A Proposal For Unity Part 2: Congregational Relationships

August 7, 2007

Separate congregations in the body of Christ should accept one another while respecting congregational boundaries.

In Thomas Campbell’s second proposition, he called for relationships between congregations that are free from “uncharitable divisions,” relationships in which the congregations accept one another, just as Christ accepted each of us. He also pleaded that they “walk by the same rule” and share the same mind and judgment.

Our reality is quite different from that picture. Within the Restoration Movement, we have congregations using instrumental music, and congregations that abhor the practice. We have similar differences over kitchens, communion cups, missionary societies, Sunday school classes, translations of the Bible, the role of women, and more. It requires faith just to believe we can reach a point where the divisions are no longer “uncharitable.” The same mind and judgment seems to be out of reach.

In fact, the reality of the first century church fell short of that standard as well. The Holy Spirit, speaking through Paul, recognized this fact and gave instructions on how to handle these differences (Rom 14:1-15:13) Paul could easily have laid out the plain teaching on eating meat, drinking wine, and observing special days. Instead, he taught how to live peaceably with others who disagree on such matters. The central teaching of the passage is summed up in one verse:

Rom 14:13 Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in your brother’s way.

Sometimes, we must give up our rights to avoid causing someone else to stumble:

Rom 14:21 It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything else that will cause your brother to fall.

In the modern environment, people in the Restoration Movement have organized themselves into separate congregations to accommodate their differing convictions on such subjects. That enables each member to worship in a way that their conscience permits. But it tends to create distrust and disrespect between the congregations.

Remember, we are talking about two congregations of people who were all added to the one body of Christ at their conversion. The issues that separate these congregations are not the core gospel to which members of each congregation were converted. These are all sons of God by faith (Gal 3:26-27). Therefore, they are all to accept on another without passing judgment on disputable matters.

We need to respect the consciences of those brothers and sisters in the other congregation, who see these matters differently from us. Before their God and ours, they need to worship according to their consciences. They must worship according to their consciences. We should not be so arrogant and callous that we feel compelled to change their minds on the disputed matters. We need to keep it between ourselves and God.

Rom 14:22 So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the man who does not condemn himself by what he approves.

We need to respect the boundaries of conscience, giving them the freedom to worship as they must. We also need to regard them as brothers and sisters. So we need to reach out to them and maintain a healthy relationship with them. We need to guard our conversation to be sure we do not speak evil of our brother or sister. And we need to find ways we can work together without threatening their consciences, or ours. Maybe that could be a joint service project, or a vaction Bible school, or a joint a cappella worship service. Maybe it could be a weekly Bible study in one of their homes, or in one of ours. Or maybe it could be a picnic in a park. The choice of activity would depend on the nature of the disputed matters. The important point is that we must not let the relationship be defined by the differences, but rather by the fact that we are all part of the body of Christ.

Based on the above, here is Proposal #2:

Proposal #2: Separate congregations within the body of Christ must love and embrace one another as joint heirs in the family of God, despite disagreements on disputable matters. They must maintain a healthy relationship that respects whatever conscientious differences exist between the congregations.


  1. Hi Alan,I’m enjoying your series. However, at the end of the day I think a lot of folks (at least in the ICOC) will say that’s great re music, kitchens, and maybe even how missions are handled. But for many in the ICOC other folks aren’t really even considered ‘brethren’ because they haven’t followed the ICOC ‘method’ of salvation. They would only be considered ‘religious’. (fyi there is a mainline or two here that basically says if you are in the ICOC you aren’t saved because of the ICOC ‘method’!)Of course, we may say ‘there are disciples outside the ICOC, etc.’ but we would never just ‘accept’ them. At least most places. How does all of that change? ttk

  2. Hi ttk,I’m sure ICOC congregations vary on this topic, but I’m aware of more than a few who don’t draw those lines any more. I think the more we get to know the mainline, and the more they get to know us, the more we’ll all realize that we are more alike than people have imagined. I think it starts by reaching out… maybe start attending a mainline Sunday evening service. Or, since some ICOC congregations have midweeks on Tue or Thu, and almost all mainlines I know of have it on Wed, there is another great visiting opportunity. If possible, bring someone with you. Bottom line, we just need to get to know one another.

  3. I’m glad there are congregations doing this!! But I do believe there are congregations that would probably strongly feel that they are still the only Christians in town and any crossing of the line (even as simple as members visiting other RM churches for a midweek) would be met with suspicion and/or disdain.Hopefully, the more congregations that begin to build bridges, the more that will follow! (we’ve always been big believers in imitation) %^)ttk

  4. TTK: The way I knew things were different here in my ICOC was when folks from mainline CoCs just joined us without having to go through our Super Special ICOC Conversion Experience.While certainly not the only measure, it’s certainly one – that these people were accepted as Part Of Us, really even before “placing membership.”To us, finding (or making) the time to do some of the things Alan suggests has been the rub. Laura and I have been intending to visit around – at least the CoCs and CC where we already know folks – ever since we got here almost 4 years ago…

  5. Mark – Good to hear! ttk

  6. Alan, I am very grateful for the words you have penned here in this series on Unity. I wish every member of the Stone-Campbell Movement could have access to your thoughts. After my move from the a cappella CoC to the ICC, my family and friends have counted us as lost, having left “the Church and the Lord”. For the life of me, I cannot get them to see that peripheral matters such as music have nothing to do with the core gospel and does not make one an unbeliever. I look very forward to reading the your future installments.Blessings!Ray

  7. Hi Raymond,It is quite sad to hear how some people responded to your decision. In all fairness, the ICOC has been at least as unkind toward the a cappella CoC. There’s no time like the present to start moving in a better direction!

  8. Alan,Excellent post.I want you to know that I have really been enjoying this series.

  9. Alan, you are certainly correct, in all respects. But to be aware that my family and I are with the Independent Christian Church (ICC) not the International Church of Christ (ICOC). :)Ray

  10. Hi Raymond,Ah, I see. It’s an unfortunately ambiguous acronym. Our family of churches use ICC and ICOC interchangeably. I’ve also heard ICC used to refer to Institutional Churches of Christ! Frankly, as a result of the changes over the last few years in the International Churches of Christ, I believe there is a tremendous amount of common ground between the Independent Christian Churches and the International Churches of Christ. We definitely should spend some time getting to know each other.

  11. This is very true! i like what Above Grounds is doing online in Austin, TX. Austin churches are beginning to work together to reach the city, and the website has unity and communication as its focal point.I'd love to see other cities do something similar online…

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