They Said it With Mottoes (Mar-Apr 1998)

By Matt Dabbs

by Leroy Garrett
March – April, 1998

31Mottoes reflect the values of a people, such as “A penny saved is a penny earned” and “Pretty is as pretty does.” They are evident in the business world, as in “Finger Lickin’ Good” and “We’re Ready When You Are.” Some have influenced history, as did Constantine’s “By This Sign Conquer!” and the Protestant Reformation’s Semper Reformati (Always reforming).

While mottoes risk oversimplification, they nonetheless express great truths in but a few words. They are catchy, witty, and easy to remember. They have a way of saying, “This is who we are and what we believe.”

Our Stone-Campbell pioneers realized the importance of mottoes or slogans. Some of them they borrowed from the Protestant Reformation, others they forged out of their own fiery struggles. They help to identify who we are supposed to be as a people. They reflect our heritage at its best.

“Where the Scriptures speak we speak, where the Scriptures are silent we are silent.”

Crafted by Thomas Campbell as a guiding principle for the Christian Association of Washington (1809), this motto was meant to strike a blow against human creeds and to exalt the Bible as the only rule of faith and practice. Campbell did not intend to make the Bible a rule of law for every detail in the life and work of the church.

When this motto is used to support a patternistic view of Scripture, it contradicts the unity principles set forth by Campbell in the Declaration and Address, where he allows for “some variety of opinion and practice” in the restored church. It rather means that we, “a people of the Book,” seek to unite all believers on the Bible and the Person the Bible exalts.

“We are Christians only, but not the only Christians.”

This motto is also turned on its head when some of us claim to be the only Christians. Our pioneers, in launching a movement “to unite the Christians in all the sects,” never doubted that there were indeed Christians in the sects.

It was a unity slogan. Believers can never unite on a human or sectarian name, but they can and must find oneness in the name of Christ. “Let us all be Christians, Christians only;” was their plea. They interpreted Acts 11:26, “The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch,” to mean that “Christian” is a divinely-ordained name. When all believers wear that God-given name and that name only (No hyphenated Christians!), then we will all be united under the authority of Christ.

When their zeal for “the ancient order” led some outsiders to accuse them of believing they were the only Christians, the negative phrase was added—“but not the only Christians.”

Our pioneers never held—certainly not Barton W. Stone or Thomas and Alexander Campbell—that they were the only Christians or that their church was the totality of the Body of Christ. They rather sought to bring an end to divisions among Christians, which they saw as “a horrid evil,” and one way to do this is for all believers and all churches to wear the name of Christ.

But the motto meant still more. If we honor Christ in wearing his name, we will also honor him in the way we live. In being “Christians only” we commit our lives to Christ and bear his likeness.

“In matters of faith, unity; in matters of opinion, liberty; in all things, love.”

Since the Protestant Reformation this motto has appeared variously as “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity,” or “In fundamentals, unity, etc.” Through decades of controversy among our people the Christian Evangelist sought to stay the tide of division by making the motto part of its masthead, giving it still a different form: “In essentials, unity; in opinions and methods, liberty; in all things, love.”

For the motto to call for freedom in methods was in order since our Movement has, as historian Winfred E. Garrison observed, divided over methods more than theology.

Every party leader in our divided Movement agrees with this motto. The problem is that we cannot agree on what is essential or a matter of faith. Our pioneers were persuaded they had the answer to what is essential: what the Scriptures clearly and distinctly state. All else is opinion. We can unite on what the Bible actually says (matters of faith), they believed, but not on what we think it means by what it says (opinions).

Alexander Campbell identified essentials in terms of biblical facts, particularly “the seven facts of Eph. 4.” These seven he often reduced to three, “one Lord, one faith, one baptism.” These facts (principles) are the basis of unity, he avowed, but not theories, deductions, or theology about them.

We owe it to ourselves as we face a new century to revive this old motto, and to come to terms with what is really essential or matters of faith. As far back as John Locke, “the Christian philosopher,” as Alexander Campbell called him, unity-minded believers have insisted that nothing can be made essential to unity and fellowship that God has not made essential to going to heaven.

“Union (unity) in Truth.”

Thomas Campbell said it as early as 1809 in the Declaration and Address: “Union in Truth is our motto.” Unity is never to be at the expense of truth. But our pioneers realized that some truths are more important than others, and it is the more important truths (the essentials, again) that are the basis of unity.

Robert Richardson, Campbell’s biographer and our first historian, had a way of saying “The truth that saves is the truth that unites.” There are many truths (facts) in the Bible, but it is only the truth of the gospel that saves and unites. He thus distinguished between the Bible and the gospel. The Bible educates us but the gospel (the truth) saves us.

So, to our pioneers “Union in Truth” meant unity in the truth or fact of Jesus Christ as Lord, not on biblical doctrine, which is subject to different interpretations (opinions). One might be wrong on various points of doctrine but right in his relationship to Christ. This means that unity is not contingent on doctrinal agreement but upon being “in Christ” together.

We thus sin against our own heritage when we predicate unity and fellowship upon doctrinal conformity rather than upon a mutual relationship to Christ.

Other mottoes, not as broadly current as the above, were identified with particular leaders, such as Barton W. Stone’s “Let Christian unity be our polar star.” He invoked this motto in his “Address to Churches of Christ” in pleading for the union of the Stone and Campbell movements, which was effected in 1832. This slogan, so pregnant in meaning, is carved in marble under Stone’s likeness on a cenotaph in the garden of the Disciples of Christ Historical Society in Nashville.

One of the Movement’s earliest historians, W. T. Moore, capsulated what he saw as the essence of the Movement in what may be the most meaningful motto of all: “We are free to differ but not to divide.” This is who we were at the outset, a people who allowed for diversity of opinion but abhorred division.

Free to differ but not to divide? Our multiple divisions imply that we believe the reverse of that: we are free to divide but not to differ! We in fact solve our differences by dividing, split after split.

Finally, there was Alexander Campbell’s “Expect great things, attempt great things, and great things will follow.” This homespun philosophy is a measure of the Movement. If ever there were a people who lived in the expectation of great things, and then went on to attempt them and to realize them, it was the followers of Alexander Campbell.

They said it with mottoes. These mottoes have a common ingredient in that they are about unity. They are in fact principles of unity. They reveal the true nature of our heritage: We are supposed to be a unity movement! It was a disdain for division and a love for unity that gave us birth as a people on the American frontier. This gave rise to still another slogan: Unity is our business! Is that really who we are?

Semper Reformata! If reformation is ongoing, is not restoration also?Wineskins Magazine

Leroy Garrett

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1581 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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