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In Opinions, Liberty (Part 1)

Restoring Our Unity Heritage

The Problem

“In faith, unity; in opinions, liberty; in all things, love.”

I’ve heard the quote above throughout my life as being one of the grand mottos of the Restoration Movement. There were others, but among them is, “Where the Scriptures speak, we speak; where the Scriptures are silent, we are silent.”[1] Combining these two slogans produces a seemingly simple game plan for unity: in faith (where the Bible speaks), unity; in opinions (where the Bible is silent), liberty; in all things, love.[2] So, armed with this slogan and a desire for unity, where did it all go wrong? The popular door knocking question “Why are there so many churches?” becomes “Why are there so many divisions among the Churches of Christ?”

In any town where the Churches of Christ are prevalent, you are bound to find that there are splits among the various congregations. Someone became upset over someone else’s interpretation or method and started their own group or kicked the offenders out. What is astounding about these divisions is that most of these splits think the same. They have the same philosophies when it comes to interpretation and application. They use the same passages to defend their differences and point out problems with others. The problem, then, doesn’t come from major theological differences; it comes from variations in method. Leroy Garrett was right when he wrote, “While the Movement has had a tragic history of internal fission, virtually all of the disputes have been over methods.” (Emphasis mine—bold)[3]

Methods aren’t concerned with questions like “Is it authorized to take communion?” Instead, the question would be, “Are we authorized to use one or multiple cups in the communion?” There is no doubt or debate over whether one should take communion in the majority of the Churches of Christ; the question is over the method.[4] One interesting historical sidenote, but one that is relevant to the discussion at hand, is that a variation of the slogan at the beginning of this article said, “In faith, unity; in opinions and methods, liberty; in all things, charity.” The inclusion or exclusion of the expression “and methods” can have an impact on what one views as “essential” or “non-essential,” to reference yet another version of this slogan.[5]

So, what’s the problem? The problem is that these various groups cannot agree on what is a matter of faith and what is an opinion, what is an essential and what is a non-essential, so when something comes up that they can’t agree on, another split arises. In other words, if I were to ask you to make a list of the things required for Christian fellowship and, therefore, salvation, and I were to ask someone else to make a similar list, it is likely there will be some differences. One may ask, “Well, why is that a problem? One can serve God in the way they wish, and I will do it in the way I wish.”

While I agree that there is liberty in our service to God as Paul discusses in Romans 14, splits and divisions in the church that cause two or more groups to cease fellowship with each other is very serious indeed. What these various groups are saying is far graver than simply preferring different methods. What they are essentially saying, in their excommunication of others, is that the other individuals or congregations are not even in the kingdom of God. Since the church is the body of Christ and Christ is the savior of the body, of which there is one, it stands to reason that those who are not in the body of Christ, through choice or expulsion, are not among the saved.

To excommunicate or withdraw from someone, then, is to say that they don’t really belong to the kingdom of God and, therefore, must belong to the kingdom of darkness! Thomas Campbell, Alexander Campbell’s father, expressed it this way in his paper from 1809:

A third and still more dreadful evil is, when we not only, in this kind of way, judge and set at naught our brother, but, moreover, proceed as a Church, acting and judging in the name of Christ, not only to determine that our brother is wrong because he differs from our determinations, but also, in connection with this, proceed so far as to determine the merits of the cause by rejecting him, or casting him out of the Church, as unworthy of a place in her communion, and thus, as far as in our power, cutting him off from the kingdom of heaven. In proceeding thus, we not only declare, that, in our judgment, our brother is in an error, which we may sometimes do in a perfect consistence with charity, but we also take upon us to judge, as acting in the name and by the authority of Christ, that his error cuts him off from salvation; that continuing such, he has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. If not, what means our refusing him — our casting him out of the Church, which is the kingdom of God in this world?[6] (Emphasis mine—bold and underline)

Divisions over opinions matter. Even if they seem benign, we must endeavor to maintain unity because of our joint faith in Jesus despite diversity of opinions. But how do we determine what is a matter of opinion and what is a matter of faith? In the following section, we will discuss the hope and potential of Christian unity before answering that question in the third major section.

Thank you for reading today’s article. This is will be a series over several posts. If you do not want to wait for the entire essay to be published, you can go ahead and download it here:

[1] Robert Richardson, Memoirs of Alexander Campbell, Vol. 1 (1897), p.237.

[2] I understand that silence, in more recent years, is seen as prohibitive. In the following pages, I will show how this was not the original interpretation of “silent” as used in this slogan.

[3] Leroy Garrett, The Stone-Campbell Movement (2005), p.84.

[4] Think about the major splits in the Churches of Christ and you will see that this is generally true: instruments, fellowship halls, supporting orphanages, upper room communion, etc. etc. all have to do with methods.

[5] “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.”

[6] Thomas Campbell, Declaration and Address (Kershner, 1972), p.73.

4 thoughts on “In Opinions, Liberty (Part 1)”

  1. The problem stems from each individual believing he has discovered truth which others have not and that his discovery is essential to salvation. If you don’t accept their discovery, you are rejecting salvation. This always ends in a division. We restore the New Testament church, the one that was in the city of Corinth and perhaps Laodicea.

  2. Daniel thank you for your labor of love. I find your articles interesting because of the similarities in your struggles in a complete different denomination. When I look at all the splitting I don’t see it as a bad thing if there is life after a split. God confounded their language at the tower of babel for a purpose and maybe he still needs to scatter his people through the world for a reason. I think of the body of Christ as one unit. If you take one assembly out of the unit, Christ is left with a fraction. It is amazing how my people consider themselves part of the only true church. They don’t understand what makes the church complete. 99/100 needs the 1/100 to be complete and vise versa.

    I call myself Anabaptist by heritage , preterist by learning(I stand alone brother), blessed by Jesus Christ in a fellowship where nobody thinks the same but loves each other. We are part of a split off and could not have been part of the presplit group.

    May the Lord bless you and keep you in the work he has called you to.

    1. Thanks for your wonderful comment, Nelson. I also consider myself an anabaptist, but I appreciate James McClendon’s insistence that he is just a baptist (since they hadn’t been baptized the first time).

      Both of our fellowship’s puritan backgrounds contribute to the many pattern of method based divisions we have witnessed, so I can definitely see how there can be similarities.

      God bless.

  3. I like your conclusion and verses at the very end of the essay. If we believe in Jesus and love one another–that is the true gospel. We are saved by faith and not by works so that no man should boast. The fruit of the Holy Spirit is love. They will know us by our love. Love for others should be the mark of a disciple of Jesus, not being puffed up over the “right” doctrine! I was lost on all the doctrine in the essay as I was never part of a denomination and followed Jesus by faith before reading the Bible and taking it at its word. I think knowledge over doctrine can puff up, while love is humble and other-minded. Blessings to you for writing an essay on unity. It is needed now more than ever!!! Division is everywhere in our world! The first 7 chapters of the book of Acts talks many times about how they were of “one accord” and unified–and many miracles followed! We need that unity today!!!

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