By Steve Wolfgang
(Author’s Note: We herewith submit for publication the text of an address on an assigned topic delivered by invitation to the Second Annual Indianapolis Unity Forum, April 30, 1971. Since Brother Willis has complained of the author’s “excessive research” (Truth Magazine, November 7, 1974), we will share with him and the readers of Truth Magazine the results of some `prior research” while we attempt to prepare something more current!
The passing of time has allowed for a “cooling-off” and presented ample opportunity for evaluation-not a bad procedure for those who write for public consumption. Articles written deliberately and then set aside for a reasonable period for later re-evaluation are often superior to those dashed off in a state of youthful impetuosity that sometimes afflicts writers. An idea, seemingly brilliant in the “inspiration” of the late-night or early morning hours, often appears only mediocre in the cold light of the following day. On the other hand, some writers do their best work by just sitting down and letting their thoughts flow through the typewriter, so to speak. To each his own! This particular article has been revised at minor points and altered stylistically in places for greater fluidity of reading; but it is submitted substantially as delivered.
Others who spoke at the Indianapolis Forum included John Clark of Louisville, Jimmy Tuten of Akron, Keith Watkins of Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, George Earle Owen of the Disciples of Christ, and Earl West and David Bobo of Indianapolis (Bobo’s speeches were later published in MISSION, November, 1971, and February, 1972). Many others from the Disciples of Christ, Christian Churches, and Churches of Christ were present both as participants and members of the audience.)
“What Does the Restoration Movement Communicate to The World?”
Let me begin by expressing appreciation for the invitation to address this assembly. I am grateful for the opportunity. I lack appreciation for the type of attitude which would pessimistically dismiss, out of hand, efforts such as this as totally worthless. At the same time, I have a profound and abiding contempt for those who will use gatherings such as this to enhance their own personal standing or to advance and promote a “unity faction;” or who would erroneously (or even intentionally) make them appear to be that which they are not; or who would falsely attribute to all participants certain attitudes and opinions to which they do not, in fact, adhere. Certainly, however, sincere efforts to communicate with others can and should be welcomed by all those who profess to follow Christ.
On the other hand, while I may appreciate the lofty sentiments which generate forums such as this one, for me to be obscure or less than completely candid would not only defeat the purpose of this program but would be intellectually dishonest. Accordingly, I want to say some things plainly, perhaps bluntly, and yet attempt to do so without personal animosity; as someone has elsewhere said, “to maintain charity of heart without sacrificing clarity of conviction.” At the same time, I do not intend to imitate those who seem to take devilish delight in put-on politeness. Much of what follows will not serve the cause of “unity” which apparently exists in the minds of some present. Many of the following concepts have been articulated well before; they certainly are not original with me. Yet I feel that they represent a viewpoint whose veracity can be substantiated both logically and scripturally.
In dealing with the assigned topic, “What does the Restoration Movement communicate to the world?”, I recognize that I am not the only person ever to have dealt with the question. Accordingly, I want to present not only some of my own answers to the question, but I want as well to deal with some of the most prevalent answers suggested by others.
I. Our first answer might be that, in reality, the “Restoration Movement” has communicated nothing (or at least very little) to the world. This may be a rather odd place to begin, but it seems to me to be a rather sobering thought. Some may pride themselves in rhetorically labeling the “Restoration Movement” as “the stoutest Protestant Reformation since the time of Martin Luther”(1) or “the largest and most influential brotherhood of Christian believers indigenous to American soil . . . (numbering) over six and a half million communicants,”(2) but these statistics pale in comparison to the millions who have never been taught to “speak as the oracles of God.”
Recently I was discussing some aspects of the history of the Christian Churches and the Churches of Christ in Indiana with a well-known Disciples historian. He made a comment something to the effect that “our plea just doesn’t seem to attract many people any more.”(3) Of course, my rejoinder to that is simply that “the plea” hasn’t been plead effectively (we will have more to say concerning this issue in the ensuing remarks). Even if one accepts, as I do, the continuing validity of the scriptural injunction “to speak as the oracles of God” (or, if you prefer, Thomas Campbell’s paraphrase of it), we are forced to admit our miserable failure to communicate the message. Even were the entire six and one-half million members somehow miraculously to unify on a basis acceptable to all, we would still face this monumental task. A recent book by the Anglican, John R. W. Stott, Our Guilty Silence, highlights the problem. He identifies “the biggest problem” in any kind of evangelistic program: “trying to open the mouths of the people in the pews.”(4) I am reminded of a statement by one of the speakers on last year’s Forum to the effect that “organizational and institutional Christianity will never win the world for Christ.”(5) Now, if by that you mean that the people are no longer going to seek us out for the answers to the problems of existence, and that we must therefore encourage each Christian to do his share of engaging in the spread of the gospel, then I wholeheartedly agree. In fact, this is one of our fundamental problems. Anyone who has ever attempted to motivate others (or himself) to get out and teach people-to develop the principle of “each one teach one”-knows just how basic and vital this issue is! And especially for a group which claims to have a scripturally authentic solution for the problems of a dying and destitute world, our failure is simply inexcusable!
But, as I have hinted above, I believe that our historian’s comment focuses the issue very clearly, as I shall endeavor to show. Of course, this may be unfortunate for some who, in the words of the eminent J. Gresham Machen, would rather that discussions of this nature be kept “in a condition of low visibility!”(6) Is the issue, or the problem, really that the Restoration plea is outdated and irrelevant for what some have rhetorically labeled “an ecumenical world;” or does the problem, in fact, lie elsewhere-in our own failure to clearly communicate and consistently apply it? This brings us to our second answer.
II. Some would contend that the “Restoration Movement” has communicated only the failure and worthlessness of the Restoration plea.
There has never been a lack of abundant criticism of the “Campbellites” by “outsiders;” however, a murmur of self-criticism among “the Disciples” has culminated in the rising crescendo of the last decade as numerous individuals within the movement have jumped rather erratically from one end of the theological checkerboard to the other. To borrow the words of a recent article, we have been bombarded with “dire warnings . . . in various forms. There have been complaints from the dissatisfied . . . suggestions from the concerned . .(and) ultimatums from the desperate.”(7) The words of one recent analyst relative to the so-called “institutional church” certainly have particular applications to “the heirs of the Restoration Movement” as well:
“For a dozen years and more a host of dedicated (churchgoers-,SW) have had to contend with a crescendo of criticism of the form and purpose of the . . church. . . I leave it to the reader to decide now much of that writing is truth, how much cliche, and how much an exercise in masochism. However these elements may be apportioned, such criticism has provoked ritualistic incantations: ‘We are a church; we have a structure; we pay bills; we have members who have never read Rauschenbusch; we are bad; we are obsolete; we must disband and meet in Roy’s living room.’ . . . (T)he clamor sounds like a stuck auto horn in a locked garage. Catatonic bafflement finally sets in . (We) become dispirited and cautious, saying . . ., ‘If we are that lousy, let’s sleep in, beginning next Sunday.'”(8)
While there may be, as our analyst suggests, a grain of truth in these criticisms (of what conceivable system of thought can it be said that it contains absolutely no truth?), there can be no doubt to any who have listened repetitiously to the same trite and inane critical tirades that a significant percentage of them are, if not “an exercise in masochism,” certainly cliche-ridden (isn’t it funny how the ones who deride others for the usage of cliches are themselves the most adept at inventing their own?). That they reflect the prevailing theological complexion few would question. I share with you these comments by the Lutheran scholar, John Warwick Montgomery:
“. . . (We) of the late twentieth century contribute to the falsifying of the church’s proper function through our subjectivism . . . (Our time-SW) is possibly the most subjective period in all of church history. Today everybody talks in psychological terms. We enjoy nothing better than to probe our inner life and its real or imagined frustrations. We wallow in our misery. We go to psychologists, we go to psychiatrists, we go to counsellors. This predilection has been called “navelwatching” by some people; that is, we enjoy nothing better than to sit down narcissistically and look at our own psychic navels. This delightful activity allows us to become completely involved in ourselves. We enjoy our problems. Someone has called our epoch “the Age of Analysis” . . . and it is that, for we want to solve all our problems by subjective concentration upon them.”(9)
Now, I am not suggesting that all our problems are due to spiritual hypochondria. However, as a recent writer has demonstrated, there are “some (who) shout, with apparent glee, about all the things which divide professed believers.”(10) Certainly, no one should object to periodic examination as well as any necessary “corrective surgery.” But let us recognize the essential and monumental difference between one who pulls the bandage off a wound in order to administer the healing ointment, and the one who does so in order that he might display the wound for all to see!
But with these thoughts on introspection properly affixed in our minds, let us examine the charge itself. Is it true that the splintering and division of the “Restoration Movement” is inherent in a faulty plea?? Is it true that, as Dr. A. T. DeGroot concluded, “the principle of restoring a fixed pattern of a primitive Christian church is divisive and not unitive(11)? 11 Is it true (as one of the speakers on last year’s forum affirmed) that because “the path to Christian unity by restoration is strewn with divided churches and internal divisions within the Restoration groups” we must therefore conclude that “the path of Restoration leads to disunity rather than unity”?(12)
At this point, I want to borrow a figure from Dr. DeGroot’s privately published manuscript, The Grounds of Division Among the Disciples of Christ. He affirms that “when several carpenters went to work on the basis of several pages of blueprints, they ended up building a three-room apartment instead of a single auditorium. This is precisely what happened as the so-called blue prints have been consulted as a pattern for the church.”(13) I want us to ask ourselves today if this can be attributed only to faulty blueprints, or if we might not more realistically piace the blame on illiterate or misguided carpenters? In so doing, I choose to deny Dr. DeGroot’s affirmation that “actual church division has resulted from the application of the basic assumption of the movement”(14) and instead insist that it has, in fact, occurred because of a failure to apply those assumptions. This is not to reflect necessarily upon the character, the honesty, or the mental capacity of our spiritual forebearers; it is rather to admit humanity (and ours as well, as we often commit like errors). We certainly can all point to incidences where we “say, and do not;” that is, where we may be sincerely mentally committed to a certain principle, but fail consistently to apply it. And we are not without noble human company when we do so. We are in companionship even with the apostle Peter, who could affirm that “this promise is for you and your children, and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God shall call unto himself.”(15) and likewise could conclude that “God is not one to show partiality, but in every nation the man who fears Him and does what is right, is welcome to Him;”(16) and yet needed to be rebuked by another apostle “because he stood condemned. For prior to the coming of certain men from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he began to withdraw and hold himself aloof, fearing the party of the circumcision.”(17) A more recent example is the esteemed A. Campbell, who could preach that the gospel was for all and yet paradoxically state that, “Much as I may sympathize with a black man, I love a white man more;”(18) or, who could fulminate concerning the “autonomy” and “independence” of each local congregation, yet serve as first president of the American Christian Missionary Society!
(If I may digress here for a moment in the discussion of inconsistencies, more needs to be said about Brother Campbell. Please consider the following extraction of a lecture delivered at the first annual “Preachers’ Workshop” at Abilene Christian College).
“Alexander Campbell argued at great length in the columns of the MILLENNIAL HARBINGER as follows: (1) A congregation is a cooperation of Christians; (2) cooperation demands organization, hence God provided for the local congregation with its elders, deacons, and members; (3) each congregation is related to the whole church of God as an individual is related to the local congregation of which he is part; (4) the preaching of the gospel to the whole world, the disciplining of unruly, transient members, general benevolence, and the publication of books, papers, tracts, and song books are matters that cannot be accomplished by a single congregation functioning independently; hence, (5) the universal recognition of the need for cooperation of churches and the consequent necessity to form and implement a general organization among the churches through which they can cooperate in the accomplishment of these matters.
“Having reached this conclusion, brother Campbell deduced from it the scripturalness of the “Missionary Society” by a sixth consideration; namely, since God revealed no specific organization for such purposes, Christians and churches have thellberty to devise such organizations for these purposes as may best be suited to their needs in any given period of time . . .
“. . . I insist that, if we grant brother Campbell’s premises, his conclusions are irresistible. I neither grant his premises nor accept his conclusions. Should I accept brother Campbell’s premises, I should be forced to accept his conclusions . . .
” . . . I have taken the liberty of putting brother Campbell’s arguments in my own words for the sake of brevity, but those desiring to read them in his own words may find them in the MILLENNIAL HARBINGER 1831, p. 235; 1836, p. 333; 1840, pp. 188, 189; 1842, p. 523; 1847, p. 160; 1850, pp. 73, 617; 1857, pp. 303-307; and elsewhere . . . . “(19)
I believe that this is a good example of what we are discussing: consistency and inconsistency in application of the “Restoration Principle.” Another comment made during a meeting of members of churches of Christ estranged over the issues involving cooperation of churches, is illuminating:
“We are in agreement that God authorizes saints to act collectively; and we seem to agree that this gives saints in a local church some organizational structure. Now, if God authorizes churches to act collectively, let us cease to write and preach that ‘the organizational structure of the church begins and ends with the local congregation.'”(20)
If I may interrupt the speaker momentarily, I believe that abundant examples of calling a local church “independent” or “autonomous” but violating that claim by acting as if they are not can be found even outside the “Restoration Movement.” Consider only the first two to be found in Frank S. Mead’s Handbook of Denominations in the United States:
.. “Advent Christian Church: ‘Congregational in government, each local church is completely independent. The churches are grouped in five districts and five annual conferences; over them is a national general conference, which meets biennially.'”(21)
“Assemblies of God, General Council: ‘Local churches are left quite independent in polity and the conduct of local affairs . . . Work is divided into forty districts in the United States, most of which follow state lines, each with a district Presbytery, which examines, licenses, and ordains pastors.'”(22)
I cite these merely as examples of the same type of inconsistency which seems to plague those of us within the “Restoration Movement.” Literally thousands of other examples could be proffered as evidence, but these will suffice. Let me conclude my “digression” (pardon the pun!) by returning to the previously quoted speaker (and heed him carefully, please!):
“We are in agreement that God authorizes saints to act collectively; and we seem to agree that this gives saints in a local church some organizational structure. Now, if God authorizes churches to act collectively, let us cease to write and preach that ‘the organizational structure of the church begins and ends with the local congregation.” Let us either produce some specific form of inter-church organization authorized in the scriptures; or, with Campbell, admit that the specific form of such organization is not given, and that we are therefore at liberty to `devise ways and means’ for the `whole kingdom’ to cooperate. Let us cease to argue about opinions and expediencies, and get on with the job of restructuring the churchhood for that is exactly what collective action of churches demands and produces. But if the local church is the extent of divinely authorized organization among God’s people, then let us cease this double-talk about “independent” and “autonomous” churches acting collectively . . . (23) (Caps mine for emphasis-sw).”
Let me add that, if we cannot find in the Scriptures the authorization to determine our stance toward such issues as church “structure” and “cooperation,” or if the Scriptures are invalid as a source to which appeal can be made to determine such matters, then let us cease our flap and act accordingly! Let us recognize the import of Ronald E. Osborn’s statement that once a Biblically-based set of criteria for action are abandoned, then “Disciples who have repudiated restorationism have no adequate basis for justifying their congregationalism, weekly communion, immersionbaptism . . . or other distinctive practices. They have even less guidance for formulating new procedures, except what may be uncritically absorbed from the culture” (emphasis mine-SW).(24)
But let me return to my main point. The fact that a principle may be abused or inconsistently applied does not negate the validity of the principle-it is merely a sad commentary on the frailty of humanity! Further, the fact that division may have resulted (under certain conditions) is not necessarily the result of a deficient message. Certainly the churches of New Testament days (Corinth, Thessalonica, Laodicea) were divided and imperfect-but it was not due to a deficiency of the gospel as preached by Paul, Apollos, and Cephas; it was rather a reflection of the decay which often occurs when the divine ideal is corrupted by sinful mortality.
(In connection with this concept, the “cute” sophistry of those who derisively ask, “Which New Testament church do you want to restore-Corinth or Thessalonica?” should be dealt with. I share with you the words of a recent writer).
“When we discuss the church in the New Testament, it is good to be aware that even there one may speak of the church in two ways. He might speak of the `New Testament church’ as it is described ideally and regulated in the New Testament scriptures. Or, he might use the same term to mean the church as it existed in the days of the New Testament. The Apostles, too, faced both the ideal and the real.
“No one should object to finding a number of faults in the church of the first century . . . It was just such imperfection which called for the inspired writing of the epistles.”(25)
(To Be Concluded Next Week)
1. Cochran, Louis and Bess White, Captives of the Word: A Narrative History of the Christian Churches (Disciples of Christ), the Christian Churches (Independent), and the Churches of Christ (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday and Company, 1969), p. ix.
12. Owen, George Earle, “An Ecumenical Church For an Ecumenical World,” 8:30 P.M. Session of 1st Annual Christian Unity Forum, ISTA Building, Indianapolis, Thursday, April 23, 1970, p. 7, printed copy of lecture.
18. Campbell, Alexander, “Our Position to American Slavery-No. V;” Millenial Harbinger, 3rd Series, II (May, 1845), p. 234. (Quoted in David Edwin Harrell, Jr., Quest For a Christian America: A Social History of the Disciples of Christ (Vol. I: “The Disciples of Christ and American Society to 1866;” Nashville: Disciples of Christ Historical Society, 1966), p. 97.
19. Adams, James W., “The Church and Organizations,” a Lecture delivered to the “Preacher’s Workshop;” Abilene Christian College, Abilene, Texas, January 11-13, 1971, as reprinted in Truth Magazine, XV:13 (February 4, 1971), pp. 3-9 (195-201)-quotations from pp. 4-5 or 196-197.
Truth Magazine XIX: 19, pp. 297-300
March 20, 1975