Lessons from the Past
John D. Telgren

"But now - we have become a 'Religious Body,' We have our shibboleths, our 'fixed principles,' and there is danger lest we too, shall become infatuated with the Romish conceit of infallibility, against which we said so much in those early pioneer days, which the veterans among us have so much reason to remember."

This quotation comes from an anonymous author in an open discussion in the March, 1864 issue of the Millenial Harbringer, which Alexander Campbell edited. Many were raising the question as to whether the churches of Christ had settled in to being a sectarian denomination rather than a simple, non-denominational, bible-only church. So this question is by no means a new one among us.

In the early 10th century, a religious revival took hold of the country. The "restoration" movement became one of the largest religious groups in the United States in the 19th century. The leaders all came out of various protestant denominations which included Presbyterians, Methodists, and Baptists. Initially, many of these men tried to reform their churches back to the purity of New Testament worship and service, but were unable to because ecclesiastical powers prevented them. When these men severed their ties to their denominations, they found themselves in a strange new world. With the freedom to study, learn, and teach the Bible without ecclesiastical control, the wildfire of restoration swept across the frontier.

However, the second and third generations saw a cooling of those fires. Traditions, customs, and interpretations solidified as the fire cooled. This gave rise to the question of whether we had become just another sectarian denomination. The emphasis on biblical unity eventually gave way to a circling of our wagons with an adversarial attitude. However, others continued unity talks, pleading with others to throw off man made creeds and unite on biblical teaching alone.

The earliest leaders slowly made radical changes in their belief system. When they encountered scriptures that challenged their belief or practice, they chose change direction rather than "bunker down." Succeeding generations who were raised in the church did not have this experience. As a result, course adjustments became more difficult. Some refused to make course corrections, believing that they had it all figured out. As a result, the late 19th century and early 20th century saw the rise of one-cup, non-institutional ("anti"), non-class, non paid preacher, and a number of other churches. There were those who made practically everything a test of fellowship. One of Campbell's cardinal rules for biblical interpretation was humility, which seemed to have been lost in some quarters. Humility is part of what enables one to admit incomplete understanding and grow in faith and knowledge. Is it any wonder that people were raising the question as to whether we have become a denomination? In some respects, it looked like this is what had happened in some places.

But of course, that would never happen to us.