Category: Stone-Campbell History

More Love to Him






The Texas Rangers scored more runs yesterday than the Cowboys scored points. The Rangers have won four straight playoff games on the road against the AL’s top two winningest teams and are one win away from advancing to the ALCS for the first time since the heartbreak of 2011. In the meantime, can we all stop putting the Cowboys in the same category as the Eagles and 49ers in the NFC? Clearly, it’s not even close.


In preparing for this weekend’s GCR 60th Anniversary and Homecoming, I’ve been reading old bulletins from the North A CofC that planted GCR back in 1963. Greg Fleming, the preacher at the North A / Downtown Church, has been a valuable resource as I piece together all that shared history. More than half the North A congregation moved to GCR when it opened. When the first GCR elders were ordained, there were shepherds and representatives from North A, Fairmont, Cherry Lane, and a couple other Midland CofCs present in a show of unity and support. One gets the sense that the Churches of Christ in this town used to demonstrate a strong unity. We once believed in and felt our common bonds and purpose.

I asked Greg what it would take to re-ignite that kind of unity here in our immediate local context. Never mind the broader picture of Churches of Christ, what about just here in Midland-Odessa? Could we remember our common past and come together for the sake of the Kingdom to which we all belong? Is it possible? Could our Lord work through our two congregations to foster some holy reconciliation in a spirit of Christian love? I’m up for anything when it comes to breaking down walls and uniting in Christ. As you know, I’m working hard toward ecumenical worship and service partnerships between GCR and our brothers and sisters at First Baptist, First Pres, and First Methodist. What about our own CofCs?

Greg responded with this paragraph from Elisha E. Sewell, published in the old Gospel Advocate in 1923:

“We tell others that we can all see the Bible alike; that trouble is, we differ, not on what it says, but on the inferences we draw therefrom… Yet, while preaching the truth to others, we are continually differing among ourselves, not on what the Bible says, but on the inferences we draw therefrom. We draw inferences concerning Bible colleges, the second coming of Christ, Bible-school literature, individual communion cups, and numerous other things; and instead of discussing these matters in a spirit of love and forbearance, we accuse each other of disloyalty to the Book, and we want to withdraw fellowship from each other. The remedy for this and the only one, is to change our emphases from that of loyalty to the cause (meaning ‘our plea’) to loyalty to Christ. More love to him will mean more love for each other. Love is the great principle of unity. It succeeds where others fail, and without it all others must fail.”

The Church of Christ “cause” Sewell mentions, our “plea,” is the misguided restoration of the first century Church, the deadly shift we made from starting as a bold Christian unity movement that accepted all who claimed Christ Jesus as Lord to becoming a church restoration movement that drew lines and wrote policies that divided and excluded followers of Jesus. Yuk.

More love to him would mean more love for one another. A better grasp of God’s grace for us would result in more grace for one another across denominational lines and within our own Christian heritage in CofCs. Is it too late?

The time is coming — it’s already here in many ways — in which we will not have the luxury of calling ourselves Baptists, Methodists, Disciples, or Churches of Christ. In the near future, we won’t be divided along denominational lines, we’ll just be thrilled to find another Christian. Period. We’re going to need each other much more than we realize. Someday soon, how we feel about musical instruments and women’s roles will take a backseat to adherence to the rule of faith and a stand for the non-negotiables of the Apostles’ Creed, which has been our Lord’s will all along. I say we lean into it right now. A good way to start would be to reconcile with our own CofC brothers and sisters and our churches in Midland.



An Invitation to Ash Wednesday

This post is mainly for all us Church of Christ lifers.

Our resistance to liturgy is ironic; we are a highly liturgical people. We are comforted by the words “separate and apart,” we draw strength from “guide, guard, and direct,” and we believe the sermon will be better if God will only give the preacher a “ready recollection.” We must hear Acts 2:38 in church at least monthly. We must eat and drink the Lord’s Supper every Sunday. And we have our hard-held creeds. We “do Bible things in Bible ways and call Bible things by Bible names.” We know “the church is not the building, it’s the people.” We have our five steps of salvation. We know 728B. Three songs and a prayer, to us, feels like church. I could go on and on and so could you. We have a liturgy. We have our creeds. Yet, we’re so uncomfortable with liturgy. And creeds.

It’s nothing to be ashamed of. We come by it naturally. Our movement has traditionally and, largely uncritically, rejected almost all forms of Christian liturgy as symbols of religious excess and tools for clerical abuse. As non-Scriptural innovations. As rote formulas and meaningless ritual. Most of us can’t help the way a memorized creed or a written prayer makes us feel. We were raised to believe it wasn’t real, it didn’t come from the heart, unless you made it up on the spot.

Let me invite you to participate in an Ash Wednesday service somewhere next week.

Ash Wednesday marks the first day of Lent, the season of repentance and prayer and fasting before Easter. In the early decades of Christianity, this 40-day period was observed by candidates for baptism, which was typically reserved for Easter Sunday. In the third and fourth centuries, people who were separated from the Church because of sin – the early “backsliders” – observed a season of Lent as they were restored to fellowship. Then, over time, the Church recognized that it would be good for all Christians to practice regular seasons of repentance, prayer, and fasting. All Christians need to be reminded that repentance is a daily exercise, not a one time event. Every day is a dying and a rising, a dying to self and a rising to new life in Christ. All Christians need the assurance of the forgiveness and salvation that is promised in the Good News, that was accomplished in the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus. So, I would encourage you to find an Ash Wednesday service next Wednesday and go.

It might be a brand new thing for you. It might be a little strange. It might be really beautiful. You might learn something, you might see something, you might hear something or experience something that could really bless you and increase your faith.

They’re going to put ashes on your forehead. Let them. Be open to it. See what happens.

The ashes serve as a physical reminder of the Gospel. They remind us that we are human – ashes to ashes and dust to dust. We are fallen and frail, we are sinful creatures in dire need of a Savior. They also serve as a physical manifestation of the repentance and sorrow we feel in our hearts because of our sin. In the Bible and throughout world history, ashes have always symbolized repentance. Why not participate in that godly practice? The ashes also remind us of the centuries of burnt offerings sacrificed by God’s people and point us to the Promised One of Israel whose once-for-all sacrifice on the cross surpasses in glory anything ever offered by a priest. The ashes are merely a physical representation, a practical proclamation of everything we believe in our heads and hold dear in our hearts.

Here in Midland, our Church of Christ at Golf Course Road is partnering with our brothers and sisters at First Presbyterian Church in a joint Ash Wednesday service next week. As it turns out, their pastor Steve Schorr and that congregation are just as passionate about tearing down the walls between Christian denominations as I am and we are at GCR! (I’ll write more about this in the next day or so.)

If you’re a CofC’er out here in West Texas, I’m inviting you to join us for the Ash Wednesday service at First Pres. If you’re reading this from somewhere else, I’m inviting you to find a church in your town that observes Ash Wednesday and join them. Go with a group of people so you can process it together afterward. Ask God to speak to you during the service, to reveal himself to you, to grow your faith in him, and to strengthen the bond you have with all disciples of Christ throughout all Christian denominations. And as you leave the assembly, be resolved to remain in the Word, to continually self reflect, and to be in constant prayer.

Nothing will be off the cuff. It will all be carefully scripted. And maybe, just maybe, by God’s grace and power of his Spirit, it might be exactly what you need.



The Mistake

“I have tried the pharisaic plan and the monastic. I was once so straight that, like the Indian’s tree, I leaned a little the other way. And, however much I may be slandered now as seeking ‘popularity’ or a popular course, I have to rejoice that to my own satisfaction, as well as to others, I proved that truth, and not popularity, was my object; for I once was so strict a Separatist that I would neither pray nor sing praises with any one who was not as perfect as I supposed myself. In this most unpopular course I persisted until I discovered the mistake and saw that on the principle embraced in my conduct, there could never be a congregation or church upon the earth.”

~Alexander Campbell, 1827

Retrieval Theology


If, as we have noted in this space this week, the Church cannot escape its past and if the Church is influenced in both negative and positive ways by its history and tradition, it seems like we ought to embrace this history in order to examine it. It’s ours anyway; we belong to it. Why not learn from it? Why not study the things we find misguided so we can avoid them in our time today and incorporate the things that might actually benefit our spiritual formation and our passing on of the faith?

I’ll conclude my thoughts on Dr. Keith Stanglin’s article “Restorationism and Church History: Strange Bedfellows?” with today’s post. Honestly, this has been much more a re-hash of his work — not too much original thought from me.

Keith suggests we engage in what a lot of people call “retrieval theology.”

“This is not a call to re-create or ape the faith and practice of a specific time or place from the past; not every thought or practice in church history is equally good or relevant for us. It means learning from the wisdom of our ancestors and appropriating the best that it has to offer for the sake of the church today.”

There are many valid and good reasons for embracing all of church history. One, it gives us our identity; knowing our past helps us know who we are and from where we came. Two, it gives us wisdom; most of the questions and debates we face today have been handled or anticipated at some point in the church’s history. Third, we could gain some needed perspective from the study of church history; the history calls us to a holy balance. Knowing the history of our practices and traditions will help us recognize the swing of the pendulum over time. Then we can start to get a good idea of the pendulum’s position and direction and momentum. Then we’ll be better equipped to take the pendulum where it needs to go or, as Keith puts it, “to stand in its way and push back before it goes too far.”

Studying church history can confirm or challenge our interpretations of Scripture. Maybe this is one of the main reasons we resist it. We like to think our interpretation and practices are pure and strictly biblical and come from an un-biased heart. I know that’s what a lot of us have thought. I remember being told at an early age that if everybody in the world would just read the Bible with clear eyes and an open, honest heart, without any preconceived notions, then everybody would believe and worship just like we do. I still occasionally hear versions of that today! When will we admit that a lot of our “distinctives” in Churches of Christ are not born of slam-dunk biblical arguments or unambiguous passages of Scripture? Most of our distinctive practices are not wrong — I think I’d argue they are all faithful and good and beneficial to a life of discipleship to Jesus. But our arguments come from history, not from Scripture. Every Sunday communion and acappella worship and baptism for the forgiveness of sins comes from what our own guy Everett Ferguson calls “historical foreground.” It’s the historical norm that confirms no baptizing for the dead AND observing the Lord’s Meal every Lord’s Day.

Finally, this concluding section from Keith’s article, with which I strongly agree and advocate:

“Restorationism and church history need not be an odd couple, but can be more like the dynamic duo. I personally applaud and support the genius of Thomas Campbell’s restoration vision: The unity of all Christians by means of restoration based on Scripture. Thus articulated, I stand behind the restoration vision. But I must take leave of any interpretation and application of Scripture in the church that seeks to bypass nearly two millennia of church history, or tries to read the Bible as if no one has read it before, or tries to do theology and worship as if they have not been done for the last 1,900 years. The “Bible only,” in this sense, has never worked.”

Retrieval theology is about embracing and knowing our past — all of it —in order to benefit the Church today and into the future. It requires the discipline of learning from our mistakes, the stamina to refuse to repeat bad decisions and bad practices, and the hard work of incorporating the good and faithful from our past into our present. It also demands a humility in the knowledge that we’re not the first ones to attempt to follow Jesus, we’re not the only ones, we’re not the only ones who have done some really good work by God’s grace, and we’re not the only ones who need God’s grace to cover us in the things we’ve really messed up.



Tradition Informing Scripture

DoleHulaBefore we continue our discussion of Dr. Keith Stanglin’s article “Restorationism and Church History: Strange Bedfellows?” I must wish my beautiful wife Carrie-Anne a very happy birthday. Today is Wednesday so, with our church schedule, it’ll be impossible for the family to celebrate together with our traditional birthday dinner. That’ll have to wait until tomorrow evening. It’ll be our typical Sharky’s burrito tonight and the birthday steak dinner tomorrow. But, Carrie-Anne, I love you, darling. I hope you have a fabulous day.


BonoPetersonAlso, if you’re a Eugene Peterson fan or if you’re a fan of U2 or, especially, if you’re a fan of both the Irish rocker and The Message translator you might spend 21-minutes today checking out this video. Fuller Theological Seminary has produced a very short and very high-quality documentary on how Peterson and Bono engage the Psalms. Apparently, once Peterson finished the Old Testament “Message-style,” Bono began reading the Psalms in a whole different way. He reached out to Peterson and the two have become pretty good friends. The short film documents a visit Bono had with Peterson at the author’s mountain home in Montana in which they discussed together the Psalms, honesty and dishonesty in Christian art and music, and violence. It’s good. Really interesting. It’s funny listening to Peterson butcher the name of “Rolling Stone” magazine and refer to the floor near the stage at a U2 concert as the “mash pit.” It’s also really cool when Peterson, while discussing the imprecatory psalms, tells Bono, “We’ve got to learn how to cuss without cussing.” Bono replies, “Yeah, I like that. That’s going to stick with me.” You can watch the video by clicking here.



Though we in the American Restoration Movement have been intentional in ignoring and resisting any church history before the early 19th century, we cannot deny that all of us are influenced and shaped by all church history. We don’t acknowledge it, mainly, because we take it for granted. Keith points out that the New Testament table of contents in our Bibles is taken for granted as some kind of unquestionable truth as if it came straight from the apostles at the end of the first century. So, we make an exception to Thomas Campbell’s “nothing not as old as the New Testament” when we accept the New Testament itself (see yesterday’s post).

Keith argues for making these exceptions, which we all make, “with clear eyes and full awareness.”

We could spend several days talking about the things we believe and practice in our churches that are not “as old as the New Testament.” The separation of the Lord’s Supper from an actual meal didn’t begin to happen until late in the second century and into the third. Nobody thought to refer to God as a three-person Trinity until the second century and it wasn’t made an official church position until the fourth. The idea of translating the Old Testament from the original Hebrew instead of the Greek came from the fourth century. The use of unleavened bread in the Lord’s Supper didn’t happen until the eleventh century. Congregational singing in harmony wasn’t practiced until the twelfth century. These are all beliefs and practices (innovations?) that are not “as old as the New Testament.” Yet, instead of throwing them out, we take them for granted in our faith and worship.

Let’s also acknowledge that there are plenty of practices which are as old as the New Testament, commands and examples written in our holy Scriptures, that we don’t practice, and would never consider practicing, because of church history and tradition. To move the conversation along, allow me to concentrate today on two very obvious ways Keith observes that we adhere to church tradition and actually use church history to interpret Scripture and inform our practice.

The first is with baptism for the dead that the apostle Paul mentions in 1 Corinthians 15:29:

“Whatever this practice was, we do not practice or endorse it. Why don’t we practice it? It is not because Paul expresses disapproval, because he does not. In fact, he raises the issue to show the Corinthians how, though they deny the resurrection, their practices are undergirded by a belief in the resurrection. Far from being negative about baptism for the dead, Paul is neutral or perhaps positive. So why doesn’t the church now baptize for the dead? The reason we do not baptize for the dead is because the historic church has not baptized for the dead.”

Imagine if we had nothing else in Scripture about baptism for the dead other than this one verse in 1 Corinthians which, by the way, is indeed the case. But what if the historical record were different? What if there were written documents from the second and third centuries attesting to and approving a ritual for baptism for the dead? We would probably be practicing it today! But with the exception of Latter-Day Saints, no one in the history of Christianity has practiced baptism for the dead. So we interpret the verse in 1 Corinthians 15 as an aberrant practice. We’re convinced that if Paul had been writing a sacramental theology, he would have clearly condemned the practice in unambiguous terms. Why? Because no one’s ever done it. As Keith points out, Sunday School classes have a lot of questions when they study 1 Corinthians, but they never seriously consider the thought of restoring this practice. So, we’ve got a first-century New Testament practice left completely out of our faith and worship today based solely on church tradition and history.

Let’s do one more: the Lord’s Supper. The way we observe the meal today bears almost zero resemblance to the ritual as it is understood and taught and practiced in the New Testament. The very fact that we eat the cracker and sip the little swallow of juice separate from a full evening meal is enough evidence to acknowledge that we are influenced and shaped by church history and tradition. Our insistence on the use of unleavened bread is a relatively new innovation that helped split the Eastern and Western churches in the eleventh century. The early church didn’t use unleavened bread for the same reasons it didn’t use bitter herbs, lamb, and multiple cups of wine. But we demand unleavened bread today. Why? Because the Roman Church made the change about a thousand years ago.

So, let’s look at Scripture. What does the New Testament say regarding the day to eat the Lord’s Supper? According to Acts 20:7, the church in Troas met on the first day of the week to break bread. This is the only reference we have in Scripture for Sunday. And it’s tricky because they wound up eating it after midnight. The Last Supper took place in the middle of the week. The church in Jerusalem did it daily (Acts 2:46) and Paul doesn’t give us a day in 1 Corinthians (11:26). We don’t have a whole lot on the day itself.

On the other hand, there’s a much more clear and consistent Scriptural testimony regarding location. The Last Supper was eaten in an “upper room.” The early church also celebrated the meal in an “upper room” (Acts 20:8).

So why do we insist on Sunday as the day to observe the Lord’s Supper but we place no guidelines at all on where the Supper can be taken? Based on Scripture alone, it’s not clear that the day is any more or less important than the location. If anything, there’s more testimony about the location than the day. Why do we dismiss any discussion about where we’re supposed to eat the Lord’s Supper as irrelevant while, at the same time, we spend a ton of time and energy searching the Scriptures to make a strong case for the Sunday timing?

“Tradition — a tradition that extends unbroken back to the second century — repeatedly attests to the importance of the day, not the location. The historic tradition supports the theological case for the importance of resurrection day and, therefore, the possibility of celebrating other significant times and seasons. Celebrating the Supper in an upper room has always been, according to this same tradition, an indifferent matter, as it rightly is for us. But despite all the vast changes in the theology and practice of communion, a Lord’s Day never passed in the first fifteen centuries without celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Whether we realize it or not, the church’s history is a decisive factor that influences our faith and practice.”

Rather than attempting to run away from church tradition, which we cannot; instead of ignoring or resisting church history and tradition, which would require we deny most of our formation influences, why not embrace the history and examine it? Why not search for the centuries of wisdom that are available in acknowledging our past: the good and the not so good, the faithful and the not so faithful?



Nothing Not as Old as the NT

“Nothing ought to be received into the faith or worship of the church; or be made a term of communion amongst Christians, that is not as old as the New Testament.” ~Declaration and Address, Thomas Campbell, 1809


Our Stone-Campbell Movement was motivated by the desire to unite all Christians around the Bible only. The belief was that if we put aside all human doctrines and all human creeds and traditions and focused only as the Scriptures as our model and guide, all followers of Jesus would come together in one unified body. The ideal was to “restore” the New Testament church and for all of us to be New Testament Christians. One of the unfortunate consequences of this powerful vision has been our reluctance to embrace any church history or tradition before 1809. We ignore church history. We resist it, reject it.

My brother, Dr. Keith Stanglin, wrote an insightful article for the Christian Studies theological journal a couple of years ago that outlined a couple of key consequences that have resulted from our faithful pursuit of a New Testament Church ideal. The article is titled “Restorationism and Church History: Strange Bedfellows?” and you can read it in its entirety by clicking here. I’ll be using his article as a guide for this discussion that may take us through the remainder of this week.

The italicized statement at the top of this post is from the founding document of our Restoration Movement, Thomas Campbell’s Declaration and Address. This is proposition five, stated right after proposition four which said only the commands and ordinances of the New Testament will be binding on the church. Just as proposition four marginalizes the Old Testament, this proposition five marginalizes all church history. As Keith writes (or am I supposed to say, “as Stanglin writes?” This is kinda weird), “According to this rule, just as we should not consult Mosaic faith or tabernacle worship in the restoration project, neither should we consult Nicene faith or its liturgy.”

OK. Clearly, there’s a lot to consider here. Let’s just take this one step, one day, at a time.

“Nothing not as old as the New Testament” is a problem.

First, let’s consider what Keith calls the problem of logic. Receiving nothing into the church that is not as old as the New Testament is a self-contradictory statement. The rule doesn’t even meet its own criterion. People say things like this all the time: “There is no such thing as absolute truth” and “You should only believe statements that can be empirically proven.” Each of those statements fails to stand up to its own requirements. The same thing is true for Campbell’s rule that has had, and continues to have, a powerful influence on our Stone-Campbell churches. The statement itself is not as old as the New Testament!

There is also the problem of definition. What does Campbell mean when he says “the New Testament”? If he means the standardized list of 27 New Testament books, the earliest we can date that is toward the end of the fourth century. So, does Campbell mean “nothing not as old as the fourth century”? No, that’s probably not what Campbell meant. He certainly meant the time period in which the New Testament books were written. He’s talking about the first century. So, does Campbell mean “nothing ought to be received into the faith or worship of the church that was not believed or practiced in the first century?” Well, maybe. But then that gets complicated because the 27-book collection of the New Testament was not even thought of by the end of the first century. If our Bible is going to be the Bible of the first century church, then it must be the 39-books of the Old Testament. Only.

See where this takes us? The whole thing is a consistency issue. We can’t hold to Campbell’s rule, we certainly can’t impose it on our churches, if we’re going to use a 66-book canon of Scripture as our rule and guide. As Keith writes, “It is for similar reasons that we also cannot give anything more than passing consideration to slogans such as ‘No creed but Christ,’ and ‘No creed but the Bible.’ Whatever these slogans and the [statement] possess in rhetorical force they lack in coherence and meaning.”

I say all this to just lay a foundation for the discussion that will follow tomorrow and the next day or days. We’re not making any conclusions here yet. I’m certainly not disparaging Campbell’s inspiring and God-ordained vision for uniting all disciples of Jesus together as one universal body of believers. It’s not only a noble ideal, it’s the will of our crucified and risen Lord. The suggestion is this: maybe our churches should at least listen to the wisdom of the Christian believers through the ages. I’m not saying we should blindly adhere to everything that’s gone before. I’m not suggesting we ought to swallow everything that’s been believed before and obey everything that’s been practiced before. But I believe we should probably let the “church fathers and mothers, the medieval scholastics and mystics, the reformers and restorers all have a seat at the table. It means hearing the voice of the past with discernment. It means having a ‘critical reverence’ for the historic Christian tradition.”

We have traditionally ignored or flat-out rejected most church history as formative for us in any way. We typically view all church history before 1809 as corrupt men and women practicing faithless apostasy and dividing Christ’s body with scandalous squabbles over insignificant issues. As Keith observes, whether we invite them to the table or not, we are all strongly influenced and shaped by ancient church tradition and history. Whether we acknowledge it or not.

Stay tuned.