It’s easy to criticize some of the errors of the more conservative Churches of Christ. And the very natural, very human tendency is to lump all Church of Christ teachings together and reject them all.
And so, I think it’s important to occasionally step back and ask just what there is that needs preserving, indeed, that is precious not only to those of us who grew up in the Churches but to Christendom in general.
Let’s reflect a bit on that question from a historical perspective. Indeed, one of the great mistakes of the Churches in the 20th Century was to pretend that the Churches have no history and that there is no profit in studying the work of our 19th Century forebears. Fortunately, in the last 20 years or so, some excellent books have been written reminding us of our lost history — a history that we should be immensely proud of.
I’m convinced that some of the most valuable parts of our Church of Christ heritage come from our Restoration Movement past. It’s a past that shaped us in many ways, and it would be tragic if we were to forget the best lessons of that past.
Barton W. Stone
An alternative to 1800-style frontier Calvinism
The Restoration Movement began around 1800 or so as two separate movements. The older movement was founded by Barton W. Stone, a Presbyterian preacher in Illinois. The younger movement was founded by Thomas Campbell, also a Presbyterian preacher, from western Pennsylvania.
As is true today, the Presbyterians were Calvinists — although the Calvinism of over 200 years ago was a much stricter version than what we usually hear taught today.
Here’s an example of Calvinism similar to what was taught on the American frontier around 1800 —
In short, in this view of grace I am not saved until I experience a supernatural cleansing from God — a saving experience that I can describe to the church to demonstrate that God has elected me. Merely having faith in Jesus and repenting of my sins does not qualify me for baptism and salvation. I must be among the elect, and the elect will know he is elected, not because he has faith in Jesus, but because he’s experienced God entering his heart and accepting him.
Therefore, someone might spend his entire life with faith in Jesus, fully penitent, and be baptized or say the Sinner’s Prayer 50 times and not yet be saved because he is not among the elect — unless and until God enters his heart and assures him of his salvation — which may well never, ever occur.
Of course, many — I’m sure most — Calvinists would disagree today, pointing out that the presence of faith is, itself, proof that the convert’s heart is open to the working of the Spirit and therefore the convert is among the elect. But this is not old-fashioned, American frontier Calvinism.
And it was against this brand of Calvinism that the Restoration Movement was birthed — and one reason that there is such a strident anti-Calvinist culture in the modern Churches of Christ.
Technically, we’re discussing “prevenient grace,” the idea that humans cannot come to faith unless the Spirit changes our hearts to be open to the gospel. In Calvinism, only the elect will experience this change, and if their hearts are opened, they will have an experience assuring them of salvation and then they will inevitably respond to the gospel. The elect therefore experience “irresistible grace.”
In classic Arminianism (non-Calvinist Protestantism), every time the word is preached, all hearts that are listening are opened by the Spirit, but not all choose to respond.
The Churches of Christ very rarely address prevenient grace in their teaching, but are generally Semi-Pelagian, meaning that the Spirit is assumed involved in gospel preaching solely in providing the content of the lesson — the word of God. Otherwise, people act entirely as a matter of free will to respond or not.
In Stone’s case, he came to reject this kind of Calvinism at the famous Cane Ridge Revival, held in a very small town in western Kentucky in 1803. There he saw preachers from different denominations — himself included — calling for those present to come to faith in Jesus and repent, and people by the thousands were converted based on the presentation of the gospel and faith in Jesus. A decision to follow Jesus was enough — no mystical saving experience required.
Baptism was not yet an issue for Stone, and yet the converts were baptized, although not necessarily by immersion. Nearly all denominations baptize their converts by one means or another.
To Stone the ultimate test of salvation is not the terms on which you are baptized but whether your life evidences the receipt of the Spirit and the Spirit’s transforming work in your life. And in his autobiography, very late in his life, Stone declared that every person who’d been converted at the Cane Ridge Revival that he had been able to keep up with had in fact evidenced the Spirit’s work in his life until then — and so Stone was convicted that they were truly converted.
As a result, rather than passively awaiting God’s decision to elect, Stone became a revival preacher — that is, he preached asking his audience to make a decision to repent and to come to faith in Jesus. This sounds so ordinary to us, but in those days, that was quite a dramatic change for many — and many responded in tears, because they’d been crying out to God for perhaps decades and yet had never felt saved.
Baptism for remission of sins by immersion came much later for Stone, and while Stone came to adopt that teaching from the Campbells, he never considered the salvation of his converts to be conditioned on how they were baptized — but rather he considered whether they had in fact come to faith in Jesus and whether the Spirit’s transforming work was evident in their lives.
This sort of thought is very uncomfortable for modern Church of Christ members who deny the presence of the Spirit, and yet the Biblical basis for the teaching is solid. But before we get to scriptures, we need to also consider —
Rejection of the Quaker doctrine of the Spirit
Thomas Campbell worked in western Pennsylvania, which means that he inevitably found himself in contact with the Society of Friends or Quakers. William Penn had founded Pennsylvania as a refuge for Quakers, who had been persecuted in England.
The Quakers considered the Holy Spirit to not only indwell each Christian but to continue to provide guidance on par with the inspiration of scripture. As the Wikipedia states,
Most Friends believe in continuing revelation, which is the religious belief that truth is continuously revealed directly to individuals from God.
Stone and the Campbells, especially the Campbells, rejected this doctrine and often wrote against it. As a result, the Churches of Christ still carry a strong conviction against newly revealed truths from the Spirit, especially doctrinal truths.
Early Restoration Movement writings are filled with arguments against the Spirit acting on hearers of the word before baptism and against the Spirit revealing new doctrinal truths. As the background for this teaching was forgotten, many in the Restoration Movement generalized this teaching to deny the personal indwelling of the Spirit altogether — resulting in the so-called “word only” position.
For those who hold to a personal indwelling, the Spirit’s work is generally limited to participating in helping cleanse the believer of sin and mediating before God — but any “direct operation” on the heart by the Spirit is denied, generally in Cessationist terms.
Cessationism is the theory that miracles ended with the end of the apostolic age, or shortly thereafter. And because it’s assumed that any operation of the Spirit on the heart of the believer would be a Quaker-ish miracle, the direct operation of the Spirit is denied — with very little serious scriptural study in support of that view.
In fact, the possibility of a vital work by the Spirit in the heart of the believer is denied ad hoc, based on our denominational culture and a denial that the world is open to God’s intervention — which is a Modernist heresy. I mean, we contradict that when we say that prayer works, but we won’t even consider that the Spirit might be active. Somehow it’s okay for God to heal the sick by the power of prayer but unthinkable to credit the Spirit with even being present.
And so there’s an element of our doctrine of the Spirit that needs preserving: our rejection of the Calvinist view of prevenient grace, that is, our view that anyone can come to saving faith as a matter of free will. That teaching has caused the Churches of Christ to be very active in the mission field, in church plants, and in personal evangelism (not that we shouldn’t try to do even better).
Moreover, I agree with our rejection of the Quaker “inward light” or concept that all Christians have the same level of inspiration as the apostles when it comes to doctrine. I just don’t see it — and resort to the scriptures in matters of doctrine is sound — even though we often compromise our principles by seeking to impose the words of early church fathers — uninspired writings of early Christians — to fill in the gaps that we think God left us.
However, this is not nearly enough Spirit. The scriptures promise much, much more — and while we may disagree as to how much is available, it is certainly more than has been traditionally taught in the Churches.