The following is a transcript of Flavil Yeakley’s talk this past week at the College Church of Christ in Searcy, AR.
Dr. Yeakley is a friend, and I appreciate what he has to say:
Last Sunday we noted the 75th anniversary of the establishment of the College Church of Christ. It is good for a congregation to reflect on its roots. If we forget our history, we are in danger of losing our identity. We need to remember that we are warming ourselves beside fires we did not build. We are drinking from wells we did not dig. We owe a great debt of gratitude to those who have gone before us. Did you know that a short person can see farther than a giant-if the short person stands on the shoulders of the giant. We stand today, as it were, on the shoulders of the giants of yesterday.
One of the giants we should remember was Thomas Campbell. And this year marks the 200th anniversary of what many regard as his greatest contribution. Thomas Campbell was the principle author of a document called the Declaration and Address published in the fall of 1809. Imbedded in this document are some ideas that contributed significantly to what most of us have called the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement. Historically, Churches of Christ in the United States, are heirs of that movement. So are the Christian Churches and the Disciples of Christ.
Considered together, these Restoration Movement heirs in the United States have almost 22,000 congregations with 3.2 million members and 4.1 million adherents (counting members and their children). The only denominations in America that claim more members are the Catholics, Baptist, Methodist, Lutheran, and Mormons. The heirs of this Restoration Movement clearly constitute one of America’s largest indigenous religious movements. And it grew out of ideas Thomas Campbell expressed in the Declaration and Address.
But to understand his contributions, we really need to go back and look at the conditions among those who claimed to be followers of Jesus Christ in that period of history. Thomas Campbell was born in 1763 in Northern Ireland. Protestants and Catholics were fighting even back then. There were long years of war throughout Europe in which Catholics and Protestants were
killing each other. And Protestants were persecuting other Protestants. The Catholic Church and most Protestant churches were highly sectarian at that time. Each claimed that it was the one and only true church and that all other believers were lost. Each claimed that it had all the truth or preached only the truth.
A sectarian spirit says “The only true church is made up of me and all the others who agree with me on all issues that I define as being important.” The sectarian spirit causes one to draw the fellowship circle smaller and smaller until finally it is like the man who said that the only ones going to heaven were “Me, my wife, our son John, and his wife-us four and no more.” Or like the old Quaker who said to his wife, “Me and thee are the only righteous souls in all the earth and oft times I have serious doubts about thee.”
Both Thomas and Alexander Campbell belonged to the Anti-Burgher, Seceder branch of the Presbyterian church of Scotland. Church members had to be examined by the minister to make sure that they were right on all doctrinal issues before they were allowed to take communion. Thomas Campbell and his son Alexander Campbell independently came to the conclusion that such sectarian division was wrong. The rejection of sectarianism was a central theme in the Declaration and Address.
What we now believe and teach and practice in Churches of Christ reflects many of those principles imbedded in the Declaration and Address. Eventually most Protestant denominations came to share the view that sectarianism was wrong. But their “solution” was often to still push their peculiar doctrines and settle for fellowship with others but with little unity. On the other hand, there developed an Ecumenical Movement that sought the merger of denominational organizations while ignoring the doctrinal differences of the people involved.
The view of Thomas Campbell and those who came after him was that doctrine is important, the Bible is essential, but man-made creeds and man-made denominations are not. From Thomas Campbell’s ideas came such slogans as these: “Speak where the Bible speaks and remain silent where the Bible is silent.”
“In matters of faith, unity; in matters of opinion, liberty; and in all things, charity.”
“Go back to the Bible – Restore the Christianity of the New Testament.”
Doing that produced these characteristics shared by most heirs of this Restoration Movement:
- Immersion for the forgiveness of sins; baptism for believers only-no infant baptism;
- Weekly observance of the Lord’s Supper;
- Rejection of man-made creeds and a call for unity on the basis of the Bible as the final authority;
- The responsibility for each one of us to study the Bible for ourselves and submit only to what they understand the Bible to teach.
Over the years, brethren added some expedient things to this list, which future generations began to be considered mandatory and essential for fellowship. As we remember Thomas Campbell and the pioneering work he did in writing the Declaration and Address, there may be a tendency for some Restoration Movement heirs to remember his Back to the Bible plea and overlook Jesus’ plea for unity. They require uniformity not only of practice but of thought. Among others, the focus is on what he said about unity and neglect his Back to the Bible plea for the restoration of revealed Christianity. We need to remember both. While Campbell’s plea for unity was to be Bible based rather than on traditional creeds of the times, the plea for unity among believers goes back much more than 200 years. It goes back 2,000 years to Paul’s plea that “There be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought.” It goes back to the prayer of Jesus that all who would believe in him would be one, in perfect unity. It is an elusive goal. Each must have the mind of Christ.
Unity starts in each local congregation. We must learn to love and respect one another in spite of our differences. We must not confuse unity with complete uniformity of belief and practice. It didn’t happen in New Testament churches, and can never happen unless one person does all the thinking and deciding. We must realize that erring brethren are the only kind of brethren we have. There are no infallible ones among us. That is just the human condition and it includes each one of us. It is a limitation imposed on us by God. He is God and we are not. But we can differ without dividing. We can have discussion without having discord. We can have dialogue without digression. We can disagree without being disagreeable. We can have diversity without having division. It is good for us to honor the memory of such giants as Thomas and Alexander Campbell, Barton Stone, Walter Scott and other pioneers from that first generation of the Restoration Movement-and more recent heroes such as David Lipscomb, James A. Harding, and J.N. Armstrong. But we would not be true to them, to ourselves, or to our God if we blindly followed these men instead of doing as they did and search the Scriptures as our guide. They encouraged us to do the same. But we can be inspired by the example of what they did, even though each of us may not fully agree with everything that any of these men did and taught. The ones who followed these restoration principles wanted to be Christians only. It never dawned on them to think of themselves as being the only Christians.
The Restoration Movement is not over. It is a process that must continue in each generation until the Lord returns.