UTOPIAN DREAMS (IV) The Search for the Perfect Church (2)

churchAt the very beginning of this article I want it known that I am a life-long member of Churches of Christ. The criticisms I offer in these articles are not out of any disenchantment, anger or animosity toward these churches or people. I owe my spiritual life to the nurture and training I received from these brethren from childhood up. Some of my earliest memories are of walking a mile or more or riding in a converted WW2 ambulance the church hired to transport folks to and from the Sunday meetings of the small church in the small town where I grew up. While in high school I determined to spend my life preaching and since this was my heritage this is where I spent over 50 years of my life doing just that. I have had good experiences and some not so good – the good outweighing the bad by a long shot.

I am convinced that most of what my brethren have taught through the years is good, sound Bible truth. But I am not so naïve as to think that we have not made some wrong turns through the years and have missed some very important truths as well. But regardless, I will remain among these brethren, trying to help to the best of my ability to teach and strengthen these people whom I love dearly. It is my hope that in writing this brief review of our history that no one will get the idea that I am being anything but objective. I do not wish to incur the disapproval of anyone, but honesty compels me to tell what I know. Be assured that what I say is out of a deep, lifelong love affair with these, my people
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The dream of the ideal is universal. We dream of the ideal mate before we are married – even have a mental picture of what he or she should be like. Then we dream of an ideal home, building castles in the air. We dream of an ideal job while loathing the one that keeps us in food and with clothes on our backs. We dream of ideal communities and look back to the good old days (which are always when we were young). We yearn for an ideal country with an ideal government and vote the same type of slick-tongued scoundrels into office year after year.

As we have brought out in the previous posts in this series, people have, in the search for Utopia, engaged in elaborate social experiments, not only the small, insulated communes of the Shakers, but the phenomenally disastrous fascist and communist societies of the 20th century, with the cost in human lives and misery beyond imagination. Dissatisfaction and exploitation of the so called American Dream has led to a time of uncertainty and unrest in our own country at the present time.

There have been many religious movements begun with the intent of reproducing the supposed ideal of the first century church. To begin with, the churches of the Reformation Movement were content with efforts to simply rid the church of all the extraneous doctrines and practices considered to be without scriptural support. But as time went on and especially with the Bible being available to more and more people, different ideas about what was important or essential to Christianity manifested themselves in a number of restoration efforts. Many of these dissenters advanced the idea that in order to have the ideal church, or the church as the Lord would have it, it would be necessary to reproduce the early or primitive church – the first century church.

Christian primitivism, also described as restorationism, is the belief that Christianity should be restored along the lines of what is known about the apostolic early church, which restorationists see as the search for a more pure and more ancient form of the religion. Fundamentally, “this vision seeks to correct faults or deficiencies [in the church] by appealing to the primitive church as a normative model.”1

The term “restorationism” is sometimes used more specifically as a synonym for the American Restoration Movement (also known as the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement) from which sprang the churches we wrote about in the previous post. But these churches have by no means been the only restorationists in history. Other groups which had as their goal the re-establishment primitive Christianity were the Hussites, the Anabaptists (including the Amish, Mennonites, etc), the Landmarkists, (a Baptist offshoot), and the Puritans as well as some seventh-day Sabbatarians. All of these groups were convinced of two things: 1) all other groups were wrong, having strayed away from the original purity of the church, and 2) that they alone had all the truth. Thus, if one wished to be saved and be right with God he or she had to belong to their church.

Evidences of the Churches of Christ conviction of an exclusive claim to truth are seen in the numerous debates on a wide range of subjects conducted in the early part of the 20th century and on until the present. The challenge was often repeated in sermons and journal articles to debate various issues of difference between them and “the denominations” or “digressives.” So sure were they of their convictions that preachers invited those with whom they differed to “Prove to me where I am wrong…” with the promise to change if such evidence could be produced. What this often amounted to was a boast backed up by a confidence of having the ability to out-argue any possible opponent.

Of course, the Restoration Movement had long had a history of debating as Alexander Campbell had frequently engaged proponents of ideas with which he differed theologically. That heritage was passed on and a number preachers of the Churches of Christ in particular acquired admiration and reputations as able debaters. Being known as a good debater enhanced the preacher’s popularity and his demand for “gospel meetings” as well as for local work. Many of the more conservative churches and preachers still frequently engage others of their own kind with whom they differ and others of usually more conservative denominations in debates. Debating has been so much a source of indoctrination among these churches that some of the theological concepts characteristic of them to this day were forged in the furnace of polemical confrontation. If it worked to defeat “error” it must be true.

A part of the confidence exhibited in this confrontational attitude comes from the particular way of interpreting scripture – the CENI-S method we wrote about in a previous post. This approach to scripture actually originated in the early days of the Protestant Reformation as the “regulative principle.” It was used by Calvin and other reformers as a means of identifying and eliminating the encrustations of traditionalism with which Roman Catholicism had burdened the church. It has fallen into disuse among most of the Protestants but with the Presbyterians from which the Campbells had descended, spiritually speaking it was in the 19th century still very much alive.

In the early to mid-20th century other controversies arose among the Churches of Christ which resulted in further division. May the fruit of the vine in Lord’s Supper be served in individual cups or must everyone drink from the same container? May churches employ the services of a full time minister or must the edification of the local church be done by the members themselves. May the Bible be taught in classes divided according to age or must all teaching be done in one common assembly? May the churches monetarily support extra-congregational organizations to do works of benevolence (orphan’s homes, etc.) and/or edification (colleges), or send to another congregation (sponsoring church) to support works one congregation is not able to support alone (Herald of Truth nationwide radio/TV program)? There have been many other differences and divisions, sometimes on a more localized basis, than these few.

CENI-S was the interpretive method used in arriving at the divergent positions in these divisive arguments. In every case these differences resulted in the formation of separate parties, each believing they and they alone were the “one true church” and that all others were “apostate.” In every case each side accused the other of being “unfaithful” to the gospel/Bible. Sometimes there are several different “true New Testament churches” to be found in one small town, sometimes further fractured by other more local differences.

This “we are right and everyone else is wrong” debate-at-the-drop-of-a-hat, antagonistic mindset resulted, additionally, in isolation from the rest of the Christian world. Mostly it resulted from a refusal to recognize any believers other than those who believed all the “right” doctrines, who practiced all the “right” practices and who called themselves by the “right” name. Right, of course, was right according to whoever was speaking. All parties could justify their stance on whatever peculiarity set them apart from most believers – at least to their own satisfaction.

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1 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Restorationism

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