An Apocalyptic Vision for the Church

In my essay yesterday I pointed out that Barton Stone, and just a generation later David Lipscomb, grasped something about New Testament Christianity that Alexander Campbell either could not see, or rejected. Campbell was an ardent post-millennialist: he believed the movement of which he was a part would usher in the “millennium” and at the end of a long period of human perfection, Christ would come and establish his reign in heaven. He even named his second journal the Millennial Harbinger to emphasize that point. In a semi-related footnote, the Civil War destroyed that belief for Campbell, and he died as so many prophets of human exceptionalism die, disappointed.

Stone, and later Lipscomb, saw things differently. They were just as committed to the restoration principle (just return to the pages of the New Testament in order to restore the church to New Testament simplicity), but they recognized something else. The New Testament has an undeniable forward looking dimension, but it is not created by the wisdom or strength of mankind. For Stone and Lipscomb, if the world is to become a better place, it will only happen by the power of God, and that will only occur through the working of the body of Christ on earth, the church! Lipscomb was especially adamant on this point, writing clearly and passionately that Christians are to avoid every form of contamination with politics, even to the point of refusing to vote. Christians could not participate in the army (Lipscomb was horrified at the thought of Christians killing Christians in the Civil War), nor were they to serve in any civil positions. Christians are to live as kingdom citizens, and it is the reign of God in heaven that draws disciples of Christ into living in and promoting the reign of God on earth.

This is the polar opposite of “pie in the sky by and by” theology whereby Christians simply try to be “good people” until they die so that they can float around on little clouds playing their golden harps. This apocalyptic worldview almost got Lipscomb killed, and it was his adamant refusal to participate in politics that has resulted in his influence basically being expunged from the history of the Churches of Christ. On the first point, during a severe outbreak of a deadly epidemic (cholera, if I remember correctly) in Nashville, while Christians fled the city in droves, Lipscomb stayed and used his horse and buggy to drive Roman Catholic nuns around the city so they could minister to the sick and dying. Regarding the second point, it was during World War I, and ultimately World War II that the pacifistic view of Lipscomb was violently rejected (pun intended) so that the members of the Churches of Christ could be viewed as “good patriotic Americans.” Today, among the overwhelming majority of members of the Churches of Christ, patriotism is virtually identical to Christianity. Lipscomb, and I believe Stone, would be aghast.

As any reader can probably guess, I am deeply indebted to Stone (what I can read of him, although he did have some weird ideas). I am even more indebted to Lipscomb. I have read Lipscomb’s Civil Government and I am impressed with two things: Lipscomb’s profound biblical knowledge, and his theological insights. Those who disagree with Lipscomb very rarely ever actually engage Lipscomb, they simply defend their love of country and their political commitments more loudly. Which, in an ironic manner, simply proves Lipscomb’s point: you cannot promote God’s kingdom and the kingdom of Satan at the same time. Jesus said it this way, you cannot serve God and man.

A truly apocalyptic worldview has profound implications for the church. I’m not even sure I understand all of them – no, I am certain that I do not understand all of them. I have lived my entire life in an ethos where Christianity and Americanism were considered identical. America was God’s chosen land, and he blessed it with prosperity and peace. I do not think I have ever seen, and I have certainly not worshipped in, a church that is so fully immersed in the kingdom of God that it seeks to literally overturn the rule of Satan in its community. A congregation that exists so that its members can float around on little clouds when they die is inherently crippled – it has no eyes to see, no ears to hear, and certainly no arms or hands to help. Conversely, a church that lives each and every day empowered by God’s indwelling kingdom not only sees, not only hears, but intentionally and actively works to alleviate human misery and to promote that indwelling kingdom.

As America sinks deeper and deeper into moral depravity and violence, I am growing more and more convinced that only this apocalyptic worldview will save the church. We must, we absolutely must, accept the reality that those who deny the lordship of Christ will never be able to think or legislate themselves out of the quagmire that those who deny the lordship of Christ have thought and legislated themselves into. Only when we learn to live, to utterly and totally exist fully immersed in God’s kingdom of love and justice, will the church be able to be the light set on a hill, to be the salt that purifies and preserves this generation.

Author: Paul Smith

Paul Smith was born in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He holds the Bachelor of Science in Youth Ministry, Master of Biblical Studies and Master of Divinity, all from Abilene Christian University; and the Doctor of Ministry from Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. Paul's passion is in teaching and preaching the gospel. Beyond the study of the Bible, his main academic interest is in the life and theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He is an unashamed mountain-goat, and longs to spend his time with his feet in a cold trout stream.

4 thoughts on “An Apocalyptic Vision for the Church”

  1. Paul, I know I have shared some of this before – but this does sound a little bit like NT Wright’s teaching about the future – God is shaping it for His glory. It is only in God that we will be “perfected”, and truly – only after the resurrection. None of that keeps us living each day in such a way as we are ‘bringing’ the kingdom of God to live on earth – as it is in heaven. If we allow God’s light to reflect through us, then we will brighten our part of earth! Thanks for sharing the Stone/Lipscomb thoughts – we ALL need reminding of them now and again! In Him, Ted

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    1. Thanks, Ted. I do see some similarities between Wright and Stone – if I read Stone correctly (and I do not have a lot of Stone material, but secondary authors who have studied Stone make those arguments). That just goes to prove two things to me: Stone, Campbell, Lipscomb, and many others, were brilliant beyond their time, and if all students base their work on the Scriptures, they will in some way reflect each other. My thinking on “heaven” is evolving right now, and the more I study the New Testament (I am working in Revelation right now), Wright’s work makes a lot of sense. He may have gone overboard in some areas (who doesn’t at times), but it sure makes more sense to me that God creating a realm where a bunch of disembodies spirits float around with nothing to do.

      Thanks again –

      Paul

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  2. You assess Stone, Lipscomb, and Campbell well. There are two points with which I disagree, at least in part. First, Lipscomb’s influence lives on among a still-strong strain of pacifism in Churches of Christ. Though it may not be as monolithic as in his time, I have been in groups where it might be considered “dangerous” to be otherwise. Second, I personally engaged both Scripture and Lipscomb as well as Foy Wallace, Jr., whose book “The Sermon on the Mount and the Civil State” charted a far different course. I discovered the emphasis on being peacemakers that Lipscomb noted, but also both encouragement to be productive citizens and examples of civil servants and soldiers who were not told to forsake their work. However, I also discovered the demand to place citizenship in the Kingdom of God above earthly citizenship when asked to make a choice. There is a third way, and I believe it to be the most faithful choice.

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    1. Michael, thank you for your insights! I am especially intrigued about your experience in “pacifist” congregations of the Churches of Christ. I am curious – was this a regional experience, or have you seen/felt the same thing in many places throughout the country/world? You are absolutely correct about Wallace. It was Wallace more than any other individual who, especially in the post WWII world, attacked Lipscomb and his followers most stridently. Lipscomb’s pacifism had already taken some dings in the early 20th century, but Wallace was indefatigable in his pursuit of those he felt had betrayed not only the country, but the gospel as well.

      I would agree that there are examples of individuals in the New Testament who demonstrate that a person can be a soldier/civic leader. We read of individuals who were in those positions when they became Christians – and we are certainly not told they left those positions. What we do not see is the occurrence of an individual who, after becoming a Christian, then picks up the sword or assumes public office. This may well have happened – the record is simply silent on this question, and I am loathe to make binding arguments solely on the silence of Scripture.

      I think it was in a previous blog life that I presented what I would do should a young man or woman approach me with the desire to enter the military. I would find out as much as I could about the motivation, and their acceptance of the fact that whatever other purposes the military has, the primary reason for an armed military is to kill militants from another nation. Also, they cannot pick and choose which orders they want to obey. If an order is “legal,” that is, if it follows the chain of command and does not violate the military code of justice, they are bound to obey it. If they understood all of the variables associated with military life, I would certainly not deny their ambition (school, service to nation, family, etc.,) but my counsel would be to find good, solid spiritual assistance throughout their service. Its just that I could never encourage such service. Too many men and women enter the military as eager young people, only to leave as shells of their previous selves, if they are able to leave alive at all.

      Again, thanks for the comment! I appreciate the conversations –

      Paul

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