Extending the Kingdom Theology of Lipscomb and Harding

2019 Christian Scholars Conference Presentation, Lubbock, Texas

Part of my academic work has sought to identify and characterize the theological dynamic that shaped students at the Nashville Bible School (now known as Lipscomb University) in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This dynamic has its roots in Barton W. Stone and Tolbert Fanning prior to the Civil War, and David Lipscomb and James A. Harding subsequent to the war. The latter two co-founded the Nashville Bible School in 1891. I have labeled this the “Nashville Bible School Tradition” or the “Tennessee Tradition” in contrast to traditions which arose in Texas (represented by Austin McGary and the Firm Foundation) and Indiana (represented by Daniel Sommer and the Octographic Review). These were competing ideologies engaged in a struggle for the soul of Churches of Christ who emerged as a distinct sect at the beginning of the 20th century.

In 2006, Bobby Valentine and I published a book entitled Kingdom Come: Embracing the Spiritual Legacy of David Lipscomb and James Harding. We accentuated the positive in that book because we wanted to propose a way forward for Churches of Christ and highlight some positive dimensions of the Nashville Bible School Tradition. We did not critique the aspects of their legacy that hindered that way forward, and some of those hinderances are still present among Churches of Christ.  In this paper, I will briefly summarize what lies at the heart of the positive agenda in their theology, and then I will identify two critical dimensions that hinder its witness.

Central Convictions

“The chief end” of divine rule, according to Lipscomb, “is to reestablish the authority of God on earth as the rightful ruler of the world, to so bring the world back into harmonious relations with the universe that the will of God shall be done on earth as it is in heaven.”[1]

We might characterize this Tennessee theology as fundamentally an eschatological struggle for the full reign of God in the creation. In other words, we are, as Harding put it, “foreigners” living in our own home.[2] We are foreigners because we do not belong to the evil powers that presently reign over the creation, but the creation is still our home (both now and eschatologically), and it is worth the struggle to fill it with the glory of God. This is, on the one hand, a high view of creation—God created something good, will redeem it from evil, and renew its future. At the same time, this process of redemption and renewal is apocalyptic. This means the future is, in some sense, already present and in process but its fullness involves a future divine act of redemption. This apocalyptic vision is a form of inaugurated eschatology, which calls us to live in the present as if the kingdom of God has fully arrived in anticipation of that fullness. The looming shadows of the reign of God filled the Nashville Bible School with a powerful ethical vision. Biblical faith, according to Lipscomb and Harding, is lived as if the future is already present, as if the heavenly city has already been planted on the earth. And the present church on the earth is that heavenly city.

For Lipscomb and Harding this meant that there was an inherent conflict between the kingdom of God and the powers that currently rule the earth. According to Lipscomb, “the two are essentially antagonistic.”[3] Each has their role, but “they must forever remain distinct.”[4] They are mutually exclusive because the origins and spirit of each are radically different. The two cities, a divine polis and a human polis, are in perpetual conflict. “Who shall govern the world?” was the question that formed their ministry, ethics, and eschatology.[5]

This conflict is not between heaven and earth per se but between two kingdoms on the earth that seek sovereignty over the earth and the hearts of its peoples. Both kingdoms are earthy, that is, they exist upon the earth in order to rule the earth. The contrast lies in their origins, missions, weapons, spirits, and destinies.[6] History is the story of the conflict between these two kingdoms, these two cities. They serve different masters, imbibe different spirits, use different weapons, and one must come to an end for the other to fill the earth.

Consequently, the question “who governs” is really a question about allegiance or worship. “The Christian,” according to Lipscomb, “owes no allegiance” to the civil powers but only “to God.”[7] Just as Jesus responded to Satan’s offer of the kingdoms of this world, so the Christian must respond: “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him” (Matthew 4:10). The question “who shall govern the world” is more fundamentally the question “whom shall we worship?”

R. C. Bell, a student at the Nashville Bible School in the 1890s and a colleague of Harding at Potter Bible School in Bowling Green, Kentucky, taught in higher education among Churches of Christ for close to fifty years. In his 1951 autobiographical article he observed that Churches of Christ had lost this apocalyptic trajectory (though he did not call it that). He believed the church needed a strong infusion of that transformative perspective in order “to save [it] from changing divine dynamics to human mechanics.”[8] Bell not only saw the church increasingly align itself with patriotic nationalism and the cultural patterns of the nation, he also observed how the church now lived out its calling through the mechanical implementation of prescribed patterns within the New Testament. Faith was no longer a dynamic life empowered by the Spirit that envisioned the kingdom of God but conformity to an ecclesial blueprint. The loss of pacifism, kenotic service, kindness and gentleness as well as the opposition to evil cultural forms was due to the loss of Lipscomb and Harding’s apocalyptic vision.

Two Hindrances

While Bell saw the loss of this apocalyptic dynamic in his own day, and there was a time when it was vibrant and regularly articulated, there is also a sense in which it was hindered by other convictions that shaped the Nashville Bible School and Churches of Christ as a whole. If we are to recover this apocalyptic vision, something for which I advocate, we must also seek a corrective to what hindered it in the past.

Before I address the two hindrances I have in mind, I want to provide a specific context in which these hindrances emerged and essentially subverted the kingdom agenda. I have in mind, particularly, the problem of racial reconciliation. At one level, Lipscomb saw the mission clearly.  For example, he wrote:

The true mission of the Christian religion is to raise [humanity] above all these narrow, selfish, sectionalizing influences—to break down these middle walls of separation and strife erected by human selfishness, human ambition, and human wickedness, and to bind all the dissevered, broken, discordant and belligerent factions and fragments of Adam’s fallen and sinning family, irrespective of race, language or color, into one peaceable, fraternal and harmonious body in Christ.[9]

When it came to the church, Lipscomb had a strong, mostly consistent, voice and loudly opposed the segregation of congregations along racial lines.

At another level, Lipscomb provided little, if any, social witness. The pages of the Gospel Advocate rarely (almost never) discuss racial injustice as a social question, and only occasionally refer to the frequent lynchings in the South.[10] Lipscomb thought that if the church would become what God intended as a witness to the kingdom of God, then social practices would gradually reform society through the church’s moral leavening. He believed over time a healthy “religious spirit and practice” would “gradually work out the social duties and relations.”[11] As Christians live out their witness and “cultivate kindly and Christian relations,” he believed “the social conditions will adjust themselves.”[12]

What, however, generates this lack of social witness? And, particularly, why is Lipscomb so socially vocal about war and political relations but is virtually silent about social relations, especially on racial questions? I suggest there are at least two dimensions to this, though most certainly others could be named as well.

First, Lipscomb and Harding, as well as Churches of Christ as a whole, were too ecclesiocentric and anti-institutional. Their ecclesial vision excluded participation in or cooperation with any non-ecclesial institution. Consequently, churches did not partner with social movements or political agendas, even where Lipscomb’s ethics fully supported the agenda, including the Temperance Movement as well as movements toward racial equality. In other words, Lipscomb’s other-worldliness and his conflict with the world excluded any cooperative partnership, including those he thought were doing good work in the social arena. Lipscomb had little sense of how the relative good in which government participates or the good that social institutions promote might contribute to the fullness of the kingdom of God.  His radical separation from all institutions, whether governmental or otherwise, isolated the church from any sort of participation in any kind of Civil Rights Movement.

Second, the historic pneumatology of Churches of Christ has limited our vision for God’s work in the world. While Harding, and to some degree Lipscomb, embraced a robust theology of the Holy Spirit in the life of the individual believer, they did not appreciate how the presence of the Spirit empowered the mission of church for corporate action within the world. For example, though Harding helpfully articulated a vision of the Spirit’s work in guiding, leading, and empowering believers in their daily life, he did not see how the Spirit also called the church as a corporate body into the mission of Jesus to liberate the oppressed and speak for the powerless. Their ecclesiology has little social vision, and this is due, in part, to their limited pneumatology.

For example, the work of the Spirit, according to John 16, is to “prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment,” which are social realities as well as personal ones. However, both Lipscomb and Harding, along with the vast majority of Churches of Christ, limited this empowerment to the apostles. The Spirit gave these truths to the apostles, and the apostles passed them to the church, and thus the church understands its relation to, for example, social justice through the teachings of the apostles or, as we have it now, the New Testament. The New Testament, then, prescribed the limits of social action, which, in their view, was ecclesiocentric and non-institutional.

These ecclesiological and pneumatological hindrances empowered Lipscomb to sincerely, though naively, affirm: “The Christian religion did not break up social or political relations. It laid down the principles of religious duty, and left them to gradually conform the social and political relations to the principles of the Lord Jesus Christ.”[13]

I think we need to enlarge Lipscomb’s vision without subverting his basic theological insight. We do not expect the kingdoms of this world to serve their peoples as the kingdom of our Lord, but we do hope that the kingdom of our Lord will subvert the evils of these worldly kingdoms both now and in the future.

[1] David Lipscomb, “Difficulties in Religion” in Salvation from Sin, by J. W. Shepherd, ed. (Nashville, Tennessee: McQuiddy Printing Company, 1913) 341.

[2] Harding, “The Kingdom of Christ Vs. the Kingdom of Satan,” The Christian Leader and the Way 5 (15 October 1903) 931.

[3] Lipscomb, “Questions for the Editor,” Gospel Advocate 10.2 (January 14, 1869) 30.

[4] Lipscomb, “Church of Christ and World-Powers, NO. 6,” Gospel Advocate 8.10 (March 6, 1866) 146.

[5] Lipscomb, “The Church of Christ and World-Powers, NO. 5,” GA 8.9 (February 27, 1866) 129.

[6] This is the burden of David Lipscomb, On Civil Government: Its Origin, Mission, and Destiny, and the Christian’s Relation To It (Nashville: McQuiddy Printing Co., 1913).

[7] Lipscomb, “Reply to Bro. Lipscomb’s Long Article on Politics and Voting,” Gospel Advocate 18.32 (August 17, 1876) 799.

[8] R. C. Bell, “Honor to Whom Honor is Due,” Firm Foundation 68 (6 November 1951), 6.

[9] Lipscomb, “The Advocate and Sectionalism,” Gospel Advocate 8.18 (May 1, 1866) 275 (emphasis added).

[10] This is one of a few examples.  David Lipscomb, “General News,” Gospel Advocate 34.52 (December 29, 1892) 828: “Another stone was toppled from the wall of good order, Dec. 19, by the lynching of a negro at Guthrie, Ky., charged with attempting to assault a woman in that vicinity.”

[11] Lipscomb, “The Negro in the Worship—A Correspondence,” Gospel Advocate 49.31 (August 1, 1907) 489 (emphasis mine).

[12] Lipscomb, “Are the Negroes Neglected?” Gospel Advocate 68.24 (June 14, 1906) 377 (emphasis mine).

[13] Lipscomb, “The Negro in the Worship—A Correspondence,” Gospel Advocate 49.27 (July 4, 1907) 425 (emphasis mine).

6 Responses to “Extending the Kingdom Theology of Lipscomb and Harding”

  1.   Charles Stelding Says:

    I wonder how Lipscomb and Harding would view the current “Dominion Theology” currently advocated by some right-wing groups who want to impose their understanding of biblical law on all Americans (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dominion_theology).

  2.   John Mark Hicks Says:

    Seems obvious. 🙂

  3.   Darryl Willis Says:

    This is fascinating. I loved Kingdom Come when it first was published. I felt it provided some needed context. It seems we had lost the vibrancy of Lipscomb and Harding. But I also appreciate your focus on the negative aspects that hindered their vision.

    Thanks John Mark!

  4.   Chris Cotten Says:

    Thanks for this, John Mark. I feel like I am constantly turning the question of practical application over in my mind.

    It occurs to me, after reading this paper, that Lipscomb did try–early in his career–to find a way to participate in larger social movements, or governmental action, but eventually came to the conclusion that he couldn’t. In other words, not that he was blind to the social implications of his apocalyptic theology, but that he understood that a socially marginal Church was the only vehicle in which it could be carried forward.

    The powers are always craftier than we are. The recent political experiences of evangelicals and fundamentalists bear this out. Whether it’s the social conservatism of Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority or Ralph Reed’s “Religious Right,” Trumpian “America First” nationalism, or the woke leftism of today’s progressive evangelicals.

    What these movements have is common is a palpable naivete when it comes to the games of raw power that define American politics, and a blindness to the way in which their earnest, sincerely-held commitments are being used by the players in those games to further ends that are opposed to Lipscomb and Harding’s kingdom theology (or anybody else’s).

    That, more than anything else, may be why DL and JAH backed away from allegiances to broader social or political movements.

  5.   C. Allen Hobbs Says:

    If Lipscomb had a central flaw, it was that he was driven by a correct eschatological framework of theocratic anarcho-post-millennialism, but was unwilling to stand up for it and work out the details. This lack of concern with Revelation led to the Churches of Christ arguing between Premillennialism and Preterism, neither of which could survive hard questioning.

    I do not understand the attempt to cover-up Lipscomb (and Fanning) from the position as central stalwart hero(es) against racial injustice. It was because of his theocratic anarchism that he could call it “blasphemy” (his own word) to attempt to divide churches by race in 1878. Nor do I know of another preacher besides Fanning that was arrested for his public opposition to the American slave system in 1830. Only by the combination of theologically conservative anarchism could they oppose the idolatry of the state, racism is just one example of the idolatry of the state, and the social sins that all nation-states (human government) are founded upon.

    But you use the loaded term “social justice” as if generally good, but it is most commonly used by the progressive/eugenics/social Darwinist movement as something to justify participation and support of human government. So many Protestant sects have died by a gimmicky plea for “social justice” as code to empower the nation-state to violate human rights. We must recognize the “pattern of Judas”. Judas was willing to stand by Jesus when Jesus was criticizing the rich, but when Jesus starts arguing that the Kingdom of Heaven will create even more inequality, and be recognized by such inequality that inequality in itself was never implied as wrong, then the Judas types begin to betray their own churches in anger that Jesus confirms the poor will always be with us thus poverty will not be cured in the Kingdom of Heaven.

  6.   John Mark Hicks Says:

    I appreciate the comments. I don’t think this is an easy path to navigate, though I generally share Lipscomb’s apocalyptic theology. What kind of anarchism, whether quietist or more engaged, is part of my concern. In a book coming out next year, I and several of my colleagues will explore some options.

    I concur we cannot play the game of the powers. A marginal, embodied witness is part of the calling. At the same time, I don’t think this subverts some form of social witness for justice (“social justice” does not imply, for me, anything about governmental progressivism but rather reflects a prophetic witness against injustice).

    While we might say Lipscomb held a more just position regarding race than most of his white contemporaries (including opposing segregation of churches into black and white–as noted in my paper above), and he lived this in many ways (particularly in the church), Lipscomb was also paternalistic, an assimilationist, and a social separatist (at least by default). A chapter in the forthcoming book will detail how this is the case. Indeed, on one occasion he suggested that a congregation resolve some of the tension by having separate entrances to the church building for blacks and whites (a kind of “separate but equal” notion). Wes Crawford suggests “benign racist.” I think that is generally accurate; he stood heads and shoulders above his contemporaries, though he was also deeply shaped by his context (as we all are). Everyone needs a path of sanctification and transformation from where we are.

    Lipscomb and Fanning both owned slaves, and though they did not support or advocate for slavery–for whatever reason–they both participated in slavery. In 1860, Fanning owned 14 slaves. I think the incident to which you refer is where Fanning was sued for publicly (in a church assembly) rebuking a deacon for separating an enslaved family by selling them.

    Our witness is always flawed, and our witness should not play the game of the powers or participate in the power games themselves. At the same time, I witness should be social, and it should call (it seems to me) for a recognition of a kingdom theology that is also rooted in creation (image of God, dignity and value of all, etc.). It is part of our human vocation to rule (shepherd) the earth, and this includes–it seems to me–a social witness against the powers and paths for social change through the witness of the gospel.

    Peace, my friends.

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