The Church: learning from the past

In about 1801 Barton W. Stone began to proclaim a back to the Bible message in the area around Lexington, KY. In 1807 Thomas and Alexander Campbell, unbeknownst to Stone, began preaching much the same message in Bethany, WV. The two groups ultimately found each other and merged in 1832.

Not to know history is to suffer from historical amnesia. What did this movement we know as Churches of Christ do right, and where can we learn, from its history and do better?

  • Going back to the Bible was not only right, but an inspiration! What we asked was what did the first century Christians do? We possessed a very high view of Scripture: The Bible was the word of God, and it held the final say in everything we did (Revelation 22:18,19; Matthew 24:36). What was the alternative? Go back to a man? Go back to several men? You don’t improve on a back to the Bible call.
  • We developed a reputation for knowing the Bible. Like the Bereans, members of churches of Christ studied the Bible deeply, habitually and knew it well (Acts 17:11). The life of our people was the word of God, studying it, praying over it, thrilling at its truths.

Regular members knew their Bible. I remember both of my grandfathers studying their Bibles, Johnson’s notes, and their own scribbled notes lying on the dining room table. And I daresay that most of the church members reading thus far know their Bibles better than most members of denominational fellowships.

  • Back to the Bible was a self-correcting mechanism: Every reading of the Scripture is a call back to God. Do you feel we have emphasized too much law and not enough grace? A study of the word of God will correct that mistake. Do you feel we have done too much teaching about the church and not enough about Christ? A study of Scripture will correct that. But make no mistake, if we do not go back to the Bible we will have no chance of returning to a spiritual and biblical balance.
  • We were evangelistic: We believed and practiced the great commission (Matthew 28:19,20). Stone and Campbell’s movements grew “like fire in dry stubble” (Campbell, quoting Stone, MH March 1832, 138). When the Stone and Campbell movements merged in 1832 they totaled about 60,000 members. By 1900 the number had swollen to one and a half million.

There was a setback in 1906 when the Disciples of Christ and Churches of Christ divided, a traumatic period. Interestingly the vast majority of these were Disciples; churches of Christ numbered only 150,000. But by the 1960s they had grown to 2 million! Churches of Christ were the largest indigenous fellowship in the United States. It was the nation’s fastest-growing fellowship. And, what is more, we were supporting more missionaries than ever in our history!

Did We Make Mistakes? Well, We’re Human. All have sinned, even members of churches of Christ (Romans 3:23).

Here are some concerns, in my judgment:

  • In the past, we emphasized Hellfire and damnation to the exclusion of God’s love. It is possible we have gone too far to the other side and need to speak of the wrath of the Almighty once again.
  • Some accused us of believing we were the only ones going to heaven. I have never actually heard a preacher in our fellowship say this, but we have obviously miscommunicated something.
  • We say we do not believe in the clergy-laity system, but we certainly act like that’s what we want.
  • We have sometimes emphasized minors over majors, in Jesus’ words forgotten the “weightier matters of the law” (Matthew 23:23).
  • We Sang. We Sang Well. Yes, we insisted that while the Bible was silent on the subject of instrumental music, it was distinctly not silent on the subject of singing. Over and over again the New Testament commanded us to sing (Colossians 3:16; Ephesians 5:19; 1 Corinthians 14:15).

We have had songwriters as good as any in Christian worship: Think about the beauty and biblical truth of such songs as Will Thompson’s “Jesus Is All the World to Me,” Tillit S. Teddlie’s “Hear Me When I Call,” Tommy Wheeler’s “I Love the Lord,” L.O. Sanderson’s “Be With Me Lord” or indeed A.W. Dycus’s “There Is a God, He Is Alive.” And we could go on.

Our Heroes: We act as if other religious groups have heroes, yet neglect to remember and be inspired by our own. Yes, there are many great people in our fellowship: There are many Christians whose lifestyles we should “remember” and “imitate” (Hebrews 13:7). Names that come to mind are Sarah Andrews, missionary to Japan for close to half a century, serving others while on hands and knees because she too was worn and maimed. I also think of Otis Gatewood, missionary to Germany right after World War II, and the man who smuggled Bibles behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War. I think of Carl Spain who courageously challenged Christian colleges to admit African American students. At times we become so negative that we fail to take the many heroic figures in our brotherhood into account.

EDITOR’S NOTE. This is the last article we have from Stan. It was a pleasure to publish his articles for many years. Stan himself is considered a hero and example to many saints. We are grateful for his good work and good words. So much so that we are preparing an ebook of his articles. We hope to make it available soon, with proceeds going to a cause of his family’s choice.

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Stan Mitchell

Stan began preaching in 1976, and worked in Zimbabwe, California, Texas and Tennessee. He served as preacher with the Red Walnut Church of Christ in Bath Springs, TN. He was Professor of Bible at Freed-Hardeman University. He was married to the former Marjorie McCarthy, and has one daughter, Tracy Watts. He authored five books: The Wise Get Wiser, the Foolish More Foolish: The Book of Proverbs; Give the Winds a Mighty Voice: Our Worship in Song; Equipping the Saints for Ministry; and Will Our Faith Have Children: Developing Leadership in the Church for the Next Generation. Stan passed away 19 Feb. 2019.

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5 thoughts on “The Church: learning from the past

  1. Indeed, a good man has finally gone home to receive his glorious crown! Stan has indeed built righteous leaders for the next generation of Christians that would dearly missed his physical presence!! Rest on, brother Stan, in the bossom of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ!!! I celebrate your earthly life with the family you left behind, forthright publishers and with the entire body of Christ. Good bye!

  2. This is an outstanding article by one of the best writers the church ever had. Stan encouraged others and built them up in faith in God’s word. He has an enduring epitaph because his works do follow him.

  3. Stan was a treasure to the church, and this last article by him should be shared far and wide! Thank you for assembling some of his excellent works for publication.

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