By Mike Willis
We are in the throes of another unity movement. This should be encouraging to all who love the Lord; unity of God’s people is not an elusive dream which never can be achieved; it is something which each of us needs to be working to accomplish. Hence, I rejoice that men all over this great country are wanting unity. The ecumenical movement is one of the most obvious signs that many are presently wanting unity.
Unity at any price is something not worth having. America has recently witnessed a “peace-at-any-price” attitude in the settling of the conflict with Viet Nam. Frankly, I have trouble seeing the difference between the kind of “peace” which was obtained there and “defeat.” The ecumenical movement is another “peace-at-any-price” movement, although its main area of concern is with religious controversy. This unity movement has already called a moratorium against evangelizing pagan nations for the reason that they feel that pagan religions have just as much right to exist and stand just as approved before God as does the Christian religion. This movement is nothing less than a surrender to the forces of Satan.
Even as we watch the world around us discussing the problem of unity, we are made aware of the discussion of the subject within the Lord’s church. There is a mini-ecumenical movement in progress among us. The issues at stake are exactly the same ones as in the ecumenical movement facing denominationalism; both movements have the “peace-at-any-price” philosophy. Both movements would rather switch than fight over any doctrine.
Yet all of this discussion forces us to reconsider what is the scriptural foundation for unity. All men can be united upon the basis posited in the word of God. All men, that is, who believe and respect the Bible as the revealed word of God. Frankly, I have no desire for unity with any other kind of men. To those men, the command of Paul applies, “Come out from among them and be ye separate, saith the Lord” (2 Cor. 6:18). I would like to discuss the historical emphasis in the restoration movement toward unity.
Restoration Or Unity?
Recently, I have read several statements which emphasize that the restoration movement split over two fundamental issues, restoration and unity. The liberal group took the unity route; the conservative group took the restoration route. Here is what those quotations said:
“The heart of the liberal-conservative rift was revealed in diverging views of the twofold plea of the movement -restoration of the ancient order and Christian union. To the liberal, Christian union became more and more important. To the conservative, restoration was the church’s central plea and union was only an elusive desideratum” (David Edwin Harrell, Jr., The Social Sources of Division in the Disciples of Christ 1865-1900, p. 8).
In a recent article appearing in Vanguard, Daniel H. King quoted from O. R. Whitley’s Trumpet Call of Reformation as follows:
“Two attitudes were struggling in Alexander Campbell’s mind, and in the mind of Disciples of Christ. This becomes increasingly apparent as the story moves along. One of these, based on the restoration idea, led in the direction of legalism, a religious hardening of the arteries; the other, the unity idea, led in the direction of reassertion of the freedom principles incipient in the original Reformation, and was expressive of the spirit of Locke’s famous Letters on Toleration. Each of these attitudes was to receive its due emphasis, at varying times, depending upon the needs of the moment. . .Significantly in the later development of Disciples, the liberals’ have followed the ‘we-must-be-free’ idea. The extreme conservatives have tended to support the `there-is-nothing-new’ contention” (as quoted in Vanguard, December 9, 1976, p. 7).
In conclusion, Daniel said, “The spirit of the restoration movement is not and has never been the ecumenical spirit. The two are not in the least related. Therefore, if in the final analysis we must face the alternative `Unity or Restoration?’, then for my part at least, I shall without the slightest reservation choose restoration.”
But, does the restoration principle demand that we choose between unity and restoration? According to those who are writing today, one must choose whether or not the restoration of the New Testament church is more important than the unity of the church. Such has not always been the case.
Unity Through Restoration
Though there may be a certain tension between unity and restoration, those in the early efforts to restore New Testament Christianity understood that unity could be attained only through the restoration of primitive, firstcentury Christianity. Typical of the statements made concerning this is that which was made by James Alexander Haldane, one of the men who had a major influence on the thought of Alexander Campbell. He said,
“The importance of uniformity amongst Christians, is not only evident in itself, but has been allowed in every age since the Reformation. Good men have lamented the differences which have subsisted, and which have not only occasioned strife amongst themselves, but have also given infidels a handle to reject and ridicule all religion. Various plans have been devised for promoting uniformity; but all these, as might be expected, have failed. Indeed the success of such plans was not in itself desireable. It could only have taken place, by churches giving way to one another’s prejudices. It is necessary, in common life, sometimes to give up what we know to be our right, for the sake of peace or some greater advantage. But such conduct respecting religion is not countenanced in the word of God. Every one must be fully persuaded in his own mind, and no evil is to be done that good may come. We must by no means encroach on the liberty given to every church to walk according to their own light. If we endeavor to model one church after the example of another now existing, we shall make little progress unless authority be employed, and in this case our zeal is not according to knowledge, our weapons are carnal. But if a model exist in the New Testament, by which all churches ought to be regulated; if each be occupied in imitating this, they will gradually approach nearer to each other; and thus the numberless sects and parties which dishonour the religion of Jesus, will be at an end. When a number of children are taught to write by one master, we expect to see a resemblance in their handwriting. This naturally arises from each copying the writing of the master, to whom all look up; but what progress could be expected if they were employed in copying from each other, or in quarrelling who wrote best” (A View of the Social Worship and Ordinances Observed by the First Christians, pp. 33-35).
Many other such quotations could be taken from the sermon outline books of those who have written regarding the subject of unity and who were early leaders in the effort to restore New Testament Christianity. All of them understood that unity was to be obtained through the restoration of first century church.
The quotation of the speech made by Brother James Adams in the Arlington Meeting has been much misunderstood because brethren apparently did not grasp this very point. Brother Adams, however, made himself very clear in the early part of his speech. He said,
“At this point, I should like to reemphasize a fact which has previously been stated; namely, unity is not an end within itself. I believe this was one of the mistakes made in the so-called ‘restoration movement.’ Brethren, If they did not believe it, often preached and wrote so as to give the Impression that they considered unity an end within itself. I believe that many of us today regard unity as an end within Itself. As I have grown older as a preacher of the gospel, I have become more concerned with getting men to whom I preach to do the will of God. If all of us conform our lives and teaching to the will of God, we will have unity. Hence I am more concerned about this than I am about unity. This does not mean I am not concerned about unity. I would not be here today if I were not. But I am more concerned about getting men to do the will of God. This is an end within itself. Unity is a by-product of this, hence I am more interested In the (cause than in the effect” (The Arlington Meeting, pp. 393-394).
One could almost get the impression that some have intentionally overlooked the original context of Brother Adam’s speech in their quotation of what he had to say about unity.
Why Has Division Occurred?
If the early restorers understood that unity was to be obtained through the restoration of the early church, why then has division occurred so often within our ranks? This is not an easy question to answer and perhaps the answer which I am going to suggest is too simplistic. However, I believe that this is what has caused our divisions and intend to say so.
The churches have been divided because brethren loved their innovations more than they loved their brethren and the Lord. Historically, this can be substantiated. The churches were united until some “progressive” brethren decided to bring in the mechanical instruments of music and to build missionary societies which were to be supported from the treasury of the local church. When conscientious brethren objected to these innovations, the liberals chose their innovations over their brethren. Apparently, they loved their innovations more than they loved their brethren. Later, when the liberals among us introduced the sponsoring church concept of evangelism and the church support of benevolent institutions and colleges, conscientious brethren again objected. The liberals, however, chose these innovations above their brethren; apparently, they loved their innovations more than they loved their brethren.
However, notice what has occurred in each of these divisions. The foundation principle which had initially caused them to be united was laid aside in order “to advance” the gospel. Being discontent with the organization, work, and worship which were found in the New Testament, the groups went out on their own to devise their own organizations, works, and worship. Conscientious brethren could not accept the things which they devised and were, ;therefore, forced to separate from them.A New Unity Movement
A new unity movement is in progress among the churches today. However, each of us should recognize that a different basis for unity is being suggested in this new movement than was suggested by the restoration principle. Whereas the restoration principle said that we can be united when all of us go back to the New Testament and become like the model church of the New Testament, the new unity movement says that we can have “unity in diversity.” My brethren, any movement towards unity which does not allow discussion and change regarding the matters which originally divided us is naive and destined to failure. We simply cannot be united until that which is divided us is removed. Any union which might be obtained would compromise the convictions of one group or the other.
However, there is a way to have unity. We can all go back to the Bible and become more and more like the church which we read about in it and we will inevitably become more and more like one another. Unity will be the blessed by-product of our return to the Bible. We do not have to choose between unity and restoration; unity can only be obtained through the restoration of the New Testament church.
Truth Magazine XXI: 23, pp. 355-357
June 9, 1977