Archive for the ‘Sand Creek’ Category

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The Legacy of Sand Creek

June 2, 2006

The bigger fleas upon the dog,
Have smaller fleas that bite ’em;
And these, in turn, have lesser fleas,
And so on, ad infinitum!

The timeline of the Restoration Movement is divided at the year 1889, into two distinct eras: Before Sand Creek (BSC) and After Sand Creek (ASC).

BSC, there was one movement, consisting of people who believed in Jesus, repented of their sins, made Jesus their Lord, and were baptized into Jesus. The goal of the movement was to unite all believers in Jesus with no creed but the Bible.

ASC, the movement fragmented into dozens of factions, each with its own peculiar recipe of doctrines distinguishing each group from its alienated siblings. There were instrumental and non instrumental factions. There were those who supported missionary societies and those who opposed them. There were those who had Sunday School, and those who opposed the practice. Some partook of communion using wine, but others used grape juice. Some took the bread by pinching a piece from one whole shared loaf; others broke the loaf and passed pieces to the congregation. Some believed Matthew 19:9 provided an exception in the divorce teaching, but others saw no exception. Some had kitchens in their church buildings; others abhorred kitchens as a practice of the devil. Some supported orphan homes; others considered it apostasy to delegate such work to an institution outside the local congregation.

On Sunday, the one-cup, wine only, bread-pinchers, non-Sunday school faction would meet in one place, and the one-cup, grape juice only, break pinchers, non-Sunday school faction in a second. The members of the one-cup, grape juice only, bread-pinchers, non-Sunday school, no divorce exception church of Christ would not have anything to do with the one-cup, grape juice only, bread-pinchers, non-Sunday school, divorce exception church of Christ. And so on, as the poet said, ad infinitum.

Thomas Campbell would not recognize this movement as it exists today, if it can still be called a movement. Will Jesus recognize it when he returns? May God have mercy on us all.

What caused the great departure of the Restoration Movement from the original intent to unify believers? In a nutshell, it was the policy of purifying the doctrine of the church through division. That was the policy implemented by the Address and Declaration. And it was the policy that has driven every division in the churches of Christ since 1889.

All of these divisions are about inferences in scripture. Thomas Campbell argued against including inferences and deductions in the confessions of the church in his sixth proposition of the Declaration and Address, and against binding inferences in his seventh proposition. His son Alexander taught likewise. Responding to Sand Creek, J. C. McQuiddy of the Gospel Advocate argued against the writing of a creed and the subsequent division as a remedy to the controversies. David Lipscomb argued similarly. In his later life, Daniel Sommer regretted his role in the division and sought to bring the parties back together–not abandoning his convictions on the technical points, but calling for toleration. In the middle of the 20th century, Carl Ketcherside devoted the rest of his life to that same effort.

All these men were advocating the same thing at those different points in time. None denied that there were errors being taught and practiced. Still they all advocated for toleration. But notice a very significant thing here. Thomas and Alexander Campbell were the very definition of the “orthodox” view of the Restoration Movement of their day. McQuiddy and Lipscomb likewise were considered among the soundest teachers of their day. But when Sommer and Ketcherside advocated the exact same thing, they were seen as troublemakers, or heretics, or worse–at least within the churches of Christ. The fact is that the churches of Christ abandoned the sound and noble goals of the early Restoration Movement leaders. They abandoned the central principles on which the movement was originally founded. More importantly, they abandoned the Lord’s plea for unity. Instead they adopted a policy of purity through division.

That policy is a direct rebellion against scripture. Those who practice the party spirit disqualify themselves from heaven (Gal 5:19-21). Paul told Timothy how to deal with opposing beliefs without division:

2 Tim 2:25-26 Those who oppose him he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will.

Can we fellowship someone whose beliefs about such technicalities differ from ours? If not, we too are trying to purify the doctrine of the church by sustaining division. That kind of thinking is deeply embedded in our collective DNA. And it prevents the unity for which Jesus prayed.

The Address and Declaration (1889) was indeed a reversal of the Declaration and Address, written 80 years earlier. It stands as a monument to the pride and intolerance of man. Its legacy has been one of bickering and division.

This is the last in a series of articles on Sand Creek. At this point I want to call attention to the earlier article which prompted this series, Sola Scriptura. That article stimulated the thoughts that led to the Sand Creek series. And it is an appropriate place to return. Let’s return to Sola Scriptura. In doing so, let’s abandon our creeds, written and unwritten. The scriptures are sufficient. Let’s be tolerant of one another as we learn from the scriptures together, each at his own pace. And let’s pray that God will take down the walls we and our forefathers have built in our folly.

Click for the complete series on Scriptures, Creeds, and Sand Creek

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W. Carl Ketcherside on Sand Creek

May 31, 2006

To a student of the Restoration Movement, the voice of W. Carl Ketcherside is impossible to ignore. He has been loved and he has been hated. He had unique insights about the church and the movement and he was not timid nor subtle about expressing his views. Perhaps he was a man before his time. But any discussion of the movement begun at Sand Creek must deal with the man WCK.

I will quote liberally from Ketcherside’s own writing to give not only the facts but also the style and heart of the man. I cannot say it better than he.

As a young man he was a great debator and defender of the “ancient faith” from the point of view of the most conservative wing of the Restoration Movement. Writing in his autobiography about this period, Ketcherside said:

I sometimes wish I could omit this chapter but to do so would leave a void and create a distorted picture. I will deal with a division and my part in it, although division in the family of God has come to be so abhorrent to me I would like to forget my own unfortunate participation in it.

Ketcherside was born in 1908, and was baptized at age 12. Almost immediately he became a phenomenon as a boy preacher. Writing of the church into which he was baptized, he said:

Although I did not realize it at the time I was baptized, this historical movement was already fractured into fragments because of the legalistic concept which had captured the minds of its adherents. Divisions do not happen. They are caused. Parties form around men who promote the separation and insist upon the segregation of their adherents. In the movement growing out of the ideal of restoration as enunciated by Thomas and Alexander Campbell, most of the divisions centered around men of prominence. In almost every instance they were editors of journals. They could use their journals as propaganda media and the United States mails as a distribution method. No party could long endure without an editor and a “loyal paper.”

Isaac Errett wielded influence through Christian Standard. David Lipscomb edited Gospel Advocate. Austin McGary edited Firm Foundation. Daniel Sommer edited American Christian Review. The name of this paper was changed at various times to Octographic Review, Apostolic Review, and back again to American Christian Review. It was into the segment of “the disciple brotherhood” represented by the Apostolic Review I was introduced when baptized. At the time I did not know there were others. I supposed, in my childhood idealism, that all Christians were together, united in a common bond of faith, and that wherever you saw a meetinghouse with “Church of Christ” over the door you would find a welcome and a hand of fellowship to cheer you.

So Carl Ketcherside was brought up in Daniel Sommer’s extreme right wing of the churches of Christ. As discussed in the preceding article, in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s, a rift formed in the Octographic Review family. Writing of these things, Ketcherside said:

I was twenty-four years old when the storm broke and in my partisan enthusiasm was the one who accepted the challenge of the 82 year old Daniel to debate the issue. Fortunately, the debate did not materialize, but in our correspondence he expressed his sadness that I manifested so much zeal with so little knowledge. He also told me he had hoped his mantle would fall on my shoulders, and that he had earlier thought of Austen as his successor, but was disappointed that he had proven himself to be “a splinter off the butt-cut of humanity.”

Almost 20 years later, Ketcherside was in Belfast, Ireland, hoping to visit the old church where Thomas Campbell had once preached. There Carl Ketcherside came face to face with his sins. He came to a realization that he had been fighting against unity rather than for it. He wrote:

It came home to me with force that I had never really labored for the unity of all who believed in Jesus. I had actually, in mistaken zeal, contributed to the fragmentation of the very movement which Thomas Campbell had launched with such high hopes and great promise. Instead of furthering the noble “project to unite the Christians in all of the sects,” I had absorbed and sometimes even gloried in a sectarian spirit.

As I stumbled along through the deepening snow, alone in a foreign city, I found myself weeping and praying and making promises to God of what I would do if my life was spared through His grace. The word grace came like a ray of hope and I rolled it on my tongue like a juicy morsel. What I needed to make life worth living, to overcome my frustration, to rise above the futility of my own efforts was grace. In all of my forty-three years no other thought had ever struck me with such force.

From that day forward he was a changed man. Instead of a defender of doctrinal precision (in the opinion of his party), he became a voice crying out for unity and toleration. Like Daniel Sommer, he had come to see that the narrow partisan defense of opinion and technicalities was an enemy to unity. Contrary to the characterization by many, he came to that conviction without abandoning his convictions about the technical truths of the Bible. Fortunately in his case, Ketcherside came to that understanding while he still had a almost four decades of life remaining to work for unity.

In 1962, Ketcherside wrote about Sand Creek in the Mission Messenger:

Now, from more mature years and judgment, I would like to re-examine the decisions made at Sand Creek in 1889. I do this in full recognition of the price that must be paid by any person who questions the traditions of his fathers. I am aware of the fact that one must bear the stigma of “traitor” or “heretic” who dares to challenge the partisan concepts of his associates. But I am committed to an honest search for truth regardless of personal consequences. I cannot live with myself nor be prepared to meet my Lord if I compromise my conviction in a matter so important as this. I have resolved that I will shield no part of my thinking from examination and that I will accept nothing simply because it has been taught by men in the past. My faith must stand, if it stands at all, “in the power of God and not in the wisdom of men.

In my analysis of the rise of factionalism I have come to believe that the philosophy embodied in the Sand Creek Declaration laid the foundation for the subsequent disintegration of the restoration movement.

In our review of the Sand Creek Declaration there is no attempt to condone those things which it condemned. We do not deny that they were innovations and it is evident that they were without scriptural warrant. But there is a difference between those things and the division which resulted from agitation of them. The factional spirit is sinful. The party spirit is a work of the flesh. To oppose evil from a factional standpoint is as wrong as to uphold evil from any standpoint. It is not opposition to evil but the factional spirit which is wrong. It is subversive of the divine government to create a party to oppose wrong. This is a species of doing evil with the hope that good may come.

It is our opinion based upon research into the factors leading to the adoption of the policy of attempting to preserve purity by division, and upon observation of the consequences resulting from application of that policy, that it is factional in nature and essence. It is our further opinion that this policy pursued regularly as a course of action can only culminate in more divisions, and ultimately will counteract and destroy any real spiritual gains made by those who adopt it. We hold the view that this philosophy is without sanction in the sacred scriptures, that it is contrary to the examples given of the primitive ekklesia, and it is in contravention of the purpose of God. It originates in human wisdom prompted by fear. It proposes to maintain what has been gained by regimentation of thought.

There is little to be gained in any final analysis if, in an attempt to keep innovations from destroying the church of God, we adopt those methods which will eventually achieve the same end.

This is not all. Other divisions must follow in the future. Every time a truth is discovered, every time honest investigation forces a change of mind, there will be another division. This philosophy bars the door to further scriptural research, makes real unbiased study a crime, and places a premium on mediocrity. It throws a dam across the channel of thought, freezes the acquisition of knowledge, and constitutes an unwritten creed. It makes blind conformity a blessing and enthrones orthodoxy as the ideal. If a system, like a tree, is known by its fruits, we should eliminate this one immediately.

Ketcherside spoke inspirationally as he identified the folly of the Address and Declaration. However, he was not interested in establishing blame for the actions. He wrote:

Let us not indulge precious time or waste our efforts in an attempt to establish guilt for what occurred three-quarters of a century in the past. Our brethren were faced with grave and serious problems. They were frightened by an oncoming wave of innovations which would destroy all they held sacred. They had to make a decision as to the best means to withstand the onslaught. Perhaps the choice was exactly the one we would have made at the time and under the circumstances. We have the privilege of looking backward upon the outworking of their method.

There is much more of great value in the Mission Messenger article. Though I would like to quote it all, you can easily read it by following the link so I will not. But indulge me one more quote, as Ketcherside concludes the article:

I want it known that I love God and I love every word in the sacred oracles. But I renounce the traditional twentieth century “Church of Christ” factionalism as a means for achieving God’s purpose in this age. I shall continue to oppose everything that I believe to be out of harmony with God’s plan but I shall not allow these things to interfere with my love or regard for any of my brothers who sincerely and conscientiously disagree with me about the implementation of that plan. In short, I shall make nothing a test of fellowship which God has not made a condition of salvation. I shall not seek to establish brotherhood by definition of a human document, nor by conformity in matters of opinion. I shall be a brother to all who have been begotten by my Father. Brotherhood based upon fatherhood, fraternity based upon paternity, this shall be my standard because it is scriptural. I will free myself from all partisan traditions, schemes and ideas which men have adopted to offset unity of the Spirit. I intend to be a free man in Christ, bound only by His word. “You are bought with a price, do not become slaves of men” (1 Cor. 7:23).

The unity of the Spirit is one of community, not conformity; of diversity, not uniformity. It is rooted in mutual love, not dogmatism; in freedom, not in slavery. Our peace is a person, not a plan or a program!

Well said, Carl!

Click for the complete series on Scriptures, Creeds, and Sand Creek

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The Aftermath: Daniel Sommer

May 28, 2006

The Sand Creek Address and Declaration of 1889 marked the beginning of division between the Churches of Christ and the Disciples / independent Christian churches. Dr. Leroy Garrett wrote that the churches of Christ as we know them today began with the words of Daniel Sommer at Sand Creek on that August day in 1889. There the pattern was established that, if a group of Christians understands certain things from the Bible, and other groups do not conform with that view, a division must occur. The pattern has been repeated innumerable times since that fateful day.

After the Sand Creek event, those with opposing viewpoints were no less eager to sever ties. According to Larry Miles’ Reflections on the Restoration Movement, Russell Errett wrote in the Christian Standard in June 1892:

The churches should be on their guard. They should know that Daniel Sommer has abandoned apostolic ground and is no more identified with the Disciples of Christ than Sidney Rigdon.

Sidney Rigdon, of course, was a central figure in the Mormon church, so these were strong words indeed.

Even those in the middle ground took issue with the extreme postition of the Address and Declaration. J. C. McQuiddy co-editor of the Gospel Advocate, wrote (ibid):

The Sand Creek manifesto was manifest folly, and the Advocate emphatically denies any sympathy with Sommerism–whatever that is–Sand Creekism, Sand Lotism, Sans-culottism, Standards or any other partyism in religion.

So in 1906, when David Lipscomb informed the census bureau that the two groups had parted company and were now separate churches, he was merely stating the obvious. It had not been his desire to see this happen, and he had worked to prevent the division. But by 1906 it was a historical fact that the churches of Christ and the Disciples / independent Christian churches had gone their separate ways.

The sad irony of these events is that the man who did the most to bring them about, Daniel Sommer, spent the final years of his life trying to reverse what he had initiated. As often is the case, Sommer the old man had exchanged the hotheaded zeal of his youth for an attitude of humility and toleration. As the apostle John, once called the Son of Thunder, became the apostle of love in old age, so Sommer in his latter days called for common sense to prevail for the cause of unity. The positions in his paper began to moderate. One of his sons, Austen Sommer, started a rival paper to uphold the radical conservative line he felt his father was abandoning. Eventually Austen disfellowshipped his own father for supposedly losing his loyalty to the ancient faith. Austen was merely following in the opinionated footsteps of his father’s younger years.

In those days, Daniel’s paper published a piece titled, “Can’t We Agree on Something?“. The article began:

To those of the churches of Christ who desire a plan for Unity, we submit the following for your consideration. We cry ‘Unity,’ and say that Unity can be obtained only on a New testament basis. Yet the New Testament is the Book we disagree on. If we can search out the things we agree on, and unite on them, and work together, we’ll have Unity!

From that opening statement, the article proceeded with a proposal for how churches could accomodate differing opinions on some of the most hotly disputed topics of the day without need for division. The article was immediately attacked by those who esteemed themselves “defenders of the ancient faith”, including Austen Sommer as well as a young Carl Ketcherside, who wrote in his autobiography:

Although the publishers of the Review replied to the attack by saying it was simply a rough draft of suggestions intended to encourage a restudy of our divided state with a hope of alleviating it, the opposers (of whom I was one of the most vocal) labeled it a written creed. The description of it by the publishers gave us a handle and we called it “The Rough Draft” and this made it possible to identify the supporters and the denouncers of it. Daniel Sommer disclaimed any knowledge of the composition of the document but came to its defense when he became aware of the rabid opposition.

Daniel Sommer spent the fading days of his life trying to “put Humpty back together again.” As he did so, the younger hot-headed conservatives took their shots at him. He was denounced by many as soft on doctrine, as one who had abandoned the true faith. In reality he never abandoned his convictions about what the scriptures teach on those controversial topics. But he added to that an understanding that God calls us to a kind of unity that includes toleration. Daniel Sommer died in 1940, without seeing success in his late efforts toward that kind of unity. What regret he must have felt, that he had led the way in the fracturing of the Restoration Movement! Though he repented personally, he could not undo all that he had done.

Still more ironically, one of Daniel Sommers’ leading critics was to walk a similar path. In the next article of the series, we will look at how the Sand Creek Address and Declaration affected the life of another enigmatic personality, a leading Restoration Movement figure named W. Carl Ketcherside.

Click for the complete series on Scriptures, Creeds, and Sand Creek

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Sand Creek: Immediate Aftermath

May 25, 2006

Reaction to the Sand Creek Address and Declaration was predictably divided. There were the conservatives, whose cause the document had articulated in the most clear and certain terms possible. Their response was essentially “It’s about time!” And then there were the liberals, who were virtually labeled as heretics by the Sand Creek document. The liberals challenged the right of the Sand Creek signers to make such a determination about their status as brothers, as well as challenging that group’s right to forbid them to practice the “innovations” in dispute. While considering this polarized community, it is easy to overlook a third group, those who preferred to work things out rather than divide.

One contemporary response came from The Christian Standard. The Christian Standard was a publication founded in 1866 by Isaac Errett. (Errett died the year before the Sand Creek Address and Declaration). The paper took some of the more liberal positions on the issues of the day, coming out in support of missionary societies and instrumental music. After the 1906 split it followed the liberal wing, and continues to this day as a publication of the independent Christian churches.

The Christian Standard’s response was published September 28, 1889 in an article titled The Sand Creek Chronicles. The tone of the article was decidedly sarcastic, contrasting the issues of missionary societies, church festivals, church organs and the pastor with the issues that moved Luther, Wesley, and Campbell. The writer listed respected ministers and elders of the past who would not be regarded as brethren according to the Sand Creek standard. He closed by predicting that the Sand Creek signers, when they arrive at heaven and see those men inside, would be consistent with their convictions and stay out.

Another response appeared in the Gospel Advocate. The Gospel Advocate was founded by Tolbert Fanning and William Lipscomb (David Lipscomb’s older brother) in 1855. After an interruption during the Civil War, the paper resumed under the editorship of Fanning and David Lipscomb. The GA was on the conservative side of the spectrum compared to the Christian Standard, opposing such practices as missionary societies and instrumental music. The Gospel Advocate has experienced a few shifts in philosophy over the years but continues publishing today as a quite conservative voice of the churches of Christ.

The Gospel Advocate’s response was published three years after the Sand Creek event, in the November 7, 1892 issue. Apparently it was written in response to some criticism of the paper’s positions on the issues at hand. In the article Lipscomb claimed never to have seen the actual Address and Declaration until shortly before writing the article, having commented only hypothetically on it in previous articles. He stated the paper’s position to be that they opposed all the innovations which the Sand Creek signers cited. However Lipscomb (and the GA) did not support the right of the Sand Creek group “to assemble in a meeting or convention to oppose and provide a remedy for these sins of individuals and churches.” Although he had previously not seen the document, he says “I have now seen it, and do oppose all such unauthorized conventions, to exercise judicial or executive powers to suppress or maintain truth.” To Lipscomb the Address and Declaration was a case of doing evil with the intent that good may result.

The hidden effects of the Sand Creek pronouncement occurred in thousands upon thousands of families throughout America. Quoting from Sam Carter’s article in The Truth magazine in 1975:

While these abstract topics were at the heart of what was done at Sand Creek on this summer day, the personal and human side of the problem should not be ignored. The Declaration had bluntly stated that fellowship was to be withdrawn from those with whom the conservatives could not agree. This meant, in practical terms, that lifelong friends could not worship together unless somebody relented. It meant that women who had spent mornings on the back porch snapping beans or putting up pickles together may never meet again in a house of worship. Men who had shucked corn and baled hay and swapped stories together for years would never share participation in a mutual worship service again. Children who had played and hunted and swam together would never again attend services with their friends because their parents could not agree on how to run the church. It meant that family ties would be strained to the breaking point, and that tears and heartbreak would ensue as a result of hurt feelings and injured pride. Never again would peace reign in the community. All attempts at communication and understanding and compromise was to be halted, never to be resumed again. It was simply finished; forgotten.

In the next article we will consider how views on the Sand Creek Declaration and Address evolved as events continued to unfold, and subsequent history revealed its judgments.

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The Church Divided

May 24, 2006

The pot boiled over in 1889.

The controversy had simmered in the Restoration Movement churches for decades. Were churches free to introduce practices like instrumental music, choirs, missionary societies, preaching colleges, hired preacher-pastors, various types of fundraisers, and the like, despite the absence of mention of such practices in the New Testament? The “innovators” who advocated these practices were increasingly successful in establishing them in congregations over the loud objections of others who saw themselves as defending the “ancient order.” Church after church split over these issues. For example, regarding instrumental music, J. W. McGarvey wrote:

That a vast amount of evil has been occasioned by the introduction of instrumental music into Christian worship is undeniable. Beginning with the first instance of it among us which I can remember—that which caused a schism in the church in St. Louis in the year 1869—its progress has been attended by strife, alienation, and division, with all their attendant evils, in hundreds of congregations.

By 1889, the conservatives decided it was time to “draw a line of demarkation between the churches of Christ and our innovating brethren.” The action could have been taken in many different places, but the Sand Creek church first took the fateful step. It was decided to make the proclamation at the annual congregational reunion at Sand Creek in August 1889.

A conference of leaders from nearby churches gathered to produce the now-infamous document. Some were sent as delegates with consent to speak for their congregations, while others came merely representing themselves. By most accounts the document was the work of Daniel Sommer, with the local delegates basically providing their assent. In either case, that group produced and signed the document that was subsequently read after Daniel Sommer’s address.

A crowd estimated at 5000 gathered outdoors on the church grounds for the event. Sommer began his address by establishing some points that were well accepted by his audience, defining the differences between the “disciples and their religious neighbors”. At each point he emphasized that the matter is true precisely because of the “divine testimony” of scripture. He mentioned faith, repentance, and baptism as illustrations. Then he addressed human opinions, inferences, speculations, etc, and said we cannot have faith in these things because there is no divine testimony on those points. To illustrate these he cited church names, creeds, and baptism by sprinkling.

Then he turned his attention to those inside the churches of Christ who had been introducing “humanisms” into the practice of the church. Using “divine testimony” as the standard, he challenged those who hire a pastor-preacher rather than appointing a plurality of elders. Then he challenged the missionary society, fundraising techniques, and musical instruments in worship.

Asserting that we cannot have faith in a practice for which there is no “divine testimony,” and that whatever does not proceed from faith is sin, he designated the aforementioned innovations as sin. He then charged the innovators, in seven enumerated points, with responsibility for all the conflict, pain, cost, and every other consequence of the controversies over the innovations. Closing his address he said, “The time is come that judgment must begin at the household of God.

Then Elder P. P. Warren took the stand and delivered the Address and Declaration.

There were two versions of the Address and Declaration. One was published in Sommer’s Octographic Review, September 5, 1889. The second was published a week later in J. L. Rowe’s Christian Leader. They differ only slightly, but significantly in that only the latter mentions instrumental music. The reason for the difference may be lost to history. It is not known which version was delivered at the public assembly in August. Regardless, the issue of instrumental music was apparently addressed that day in Sommer’s sermon.

The gauntlet was thrown down in the final paragraph of the Declaration:

It is therefore, with the view, if possible, of counteracting the usages and practices that have crept into the church, that this effort on the part of the congregations hereafter named is made. And now, in closing up this address and declaration, we state that we are impelled from a sense of duty to say, that all such as are guilty of teaching, or allowing and practicing the many innovations to which we have referred, that after being admonished and having had sufficient time for reflection, if they do not turn away from such abominations, that we can not and will not regard them as brethren.

I think that suffices as a summary of what transpired that day in Sand Creek. Next we will turn our attention to the analysis of what happened, both by contemporaries and more recent commentors.

Click for the complete series on Scriptures, Creeds, and Sand Creek

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Poison in Our Roots

May 23, 2006

This year marks the 100th anniversary of two tragedies in the Restoration Movement.

The first was the official recognition by the US Census Bureau, upon the word of David Lipscomb, that the Churches of Christ and the Disciples of Christ had become two separate religious bodies. The generally recognized issues leading to this division were the use of instrumental music in worship, and the formation of missionary societies to oversee cooperative mission efforts. This year, in 2006, many conferences have focused on an optimistic hope for reconciliation between the groups in the future. But enormous differences remain.

The second has received less attention in the press, yet may provide more clues about what went wrong in the Restoration Movement, and how it might be corrected. On February 21, 1906, the Supreme Court of the State of Illinois handed down a decision in the case titled “The Christian Church of Sand Creek, Shelby County, Illinois, versus The Church of Christ at Sand Creek.” That case decided the ownership of church property subsequent to a very public and ugly church split. What a tragedy that Christians went to court against other Christians, appealing all the way to the state Supreme Court, over some dirt, boards, and nails. One side got what they wanted–ownership of a little land and a small building. Meanwhile the Bride of Christ was humiliated as the world looked on. And a noble movement for unity was brought to a standstill.

The splitting of the Sand Creek church triggered the division of the entire Restoration Movement. The events that culminated in the court decision of 1906 (and the official recognition of the split in the 1906 census) began decades earlier. There were two competing mindsets within the Restoration Movement that were becoming more and more intolerant of one another. At the center of the conflict was disagreement on how to understand the silence of the scriptures. Differing views on this principle gave birth to raging controversies about such practices as church festivals, choirs, missionary societies, and the practice of hiring preachers from outside the congregation.

In 1889, a crowd of 5000 assembled to hear Daniel Sommer, editor of the Octographic Review, and Elder P. P. Warren of the Sand Creek church. After Sommer preached on the controversies for an hour and forty minutes, Warren gave the Address and Declaration, concluding with the following statement:

And now, in closing up this address and declaration, we state that we are impelled from a sense of duty to say, that all such as are guilty of teaching, or allowing and practicing the many innovations to which we have referred, that after being admonished and having had sufficient time for reflection, if they do not turn away from such abominations, that we can not and will not regard them as brethren.

The Sand Creek Address and Declaration was a watershed document in the history of the Restoration Movement. Since that time the movement has fragmented into dozens of factions, following the suicidal pattern established at Sand Creek. Any effort to reunify these fragments must address the underlying issues and mindsets of the Sand Creek split.

For my next few articles I intend to examine the events at Sand Creek. These events are part of our history, and have had a profound effect on who we are and how we think. Painful though it might be, we need to examine what went wrong at Sand Creek and how it has affected us. Then we must aggressively eliminate the remnants of those mistakes that continue to thwart our efforts for unity. Let us pray for open hearts as we consider the poison in our roots. And let us pray that God will give us hope, and a better understanding of the way forward.

Click for the complete series on Scriptures, Creeds, and Sand Creek

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Sola Scriptura

May 21, 2006

Pro 30:5-6 Every word of God is flawless;
he is a shield to those who take refuge in him.
Do not add to his words,
or he will rebuke you and prove you a liar.

One of the fundamental tenets of the Protestant Reformation is that the Scriptures are the only source of divine authority for the Christian church. Martin Luther is credited with rediscovering this concept in the 16th century as he sought to correct the horrible errors in the practice of the Catholic church during his day. Luther chose the Latin term sola scriptura (“by Scripture alone”) to summarize his rejection of the authority of the traditions and decrees of the Catholic church. He pointed to many errors and contradictions in the church traditions and practices. And he correctly saw that the Scriptures were the only available source of divine authority, capable of correcting those contradictions and errors. When, under threat of his life, the Catholic rulers challenged him to recant this position, Luther said:

Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason – I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other – my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I can do no other. God help me. Amen.

By that time the Catholic church had drifted far from the original teachings of the apostles. Many practices and beliefs had been introduced which were not found in the Scriptures. In the recent centuries there had been crusades and inquisitions, spreading Catholicism through terror, intimidation, and the use of the sword. Now, in Luther’s day, forgiveness of sin was being granted by priests in exchange for money. In an even worse affront to our Lord’s sacrifice, the priests sold indulgences– a practice in which a person could pay the priest in advance for the right to commit a sin. The teachings of the church, over about 1500 years, had drifted far from the practices of the apostolic church. The creeds and traditions of men had corrupted the church. To Luther, that situation was intolerable.

Luther held the Scriptures to be the only then-existing source of the Word of God. In contrast, he insisted that the traditions and decrees of church councils were but the opinions of men, and were without authority. To correct the errors he saw in the church of his day, he called on the church to follow the Scriptures, and the Scriptures alone—sola scriptura.

In the years following Luther, the idea of sola scriptura was applied in a piecemeal fashion by various Protestant denominations, each group correcting those practices that seemed most important to them. Then in the 1800’s, in Pennsylvania and in the American midwest, two groups almost simultaneously began to take sola scriptura further. Thomas and Alexander Campbell, and Barton W. Stone, sought to restore the faith and practice of the first century church, starting from a “blank sheet of paper”, and based on Scripture alone. The two groups joined together in 1832 in what became known as the Restoration Movement. The mantra of the Restoration Movement was to have no creed but the Bible, to call Bible things by Bible names, and to do Bible things in Bible ways. Their efforts enjoyed mixed success, with some great triumphs but many setbacks. More often than not, their setbacks could be traced to a decree of some council, convened in order to define who agrees with whom.

These are the roots of the congregation where I worship. Our love, respect, and dependence upon the Scriptures can be traced through the Restoration Movement back to Luther’s sola scriptura. Perhaps we could also trace the inclination of some to form councils and write creeds to our historical roots.

Curiously, some churches have not been satisfied with the Bible as we have received it. It seems some believe the Bible alone is not sufficient to meet our needs, as if God did not finish the job of delivering his Word to future generations. From the time of Luther to the present, many church councils have created innumerable creeds (sometimes called declarations, proposals, decrees, statements of faith, etc.) to supplement or simplify the Scriptures.

The idea seems to be that these creeds would provide a lowest common denominator of doctrine on which Christians would hopefully unite. However, four hundred and eighty-five years of church history clearly tells us that these man-made documents are much more effective at dividing than at uniting. Inherently, these documents are fallible human efforts. They identify what the writers believe is really important in the Scriptures (and, by inference, what is not really important). Since they result from human judgment, these documents are imperfect, and opinions vary. As a result, they become sources of controversy and dispute rather than of unity.

Sola Scriptura is sufficient. We have received the Scriptures exactly as God chose for us to receive them. God has “once for all entrusted” the faith to the saints (Jude 3). That faith has been “revealed and made known through the prophetic writings [Scriptures] by the command of the eternal God, so that all nations might believe and obey him.” (Rom 16:26). We do not need to boil down the Scriptures to an official, short list of shared beliefs, identifying those with whom we are united. Instead, let’s be devoted to all of the Scriptures God has delivered. And let’s be united on the basis of sola scriptura as we learn, believe, and obey God’s Word together.

Click for the complete series on Scriptures, Creeds, and Sand Creek