UTOPIAN DREAMS (III) The Search for the Perfect Church

churchIn the religious world the hopes of a golden day of peace and cooperation fared no better than the secular utopian’s dreams. Alexander Campbell’s vision of uniting all believers in one common endeavor in order to hasten the Millenial Age began to fade as we noted in the first post. Campbell’s belief was that the

last and most beneficial change in society”—the millennium—would come sooner if preachers would “let the gospel, in its own plainness, simplicity, and force, speak to men. … [For] in its power it will pass from heart to heart … from city to city, until it bless the whole earth.”1

In order to facilitate this end Campbell and others of the early restorationists would refrain from making doctrines derived by way of human inferences tests of fellowship.2 Thomas Campbell’s Declaration and Address, one of the most important documents in stating the principles of the Restoration Movement, in articles 6 and 7 asserts:

6) That although inferences and deductions from Scripture premises, when fairly inferred, may be truly called the doctrine of God’s holy word, yet are they not formally binding upon the consciences of Christians farther than they perceive the connection, and evidently see that they are so; for their faith must not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power and veracity of God.3

7) That although doctrinal exhibitions of the great system of Divine truths, and defensive testimonies in opposition to prevailing errors, be highly expedient, and the more full and explicit they be for those purposes, the better; yet, as these must be in a great measure the effect of human reasoning, and of course must contain many inferential truths, they ought not to be made terms of Christian communion; unless we suppose, what is contrary to fact, that none have a right to the communion of the Church, but such as possess a very clear and decisive judgment, or are come to a very high degree of doctrinal information; whereas the Church from the beginning did, and ever will, consist of little children and young men, as well as fathers.4

From these statements it is evident that the original purpose of the Restoration Movement was not to establish another denomination among the already-existing denominations but to call upon Christians in the denominations to recognize a unity that already transcended the sectarian groups. The elder Campbell recognized early on that the peculiar doctrines of the denominations was what divided Christians and that these doctrines, true or false, were commonly arrived at through a process of human reasoning. The first of Campbell’s 13 propositions says of this fundamental unity …

1) That the Church of Christ upon earth is essentially, intentionally, and constitutionally one; consisting of all those in every place that profess their faith in Christ and obedience to him in all things according to the Scriptures, and that manifest the same by their tempers and conduct, and of none else; as none else can be truly and properly called Christians.

The Church of Christ to which Campbell refers is not a separate entity, but the universal church, or as it is sometimes referred to, the church catholic. The aim of the Campbells and other early restorationists was to call upon believers to recognize a common ground upon which all could unite in the common endeavor of preparing the way for the coming Millennial Age. They and the others in the early days of the movement were from different backgrounds but all thought of themselves as being Christians. What they saw as dividing believers was not the different groups but the peculiar doctrines (creeds) of the denominations. This is what they sought to overcome in the thinking of believers so that all could come together in the common endeavor of hastening the Millennial Age.

Following the Civil War a few of the Restoration leaders, David Lipscomb, notably, still believed in the Campbellian postmillennial hope, but the emphasis gradually changed from a future golden age on earth to a perfectly restored church and the hope of man a home in heaven in the sweet by and by. The churches that sprang from the movement became amillenial instead of postmillennial as in Campbell’s eschatology. The hope became an other-worldly paradise rather than a perfect earth. The supposition was made that the first century church was intended to provide the perfect pattern for the church for all ages to come and the emphasis turned to the question of how to reproduce the first century church in the present age. These churches continued to call upon the various denominations to surrender allegiance to their creeds and join them in the restoration of the “true church” of the first century, but the concept of Christians in all the denominations was repudiated. With that repudiation there came the corresponding though often denied claim that those in the truly restored churches were the only true Christians. And with this sometimes came the accusation that those of the restoration churches believed they were the only ones going to heaven.

Campbell could not bring himself to conclude that until his people came along there was no Church of Christ upon earth, no Christians, no kingdom of God, and that the promise that the gates of hell would never prevail against the church had failed.5

With the new exclusivistic emphasis there came the perceived need to be able to establish the claim that the Disciples or Christian Churches (Restoration churches) were the true church. There had to be an ecclesiastical doctrine to distinguish them from all the other religious bodies. If they were going to be the restored New Testament church there had to marks of identification by which they would be recognizable and a standard by which they were to measure the success of the restoration. There had to be a restoration of the form and function of the church of the first century. In order to do this there had to be some means of deriving the details that determined the distinctiveness of the first century church from all the late-comers and impostors. Merely stripping away the denominational characteristics would not work. There had to be a way of reading the Bible to exclude everything not characteristic of the original. The intent was good, but how to turn it into reality? Some second generation leaders began to strenuously advocate a threefold method of determining Biblical authority – direct Commands, apostolically approved Examples and Necessary Inference – CENI for short. These, along with S for the silence of the scriptures, became the accepted method of Biblical interpretation among the Churches of Christ until the latter half of the 20th century.

The answer was to turn to the very thing that Thomas Campbell had warned against in his Declaration and Address – the use of inferences to draw lines of fellowship. Both the Campbells recognized that inference is a legitimate tool to be used in the process of learning. Everyone draws conclusions by way of inductive and deductive reasoning. The early leaders had recognized the legitimacy of reason in its proper place but in refusing to make their conclusions binding on others recognized the flaw in the use of inferences was in the ability of human beings to reason reliably or in the ability of others to grasp the significance of the thing concluded. But what they had refused to do – make human inferences binding on the consciences of others – the second generation of Restoration leaders endorsed wholeheartedly. To illustrate the hearty acceptance of the process of Biblical interpretation that was beginning to take hold among the churches of the Restoration from about the midpoint of the 19th century consider these quotes from a few of the major figures of that time.

J. W. McGarvey, a student of Campbell, in the Millennial Harbinger, 1868, pp. 213-19, is quoted in Truth Magazine …

“The loudest call that comes from heaven to the men of this generation is for warfare, stern, relentless, merciless, exterminating, against everything not expressly or by necessary implication authorized in the New Testament. Such is my unwavering conviction; and my only regret is, that I cannot fight this fight as it should be fought.”6

Moses E. Lard, another Campbell student, writing in the first issue of his Lard’s Quarterly (Sept., 1863), attempted to summarize the plea of such men as Campbell, Stone, and others …

“The reformation consists in an effort to induce all the truly pious in Christ to become perfectly joined together in the same mind, and in the same judgment, by accepting as doctrine, precisely and only what is either actually asserted or necessarily implied in the Bible;”7

James A. Harding (1848-1922), … reminded his readers that …

“I have been taught all my life that the Scriptures teach ‘by precept, by approved apostolic example and by necessary inference,’ and it is certain that this is correct….I am sure it is safe to do as they did; I am not certain it is safe to do any other way.” James Harding, 1901.8

The practical outcome of these attitudes and teachings would not be long in coming. The exclusivistic mindset evidenced in the thinking of these men came to full bloom in Daniel Sommer, a militant ultra-conservative in the Churches of Christ. At the Sand Creek church, located in Shelby County, Illinois, on Sunday, August 18, 1889, Sommer, in an hour and a half sermon in which he blasted the “innovators” among the churches of the “Restoration Movement,” read a prepared statement entitled, “Address and Declaration,” (an obvious play on Thomas Campbell’s “Declaration and Address” in which Campbell had called for unity among believers in all churches). Sommer’s call was exactly the opposite of Campbell’s. Sommer called for division. Those who wished to keep the church pure must pull out of the “digressive” churches and maintain a distinct identity.9 Less than two decades later, (1906), the Churches of Christ were listed in the national census as a separate group from the remainder of the Restoration churches. The once grand vision of an ever improving world had been diminished to a factious, fractional faction. The vision of a perfectly restored church had been set aside and adjustments made to accommodate the 20th century reality. The attainment of the perfect church was proving to be an elusive goal.


1 http://www.acu.edu/sponsored/restoration_quarterly/archives/2000s/vol_43_no_1_contents/gilbert.html

2 Ibid

3 http://www.outrageouscampbellite.com/13-propositions.pdf

4 Ibid

5 Leroy Garrett, Lessons From Campbell’s Lunenburg Letter; http://www.leroygarrett.org/restorationreview/article.htm?rr33_10/rr33_10b.htm&33&10&1991

6 http://www.truthmagazine.com/religious-controversy-4

7 Moses Lard, Lard’s Quarterly, 1864 (Quoted from Truth Magazine). http://www.truthmagazine.com/archives/volume24/TM024007.html

8 James A. Harding in The Way (“Laying on of Hands–The Grounds for Unity,”  [September 26, 1901] via http://johnmarkhicks.com/2008/05/30/stone-campbell-hermeneutics-iv-regulative-principle-and-churches-of-christ/

10 Quoted from my book, A Better Way,

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