being for the sake of their neighbor’s good.

Finally, I am grateful for two powerful themes, central to our heritage, that have sustained this biblical form of the sectarian spirit. The first of these themes is the restoration vision. I am fully aware that many in Churches of Christ today have lost faith in the restoration vision, believing it to be inherently divisive. There is ample justification for their judgment in this regard, but those who reject the restoration ideal on this ground risk throwing the baby out with the bath water.

The truth is, the restoration ideal has been a powerful stimulus to counter-cultural thought and action throughout the course of our movement. It focuses our attention on biblical faith and allows us to judge the world in which we live by that standard. It sustained Barton Stone when he freed his slaves long before the abolition sentiment was popular in the American South. It sustained David Lipscomb when he counseled Christians to refuse to fight in wars but to find peaceful methods to resolve human conflict. And by consistently pointing us to the Prince of Peace and his ethic for our lives, it can help sustain us even though we live in the midst of an unbelieving culture.

It is certainly true that we can misdirect the restoration vision and take our stand on biblical minors instead of biblical majors. But our own failures in this regard in no way invalidate the vision itself.

The second important theme in our heritage that has sustained a biblical form of the sectarian spirit is the theme I called in Reviving the Ancient Faith the “apocalyptic worldview.” I mean by that phrase an outlook whereby we seek to live our lives as if the final rule of God were fully present in the here and now. Such a vision calls for radical and counter-cultural living, since the Kingdom of God inevitably stands in judgment on the kingdoms of this world.

The beauty of the apocalyptic orientation is the way it encourages us to focus the restoration vision on the major themes of the Bible, not on minor notes and obscure details. If the final rule of God were really present in the here and now, for example, would we spend our time quarreling over the number of cups that ought to be used in communion? Would we spend our time sparring with those in other Christian traditions? Or would we dedicate our energies to living out the ethical mandates of the Kingdom of God?

Most people in Churches of Christ today have no idea that an apocalyptic worldview fueled a wide spectrum of Churches of Christ in the nineteenth century. We find this vision especially in the tradition that runs from Barton W. Stone to David Lipscomb and, finally, to J. N. Armstrong. After World War I, the apocalyptic worldview slowly declined among Churches of Christ and is now hardly discernible in our communion at all. But it is a priceless dimension of our heritage and one for which I am immensely grateful. It is also a dimension of our heritage that we need to reclaim.

Conclusions

Some years ago, during the upheavals of the 1960s related to both race and war, some wished to sweep the problems that plagued the nation under the rug and speak only of what was right with America. Many of us will recall a bumper sticker popular in those days that counseled our cultural dissidents: “America: Love It Or Leave It.” That approach was singularly unhelpful. It does little good to celebrate the goodness of our culture while refusing to rectify the problems that beg to be addressed. At the same time, it does little good to harp on what is wrong with our society and refuse to take responsibility for needed change.

The same holds true for the church. We know the problems that have plagued Churches of Christ. Critics have pointed them out time and again and there is no need to rehearse them here. At the same time, there is no need to pretend they don’t exist.

It is helpful, however, to acknowledge the many strengths of our heritage upon which we can build for the future. It is my prayerful hope that members of Churches of Christ can approach our past with loving criticism, that we will strain out the dross but refine the gold, and bring our communion more fully under the cross of Christ and into greater and greater harmony with the will of God.Wineskins Magazine

Richard T. Hughes

(Transcribed for the Web from the archived print edition by Neita Dudman)

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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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