The Trouble with Unity

D&A.B.CoverChristian unity is a big deal. It was Jesus’ closing prayer before going to the cross, as recorded in John 17:

I pray they will be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. I pray that they also will be in us, so that the world will believe that you sent me. I’ve given them the glory that you gave me so that they can be one just as we are one. I’m in them and you are in me so that they will be made perfectly one. Then the world will know that you sent me and that you have loved them just as you loved me.

Yet unity has perhaps been the hardest thing for Christians to achieve.

I’m in Restoration History this semester, a class studying the history of the Restoration Movement, also known as the Stone-Campbell Movement. Its beginnings are as remarkable as its story is tragically ironic.

Two separate movements on the American frontier – one founded by Barton W. Stone and the other by Thomas Campbell and his son, Alexander – spontaneously decided to unify in the 1830s. They had some similarities, specifically they both had seceded (or been kicked out) of other denominations because of their commitment to seeking unity around only the items found in the “plain text” of the New Testament. Hurt by the excesses of their former denominations and suspicious of councils, creeds and enforced doctrine from appointed human leaders, they sought to restore the simplicity of the apostolic church, and though they didn’t agree on everything, they saw as paramount the New Testament call for unity.

They called themselves by different names – Disciples of Christ, Churches of Christ, Christian Churches – but they considered themselves part of one movement, a movement not incidentally that would usher in Jesus’ millennial reign within the political borders of America.

We can see now some of the more quixotic, even naive, elements of the movement: It was modernistic and rationalistic, believing that the Bible could be plainly and easily interpreted, and it was idealistic and optimistic, believing humanity was destined to continue improving until it ushered in the reign of Jesus. In other words, it was very much an Enlightenment movement, very much an American movement, very much a frontier movement.

Of course, the tragic part is it collapsed – and this unity movement eventually created three separate denominations: the Churches of Christ, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the Independent Christian Churches/Churches of Christ.

One could argue it created four. Because even at its outset, parts of Stone’s movement objected to the Campbells’ heavy emphasis on the importance of baptism by immersion for the remission of sins. They refused to join the new movement and formed a group that would eventually be called the United Church of Christ.

This gets to the heart of the problem. At some point, people disagree – and everyone has a point at which the disagreement is over something important enough that unity cannot continue.

The Stone and Campbell movements were truly remarkable. Stone and Campbell disagreed about the importance of baptism, about whether there should be any kind of hierarchical church leadership. They refused to deny communion to anyone claiming Christ, but Campbell would not allow the non-immersed to be members of the church. That led Stone members on the East Coast to break away. Campbell also hesitated embracing Stone and his movement because Stone did not subscribe to Campbell’s views on atonement, and his harsh words against clergy and extra-congregational cooperative associations sowed the seeds for future division.

The movement broke apart soon after the Civil War, and though the causes were couched in theological language, the real reason was the war itself and the sectionalized bitterness it created. Churches of Christ, mainly rural and southern, retrenched around conservative ideals and looked suspiciously at the innovations embraced by their wealthier, more urban northern members.

Thus, the same American notions that led to the unification of the Stone and Campbell movements led to their division. When the United States could not overcome its differences, neither could the restorationists. We are all prisoners of our culture, are we not?

The Stone and Campbell movements overcame much to unite with each other. But they were incapable of overcoming their own assumptions, which changed when the cultural contexts underlying those assumptions also changed.

In the end, what perhaps proved the hardest to overcome was the overriding ethos of individualism that pervaded – and continues to pervade – American values. A movement for unity and cooperation founded on the notion of individual interpretation of scripture simply could not adequately reconcile such an inherently contradictory set of purposes. As each congregation drew the line between “opinion” and “clear teachings of scripture” in a different place – and without an overarching body or creed to adjudicate the disagreement – unity became harder to achieve, much less enforce.

To me, this is the key failing of the initial effort of the Stone-Campbell movement to promote unity – the principal reason for the ironic situation in which it now finds itself, as home to three denominations. Without tackling the arguably antiscriptural notion of radical American individualism, the Restoration Movement did not restore the New Testament church, nor did it provide a way to realistically unify Christians from many diverse faith traditions.

This was probably inevitable. The 19th century was a time of unbounded optimism in the power of the individual, the destiny of America and the future of humanity. Stone and Campbell were immersed in these waters, and they founded their congregations with those beliefs firmly in place. But creeds and councils existed for a reason, and as the American democratic experiment faltered in the mid-19th century, so did the idea that individuals reading the plain words of Scripture could come to easy agreement and unity on essential points of doctrine, especially as those doctrines became increasingly entangled with the cultural crosscurrents buffeting the entire nation.


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