Churches of Christ in Decline: What Went Wrong

In the last post, I quoted passages from the first volume of Alexander Campbell’s The Christian Baptist in which he describes how we planned to unite all Christendom. Over and over, Campbell and Walter Scott, the Restoration Movement’s first missionary, declared their plan, being that —

this peerless fact, that “Jesus is the Christ,” forms the sole bond of union among the holy brethren, and is also the means through faith for increasing the body of Christ in the earth

This is the same principle we find in Thomas Campbell’s “Declaration and Address” from 1809 —

Nay, it would be adopting the very means, by which the bewildered church has, for hundreds of years past, been rending and dividing herself into fractions; for Christ’s sake, and for the truth’s sake; though the first and foundation truth of our christianity is union with him, and the very next to it in order, union with each other in him–“that we receive each other, as Christ has also received us, to the glory of God.” For this is his commandment that we believe in his son Jesus Christ, and love one another, as he gave us commandment. And he that keepeth his commandments dwelleth in him, and he in him–and hereby we know that he dwelleth in us, by the spirit which he hath given us”–even the spirit of faith, and of love, and of a sound mind. And surely this should suffice us. But how to love, and receive our brother; as we believe and hope Christ has received both him and us, and yet refuse to hold communion with him, is, we confess, a mystery too deep for us.

This story is from the Autobiography of Barton W. Stone. It’s his last sermon, in which he quotes Paul to explain his understanding of Christianity —

He opens the New Testament, and reads from the 20th of Acts, commencing with the 17th verse, to the 21st, inclusive:–“And from Miletus he sent to Ephesus, and called the elders of the church. And when they were come to him, he said unto them, Ye know, from the first day that I came into Asia, after what manner I have been with you at all seasons, serving the Lord with all humility, and many tears, and temptations which befell me, by the lying in wait of the Jews. And how I kept back nothing that was profitable unto you, but have showed you, and have taught you publicly and from house to house, testifying both to the Jews, and also to the Greeks, repentance towards God, and faith towards our Lord Jesus Christ.” Perhaps I do not exaggerate when I say that in reading these few verses his utterance was obstructed by his feelings a dozen times. Tears started in his aged eyes and flowed plentifully down his furrowed cheeks. The effect was overwhelming. His tears spoke volumes–they spoke to every heart and were responded to in tears from every eye, eloquent of the deep feeling of every heart. Who that considers the circumstances of this parting scene can wonder at the deep feeling manifested upon the occasion.

pp. 114-115 (1847). Stone summarizes his teaching, as did Paul, as faith in Jesus and repentance toward God.

Early on, the boundary markers were set wide — wide enough that the founders of the Restoration Movement genuinely thought they might draw in all Christendom. They required only faith in Jesus and repentance. Period.

You see, the Restoration Movement was not about instrumental or a cappella music. It wasn’t about weekly communion. It was about unity.

The Restorers rejected denominational creeds and confessions, not because they didn’t think we should write down what we believe,  but because in those days creeds and confessions were barriers to fellowship. A Calvinist could not even take communion until he confirmed belief in the confession of his denomination.

And it wasn’t that the creeds or confessions were necessarily wrong. It was that they were something other than faith and repentance. Therefore, making a creed or confession a fellowship issue separated brother from brother.

However, things changed.

Alexander Campbell learned that First Century baptism was by immersion, and had himself and his family immersed by a Baptist pastor. Years later, while working on a debate, he concluded that baptism is for remission of sins, and began to teach this within the new movement.

However, as the Lunenburg correspondence shows, Campbell did not see baptism as a barrier to salvation. And he accepted Baptist baptism, despite its misunderstanding of its purpose, as shown in the Richmond correspondence.

Therefore, while baptism became a central doctrine of the Movement, it did not move the boundary markers.

In fact, we don’t see any real movement until the second and third generation of editor-bishops — preachers of influence due to editing periodicals. What happened, I think, is the Movement absorbed a great number of Baptists from the same cultural pool that produce the Landmark Baptist movement in the 1850s — but with roots going back to the 17th Century.

This is from the Wikipedia

Scholars have offered several proposed definitions of Landmarkism, most of which agree on several fundamental aspects of the movement, but nevertheless differ at significant points.

Points of consensus

Most theologians and historians who have dealt with Landmarkism have agreed that the following ecclesiological convictions were inherent to the system:

The exclusive validity of Baptist churches

Although different champions of the Landmark Baptist cause have identified different required characteristics, or “marks,” that validate a legitimate Baptist church, all varieties of Landmarkism stipulate that legitimate Baptist churches are the only legitimate churches. According to Landmarkism, congregations of other denominational varieties are merely religious gatherings, or “societies,” with no claim to the title “church.”

The invalidity of non-Baptist churchly acts Landmark Baptists have refused to recognize as valid any baptisms or ordinations performed in circumstances other than under the auspices of a Baptist church. Thus, Landmark Baptists have declined to allow non-Baptists to preach in Landmark Baptist churches and have required prospective members who have received “pedobaptism” or “alien immersion” to be baptized by a Baptist church before receiving them into membership.

Expressed as a syllogism, the Landmark Baptist argument is:

Major premise: To be valid, Christian ordinations and baptisms must be performed by a valid New Testament church.
Minor premise: Only valid Baptist churches are valid New Testament churches.
Conclusion: Therefore, only ordinations and baptisms performed by valid Baptist churches are valid Christian ordinations and baptisms.

Disputed points

Beyond this basic argument, scholars have proposed other elements as inherent to Landmarkism, but these do not enjoy the same scholarly consensus as the foregoing ecclesiological kernel.

Church succession

Baptist successionism is a theological theory concerning Baptist history prior to 1609. Many prominent Baptist historians up through the nineteenth century emphasized in some manner the antiquity of Baptist ideas. This was an exercise in apologetics, designed to debunk criticisms of Baptist thought as a more contemporary innovation. In particular, Baptist historians labored to demonstrate the antiquity of believer’s baptism and, to some degree, of congregationalist church governance.

In the latter half of the nineteenth century, most Landmark Baptists adopted English Baptist pastor G. H. Orchard’s assertion in his book, A Concise of the Baptists (1838), that actual organized Baptist congregations had existed at all times throughout the preceding centuries all the way back to the New Testament era. Orchard wrote:

“During the first three centuries, Christian congregations, all over the East, subsisted in separate independent bodies, unsupported by government, and consequently without any secular power over one another. All this time they were Baptist churches…” —G. H. Orchard

Believing that their origins predate those even of Roman Catholicism/Eastern Orthodoxy (having both been one before the East-West Schism in 1054 AD), Landmark Baptists have generally refused to refer to themselves as Protestants (Note that Church Succession has no connection with the doctrine of Apostolic Succession to which Landmarkists do not ascribe). Not all Landmark Baptists subscribed to this particular concept of Baptist history, but it did come to dominate Landmark Baptist thinking about Baptist origins.

Does any of this sound familiar? It seems clear that the Restoration Movement absorbed adherents of Landmarkism and so absorbed much of its doctrine. In fact, I suspect that early debates between Restoration and Landmark preachers were about who had the right marks, who really was founded on Pentecost, with the Restoration preachers buying the general arguments and trying to steal the Landmark claim to be the first and only church. Hence, Acts 2:38 gained its legendary importance in part because both groups claimed to have been founded on Pentecost.

I should add that the idea of a particular God-given number of “acts of worship” has deep roots in Baptist theology. The Separate Baptists and General Baptists remained separate denominations for many years because they disagreed on the right number of acts of worship.

One distinction was in the number of ordinances or rites observed by the Separates. The nine rites were baptism, the Lord’s supper, love feasts, laying on of hands, washing feet, anointing the sick, the right hand of fellowship, kiss of charity, and devoting children. Not all the churches practiced all nine of these, but most churches practiced more than the two ordinances generally held by the Regular Baptists — baptism and the Lord’s supper.

The Landmark Baptists had their own list as well.

By the way, the center of Landmark teaching and influence was Nashville, Tennessee.

As I’ve noted on several occasions, the Regulative Principle, the teaching that Biblical silences are prohibitions, is a teaching of John Calvin and his disciples. The Baptists in that part of the world were Calvinists.

At the same time we were absorbing Baptist theology (which they later rejected), we also had some editor-bishops who introduced much of the legalism we suffer from today —

LardMoses Lard began his editing career in 1864. He insisted that all Christians must agree on every single point–

For if both of these men be true Christians neither more nor less, evidently there cannot exist between them even a nominal, to say nothing of a real difference. … Consequently they are now, be it supposed, Christians strictly according to the Bible; that is, they mentally accept and in heart hold, as the matter of their faith, precisely and only what the Bible certainly teaches; they do and practice what, and only what, it either expressly or by precedent enjoins; in spirit, temper, and disposition, they are exactly what it requires; and as to names, they wear none save those which it imposes.

Here we see the idea of “tests of fellowship” greatly expanded beyond the teachings of Stone and Campbell, already going to the opposite extreme. The Campbells counseled that the church’s practice be only what is commanded or established by example, but this was no test of fellowship. In Lard’s writings, however, having the right name and practices establishes who is saved.

FranklinA similar approach to fellowship is found in the writings of Benjamin Franklin. In 1877 he wrote about the difference between moral and positive commands in “Positive Divine Laws.” Franklin reasoned that commands that are not based on standards of moral behavior are “positive” commands, that is, they are the law solely because God says so, whereas moral law does not require any special revelation.

God’s grace covers mistakes in obedience to the moral law–no one is perfect–but the positive commands are a test of faith and must be obeyed perfectly on threat of condemnation.

In a 1868 article, Franklin teaches, perhaps for the first time in Restoration Movement history, the notion that the one true church is defined by certain marks:

I. A body, or community, not built on the foundation which God laid, is not the community which the Lord calls “my Church.”

II. A community not founded and established in the right place, is not the Church of Christ.

III. A community not founded at the right time, is not the kingdom of Christ.

IV. No church can be the true Church not founded by the proper persons, Christ and the apostles.

V. A kingdom, with any other law than the one given by the head of the Church, is not the kingdom of Christ.

VI. Any community labeled with a foreign name, or a name not found to designate the body of Christ, in the New Testament, is not the kingdom of God.

Here we see a particularly radical departure from the teachings of Stone and the Campbells, who taught that the only marks of the church were faith in Jesus and baptism. Indeed, we find here the truly repugnant teaching that God cares more about arbitrary rules than moral rules, more about sacrifice than mercy.

The Movement’s history would quickly show the fruit produced by these teachings.

Instruments were first introduced into worship in 1851. But it wasn’t until after the death of Alexander Campbell that the second-generation editor-bishops began to craft a theology that would damn those who practiced any error in worship. And it wasn’t until 1889 that emotions became so strong that actual separation occurred.

You see, it took that long for the editor-bishops to convert a part of the Movement to new kind of unity — a unity based on the creeds of the editor-bishops. By 1889, we’d become what we’d been founded to oppose.

I’m quite happy being a part of the Restoration Movement. It’s just that a great many Churches of Christ are not.

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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8 Responses to Churches of Christ in Decline: What Went Wrong

  1. willohroots says:

    How often in Church history what started out to unite , divides We all get carried away it seems with our own Idea of right. I appreciate the article. this makes a lot of sense. .

  2. In years past I have heard the statement,"No creed but the Bible" used again and again. The truth is we have an unwritten creed that is as adhered to as closely as any ever written and adopted by man. Our words may say no but our actions cry yes in a voice to loud to deny.

  3. David Himes says:

    Upon reflection, I guess this post explains where you came up with the domain name for your blog.

    Right on!!!

  4. Jay Guin says:


    There is another version of that saying, just as old: No creed but Christ." It's more alliterative and more right. "No creed but the Bible" easily becomes "No creed but my interpretation of the Bible," which becomes "creed." "No creed but Christ" puts the focus on the person of Jesus rather than our hermeneutical skills.

  5. Gary Cummings says:

    I joined with the COC in 1965, after being convinced it was the true church. I had been previously saved in 1964 while attending a Baptist Church. I was never comfortable with Baptist teaching like once saved ,always saved and no personal holiness. I went looking for "The True Church". The local COC preacher convinced me that had the marks of the true church and the true way to become a Christian-the old five finger exercise. I bit, went to a Christian college for four years. I met so many baptized COC pagans: no personal holiness, and all they said was we are the true church because we do these things-the pattern, and we performed the five finger exercise. I preached for them about a year and quit out of disgust of the sectarianism I saw and even practiced!
    You have Baptist Landmarkism, and then the COC Landmarkism, which is just as bad.
    Leroy was right, you can't combine Unity and Restorationism. All you get are a bunch of bickering sub-sects withina larger sect.

  6. Jay Guin says:

    I'd say the mistake was not so much in restorationism, as confusing restorationism with salvation. Campbell himself was quite clear that you don't have to get the frequency of the Lord's Supper and such right to be saved.

    However, it wasn't but a generation later that others argued you have to have the right "marks of the church" to be saved — turning the Stone-Campbell Movement into the very thing they'd spent their lives opposing.

  7. Gary Cummings says:

    No I think restorationism is the problem. You get a theological heretic like Stone with a Deist rationalist like Campbell, and then throw is Restoration, you get a mess. The more spiritual folks, with their theological errors, had a different take on what was to be restored than the rationalist "Word only folks".

    I think you are seeking an irenic middle ground. That is great.The progressives will never unite with traditionalists.
    The best thing to do is to proclaim and live the Kingdom of God and that can be done without restorationism.
    Just my two cents as an ex-restorationist.

  8. Larry Short says:

    I think a few comments are off-base. First The Church of Christ, the Bride of Christ, doesn't need reforming, restoring or any other ing. Maybe most of us need to seek it, rediscover it, etc.
    Second, every religious group that claims to honor Jesus came from some heritage. Just to get a meeting place, time, and some form of worship is beyond any NT blueprint. The mechanics will come from the leader(s) past experiences.
    What this site is excellent at is sorting the past to find how we got here. I think its just as true in religious history as history general that we will repeat errors of the past, unless we learn from the past.
    To GC, unity is not the major theme of the Bible. From Genesis to Revelation it is God. They had unity at the ancient tower, until God made it Babel.
    Those that really try to understand the revelation we have been given, will not as Jay says get all of our interputations correct. Still I will seek to congregate with people who take all inspired word seriously, hopefully with a humble spirit that we are seeking as are others.

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