Repeating Historical Mistakes

March 22, 2009

Today’s churches of Christ are making the same mistakes as preceding generations.

Thomas Campbell admonished the church in his day for its tendency toward exclusivity. They debated aggressively and treated their opponents dismissively. Apparently their desire to prove themselves right trumped the biblical command to accept one another without passing judgment over disputable matters. Campbell called them to stop trying to produce “theological orthodoxy” which leads to “partyism.” Instead, he called them to focus on the core principles of Christianity:

Now these are precisely seven, viz.–The knowledge of God–of man–of sin–of the Saviour–of his salvation–of the means of enjoying it–and of its blissful effects and consequences.

By focusing on these seven topics, and insisting only on what is explicitly stated in scripture, Campbell believed that the Restoration Movement would be much more likely to accomplish the original goal to take down the walls between believers.

Beginning in the late 19th century and continuing through the present day, churches of Christ have chosen a different path. Most have consistently pursued “theological orthodoxy,” following a policy of purifying the doctrine of the church through division. Brotherhood journals and public debates have been the weapons of choice in these wars between brothers. Division after division has resulted. As a result, instead of reaching the lost, these churches are in decline.

But today, a new generation is questioning that direction. We have an opportunity to abandon a religion of quarreling and controversy, and to return to the kind of sound doctrine that Paul taught Timothy:

1Ti 1:3 As I urged you when I went into Macedonia, stay there in Ephesus so that you may command certain men not to teach false doctrines any longer
1Ti 1:4 nor to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies. These promote controversies rather than God’s work–which is by faith.
1Ti 1:5 The goal of this command is love, which comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.
1Ti 1:6 Some have wandered away from these and turned to meaningless talk.
1Ti 1:7 They want to be teachers of the law, but they do not know what they are talking about or what they so confidently affirm.
1Ti 1:8 We know that the law is good if one uses it properly.
1Ti 1:9 We also know that law is made not for the righteous but for lawbreakers and rebels, the ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious; for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers,
1Ti 1:10 for adulterers and perverts, for slave traders and liars and perjurers–and for whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine
1Ti 1:11 that conforms to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, which he entrusted to me.

Doctrinal quarrels produce controversy and consume the energy that should go into the work God called us to do. Instead we should be working to eliminate the behaviors (sins) that are contrary to sound doctrine, both in our own lives and in the lives of others.

Paul continued in chapter 2, talking about prayer, godliness, holiness, modest dress, the role of women, elders and deacons. Then he wrote:

1Ti 3:14 Although I hope to come to you soon, I am writing you these instructions so that,
1Ti 3:15 if I am delayed, you will know how people ought to conduct themselves in God’s household, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth.

These things he was writing about all pertain to how we conduct our lives as Christians — tht is, how to live godly lives. That is what Paul meant by “sound doctrine.”

Then in chapter 4, Paul called out the false teachers who were forbidding people to marry and ordering them to abstain from certain foods. Those who added rules and restrictions not from God were following deceiving spirits and things taught by demons! So Paul urged Timothy:

1Ti 4:6 If you point these things out to the brothers, you will be a good minister of Christ Jesus, brought up in the truths of the faith and of the good teaching that you have followed.
1Ti 4:7 Have nothing to do with godless myths and old wives’ tales; rather, train yourself to be godly.

Paul then gave Timothy instruction about benevolence to widows, his relationship to elders, and attitudes toward money.

All of these issues revolved around godliness and holiness. Paul wanted Timothy to lead the church in such a way that the people would learn to live godly and holy lives. The issue wasn’t intellectual, but experiential. They needed to live a certain way, and it was the job of Timothy and the elders and other leaders to train the church in that kind of living.

Why do churches spend so much energy quarreling about words? Have we solved all of the issues of godliness and holiness in our members’ lives? Are their marriages all healthy? Are the children godly? Are all of our members managing their finances in a godly way? Are our members all living exemplary lives? Are we bringing sinners to repentance and into the grace of Christ? Are we helping the poor? Are we visiting those sick or in prison? I suspect there are many things we need to be doing that are more important than questions about communion cups, pianos, kitchens, or whatever else we’ve been preoccupied with. How are we doing on those more important matters? I think that is what Thomas Campbell was saying to the church in his day. And I think it is the same counsel Jesus would give to the church today.

Let’s stop straining out gnats and swallowing camels. There is important work to be done.


  1. On the other hand, if communion cups, pianos, fellowship halls, etc. cause a division between my brother and me, shouldn’t I be willing to give them up for the sake of unity?

  2. @anon,Good point. Paul puts the onus on the one whose faith is strong- the one who doesn’t care about meat should abstain for the sake of the one who does. But that didn’t keep Paul from preaching against the division in the first place.

  3. Alan, great post as always. I’m still struggling to get out my post on the meaning of ‘church’, but you’re providing me with plenty of material!

  4. Sometimes I think about what I might better be doing with my time than trying to persuade people who see the Bible and our God in a whole different way than I do, and you’ve given me a whole list of profitable alternatives, Alan.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: