What Were They Thinking?

January 28, 2009

The Christian Chronicle recently posted an article about the decline of churches of Christ in the United States.

In the newly released directory, 21st Century Christian identifies 12,629 a cappella Churches of Christ with 1,578,281 adherents nationwide. Those figures represent 526 fewer churches and 78,436 fewer people in the pews than just six years ago.

Over at the One in Jesus blog, Jay has been commenting on the report and the decline which it documents. In his latest article he traces the roots of decline back to certain key 19th century figures in the Restoration Movement, influenced by the Landmark Baptists who were active in the same area of the country. Jay wrote:

What happened, I think, is the Movement absorbed a great number of Baptists from the same cultural pool that produce the Landmark Baptist movement in the 1850s — but with roots going back to the 17th Century.

I blogged similar thoughts back in 2007, focusing on the emergence of a hermeneutic based on the silence of the scriptures. It seems that the views brought into the Restoration movement from some exclusive Baptist groups gained influence in the second half of the 19th century, diverting the course of the Restoration Movement from its original goal to unify all Christians. These influences resulted in increasing intolerance toward any variation in beliefs. Controversies flared over fund raisers, non-church institutions doing Christian work, the “located preacher” or pastor-led church, and instrumental music, just to name a few.

Within a few decades, the Restoration Movement blew apart at Sand Creek as a result of this intolerance. Since that time, the movement has suffered division after division over some of the most arcane differences imaginable — whether to have a kitchen in the church building; whether to eat in the building; pre-millennialism /post-millennialism / amillennialism; use of the mass media; campus ministries; missionary societies; military service; voting; holding public office; using wine in communion; offering communion twice on Sunday; delivering communion to the sick; taking communion with individual cups; breaking your own piece of communion bread or passing already broken pieces; Christian colleges; whether an elder becomes disqualified when his wife dies; whether all of an elder’s children must be Christians; whether an elder becomes disqualified if one of his children leaves the faith; differences over divorce and remarriage… Christians have parted company over differences on all of these topics, and more. Intolerance has become the guiding principle for fellowship in churches of Christ.

Meanwhile, in 21st century America, intolerance is not a very effective way to win the lost — nor to save our children. So the church declines.

Tracing the history of intolerant thought in the Restoration Movement, Jay provides a few rather shocking quotes, including this one from Moses Lard:

For if both of these men be true Christians neither more nor less, evidently there cannot exist between them even a nominal, to say nothing of a real difference…… Consequently they are now, be it supposed, Christians strictly according to the Bible; that is, they mentally accept and in heart hold, as the matter of their faith, precisely and only what the Bible certainly teaches; they do and practice what, and only what, it either expressly or by precedent enjoins; in spirit, temper, and disposition, they are exactly what it requires; and as to names, they wear none save those which it imposes.

It is astonishing to me that learned men would consider such a standard for fellowship. What were they thinking? Surely the apostle Paul did not use that standard when he called the Corinthian church “brothers.” Amazingly, we still find educated leaders in some churches of Christ who teach similarly exclusive views on salvation and fellowship.

But not all churches of Christ hold such views. Many are finding biblical basis to challenge the intolerant conclusions of the past. So there is hope. One by one, people even from the conservative churches are starting to question inconsistencies between the teaching and the practice of the more exclusive conservatives. Going back to the scriptures, some are learning a better way to handle diverse viewpoints, without breaking fellowship.

Let’s not abandon our love for scripture. And let’s not abandon our careful use of scripture. But let’s gain some humility, and let’s learn to admit that we might be wrong about a few things. We need to recognize our own need for grace, and therefore to extend grace to others. Let’s accept one another and leave room for God to make us all stand.

Rom 14:4 Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls. And he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand.


  1. Great thoughts thanks, Dell Kimberly

  2. Enjoyed this post, Alan. Keep up the good work.

  3. An excellent and great advice.You will like hearing this. I recently read that a man who worships in a “one cup”, “no Sunday school” congregation, along with the others has studied himself out of the bondage of legalism and now fellowships with all of those who claim Christ as Lord. They still believe they are right about one cup and no Sunday school but do to try to bind others by non essential beliefs.What a great testamony to what God is doing in the churches!Royce

  4. Royce, Thanks for sharing that. We need a lot more examples like that! Maybe by your sharing this example, others will be encouraged to do likewise.

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