‘One Church’ explores today’s meaning of classic Restoration document
With Christians continuing to struggle for unity 200 years later, does Campbell still have anything to say?
For the ministers, theologians, and historians who re-examine Campbell’s document in “One Church: A Bicentennial Celebration of Thomas Campbell’s ‘Declaration and Address,'” the answer is yes.
The slender volume reflects the diversity of the modern unity movement associated with Campbell, his son Alexander, and reformer Barton W. Stone. Edited by Abilene Christian professor Doug Foster, Clint Holloway, a member of Christian Churches, and Glenn Carson, president of Nashville’s Disciples of Christ Historical Society, the book’s eight essays and five short communion meditations come from writers representing all three “streams” of the Restoration Movement.
Holloway traces the history of the “Declaration and Address” in an opening essay offering a backdrop to the seven studies that follow. Reconstructing the events leading up to the document, Holloway writes that Campbell, preaching for the Anti-Burgher Seceder Presbyterians in southwestern Pennsylvania after immigrating from Ireland in 1807, got in trouble when he allowed various Presbyterians — not just those in his narrow sect — to take the Lord’s Supper together. As controversy flared, Campbell broke with the Presbyterians, joining other Pennsylvania believers to form the Christian Association of Washington. The Irish immigrant penned a brief “Declaration” of the organization’s purpose, an “Address” to elaborate on the points of the “Declaration,” and 13 “propositions” that “deplore the divisions of Christianity and set forth how the sin of division was to be eradicated.” The group approved the “Declaration and Address of the Christian Association of Washington” on Sept. 7, 1809.
Following Holloway’s historical overview other contributors probe what the “Declaration and Address” says to Christians today. Abilene’s Foster attempts to span the centuries between Campbell and 21st-century church members by paraphrasing the two-hundred-year-old language of the Restoration leader’s 13 core propositions. Shining through Foster’s updated language is the theme of unity based on the Bible, but the Bible read with insight and a respect for difference.
“The Bible does not spell out in detail everything Christians are supposed to think, do or be — that is just not the nature of scripture,” Foster writes, paraphrasing Campbell’s fifth proposition. “Humans … try to expand on the specifics, often making them requirements for accepting other Christians or groups of Christians. That is wrong.”
In another essay, Pepperdine professor Daniel Rodríguez connects Campbell’s call to unity with the church’s call to mission. Pointing out that Campbell hoped the unspoiled American frontier would encourage Christians to restore the early church’s purity and unity, Rodríguez writes that believers from various traditions facing new mission frontiers today have similarly seen the need to be united as they reach out to the non-Christian world. For Rodriguez, the missionary task brings another theme from the “Declaration and Address” into focus, the need to “associate, consult, and advise together … in a friendly and Christian manner.”
Taking the gospel to cultures with varied ways of making sense of the world reminds Christians that their perspectives, too, are shaped by circumstances, Rodríguez believes. “Even white, middle-class males who are ministers of non-instrumental Churches of Christ in Tennessee and Alabama read the Bible through extra-biblical lenses,” Rodríguez observes, adding that, before the Civil War, Restoration leaders in good conscience used scripture to defend American slavery.
In his essay, Greg Taylor, editor of “New Wineskins” magazine, echoes Rodríguez by linking unity with both outreach and attitudes. Taylor calls for a changed “worldview” that would motivate church members not to debate their believing neighbors but confront the physical and spiritual needs of a suffering world.
Offering a social reading of the “Declaration and Address,” Irie L. Session, a Disciples of Christ minister who grew up in Churches of Christ, focuses Campbell’s thought on race and gender issues today.
Session opens her essay with a quote from African-American writer W.E.B. Dubois, who refers to blacks as a “problem” for whites. She then draws on her experience as a black woman to argue that some in Churches of Christ today cast women as “problems” rather than welcoming them into the “full communion” of believers envisioned by Campbell.
To show the roots of gender and racial discrimination, Session looks to a controversy a century ago in the church in Bellwood, Tennessee, near Nashville. When members objected to a black girl who was attending their congregation, David Lipscomb responded in the Gospel Advocate by defending her presence. Yet even Lipscomb’s defense betrayed the attitudes of the day. To persuade white Bellwood Christians to let the girl stay, Lipscomb assured them she was “willing to be served last and not participate,” behavior demonstrating she did not “thrust herself forward as the social equal of the whites.”
Session applies Campbell’s call for inclusion two centuries ago to people some Christians today view as “problems,” such as the homeless, immigrants, gays and lesbians, and people with AIDS. The Disciples minister also holds up Campbell’s thought as an antidote to the doctrinal rigidity that locks people and their gifts out of some churches.
The remaining essays in the volume likewise explore unity and truth. Reflecting on Campbell’s declaration that the church is fundamentally one, Rick Grover, of Christian Churches, argues that unity is not an optional goal for followers of Christ but the essence of the community of faith. Disciple minister Amy Lignitz Harken uses Campbell as a starting place to reflect on key Christian beliefs, wondering if Campbell’s warnings against creeds have made it hard for believers in her Stone-Campbell stream to state the tenets of their particular Christian tradition.
In the volume’s final essay, Christian Churches leader Kei Eun Chang underscores the importance of unity for evangelism, encouraging Restoration churches to remove “obstacles” to oneness for the sake of reaching others and identifying differences over instrumental music as a roadblock.
Based on a document nearly two centuries old, the essays in “One Church” call readers in the Stone-Campbell tradition to oneness through a richer understanding of their spiritual past, the communion meditations that conclude the collection echoing the book’s emphasis on unity.
The variety of the essays and meditations in the collection will attract some readers and trouble others. The contributors write out of their separate Stone-Campbell contexts, with the authors from each stream speaking in a way that suggests the concerns of their particular tradition. Readers among Churches of Christ — and in a similar way, Christian Churches — may bristle at how widely Session throws open the door to the kingdom. Disciples — long engaged in ecumenical activities — may wonder why leaders in Churches of Christ are just now warming to their believing neighbors and revisiting Campbell’s thoughts on unity.
The volume will be most meaningful to readers already aware of the Stone-Campbell movement and the historic links between Churches of Christ, Christian Churches, and Disciples of Christ. If readers hear the contributors out, remembering the fellowships they represent share not only a common faith but a common history, they will see a movement striving — though imperfectly — to be faithful to Jesus’ longing for his followers to be one.
For information on a special 2009 communion celebration linked to the bicentennial of Campbell’s 1809 document, visit www.greatcommunion.org.
A professor of Spanish at Lipscomb University, Parks is a Chronicle correspondent and has written about both Restoration history and Hispanic outreach.