Ministers’ book touts need for unity
It is a sad irony that a unity movementamong Christians in the early 19th century gave rise to so much division amongcongregations after the Civil War.
But ministers Rick Atchley of the acappella Richland Hills Church of Christ in Fort Worth, Texas, and Bob Russellof the instrumental Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, Ky., are notprepared to allow past schisms to define the future.
They offer a strong, passionate callfor unity among the heirs of the Stone-Campbell tradition in their bookTogether Again: Restoring Unity in Christ after a Century of Separation.
The book opens with a brief summary ofthe present divide among congregations that owe their legacy to theStone-Campbell Movement or Restoration Movement. The break among brothers,according to the authors, can be identified with two factors — missionarysocieties and instrumental music. Yet, underneath these identified issues liesa larger struggle — how does one interpret the silence of Scripture?
Atchley and Russell refuse to staylocked in any debate on that point. Rather, they turn their attention to the significant and foundationalways in which both sides of this fracas actually agree. They identify sixcommon arenas of belief and practice, developing each of the six with heart,and find ample ground to make their case that these separate groups are not asseparate as they seem.
Highlights include the common emphasisthat evangelism is focused on offering Jesus, not a church, and a deepwillingness to allow for diversity of opinion. Regarding the silence ofScripture, the authors state that both sides believe in the silence ofScripture; however, the rub comes in how silence is respected. The authorspoint out that both sides have been inconsistent in their application.
The reader also will be impressed withthe reminder, often lost, that the Restoration Movement distinguished itselffrom much of Christianity by insistence that the content of faith was thegospel, not our “pet doctrines.” The affirmation of immersion, the authority ofScripture, and that “we are not the only Christians; rather we are Christiansonly” reflects a body of thought that folks on either side of the piano willaffirm and agree.
Some among churches of Christ may takeissue with Atchley and Russell’s take on instrumental music. The authors statethat instrumental music falls into the category of “disputable matters,”suggesting that “both sides admit that no passage in the New Testament clearlyprohibits or permits the use of instruments in worship.” Here, some amongchurches of Christ may offer an alternative response, namely, that instrumentalmusic is a significant compromise in doctrine; those worshipping withinstruments are brothers, but they are erring brothers.
Of course, this response onlyillustrates the ongoing need for all sides to recommit to the RestorationMovement’s legacy about the centrality of the gospel. The gospel, not doctrinalbelief, is the center of our relationship to God and our fundamentalrelationship to each other. To be “in Christ” is no mere cliche for the ApostlePaul or for brothers Campbell and Stone.
There still remains the question of howwe can differ on matters — significant matters — and still honor a common bond.Here Atchley and Russell excel in their call for forbearance and love inmatters of worship and other practices. Though admitting the difficulties ofexpressing and living out our heritage, respect and deference should naturallyflow toward each other.
They press on to present the challengeof joint ministry — planting churches, partnering in service projects andsharing resources for mission work. Such a challenge is not a call to beprogressive; rather, the challenge is rooted in our history and in the biblicalmandate to be a witness to God’s work in our world. As the authors state: “Adivided church cannot reach a fractured world.”
Without a doubt, the book presents thebest five-page summary of our history outlining the key controversies that Ihave seen. But five pages hardly does justice to the intricate historical,theological and cultural factors of the 19th and early 20th century that haveshaped our present place in God’s unfolding story.
In laying out hermeneutical frameworks,the authors explain such matters as speaking where the Bible speaks or workingfrom things that are clear in Scripture to things that are less clear. Butlittle acknowledgement is given to how this movement has languished anddivided, creating fissures using these hermeneutical hammers. Perhaps ourmovement has more to learn about how the voice of Scripture functions inshaping our thought.
Therein may be my concern with thebook. An implicit danger exists in thinking that answers are buried in the pastand we fail to move forward. Certainly, our movement has had its moments ofhistorical amnesia. But simply assuming that a series of summary convictionsare right because we have held them for 200 years doesn’t respect the genius ofa movement that draws heavily the idea of renewal and restoration.
Ultimately, it will not be our commonpast that brings us together; rather, such promise rests entirely on ourcommon, living Lord.
However, conversations are popping upeverywhere among churches of Christ and Christian Churches.Helpfully, Atchley and Russell’s book gives a common voice and place for thoseconversations to give way to both deeper Bible study, theological reflection,and to the public witness of God’s good news through a united people in atroubled world.
CARSON REED is the senior minister ofthe Northlake Church of Christ in Tucker, Ga. He is also a fifth generation member ofthe Stone-Campbell Movement.
May 1, 2006