By Jonathan Smith, Editor in Chief
“There is a distinct people taking the word of God as their only and sufficient rule of faith, calling their churches ‘churches of Christ’ or ‘churches of God,’ distinct and separate in name, work and rule of faith from all other bodies of people.”
Shortly after David Lipscomb penned these words about 100 years ago, the U.S. government recognized a split among churches – the Churches of Christ and Christian Churches – creating a division that continues today.
A century later, leaders from the Churches of Christ and Christian Churches have teamed with university administrators and Bible Lectureship organizers to continue dialogues between the two streams of faith.
ACU and Lectureship will feature the Restoration Unity Forum as a central part of its schedule. With 12 discussions planned during the four-day event, the forum will attempt to foster unity between churches of Christ and Christian churches by bringing their members together for conversation, said Dr. Mark Love, director of Ministry Events.
“Unity gains momentum when we move past stereotypes and start talking to real people,” Love said.
Understanding the stereotypes churches of Christ and Christian churches have made about each other for a century, however, requires an understanding of the events that led up to the division of the churches and the differences between two religious groups born out of the same spiritual movement.
That story begins not with some important church meeting or decision, but with a most unlikely subject: the U.S. government.
Recognizing the split
When the U.S. government established a permanent Bureau of the Census in 1902, it could begin to collect data more easily for statistics other than simply population.
In one of its earlier collections of data in 1906, the Bureau of the Census undertook a census of religious bodies, which sought to gather data about different faiths and denominations in the country and how many people belonged to those groups.
Dr. Douglas Foster, associate professor of church history, said up until this time, the terms Church of Christ, Christian Church and Disciples of Christ were used interchangeably to describe churches formed out of the Stone-Campbell Movement. The Stone-Campbell Movement, named after Alexander Campbell and Barton Stone, grew out of a desire to structure the church after the example set in the New Testament.
As the Bureau of the Census began looking at the churches of the Stone-Campbell Movement, it consulted journals and magazines from those churches. In reading the Gospel Advocate, edited by Tennessee preacher and educator David Lipscomb, the bureau noticed that publication, which the bureau had assumed was part of the Disciples of Christ, seemed to be distancing itself from the Disciples.
In a letter to the Gospel Advocate, the bureau asked Lipscomb if there was a group known as the Churches of Christ that did not identify with the Disciples of Christ.
Lipscomb identified the Churches of Christ as a separate group, and when the Bureau of the Census published its findings, Churches of Christ were identified as one of 17 “new denominations and denominational families.”
Noticeable differences between Churches of Christ and Christian Churches, formally identified as Christian Churches/Churches of Christ, are that Christian Churches use instrumental music during worship and associate with missionary societies used to train missionaries, while Churches of Christ do neither.
However, Foster said more fueled the split than these practices.
“What was driving this was the underlying attitudes of how the scriptures function and how the churches were to function,” Foster said.
Those among the Churches of Christ believed that churches should reject any innovation that was not alluded to in the New Testament, such as instrumental music, while those in the Christian Churches believed the Bible’s silence in certain areas gave them freedom.
Foster stressed that no official date or time of the split exists; it happened slowly during several decades. However, the 1906 date has become symbolic of the split.
A century later
Foster said some from both groups have made attempts through the decades to reconcile and push for unity.
“There were a lot of debates and condemnations, but there were many people who were saying, ‘We can’t let the divisions and condemnations go on,'” Foster said.
In 1984, 50 members of Churches of Christ and 50 from Christian Churches met at Ozark Christian College in Joplin, Mo., for the first Restoration Unity Forum. Since then, members of both churches have met together on an almost annual basis for the forum.
Foster first attended the forum in 1987 and said the meetings have always been positive.
“These are people who have felt for a very long time that there wasn’t something right with the mutual condemnation,” Foster said.
Topics deal with different aspects of unity each year. In the past, Foster said discussions often involved members of Churches of Christ and Christian Churches alternately giving their opposing points of view.
“Not that people have changed their convictions,” Foster said, “but there has been a lot less point-counterpoint” in recent years as a way to encourage even more unity.
Foster said past forums have accomplished their stated purpose of unity with visible progress like missionary teams with Church of Christ and Christian Church members.
“Many people who have never met each other saw they had so much in common, and it really opened some doors,” Foster said.
The university has taken part in these discussions before, hosting the 1994 forum, but this will be the first time it is part of Lectureship.
Dr. Royce Money, president of the university, said he has been discussing the idea of reaching out to the Christian churches for several years with faculty and administrators, and Love said they have been asking among themselves what the appropriate response would be and when that should happen.
And while the university celebrates its Centennial year, Love said he thought it was appropriate for it to host the forum 100 years after the split between the churches was recognized.
Money will share opening night’s podium Sunday with Dr. Don Jeanes, president of Milligan College, a college associated with Christian Churches in Johnson City, Tenn., which has hosted the Restoration Unity Forum twice.
Their message will focus around John 1:14 and the unity all Christians have in Christ. Money and Jeanes both said their message and the forums will not be about merging Churches of Christ with Christian Churches.
“It’s not an effort to create a mega-group by having a big merger,” Jeanes said. “It’s an opportunity to foster fellowship and good will, recognizing we have a common heritage and purpose.”
Both university presidents have received mostly positive comments.
“Could I find some Christian Churches that wouldn’t like this fellowship? I guess if I looked hard enough I could. I’ve gotten nothing but positive responses,” Jeanes said. “But my guess is the Christian Church is a lot like the Church of Christ – we don’t always agree about everything.”
Although Money said the response he has heard largely has been positive, some still worry about the motivation behind the forum.
“There is a degree of concern among members of the Churches of Christ that there is some agenda at work or some doctrinal compromise at stake,” Money said. “The only agenda we have here is the mandate of Jesus to be one in Christ.”
Love said the negative responses – even if few – are to be expected.
“It doesn’t matter how aggressive or safe we play it,” Love said. “For some people, even having the conversation is a compromise of the truth.”
Money said people work through differences all the time, and that should be no different between Christians.
“In a local congregation, you have to work with people who are different,” Money said. “You have to do that in a family.
“You can be different from one another and still be one in Christ.”