200 years and counting: ‘Unity is not a luxury,’ but it is a process

250px-Declaration_and_Address_1809There’s an old joke about a man who dies and goes to heaven. As St. Peter escorts the new arrival down a golden street, he tells the man to be especially quiet as they pass a particular mansion.

“Why?” the man asks.

“That’s where (name any exclusive Christian sect) live,” Peter explains. “They think they’re the only ones here, and we don’t want to upset them.”

Thomas Campbell, were he still alive, would get the joke. He might even tell it, which would have scandalized many Christians two centuries ago.

Campbell was a Presbyterian minister who migrated from Ireland to the frontier of western Pennsylvania in the early 1800s. But he was frustrated by the divisions among Christians, some of which were absurdly transplanted from the old country. For example, his denomination might withhold communion from other Presbyterians over an obscure Irish political issue.

In response, he gathered a few dozen like-minded believers into a local nondenominational group, with cooperation on their minds.

To explain their actions and to encourage other Christians to take similar steps, the 46-year-old Campbell wrote a long essay in 1809, “The Declaration and Address.”

This early call to Christian unity was based on a simple but then-radical notion: that “the church of Christ on earth is essentially, intentionally, and constitutionally one.” (Note the present tense: “is.”)

Campbell didn’t offer a blueprint for a united church. Instead, he presented the New Testament as a “constitution” – a notable word, just 20 years after the U.S. Constitution went into effect, laying the groundwork for the nation but requiring ongoing interpretation.

“He knew unity was a process,” said Paul Blowers, professor of church history at Emmanuel School of Religion and a co-editor for The Encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movement (Eerdmans). “The foundation of unity is identification with Jesus Christ, but what does that entail? How much of a common core do you need? The first-century church didn’t have it perfect. There will always be opinions. Theology is inevitable. The question is how unity works with diversity.”

Thomas Campbell (1763-1854)
Thomas Campbell (1763-1854)

Campbell said Scripture was the final authority for Christians. Beyond that, the creeds and rites were valuable for teaching or expressing a common faith, but not as tests of whether someone was a true Christian.

“Forbearance was one of his favorite words,” said Dennis Helsabeck Jr., associate professor emeritus of history at Milligan College and co-author of Renewal for Mission: A Concise History of Christian Churches and Churches of Christ (Abilene Christian University Press). “He puts a lot of emphasis on patience. There’s a sense of unity in that, not in that we all understand in the same way.”

But unity was not Campbell’s main objective.

“Campbell was interested foremost in the mission of the church,” Helsabeck said. “Reconciliation with God was the ultimate goal. He decries the terrible effects of disunity, which endangers the mission of the church.”

“The Declaration and Address” served as a starting point for what grew into the Stone-Campbell Movement, named for its early leaders: Campbell and his son Alexander, eventually the movement’s best-known voice, and Barton W. Stone, another unity-minded Presbyterian in Kentucky.

This “restoration movement” evolved into three major church bodies: The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the Christian Churches/Churches of Christ, and the Churches of Christ, sometimes called noninstrumental churches since they do not use musical instruments in worship. Together, these groups claim about 3.5 million members in the U.S. (Milligan College and Emmanuel School of Religion, both near Johnson City, Tenn., are affiliated with the Christian Churches/Churches of Christ, which is also my church heritage.)

Campbell would find it sadly ironic to know his reform efforts mutated into yet more church groups that would divide and divide again. But he would be heartened to know his spiritual descendants have taken steps to reconcile in recent decades.

One example will occur tomorrow. To mark the bicentennial of “The Declaration and Address,” Christians from all streams of the Stone-Campbell Movement will gather in regional communion services around the world, an event collectively called the Great Communion. One service will be held in Seeger Chapel at Milligan College at 4 p.m., and is open to all Christians.

“We are pushed to deal with people who differ from us,” Blowers said. “That’s part of Christian discipleship. Can I share communion at the table with people who believe differently? Everyone needs to be reminded that Christianity is bigger than us and our congregations. Unity is not a luxury.”

Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 3 Oct 2009.