Patternism does not entail division as long as it does not subvert grace and it graciously treats another believer with mercy. Rather, it is the attitudes, agendas and acidity of the people involved that generate division. Patternism itself is not to blame and neither is “restorationism’s” search for a pattern. When people are treated with gracious humility, patternism can be a fruitful discussion rather than an occasion of division. This is what Alexander Campbell intended from the beginning (though Campbell himself was not always the most humble of types ).
Ecclesiological Perfectionism Rejected.
Alexander Campbell certainly contended for an “ancient order” within the New Testament which he believed should be restored. Indeed, his good Presbyterian upbringing predisposed him to the idea of “order” and he continued to promote the notion of “church order” throughout his life (see his 1835 Millennial Harbinger Extra on Church Order).
However, as I pointed out in an earlier post, Campbell never intended his “ancient order” to function as the marks of a true church with the result that every other church which did not measure up to the “order” for which he contended was apostate. He explicitly denied that his conception of the “ancient order” should be used as a test of fellowship. He did, however, hope that it would be a platform for unity and strongly argued his case on the points at issue in hopes that others would adopt the “ancient order.”
So, Why the Divide?
That is a complicated and multi-faceted question. My interest in this post is very specific while I recognize the larger sociological, hermeneutical, sectional and theological differences that were involved in the division between Churches of Christ and the Disciples of Christ symbolically recognized in 1906 by the United States religious census.
I want to narrow my concern to David Lipscomb in particular. Reading through Lipscomb’s editorials in the 20th century, I was fascinated that Lipscomb consistently refers to the weaknesses and frailities of human beings in their seeking God. He applies this at many levels, but one application is ecclesiological.
Lipscomb was willing to forebear with congregation after congregation that disagreed with him on the missionary society and instrumental music. He spent most of his life in forebearance. He was one of the last to adopt a separatistic stance toward the Disciples of Christ (Christian Church). It was, in many ways, a thirty-plus year trek. He recognized it by 1897, declared it so in 1907, and lamented it for the rest of his life.
At one level, the division was necessary–according to Lipscomb–because some prominent Disciples embraced higher criticism, doubts about the deity of Jesus, etc. (e.g., the seeds and fruits of modernism). This was significant as it evidenced, in Lipscomb’s mind, a different spirit and attitude toward Scripture itself. It was not merely a different understanding of how to apply Scripture but more importantly a denial of Scripture as the word of God.
At another level, the division was necessary–according to Lipscomb–because the “innovations” disrupted the harmony of the church as a whole, split many congregations, and evidenced a lack of love for the minority, usually the weak and powerless, within a congregation. In other words, his problem with the innovators was more basic than the innovation itself. He could bear with the innovation in love–and could even preach in congregations that used it–but he could not bear with the unloving actions of the innovators toward the powerless. The strife they created and how they treated the powerless were more fatal than the innovation itself because it evidenced a spirit of arrogance, power and willfulness.
The situation of the Woodland Street Christian Church is illustrative. Lipscomb and E. G. Sewell planted this congregation and Lipscomb himself paid over $1000 for the bricking of the building in 1876. Sewell preached regularly for the church till 1882 and continued as one of its elders until 1890. By 1887 it was the center of Society activity in Nashville–organizing, convening, governing and hosting the State society convention and then the General Convention from 1889-1892. Lipscomb, Sewell, McQuiddy and others all experienced such boldness as a personal affront. Sometime before 1890 the instrument was introduced into the congregation. By 1899 Lispcomb had named Woodland Street as the most digressive of the churches in Tennessee. In October 1890, Sewell and the McQuiddys pulled out of Woodland and established the Tenth Street church in Nashville. (Some of this story is told in Chris Cotten’s paper delivered at the Disciples of Christ Historical Society in 2008.)
The hurt, strife and utter disbelief that Christians could treat each other in such a way fueled Lipscomb’s loss of patience with the Disciples of Christ (Christian Church). Ultimately, the emotional baggage was as significant as the theological, and the emotional hurt validated the perception that the Disciples of Christ (considered as a whole) acted in selfish, presumptive and unloving ways. Lipscomb had no patience for an arrogant, unloving spirit that abused the powerless. This is the real problem among the Disciples of Christ as he perceived it. As mistakes and failures of interpetation, innovations could be tolerated. But when they became the source of division and revealed the arrogance of the powerful (or majority), then the innovations were symptoms of a deeper problem.
Unlike Leroy Garrett who says that Lipscomb changed his mind about whether innovations should divide (The Stone-Campbell Movement, p. 401), I think it is better to say that Lipscomb came to believe that innovations were used to divide churches and it is this arrogant and power-seeking spirit that generated Lipscomb’s new attidue in the 1890s.
Grace in Sanctification.
Lipscomb had great patience and grace for the weak and struggling as long as they displayed an earnest desire to serve God and be obedient in everything they knew and could. He would even bear with the innovators as long as they were not divisive. One cannot read his editorials toward the close of his life without getting a deep sense of his love for the weak, his patience with their frailities, and his genuine desire to bear with them as they matured and grew in Christ.
Lipscomb often drew extended lessons from Jesus’ relationship with his disciples–both before and after his ministry among them. In the quotation offered below he focused on the experience of Jesus with his disciples at the Last Supper. Hear his call for mercy, patience and humility. It is, in my opinion, a stirring call for mutual forebearance–in this case between Rebaptists and disciples, and between Baptists and disciples (Lipscomb, “Jesus Christ and the Rebaptists,” Gospel Advocate 54 [11 January 1912] 45, 49).
This was a heroic band of worshipers to introduce the Lord’s Supper and the salvation of the world, was it not, especially when the leading one, Peter, is instructed, when he is convertred, to strengthen the rest…This shows the forebearance of Jesus with the sinner in his weakness and infirmity and his disposition to bear with and help the weak and needy. How many Christians now would be willing to bear with and partake of the Supper with a band they believed would be so offended (led into sin) that in a few hours all would forsake Jesus and deny they knew him? Christians ought to study the life and teachings of Jesus and from these learn meekness and forbearance with the tempted and tried. We ought to be meek and gentle as Jesus as. We ought to be longsuffering with the frail and erring and should strive to exercise forebearance and helpfulness toward those who go wrong. Jesus is our Savior and our Redeemer and seeks to help and save the lost.
The sin of Judas was from a lack of moral principle, a true regard for truth and justice. From this sin there seemed to be no recovery….The other disciples were honest and sincere, but failed through fear and the weakness of humanity. They recovered as soon as the threatening danger passed. But the human weakness remained, and Jesus dealt with the decision, but kindness and gentleness, of the Son of God and Savior of men. He drew the declaration of Peter’s love and devotion from him three times, as often as he had denied him, ending with the admonition to teach his brethren when he was converted…..
The example is not very flattering to humanity, but one that very strongly commends to us the love and condescension of God. It invites us to love and humility, condescension and helpfulness, to the poverty and needs of humanity. Let us look with kindness and pity on human mistakes and infirmities and bless and help as we need help and blessing. The forbearing, humble, helpful spirit that leads us to help the weak, forbear with the ignorant, and lend an uplifting and helping hand to every child of mortality is as much a part, and a vital part, of the religion of Jesus as the belief of any proposition or truth connected with that religion. Man is much more intolerant and ready to condemn and repel the children of men from the helps and privileges of gospel truth than God is. Let one take the mental and moral condition of those who partook of the first Supper under the direction of Jesus and compare them with the intelligence and standing of those they reject and repel, and he must feel the inconsistency. Our mission and work is to bury and hide shortcoming and imperfections in faith and life, and, while teaching the will of God as he gave it, to encourage the weakest and most feeble to walk in his ways as he has given it and as far as they understand it. The work of Jesus in the ordination of the Supper is often as much violated and set as naught as the rights of those who believe baptism is for the remission of sins. Let us cherish and walk in the spirit of Christ. Both Baptists and many disciples are sinful in their exclusiveness in religion.
Where Are We Today?
To use the terminology in vogue at Graceconversation.com, “progressives” and “conservatives” need a spirit of love, humility and selflessness in our dialogue at the congregational, institutional and virtual levels.
It seems to me that if we apply the theological notion of “grace in sanctification” toward each other, it would enable us to treat each other out of a disposition of weakness and humility. When we recognize that we are all engaged in the process of sanctification, that we are all imperfect, and that none of us has arrived theologically or ethically, then we can dialogue in a spirit of discovery and mutual understanding rather than condemnation and alienation. When we approach each other within the framework of sanctification, we may further the dialogue by hearing each other in order to learn rather than critique, to understand rather than condemn, and to appreciate rather than ridicule. When we season our words with grace rather than sarcasm we open the door to mutual understanding and mutual appreciation.
It very well may be that God is more concerned about how we dialogue and treat each other than he is with exactly where we differ. I do think God is concerned about both, but how we relate to others is what will image or fall short of God’s own relating to us with mercy and grace. Jesus’ patience with his own imperfect disciples and his anger toward the arrogant should give us all pause in our discussions. Whom are we more like? Humble disciples or arrogant religionists?
“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.” Matthew 5:7
“Mercy triumphs over judgment.” James 2:13b
“To the merciful you show yourself merciful.” Psalm 18:25