UTOPIAN DREAMS (V) My Story

fork-in-the-road2I fully realize that subjective experiences do not prove propositions, but I know also that I am not alone in the journey I have been on for many years now. In order that my readers may know that I have not reached the place I am now in a day or even a year nor without struggle, I wish to tell you something of that odyssey. I believe there are many others who are thinking and wondering about the things they have always heard and I wish to assure you that you are not alone and to encourage you to keep searching for the truth.

The combative, confrontational attitude of which we wrote in the last post was still very much in vogue when I came of age and began to think about preaching. In my teen years I attended a number of debates conducted by brethren in the Churches of Christ with Missionary Baptists. These debates were always well attended with people coming from far and near, especially if some well known debater happened to be engaged in the discussion.

The other major events, aside from the weekly assemblies, were the annual gospel meetings which usually lasted ten days with services twice daily and monthly singings hosted by a different area church. The gospel meetings were usually conducted by some well known preacher from Nashville or other larger town. These meetings were almost always well attended by folks from neighboring congregations. Most of the sermons had to do with “first principles” or what the sinner must do to be saved with heavy stress laid on the necessity of baptism. Ordinarily there would be several people “respond to the invitation,” come forward to “make the good confession” and be baptized. Much is made today of the necessity of being baptized “the same hour of the night,” but in those days most churches did not have baptistries, so baptisms were postponed until the next day following the afternoon service when the candidates were taken to a nearby creek to be immersed.

There were no divisions among the churches of Christ in the area where I grew up. Many folks subscribed to the Gospel Advocate – preachers especially. This was the way people kept up with what was going on outside our semi-isolated communities and no doubt were aware of controversies brewing elsewhere. The Gospel Advocate also provided the Bible study literature for the Sunday classes with appropriate studies for different age levels. Between the Advocate’s influence, that of David Lipscomb College (now University) in Nashville and Freed-Hardeman College (now also University) in Henderson, Tennessee producing the preachers, the direction of the churches was pretty well controlled.

It wasn’t until I attended Freed-Hardeman (1955-57) that I became aware of some kind of controversy arising among brethren, although it would only be after I graduated from FH that I found out what that was about. During my two years at FH I never heard any issues or hint of what was going on in the wider world discussed by the faculty. A few months after my graduation I was invited to a neighboring county, given a job in a department store and a room to stay in so I could do “appointment preaching” with the church in town and with other churches out in the county.

When attending a gospel meeting at one of those small rural churches I was confronted by the preacher with the question, “Where do you stand?” I replied, “On what?” My indoctrination into the non-institutional side of the controversy began with this brother loaning me a tape recording of a sermon by a well known preacher presenting what he saw as error on the part of the “institutional brethren.” In order to inform myself better of the “truth” I attended debates, subscribed to NI papers and church bulletins, attended meetings conducted by NI preachers (in which there were always one or more sermons devoted to the “issues” and why the other side was wrong and why we were right. By this time I had long since “taken my stand” with the “sound” (NI) churches and was preaching the gospel according to the Gospel Guardian, the most prominent periodical among these brethren. I was led to believe that those who opposed the GG-NI teaching were unfaithful to the scriptures and were going beyond what was written.

During the time I was preaching I often sought other employment in order to provide a living for my family since the churches I worked with were small in numbers and limited in resources. To provide for my family I did everything from selling shoes to delivering furniture, cutting meat and I later years, substitute teaching with one very interesting assignment, that of teaching elementary school kids to play chess and coaching three chess teams in the local school system. In my preaching for the first thirty or so years I tried to the best of my ability to be faithful to the teaching I knew, upholding what I saw as the truth against the “liberals” and “digressives.” I believed with all my heart that I was doing what was right – what the Lord expected of me.

During this time whenever someone from a “liberal” (institutional) church or a “denomination” would visit where I was preaching I felt duty bound to “skin ’em alive” (tell them from the pulpit what was wrong with their belief and/or practice). No matter what I happened to be preaching, I would work the mistakes of the “erring brethren” into the sermon. I taught classes on “How to Establish Bible Authority” using the usual CENI-S formula as the divinely approved method of Bible study which everyone must use to be able to really know the truth. I contended that those who differed with us on the issues simply refused to see the truth as the Bible plainly revealed it to us … through CENI-S, of course.

After about thirty years of preaching the party line something began to trouble me. When a certain cousin whose husband was a preacher for the opposite side would visit I would go into the usual performance for his sake. Eventually this began to bother me. I knew him to be a godly man who was trying to the best of his knowledge and ability to serve God just as I was. What right did I have to call his integrity or his faithfulness to God into question over matters that I was beginning to have doubts about? What right did I have being so high handed and condescending to a humble servant of Jesus? Doubts began to evidence themselves when I would attempt to preach a sermon that dealt with the “issues” that had divided the church. Every time I preached on some such subject I would come away with a gnawing feeling in the pit of my stomach – an uncertainty, a hint of doubt. Something wasn’t making sense to me.

By this time I was working in the local school system. At that time there weren’t any official objections – and no one else to object – to my studying the Bible when I had time. When the students were working on assignments I would have my Bible open. (I have had a number of former students tell me that my studying the Bible made a lasting impression on them. Some have even told me that it encouraged them to exhibit better behavior!) But I began to observe things I had never seen before – things that did not rightly mesh with what I had been taught and what I had been teaching. I will not go into details concerning what I learned in my studies. You can read my blog and my books, A Better Way and Give Me Liberty and see for yourself what I believe.

The more I thought and studied the more I began to realize that if I were to change my beliefs and let that be known my preaching career would come to an end. No one on either side would trust me. What would I do to earn a living? (I can sympathize with preachers who face a crisis of conscience from facing such a decision). For a good while I simply said nothing. In my preaching I did not deal with the controversies as a good NI preacher was ordinarily expected to do. Fortunately I was working with a congregation that tolerated me expressing some different views. Eventually I began to express more and more of my convictions to the congregation. Jesus, love and grace began to take precedence over legalistic pronouncements and inferred commandments.

A few years ago after I retired from full time preaching and while attending a NI congregation I had been associated with at its beginning and due to personal circumstances I felt it important that I “go public” as to what I had come to believe. At this point I had been writing a daily article on Facebook and posting also on my blog for several years. I went before the congregation, told them what I was doing and assured them that what I believed would make no difference between myself and them – that if there were any difference in our relationship they would be the ones to make the difference. To make a long story short, it made a difference with them! You can read my explanation of these events on my blog at DISCLAIMER AND EXPLANATION. (The material I was writing is also available on my blog and in my books, A Better Way and Give Me Liberty; Restoring the Spirit of Jubilee).

Since leaving the NI church I have been attending more “mainstream” churches. I have visited a number of different congregations ranging from more traditional ones as well as a few of the more “progressive” churches. While none of these congregations are exactly alike –  and not any of them perfect – I have found in them people who love the Lord, who believe Bible and who are seeking to the best of their understanding to serve the Lord to the best of their ability. In all the churches I have attended through the years I have found the some of the sweetest, most devoted disciples of the Lord one could ever wish to know. Their faith in Jesus is evident as is the presence of the Holy Spirit in their lives. I have known preachers who obviously love the Lord and have devoted their lives to serving him in the preaching of his word. For all these people I am thankful. I am proud to call them my brothers and sisters – all of them – and confidently look forward in hope to meeting them in the new heaven and new earth.

No, I have not found a perfect church. As the saying goes, if I had it wouldn’t be perfect when I got there. We are all – all believers of whatever religious heritage – on a journey together. It is a journey from the imperfect to the perfect. When we reach it we will know. But for now our greatest need is for each of us to help the other as we travel along a common road of human experience toward a divine destination. And when we reach it we will be there only by the grace of God. It ill behooves any of us to think that we alone are favored by our one Creator.

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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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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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UTOPIAN DREAMS (II)

biggin-church-ruins-photo-3In the first post in this series we sketched a few of the utopian experiments that marked the earlier part of the 19th century. These efforts were expressions of the high expectations characteristic of the Age of Enlightenment and the Modern Era. This was an age of rapid advances in learning that had begun in the Renaissance period and had morphed into subsequently more optimistic periods and expectations. Along with the advances in learning and the discoveries that were coming through science plus the prosperity derived from the bustling industrial establishment there was a growing confidence in the ability of man to solve the problems of society.

There were, as it turned out, problems in identifying what those problems were and then problems in deciding what solution to apply to those problems. Humanism, whether of a secular or religious nature, is inherently flawed and thus incapable of delivering on the promises it makes. That problem is man himself. Man is flawed. Thousands of years of history testify to this fact. And certainly the Bible declares it to be true as the apostle Paul, in Romans 3:23 tersely states, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” From the original pair in Eden to the climax of history at the cross this is the unbroken pattern. Sure, there were good people – people with whom God was pleased – people whom God had saved, but even these were flawed and dependent on God. So how could man be relied upon to build an ideal civilization? How could God’s plans be contingent upon man’s accomplishments?

The solving of human problems isn’t as simple as just providing people with the truth and expecting everyone to gratefully accept it. Every nation, every empire, every regime that has attempted to build a better world has failed because every one of them has been built by men, often in open defiance of God’s will and purpose for man. From Cain who built a city away from God to Nimrod who built an empire (extending from Babel to Nineveh) to Egypt, Greece and Rome, all had been built upon the backs of slaves, exploited workers and the blood of the armies required to establish and maintain those nations. Even those efforts that have been made in the name of righteousness have failed. All those empires have similarly crumbled into dust, remembered only in moldy archives in musty museums and broken and buried artifacts.

Today one has but to drive an hour or two from where I live in Kentucky to see the unoccupied remains of two of the Shaker communes at South Union and Pleasant Hill, preserved now as historical sites, the people who occupied them and hoped in their promises, long since gone. Although the Shakers communities outlived many other ventures of their kind, they were doomed from the beginning largely as a result of their own teachings and beliefs as well as by a changing society. Mother Ann Lee taught that the sexual relationship even between husbands and wives was inherently evil. Their demand that members of their religion remain celibate certainly played a large role in their ultimate demise, not from mere abstinence, but from a schismatic element within the religion who turned to spiritualism and began to advocate the union of flesh and spirit which would do away with celibacy.1

During this period that spawned various utopian communal endeavors and fostered the flourishing of such dreams as Campbell’s Millenial Age there were powerful social forces at work which would have a definite dampening effect on these ventures. Slavery was, without doubt, the most significant of these forces. Of the many things that probably worked against the utopian settlements most, the Civil War would have had to be one of the greatest discouraging influences. The world wasn’t getting better and better. Two of the most horrendous atrocities man can impose upon himself – slavery and war – left the churches that had resulted from the Restoration Movement exposed and vulnerable, torn and broken. Certainly the idea that the world was moving toward a realization of Christ’s reign on earth suffered a severe blow. The nation that had suffered the rending of itself and the death of its ablest young men was left divided – North and South – with the churches mirroring this same division in many respects.

Campbell…

“…defined his Millenial Age as a political and religious order of society that would accomplish the ultimate improvement of humans and their world. Like Irenaeus and other ancient chiliasts, he saw the natural environment as undergoing a pronounced transformation with the fecundity of the earth and the pleasantness of the climates extremely enhanced during that time. Society also would be greatly improved, with no more war and with general peace and harmony in all human relationships.”2

Historian Leroy Garrett quotes Campbell as saying;

“Slavery is the largest and blackest blot upon our national escutcheon, that many-headed monster, that Pandora’s box, that bitter root, that blighting and blasting curse under which so far and so large a portion of our beloved country groans.”

Although the restoration churches did not divide over the issue of slavery, there were some individuals who were slave owners and others who pressed for abolition. Within the 19th century society and within the Restoration Movement itself there were divisions over this thorny social issue.

Generally, Disciples adopted the prevalent attitudes of the section in which they lived in their opinions on the question of slavery. Most Disciples in the South, many of them slaveholders, favored the institution of slavery, and defended it on a biblical basis. On the other hand, Northern Disciples opposed slavery, and a significant minority of them became passionate abolitionists, pressing for immediate emancipation.3

With the war approaching, many in the restoration churches remained neutral. These felt that the unity of the church was of paramount importance and so kept quiet about the mounting tension on the political and social issues dividing the country. Many of the leaders of this group were committed pacifists and were determined that the church not send its members to war, no matter what the cause.4 But this was not to be.

“…when the war came in 1861, thousands of Disciples on both sides put on their new uniforms and went to fight. Among them were Barton Stone, Jr. and Alexander Campbell, Jr., both officers in the Confederate Army. In the words of historian David Edwin Harrell, “In the heat of passion, Disciples killed their brethren.”5

Now, instead of the Restoration Movement ushering in a Millennial Age of peace and harmony in the rule of the Messiah established over all the earth it had become the victim of the division within the society it was seeking to reform. The vision was, for the most part, lost. Following the Civil War there were a few who held on to the concept of a coming era of peace and righteousness, but for the majority there was another vision, another dream.

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1 http://www.smith.edu/hsc/silk/papers/larbi.html

2 Kevin James Gilbert, The Stone-Campbell Millennium: A Historical Theological Perspective; http://www.acu.edu/sponsored/restoration_quarterly/archives/2000s/vol_43_no_1_contents/gilbert.html

3 A Brief History of the Stone-Campbell Tradition; http://www.discipleshistory.org/history/brief-history-stone-campbell-tradition

4 ibid

5 ibid

 

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UTOPIAN DREAMS

NHIWho doesn’t want to live in a better place? We dream of a better house in a better location with better conveniences, in better communities in  better world – you know. just. better. British author James Hilton describes Shangri-La as a mystical, harmonious valley which resembles the ancient Tibetan Buddhist’s Shambhala. Utopia, paradise, heaven (on earth), Eden, Garden of Eden (present age), Shangri-La, Elysium; idyll, nirvana, God’s country, Elysian Fields, Valhalla, Avalon – it goes by many different names but the essential idea is the same. Wikipedia says utopia is …

“… a community or society possessing highly desirable or near perfect qualities. The word was coined by Sir Thomas More in Greek for his 1516 book Utopia (in Latin), describing a fictional island society in the Atlantic Ocean. The term has been used to describe both intentional communities that attempt to create an ideal society, and imagined societies portrayed in fiction. It has spawned other concepts, most prominently dystopia.

There have been many utopian experiments carried out in fairly recent history – many of them religious in nature. Settlements such as the Shakers. The Shakers, or the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearance, represent one of the most successful utopian communities in American history. The Shakers were founded in England in 1770 by “Mother” Ann Lee who claimed to have had visions from God. “According to Lee’s visions, the Shakers were to live by four basic tenets. First, they must live communally. Second, they must be celibate. Third, they must regularly confess their sins. And fourth, they must separate themselves from the outside world. They believed that if they rigorously followed these tenets, they would be able to achieve perfection.”2 They built the first of the Shaker communities in America in Western New York State from which eventually eighteen came into being, stretching from Kentucky to Maine.

Another experiment in utopianism was that of Robert Owen who was the mind behind New Harmony, IN. New Harmony had begun in 1814 by a group of followers of the self-proclaimed prophet, George Rapp. Rapp had broken with the Lutheran Church in Germany and had led his followers to America where they first began a settlement in Butler County, PA in 1804. “The Harmonites, (or Rappites, Rapp’s followers, mr), … were Millennialists, in that they believed Jesus Christ was coming to earth in their lifetime to help usher in a thousand-year kingdom of peace on earth. This is perhaps why they believed that people should try to make themselves “pure” and “perfect”, and share things with others while willingly living in communal “harmony”…3

Owen came to this country from England in 1824 and after visiting with the Shakers and the Rappites, purchased the town of Harmony (now New Harmony, Indiana) in 1825 for a sum of $135,000. He immediately began advertising for occupants for the 800 places that were available. Owen believed that the community (Owen’s concept pictured above) would serve as the model for the “New Moral World” communities that would follow New Harmony and eventually transform world society according to enlightenment principles. Progressive experiments in education, communal living and science were attempted, and Owen brought to New Harmony some of the most progressive European educators and scientists.”4 “The underlying factor (in Owen’s purchase of Harmony) was his deep commitment to the belief that it would be the seed for other communities, all of which would eventually lead to the new society he envisioned. All else was secondary thereto.”5

Journalist Larry Witham in his history of preaching in America6 includes Alexander Campbell, the most prominent and influential of the early Stone-Campbell Restoration figures, in a list of preachers whose vision and works were of the utopian sort. Campbell was very much a product of his age – the Age of Enlightenment, so this is not surprising. It is hardly odd that Campbell crossed paths in Cincinnati April 13-21, 1829 in a debate with the same Robert Owen who was behind the utopian venture at Harmony, IN. The debate wasn’t about their views of the future world, but upon evidences for the Christian faith. In fact, their views of the future of the world were strikingly similar. They differed somewhat on how humanity would get to their expected perfect place as Owen was a skeptic, but in substance they were very much the same in their hopes for humanity. Given that the zeitgeist, the spirit of the age, was that of extreme optimism for human perfectibility, this is not surprising. The hope to transform world society according to enlightenment principles was rife in this age. It was what was behind the utopian dreams outlined above and others as well.

For Campbell, in the heyday of Restoration Movement the world was getting better; scriptures were being spread; science, education, agriculture, commerce, and nature all were combining to bring on a better day. A new political, moral, and religious revolution was fast advancing.”And do not all these operations indicate that much … will certainly be done to bless the human race, without the aid of a new dispensation?” In short, a new American epoch was bringing about the culmination of the Reformation, fevering to a high pitch an early utopia in which Christ shall reign in spirit and truth.7 This hope in some form was common to all modernistic enlightenment thinkers of every stripe.

Beginning in 1843, however, Campbell began to subdue his eschatological interests. Was it because it was becoming more and more evident that the hopes and dreams he had cherished early on in the Restoration Movement were not coming to fruition?  He seemed to diminish his writing on the subject, although as late as 1856 he continued to affirm that the Bible affords God’s people grounds to believe that the church will arrive at a state of prosperity that it has never before enjoyed. It may be in the second millennium of recorded Christian history, but it shall continue for at least a thousand years. The Jews will convert to Jesus as the Christ, genuine
Christianity will spread throughout the world, and Christ will reign spiritually in glory. When he addressed the baccalaureate class at Bethany College in 1858, he proclaimed that they were “standing upon the experience of 5,862 years, lacking only 138 years of the Millennial Age.”8

According to Campbell’s estimate, the Millenial Age when the perfect rule of Christ would be ushered in would have been 19 years ago in 1996. His hope for the church to be restored to it’s original state of unity was, at the time of this hopeful statement, already beginning to crumble as the Restoration churches were by that time squabbling over what constituted the essentials for that to occur. Along with the widening cracks appearing in what was supposed to be the monolithic structure of the “restored” church came the gradual demise of the millenial hope as well.

Ninety years before his supposed date of the inauguration of the age to come, the Churches of Christ were declared by another prominent leader, David Lipscomb, to be a separate entity from the main body of the Restoration. Fifty years or so later the definitive division between the Disciples of Christ and the independent Christian Churches took place. The utopian Restoration dream was, by that time, no more than a shattered dream so far as Campbell’s hopes were concerned.

To be continued…

_________________

1 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shangri-La

2 http://xroads.virginia.edu/~hyper/hns/cities/shakers.html

3 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harmony_Society

4 http://xroads.virginia.edu/~hyper/hns/cities/newharmony.html

5 http://scholarworks.iu.edu/journals/index.php/imh/article/view/10250/14211

6 Utopias and Utopians: An Historical Dictionary of Attempts to Make the World, HarperOne; Reprint edition (July 1, 2008)

7 Dan G. Danner, The Millennium in the Restoration Movement; Leaven, Volume 7, Issue 4, Restoration Themes

8 Ibid

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LAW, FAITH AND THE JUDAIZERS

judicial-activismI found a question in my in-box this morning about whether one can live by law and by faith in Christ at the same time or would this be like the Judaizer’s religion. Here is my answer:

That is not an easy question to answer. At first I am tempted to say that there is no such thing as law coexisting with faith. By its very nature law demands perfect obedience and we as human beings are imperfect as law keepers. Because of this, the only thing law can do when one breaks it is condemn the law-breaker. The Judaizer’s mistake was thinking that salvation in Christ required the keeping of the law of Moses in addition to having faith in Jesus. Paul wrote to the Judaizers in Galatia and tells them; “You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace” ( Galatians 5:4). They had become victims of the trap they themselves had set.

Paul further writes in Galatians 3:23, “Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed.” He adds in the next two verses: “So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian …” (Galatians 3:24-25). In these verses he compares the state of the Jews to that of children being escorted to school by a slave (guardian) who had the responsibility of seeing that the children arrived safely at their destination. The law, then, was a system of slavery. It did not give freedom. It could not give freedom because it could only condemn when one strayed from the right path. It could not answer the need for a clean conscience because it could only produce a sense of guilt.

It would be inconsistent with the state of the Christian to go back under the slavery of law. We have been made free. Paul tells us in Gal. 5:1, “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” To attempt to be justified by law would be to renounce our freedom in Christ in exchange for a sense of guilt and condemnation.

On the other hand, there is no such thing as living by faith and not being under law. The question is; what kind of law is the one who has faith under? The only possible alternative is to live under the law of Christ. James calls this law the perfect law of liberty.  “But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing” (James 1:25). Also  “So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty” (James 2:12). In the 8th verse he defined that law: “If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing well.” The “royal law” is the law of the king. The king is Jesus – he is the Christ (which means king). The king’s law is LOVE.

This “royal law,” the law of Christ, is not a code of law, a listing of “dos and don’ts.” It is a principle of action that is applicable in every situation of life. Jesus called this a “new commandment” in John 13:34; “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.” Then he adds in vs. 35, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” He didn’t say that the world would know his people, his church, by the way they worshiped or the way they organized themselves. He didn’t say his people would be known by how faithfully they kept a long list of “essentials.”

What is the difference? The Judaizers (and those who claim we are under a system of law today) make that law a means of justification or salvation. Judaizers are good at condemning people because that is the nature of their religion. Their religion is a religion of law. If you don’t do the law you are damned. If you miss one of the “essentials” regarding worship you are damned. If you are not baptized for the right reason you are damned. They do this because the law leaves no room for grace and we are saved by grace through faith, not by works of righteousness which we have done (Ephesians 2:8-9). They are not good at loving because they are too busy judging and condemning.

MR

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The More Things Change…!

moving_fastThe Expositor’s Bible Commentary was originally published about a century ago. A little while ago in studying for some writing I am doing I was looking at the comments on Ephesians by G.G. Findlay and the following on Paul’s advice for Christians to be careful how they walk caught my eye. It illustrates that the more things change the more they stay the same!

“We are too restless to think, too impatient to learn. Everything is sacrificed to speed. The telegraph and the daily newspaper symbolise the age. The public ear loves to be caught quickly and with new sensations: a premium is set on carelessness and hurry. Earnest men, eager for the triumph of a good cause, push forward with unsifted statements and unweighed denunciations, that discredit Christian advocacy and wound the cause of truth and charity.

What would G. G. think if he were around now? Most people today don’t read newspapers and never in their lives sent or received a telegram. We don’t carry on conversations face to face with one another any more, we tweet, text, SMS or IM. We are a people continually on the go; the usual cell phone call begins with, “Where are you?” Now we receive what information we get from Facebook memes and angry, biased rants. We don’t even have to wait until we can sit down in front of a desktop computer (remember them?) or pick up a laptop. We want to move fast either on the super highway or on the information super highway. We have our Iphones or an array of other devices with us all the time. We are impatient to get things done – yesterday if not sooner. We want our facts like our food – fast! Our opinions are formed on the basis of thirty second sound bytes on the news and ninety second video clips on U-tube or Facebook, the latter being fed to us with the proper slant for our preference thanks to the digital wizardry of Facebook engineers.

But the hurry-scurry life is nothing new. Jesus and his disciples faced the pressure of constant demands being made upon them. Mark tells us that “many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat.” What is different is the technology and the speed made possible by that technology. The solution to this issue is simple. It is the same today as it was in Jesus’ day. And he said to them, “Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while.” (Mark 6:31)

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