By Mike Willis
In recent years, several major publications among our liberal brethren have issued a call for a new hermeneutic. The old hermeneutic is rejected. The restoration plea is castigated as backward looking and divisive. In calling for unity-in-diversity, the restoration plea is thrown aside.
Several historians assert that there are two sides to the restoration movement of the 1800s: (a) a unity plea and (b) a restoration plea. The unity plea was followed by the Christian Church/Disciples of Christ which led them into the mainstream of Protestant denominationalism and the ecumenical movement. The restoration plea was followed by the churches of Christ and led them into dozens of divisions (or so the claim is made). Significantly, some historians ignore the division between the independent Christian Churches and the Disciples of Christ which the “unity plea” brought and exaggerate the number of divisions among churches of Christ.(Though there are brethren who hold many different positions on a number of different subjects, the divisions which have come in the churches of Christ can largely be reduced to two or three: the institutional division, premillennialism, lesser and isolated divisions [one cup, no located preacher, etc.].)
The fact of the matter is this: the early restorers understood that the restoration plea was a unity plea. Of the many different plans for the unity of the church, the restoration plea was the one which was founded on Bible precepts. In this article, I would like to reproduce the restoration plea as a plea for Bible unity, using the language of the early restorers to state it.
Plans of Unity
There have been, through the ages, a number of plans of unity, including the following:
1. Associations of churches. Most denominations have an association of churches under some commonly agreed upon governing and legislative body. This concept of unity also has been suggested to bring churches in all denominations under one governing body.
2. Creeds. A document drawn up by representatives of churches has been imposed on churches as the governing law for an association of churches.
3. Councils. Ecumenical councils have tried to determine the boundaries of fellowship for churches. Denominations are still organized under synods and councils that have governing authority over churches.
4. Ecumenism. The ecumenical movement has accepted churches in all denominations, regardless of what they teach and practice, into fellowship. They are willing to accept into their fellowship those who deny the inspiration of Scripture, miracles and deity of Christ, necessity of faith in Christ for salvation, and other fundamental concepts of Christianity in the interest of unity.
5. Evangelical unity in fundamentals. The Evangelicals have reduced the number of essentials to a bare minimum in an effort for the Protestant denominations to have unity in gospel but diversity in doctrine. The Evangelical unity enables the various Protestant denominations to recognize each other as saved, work together on common good works, and peacefully co-exist.
6. The unity-in-diversity movement. This movement differs from the Evangelical unity only in minor details. It redefines the fundamentals of the gospel on which all must agree to include baptism for remission of sins. It is defended by a gospel/doctrine distinction, the imputation of the perfect obedience of Christ to the believer to cover his moral and doctrinal errors, continuous cleansing, a misuse of Romans 14, or some other theological method of having the grace of God to forgive men of the sins which they defend as righteousness and continue to practice.
However, none of these platforms of unity was that taught by the restoration plea. The restoration plea taught that men could be united through a restoration of the ancient order. The restoration plea was an effort to call Bible things by Bible names, to speak as the oracles of God (1 Pet. 4:11), and to bind nothing on the consciences of men except what was authorized by command, example or necessary inference (1 Cor. 4:6; Rev. 22:18-19).
The Restoration Plea
The following expressions of the restoration plea for unity are not cited as having equal authority with the Bible. Rather, they are concise statements of Bible principles which are true because of the Bible teaching they represent, not because of the men who said them. They are worded better than I can word them myself and for this reason they are reproduced:
1. Alexander Campbell: Writing in the Declaration and Address, Thomas Campbell said, “But this we do sincerely declare, that there is nothing we have hitherto received as matter of faith or practice, which is not expressly taught and enjoined in the word of God, either in express terms, or approved precedent, that we would not heartily relinquish, that so we might return to the original constitutional unity of the christian church” (p. 11).
Campbell’s understanding of this is illustrated by his approach to infant baptism. The Campbells held that “all matters not distinctly revealed in the Bible should be held as matters of opinion and of mutual forbearance.” In a sermon laying out the basis for unity, Thomas Campbell said, “Where the Scriptures speak, we speak; and where the Scriptures are silent, we are silent.” Having concluded his sermon, Andrew Munro said, “Mr. Campbell, if we adopt that as a basis, then there is an end of infant baptism.” Campbell replied, “Of course, if infant baptism be not found in Scripture, we can have nothing to do with it” (see Robert Richardson, Memoirs of Alexander Campbell I:235-238).
The Scriptures included everything which should be practiced and taught and excluded everything else. The silence of the Scripture was not viewed as opening the door to many unauthorized practices, but as closing the door to them.
2. J.M. Mathes: “If all would consent to give up their human isms that now divide them, we should come together in happy union upon God’s own foundation. . . I, therefore, propose the `Bible the whole Bible, and nothing but the Bible’ as the platform and bond of union. In making this proposition, I offer a platform, that you all acknowledge the best one on earth; nay, the only one that is infallible. . . In accepting it, no one is called upon to make more sacrifice than others. All are required to sacrifice their human isms, and those party names and sectarian peculiarities, which distinguish one sect from another, and all are required to take the word of God alone as the rule of their lives” (The Western Preacher 145,150).
3. N.B. Hardeman: “I would God to-night that all professed followers in the city of Nashville, Tennessee, and elsewhere, would be content to have but the Bible as their creed, their discipline, their church manual, their church directory, their rule of faith and practice throughout life. There would be oneness on the part of all the splendid people of this great country…. I pledge my word and promise myself to-night, if the man will thus show me that God’s book does not plainly demand it, I will gladly surrender and give that up that the cause of division may cease. . . . When I announce that platform, it is not narrow, it is not limited, it is not human; but it is big enough, broad enough, wide enough, and comprehensive enough for every son and daughter of God on earth to occupy and none feel that in so doing they have had to sacrifice a single principle of faith. . . .Take your stand on God’s book and eliminate all things that are not plainly taught therein; and when you so do, I will gladly come to you and take my stand with you, if there be any preference as to which way the coming is done” (Tabernacle Sermons II:185,186,187).
“Now, for the sake of unity, why not give up that which is in doubt in the minds of some, and walk by faith, and by that which is conceded by every scholar on earth?” (Tabernacle Sermons III:146)
4. Elijah Goodwin: “I answer, let the Bible, and the Bible alone, be adopted as the Christian’s creed. What the Bible says, all believe. Let opinions be held as private property, while faith is made the test of union” (The Family Companion 422).
5. M.C. Kurfees: “Again, some one may ask: `Since men do not all see alike or have the same opinions on certain religious subjects, how is union, in such a case possible?’ It is possible by every man preaching `the word’ and keeping his opinions strictly and always to himself, as the Bible distinctly and positively requires. We have already seen that the preacher’s inspired charge is to `preach the word,’ not his opinions nor the opinions of anybody else. Paul distinctly tells Christians what to do with their opinions in religion. In the case of eating certain meats where some Christians had scruples against it, he says: `The faith which thou hast, have thou to thyself before God’ (Rom. 14:22). There it is in plain and specific words, clearly and distinctly showing what the preacher is to do with his opinions. He is not to be teaching, preaching, and parading them among the people at all, but always and everywhere to keep them to himself `before God.’ No harm can ever come of opinions where that most vital and important command is carefully and strictly obeyed. In fact, strict obedience to it would be the grand panacea against all strife, all confusion, and all division among the people of God. They are not divided over what is in the Bible, but over what is not in it; not over what the Bible says, but over what it does not say; not over the word of God, but over the opinions and speculations of men” (The Need for Continued Emphasis on the Restoration of the Ancient Order 32).
Union Versus Unity
As brethren were working their way toward a Bible-based unity, they were confronting the denominational plea for union. The plea for union was understood to be a plea for the combining of different sects in some kind of organizational structure, a unity-in-diversity, or other kind of union of the sects. The disciples were not interested in union. As a lad, I remember hearing “union” and “unity” distinguished by use of a common illustration. The preachers would say, “You can tie two cats’ tails together and throw them over a clothesline. You will have union, but you do not have unity.”
“Union” is “a uniting or being united; combination; junction, fusion; an agreeing or leaguing together for mutual benefit.” “Unity” is “the state or condition of being one; oneness; singleness; being united; concord; agreement; harmony; oneness of sentiment, affection, or the like.”
Compare the two with reference to water baptism. The denominational plan of union recommends that each church be allowed to choose for itself whether to use sprinkling pouring or immersion as the action of baptism. The subject of water baptism in denominational plans of union can be either infants or believers, depending upon the free choice of each local church. The purpose of water baptism varies from one denomination to another: an outside sign of an inward grace, to be admitted into the particular denomination, a testimony to the world, or to receive forgiveness of sins. In denominational union, there is an agreement to have unity-in-diversity. Every church teaches its particular sectarian dogma on the subject but the other churches will continue to recognize them to be “of Christ” and receive one another into their respective fellowships.
In contrast to unity-in-diversity or union, true Bible unity works toward the “oneness of sentiment” revealed by the Holy Spirit through the apostles. The action of Bible baptism is immersion. The subject of Bible baptism is penitent believers. The purpose of Bible baptism is salvation, being variously described as “for the remission of sins” (Acts 2:38), to be “saved” (Mark 16:16; 1 Pet. 3:21), to “wash away” sins (Acts 22:16), and parallel expressions. In Bible unity, the disciples of Christ become united by every person believing and teaching what the Holy Spirit revealed.
A true unity was preached and practiced. It was a “the state or condition of being one; oneness; singleness; being united; concord; agreement; harmony; oneness of sentiment, affection, or the like.” What worked on the subject of baptism worked in other areas as well and the unity of the Spirit not some denominational imitation of unity was the result. True Bible unity can still exist today when brethren are committed to the restoration of the ancient gospel.
Guardian of Truth XXXVIII: 17, p. 2
September 1, 1994