Patternism, Division and Grace

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, “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

17 Responses to “Patternism, Division and Grace”

  1.   Randall Says:

    I am sure I could use this post and apply it to my own life and attitude so very often.

  2.   Drew Chapados Says:

    Really good post.
    This is where I would like to be.
    Somehow there has to be a better way to preach the message of Jesus then just using studies that show why we are the only true church. (I have found not just Churches of Christ do this)
    Instead of determining who is not saved, let us just preach the message that saves.
    Thanks John Mark

  3.   Glenn Ziegler Says:

    This is an excellent article, John Mark. I wish it could be read and discussed by every member of the Lord’s Body. We need more dialogue in the spirit of love, grace, and unity.

    Thank you for this. May God richly bless you, brother.

  4.   K. Rex Butts Says:

    I certainly have no desire to divide or disfellowship anyone, whether they be on the left of right of me. In fact, more and more when people ask me what fellowship I am a part of, my response is that I am of the Restoration fellowship or RM – meaning Disciples of Christ, Independent Christian Church, Churhes of Christ, and even the International Churches of Christ (and I have visited assemblies in all groups). That response in no way means I agree with everything taught/practiced in that group. In fact, I would not even agree with everything taught and practiced in the average CoC but my veiw of fellowship is shaped by God’s view of love and fellowship towards me and not by “perfectionism” or adherance to all of the teachings/practices I feel are important.

    Having said all that (and keep that in mind as you read my question), when do you say I am simply moving on in the business of God’s kingdom? Not leaving but no longer going to occupy myself with those who have eyes but do not see and ears but do not hear? Not leaving but no longer going to try and recultivate soil that will not yield growth from the seed of God’s kingdom? I am making reference to the parable of the sower in Mark 4. My question may sound harsh though that is not my intention and even judgmental but I believe the parable does call for us to make a judgment about where we sow seed. And if Jesus is our pattern, it was Jesus himself who at some point was willing to move on and focus on those who were willing to change. In fact, Jesus essentially told Peter in Mark 8.33ff to either get on board with God’s Kingdom mission or get behind him but that the mission would not be sacrificed for Peter (or anyone else).

    I am raising this question as a way of thinking outloud. As our North America becomes more and more of a post-Christian community, there just seems like there is more important kingdom business to do than to keep worrying about those who want to turn God’s mercy and grace into a cumbersome yoke. And so I just wonder at what point do we say “I’m not disfellowshiping but at the same time I must move on and if you do not want to follow then that is your choice but I must go now”?

    Grace and peace,


  5.   Dell Kimberly Says:


  6.   Terrell Lee Says:

    Chewy! Thanks.

  7.   Gardner Says:

    You have helped me to appreciate Lipscomb even more. I identify much with his grieving both over “innovations” and the carnal tactics used to oppose them.

  8.   Robert Baty Says:

    There’s that 1906 census thingy again.

    I’m still waiting for the preachers to note a similar government decision that changed the course of “our” history in 1970!

    Robert Baty

  9.   John Mark Hicks Says:

    Those interested may read about the IRS 1970 decision to which Robert Baty alludes at Jay Guin’s site. He did a wonderful job of summarizing the issues.

    I have no interest in that topic on this blog.

  10.   eirenetheou Says:

    i have often said that the division between the Disciples of Christ and the Churches of Christ at the end of the nineteenth century was a confrontation between the arrogant and the obstinant. In thinking about that collision we may find it useful to ponder the great Kierkegaard’s “infinite qualitative distinction” between the Aesthetic and the Ethical.

    “Love,” says the Apostle, “does not insist on its own way.” What, then, is the work of love when one party within a local congregation is determined to use a musical instrument in the public worship and another is equally determined that they will not? What is the work of love when one group is determined to recognize the gifts of women in every ministry of the church and another is equally determined that they will not? What is the work of love when one party is determined to invite the poor, maimed, blind, and lame into the meetinghouse while another is equally determined to keep them out? What is the work of love when one faction is determined to display an American flag in the meetinghouse and another is equally determined that they will not?

    The same Apostle, in another letter, counsels his readers that “we who are ‘strong’ ought to bear the failings of the ‘weak,’ and not to please ourselves.” This is the work of love, and it is immensely difficult for most committed church members, especially in “matters of principle.” What we believe about any matter is, obviously, “right,” else we should not believe it. How can we bear the failings of the “weak” when the “weak” are, obviously, “wrong”? We must, at all costs, “stand up for what is right.” We insist on our own way and, in so doing, please ourselves, at the cost of yet another divided body or, at the least, sisters and brothers who are wounded and angry, and a smoldering enmity that will flare yet again.

    “Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up.” That is no simple task — but we have already tried the easy way. Building a body that will not divide is hard labor.

    God’s Peace to you.


  11.   John Mark Hicks Says:

    Don, thanks for you wisdom, my brother.

    Rex, perhaps it always time to simply be what we believe God has called us to be but without erecting walls or sniping across the field at our neighbor. As Lipscomb might say, let us do the work God has set in front of us. I do appreciate the difficulties of such an approach, however. Thanks for you words.

    •   K. Rex Butts Says:

      I hear what you are saying. It is certainly easy to “snipe” in the blog world with those whom one is in disagreement and I am no exception. But as I continue to read what is going on over at, I just don’t much agreement coming since it is painfully obvious there are at least two drastically different approaches to scripture (and perhaps even two different ways in which God and his redemptive purposes are conceived). That is why I have pulled back from frequent comments to an occasional. I don’t want to argue with others because I don’t feel it will accomplish anything. I love a good debate and can easily be enticed into debating BUT I generally look back in hind-sight and feel that debating accomplishes no good (or at least not the good God wants to accomplish).

      With that being said, I certainly do not want to write anyone off of disfellowship anyone but there is a lot of me that says I only have so much time and that may not be the best use of my time.

      Any ways… I always appreciate your blog and interaction, as it is very encouraging and thought provoking.

      Grace and peace,


  12.   Robert Baty Says:


    I think you left out a “see”!

    We are probably in agreement as to the lack of prospects presently indicated as to the GraceConversation effort, but I figure the reasons for that are more fundamental than even what you have proposed.

    Robert Baty

  13.   Randall Says:

    Sorry this is a longer comment than I usually write. I would have sent it directly to Rex if I had known how.

    I think I have a pretty good idea of how you feel about the Grace Conversation. Your comments above resonate with me. All families are dysfunctional to a greater or lesser extent. It would be great if they were never more than mildly dysfunctional but some really do get tiresome. (And yes I know I have my own dysfunctionality to deal with.) So what does one do when they become worn out time and again with trying to have a reasonable conversation with loved ones? How does one deal with it as they become more aware of the depth of the issues in their very own family? I assure you it is difficult to walk away from the church family you have spent your life with. No one else can walk our path for us so ultimately we have to do as was suggested – try to do the work that God has put before us.

    In my case, I have tried with only occasional/infrequent success to have meaningful discussion with my CofC family. I am almost 60 and this has been going on over 30 years and we do not intend to spend the rest of our lives doing it. That was a big decision for my wife and me.

    We left the CofC a couple times in the past (not counting moving overseas) but returned for two reasons. 1. We missed our (dysfunctional) family and decided to try again to have meaningfull fellowship with them and 2. any other fellowship one goes to will have their own way of being dysfunctional – but it may not be as challenging. It is my understanding that even those that have been horribly abused by their father still love their father. While I consider the CofC to have serious issues with grace and salvation I have not been horribly abused. It is the exclusivism that really irks me – I simply hate it when I hear us condemn others to damnation. I think I could handle it if it were not for the self righteousness – and so often our condemning is of those more generally devoted to God than ourselves. I suppose tolerance and grace is one of the things I appreciate so much about JMH and most of those that comment here.

    Relationships are so important and when one leaves a congregation they have been at for years and goes to a new congregation (especially if it is diffenent denomination/fellowship) there are no old, comfortable relationships – everything is new. The only way to have an old comfortable relationship is to spend years developing it.

    Also, we have lived overseas twice and each time we make significant new realtionships and our family tree grows new branches as we became involved in churches that were not CofC. Soon we hope to retire and move to another city. When we do that we do not expect that our main fellowship will be CofC as we will be starting over with new relationships anyway.

    The prospect of starting over with the type of mentality we have both seen expressed at Grace Conversation is just too daunting to consider. Like you, I have no desire to divide or go away mad. I will always love my CofC family no matter how dysfunctional they are. I will always welcome news as to how they are doing like I would news from home. I will certainly keep up with what JMH is writing – and I wish him and all those who choose to continue to serve God in this way all the success God may grant. But we think it is time for us to move on.

    May God guide you as you seek to serve him.

    •   K. Rex Butts Says:


      Thanks for your thoughts. I don’t have any intentions of disowning the CoC as if I am not from the CoC but sometimes I feel like it is time to be more intentional in not allowing the bottom-line expectations of the CoC to have control. I hope that does not sound harsh because it is not meant that way. I am convinced more and more that in order to effectively engage in God’s mission to a postmodern and post-Christian North American culture, it is going to require decisions that some (perhaps many) in the CoC do not want. I love my faith herritage but it is not my Lord. I look at what happens when others before me have stepped outside of the institutional boundaries and see just how much and institution can sometimes subvert the work of God’s Spirit rather than be a conduit of God’s Spirit. I will listen to the call of Jesus and follow…either my herritage will like it and accept it or they don’t but I can no longer worry about that and allow the fear of its thoughts captivate.

      While I have always believed we were not the only Christians, living in Ithaca, NY, where anyone who was confessionally committed to Jesus was in the minority, taught me in practical ways how valuable the larger body of Christ is. I formed very great relationship with pastors from other church as we helped each other and our churches helped each other to stand up for the name of Jesus Christ in an environment where the ivory towers of Cornell University and Ithaca College stood strongly opposed to the name of Jesus as Lord and Messiah. The only Christian who was not supportive and was actually outright critical, was the preacher from one of the other CoC’s who felt I was a false teacher for fellowshiping with the “denominational world.”

      Any ways…I want to end on a good not regarding the CoC. In spite of our flaws, I know the CoC has and continues to do great things for the Kingdom of God. Rarely do I speak about my negative experiences because I do not want to sound like a CoC basher because that is not who I am. From Campbell and Stone, to men like Harding and Lipscomb, to men like Ira North, Jimmy Allen, Monroe Hawley, and I could go on…there has been so much accomplished by these men and others, by institutions like Lipscomb U., Harding U. ACU, Freed-Hardiman U. and so on (yes even the more conservative schools do good too :-)). And of all the good that has been published about in the history of the CoC, there are many more stories that will only live on in the memories of small local communities (e.g., I have served with two small northern CoC’s, one in NY and the other in MN, and both are faithful but they will never make the front page cover of a magazine).

      Well, I hope that explains more where I am coming from.

      Grace and peace,


  14.   rich constant Says:

    i know you have heard this phrase
    one thing we all can count on is change my brother,
    embrace that always,and pray always as i am shure you do,the prayer of a righeous man avails much .
    the result will be a reward you may not see comming
    as god works his provadence for you and yours, to the good of your prayers.

  15.   randall Says:

    Thanks for the kind words.

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