Among their leaders was Barton W. Stone. The events at the Cane Ridge Revival had persuaded him that salvation wasn’t found only in the Presbyterian or Reformed Church. As a result, he and others were tried for heresy. And so the church leaders signed “The Last Will & Testament of the Springfield Presbytery,” saying,
Imprimis. We will, that this body die, be dissolved, and sink into union with the Body of Christ at large; for there is but one body, and one Spirit, even as we are called in one hope of our calling.
Item. We will that our name of distinction, with its Reverend title, be forgotten, that there be but one Lord over God’s heritage, and his name one.
Item. We will, that our power of making laws for the government of the church, and executing them by delegated authority, forever cease; that the people may have free course to the Bible, and adopt the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus.
Item. We will, that candidates for the Gospel ministry henceforth study the Holy Scriptures with fervent prayer, and obtain license from God to preach the simple Gospel, with the Holy Ghost sent down from heaven, without any mixture of philosophy, vain deceit, traditions of men, or the rudiments of the world. And let none henceforth take this honor to himself, but he that is called of God, as was Aaron.
Item. We will, that the church of Christ resume her native right of internal government,—try her candidates for the ministry, as to their soundness in the faith, acquaintance with experimental religion, gravity and aptness to teach; and admit no other proof of their authority but Christ speaking in them. We will, that the church of Christ look up to the Lord of the harvest to send forth laborers into his harvest; and that she resume her primitive right of trying those who say they are apostles, and are not.
Item. We will, that each particular church, as a body, actuated by the same spirit, choose her own preacher, and support him by a free-will offering, without a written call or subscription—admit members—remove offenses; and never henceforth delegate her right of government to any man or set of men whatever.
Item. We will, that the people henceforth take the Bible as the only sure guide to heaven; and as many as are offended with other books, which stand in competition with it, may cast them into the fire if they choose; for it is better to enter into life having one book, than having many to be cast into hell.
Item. We will, that preachers and people cultivate a spirit of mutual forbearance; pray more and dispute less; and while they behold the signs of the times, look up, and confidently expect that redemption draweth nigh.
Thus began the Restoration Movement. And so these congregations cut themselves loose from the Presbyterian Church. But they joined with each other for mutual edification and support, effectively creating a new denomination of “Christian” churches.
In 1816, at a quarterly communion meeting of the Redstone Baptist Association, Alexander Campbell preached his famous “Sermon on the Law.” As a result, he was tried for heresy, which resulted in the separation of the “Disciples” churches from the Baptist Churches, resulting in the creation of yet another denomination.
In 1832, in Lexington, Kentucky, the Christian or Stone-ite church merged with the Disciples or Campbell-ite church. Soon, Christian and Disciples congregations merged across the landscape of Illinois and Kentucky, resulting in a new denomination with two names.
A few churches in this Restoration Movement decided to call themselves Churches of Christ, insisting on a name found in scripture, and these churches tended to be more conservative than the others.
So this strange thing happened. A movement begun with the noble words “We will, that this body die, be dissolved, and sink into union with the Body of Christ at large; for there is but one body,” became yet another denomination. Many congregations rejected the word “denomination,” but the congregations acted in every way like one more denomination.
The usual response is to suggest that the Restoration Movement churches are an unwilling or unintentional denomination. After all, the other denominations kicked them out.
More recently, the argument has been that “denomination” means a subset of the true church, and since the Churches of Christ are the true church, they are not a denomination. Which is sheer foolishness, because that’s not what “denomination” means and because those in the Churches of Christ aren’t the only ones going to heaven.
No, we can’t define our way out of our sectarianism. Nor can we pretend that our separation from the rest of God’s church is unintended. We go well out of our way to be separate from the other denominations, and it’s quite intentional.
Now, it’s also true that there are plenty of other denominations that do the same thing, which is, of course, utterly beside the point and no excuse at all for our behavior.
So we need to ask: what would happen if we really and truly sank into union with the Body of Christ at large? What if we refused to allow other churches and other denominations to treat us as a denomination separate from all others? What would that look like?
Well, we’d have to be in active, regular fellowship with churches in other denominations. We’d have to refuse to let them withdraw from us. We’d just have to love them so much that they couldn’t treat us as separate.
Sit down with any group of elders or preachers and suggest regular joint worship services with other congregations, and someone in the crowd will express his fear that we might lose members to these other churches once we begin to treat their members as saved. We are insecure enough that we imagine the only reason our members don’t leave and attend elsewhere is their fear that salvation is only found in the Churches of Christ. Take away that fear, and then everyone leaves. Except in most churches, most people stopped worrying about that decades ago.
Besides, if the only reason to stay is fear of damnation arising from bad theology, well, how is that justification for bad theology? Is it really okay to lie to our members — or to let them believe a lie — just so we can make budget?
If we were to be more concerned with the health of the Kingdom as an institution and less concerned with our own denomination or even our own congregation, I imagine that people would appreciate their congregations more — and yet there’d be a few mergers. A few churches would close their doors. But the Kingdom would be much better off. The church in a given city would be stronger if there were fewer congregations and more churches with larger memberships — memberships large enough to have the resources needed to serve the community, to operate jail ministries, to support more missionaries, to plant new churches … you get the idea.
So it’s not so much about the denominational name as it is an insistence on active, regular fellowship with other churches in town.
How is this done? Well, I would think we’d start with joint communion services. We’d actively invite the other churches to join us regularly. We’d accept their reciprocal invitations. And we’d manage to work out the details on how communion is served and how we sing and all the rest. It’s not that hard if you really want to do it.
And then you merge outreach activities when it makes sense. A given town only needs so many soup kitchens and free clinics. But every soup kitchen and free clinic needs volunteers from multiple churches.
And then you’d merge efforts to preach the gospel across the city. You’d have a “missional alliance” where leaders coordinate and train and recruit on a cross-denominational basis.
And you’d do so much of this stuff that it becomes second nature to work with your brothers and sisters of differing denominations in the same town. And if a few churches merge as congregations consolidate in order to become more efficient, freeing more resources for mission, well, that would be a very good thing.