Carl Ketcherside is a fascinating study. He was Daniel Sommer’s star pupil. A brilliant man and perhaps the best writer produced by the Churches of Christ. He first became prominent through his periodical, The Mission Messenger, through which he pursued non-institutional views. Ketcherside opposed paid preachers, church support for Christian colleges, and congregational cooperation to support missionaries and orphans homes. In fact, in his early years, he was a vigorous inciter of division over such issues. And yet he was soon branded a “liberal” and his teachings “Ketcherside-ism.”
He was labeled a liberal because, in attempting to prove the rightness of dividing over such issues, he became persuaded that division was a great sin and completely without justification. He vigorously contended for “unity in diversity,” teaching that the Bible requires us to recognize as brothers all baptized, penitent believers, even if they disagree with us over whether we can have kitchens in the church building.
Ironically, an “anti” was at the forefront of the Church’s efforts to find unity. Ironic, also, is the fact that he was rejected by both his non-institutional and his institutional brothers. In the 1950’s and 1960’s, such ideas just weren’t spoken aloud. Many preachers kept secret copies of his works hidden in their desks, but few ever dared to preach what Ketcherside was saying.
Ketcherside’s views are still considered heretical by many within both the non-institutional fellowship and the institutional fellowship. However, the more progressive Churches of Christ are coming to see Ketcherside as a forerunner of their current thinking, and his writings are enjoying a revival.
Monroe Hawley published Redigging the Wells in 1976, which sounded similar themes. Again, this book was something of an underground phenomenon, as few preachers could overtly support these views and keep their jobs!
Meanwhile, the Firm Foundation was under the editorship of Reuel Lemmons. Over time, Lemmons became convicted of the error in our disunity. For example, his writings include,
For a movement that began as an effort to unite the Christians in all the sects to become fragmented beyond hope ought to be unthinkable. Yet, some of us have reached the point where we seem to think there are no Christians in any of the sects–even our own sects. Each of our sects thinks of itself as “the only loyal true church.” …
Doctrinal error is certainly sinful, but not one whit more than division. To ride doctrinal purity as a hobby while showing complete disregard for unity is folly. I notice a lot of patience and forbearance on the part of biblical writers in dealing with doctrinal error, but no patience at all in dealing with division. Jesus seemed more willing than we are to let the tares grow with the wheat until harvest time rather than destroy the wheat with tare rooting–even in the name of contending for the faith. We were never meant to be each other’s judges, but we were meant to love one another and to bear with each other.
The biblical norm is neither union nor uniformity, but rather, unity.
It may fairly be said the Lemmons was the father of the progressive movement within the Churches of Christ west of the Mississippi River. But east of the river, the Gospel Advocate continued to persuade the brotherhood. And so it wasn’t until Rubel Shelly published I Just Want to be a Christian in 1986 that the “unity in diversity” or progressive movement took off in the South.
Shelly had been well known as a severe conservative, even a legalist. And so, when he published this book, echoing the themes of Ketcherside, Hawley, and Lemmons, the reaction was immediate and severe. Many churches disfellowshipped him and all who called him “brother.” Vicious rumors were started. The vitriol was beyond imagining. But the genie was out of the bottle. The idea of unity despite disagreement was too attractive to ignore, and soon the older literature–the writings of Stone, the Campbells, and Ketcherside–was rediscovered and restudied.
And this is where the Churches of Christ are today. Severely divided, as always, but with many congregations and individual Christians repenting of former divisiveness.
As result, recently, Rick Atchley, pulpit minister of the Richland Hills Church of Christ, led an effort to reunite the noninstrumental churches with the instrumental churches. Of course, many churches have declined to join in this effort, but the effort is bearing fruit, as speakers from both fellowships often share the podium at various events and as some institutions have agreed to work with congregations of both fellowships.
This has resulted in reactionary responses from some periodicals, declaring Atchley a heretic and pleading for a return to the “pure gospel” taught by Sommer and Boles.
The progressive congregations are struggling just a bit to find themselves in this new, heady intellectual climate. For over a century, we’ve been told the answers and given no choice in the matter. Now we get to decide afresh what the Bible really says and how to practice. As a result, we sometimes find ourselves preferring Baptist or Methodist theology to our own historic positions. In fact, we are just a bit embarrassed to be “Church of Christ.” But we have actually been right about some things and have much less to apologize for than we sometimes think.
We are right that the early church sang a cappella. It’s not a test of salvation, but it’s a practice worth preserving (but not dividing over) (I cannot stand organs!). Weekly observance of the Lord’s Supper was, in fact, First Century practice as well, and our teaching on the subject merits consideration by others.
We are largely right on baptism. (See Born of Water). It really is supposed to be the occasion of our forgiveness. It really isn’t meant for infants. We’ve been narrower in our views than is proper, but there’s no reason to stop speaking the truth on the subject.
And I’m convinced that the plea for unity first voiced by Stone and the Campbells remains important. We’ve failed to notice that much of the rest of the believing world has caught up with us on this, but we remain among the forerunners on this essential doctrine. We have some teachings in this area worth sharing.
It’s still true that denominational divisions are more harmful than helpful. This is Campbell’s original idea, and he was right. This doesn’t mean we damn the Baptists, but we should certainly work to cross denominational barriers when we can do so in good conscience.
And congregational autonomy still has much to commend it. Other forms of organization have proven dangerously susceptible to infiltration by those who deny Jesus and the Bible.
We live in difficult times. The Church remains divided and the progressives are struggling to find their identity. But certain things seem clear. First, the progressives have an obligation to the conservatives to share their understanding of the gospel. Although the conservative leadership often seems very closed minded and intolerant, their churches are filled with members desperate for a taste of grace. We cannot abandon them.
Nor can we abandon our institutions that depend on the support of the entire Churches of Christ for survival. The Christian colleges, orphanages, mission efforts, and other such programs built up over the years have to be supported during these perilous times. After all, these institutions find themselves in a difficult place, as many cannot pick sides and survive.
Second, neither can we refuse to join hands with the larger community of the saved. We need not go it alone, and it would be wrong to do so. This is especially the case in areas where doctrinal differences are of little consequence, such as efforts to help those in need.
And this means we need to reach out to other congregations in our home towns, both the more conservative Churches of Christ and those outside the Church that we can fellowship in good conscience, to cooperate to impact our communities for Jesus. Jesus said that unity would bring the lost to him–and we should try it his way for once.