Considering the Restoration Movement a homogenous people is a huge mistake. The fact is the Restoration Movement is an amalgam of many theological concepts, personal leadership characteristics, and social backgrounds. To my knowledge, only one author, Richard T. Hughes, a scholar in the non-instrumental fellowship, has analyzed the movement according to these criteria. I am of the opinion that differences in these areas continue to create an undercurrent of tension within the movement. If I am correct, it will take only a spark to initiate more unfortunate division within the movement.
Hughes points to two major personalities as the source of the tensions. Although strained in some of his analysis, Hughes points to Barton W. Stone and Alexander Campbell. Both men were the leaders of the two groups that united together in late December and early January 1830-31. Both were Presbyterians, but both came to conviction about restoring the New Testament Church in different ways.
Hughes says Stone’s convictions arose out of his experiences with the revivals of the Second Great Awakening. It was Stone who organized the famous Cane Ridge Meeting where estimates placed the participants at between twenty to thirty thousand. Preachers from many denominations preached. Stone saw the religious excitement and the apparent conversions. Hughes contends Stone recognized the power of a united witness and became convinced uniting Christians could in turn win the world to Christ. Hughes also contends that, for Stone and his followers, holy living became more important than any concept of “sound doctrine.” The only way to that kind of living was through a return to New Testament teaching.
Campbell, on the other hand, was more intellectual and theological in his approach. Some would say he was more legalistic. Most historians of the Restoration Movement suggest Campbell owed much to Locke and Bacon, both of whom were Enlightenment philosophers. Because of this Hughes suggests Campbell’s approach was more scientific and legal. Thus, Hughes describes Campbell as more legalistic. As a result, his version of restoration required seeing the New Testament as a “pattern” which could be followed resulting in a virtual reconstruction of the early church. For Campbell, then, emotion was downplayed and reason elevated. He viewed “sound doctrine” as something to be restored along with the organizational and functional structures.
I think Hughes sometimes strains out gnats to swallow camels (pardon the pun). He takes the typical non-instrumental interpretation that the early Campbell differed from the later Campbell. He insists the Campbell of the “Christian-Baptist” era differed greatly from the Campbell of the “Millennial Harbinger.” Hughes says the difference can be attributed to the success of the Movement as it moves from “sect” to “denomination.” I disagree with Hughes’s views, but his insistence that Campbell and Stone differed in some significant ways is at least partially valid.
It is my conviction that a good share of the tension existing in the Movement results from these differences. Let’s note just a couple of examples.
There is growing tension over the emphasis of “experience” in worship. We are told today that “seekers” (or whatever you want to call them) are seeking an “experience with God.” Thus, on one hand, those from the Stone tradition feel right at home with experience-centered worship. Like Stone they would avoid excesses of the charismatic movement or frontier revivalism. At the same time, they would not shy away from utilizing music, speaking styles, or other methods designed to impact the emotions. The heirs of Campbell, on the other hand, eschewed all sorts of emotionalism. The Gospel, as Campbell saw, it was a common sense message that could be evaluated, considered, and either accepted or rejected. Campbell believed such a message and its acceptance resulted in appropriate emotional response. It was Campbell, not Stone, who insisted the church’s hymnody be examined so it would express biblical truth. It was Stone, not Campbell, who continued to use the “anxious seat” in his evangelistic preaching.
There is also growing tension over the place and purpose of baptism in the salvation process. Both Campbell and Stone taught baptism for the remission of sin. Stone, however, was a “Johnny come lately” as his “conversion” to this view didn’t take hold until after the union of the Disciples and the Kentucky Christians. Stone came to the conclusion that immersion was the proper form of baptism, but he was not one to emphasize it. For Stone, union (unity) was more important than “sound doctrine.” Campbell, however, began teaching baptism for the remission of sins in the McCalla debate and never once changed his tune. It is true that Campbell refused to condemn or absolve those in the denominations who were baptized with an incorrect mode or an unscriptural purpose. In the “Lunenburg Letter,” he voiced his opinion that those who were mistaught or simply could not understand biblical truth on this matter could be among the saved. It is my conviction that Campbell would not receive the unimmersed into membership of a local church. Rather, he would follow the example of Acts 18 and do some extended teaching leading to immersion for the remission of sins.
There is also growing tension over relationships with evangelicalism. It is certainly true that many congregations and their leaders see the Restoration Movement as part of the evangelical family. Some of our younger historians, theologians, and biblical scholars are trying to minimize distinctions until those they influence see the Restoration Movement as merely one additional denomination in the greater evangelical world. In recent years I have visited several large Restoration Movement congregations and large evangelical congregations. With a few exceptions the service formats and content were identical. Most, if not all, of our mega-churches have services indistinguishable from those in the mega-churches of evangelicals. The exception in some of “our” churches is the weekly observance of Communion. Of course, even that is disappearing!
Would Stone be upset? I seriously doubt it. For Stone, “unity was the polar star.” It was all important goal. The Kentucky Christians wanted to “sink into union with the church at large.” From the vantage point of someone in the Stone tradition, the contemporary identification with evangelicals it is part of the fulfillment of the goal.
Would Campbell be upset? Absolutely! Campbell said he never expected to see “all the grand armies of God unite.” Rather, he was looking for those who were committed more to Christ and his Word than to their denominations to unite with others committed to the same goals. Although some contemporary historians describe the Restoration Movement as a “come outer” movement, Campbell insisted on true evangelism. In fact, the reason he encouraged the Mahoning Baptist Association to call Walter Scott as evangelist was precisely for that reason.
What is the upshot of all of this? It would be tragic if the attitudes and approaches of the most influential leaders of this movement led to contemporary division. Yet I see the potential for division growing on the horizon. Lines are being drawn between those who emphasize baptism for the remission of sins and those who don’t. There are those who will continue to follow the Willowcreek philosophies and they will eventually be indistinguishable from the denominations and they will reject any identification with the Restoration Movement (some are already there). Others will retreat and spend the remainder of their existence condemning and vilifying those who “left them”. Some will, with Hughes, say the Restoration Movement is a “lost cause”. Others will attempt to “hold the line” and some, like myself, will continue to “speak out” while retaining relationships across the board hoping division won’t occur again.