Unity and Restoration in Churches of Christ Part 1: A Historical Primer

Churches of Christ, of which I am a part, are a group of autonomous congregations of believers which have historical ties to the American Restoration Movement of the 1800s. This movement, led primarily by men such as Alexander Campbell and Barton W. Stone (and thus sometimes called “The Stone-Campbell Movement”), sought to strip away man-made traditions and restore the Church which they read about in the pages of the New Testament.

Alexander Campbell
Although the restoration of the New Testament church was seen as important in its own right, it was also viewed as a means of bringing unity to a fragmented world of denominationalism1: if Christ-followers of different varieties could all just agree to follow the beliefs and practices described in the New Testament, then the elusive unity among His disciples which Jesus prayed for could finally be achieved. To an extent, it worked, as thousands of people left their respective denominations and linked up with the new movement, wanting to be known only as Christians and recognizing only the authority of the Bible.

Sadly, this unity did not last. Restoration congregations began to divide in the late 19th century, and in 1906, the U.S. Census recognized a formal division between Churches of Christ and Disciples of Christ. It has long been held that the primary causes for this division stemmed from disagreements over missionary societies and instrumental music in worship, but in Reviving the Ancient Faith: The Story of Churches of Christ in America, author Richard Hughes makes the argument that these issues were merely symptoms of a greater problem, and that the seeds of division were actually sown decades before, and can be traced to the thoughts and perspectives of Alexander Campbell himself.2

According to Hughes, Campbell’s twin goals of unity and restoration3 were, in many ways, mutually exclusive. To illustrate:
  • If Person A places a great deal of importance on unity, he will be more likely to overlook the fact that Person B does not completely agree with and follow the teachings and practices of the New Testament. Unity is upheld, but restoration is diminished.
  • On the other hand, if Person A places a great deal of importance on restoration, the fact that Person B does not completely agree with and follow the teachings and practices of the New Testament will be a major issue that will prevent full fellowship. Here, restoration is upheld but unity is diminished.
Hughes argues that Campbell’s failure to fully think through the implications of unity and restoration enabled him to always cling to both goals despite any inherent tension between the two, but that his followers inevitably divided into hostile groups which focused on one of those concerns to the neglect of the other.4 Ultimately, those who held up unity as being of primary importance became the Disciples of Christ following the split of 1906, while Churches of Christ maintained a primary focus on restoration.

Hughes’ perspective is interesting and I think it does hold some merit, but I think he takes it too far. Certainly there is an element of tension between the ideals of unity and restoration, but to say that the two are mutually exclusive and that Alexander Campbell sowed the seeds of division because he was incapable of grasping this idea seems to place great limitations on Campbell’s universally-renowned intellect.

What seems more likely is that Campbell’s subtle understanding of the connection between unity and restoration was not adequately disseminated to the majority of the people he influenced. Not understanding how the two ideas could be reconciled, his followers later tended to group around one or the other, as Hughes rightly suggested. And it wasn’t a problem which was limited to the late 19th and early 20th centuries—many people today still struggle to reconcile the concepts of unity and restoration.

But I do believe that such a reconciliation is possible, and can be clearly seen through the example of J.N. Armstrong, the first President of Harding College, who lived roughly 100 years after Campbell. More on that in the next post.

• • •

1A note on ”denominationalism”: there is a strong historical perspective in the Restoration Movement that laments the disunity in Christendom as evidenced by the countless denominational groups that exist. Churches of Christ aim to be undenominational in the sense that they seek to be nothing more (or less) than the New Testament Church, and because of this, members will sometimes react strongly to the notion that the Church of Christ is “just another denomination.” Of course, regardless of intention, to denominate literally means “to name”, and at least in that sense Churches of Christ are a denomination, as they have persistently and somewhat rigidly applied that specific name to themselves. From that perspective, it is hard for anyone unfamiliar with their core beliefs and goals to think of the Church of Christ as anything other than “just another denomination.” I wish more of us understood this.
2Richard T. Hughes, Reviving the Ancient Faith: The Story of the Churches of Christ in America (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996), 22-26.
3To be more accurate, Hughes, 45, suggests that unity and restoration, while important, were not Campbell’s primary concern. Rather, as a postmillenialist, “Campbell’s ultimate concern was for the kingdom of God, the millennium on earth. In Campbell’s mind, unity was merely a means to the millennial dawn, and restoration a basis for unity.”
4Hughes, 46.


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