A Theological History of Restoration Movement Thought, Part 7 (Lipscomb)

LipscombBeginning shortly after the Civil War and continuing for 50 years, David Lipscomb and E. G. Sewell edited the Gospel Advocate, which was plainly the most influential periodical among Southern Churches of Christ until the last 20 years or so.

In the last posting, I mentioned Sommer’s decision to divide over the missionary society, located preachers, and the instrument, among other “innovations.” It’s interesting to read Lipscomb’s reaction

The evils opposed, we oppose. …  [But] this looks very much like a convention unknown to the New Testament exercising judicial and executive functions to oppose error and maintain truth, and it looks very much like doing the thing they condemn. It has been the besetting sin of Christians, when they start out to oppose a wrong, to commit another wrong to oppose this.

Wise words, indeed. The Sand Creek elders and churches had no authority to convene in order to issue pronouncements on how other churches should conduct their affairs. Ironic, then, that the 21st Century Gospel Advocate now supports the “Address and Declaration.”

Sadly, though, Lipscomb soon became guilty of the very sins he opposed, announcing in 1906 that the Restoration Movement had divided over the instrument. In fact, by that time, the division was quite real. Lipscomb had resisted it for years, but was eventually persuaded to participate with those who demanded that fellowship be broken.

But this is hardly surprising, given Lipscomb’s narrow view of grace–perhaps the narrowest in Restoration history. In discussing the conditions for receiving God’s blessings, Lipscomb makes it clear that one does not have to have perfect understanding of all doctrine to be baptized, but a doctrinal error means the person baptized isn’t saved until he later comes to a correct understanding.

Then were a man to come to me who has been reared in a beclouded atmosphere and had seen it was his duty to be buried with Christ in baptism, but under the influence of his former teachings could not yet understand it was necessary to observe the Lord’s Supper every Lord’s day, but manifested a determination to learn and do the whole will of God, I would baptize him. … If I failed to get him to see it, I would baptize him, trusting in his efforts to obey God he would learn this truth. It is not necessary to understand all truth before he obeys what he does understand. I did not say I believed he was saved.

Questions Answered by Lipscomb and Sewell (1921), 67. Remarkably, if the convert were not yet persuaded on the weekly Lord’s Supper, Lipscomb would baptize him but not consider him saved until he later came to the correct doctrinal understanding!

Hence, Lipscomb considered all lost until they had come to a correct doctrinal understanding, regardless of baptism. He had to have seen those using instruments as lost in their sins and not brothers at all.

In this light, it’s remarkable that he resisted the efforts to force a division. It appears likely that Lipscomb’s views became narrower over time. In fact, to some extent, his writings suggest that he redefined his views of grace in order to conform to his views on the instrument, and in this sense, he is prototypical of the 20th Century Churches of Christ.

On the other hand, Lipscomb was viewed as “liberal” by some, as he insisted that Baptist baptism was sufficient to save. Lipscomb frequently taught that the convert did not have to be aware that his sins were being forgiven through baptism for his sins to be forgiven. This remained the editorial position of the Advocate well into the 20th Century, but the Advocate eventually succumbed to the view that only baptism that is consciously for the remission of sins effects a remission of sins.

Lipscomb also had a generous view as to the role of women. He vociferously opposed women’s speaking in the assembly, but he had no objection to their teaching men in Sunday school.

So I am sure that a woman may teach the Bible to old or young, male or female, at the meetinghouse, at home, at a neighbor’s house, on Sunday or Monday or any other day of the week, if they know less than she does, if she will do it in a quiet, modest, womanly way. … They are often especially fitted for the work.

Ibid. 736. See also 733-34. This view never became orthodox in Church of Christ circles, despite Lipscomb’s unparalleled influence.

Lipscomb was a pacifist, famously arguing that Christians should have nothing to do with civil government. Christians should not serve in the army (where they may be called on to kill other Christians), serve on juries, be elected to office, or serve on juries. This view has largely died out, but was still influential as late as the 1950’s and 1960’s. Lipscomb was strongly influenced by his experience during the Civil War, when many members of the Church fired bullets at brothers in Christ.

Indeed, during World War I, many members of the Churches of Christ went to prison rather than be drafted, as their was no conscientious objector status available in those days. However, by World War II, a war that seemed much more righteous than World War I, pacifism had largely died out in the Churches of Christ. It’s now nearly unheard of, even considered wrong.

In short, Lipscomb was one of the Movement’s most original thinkers. Not all his ideas caught on. But his influence ultimately affirmed the rightness of the division over the instrument, and he built a doctrine of grace on that decision–those guilty of doctrinal sin are damned until they repent.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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0 Responses to A Theological History of Restoration Movement Thought, Part 7 (Lipscomb)

  1. Gary Cummings says:

    Jay,
    I was a member and minister of the Churches of Christ (Non Sunday School) from 1965-1971. From 1969 to 1970 I was a minister in a small church in Colorado. I did hear about being a conscientious objecotr from a minister in the COC/NS and from a handful of students from 1965-1967. I became a Christian pacifist in 1967, after being convinced this was the teaching of Jesus for His people, and the fact the the first leaders of the COC (A.Campbell and B.Stone) were pacifists.

    When I made this commitment, I became suspect , as this branded me as un-american and a communist in some COC eyes. At ACU, most of the students and their families supported the war. I almost left the COC in 1968 and wish I would have. The acceptance of war by the COC and its leadership and members en masse during that time caused me to question all I had been taught that the COC was the One True New Testament Church on the face of the Earth. A few aquaintences convinced me that I had a problem, and the church was fine. I thought I would preach for a few years, and then go to the mission field, as I felt it was my call to be a missionary. I was “ordained” by the COC/NS on Aug.6, 1969, went to Colorado to preach. I even preached once or twice against Christians going to war. This upset a few members, The main support I had was a OhD who a tank commander with Patton in WW2. He said I was right, that war could not be reconciled with the Gospel.
    The war was getting worse, and I was being chastized for baptizing the undesirables of the area: runaway kids, young men and their families from jail, and inviting hermits to our small church of 20 people. The elders told me I was hired to save the wealthy people so they could grow a big church and have am impact on the community. I prayed about this, tried to talk with my then wife (with no luck and much hostility),
    I gave my notice to resign on March the 1, 1970, as I had volunteered to be drafted as a IAO Conscientious Objector. This meant, we would move back to Texas, I would get a CO job for alternative service, and get myself in graduate school to study all the COC stuff I had been taught.
    My wife’s family called me a communist, the church would have little to do with me, and my aquaintences said I was sinning for not keeping on preaching. I had no support from the COC, my wife, or my own family. My dad was retired major from WW2, was not a member of the COC. I remember the day he called me and said he wasdisowning me as his son for opposing the war.
    Later that summer my wife left me and went back to her mother. After that happened my dad did check in on me at least. He gave me more support that my wife (who had been raised in the COC/Non-institutional.

    She came back home in Dec of 1970, only to leave once and for all in 1971. She said the main reason was that I had left the COC (I had by that time), my opposition to the war, and that I had the nerve to expect to have sex with her.

    That is how the Churches of Christ treated me for opposing the US War in Vietnam and for serving my God and my country as a conscientious objector. After this happened my father invited me back home. I went and got another COC job. During that time we talked a little. 6 weeks later he died of leukemia suddenly and unexpectedly. The day before he died, we reconciled. He told me I was his son and he loved me and that I was right about this war.
    My Lai and Kent State made him think about what our country was doing, then he even talked with some counselors about me and decided I was not crazy and that he still loved me. Thank God for that. I did not fare so well with the COC.

  2. Jay Guin says:

    Gary,

    You make some great — and moving — points. The modern Church of Christ has absorbed much of American culture and sees no distinction between patriotism and Christianity — seeing them as near synonyms. Sometimes they align. Sometimes they don’t. And we sometimes forget that.

    I’ve got a post or two coming on the subject.

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