Archive for the ‘History of Christianity’ Category

Conflicts between groups of people plague us. Nations wage war. Neighboring cities compete. Allegiances to political and religious institutions divide.

I’m already beginning to see the havoc in the first weeks of a history class about early and medieval Christianity. Of course Christianity is not the only religion to experience conflicts. Just glance through a good introduction to the major religions (something like Stephen Prothero’s God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World), and you’ll see what I’m saying. And of course we see intergroup conflict between other kinds of establishments.

Group of People Standing Holding Culture

Christianity isn’t the only conflicted religion, but its story certainly has its fair share of the mess. And I get to learn about it this semester.

(Although I haven’t always appreciated church history, I’m enjoying this course. Over the last 15 years, as I’ve seen history explain contemporary experiences and even provide some possible responses, I’ve grown to value it. For example, why do Churches of Christ typically worship with voices unaccompanied by other musical instruments? How should church leadership be done? What do I pray when my life is falling apart? Church history addresses all of these and more.)

There’s a lot of positive in the story of this religion. There’s also plenty of negative. But I want us all to understand that the negative doesn’t discredit Christianity in relation to alternative worldviews. All the options have imperfections.

Questions of Culture

One of the imperfections in Christianity (but not just here) is conflict between cultural groups. In the early church, we see this between Jews and non-Jews. (Nothing against Jews here! Jesus is a Jew.) There also was conflict in the church between Jews who wanted to welcome non-Jews and Jews who weren’t so open to that. (Remember that this kind of thing happens everywhere. If the church had started in my home state of Texas instead of Israel, I’m sure there would have been cultural conflicts between the Mexicans and the white folk and between people open to intergroup relations and those preferring monoculturalism.)

This is a struggle in the early life of the church. How can we worship and work together if we’re so different from each other in our talking and thinking and eating and other cultural practices? We still ask similar questions today. What worship songs can connect with all the cultural groups represented in our communities? Where can we find preaching styles that connect cross-culturally? How can we get past the excessive whiteness of our traditional worship styles? (Not to ignore churches that deal with other cultural limitations or have learned to worship and minister in more diverse ways.)

In response to all these questions, we need to hear two answers. One is beautiful but theoretical, and the other is more practical but not as easy as you might want.

Answer One: Jesus

The first answer is that Jesus is our peace and has broken down the dividing wall of cultural hostility (Ephesians 2:14). Some people joke that, when you’re asked in a church Bible class a question to which you don’t know the answer, the answer probably is Jesus. In a sense Jesus is the answer, but in many cases other answers might better respond to the questions. Here, however, the answer is Jesus, who has destroyed the dividing wall between people groups. The people addressed in Ephesians 2 are cultural groups. In the struggle to worship and work together as members of Jesus’ church, we should remember that Jesus “is our peace,” a peace that we are to embody and enact.

Answer Two: Ministry

The second answer responds to questions of how we live out that peace. Should we worship and work in separate communities of Jesus followers, with people of one culture in one congregation and people of another culture in another congregation? Should we strive to incorporate people of diverse cultures in the same congregation? If so, how should we navigate cultural differences? The answer is neither singular nor simple. Church leaders must wrestle with these questions, praying for divine direction, in their respective cultural contexts. What works in Memphis, where I live, might or might not work in Los Angeles or Singapore.

A Needed Conversation

Congregations of Jesus’ followers must proceed through these issues prayerfully and carefully but intentionally and actively. Choosing not to wrestle with matters of cultural reconciliation is choosing not to participate in the peace that is Jesus. When we move forward, with guidance from the Holy Spirit, in efforts to bring diverse cultural groups together in the church, we live out God’s mission of reconciliation (Ephesians 1:9-10).

This was not easy in the early church, and it’s not easy today. Not all cultural groups connect well with all styles of preaching, music, and leadership. One cultural group might benefit from sitting on pews and listening to a lecture, while another might worship more meaningfully when sitting in a circle and engaging in a conversation. One group might experience God through slow, meditative hymns. Another group might more likely encounter the Divine through energetic praise songs. A group might function well with hierarchical leadership, and another might function better with more egalitarian leadership.

And these differences exist not only along cultural lines but also along lines of age, sex, economics, education, and other demographics. There is no single answer that fits every context. I encourage church leaders to study their respective cultural contexts as they study scripture and theology. The best course of action in any situation arises from a conversation between these voices. The point here is to have the conversation, to pray about what needs to be done, and to take action in partnership with God who is reconciling the world through Jesus, our peace who has knocked down the wall.

Churches need such conversations in every generation. If a church had this kind of conversation decades ago, that’s great; but the church needs to regularly ask the questions in order to faithfully and responsibly embrace changing cultures with God’s love.


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Psalms 96 and 98 begin with the same words: “Sing to the LORD a new song.”

When I was preaching for a church in Texas, I taught a series about the history of worship. We began with worship in the Hebrew Bible and continued through the New Testament and the subsequent history of Christianity. One day, after a class about hymns in the history of the church and the need for each generation to express the faith in new ways, a man told me that he had never thought of the fact that each song in our hymnal had at one time been new. He had assumed they’d always been in the book.

Even Psalms 96 and 98 were new songs before they became parts of the Bible. Today, as in all other eras of the church’s story, we need fresh expressions of praise. Because of God’s goodness (Ps. 96:3; 98:1), every generation of the church proclaims the Lord’s glory in new words.

Music moves and motivates us. It reminds us of the good things God has done, and it leads us into increasing spiritual passion.

Let’s use ancient songs and invite God to inspire us to compose and sing new ones.

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Thus far in this mini-series, we’ve looked at four early developments that contributed to the Restoration Movement and three dominant teachings of the movement. This fifth and final post mentions the three major branches of the movement today, gives some information about contemporary Churches of Christ, and lists ten of their contributions to the wider world of faith in Christ. You can find some bonus information at the end.

The Restoration Movement’s quest for unity did not remain united. Two splits resulted in three major branches. Neither split happened at just one date. They developed over time, but estimated dates are available.

The first split finalized in the early 1900s and was due to disagreement regarding at least two topics: instrumental music and missionary societies (parachurch organizations for sending and supporting international ministers). The group endorsing those activities became known as Christian Churches, and the group that chose to avoid missionary societies and to use a cappella music in worship were called Churches of Christ. The Federal Census Bureau  recognized those groups as separate entities in 1906.

The Christian Churches later split into Independent Christian Churches and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). That division apparently began around 1927 and concluded in the late 1960s.

Churches of Christ and Christian Churches remain fairly similar in their beliefs and practices, while the Disciples are generally considered more “liberal” or “progressive” in their theologies.

According to Tom Olbricht, Churches of Christ today have about 3,500,000 members. Around 1,300,000 are in the USA, mostly in Texas, Tennessee, Alabama, Oklahoma, California, and Arkansas. Africa has about 1,000,000 members of Churches of Christ, and there are slightly more than a million in India. Churches of Christ have missionaries, disaster relief organizations, services for the poor, camps for children, grade schools, and colleges and universities. We have no denominational hierarchy; congregations are autonomous and are usually overseen by local elders. Two noticeable characteristics of Churches of Christ are weekly communion and a cappella music. (Yes, we have music; it just doesn’t include human-made instruments.)

Several strengths of Churches of Christ contribute to the larger world of Jesus-followers. Those contributions include the centrality of scripture, a strong commitment to church life, the responsibility of all members (i.e., the “priesthood of believers,” in which all Christians are ministers), church planting and evangelism, personal commitment to the Lord (devotional life), a focus on biblical ethics and morality, concern for the needy, strong networking (both nationally and globally), biblical scholarship, and devotional literature.

And here’s an interesting bonus for you. Famous past and present members of Churches of Christ:

Max Lucado, writer

Pat Sajak of Wheel of Fortune

Fred Thompson of Law & Order

Kenneth Starr, president of Baylor University

Fred Gray, the attorney who defended Rosa Parks

James A. Garfield, the 20th US President and an RM elder before the splits

Several in the music industry: Amy Grant, Randy Travis, Weird Al Yankovic, Pat Boone, Janis Joplin, Marty Roe (Diamond Rio), Loretta Lynn, Ronnie Dunn (Brooks and Dunn), Holly Dunn, Steve Cropper (Blues Brothers), Glen Campbell, Dwight Yoakum, Meatloaf, Mark Wills, Waylon Jennings, Dale Clevenger, Roy Orbison, Kitty Wells, Phoebe Lewis, Jesse Brown Pounds, Tillit S. Teddlie, Lloyd O. Sanderson

Several in sports: Byron Nelson (golf), David Robinson (basketball), Fred McGriff (baseball), Bill Bates (football), Bill Elliott (car racing), Gene Stallings (Alabama football coach), Wimp Sanderson (Alabama basketball coach), Gene Tormohlen (basketball), Clyde Lee (basketball), Jim Morris (baseball), Rick Parros (football), and Scott Hamilton (Olympic gold medalist figure skater)

Jeffrey Dahmer, a serial killer who became a Christian shortly before his execution

For more information on the history of Churches of Christ, click here to explore a website that was helpful in developing the lecture notes in this blog series.

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The early Restoration Movement proclaimed at least three teachings that are still prominent in Churches of Christ today. Those teachings deal with the Bible, unity, and baptism.

The early-nineteenth-century ancestors of contemporary Churches of Christ held the Bible in high regard. Christians in the early days of this movement desired to “speak where the Bible speaks and be silent where the Bible is silent.” That motto, which still characterizes much preaching and teaching, has both strengths and weaknesses. In a world of shifting truths, Christians can benefit from having a steady foundation. On the other hand, of course, the motto itself is not in the Bible and thereby contradicts itself. Also, its varied applications have led to conflicts. Nevertheless, the Churches of Christ have contributed a high regard for scripture to the wider faith conversation. This strong biblical emphasis led to a dismissal of all human-made creeds and to a reliance on scripture as the sole authority for faith and practice in the church and Christian life. It also led to the term “Restoration Movement” to identify this effort to restore the church to some sort of New Testament purity.

Another dominant teaching in the early Restoration Movement emphasized unity. Leaders adopted Augustine’s statement: “In essentials unity, in doubtful things liberty, but in all things love.” (Exactly what those essentials are has been a topic of debate in the last two centuries.) That emphasis on unity led to another slogan: “Christians only, not the only Christians.” Likely based on biblical passages like John 17:20-26 and Ephesians 4:1-6, this teaching highlighted the fact that people in the early Restoration Movement wanted to set aside denominational divisions to just be Christians but did not assume that no Christians existed in other faith communities.

Thirdly, Christians in the early Restoration Movement taught and practiced baptism as an essential element in the conversion process. They rejected infant baptism for the obvious reason that it is not in the Bible, and they insisted that biblical baptism was “immersion in water of a penitent believer.” In order to be baptized, a person had to be old enough to choose the life of faith in Christ. This teaching apparently had at least three biblical bases. First, in Peter’s famous sermon at the beginning of the church, convicted people asked him what they should do. He replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call” (Acts 2:38-39, NIV). Second, the New Testament book of Acts contains many stories of people becoming Christians, and every one of those stories includes baptism. Third, Acts portrays baptism as immersion in water (especially in 8:26-40), and Paul describes baptism as a burial and resurrection in Romans 6:1-7.

Churches of the early Restoration Movement taught other beliefs and practices as well, but these three received the most attention.

My next post will be the last one in this series on the history of Churches of Christ. In it, I’ll briefly mention the three major branches in the Restoration Movement in the twentieth century, give some information about contemporary Churches of Christ, and list ten of their contributions to the wider community of Jesus-followers.

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So far in this blog series, I’ve written about three of the four smaller movements that contributed to the larger one known as the Restoration Movement. Today’s post deals with the fourth one.

In the early 1800s, a group of people in Pennsylvania began voicing thoughts similar to those in Kentucky. The Pennsylvania movement started when Thomas Campbell arrived in Washington County in 1807. Born in Northern Ireland, he had worked for unity among Presbyterian churches in his homeland. However, the Presbyterians in Pennsylvania apparently weren’t as fond of his unifying efforts as those in Northern Ireland had been; so he and some colleagues resigned from their Presbyterian ministry roles and formed a new organization. Thomas Campbell penned its foundational document, the “Declaration and Address of the Christian Association of Washington,” in 1809.

Thomas Campbell’s son, Alexander, had been studying at the University of Glasgow in Scotland. In 1809, he and the rest of their family moved to Pennsylvania to join Thomas. The Campbells’ efforts first took root around Pittsburg and then, with assistance from some Baptist ministers and churches, spread to Ohio and Kentucky.

When the Campbell movement and the Stone movement met in Kentucky, they found in each other a kindred spirit and merged in the 1830s. Then churches in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia, Tennessee, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, and New England joined the merger. After the Civil War, Christian Connexion churches in New England that had not joined the merger set up their headquarters in Dayton, Ohio. Eventually, they would join the Congregational Church in 1931 and then merge with the Evangelical and Reformed Church, forming the United Church of Christ in 1957.

(FYI: Today’s most famous person affiliated with the United Church of Christ is President Barak Obama. The United Church of Christ and the Churches of Christ do not share much in common and are not considered to be related. The only relation is in the fact that part of part of what contributed to the United Church of Christ at one time, long ago, was part of part of what led to the Restoration Movement, of which the Churches of Christ are a part.)

The most influential early leader of the Restoration Movement was by far Alexander Campbell. Others left meaningful contributions, but A. Campbell rose in prominence due to his vast influence in and beyond the movement. He was a journal editor and a book publisher, and he was active in public debates and lectures. He founded Bethany College in West Virginia and emphasized reason over emotion, in line with the Scottish Enlightenment in which he was educated. He modified some Calvinistic ideas, but his theology remained largely Reformed.

By 1900, the Restoration Movement had about a million members and was the fastest-growing indigenous American religious group.

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I’m continuing my lecture notes about the history of Churches of Christ. Yesterday, I introduced the events in Virginia and New England that contributed to the Restoration Movement. The two movements that became most influential in the history of the early Restoration Movement initially developed in Kentucky and Pennsylvania in the late 1700s and early 1800s. This post overviews what happened in Kentucky.

The prominent leader in the Kentucky movement was Barton W. Stone, who was born in Maryland and lived several years in North Carolina. In 1796, Stone visited Kentucky as a 24-year-old Scotch Presbyterian itinerant preacher. About two years later, Presbyterian churches in Cane Ridge and Concord brought him back to Kentucky to serve as their resident minister. They experienced a little snag in his ordination process. In order for the presbytery to ordain Stone, he had to agree with their confession of faith. However, he told the presbyters that he could not agree with all of it. Instead of cancelling their invitation for him to serve as their preacher, they asked him how much of the confession he could accept. He replied that he could accept it “as far as I see it consistent with the word of God.” They thought that was good enough and ordained him.

Three years later, in 1801, thousands of people gathered for a lengthy revival there. That event came to be known as the Cane Ridge Revival, and it drew national attention. It was the largest gathering of people for worship, evangelism, and fellowship in the history of American Christianity up to that point. The preaching was more emotional than earlier styles typical in frontier America, and at times as many as six preachers spoke simultaneously in different parts of the expansive field. The crowds also became quite emotional, experiencing various strange occurrences—falling and remaining motionless for long periods, jerking uncontrollably, dancing, making sounds that Stone called “barking,” and more. Although such experiences would not become dominant characteristics of the Restoration Movement, they did contribute to the enthusiasm of the cause.

In Barton Stone’s 1798 ordination, he and the presbytery apparently hadn’t been clear about their disagreements. Instead, they had let “as far as I see it consistent with the word of God” be sufficient. By 1803, their disagreements had proven unmanageable, so Stone and some others left that organization and formed the Springfield Presbytery. Stone identified the focus of their preaching: “The distinguishing doctrine preached by us was, that God loved the world–the whole world, and sent his Son to save them, on condition that they believed in Him; that the gospel was the means of salvation, etc. We urged upon the sinner to believe now and receive salvation.”

The Springfield Presbytery soon decided to abandon all denominational labels and to be known simply as “Christians,” the term by which early Jesus-followers had become known in Acts 11:26. That decision led to a document called “The Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery” on June 28, 1804. The leaders who signed the document were John Dunlavy, Robert Marshall, Richard McNemar, David Purviance, Barton W. Stone, and John Thompson. They willed “that this body die, be dissolved, and sink into union with the body of Christ at large; that one name of distinction be forgotten; that one power of making laws for the government of the church and executing them by delegated authority forever cease; that the Church of Christ resume her native right of self-government; that the people henceforth take the Bible as the only sure guide to heaven; that preachers and people cultivate a spirit of mutual forbearance; pray more and dispute less.”

Historians today generally point to that document as the birth of the Restoration Movement.

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Spartanburg Methodist College religion professor Dr. Kris Pratt invited me to speak as a guest lecturer in his History of Christianity class this Wednesday. My assigned topic was the history of Churches of Christ. Since the class had been discussing eighteenth-century events, I focused more on early people, events, and ideas of the early Restoration Movement and less on later developments. I’m fleshing out my lecture notes for you here. To (hopefully) avoid boring you, I’ll do this in five posts.

Churches of Christ are one branch of the American Restoration Movement, which began in the late 1700s and early 1800s. During that time, following the Revolutionary War, several people of faith in this land had become frustrated by institutional structures and British theology and control. They had caught an American spirit of individualism and essentially said to the religious establishments of their day, “Thanks for caring, but we can decide for ourselves what to believe and what to do.”

Four little movements would eventually join forces to form the Restoration Movement, and those groups began in four different areas—Virginia, New England, Kentucky, and Pennsylvania. I’ll address the first two in this post.

In the 1780s, a group of Methodist ministers led by James O’Kelly in Virginia wanted freedom for circuit riders to determine their own schedules. Circuit riders were preachers who traveled regularly to serve various congregations. Their request for more scheduling freedom did not result in the outcome they desired. Instead, the bishop took more control. As often happens when an authority figure denies a heartfelt request from followers, that group of ministers left the Methodist Church and began the Reformed Methodist Church. Of course, “reformed” means re-made, presumably in a better way. Not much later, in 1794, they changed their name to the Christian Church. By 1800, this new movement had reached North Carolina, South Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, Ohio, and Indiana.

A similar development with more obvious theological contributions occurred around the same time in New England, especially in the developing areas of Vermont and New Hampshire. Some people from Baptist backgrounds started new churches and called them the Christian Connexion. Notable leaders of this movement included Abner Jones and Elias Smith. The Christian Connexion stopped tax support of ministers, rejected some Calvinistic/Puritan theologies about election and predestination, held the Bible (especially the New Testament) as their only authority, and encouraged people to separate from their religious traditions in order to restore the “New Testament church.” In the early 1800s, this movement made its way to New York, Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan.

The two movements that would become most influential in the history of the Restoration Movement initially developed in Kentucky and Pennsylvania, and I plan to overview them in my next two posts.

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