Patterns, Legalism and Grace: Alexander Campbell

It is not legalism to seek patterns or to live by patterns.    

It is legalism to use those patterns in such a way that they undermine salvation by grace through faith.

That is my summary of what I thought was the sentiment of Cecil May, Jr.’s concluding comments in his February 3, 2009 Freed-Hardeman Lectureship speech (see my previous post).

In this post and in a subsequent one, I will illustrate how this point has functioned in the thinking of two significant leaders in the Stone-Campbell Movement: Alexander Campbell and J. D. Thomas. Both were patternists (to differing degrees), but did not permit their patternism to trump the fundamental truth of the gospel: we are saved by grace through faith and not by works.

In the 1825 Christian Baptist Alexander Campbell inaugurated his famous series “A Restoration of the Ancient Order of Things.” He thereby introduced “restoration” as a key term in the self-understanding of the Stone-Campbell Movement.  A patternism of some sort inheres in the idea of “restoration” as Campbell used it.

Campbell assumed (1) “there is a divinely authorized order of Christian worship in Christian assemblies” and (2) “the acts of worship on the first day of the week in Christian assemblies is uniformly the same.” The “authorized order” is the “same acts of religious worship” that “are to be performed every first day in every assembly of disciples” (CB 3 [4 July 1825] 164-166). Campbell believed there is a pattern (his favorite word for it, in good Reformed fashion, was “order”). Subsequent essays explained the role of breaking bread (Lord’s Supper), fellowship (contribution), and praise (singing). In addition, the “ancient order” included topics such as congregational polity (bishops, deacons) and discipline.

Campbell’s series intended to identify particulars where the “church of the present day” needed to be brought up to the “standard of the New Testament.” To “restore the ancient order of things” is to “bring the disciples individually and collectively, to walk in the faith, and in the commandments of the Lord and Saviour, as presented in that blessed volume” (CB 3 [7 February 1825] 124-128).

It is clear that the “ancient order” is serious business for Campbell. It is a matter of obedience to the commands of the New Testament. The series was a call to the church of his day to conform to the “order” contained in the New Testament, that is, to conform to the apostolic pattern in the New Testament.

The interesting question, however, is whether he thought the “order” he discerned within the New Testament was a test of fellowship among believers. Did he believe that conformity to this order was necessary to salvation? Was it his intent to identify the marks of the church that defined the true church so that every other body of believers who did not conform to those marks was apostate and thus outside the fellowship of God?

This was implicitly raised in the Christian Baptist by one of Campbell’s critics. Spencer Clack, the editor of the Baptist Recorder, wondered whether Campbell’s “ancient order” functioned similarly to the written creeds to which Campbell mightily objected (CB 5 [6 August 1827] 359-360). Campbell’s response is illuminating. He maintained that his “ancient order” was no creed precisely because he had “never made them, hinted that they should be, or used them as a test of christian character or terms of christian communion” (CB 5 [3 September 1827] 369-370, emphasis mine–and thanks to Bobby Valentine who was the first to call my attention to this statement).

The pattern–the ancient order–was not a test of fellowship. It did not define Christian character. Campbell believed it was biblical and apostolic, but he did not believe obedience to it was a condition of salvation. The pattern was not a soteriological category, but rather an ecclesiological one.

If he did not identify these ecclesiological particulars as tests of fellowship, then what was the purpose of the series? He tells us. He believed that the restoration of the ancient order, though not necessary for fellowship and salvation, was “the perfection, happiness, and glory of the Christian community.” In other words, it was a means toward the unity of all believers. Restoration of the ancient order was not for the purpose determining true vs. apostate churches, but rather to set out a program upon which all believers might unite on the New Testament alone. If everyone would “discard from their faith and their practice every thing that is not found written in the New Testament of the Lord and Saviour, and to believe and practise whatever is there enjoined,” then “every thing is done which ought to be done” (CB 3 [7 March 1825] 133-136). He wanted to “unite all Christians on constitutional grounds” rather than on the basis of human creeds (CB 5 [6 August 1827] 360-61). The “ancient order,” according to Campbell, was the only legitimate (constitutional) and practical means of uniting all Christians, and it enable communities to discard their creeds and stand on the New Testament alone.

Theologically, this essentially means that eccelsiological patterns are matters of sanctification rather than justification (to use the classic terminology of Campbell’s era). The discernment, recognition and implementation of apostolic patterns were matters of growth and maturation. They were not the foundation of the church–who is Jesus, and the confession that he is the Christ, the Son of the Living God–but rather the sanctification of the church in conformity to a constitutional model of reading the New Testament.

Campbell never applied the “ancient order” as either a test of salvation or fellowship.  However, he did attempt to persuade others that a return to the “ancient order” was the way to restore unity to a divided Christianity.

Subsequent participants in the “Restoration Movement” turned the “ancient order” into a test of fellowship as the fundamental identity of the New Testament church, the distinguishing mark between the true church and apostate churches.  That was never Campbell’s intention and he would have regarded it as a subversion of the gospel itself–substituting the “ancient order” for the confession of Jesus as the Messiah as the true test of faith.

27 Responses to “Patterns, Legalism and Grace: Alexander Campbell”

  1.   daniel Says:

    boy, that’s impossible for some of “our” folks to hear.

  2.   Bobby Valentine Says:

    AC was far more balanced than some of his heirs have been. Certainly I would include myself in that category. This post also illustrates your earlier one on how historical theology helps illuminate the contours of the faith.

    Another interesting tidbit regarding Campbell is that at the end of his life he declared that Christology, not ecclesiology, had been his life’s focus.

    On a different level it is worthy of note that Scot Mcknight also uses the language of “pattern.” He talks about a “pattern of discernment” too (ch. 10 of The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible).

    Bobby Valentine

  3.   K. Rex Butts Says:

    I agree that it would be an unfair characterization to say that someone is a legalist because they believe there is a certain “order” or “pattern” for Church polity and worship. If one is convicted that such a pattern exists (and thus is commanded by God) they can not ignore it and be disobedient. If obeying what a person believe is biblically instructed from God makes a person a legalist, then we are all legalists because we all believe there are instructions from God we must be obedient to (even if we do not agree on the form or content of those instructions).

    As you say, legalism is seen in the person who makes the pattern a test of fellowship. There are other forms of legalism that are found among Christians (of all denominations). Ever see a Christian pop in worship long enough to take communion and then leave? Or the person who takes communion but is blantently living a life of rebellious sin against God (apparently that was a first-century problem in at least Corinth)? Any ways, those are but a few examples. It would be nice to have a lawyer join this discussion to give us the numerous ways legalism creep up in civil and criminal law and then we could see how those same examples find their way into the practice of discipleship.

    Grace and peace,


  4.   Jay Guin Says:


    Speaking on behalf of lawyers, we are not nearly the legalists that many of my Church of Christ brothers are. See for an example contrasting good lawyer thinking with Church of Christ thinking.

  5.   Joe Baggett Says:

    I would argue that that to “seek” patterns is presupposing they exist. Then to assume that any pattern found must be replicated to an exact degree in order to please God is another presupposition. The early Restorationist thought that if they could determine and then restore any patterns from the NT than everyone would agree and sign up. Well here is the problem in that thinking. No one will ever read the Bible the same way. The idea that just about every honest person of average intellect would pick up and read the Bible in the same way finding the same patterns was wrong. How much longer will it take for us to realize that? Truitt Adair said in his Interview with the Chronicle that the only true way to unity was how one reads and interprets the Bible. If we are waiting for most everyone in the broader scope of Christianity to read the Bible the same way, use the same hermeneutic and follow the same patterns we have fooled ourselves. Instead of the outward form or patterns we should rather attempt to understand the underlying principles and functions. For instance for a long time the “pattern” was to lay by and store on the first day of the week which we presumed to be Sunday in our modern calendar. So we made a religious law and drew lines of fellowship around taking the collection up on Sunday. Well in that scripture Paul was giving special instructions to the church in Corinth not a global pattern forever for all churches. If you read on he specifically states that they should do this so that he can pick it up when he comes through. If we read on at the verses following they speak of how they gave out of their poverty and sold property; then we understand the underlying principle and function of giving. It is not about a designated day or 10% or raising the building fund it was about sincere generosity and love for God shown to people. I am convinced that it matters not to God what day or time or place that giving takes place rather he is concerned about the heart of the giver and the receiver. Do you see how “blind” patternism is legalism and wrong no matter how well intentioned or sincere. When will we realize the folly of our ways? We could with brutal honesty and no presupposed ideas reexamine most of our “patterns” that we have used to draw lines of fellowship with and realize that we have missed some of the most important underlying principles and functions.

  6.   John Mark Hicks Says:

    Even “blind” patternism is not legalism if it does not subvert salvation by grace through faith.

    Patterns come in all kinds of forms, including being conformed to the pattern of Jesus’ own image. Some kinds of patternism seek patterns that don’t exist, while other patterns do exist. Event seeking to identify principles and functions–which involves a hermeneutic of some kind–will not find universal agreement.

    Whichever the case, we are saved by grace through faith without works even when we see a pattern in the text that does not exist or whether we miss some patterns that do exist or whether we seek principle or functions as guidelines from the text.

    I would certainly agree that we discerns principles and functions as well as patterns (indeed, we might even say some principles and functions are patterns), but ultimately it is neither the pattern nor the principle that binds. Rather, it is the act of God in Christ–the Christ Event (we might call it). I have blogged about this previously, for example, at

  7.   Joe Baggett Says:

    John Mark Hicks:
    So, let me ask this question, it is neither rhetorical nor belligerent in nature. If you know the answer to this then the whole brotherhood needs to hear it soon. How do we keep our patternism which is largely based on presupposed ideas from subverting salvation of grace through faith? How de we keep people from splitting churches over praise teams, solos, instruments, women, the Lord’s Supper only Sunday every Sunday and so on? How do we keep so called brotherhood leaders from writing articles in publications condemning churches that don’t follow the right patterns? You know when we lived in Vicksburg MS about a year ago the churches had split over MDR and some other issues. Both were heavily influenced by MBC and Cecil May Jr.who wrote often in the Magnolia Messenger. The Magnolia Messenger is second only to the Bible in MS. I still vividly remember the scathing article Cecil wrote saying that we could not fellowship the Independent Christian Churches until they got rid of their unauthorized instruments. Another writer whom I can’t remember his name but a preacher in MS wrote an article condemning the North Richland Hills church for taking communion on Saturday night and using instruments. I am honestly and sincerely asking how we do what you say by keeping patterns from subverting our salvation through faith.

  8.   John Mark Hicks Says:

    Patternism is, of course, one danger, but anything–even something good–can ultimately subvert the gospel of grace since the gospel is about where, or, better, in whom we place our trust.

    To address your specific question would, of course, involve a lengthy discussion–perhaps one I should pursue. At bottom, I don’t think patternism and salvation by grace through faith are mutually exclusive. When patternism functions soteriologically, that is, when patternism becomes the basis of our salvation or a perfectionism is rooted in a patternism, it can then subvert the gospel of grace. I understand more needs to be said, and perhaps the future will provide opportunity in additional posts/discussions.

    There are many issues still debated and used to divide people (and churches). When they are so used, it is unfortunate–to say the least, and there is enough guilt to go around in many of these circumstances. My point is that when people of faith mistakenly use some issues to create distance this does not necessarily subvert the gospel. They may sin in doing so (perhaps acting out of what we consider ignorance but yet firm, honest conviction), but they are saved by grace through faith just as I am. I will extend to them the same grace I extend to myself, even when they refuse to extend it to me.

    I appreciated the epistemological humily Cecil expressed in his lecture, and I appreciated the removal of patternism from the soteriological ground of our salvation. I think that provides hope and opportunity for dialogue.

  9.   K. Rex Butts Says:


    I am sorry. I did not mean to imply Lawyers were legalist in a bad sense. My naive assumption was that a lawyer might have a good perspective on how people can get caught in legalistic ways within the law and then we could see how those ways work themselves into faith.


  10.   Jay Guin Says:


    No offense taken. I just think it’s funny that lawyers aren’t half the legalists that many of our preachers are. In fact, three years in law school would do many of our interpreters a lot of good.

  11.   Joe Baggett Says:

    If we were to use an analogy,legalists would be the legislators those who were making the laws then the judge and police who enforce it. Lawyers only interpret and argue the law. Yes Jay some religious legalists have been cured by attending three years of law school. One dear friend of mine had this very experience. Some have only been emboldened in their legalism by attending law school. I could give you some very notable brother hood names but I won’t out of honor.

  12.   John Mark Hicks Says:

    A fascinating read is the Woods-Cogdill debate, two lawyers haggling over hermeneutical distinctions as both presuppose a strong patternism.

    On the other hand, lawyers like Jay Guin and Edward Fudge don’t exactly read the Bible the way Woods and Cogdill did.

    Perhaps it is not so much whether one is a lawyer or not, but what one expects from reading Scripture (“legal authority” or “divine action”).

  13.   Jay Guin Says:

    Joe and John Mark are right that we have some legalistic folks with law degrees. And we have some gracious teachers with law degrees. A law degree hardly guarantees a gracious spirit.

    For what little it’s worth, I’d just note that the legalistic lawyers among us have failed to apply the lessons they learned in law school. You see, lawyers are taught to interpret laws and contracts in light of the intent and policy behind them.

    This is the principle that taught me that the “role of women” passages have to be read in light of the Gen 3 curse on Creation and Jesus’ redemptive work. And this is the principle that taught me that the divorce and remarriage passages can’t mean that we are to require our converts to be divorced.

    Language is easily misunderstood, and the solution is to know the heart of the writer.

    Legalism is not the importation of legal principles into scripture. It’s reading scripture apart from the Spirit, which teaches us the heart of God.

    (Gal 5:18 ) But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law.

  14.   rich constant Says:

    john mark it is hard for men to legislate love even on themselves ha ha that is a joke…
    even with the intrinsic character of a loving god displayed

    to say nothing of the old law and the Jew

    exhibits a forensic characteristic of god for a stiff necked people

  15.   sklaft Says:

    Observing that there is pattern for the “faith” by which “grace” is administered in no way thwarts the fact that salvation comes from God.

    Recognizing that there are already so many divisions, and that such divisions by themselves form a pattern allows us to correlate information by which we can draw the conclusion: There are right patterns, and wrong patterns; there are God-approved patterns, and there are God-disapproved patterns.

    It is not a matter of whether or not a perceived pattern actually starts with a presupposition or not. It is a matter of whether the perceived pattern is correct or incorrect, binding or not binding, approved or not approved by God.

    The determining factors, such as method of interpretation, having available facts (word definitions, historical contexts, etc.), philosophical view of authority, and/or honesty of heart – having too many variations in these is what causes the division among the “Christian* ” religions.

    *I use the term loosely here.

  16.   Larry Short Says:

    I remember professor Humble of ACU referring to the Achiles’ heel of restoration as the divisions over every version of practice. I remember two c of Cs in a west Texas town one block apart, differing because of the format of sunday school.
    I tend to be on Alexander’s side, in beleiving there is a similar NT assembly, which is the best common ground we could choose. I also do not beleive it is a test of fellowship.
    Second, and this is important, there are some things that are unfellowshipable. We should not accept King Herod with his brother’s wife, just as Paul says the church should not accept a man with his father’s wife (1 Cor 5). There are many “Christians” who would accept any sexual practice and say that God loves everyone and so should they.
    My wife and I married on a saturday, and flew away to begin our honeymoon. Next day after a church service many came up to meet us. One asked where we were from, another where we were staying, and I mentioned a local motel. Another asked for our names, to which my wife gave my name and her maiden name. After a silence with odd expressions, I explained we were married yesterday, and she had very little practice with her married name.
    The reason for that example is my dear brethern were correct to greet us, try to get to know us, and begin a moral judgement based on what we said.
    Lastly, the stuck in the scripture, conservative should be allowed to win, for love. The average reader of this website is a CofC liberal. We know the idol is nothing, and therefore idol meat is just meat. But the conservative worries that buying idol meat shows support for idols. (1 Cor 8) Paul probably wrote this in the mid first century. The whole matter should have died out soon. Apparently foolish ‘idol meat is wrong’ ideas still existed at the end of the first century when John probably wrote Revelation 2:20. Us enlightened know that the form of music in assembly is not the core of the gospel, but some think it a pattern left by apostles and early church for us. Should we love enough to use acapella for our brother’s sake?
    When you use all logic and love on many of our practices, you see the wisdom of Alexander Campbell’s suggestion to take NT practice as the common ground.

  17.   rich constant Says:

    rich constant Says:

    May 10, 2009 at 7:08 pm | Reply
    john mark
    sence you thinkin real hard…
    or not .i know that’s a compaired to what…

    does the question i ask…of truth.

    is christ righteous under law…if so
    how is god righteous to curse his son .

    that takes into consideration this does not concren fulfillment and not to be cofused with that.
    also gal 4.3-4 is the key to answering paul’s statement in romans 3.28-31 no we establish the law,and the law is nulifed through the faith of christ.
    the law like god still calls sin sin although the patern aof the faith (love and honor god ,and love your brother as yourself is the imparitive indicitive that that all doctrine is should be subjected to when applied

    christ was cursed and was in hades acts 2
    took away the power of him that had control by overcoming death….
    now then

    the question is does this not set up the
    Law of Contradiction,as far as TRUTH is concerned
    i think it does for theoologolical thinkers.
    how my brother isthis not an eather / or, question.

    no one that i have ask has cone up with an answer to this that divides the law of god at the cross being nulifed by faith and establishing the promised blessing(GRACE)
    not to beable to answer the simple question is to miss the grace and mercy of god found in god and perverts my openion


  18.   rich constant Says:

    an addendum

    and creates polarization in the unity of the Spirit.
    thus it becomes “my way” and not attending to the work of god in Christ, redemption through a sacrifice of “my way” and digressing away from Christ’s love in honoring god and the mission of god for creation which was the giving up the of his life in the flesh. being justified in by the spirit and bringing redemption through the power of god in his resurrected body from the DEAD through the spirit. those at this present time who do as he did in submitting to the will of his father to bring about life through the spirit in faithfulness to gods work in Christ unto his chosen people and called to participate and reciprocate to the father as the true nation of israel set free to serve as a slave to the gospel of Christ in a righteous faithful life as his servant our lord god did to the justification of life to all those who believe, hear, support work of god.
    which is the building up the body of Christ in love and through love by administering the word of the father through the intrinsic character attributes manifested in his son’s life.
    so i am very careful when i pick up a rock of judgement to through because i can judge myself and that my friends should make us think even collectively. that we use judgement in an unrighteous manner and the intent is at the root not about Christ,s love but about not allowing Christ to judge.
    and making myself to look good by demeaning another,s servant.
    rich constant

  19.   Larry Short Says:

    Thanks Rich. Like Paul we have to pick our fights. He would not back down on circumcision. However, I guess he saw lots of places to get meat, so if idol meat bothered some then skip it. Maybe it wasn’t reasoned but inspired choice.
    My comments were brief, but there is a micro/macro difference. My local congregation could include many who believe the KJV is reliable and they are not sure about these modern versions. I have many reasons why I’m sure this is a poor choice but for my brother’s sake…. [This was hypothetical, don’t judge my local congregation.] In the macro, I and I would prefer others, not judge or condemn others who use modern versions. This logic applies to all variations in practice and faith, not core values.
    Unfortunately, the “Christian” community includes many who are eager to compromise prior revelation, rather than endanger their politically correct faith and practice. In addition, my core value list is not everyones. Ofcourse I’m right, and they are uninformed! Actually, we need to be open to comparing our list to others, and seek to find God’s perfect will. We need to respect values and practices rooted in imitating Jesus and in love agree to disagree.
    Sadly, perfection in this world is not possible. Love compells us to accept second rate choices. Luckily, Love compells God to accept second rate servants, redeeemed by His gift. To His glory, the next world can be perfected as we are changed. [Maybe He will tell us what version we should have used!]

  20.   rich constant Says:

    discipals of righteousness,apart from sin,dead to sin,
    should consider the exorttation of our lord,in answering the question,SO YOU LOVE ME,3 TIMES THEN THE ANSWER FEED MY SHEEP…. IN ANY SINCE OF THAT WORD IT IN NO WAY MEANS TO SCATTER MY SHEEP.
    let’s just face it our clutural hermanudic is so squed by by re-re- reformed theology.
    we cant see the forest because the tree.
    no pun intended.
    we all need to focas on unity of the trinity and their way of bring about peace throufh weakness.

    funny thing about that.. and we just might get it although choose not to do it.
    and choose to call devicesness in the name of the of a cultural indictive hermanudic (our corprate unstanding of gods mission fo us to day)as an imparative and emphatic at that….
    shame on me shame on us and lets just all repent and try a little of the trinty’s example in dealing with my our reality and let our father,s grace stand through faithfulness to his manifested righteous act of love in christ work through his spirit in us for the good of the world to the glory of his name.

    or we just might find ourselves in a world of hurt. which compares to nothing we now know or do we even want too.
    rich constant

  21.   Larry Short Says:

    Rich, love your modern phrasing of Hellfire & damnation on unaccepting brethern. Anyway thanks for the overall spirit.

  22.   rich constant Says:

    well thanks larry.

    mighty kind of you

  23.   ACaudle Says:

    It really makes no difference what the restoration preachers had to say and thought in regard to what members of the Lord’s church believe or what is essential to salvation. If some Christians have no idea why we believe what we believe, then they need to study the Bible. The church was established at Pentecost and from then on, the system of salvation was understood and practiced by those who believed and obeyed the Lord. THAT is when the church of Christ began “believing what they do.” Restoration preachers had the correct goal in mind (speaking where the Bible speaks and being silent where the Bible is silent), but we should never follow everything they did or said…it is the Bible that is our authority. Christians began believing what they do during the first century, when Christ established His church. And the New Testament tells us how we are to worship. I totally disagree with “most of us have no idea…why we worship the way we do, or why we are so divided amongst ourselves.” Those who study and believe the Bible KNOW what they believe and practice what they do.

    •   John Mark Hicks Says:

      Scripture is our normative authority, and we certainly want to understand it and practice it. No objection from me. At the same time, we do learn from others and through others. I was first taught by a “restoration preacher”…my father. And I have learned much from others as well. So, we listen to others yet with discernment. I don’t see how your reply as much to do with the post, however.

    •   Randall Says:

      “It really makes no difference what the early leaders of the restoration movement had to say …”

      Is that because some came along after them (perhaps during the late 1800s into the early 1900s) and hijacked the movement for their own purposes?

  24.   R.J. Says:

    “discard from their faith and their practice every thing that is not found written in the New Testament of the Lord and Saviour, and to believe and practise whatever is there enjoined”.

    Did Alexander Campbell believe that silence was prohibited?

    •   johnmarkhicks Says:

      It seems clear that Campbell believed some kinds of silence were prohibitive, but that other kinds of silence were not. For example, silence about what order the worshiping assembly should observe [songs first? sermon after the supper? etc.] was permissive. But silence regarding infant baptism was prohibitive. I think we have to look more closely to discern what his differentiating principle would be.

      As a matter of coming to visible unity, it was simply safe to do what it there and not do what is not there. That simple rule gets complicated pretty quickly as Campbell even recognized, but the rule was only in the service of visible unity and not as a term of fellowship.


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  5. Backgrounds of the Restoration Movement: Baptism, Primitivism, and Heresy, Part 1 « One In
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  9. Colossians: Further on the Instrumental Music Question (In Reply to Alexander), Part 2 | One In Jesus
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  11. Renewing Our Worship: Uniformity | One In Jesus
  12. Replanting a Denomination: The Original Restoration Plea | One In Jesus
  13. The Fork in the Road: “The Way of UNITY between “Christian Churches” and Churches of Christ,” Part 4 | One In Jesus

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