Stone-Campbell churches explore common ground
On June 28, 1804, Presbyterians in Cane Ridge, Ky., called on believers in Christ to put away human creeds and take “no other name than Christians.”
Two hundred years later, members of the three religious groups that trace their heritage back to that historic moment — including churches of Christ — celebrated the “Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery.”
“Sometimes it takes a funeral to get the family together again, so it’s appropriate that we are here to read a Last Will and Testament!” said Darren Johnson. The minister and members of the a cappella Kirkwood Avenue church, Iowa City, Iowa, hosted a June 26 observance, attended by eight Iowa- and Illinois-area churches.
John Paul Long, of Iowa City’s First Christian Church, said, “We have common genes, and there’s nothing we can do about it … We have unity in God … and we have unity in our Christian church.”
As they recognize the bicentennial of the Restoration plea to be “Christians only,” instrumental and non-instrumental churches are talking about healing a division nearly one century old. But some church members don’t see the coming years as an era of newfound unity. Instead, they warn that a cappella churches of Christ are headed for a split similar to the division first recorded in 1906.
That was the year the U.S. religious census first recognized a formal split between instrumental and non-instrumental churches associated with the Stone-Campbell movement, a non-denominational group of believers with roots in 1804’s “Last Will and Testament.”
Written by Richard McNemar, the “Last Will” is the founding document of the Christian Church movement associated with Barton W. Stone. In 1832 Stone’s movement joined with a similar movement led by Alexander Campbell.
By the 1860s, some of the movement’s churches had begun using musical instruments in worship, and the issue became contentious. After the 1906 split, the a cappella group maintained the name “churches of Christ.”
During the 1920s another split began among the instrumental group, resulting in the groups known as the “Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)” and the “Christian church/churches of Christ (instrumental).”
“We’ve been pretty famous for fighting and splitting,” Bryan Barrett told the Associated Press in a June 26 story about the “Last Will.” Barrett, minister for the a cappella Southside church, Lexington, Ky., said that about 65 members of his church were among 400 participants in a June 28 program celebrating the document at Lexington’s Central Christian Church.
The Southside church, with 500 members, is in close proximity to several larger Christian churches, and Barrett said that communication between the groups has increased dramatically in recent years.
Exploring the differences
Concern among members on both sides of the 1906 division was common when the first “Restoration Forums” began more than 20 years ago, said Chris DeWelt, director of missions at Ozark Christian College, Joplin, Mo.
Organizers designed the Forums to bring together the branches of the Stone-Campbell movement for discussions about their common heritage and theological differences.
“I think that in the early days there were a lot of fears that these were efforts to merge,” said DeWelt, who serves as elder for a Christian church with about 1,800 members. The mindset was that, “one party wins, the other loses.”
But the Forums were a catalyst for understanding the differences between the a cappella churches of Christ and the Christian churches/churches of Christ (instrumental). Members of the Disciples of Christ also have participated in the forums, despite greater doctrinal differences with the other two branches of the Stone-Campbell movement.
Besides the use of instruments, DeWelt said that Christian churches have slightly different “hermeneutical approaches to scripture … what is permitted and what is not permitted.” Both groups stress the necessity of adult baptism by immersion.
“I really believe that there are many more things we have in common,” DeWelt said. “The whole hinge point seems to be, do we see our differences as differences of opinion or differences of faith?”
Minister Hugh Fulford, who worships with a rural, a cappella congregation in Gallatin, Tenn., told the Chronicle that the differences between the groups in the 1906 division is a matter of scriptural authority. “Sadly … many (churches) no longer hold any biblical convictions against the use of instrumental music in worship and view the whole matter as one of tradition,” he said.
“For those of us who see the instrument in worship as a presumptuous addition there can be no compromise with those who use the instrument,” Fulford said.
A series titled, “The Division of 1906: History in the Remaking?” appeared in the May issue of the Gospel Advocate, a publication for a cappella churches of Christ. Contributor Phil Sanders, minister for the Concord Road church, Brentwood, Tenn., warned that issues including instrumental music are broadening the gap between “progressive” and “traditional” camps within a cappella churches.
“We love our progressive brethren, but we cannot and will not follow them into error and lawlessness,” Sanders wrote.
But “no compromise” shouldn’t mean no communication, Fulford said.
“Should we study, talk, and pray together about this matter? Absolutely! All should be willing to examine and re-examine any belief or practice to which he holds.”
Although discussions among the Stone-Campbell groups date back many years, only recently have these discussions moved from debate to true, prayerful understanding, said Marvin Phillips, a minister who has participated in many Restoration Forums. Today, “We’ve really started talking to each other,” he said.
Dale Knowles wants those talks to continue. Knowles, of West Liberty, Iowa, led the closing prayer at the Iowa City celebration of the “Last Will” anniversary.
“I pray,” he said, “that a gathering like this will not just be a fleeting thing, but will continue and spread over the whole country and world.”
Additional reporting by M. Gregory Bales, Iowa City
The signers of the ‘Last Will and Testment’ said that they wished to retire from ‘the din and fury of conflicting parties’ in churches.