The Bond of Peace (June 1992)

By Matt Dabbs

by C. Leonard Allen
June, 1992

In 1841, representatives from 29 churches of the Restoration Movement met in Nashville to discuss matters of church policy and teaching. According to the report of the gathering, someone asked the question whether or not the Bible permits Christians to differ from one another.

To this question someone answered that “In the kingdom of Messiah, all the subjects are bound to think alike.” “The Bible reveals every religious duty,” the answer continued, therefore differences among believers “always manifest either ignorance of the law or a determination to rebel against it.” The report noted that “all agreed thereto.”

In the mid 1850s, faced with upheaval and division in the Nashville church, Tolbert Fanning said essentially the same thing. “Everything is a subject of authority and there is no room for debate,” he wrote. “We have complete instructions in all matters pertaining to religion, or we have nothing.” Thus, regarding the “externals, or ordinances” of the faith, he could write that “the least change, whatever, not only annihilates them, but all genuine religion.”

This viewpont marked a considerable shift away from the movement’s pioneers. The earliest leaders had envisioned a large realm of diversity in the reading of the Bible. Barton Stone, Alexander Campbell, Walter Scott, and others had said, “In faith, unity; in opinions, liberty.” They acknowledged that even the most sincere and diligent believers would not agree at many points. But all could agree, the believed, on the basic facts of the gosepl – the essentials that belonged to no sect or party.

But by the 1840s and ’50s the realm of allowable diversity had narrowed sharply in a segment of the movement.

In this context, Dr. Robert Richardson, Campbell’s close friend and associate editor, published a small book entitled, The Principles and Objects of the Religious Reformation, Urged by A. Campbell and Others, Briefly Stated and Explained. Campbell praised it, noting that it “gives a well-proportioned miniature view” of the movement’s original goals.

The movement rested, Richardson said, upon three basic principles.

First, was a distinction between faith and opinion. The Protestant churches, he said, sought to take the Bible alone, and that certainly was proper. But in their great zeal for pure doctrine theey committed a serious error: they went “too much into detail,” constructing elaborate confessional statements and measuring orthodoxy by agreement on a sizeable body of doctrine.

To make a proper distinction between faith and opinion, Richardson argued, one cannot simply say, “The Bible alone is our creed.” For the Bible is a rich, detailed, and complex library that can occupy the greatest minds for a lifetime. Expecting people to unite by understanding it alike will simply insure continued division in the Christian Ranks.

In claiming to take the Bible alone, Richardson said, many believers fail to distinguish between the Bible and the gospel. The gospel, Richardson believed, consisted of the simple facts of Christ’s death, burial and resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:3-4). This was the baseline of faith. Believers would never unite on a broad doctrinal platform – 300 years of protestant wrangling and division had proved that – but they could unite on the simple facts of the gospel.

When one received these facts into one’s heart by faith, one was saved; and “that alone which saves men, can united them.” The great confession, “I believe that Jesus Crist is the Song of God,” should therefore serve as the “only authorized test of orthodoxy.” “Let the Bible be our spiritual library; but let the Gospel be our standard of orthodoxy,” Richardson said. “Let the Bible be our test of Christian character and perfection, but let the Christian confession be our formula of Christian adoption and Christian union.”

The second basic principle of the movement, Richardson said, was a distinction between “the Christian faith” and “doctrinal knowledge.” What does it mean to believe in Christ? he asked. He answered that it means not simply to receive his doctrine or to believe what he says. Rather it means to be brought into “direct relation and fellowship with Him; to think of Him as a person whom we know, and to whom we are known.” It means to speak to him and listen to him as one would a close friend.

“Christ is not a doctrine, but a person,” Richardson urged. At its heart Christian faith centers on a person, not a bod of doctrines. It does not consiste essentially in the “accuracy of intellectual conceptions,” but in a certain kind of life – a transformed inner life and a fruitful outer life. The broad expanse of biblical doctrine, he carefully pointed out, must never be discounted, for it serves as an important superstructure. But it does not provide the foundation. That is found only in a deeply personal relationship with Christ – and “the foundation must precede the superstructure.”

The main problem behind a fragmented Christian world, Richardson believed, is that people confuse trust in a living savior with belief in certain doctrines. When this happens, faith gets “supplanted by polemics.” sectarian belligerence and rivalry mount. Doctrinal creeds, whether written or unwritten, become the basic measure of orthodoxy, and people inevitably grow distant from Christ. They grow distant, Richardson said, because a “syllabus of doctrine has no power to enlist the heart and the energies of the soul in the true work of Christ.”

Indeed, what “every true sectary lacks” is this personal reliance on Christ. He stands on the walls of his camp and asks those who seek to enter, not “In whom do you believe?” but rather “What do you believe?”

The first two basic principles provided the foundation for the third: the restoration of “SIMPLE EVANGELICAL CHRISTIANITY” as the true basis for Christian union. Reiterating much of Campbell’s original agenda, Richardson said that the movement sought to restore “the gospel and its institutions, in all their original simplicity, to the world.” This, he thought, was the scriptural basis – and only hope – for the visible union of believers.

But Richardson made a significant distinction. Commenting on Jesus’ prayer for unity in John 17, he distinguished sharply between unity and union. Unity, he said, referred to “a spiritual oneness with Christ,” while union was “an avowed agreement and co-operation of Christians with each other.”

Most interpreters of John 17, he said, mistake union for unity. They suppose that Jesus’ prayer for unity ahs not been answered and thus expect “some future fusion of all religious parties into one, or the creation of some grand overshadowing community” of faith. But Jesus’ prayer has been answered, Richardson insisted. Not in a universal, visible union, of course, but in a spiritual unity. The sinful state of humankind “utterly precludes the possibility of any denominational or organic union among believers in this wide world,” he said, “but the unity for which Christ prayed is always, and has been always, not only possible but existent.” This unity is a spiritual oneness created by the presence of the Holy Spirit for which Christ prayed. It is not a doctrinal uniformity or an ironing of differences, but a oneness given by joint participation in the Spirit.

Of course, Richardson said, believers should pray for visible union, for the breakdown of “the bigotry of denominationalism and the rancor of party spirit.” But such a prayer is always a prayer for the Spirit and should not be “misapplied to so inferior a matter, and one so improbable, as a future, universal, organic Christian union.”

Late in Richardson’s life a correspondent told him about a union overture with Baptists in Virginia and asked his opinion. “We were part of the Baptists in the arly days,” replied Richardson, “and have never wholly separated. There were sharp controverses, to be sure, but “at no time have we separated ourselves, or denied fellowship to a Baptist brother, or refused to receive as a member any one accredited by a letter from a Baptist church. We, in reality, ever claimed the Baptists as our brethren.”

At a time when some leaders in the movement insisted that all true Christians were “bound to think alike,” Robert Richardson held up a different vision – the one that he thought had first launched the movement. The demand for doctrinal uniformity, he believed, inevitably entangled believers in the “bonds of partyism,” while only a unity in the Spirit drew them together in the “bond of peace.”


For Further Reading
Fanning, Tolbert. History and True Position of the Church of Christ in Nashville. Nashville: 1854.
Richardson, Robert. “Christian Unity – No. 1” Millennial Harbinger 5th Series 2 (February 1859), 64-69.
___. The Principles and Objects of the Religious Reformation, Urged by A. Campbell and Others, Briefly Stated and Explained. Bethany: 1853.
___. “Reformation – No. IV.” Millennial Harbinger 3rd series 4 (September 1847), 503-509.
___. “Union of Christians,” Millennial Harbinger (March 1866), 97-101.
Wineskins Magazine

Leonard Allen teaches in the College of Biblical Studies at Abilene Christian University. This article is adapted from his book, Distant Voices: Discovering a Forgotten Past for a Changing Church, soon to be released by ACU Press.

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1583 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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