Alexander Campbell and Church Cooperation

Stephen D. Lane
Gibson City, Illinois

One of the most difficult problems to come out of the restoration movement's early history in America is that of Alexander Campbell's attitude toward church cooperation. The question of congregational cooperation was one of the earliest issues to arise among the reformers, and has been one of the liveliest from the days of Campbell to the present. Today this controversy is as raging as it ever was during the lifetime of Campbell. It is this writer's earnest conviction, however, that a careful study of the historical position occupied by Campbell on the question will do much to promote our understanding of present issues.

The problem of Campbell's attitude is demonstrated by the fact that both those who favored and opposed the type of church cooperation which resulted in the formation of the American Christian Missionary Society in 1849, with Alexander Campbell as its first president, appealed to the principles which Campbell had propounded either in his Christian Baptist or in the Millenial Harbinger. Yet Campbell claimed never to have changed his position concerning congregational cooperation and organization.

In his first issue of the Christian Baptist, a monthly paper published by him from 1823 until 1830, Mr. Campbell began a series of articles on the "Christian religion." He described the church built by Christ, in all her original glory, and effectively pointed out that the Lord's body was composed of local societies or churches, constituted and set in order by ministers of the New Testament.

These churches of Christ knew nothing of the hobbies of modern times. In their church capacity alone they moved. They neither transformed themselves into any other kind of association, nor did they fracture and sever themselves into divers societies. They viewed the church of Jesus Christ as the scheme of heaven to ameliorate the world. As members of it, they considered themselves bound to do all they could for the glory of God and the good of men. They dared not transfer to a missionary society . . . a cent or a prayer, lest in so doing they should rob the church of its glory and exalt the inventions of men above the wisdom of God. In their church capacity alone they moved. The church they considered 'the pillar and ground of the truth;' they viewed it as the temple of the Holy Spirit; as the house of the living God. They considered if they did all they could in this capacity. they had nothing left for any other object of a religious nature . . . "The Christian Religion," Christian Baptist (1823), pp. 6-7.

In a later article, responding to a gentle rebuke from one of his readers for opposing the missionary and Bible societies, Campbell wrote:

Our objection to the missionary Plan originated from the conviction that it is unauthorized in the

New Testament; and that, in many instances, it is a system of iniquitous peculation and speculation. I feel perfectly able to maintain both the one and the other of these positions . . . Every Christian, who understands the nature and design, the excellence and glory, of that institution called the church of Jesus Christ, will lament to see its glory transferred to a human corporation. The church is robbed of its character by every institution, merely human that would ape its excellence and substitute itself in its place. "Mr. Robert Cautious," Christian Baptist (1823), p. 53.

From a careful examination of these and other articles written during his early years as an editor, we can have no doubt but what Campbell originally opposed any type of church cooperation which would necessitate the forming of an organization larger than or separate from the local congregation. Because Campbell opposed such, does not, of course, make it wrong. But if the arguments he used then were correct, the subsequent formation of the ACMS, with Alexander Campbell as its first president, was wrong. This was the crux of the cooperation battle then and it is yet. Does the New Testament furnish us completely for every work that we as Christians might participate in? Does it set forth a pattern for church organization and work that is binding upon us during these "modern" days? As we have seen, Campbell affirmed that it did. Later he declared with equal emphasis that it did not.

On January 4, 1830, Campbell issued the first number of his new Millennial Harbinger, a monthly which continued under his leadership through thirty-five volumes. This paper did much to solidify the gains made by the reformers, but it was through his teachings in the Harbinger concerning church cooperation that Campbell unwittingly laid the framework for the Disciples of Christ denomination.

In the Christian Baptist, Campbell had taught that the local church was all sufficient for spreading the gospel. No conventions or associations were needed, no missionary societies or Sunday Schools (as organized apart from the local church with its elders and deacons) were acceptable. They were all anti-scriptural because they robbed the church of its glory. The New Testament practice was for individual churches to operate alone, except in emergency conditions. If they fulfilled their own obligations, they would be cooperating together in the common cause, and would have neither time nor money to turn over to a human institution. Now, according to some of his biographers, he turned his back on his literalistic 'either-or' logic, and began to apply the spirit of the early Christians to the life of today . . . He began to understand that in many ways literalism must yield to liberalism; that as be himself had taught that the 'holy kiss' and footwashing could be met in some manner more consonant with the customs of the day, so many other practices of the apostolic fathers could be followed in a nineteenth century manner rather than a first century one . . . Benjamin L. Smith, Alexander Campbell, p. 179.

Thus, by following Campbell's thinking as revealed on the pages of his paper, we see a strong man, in his mature forties, reverse himself in much of his attitude toward the work of the church. We see him encourage a form of church cooperation and organization which he had once condemned. While still holding the independence of the local church, and denying any authority except that of the New Testament over its faith and practice, he now insisted that the apostolic churches themselves had set us examples of inter congregational cooperation. Realizing that no evidence of inter-congregational organization could be found in the New Testament, he declared finally that in our means of promoting the gospel we are not bound to use only those ways which New Testament churches had used, but are free to use any means which are not expressly forbidden.

In 1831, Campbell began his discussion of cooperation in the Harbinger, publishing four articles to prove that the early churches had worked together to promote a common cause. These and later articles attempted to show that "it is the duty of Churches to cooperate in everything beyond the individual achievements of a particular congregation."

In his first article, Campbell wrote:

A church can do what an individual disciple cannot, and so can a district of churches do what a single congregation cannot. But although reason and the nature of things as respects the conscience if we cannot show that in the apostolic churches such cooperation existed, and that it was a part of the means adopted by the authority of the Lord for the furtherance of the gospel. "The Cooperation of Churches-No. I" Millennial Harbinger (1831), pp. 234-38.

To substantiate this proposition, Campbell enumerated three principles:

1. New Testament churches were districted; e.g., "churches of Galatia," (I Cor. 16:1) "churches of Judea," (Gal. 1:22) ; "churches of Asia," (I Cor. 16:19).

2. Churches of certain districts had peculiar interests arising from their own local circumstances. Illustrative of this was the thanks given by the Gentile churches to Priscilla and Acquila for saving Paul's life. These particular districts cooperated to relieve and assist those who lived in other districts. Hence, Paul "gave orders to all the churches of Galatia," and to some, if not all, "in Achaia," to make collections and contributions for the suffering poor in "the churches of Judea."

3. The New Testament churches in certain districts did cooperate in choosing certain persons for the work of the Lord, and these persons were called "the messengers of the churches," (2 Cor. 8:9).

Campbell then declared, "All that we infer from this is that we have good authority, when occasion requires, to go and do likewise."

Even more indicative of the direction of Campbell's thought was the second article in his series on church cooperation. He referred again to 2 Cor. 8, using that as a basis for the churches of a district selecting common messengers to fulfill a task obligatory upon all the churches.

The brethren, then, of any individual church, and the churches of any individual district, did, as we see, enjoy the right, and did exercise the liberty of concurring in the free and uncontrolled election of chosen men from among themselves for the accomplishment of special purposes-i.e., evangelical purposes. Having thus stated, defined, illustrated, and proved our proposition, we now hold ourselves in readiness to defend it against all oppugners; and conclude by saying that the circumstances of the church at this time call imperiously for the accomplishment of some of the most important purposes for which the church herself was set up in the world . "The Cooperation of Churches-No. II," Millennial Harbinger (1831), p. 242.

Through the next ten years Campbell occasionally discussed the question of church cooperation, but in 1841 he began a series of essays on Christian cooperation which, more than any others, affected the entire brotherhood and ultimately resulted in the formation of the American Christian Missionary Society. He argued about the right, the expediency and the methods of inter-congregational cooperation. Aiming a blow at those who insisted that his new ideas were unscriptural, he wrote:

A book is not sufficient to govern the church; no book ever governed any community-not even the Book of Law or the Book of the Gospel, else Moses would have resigned when he wrote the law, and would never have laid his hands upon Joshua; else Jesus would never have sent out the apostles, evangelists, prophets and teachers of the New Testament, had a book been a king and executive of his will. (As quoted by John T. Brown, Churches of Christ, p. 150.)

In 1842, Campbell affirmed that it was absolutely impossible for churches to maintain unity or to act in concert without systematic cooperation and consultation. Later than same year he presented "Five Arguments for Church Cooperation." (Actually, there were six arguments, the last two being numbered five, probably because of typographical error.)

1. We can do comparatively nothing in distributing the Bible abroad without cooperation.

2. We can do comparatively little in the great mission field of the world, either at home or abroad, without cooperation.

3. We can do little to check, restrain, and remove the flood of imposture and fraud committed upon the benevolence of the brethren by irresponsible, plausible, and deceptious persons, without cooperation.

4. We can do little or nothing to improve and elevate the Christian ministry without cooperation.

(Campbell had previously attacked the irresponsibility of self-appointed preachers, and urged that all ministers should be ordained by the churches only after they had given full evidence of their character and qualifications. He declared, also, that the ultra-independence of the congregations made them difficult to protect; when a black sheep was driven from one fold, he simply crossed one or two state lines and was welcomed into some other independent congregation as a "preaching brother.")

5. We cannot concentrate and direct the action of the tens of thousands in Israel, in any great Christian effort, without cooperation.

6. We can have no thorough cooperation without a more ample, extensive and thorough church organization.

Through the coming years, Campbell continued to plead for a "more ample, extensive and thorough organization of the churches." In 1849 he wrote:

There is now heard from the East and the West, from the North and from the South, one general, if not universal call for a more efficient organization of our churches . . . "Church Organization," Millennial Harbinger (1849), P. 90.

Sensing that his arguments for cooperation had at least partially caused these stirrings, Campbell insisted that some definite attention be given to them. Still, he urged calm and deliberate action and warned against extremes.

A few months later, Campbell said:

I am of the opinion that a convention or general meeting of the churches of the Reformation, is a very great desideraturn. Nay, I will say further that it is all important to the cause of reformation. I am also of the opinion that Cincinnati is the proper place for holding such a convention. The purposes of such a convention are already indicated by a general demand for a more efficient and scriptural organization, for a more general and efficient cooperation in the Bible cause. "Convention," Millennial Harbinger (1849), pp. 475-76.

This recognition of the "need of permanent organization for lasting existence" marked a new phase in the movement to restore New Testament Christianity. It was something like what happened in the early church when it gradually became aware that the end of the world was not likely to come this year or the next and that it had a long task ahead of it. The conscientious student of church history recognizes, too, that this desire for permanent organization has both times precipitated the church of God into an apostasy from which it has never recovered!

In the latter part of October, 1849, the culmination of the efforts at organization came when the general convention Campbell had proposed met in the Walnut Street church building in Cincinnati. Campbell was not present, but was elected president of the organization that was formed.(W. K. Pendleton. son-in-law of Campbell, told the convention that Campbell was ill and grief-stricken because of the death of his mother-in-law and daughter nearly a year previously. This apparently did not hinder his performance of regular duties and a month or so later he was able to go on an extensive speaking tour, preaching in the same city where the convention had been held. There were some suspicions of this. Several declared that he was afraid his proposals for organization would be rejected at the convention and he thus failed to be present. Pendleton, however, before his death, asserted that Campbell refused to attend the convention because he felt a newly organized tract and publication society was a slight at his own publishing interests.) He retained this office until his death.

Opposition to the newly formed American Christian Missionary Society was quick and bitter, and most of the arguments opposing it came from Campbell's old Christian Baptist. Jacob Creath was one of the stalwarts who faced Campbell. He wrote:

We (who object to the Society) stand upon original ground. We desire these arguments in the Christian Baptist be answered or the work discarded. The Christian Baptist stands good against all the puny and feeble arguments that have been offered for church coopertion and conventions since that time. "Conventions-No. V,- Millennial Harbinger (1850), p. 641

The church at Connellsville, Pennsylvania, issued a statement denouncing the presumption of the "Society brethren." The statement, taking its almost exact wording from the pages of the Christian Baptist, insisted that the Lord's church was the only scriptural institution on earth for the conversion of sinners and the sanctification of saints. Campbell commented that this point was well-taken, and one to which all in principle agreed, but what is the church of Christ?

A church at Connellsville, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, or New York is not the church of Christ. The church of Christ is a very large and widely extended community and possesses a large field, even the habitable earth. The church for which Christ died, and for which he lives and intercedes, is not the church at Connellsville, Rome, Ephesus or Jerusalem, but is composed of all who have been baptized into his gospel and continue to walk in him. Now it is competent to 'the church of Christ' to consult and cooperate with all the individual communities called 'churches of Christ' which enter into her own constituency, in each and every rnatter beyond their individual duties to themselves and their localities. These are matters which we regard as conceded by our brethren and therefore we offer no argument in support of them. "Conventions," Millenial Harbinger (1850), pp. 285-86.

But these matters were not conceded by many faithful men and division gnawed at the hearts of the people of God. The bone of contention had been introduced, and there was no persuading those who were determined to keep it. Even though the newly organized society did no work of a practical or lasting nature for many years, and was several times in what was thought to be its death throe, Campbell and others insisted that it was the most scriptural and expedient way to evangelize the world. The words Campbell had written in 1838 were hurled bitterly at those who opposed the missionary society and other such schemes of church centralization.

I have found a large class of men, professors, too, who will sit for a year rather than rise up crooked. They are conscientious men; but they do nothing right lest they should do something wrong!

Through the years the controversy became more vituperative. As Campbell aged, however, he seemed gradually to lose interest in his creation, perhaps because of the strife it had caused in the brotherhood. Until his death, though, he maintained that he still believed and taught the same things regarding church cooperation that he had during his earlier days. His attempts to prove this were generally evasive. Those who doubt the validity of our conclusion here might see especially Campbell's reply to the letter of Jacob Creath which was quoted above. It is interesting to note that when Campbell died in the early spring of 1866, he left nothing to the missionary organization of which he was yet president, and which was struggling mightily for funds. He did leave $5,685 endowment to the Bethany church of Christ, the interest on which was to be used specifically for preaching the gospel.

Today, as we look back over the scenes of the past, we see the havoc wrought and realize how terribly mistaken were the disciples who urged centralization of church funds and work, After the doors were opened by the society (Perhaps the "society spirit" would be more appropriate. The introduction of the missionary society was merely a symptom of the disease afflicting many members of the church. You will recall our quote in which Campbell insisted that the New Testament was not meant to be our complete authority in religion. Campbell's father, Thomas, had set forth the principle, which had been proclaimed as the only possible basis for Christian unity, "We speak where the Bible speaks and are silent where the Bible is silent." Now, Alexander Campbell, in his justification of the society, had in effect changed that plea, making it to say: "We are silent where the Scriptures speak (it is ours to obey); where the Scriptures are silent, we may speak, regulated only by the laws of expediency.") a flood of innovation rolled into the church, carrying with it the driftwood of instrumental music, worldliness, ecclesiastical honors and authority, compromise, modernism, and ungodliness. Now, in thousands of towns all over the Unietd States and Canada there stand the virtually empty meeting houses of those who were at one time thriving spiritually. The Disciples of Christ denomination, which owes its origin to the cooperation controversy, today has no real significance in American religious life. Although they have played an important role in the ecumenical movement, their major emphasis has been (and is) "fellowship" and "union"-not the basic unity for which the Lord prayed. In departing from the authority of God's word, they have separated themselves from spiritual life, and thus are doomed to eventual death. Dr. Stephen J. England, Dean of Phillips University College of the Bible, in 1956 predicted that the burial of Disciples of Christ as a separate religious body would occur within ten years when they would "make a union of some kind" with one or more denominational groups. As further evidence of the spiritual rigor mortis facing the "progressive" church, figures released a few months ago by the National Council of Churches reveal that their rate of per capita giving is among the lowest of any denomination in America. The Disciples have lost their vitality by submerging responsibility of the individual church in a great regimented machine known as "cooperation."

But are we of the churches of Christ trying to do the same thing? Let us examine well the thinking of Alexander Campbell, as it coincides with our present cooperative practices. Let us learn the lesson that becomes so obvious as we study the history of movements toward organized cooperation, observing what invariably happens when the silence of God is used as authority for our actions in religion. May the Lord deliver us from presumptuous sins!

God's method for bringing Christ to the world, as Campbell proved from the New Testament in 1823, is His churches, acting separately and independently to promote the common cause. No other organizations are necessary or acceptable. Let us as Christians learn the responsibility which rests upon us as individuals, and then carry it out to the utmost extent of our ability. If we do this, neither we nor the congregations with which we labor will have time or money to devote toward the building of a human institution that will rob the Lord's church of its glory!

Truth Magazine II:11, pp. 16-19
August 1958