David Lipscomb (1831-1917) and James A. Harding (1848-1922) belonged to the same theological orbit. They started the Nashville Bible School (now Lipscomb University) together in 1891. Harding, for a time, was an associate editor of the Gospel Advocate in the 1880s. They agreed on a host of theological issues, including opposition to rebaptism, renewed earth eschatology, special providence, pacifism, sole allegiance to the kingdom of God in opposition to allegiance to the nations, etc. Bobby Valentine and I have written about their spiritual legacy among Churches of Christ in Kingdom Come.
However, they did not agree on everything. Harding, I believe, was more of a hardliner on ecclesial practices. His insistence on following the examples of the New Testament and the use of the command, example, and inference (CEI) hermeneutic was more strenuous than Lipscomb. While Lipscomb opted for some flexibility here, Harding sought precision in every detail when it came to imitating the New Testament church.
Two of the most significant disagreements, which yield considerable discussion in the first decade of the 20th century, regarded the use of hands–the laying on of hands and the right hand of fellowship. On both of these issues Harding insisted on following what he thought was the biblical pattern whereas Lipscomb failed to discern any precise or obligatory pattern on these questions. Consequently, we have a good example of two prominent leaders among Churches of Christ from the same theological orbit addressing “church practices” in relation to the biblical pattern on the basis of the same hermeneutic but yet disagreeing. They were “divided” but somehow remained “united,” as Armstrong’s article reproduced in my previous post trumpets.
Laying on of Hands
Lipscomb thought it unnecessary and without Scriptural authority, but Harding believed he was following the example of the apostles and their example should always be followed when it comes to ecclesial practices.
Harding believed that elders and evangelists should be appointed through a laying on of the hands, fasting and prayer. This is the apostolic example of Acts 13:1-2 and Acts 14:23. Regarding these texts, Harding wrote: “we learn that we are under solemn obligation to follow apostolic teaching and example, that in so doing we are following Christ. If we neglect to follow apostolic teaching and example, we neglect to follow Christ.” It is, according to Harding, “scriptual and safe” when elders are appointed in this way (“A Reply to Bro. Elam on the Appointment of Elders,” Christian Leader & the Way 21 [9 April 1907] 8-9).
Lipscomb contended that there was no example of anyone appointed to an office by the laying of hands in the New Testament. At one level, Lipscomb did not believe the evangelist or elder occupied an office, and at another level he did not believe there was any example of appointing persons to a task by the laying on of hands. Since there is no biblical example or precept, there is no obligation. Indeed, it is “a practice without scriptural authority” (“Appointment and Laying on of Hands,” Christian Leader & the Way 20 [27 March 1906] 4).
Do we follow apostolic example or not? Is there an example? Is it binding? The Churches of Christ, in the first decade of the 20th century, were divided on these questions. Jesse Sewell and James A. Harding on one side of the question and David Lipscomb along with E. A. Elam and others on the other side . This, according to Harding, is a “very radical difference in judgment” between believers “who are on most points of doctrine in full accord” (“A Reply to Bro. Elam on the Appointment of Elders,” Christian Leader & the Way 21 [9 April 1907] 8). It needs to be settled so that there is no division.
Right Hand of Fellowship
Daniel Sommer–editor of the Octographic Review–thought it necessary, Lipscomb–editor of the Gospel Advocate– thought it good but optional, and Harding–editor of The Way– thought it should be prohibited.
In the late nineteenth century, the dominant practice–“nearly all, if not all, congregations of the disciples of Christ” (Harding, “What Does the Bible Teach on the Right Hands of Fellowship?” Christian Leader & the Way 20 [11 December 1906] 8)– of receiving another person from one congregation to another was by the corporate extenstion of the “right hand of fellowship.” This was a corporate, congregational act. The whole congregation lined up to extend their “right hand of fellowship” one by one to the new member as part of the assembly itself. Sometimes, however, an elder acted for the whole congregation in receiving the new member. Either way it was an ecclesial act in the assembly. The “right hand of fellowship,” then, brought that new member under the oversight of the eldership of that particular congregation. When this was extended to a Baptist who wanted to now join fellowship with a Church of Christ, those who opposed this union with a Baptist without rebaptism called this “shaking in the Baptists.”
Sommer believed that Acts 15, Galatians 2, and Acts 11 all involved the reception of members through the right hand of fellowship. He believed there was apostolic example. Moreover, he believed that it was an “unavoidable conclusion” that members should be received through the “right hand of fellowship” into a local church so that the elders of that congregation might have disciplinary authority. No congregation can exercise discipline unless there was some formal entrance into the local congregation itself. (See his articles “Concerning the Right Hands of Fellowship,” Octographic Review 45 [11 November 1902] 1, 8 and “Concerning Right Hands of Fellowship,” Octographic Review 47 [23 August 1904] 1, 8.)
Though he onced practiced the custom, when Harding was thirty-four he discovered it was not in the New Testament. From then on he regarded it as an innovation. If we cannot “read it in the very words of the New Testament” it should not appear in the assembly (“What Does the Bible Teach on the Right Hands of Fellowship?” Christian Leader & the Way 20 [11 December 1906] 8). Though it is often regarded as a “church ordinance” rivaling baptism and the Lord’s Supper, there is no authority in Scripture for this congregational act in the assembly. Any fair look at the New Testament would discover that “the giving of the right hands of fellowship for the purpose of receiving baptized belivers into the fellowship of the congregation is without Scriptural authority” (“Brother Sommer’s Visit. No. II.,” The Way 5 [30 July 1903], 755). According to Harding, it is a “high crime against God, Christ and the Holy Spirit” to add an unauthorized practice to the assembly, and such additions will receive the judgment of God just like Uzzah. We should, according to Harding, “give up this unapostolic, man-made ordinance, and abide in the teaching of Christ”…and we should “remember Uzzah” (“An Article Suggested by Brethren Cain, Hillyard and ‘A Well-Known’ Texas Preacher,” Christian Leader & the Way 21 [30 April 1907] 8).
Interestingly, on this question Harding was alligned with the majority of writers in the Firm Foundation (one notable exception is Jackson, McGary’s co-editor in the 1890s). For example, Price Billingsley (“‘Hand of Fellowship’ Again,” Firm Foundation 18 [14 April 1902] 2) writes that “we can not worship and honor God in doing something that he has not told us to do; and it must be that these things are done to please men; and if true it becomes mockery instead of true. worship.” It is an “unauthorized” practice since there is no command, example or inference for it as a corporate act in the assembly.
Another interesting dimension of this debate is that the precise difference between Sommer and Harding, according to Sommer, is that Harding extends the right hand of fellowship individually to new members after the formal closure of the assembly while Sommer does it in the assembly (“Concerning Right Hands of Fellowship,” Octographic Review 47 [23 August 1904] 1) and that Harding thinks it authorized for individuals as individuals but not for the corporate body. Does that sound familiar to anyone? I remember discussions about whether a College chorus (choir) was permissable as long as it was heard after the closing prayer of the assembly and noninstitutionalists stress the significant difference between individual and corporate acts. Harding argued something similar about the right hand of fellowship. Somethings don’t change when we seek a pattern in the New Testament that does not exist.
Churches of Christ did not divide over these issues. Though Harding–as one among others–thought the questions were matters of compliance with apostolic example (laying on of hands) and the silence of Scripture(right hands), the movement as a whole did not divide. (There were, however, a few congregations that did divide.)
Lipscomb’s methods prevailed. Lipscomb regarded “right hands” as optional, and given the desire for unity, it was done after the closing prayer rather than in the assembly. Elders were generally appointed without the laying on of hands and usually–if not practically always–without fasting. By the 1950s it was a rare congregation that had a communal ceremony for receiving new members with the right hand of fellowship in the assembly and that appointed elders through fasting and the laying on of hands.Churches of Christ, in my experience and in my reading in the mid and late 20th century, were not convinced by Harding’s arguments but followed Lipscomb’s practice on both the right hand of fellowship and the appointment of elders.
What we have in this story is an example how Churches of Christ negotiated their hermeneutic so that they did not divide over these questions even though the same principles and hermeneutic were utilized to separate from congregations that used musical instruments in their assemblies.
Perhaps “common sense” prevailed–as it has saved us from our hermeneutic at times in the past. Perhaps instrumental music was such an embedded cultural concern (“worldliness”) that it transcended mere pattern arguments. (Remember one of the first articles against instrumental music in the Stone-Campbell Movement was also about dancing!) I don’t know, but it is an interesting question to think about.
In our history, some things divide us but do not subvert the unity (“right hands” and “laying on of hands”). Other things divide us and prevent unity (“instrumental music” and whether there should be more than one elder). But both are pursued through the same hermeneutic with the same assumptions about assembly and ecclesial patterns. Some things create a division, others do not.
P.S. I found this particular paragraph from Daniel Sommer quite interesting, and it is filled with questions about the ambiguity of the received hermeneutic–to what does it apply and to what does it not apply. Sommer, “Concerning Right Hands of Fellowship,” Octographic Review 47 [23 August 1904] 1, 8. See what you think.
Another evidence that those who denounce a formal giving of the right hands of fellowship are technical is that they have never been, they are not, and never will be consistent. They say, “There is no divine precept nor example for a formal giving of the right hands of fellowship, and therefore it should not be practiced.” But this is what may be called “one premise logic.” The major premise is suppressed. What is that major premise? It is this general proposition: Whatever practice is not authorized by divine precept or example should not be adopted, or, having been adopted, should be discontinued. Those who assume that such a proposition is true, will need to discontinue all formal exercises when they are going to preach to sinners, all formal invitations to sinners in the public congregation, all formal invitation songs in the congregation, all rising up to give thanks at the communion table, all formality in regard to attidute in time of prayer, all formal invitations to preachers to hold protracted meetings, and all formal acceptance of such invitations on the part of preachers, all formal keeping of church records, and all formal business meetings of the church. I could mention more, but this is enough.