Barton W. Stone wrote an article entitled “Objections to Christian Union Calmly Considered” in the second issue of The Christian Messenger (December 25, 1826). In it he gave answers to three objections to the plea for unity. The third objection is most relevant to members of the Churches of Christ today. His answer to that objection is similar to the one I have given and for which I have been ridiculed by orthodox members of the Churches of Christ. Although Barton W. Stone and Alexander Campbell are praised for their “Restoration Plea,” I doubt they would receive the same praise from the more radical Churches of Christ if their letters and articles were closely read.
The third objection listed in his article was “…the multitude of errors in doctrine, existing among the various sects, forbids their union and communion, and must keep them divided, while these errors remain” (p. 27). How similar to the mindset of many today! “I would fellowship you if it were not for your error and innovations!” Doctrine is the number one reason for division among the Churches of Christ. In some cases, it is not what one teaches that gets them into trouble with the preaching schools and area watch dogs but what they do not teach. If one is silent on their condemnation of instrumental music, for instance, because the New Testament is silent on condemning such a practice that was so prevalent within the Psalms the Christians were told to sing, then they will be removed from the list of congregations it is appropriate to visit when one can't make it to their own assembly on the way home from vacation, even if that congregation has never had as much as a kazoo among their members.
Doctrine remains the basis for prohibiting Christian union among various churches despite their shared belief in Jesus as God's Son. But in just the second issue of the first volume of The Christian Messenger, this champion of the Restoration Movement, as it is called, accepted the difficulty of such an objection, but, in the end, dismissed it as being contrary to God's will.
He explained, “From the beginning, various opinions have been formed of many of these truths. This is a liberty, which could never be denied to any man, without denying the liberty of thinking at all. This cannot be easily done; and every attempt to do it is an attempt to enslave the mind” (p. 27).
Then, commenting on the diversity of opinion of the first Christians, remarked,
All were admitted to fellowship, who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, and obeyed him; and their obedience was considered the best evidence of their faith.p. 27
If opinions of truth were to be made terms of fellowship, it is much questioned whether any two men on earth could so perfectly agree in all points, as to ever unite; there would be end of terms—there could be no union or fellowship on earth.p. 27
However, someone may say, are there not doctrines which are essential to salvation? Doctrines which allow no difference of opinion? Doctrines which, if disagreed with, mean expulsion from the Christian community? Here is Stone's response:
We grant that any opinion, which may have such an influence on the heart of any man, as to lead him to immorality and disobedience to the gospel—to the neglect of his duty to God, and to his neighbor, or the subversion of plain, fundamental truth, ought certainly to be reprobated, and he that hold such an opinion should be rejected from Christian fellowship; because his works prove him to be a heretic…p. 28
Stone argued, basically, that the fruit of a person's life determined whether or not a doctrine should be viewed as heresy. Disagreeing with accepted opinion was not grounds for disbarment on its own, especially if that person led a moral life in the name of Jesus. Stone went on to clarify what doctrines he deemed to be necessary. Pay close attention to what is not found on this list:
- That there is a Father and a son (1 John 2:22).
- That Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God (1 John 2:22-23).
- That Jesus Christ is come in the flesh (2 John 7).
- That Jesus Christ died, was buried, and rose again from the dead.
- We must believe in Jesus Christ and obey him.
Living among many different Christian denominations, Stone said, “In these particulars, we presume all Christians agree; and we are happy to find that the terms of Christian union and fellowship are considerably diminished in number” (p. 28). Stone and his contemporaries did not demand conformity to specific opinions and interpretations. There were no five acts of worship or five steps of salvation one must agree to before counted among the faithful (which goes against everything they stood for). They wanted unity among the diverse Christian community. They did not deny the validity of the faith of those around them like many do today; they did, however, deny party lines, sectarianism, and using Creeds, Confessions of Faith, and orthodoxy as a means for dividing the Christian community.
Why would I share this about Barton W. Stone? Is it because I view him as some great authority that we are bound to follow? No. For that would be doing the very thing which he and his contemporaries warned against in their essays. Instead, it is to demonstrate how far those who claim the Restoration Movement as their lineage have fallen from the original intentions of these godly men and women of the nineteenth century who, abandoning their respective Creeds and Traditions, sought after a world in which people of all backgrounds could enjoy Christian fellowship without compromising their respective convictions.
I'll end with a quote from the late Leroy Garret:
That we are going to be different from each other is evident enough. It is a question of whether we are willing to yield to the spirit in such a way that the differences that we have allowed to separate us will give way to reconciliation.Restoration Review: The Word Abused – Vol. 17: No. 1 – “Reconciled Diversity in Geneva” p.12