Unity and restoration

Unity and restoration were both key goals of the American Restoration Movement, and of many of the more serious Christian thinkers and practicers throughout history.  These goals are often found in opposition to one another.  In other words, if one is asserted, the other suffers.

James O'Kelly

For example, James O’Kelly led a division among American Methodists in 1793, apparently largely in opposition to the religious tyranny of the circuit-riding “bishop” Francis J. Asbury.

Francis J. Asbury

Inasmuch as O’Kelly was presumably restoring, disunity resulted.  If he had opted to accede, to resign himself to something not purely biblical, restoratory goals would have suffered.

A slogan of old was “Let Christian unity be our polar star.”  Such a galactic berth for unity may be a mite too high, in the grand scheme, but certainly the Lord’s Prayer (John 17) calls for unity with passion and conviction, and we should, too.

As I bring this series to a close, I would like to reiterate what Paul said to the Christians in Corinth (a loose paraphrase of some of 1 Cor. 1:11-17):

  • separate, named groupings within a Christian body are divisive
  • even Jesus’ name may be used to divide, and divisions among Christians are not good

By extension, the denominational situation in the world today is decidedly not a good thing.  Sectarianism and denominationalism are not to be accepted without question as the approved, natural outgrowth of the spread of the gospel and of human nature; rather, these denominations are to be worked in and worked through, to the end that all sectarian names, ideologies, and creeds should be abolished, giving way to the pure messages of the scriptures, and unity based on those messages.  I wish the words of the Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery were soulfully, intentionally applied to every denomination:

We will, that this body die, be dissolved,
and sink into union with the Body of Christ at large;
for there is but one body, and one Spirit, even as we are called in one hope of our calling.

May restoration continue to occur, and may unity grow alongside it.  May unity be found in scriptural truth and in the truth of Jesus the Living Word.

Models for unity

Continuing from the past few days, I’ll add a few more points and will soon leave this matter of Christian unity.

Unity based on single doctrinal points (or families of related points) may be difficult to achieve, if not completely fallacious.  Water unity isn’t even attainable within the circles of the Baptist denomination(s) or the Church of  Christ, for instance.¹  Calvinistic unity, too, is elusive, as may be observed in a casual glance at the Presbyterian Church (either of them), the Christian Reformed Church, and the Lutheran Church (either of them).

Head unity is based on reasoned understandings and was stressed by Alexander Campbell and Disciples of Christ in the 19C,² but it depends on conformity of human brain activity and is not likely to occur.  Still, it probably does us good to narrow the sense of core Christian doctrine down to the facts upon which more/most of us may unite.  Many of us can agree on such facts as Jesus’ birth to the virgin Mary, His atoning, sacrificial death, His miraculous resurrection, etc.  Opinions about the facts are other matters altogether.  Never can two thinking Christians unite on every peripheral opinion, induction, or deduction about a biblical fact, but the facts themselves deserve much consideration in this arena.

False unity results when a charismatic leader describes unity and asserts it where it does not exist.  Gregarious pastor-types may seek popularity by means of downplaying differences and making things appear more unified than they are.  Glistening or syrupy sermons do not create unity.

Leroy Garrett highlights what Barton Stone called fire unity–the gift of the Holy Spirit.  Inasmuch as this means the unity given by the Spirit that we are merely to maintain (Eph. 4), it warrants attention.  It’s not a goal so much as it is a reality:   we don’t need to achieve it; it’s already achieved.  But if “fire unity” means some supra-natural manifestation of the Holy Spirit–or even vaguely refers to something like “the Pentecostal fire of Christ’s presence”–as a marker of unity, it’s clearly not very unifying and is bound to fail.

Sunday-only unity can be more difficult for some, and less difficult for others.  Whether it works depends, in part, on one’s ecclesiology in terms of the assembly–how prominently corporate Sunday activities figure into the scheme or worldview.

  • If one thinks that what is done on Sundays is central and non-negotiable, agreement on those things is necessary for peace, as it were.  By conscience, some insist on conformity in all things observable during the Christian assembly.³  This scenario may be difficult to imagine in reality (or it may almost be assumed by those who by personality or conviction are bandwagon believers), but I have found it to exist commonly in the churches of the ARM.  It may be experienced rather shallowly in suburban and urban areas, but it is experienced nonetheless, and a measure of conformist peace may be reassuring.  On the other hand, this kind of unity is at once elusive and illusive.  A false “blueprint” conception of the New Covenant writings may be at the foundation.  The scriptures were not written to provide a precise pattern for church behaviors, although they do provide many guiding principles — and certain specifics — for all aspects of living.
  • If one thinks more relationally, i.e., how I believe in relation to the sister or brother sitting in front of me or beside me, then corporate activities take a back seat.  Large-scale aspects may be agreed on, or not, and the relationships will continue to be primary.  As the ultra-rightist, Reaganite, Commie-hating character Alex Keaton (Michael J. Fox, Family Ties) once articulated it when considering a Russian chess opponent, “It’s easier to hate a country than a person.”  Stated in the positive, it’s also easier to love and accept a sincere, individual believer, than an entire, off-base denomination or a large-scale corporate practice not based in scripture.

Perhaps a blend of extroversion and introversion is in order here:  thinking soberly and biblically about what is done when Christians gather together, yes, but also emphasizing individual relationships and the discipleship of individual souls alongside the large-scale stuff.

One more installment, tomorrow:  Unity and Restoration–a plea

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¹ I understand that a Baptist forbear, John Smyth, immersed himself.  If he did that for the sake of church membership, as many Baptists today call for it, I’d be shocked.

² The Barton W. Stone “side” of the ARM does not seem to have emphasized rationalism as much as the Campbell side.

³ Further in the Sunday-unity model, there may be implications for discussions in lobbies and in Bible classes:  agreement on a list of items is either assumed or inflicted.  Dissent is either absent or kept under wraps.

Shallow ecumenism

Last summer, some marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of ecumenism. A 1910 conference in Edinburgh seems to have developed into the milestone that launched it, but I didn’t find myself all that excited about the anniversary.  It seems to me that at the nexus of restoration and unity emerges a dangerous eventuality:  the watering down of just about everything in order to bring disparate elements together.  Inasmuch as ecumenism seeks to minimize material doctrinal differences for the sake of shallow unity, it should not be supported.  This kind of unity is not for Bible-believing Christians.

  • While we can agree that Mormons and Muslims and Jehovah’s Witnesses and Pentecostals and Congregationalists and Roman Catholics and “just Christians” and Baptists and Presbyterians all believe Jesus existed, we can’t always go much further than that.
  • While we can agree that Muslims and Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t correctly understand the nature and place of the Christ, we shouldn’t be satisfied that all the rest of us are just about alike.  Merely believing that Jesus is the Son of God obviously doesn’t bring us together into the single church to which God gave life.
  • While we can agree that Wesleyans and Pentecostals agree that the Spirit of God works actively, that’s not enough agreement for unity of most of their members.
  • While it strikes most as “cool” to talk to a relatively open Christian church about unity even with Roman Catholics, unity must be more than surface-level.  The seven “ones” of Ephesians 4 has for some been a starting point, but even that list is unsatisfactory in practical, 21st-century unity thinking and praxis.  See here for a bit more on an aspect or two of Eph. 4.

Institutional union such as that espoused by the Congregational Church/UCC, and by the ELCA and the UMC,  just won’t suffice.  The artificial merging or juxtaposing of humanly devised creeds is a step in some direction, but institutional union is relatively unimportant, in the grand scheme.

Barton W. Stone

My call, like that of Barton W. Stone in the 1820s, would be for every  man-made creed to be burned.  As close as the Apostles’ Creed comes to being universally acceptable, it doesn’t quite do it, and other creeds and faith-statements I’ve seen don’t do as good a job.  No, creeds must not be the basis of ecumenical unity.

Ecumenism is irenic in its conception and “nice,” as human efforts go, but it is ultimately ineffectual, if not shallow.  Its primary weakness seems to be its emphasis on the institutional church rather than on individual Christians.  The “branches” of John 15 are not congregations or entire denominations, but individuals.

In a sense, unity on the broad scale is already accomplished:  The church of God is “essentially, intentionally, and constitutionally one, and consists of those in every place who profess their faith in Christ and who obey Him in all things according to the scriptures.”¹ Yet in another very real sense, individuals bear the weight of practical unity.  They must be the ones who work out in practical ways the grace, the kindness, the forbearance, and yes, the truths of the gospel and the letters.  Other unity principles and slogans bear repetition here:

  • unity in diversity
  • intolerance of division
  • separation without division
  • union in truth or unity based on “Thus saith the Lord.”

Insofar as ecumenism inculcates unity in diversity, it acknowledges reality.  Insofar as it ignores what the Lord has said through inspired authors, it must be relegated to a place of impotence.

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¹ Thomas Campbell’s “Declaration and Address” used this expression in 1809.

Starting a movement

What inspires others?  If one believes in something, how may he inspire others in his enterprise?

According to Leroy Garrett, historian-scholar and philosopher,

The Stone movement began in 1798 when 26-year old Barton W. Stone raised his hand and said, “I do insofar as it is consistent with the word of God.” He had been asked if he subscribed to the Westminster Confession of Faith, which was necessary to his being ordained as a minister in the Presbyterian Church. His equivocation broke with tradition. There was supposed to be an unqualified Yes, but the young candidate for the ministry had questions about some of the teachings of his church’s creed, and of creeds in general. His superiors, impressed by his sincerity, accepted his answer and he was ordained.

I am inspired by Barton Stone’s action and by his words (but not, incidentally, by the apparently imposing, but nevertheless patently human and fallible, process of ordination).

Even today, may no one hold firmly to a human-codified set of beliefs, or to any manmade traditions, rather enabling sincere students of Scripture to stand on scripture alone, honoring God alone.