It seems as if the heritage of the Stone-Campbell is forever in the throes of division. It is an odd and terrible truth to admit. You might think that for a tradition that claims to be a “people of the Book” that the very mention of division would be tantamount to heresy. The Gospel message itself is, after all, a proclamation of reconciliation. Unity is a divine indicative. It is a creation of God the Father through the costly death of his Son for the brokenness of the world, creating a single unified human family by his own Holy Spirit. As Robert Richardson noted “Men have it, hence, in their power to preserve or to destroy unity, but not to impart it.” Division is always the result of some act of rebellion against God. Why do we have these divisions then? Perhaps one reason for this is we usually have a “Pharisaic Unity Plan.” A Pharisaic Unity Plan is one where I agree to let you and I have fellowship if you are as doctrinally sound as I have deceived myself into believing I am.
Alexander Campbell’s Inconsistency
In February 1826, Alexander Campbell had been in full reformation mode for fifteen years. He had delivered his famous Sermon on the Law, engaged in public debates on baptism, and had taken up the editorial pen in The Christian Baptist. Campbell even attacked what he believed to be error especially in controlling clergy. But he remained in “full communion” with the Baptists. A correspondent wrote a long letter that Campbell dutifully published in the CB, chastising Campbell’s course of action as “inconsistent.” Campbell needed to withdraw from them because of the errors they hold. The correspondent signed “An Independent Baptist.”
The Bond of Union
Alexander Campbell’s reply to “An Independent Baptist” is six pages long. Some modern reader might disparage Campbell for his verbiage but for the editor there was serious error on the part of the Independent Baptist in understanding what the doctrine of unity looks like.
The Independent Baptist completely misunderstood “the principles of union and communion advocated” by Campbell. Campbell states unambiguously, and always does, the bond of union.
“And what is it but a sincere and hearty conviction expressed or confessed by the lips, THAT JESUS IS THE CHRIST; and this belief, exhibited by an overt act of obedience which implies that the subject has put on Christ, prepares him, or qualifies him, if you please, to be saluted as a brother. So long as he confesses with his lips that he believes in his heart this truth, and lives conformably to it and supports an unblemished moral character, so long he is a worthy brother.”
Faith that Jesus is the Christ and simple baptism as the “overt act of obedience” is the only bond of union. The faith and act of obedience is evidenced by a life that conforms to the claim we make about Jesus.
Campbell charges the Independent Baptist with “artfully” keeping out of view all that we have in common in the “one Lord, the one faith, the one hope.” But unity is not unity of opinion on various biblical matters but on the facts that Jesus is the Christ and the fact that we have confessed him as Lord in baptism and the fact that our lives show we mean what we say.
Paul Could Never Have Fellowshipped New Testament Churches
Campbell’s critic noted that he and the Baptists disagreed on various matters. Fellowship could only be based upon conformity to “the New Testament law, as respects doctrine, worship, and order, exhibiting the MODEL of Christ’s house.” Thus unity is impossible without complete conformity to the New Testament pattern, as understood by the Independent Baptist.
Campbell’s reply reveals a man that has wrestled with this matter deeply, prayerfully and in light of God’s word. The position would forbid fellowship with the churches in the New Testament itself!
“I question very much whether Paul the Apostle could have broken bread with the congregation in Rome, in Corinth, in Thessalonica, or with the congregations in Galatia, and others, at the time he wrote his letters to them. Nay, I do not think that the Saviour himself could have instituted the supper amongst the twelve, or they could have had full communion on your principles … For none of these congregations at the times alluded to were exhibiting the model of Christ’s house, ‘were conformed to the New Testament, as respects DOCTRINE, WORSHIP, AND ORDER [sic, i.e. NT churches did not measure up to the NT pattern, BV], …”
The Pharisaic Unity Plan
Alexander Campbell directs some of his most powerful words at the real issue behind the Independent Baptist’s false reading of the New Testament. The problem is rather the cancer, “sectarianism,” which is “the offspring of hell.” A failure to see the example of Jesus, Paul and an awareness of our own self-righteousness blinds the sectarian. Campbell frankly admits that in his younger days he too followed the Pharisaic Unity Plan, which is simply a plan to isolated and congratulate ourselves on our supposed superiority. Power flows from these words …
“I have tried the pharisaic plan, 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 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 was once so strict a Separatist that I would neither pray nor sing praises with anyone 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.”
The Pharisaic Unity Plan is nothing but sublimated pharisaism gone to seed, a mockery of God, the Bible and the church.
“Dear sir, this plan of making our own nest, and fluttering over our own brood; of building our own tent, and of confining all goodness and grace to our noble selves and the ‘elect few’ who are like us, is the quintessence of sublimated pharisaism. The old Pharisees were but babes in comparison to the modern: and the longer I live, and the more I reflect upon God and man—heaven and earth—the Bible and the world—Redeemer and his church—the more I am assured that all sectarianism is the offspring of hell … To lock ourselves up in the band box of our own little circle; to associate with a few units, tens, or hundreds, as the pure church, as the elect, is real Protestant monkery, it is evangelical nunnery.”
I Will Do as Paul Did for the Corinthians
Campbell declared that he intends to be true to his understanding of the biblical basis of unity. He will follow Paul’s example with the Corinthians as his model. He will praise God for the things held dearly and exercise his right to say where he disagrees. But the disagreement is not the bond of unity. In the meantime he will join in worship of the Creator God and his beloved Son in the power of the Spirit with anyone that confesses Christ.
“I will unite with any Baptist society in the United States, in any act of social worship; such as prayer, praise, or breaking bread in commemoration of the Lord’s death, if they confess the one Lord, the one faith, the one hope, and the one baptism: provided always, that, as far as I can judge, they piously and morally conform to their profession.”
The Path of Love
Alexander Campbell cannot embrace the policy of the Independent Baptist. Eva Jean Wrather declared Alexander Campbell’s six page response “To An Independent Baptist” his “declaration of toleration.” Campbell will gladly join even him in worship of our dear Lord but he cannot embrace the Pharisaic Unity Plan for it is nothing but sectarian illusion on multiple grounds. Instead he exhorts his readers to love lavishly. I close with Campbell’s words.
“It is lame charity which requires all its objects to be as rich, as wise, and as strong as ourselves.”