In the late 1870s, my great-grandfather and my and other family members were part of starting a new church in a small Kansas town. They just called themselves Christians, and so the church was also called a Christian church. As one reads the history of this small insignificant church in this scarcely populated wheat town in the Solomon River valley, the description inadvertently betrays the post-civil war rift in the Restoration movement. On some pages, the words introduce former preachers while just a few pages later, a new minister is called a pastor. Pages are periodically silent about the music, then suddenly there is an organist, only to go silent again for a few more years!
Our family’s conclusion is that this little wheat field town’s church members hardly noticed the differences that other Restoration Christians in larger cities were debating and dividing over. They were first a community of Christians, living and worshiping together–with no further adjectives necessary.
By 1906, someone who was somebody decided it was time to differentiate the two groups–that is, the instrumental, mission society Christians from the acapella, non-missionary society Christians. I wonder how long it took the Christians in that tiny town in Kansas to know to which group they belonged? They may have been confused and just thought that they were Christians.
For one hundred years, the two groups operated with few exceptions in completely different circles. We each developed our own jargon, our own heroes, our own missionaries, our own colleges. With the exception of a few touch points, we were not talking, certainly not fighting–because we hardly knew the other existed.
The instrumental churches of Christ–not everyone bothered to change their name–later split into two distinct fellowships: the Independent Christian Church/Church of Christ (because not everyone changed their name!) and Disciples of Christ. The movement which began as a unity movement . . . oh, well!
Some individuals of all three groups continued to keep the hope of unity alive with annual gatherings, some pretty scholarly publications, and an occasional token invitation to a lectureship, but with the exception of this high-level contact, the average members of these churches continued to exist in different worlds, practically oblivious to the others.
On the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the separation of Churches of Christ and Independent Christian Churches in 2006, several leading preachers and pastors in both groups declared that the 1906 breach was wrong and that the unity of the Restoration Movement should be restored. At several high-profile gatherings, representatives of both groups repented for participating in division, asked for forgiveness, extended fellowship to their counterpart, and ceremoniously traded Bibles as peace offerings.
Let me tell you why I am thinking about this.
My personal history is in the acapella Church of Christ. During the last few days, however, I have had the privilege of being on the campuses of two of the Independent Christian Churches larger colleges/universities. I have been extraordinarily well hosted and extended complete and unreserved cooperation. I would not have expected it to be any other way between Christians!
What continues to sadden me, however, is how little either of us really knows about the history and the daily life of the other. Just today, in casual conversations with colleagues, I have learned of marvelous missions efforts, of amazing heroes of faith, both alive and dead, even of Christian colleges/universities–all completely unknown to me. I know a lot about our side of the aisle, but embarrassingly little about these brothers and sisters.
Maybe we have reconciled, but not actually restored fellowship. Let me suggest a few actions that could possibly get us started in the process of really loving the whole brotherhood.
- Local congregations should begin getting to know other congregations. It might only be a common potluck at first, but perhaps with the goal of getting to know each other.
- Preachers could swap pulpits and use some of their time to introduce the history and heroes of their congregations.
- Youth ministers from both groups could plan joint outings/camps/mission trips together.
- The Christian Chronicle and The Christian Standard could each begin a section that deals with the news and ongoings of the other group.
- Christian colleges/universities of both groups could include tracks in their lectureships/conferences that introduce both groups to each other.
- Perhaps somebody needs to start a ministry of fellowship restoration, specifically focused on bringing not just the leaders, but the grassroots of these two groups together until we learn how to love each other again.
I know somebody is going to think that all this talk of getting to know each other and fellowshipping with people that we hardly know and may not entirely agree with is going to be a slippery slope to . . . you know where!
I’m sure they (the others!) aren’t perfect–but I’m not either, so I’m not going to be afraid of loving someone who loves God. Fear makes us do terrible things–like ignore people who belong to the Body of Christ.
Maybe those people in that little church in Kansas knew something about love and fellowship and unity after all!