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.

Uniting Christians

When we ponder unity, we may be considering the uniting of entire denominations with other ones, or entire local congregations with other ones, or simply — most significantly, I think, as an introvert! — the way individual Christians accept and interact with one another.

Churches and denominations may be labeled “inclusive,” which of course implies that other ones are exclusive.  Ecumenical churches would tend to be more inclusive, but the exclusive/inclusive dichotomy does not necessarily parallel the ecumenical/non-ecumenical one.  Nor does the conservative/liberal contradistinction necessarily predict aspects of unity among believers.  It is possible, in other words, to be biblically conservative without being relationally exclusive.

Leroy Garrett wrote recently on the so-called Lunenberg Letter of Alexander Campbell:

It is when differences are allowed to make a people quarrelsome, hateful, and factious and thus exclusive — drawing the line of fellowship — that divisions come. Exclusivism has been the culprit, and when we look for its beginnings in the Movement we find that its roots had been there all along. From the outset Alexander Campbell talked about “uniting the Christians in the sects,” which inferred that he believed there were Christians in the sects,  but to some of his followers this appeared to conflict with what he had been saying about baptism by immersion being for the remission of sins.

This gave occasion for the Lunenburg Letter, which became the basis of an ongoing controversy that began in 1837. A lady in Lunenburg, Virginia, one of Campbell’s readers, wrote to him about this apparent contradiction. In view of what he had taught about immersion how could there be Christians in the sects if they have not been immersed, she asked, and sharpened the question by asking him to define a Christian.

After warning against being an “ultraist,” noting that any command can be distorted through overemphasis, and insisting that the devotion of the heart means more than outward forms, Campbell gave the definition the woman asked for: “But who is a Christian? I answer, Every one who believes in his heart that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah, the Son of God, repents of his sins, and obeys him in all things according to his measure of knowledge of his will.”

Alexander Campbell’s “Lunenburg letter” is a seminal document in the American Restoration Movement.  It shows not only Campbell’s developing thinking, but also his willingness to engage a serious question from someone apparently to his right — a statement about unity in itself!  Moreover, Campbell’s definition of “Christian” is worthy of careful thought.  One belonging to Christ (= “Christian”), says Campbell, has a personal belief in Jesus, and makes necessary changes in life.

The final phrase in the response–“according to his measure of knowledge of his will”–is of clear significance.  It is much easier to be in practical, accepting unity with individuals if we can allow for individual measures of knowledge.  In other words, something may be utterly clear to me (and I may or may not be right about it), but if my sister’s or brother’s “measure of knowledge” is different on some point, that matter is better left between that person and God.  This principle has come to be known as the “principle of available light.”

Next:  a few misc. (finer?) points about unity