Any student (who stayed awake in class) of a Restoration Movement college, university, or seminary is well acquainted with Thomas Campbell’s maxim, “In matters of faith, unity; in matters of opinion, liberty; in all things, love.”
The question at hand is whether that which Campbell meant for the sake of unity has spawned more disunity than ever imagined. I ask this question as someone on the inside looking at the inside from the outside. Let me explain. I grew up in a Southern Baptist church. I was taught the Bible faithfully and introduced to people worthy of imitation.
My first exposure to the Stone-Campbell Movement came at age eighteen when I enrolled at Milligan College. I grew up in Knoxville where there wasn’t a lot of talk about Christian Churches or Churches of Christ. I knew about Johnson University, then Johnson Bible College, but to me it was just a place where some of my buddies snuck into an old gym to play soccer.
Each chapel at Milligan my freshman year (2001) was a strange, yet alluring window into the broader evangelical world. I watched as students sang songs that I’d never heard–with hands raised; not normal for me. I listened to sermons on texts I’d known for years, but from different angles than ever before.
My Bible classes were especially intriguing and formative. The Drs. David Roberts, Jeff Miller, Lee Magness, Phil Kenneson, and Jason Bembry pushed me to—pardon the cliché—own my faith. Dennis Helsabeck Jr. laid before me the brief but rich history of the Stone-Campbell Movement.
On a weekend trip home I vividly remember layering mashed potatoes and ham onto my lunch plate and asking my mom, “What are you going to do if I don’t pastor in a Baptist church?” She said it had never crossed her mind as a possibility. That’s how Baptist I was.
Encounters with Stone and the Campbells widened my ecclesiological gaze. I loved the rhetoric of unity in faith and silence where the Bible is silent.
Then I started working in churches.
Like nearly every pastor I know, I intended to become a lawyer. I realized, however, working in law offices over the summers that I didn’t want to be a lawyer.
Imagine my terror as those same thoughts entered my mind when I started working in churches. Don’t get me wrong, I worked at great churches where ministry was and is booming. I have dear friends and fond memories from the places I’ve worked.
The disparity I cannot shake, however, and the one I am still combating in conversations and hopefully this essay, is why we in the Restoration Movement are so quick to take jabs at other denominations?
We poke fun at their theology and methodology, as if ours hasn’t garnered its fair amount of jeering or teasing. I recall a conversation in which someone quipped about my Baptist upbringing, “You know what that say, once suited always suited.” In case you didn’t catch it, the jab is a double-entendre. Not only is it going at “once saved, always saved,” it simultaneously undermines Baptist fashion—to which I will say, the days of short-sleeved button-ups with ties have long since passed.
Now, back to Campbell’s maxim on unity.
In an age when definitions die the death of a thousand qualifications, how is one to distinguish between faith and opinion? Is it not a matter of faith, for example, that one’s opinion regarding baptism—mode or efficacy—differs from my own? In those instances, it seems, the focus has not been on the fact that it is practiced, but rather how and when and according to which verses and which verses in what order.
Before you label me anything, I hold baptism in high regard and preach Acts 2:38. But I also preach Romans 6:4-5 and 1 Peter 3:20-21. Baptism is a crucial matter of faith. Yet, it also carries a level of varying interpretation as evidenced by the many Jesus-worshiping, world-evangelizing, people-serving Christians who live on various sides of this sacramental line.
So which is it, faith or opinion? Within our own movement there exists a level of disagreement over particular nuances of baptism. So when it comes to the Restoration Movement’s dealings with churches and denominations that baptize and celebrate the Lord’s Supper, in those instances when we must agree to disagree, I wonder if Thomas Campbell would remind us of the final clause of his tri-partite motto, namely, in all things, love.
One of the songs I didn’t know at Milligan but have sung several times since is “They’ll Know We Are Christians.” The fourth and final verse of the song reads:
All praise to the Father, from whom all things come,
And all praise to Christ Jesus, his only Son,
And all praise to the Spirit, who makes us one.
We know that the theme of unity did not originate with Thomas Campbell. The apostle Paul provides a lengthy treatment of the issue in Ephesians 4:4-6—one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all.
Before Paul, Jesus affirmed that one characteristic, if practiced, would make his disciples stand out—“if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). Paul understood the message of Jesus. That’s why Ephesians 4:2-3 precedes verses 4-6: “with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”
As the grandson of a Methodist pastor who was raised Southern Baptist and pastors in the Christian Church, I find pleasure and beauty in affirming the commonalities between various segments of the Christian faith and trying to understand the differences.
I don’t always do a good job of loving across the line, but I have learned that other denominations and other churches aren’t the enemy. The devil wants us to believe that, because as long as we’re fighting our Christian civil wars, the battle between light and darkness is left unattended. Whenever that happens, darkness is winning.
Will I stand up for that which I deem unchristian? Yes. John Calvin is credited with quipping, “A dog barks when his master is attacked. I would be a coward if I saw that God’s truth is attacked and yet would remain silent.” If you just got uncomfortable, agitated, or even angry that I quoted Calvin, you know first-hand the thrust of what I’ve said above.
May Jesus richly bless us as we strive towards the unity that will reveal us to be his disciples.