Why Are We Divided?

I responded to one of those on-line questionnaires the other day, the kind where you are asked a million dollar question and you are given about 25 cents worth of space to answer. The questions were really good, don’t misunderstand me. I just did not feel like I could answer fully in the space allotted. Sometimes questions can be too good.

So, after some time to cogitate just a little more, here is a little more depth to how I responded.

First, are “main line” Churches of Christ divided, and if so, why? My response: I’m not sure that there is a “main line” Church of Christ, and maybe there never was. So, I guess I would have to say, yes, we are divided. Why? Well, as the questionnaire stated, it’s complicated.

First, I said we do not know our history. Many even deny we have a history. We have a history of historylessness. It is a grammatical and sociological impossibility, but somehow we have managed to pull it off. When I was an undergraduate one of the most despised courses (except for a few souls) was the course on Restoration History. The prevailing feeling among my fellow students was that we were just so much smarter than Alexander Campbell, Barton W. Stone, “Racoon” John Smith, Walter Scott, et. al. Everybody wanted to spend time studying the modern gurus of religion like Bill Hybels. How is that working out for you now, fellas?

I once had a good brother express genuine shock when I explained that one cause of the split between the Disciples of Christ/Christian Church and the Churches of Christ was the introduction of any kind of musical instrument into the worship service. He had been under the impression that it was the Churches of Christ who caused the division because we decided we hated music and therefore kicked everyone who wanted to use an instrument out of the building.

Oy vey.

It’s trite, it’s been overused, but the saying is still true – those who do not know and understand their history are doomed to repeat it. You cannot learn from a lesson if you deny the existence of that lesson, and if you refuse to even hear the lesson taught to you. Our current state of disunion is nothing more than the seeds of previous generations sprouting in new soil. But, the overwhelming majority of folks just cannot see that, because they do not believe we have a history.

Second, I pointed out that we as a community do not handle ambiguity well. I fear I will be misunderstood here so let me qualify my statement. I DO NOT believe the Bible to be ambiguous. However, today’s culture is rife with ambiguity, and as a distinct religious community we have focused on the cut and dried, the black and white, of faith. As an aside, I think our focus on the New Testament is the major culprit here. The Old Testament speaks openly of ambiguity, of anguish, of pain, and to be honest, of doubt. Job, Jeremiah, the Psalms, major sections of the Old Testament – all contain long and wrenching passages that express that this world is not what it is supposed to be, and why doesn’t God do something about it. Job, Jeremiah, and the various Psalmists all believed in and proclaimed the truth of God’s message – but they had no reservations but what the world is full of ambiguity. I just do not think we handle the ambiguity of our culture very well. I know I don’t. I am a child of my tradition, too.

Finally, I pointed out that we as a community do not have any mechanism for communal lament and confession. Shameless advertisement here – I wrote my doctoral dissertation of this very issue, so I think I know a little of which I speak. We are very capable of confessing the faults of other groups. Confess our own? Perish the thought. We have no faults. We are perfect. We have never sinned in thought or deed, and an anathema be upon anyone who suggests otherwise.

Um, 1 John 1:8-10, anyone?

So, yes, the “main line” Churches of Christ are divided. Probably always have been, it is just that maybe the lines of division are becoming a little more obvious than in past generations. We now have “super” or “mega” preachers that openly teach and preach positions that are diametrically opposed to biblical doctrine. Scripture is not inspired, it is merely inspiring. Scripture is relativized. Cultural standards are held to be more authoritative than God’s word. I would suggest that the majority of Churches of Christ have gone “mainstream” Evangelical – we have certainly lost our apocalyptic (counter-cultural) roots. Alexander Campbell would probably be welcome in the majority of congregations, Barton W. Stone and David Lipscomb would not.

It is not my job to “fix” the Churches of Christ. All I can do is guard my own teaching – follow the principles of biblical interpretation that I have been taught and hold to be valuable, share what I have learned and what I feel to be important, and rely upon the grace of God to “fix” what is deficient in my admittedly human understanding.

I don’t ever want someone to think or believe something because I said it. I want people to think or believe something because they can find it in the Bible – something that God wants them to think, believe, and obey. May we all have Philippians 2:1-11 as our polar star.

We ascend higher when we climb lower.

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.

5 thoughts on “Why Are We Divided?”

  1. One of your better ones (from my completely subjective opinion, of course!). I still need to do some reading from Stone and Lipscomb. I think Campbell had such an intellectual hold on the movement that other important voices got obscured. I did my master’s thesis on Campbell’s theology and hermeneutics but I think I missed an opportunity to explore a RM leader that I was not as familiar with. If I had it do over again, I would probably focus on Stone.


    1. Why, thank’y David. Regarding Campbell, his message merged with the optimistic fervor of the new Republic far more seamlessly than did Stone’s, so I think in many ways it was inevitable that his message became the primary message of the Restoration Movement. Although he never uttered the phrase (to my knowledge), his theory would eventually become the “manifest destiny” of just a few years later (T. Roosevelt? Woodrow Wilson? I forget who used the term). Anyway, in regards to your other point, Stone did not leave as much of a literary heritage as did Campbell – his journal is a lot harder to find than is the Christian Baptist or the Millennial Harbinger, even today. I have a book that includes some of his thoughts – his beliefs regarding the Trinity, for example, are a real head scratcher for me. For Lipscomb, you almost have the other problem. He wrote prolifically for the Gospel Advocate, and just like AC, it is possible to find him arguing from both sides depending on the context. To be honest, I get most of my “feel” for Lipscomb from his book “Civil Government,” and from secondary sources such as Richard Hughes – a real Lipscomb scholar in our brotherhood. Another good resource for Lipscomb would be John Mark Hicks (although sometimes I question the purpose for which Hicks is quoting Lipscomb, but I digress).

      BTW – I love your *new* blog. Although our situation is far removed from yours (and others who live in constant pain), We continually struggle with the cloud that some cancers have a very high return percentage, and with every recurrence the percentage of survivors drops. “Broken and Mended” does not always mean that the vessel remains mended, it is always susceptible to further fractures, and even those who remain mended sometimes “walk with a limp.” Love the metaphor of the bowl you used!!

      Take care,


      Liked by 1 person

  2. Paul, you hit several of my complaints. Our nation lacks an historical perspective on just about everything. I grew up in New Jersey and in the 60s shoveled snow in the driveway and sidewalks many a time, yet weather reports think that the next blizzard is the worse in history.

    Our traditions miss historical perspective as well. We skip 18 centuries of church history and some of own because we think we know it all. And we do not think of lament, etc., because we are focus on forms rather than on people and hearts. We state our slogans and then contradict them and yet justify ourselves and our excuses.

    And since you mentioned the OT, we have just ignored it. I sat in a class were a teacher who was a professor (not Bible) was teaching 2 Cor. 6. The last few verses were eight quotes by Paul from the OT. He completely ignored them and moved into chapter 7.

    Challenging any of this is a moving experience and no matter how peaceful the exodus, it still causes division. Yet we rarely look at ourselves but tend to blame others. Enough rambling for now.


    PS: Good and thoughtful article.


    1. Thank you, George! It is nice to know I am not the only squeaky wheel on the train! I think your experience with the Bible class teacher could be repeated endlessly. We love the OT when it fits our needs, but studiously avoid it otherwise. I personally would not change my history with the Churches of Christ for any amount of love or money, but at the same time, I would genuinely love to box the ears of some of our more vocal “leaders” (past and present!).

      Gee, aren’t I the impeccable one!!




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.