Christian Ecumenicalism is Essential to the Future of the Churches of Christ

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If you have spent any amount of time in the theological tradition known as the Restoration Movement, specifically in the Churches of Christ, you have probably been told that “church of Christ” exclusivism is a conservative idea. In other words, if a congregation or individual openly proclaims that everyone who attends worship somewhere other than a “church of Christ” is lost, then they are the conservatives who are defending the truths of Scripture against the ever-dangerous and ever-growing “liberal” tendencies within the church. These conservatives are the gatekeepers of orthodoxy and everyone else is simply compromising the gospel due to cultural influence and pressure to adapt. To be fair, it is important to note that not all forms of this exclusivism are as explicit or as unforgiving. Some may say that it’s not membership in a “church of Christ” which is central, but rather worshipping properly on a Sunday morning, and of course, a correct understanding of baptism at the time of immersion. Regardless of what form of exclusivism is articulated, one central premise remains: God’s people only consists of the church of Christ, and that church is made up only of those who have a proper understanding of baptism and who do everything correctly during the worship assembly (and for the more extreme, for those whose church has the proper name). 

            Here’s the thing: church of Christ exclusivism is actually a progressive idea. The notion that all Christians who disagree with us on baptism or who belong to a “denomination” are lost, is in fact a departure from original Restoration principles, thus making it a progressive doctrine. This exclusivism was explicitly rejected by the founders and most prominent leaders of the original Restoration Movement. In contrast, these men openly acknowledged that there were Christians in every denomination, even in those which practiced infant baptism! Their idea of unity was not predicated upon theological precision, but rather a love for Jesus and a commitment to biblical authority. They, needless to say, hated the divisions in the body of Christ that had manifested themselves in the form of Protestant denominations and invited all Christians to abandon denominational loyalty and be “Christians only, but not the only Christians.”  Below are a few examples of what the early Restoration Movement leaders thought about Christians in other denominations. They certainly didn’t think of them as “lost” or as “outsiders.” 

Thomas Campbell:“We speak to all our Christian brethren, however diversified by professional epithets, those accidental distinctions which have happily and unscripturally diversified the professing world. By our Christian brethren, then, we mean . . . ‘All that love our Lord Jesus Christ in sincerity, throughout the churches.’ ”[1]

Alexander Campbell:“But who is a Christian? I answer, every one that believes in his heart that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah, the Son of God; repents of his sins, and obeys him in all things according to his measure of knowledge of his will. . . . I cannot make any one duty the standard of Christian state or character, not even immersion into the name of Father, of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and [cannot] in my heart regard all that have been sprinkled in infancy without their own knowledge and consent, as aliens from Christ and the well-grounded hope of heaven. Should I find a Pedobaptist [one baptized as an infant] more intelligent in the Christian Scriptures, more spiritually-minded and more devoted to the Lord than a Baptist, or one immersed on a profession of the ancient faith, I could not hesitate a moment in giving the preference of my heart to him that loveth most. Did I act otherwise, I would be a pure sectarian, a Pharisee among Christians.”[2]

Barton Stone:“My opinion is that immersion is the only baptism. But shall I therefore make my opinion a term of Christian fellowship? If in this case I thus act, where shall I cease from making my opinions terms of fellowship? I confess I see no end. . . . Let us still acknowledge all to be brethren, who believe in the Lord Jesus, and humbly and honestly obey him, as far as they know his will, and their duty.”[3]

Walter Scott:“Christians who have not been baptized for the remission of their sins! Strange! Whoever read of such Christians in God’s Word? But the times are peculiar, and as faith does purify the life of a man, and as the man of pure life and pure heart is accepted of God and may receive the Spirit, therefore we must allow, that there are now a days Christians in heart and life who have not been baptized for the remission of their sins. What evidences, then, have they for themselves and others, that they are possessed of the Spirit? None but the moral graces which have already been quoted, viz: love, joy etc.; they don’t need to depend upon an opinion; they feel within themselves and show to those without them by their fruits, that they have been made partakers of the Spirit of Christ.”[4]

            These quotations may come as a surprise to some, and if that is the case, it shows how much the movement itself has changed. The Churches of Christ in our present day do not exactly have a reputation for being inclusive. Yet, the Restoration Movement started as one of the most ecumenical movements in Christian history! When I was an SBC Pastor, I joined the Restoration Movement not only for theological purposes, but also because of the ecumenicalism I read about when studying the origins of the movement. If these men had purported some of what we hear today that is considered “conservative” within the Churches of Christ, I would have wanted nothing to do with the movement. 

            And this realization is imperative for those within the movement today to understand: people want nothing to do with this sort of church of Christ exclusivism. There are numerous aspects of the Restoration Movement that are appealing to a good number of people today, including young people. Congregational autonomy, no clergy-laity distinction, a commitment to biblical preaching, and no allegiance to denominational beliefs, structures and/or traditions are all present within the best of the Restoration Movement. These are all things the Churches of Christ should be able to offer! And we know that the churches which actually do offer these , they are growing exponentially. A recent study done by scholars at Harvard University in conjunction with scholars at Indiana University revealed that church attendance and religious devotion in the United States is actually very steady.[5] Yes, most Protestant denominations are in decline, especially the mainline denominations. However, some Christian groups, such as many nondenominational churches, as well as the Christian Churches, are indeed experiencing growth. In short, people are abandoning certain types of churches in favor of others. 

            There is a bit of irony to be found here for those of us in the Churches of Christ: people love the idea of nondenominational churches! We were supposed to be those churches. And as I said, there is much within our tradition that is admirable and worthy of respect. All of the available data we have concerning church growth/decline in America suggests to us that people desire substantive Christianity; most do not desire a church which will simply exist to entertain them or one that would question the historicity of Jesus/deny his bodily resurrection. The Churches of Christ, at their best, offer a substantive articulation of the historic Christian faith as well as the freedom for those attending to seek truth for themselves. We respect the great thinkers which came before us but are not bound by their conclusions. We embrace historical theology as an indispensable discipline while acknowledging our authority comes from Scripture alone. Whatever someone thinks of these ideas, it is inarguable that this particular approach to Christianity is attractive to the masses in our day. 

            What is the problem, then, for the Churches of Christ? Well, an obvious answer could be that not all of our churches are places where these theological inclinations can be found. Some would say people are not free to search for truth in Churches of Christ, for example. Nonetheless, I do not desire to explore that here, though it is undeniably accurate. Rather, what I simply wish to say is that the Churches of Christ, as originally conceived, were ecumenically minded as well as theologically driven. If the Churches of Christ looked like original Restoration Movement churches, they would be growing just like the Christian Churches are. The problem which I believe is the source of most other problems in this regard, is the widespread rejection of Christian ecumenicalism that took root within our movement in the 20thcentury. This exclusive thought so permeated the Churches of Christ that eventually many thought convincing their Baptist neighbor to be re-baptized or to join their local church of Christ was the equivalent of evangelism. People within the movement no longer viewed other Christians as their allies; they viewed them as a mission field. This paradigm shift was devastating for the movement due to a plethora of reasons that would take an entirely different article to explore. For now, suffice it to say that we became obsessed with winning a debate about baptism or musical instruments and lost sight of what it meant to actually be faithful to Jesus or to reach the unchurched with the gospel: in reality, we lost sight of what discipleship even was, replacing it with church of Christ exclusivism. Perhaps we talked more about “the Lord’s church” than the Lord himself. 

            This was not just detrimental to the people within the movement; it turns out, as I have said, people want nothing to do with this church of Christ exclusivism. They may like taking communion every week, congregational autonomy, simple church structure, a rejection of denominational allegiance and a high view of biblical authority, but they want nothing to do with that sort of exclusivism. People can find these desirable traits while replacing exclusivism with Christian ecumenicalism, and they have. They’re flocking to churches with these same desirables, but not to the Churches of Christ. Church of Christ exclusivism is biblically illiterate, void of historical theological considerations and is simply grotesque. For these reasons people want nothing to do with it; in my experience, it is the single largest barrier for people to even consider joining the Churches of Christ. 

            The good news is, there is hope in all of this! If the Churches of Christ can embrace their historic theology; if, dare I say, we can become more “conservative” by embracing Christian ecumenicalism, I am confident the movement will once again experience growth. People are willing to have conversations, and people are willing to even admit they were wrong about some tenant of theology. I certainly was! What they are not willing to do, however, is accept that they aren’t even a Christian simply because they’re mistaken, in our minds, about some contemporary theological debate. That is a silly concept, and we would do well to rid ourselves of such a paradigm of thought. It is not an overstatement to suggest that the future of our movement depends on it. 

[1] Millennial Harbinger, Series 1, May 1844, p. 199.

[2] Millennial Harbinger, 1837, p. 411-412.

[3] Christian Messenger, 1831, p. 19, 21.

[4] The Evangelist, No. 2, Vol. 2, Feb 4, 1833, p. 49.

[5] See,

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