This is part 4 of a multi-part series on “Restoring Our Unity Heritage.” If you missed a part or would like to read the entire essay ahead of time, I have posted the file at the bottom of the page.
Faith Versus Opinions
I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you by the grace of Christ, for a different gospel, which is not just another account; but there are some who are disturbing you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed! As we have said before, even now I say again: if anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to what you received, he is to be accursed!Galatians 1:6–9
In Opinions, Unity?
There is no doubt that we are united in the gospel of Christ. Paul said in Romans 1:16 that the gospel is God’s power to save us. Anyone who has ever been saved or will be saved will have the good news of Jesus to thank for that. The passage quoted above has been used throughout my lifetime to condemn every disagreement under the sun.
Basically, anytime someone doesn’t agree with the elders of a particular church, they will withdraw from them and say that the person has left the gospel of Jesus. When I was withdrawn from by my Stepdad and Granddad, I received a letter asking me to “return to the gospel, forsaking this other which leads to destruction.” Two passages are behind that line of the letter: Matthew 7:13-14 and the one above (Galatians 1:6-9).
What had I done to receive such a letter? Deny that Jesus is the Son of God? Call into question the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus? Deny faith in God? Reject the teaching that there is one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God? None of that. Through diligent, sincere study I reached a different conclusion on the nature and timing of the coming of Jesus. Apparently, this was enough to set me on the wide path that leads to destruction through accepting “another gospel.”
I don’t bring this out to shame my family or their congregation. I sincerely believe they were doing what they thought ought to be done. As twisted as their actions may seem to some reading this, I can guarantee they did it out of love. They simply were following the traditions handed down to them which had their genesis in men like those who authored the Address and Declaration in Sand Creek in 1889.
I bring all this up to show how one may reword the title of this section to make it more clear to us. When we talk about matters of faith, we are speaking of things which pertain to the gospel. When we talk about matters of opinion, we are speaking of things which aren’t expressly taught in Scripture. The question, of course, is how broad we may define the term gospel. For example, there are Christians within some of the more radical sects of the Churches of Christ who will condemn others for believing “The Core Gospel Heresy.” These are ones, they tell us, who believe that one can have fellowship with another simply based on their common faith in the gospel, specifically faith in Jesus as the Son of God, his death, and resurrection.
They call this “The Core Gospel Heresy” because these individuals believe that anything which isn’t specifically authorized by a command, example, or necessary inference is contrary to the gospel of Jesus and falls under the umbrella of what Paul was talking about in Galatians 1; however, when we look at the context of Galatians 1, we will find that this conclusion is unwarranted. After a brief survey of the word “gospel” in Galatians, we will look to history to see what the founders of the Stone-Campbell movement thought about unity.
What is the Gospel in Galatians 1?
Anytime we study the Bible, it is important that we notice the context of the passage we are trying to understand. Context means more than just the verse before or the verse after; it can include the chapter, the book, the rest of the Bible, and even the historical or cultural situation at the time. To understand the parables of Jesus, one may need to read up on marriage customs of the first century, how shepherds kept their flock, and probably know what a mustard seed looks like.
To really understand the book of Galatians, we would need to take time to find out when the book was written, who wrote it, to whom it was written, and what situation the writer was responding to. While doing most of this is outside the scope of this article, taking the time to answer these questions, and more, would help one’s overall understanding of this epistle. For our purposes, we will stay within the confines of Galatians and try to understand how the original audience would have understood these terms.
Whenever someone quotes a passage isolated from its context to make a point, this is called proof-texting. Proof-texting doesn’t automatically mean that the person is using the passage incorrectly, but the verse should be examined more closely when the opportunity arises, especially when the speaker or writer is condemning someone else with an isolated passage. Galatians 1:6-9 has been used for this exact purpose, to condemn people with different interpretations of the Bible. Simply waving our hand at this and dismissing it isn’t enough; we must do our due diligence and see what the Bible says and how it defines the word “gospel.” We’ll begin in verses 3-5.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave Himself for our sins so that He might rescue us from this present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forevermore. Amen.(Galatians 1:3–5)
This is the gospel in simple terms: God is our Father, Jesus is Lord, and He died for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age. Paul was concerned because people were being drawn away from these truths through the teaching of some Jewish individuals. Instead of teaching a message that “rescues” people, they were trying to bring the Gentiles under bondage by demanding that they be circumcised (Galatians 2:4). While Paul had taught the gospel of the new creation, they were trying to keep people within the old, fleshly world of the Law (Galatians 6:15; cf. Galatians 5:1-13).
Paul mentions the gospel again in Galatians 1:11-12, but we will skip down to verses 15-16 and 23.
But when He who had set me apart even from my mother’s womb and called me through His grace was pleased to reveal His Son in me so that I might preach Him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with flesh and blood…
…but they only kept hearing, “The man who once persecuted us is now preaching the faith which he once tried to destroy.”
To Paul preaching the gospel meant preaching “Him” (Jesus). This is also what is meant in the expression “preaching the faith.” What was it that Paul was preaching? That the Son of God has come to rescue us from our sins. He preached and they believed. Where in Galatians, or in Paul’s teaching in Acts, do we read about instrumental music, the number of communion cups, donating to orphanages from the church treasury, praise teams, or any of the things that have divided our Movement? Paul preached Jesus. He preached the Cross. That’s what saves, not all this other, which leads to division.
In Galatians 3, Paul says something mighty strange if the popular way of understanding Galatians 1:6-9 among the Churches of Christ is correct.
The Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “All the nations will be blessed in you.” So then, those who are of faith are blessed with Abraham, the believer.(Galatians 3:8–9)
The gospel was preached to Abraham. Now, did God tell Abraham about the dangers of instrumental music, praise teams, or baptizing people in stagnant water? Of course not. God told him about Jesus. He then concluded, “So then, those who are of faith are blessed with Abraham, the believer.” Those who are of faith are blessed. Faith in what? Commands, examples, and necessary inferences or Jesus, the Son of God?
There is no room in Galatians 1 for condemning every group who doesn’t see things your way. Paul said, “For you are all sons and daughters of God through faith in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:26). Those who have faith in Jesus are the sons and daughters of God, and where He has a son or daughter, I have a brother or sister.
Defining Faith and Opinions
If Christians can unite upon the simple Truth that Jesus is the Son of God, then what does that mean for doctrine? Does doctrine matter? Is being right about worship, the organization of the church, salvation, and the Holy Spirit important? Of course it is. These things are important in that they build up, edify, and strengthen the church. Having correct interpretations of the Scripture is important, but it is not the basis of our unity. Can it strengthen unity? Of course, but is it necessary for unity? No.
“But,” someone may protest, “if my interpretation is true, then to disagree with it would be disagreeing with the doctrine of God!” While that may be the case, there is a difference in being ignorant about a particular subject or not being able to follow someone’s reasoning and blatant disregard for God’s word. Thomas Campbell, in two of his thirteen propositions (six and seven) found in the Declaration and Address, answers this question like this:
That although inferences and deductions from Scripture premises, when fairly inferred, may be truly called the doctrine of God’s holy word, yet are they not formally binding upon the consciences of Christians farther than they perceive the connection, and evidently see that they are so; for their faith must not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power and veracity of God. Therefore, no such deductions can be made terms of communion, but do properly belong to the after and progressive edification of the Church. Hence, it is evident that no such deductions or inferential truths ought to have any place in the Church’s confession. (Emphasis mine—bold and underline)
That although doctrinal exhibitions of the great system of Divine truths, and defensive testimonies in opposition to prevailing errors, be highly expedient, and the more full and explicit they be for those purposes, the better; yet, as these must be in a great measure the effect of human reasoning, and of course must contain many inferential truths, they ought not to be made terms of Christian communion; unless we suppose, what is contrary to fact, that none have a right to the communion of the Church, but such as possess a very clear and decisive judgment, or are come to a very high degree of doctrinal information; whereas the Church from the beginning did, and ever will, consist of little children and young men, as well as fathers. (Emphasis mine—bold and underline)
Campbell’s point is simple: truths that can be reached through intense study and dedication to God’s word, including studies in the original languages, historical sources, etc. are beneficial to the church, but they rely so much on human understanding that to disfellowship someone who disagrees would be to elevate one’s own understanding to the level of the word of God. Differences arise between sincere scholars all the time because of the many variables that exist when one studies the Bible, but these differences will only cause divisions when one is so arrogant as to claim that they are equal in knowledge to God, either directly or through implication based on their actions.
What, then, is required for unity according to the early leaders of the Stone-Campbell Movement? There are several quotations one could give, but before giving their opinions in theory, allow me to show a few things that they practiced. A few hot topics in the religious world relate to the Trinity, the atonement, and universalism. These are things that many throughout history have literally been killed over. Let’s see how the early leaders of the Movement handled these differences when they arose.
The Trinity is an essential doctrine for many believers since it is part of the Nicene Creed (fourth century). Barton W. Stone, along with the other reformers of the Movement, rejected creeds as a standard for Christian unity. Instead, he looked to the Bible and couldn’t find the doctrine of the Trinity, even though others, such as Campbell, did despite not using that specific language. Stone responded to those who may criticize him by writing in December of 1826,
If the doctrine of Trinity be an incomprehensible mystery, it cannot be understood by any. How then can we judge other by it? Had I a standard to judge of weight and measures, of which standard I was perfectly ignorant, how could I judge and determine by it? Just as well as by a standard of doctrine of which I was ignorant.
To reject the theory of Penal Substitutionary Atonement, to some, is near blasphemy. Countless books have been written to defend or deny this doctrine with charges of heretic being thrown among Christians. Stone was the odd man out when it came to this doctrine. He wrote,
These notions have been made terms of communion by which much mischief and disorder have been produced in the church. All agree that the sacrifice of Christ is the means of our reconciliation with God—of the cleansing, purging, sanctifying, and washing us from sin—of putting away sin, etc. These are clearly revealed. But whether this sacrifice has the effects on God as stated by some, is doubted by many, who think such notions not contained in the Bible.
After several exchanges between Thomas Campbell on the nature of the atonement, Stone backed out because of some who were disturbed by the disagreement between these two brethren. In other words, he backed out because, though it was important to him, it wasn’t worth dividing churches over. Alexander Campbell and Barton W. Stone continued to be in Christian unity for the rest of Stone’s life despite these differences that would have divided, and do divide, many other believers.
One last issue that has caused much division is the subject of universalism. Universalism is the theory that everyone will eventually be saved. As with any label it is an umbrella turn that many who would technically fall under it would reject because it isn’t specific enough. In 1828, a young man named Aylett Raines adopted a form of universalism called Restorationism in which those who are lost in this life would undergo punishment to purify them for Heaven, which they could enter through faith in Jesus and repentance. When this man faced expulsion from the church, Thomas Campbell defended him:
Brother Raines and I have been much together for the last several months, and we have mutually unbosomed ourselves to each other. I am a Calvinist and he a Restorationist; and although I am a Calvinist, I would put my right arm into the fire and have it burnt off before I would raise my arm against him.
Alexander Campbell also had something to say about various theories Christians may adopt, and it is a lesson we all need to learn: “No man can be saved by the belief of any theory, true or false. No man will be damned for disbelief of any theory. To make new theories is the way to make new divisions. To contend for the old is to keep up the old divisions.” Why? Because “no theory is the gospel of Jesus the Messias.”
If one could get away with unorthodox views of the Trinity, atonement, and salvation, then what did these disciples look for in other believers? What is essential to them if these key doctrines are not? Like I mentioned above, they offer us several lists. There are technical differences between these various lists, but they are the same in spirit. Thomas Campbell, since he has been the main feature of this essay, suggested the following:
Let us, therefore, confine ourselves to the all-important topics with which we are divinely furnished for this blissful purpose. Now these are precisely seven, viz.–The knowledge of God—of man—of sin—of the Saviour—of his salvation—of the means of enjoying it—and of its blissful effects and consequences.
He went on to say that it is these doctrines alone which consist of one’s salvation. These are all totally consistent with what we read in an earlier section in Galatians: (1) faith in God, (2) understanding we need rescued, (3) knowing that Jesus rescues us, (4) we receive that gift through faith, and (5) we enjoy liberty because of that gift.
Barton W. Stone gave a similar list in the first volume of the Christian Messenger. Before citing it though, here are a few quotes which help set the stage for his overall view:
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.
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 ever to unite; there would be no end of terms—there could be no union or fellowship on earth.
…it is contended, that there are some doctrines essential to salvation, and that errors in opinion respecting them, ought to exclude those who hold them from the union and fellowship of Christians. 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 to the subversion of plain, fundamental truth, ought certainly to be reprobated, and he that holds such an opinion should be rejected from Christian fellowship; because his works prove him to be a heretic, knowing that he that is such, is subverted, and sinneth, being condemned of himself—Titus 3:11.
The idea behind these quotes is simple: one must affirm the truths the Bible expressly states, but their interpretations of these truths can vary between believers.
This idea really comes out when we consider the list he gives in the following paragraphs:
- There is a Father and a son.
- Jesus Christ is the Son of God.
- Jesus is come in the flesh.
- Jesus died, was buried, and rose again.
- We must believe in Jesus Christ and obey him.
He then boldly claims, “In these particulars, we presume all Christians agree; and we are happy to find that the terms of Christian unity and fellowship are considerably diminished in number.”
Returning now to Alexander Campbell, we will focus in once more on the differences between Stone and himself. In his famous debate with Rice, Campbell had to answer the charge that no Movement could truly be from God if the two main leaders were divided on such key issues as the Trinity and atonement theory. In response to this charge, Campbell said,
Our bond of union is not opinion, nor unity of opinion. It is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one Spirit, one hope, one God and Father of all. These we all preach and teach. We have no standard opinions amongst us. We have no patented form of sound words drawn up by human art and man’s device, to which all must vow eternal fidelity. It is our peculiar felicity, and perhaps, it may be our honor, too, that we have been able to discover a ground so common, so sacred, so divinely approbated, so perfectly catholic and enduring, on which every man, who loves our Lord Jesus Christ sincerely, may unite, and commune, and harmonize, and cooperate in all the works of faith. in all the labors of love, and in all the perseverance of hope.
This list he offers should be familiar to us because it comes from Ephesians 4 where Paul discusses the importance of striving for unity. These seven ones are things every Christian can agree on in principle. We may have differing ideas about means and methods, but it is the affirmation of these truths which unite, not our opinions of them. One of these ones, however, is more controversial than all the rest, and it is upon it that our focus will shift in the following section.
 See Dallas Burdette’s essay “Oddities in Pattern Theology” which can be found in his free book From Legalism to Freedom, chapter three for all the sad, strange things we have divided over. https://freedominchrist.net/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/From-Legalism-to-Freedom.pdf
 Thomas Campbell, Declaration and Address (Kershner, 1972), p.46.
 This is what these men meant when they talked about being silent where the Bible is silent. If something wasn’t expressly approved or condemned, then it shouldn’t be a test of fellowship!
 Leroy Garrett, The Stone-Campbell Movement (2005), p.85.
 Barton W. Stone, The Christian Messenger, Vol. 1(1826), p.30.
 Barton W. Stone, The Christian Messenger, Vol. 1(1826), p.37.
 Leroy Garrett, The Stone-Campbell Movement (2005), p.86.
 “To disclose one’s thoughts and secrets”
 Leroy Garrett, The Stone-Campbell Movement (2005), p.115. Garret cites A.S. Hayden, History of the Disciples of Christ on the Western Reserve (1875), p. 168.
 Robert Richardson, Memoirs of Alexander Campbell, vol. 2 (1897), p.152-153.
 Thomas Campbell, “To the Editor of the Millennial Harbinger,” The Millennial Harbinger (1836), p.215.
 Barton W. Stone, The Christian Messenger, Vol. 1(1826), p.27.
 Ibid., pp.27-28.
 Ibid., p.28
 Campbell-Rice Debate (1844), p.505.