ESSAY ON CHRISTIAN UNITY
PILGRIMAGE TO CHRISTIAN UNITY
Is your church the only true church? Does your church boast of its distinctive doctrine, heritage and spiritual devotion? Do you think the teachers of your church tradition are more right than the teachers of other church traditions? These attitudes persist within Christian fellowships with varying intensity; and hinder Christians from earnestly seeking unity and truth. The truth is this. On the night before Jesus was crucified, during the Last Passover Supper; he prayer for unity for all his disciples and believers (John 17). When you embrace Christian unity you embrace the heart of Christ for all his people.
A NOBLE CHRISTIAN PILGRIMAGE
In the early 1800s, leaders from different established denominations cooperated together to awaken our new country to Christ’s claim upon their lives. The powerful revivals of the Second Great Awakening in America sparked a renewed interest in Christian unity. However, many protective clergy became defensive when the light on unity exposed the sectarian nature of denominational creeds and governments. Not surprisingly, denominations shackled nondenominational efforts to win souls to Christ. Even so, many other spiritual leaders enthusiastically embraced the quest for Christian unity by challenging the sectarian mindset and systems with the great thought of freedom to fellowship in Christ. The timing seemed providential since the new nation was energized by its own revolution of freedom’s possibilities.
In 1853 a doctor named Robert Richardson published a concise explanation of one of the vigorous, Christian unity and freedom movements on the American frontier. His booklet was entitled: The Principles and Objects of the Religious Reformation. The promoters of unity believed the Christian church should continue its religious reformation and end its divisions. Disgusted with the shackles and controversies of sectarianism, they seized their day for Christian unity and freedom. These adventurous leaders believed they could succeed; but that success required a more diligent effort, the very restoration of New Testament Christianity. The most progress would be made under conditions where believers felt encouraged to study their Bible, think for themselves, respect freedom of conscience, and tolerate private judgment.
Before the Civil War this restoration effort grew into an exemplary nondenominational fellowship of Christians. First, they restored the general nature of Christianity by practicing acceptance of all believers on the least that God requires for acceptance with Himself: faith in the person of His Son Jesus based on the facts and truths of the gospel message. Second, they sought to restore the simple nature of Christianity by following the Christian system or pattern of the New Testament. Their plan was working until certain teachers made disputed elements of the pattern a basis for fellowship, rather than Christ.
Concerned spiritual planters and leaders lifted up Christ and his call for unity, and spotted the pitfalls to realizing the vision for unity. Indeed, the movement got stuck in several controversies in its quest for the purest doctrine and pattern for the church. So they sought to quench the fires of controversy and “uncharitable divisions”. They exhorted that Christians should be free to draw conclusions in beliefs and practices based upon their own reasoning. They also admonished that no church should bind human opinions; nor expect one to possess clear judgment or a high degree of doctrinal information for fellowship.
PASSION FOR THE PILGRIMAGE OF UNITY
That story from Christian history is about my own spiritual heritage. My heritage was initiated by a dream that Christian freedom to practice non-sectarian and non-denominational Christianity would foster an environment for unity. This dream is no stagnated tradition of Bible school lore; but for me an adventure in a living faith. Indeed, my Bible school teachers instilled the adventure, teaching: “We only go by the Bible, so if the Bible says something different than we are saying, you must go by the Bible.” I took this call to freedom seriously. They gave this freedom a practical purpose with a profound slogan from our heritage: We speak where the Bible speaks, and we are silent where the Bible is silent. As to this concept of silence, they even taught that we could disagree in matters of opinion and still be brothers. This amazed me! I took them at their word and embraced the idea that freedom in matters of opinion must be respected among fellow Christians. Finally, they also supported this teaching with a catchy slogan from our heritage: In truth, unity; in opinion, freedom; and in all things love.
It seemed that my heritage had captured in a few slogans the Christian passion for brotherhood and unity. Yet, today within my own noble heritage while many give lip service to nondenominational Christianity, sectarianism still badgers any genuine unity effort. Some do live in the spirit of this provocative slogan of the nondenominational heritage: “We are Christians only, but not the only Christians.” But those with an extremist spirit of sectarianism adamantly contradict: “We are the only Christians.” The voices of sectarians are louder. Friends of Christ in other groups can’t help but feel unmercifully judged and offended by the self-righteousness of those who assert that they are the only ones going to heaven. Not all sectarianism is this extreme, but like-minded pride in the distinctive doctrines, heritage and spiritual devotion in any church will frustrate free and genuine expressions of Christian unity and brotherhood.
There can be no peace between those indoctrinated to defend that they are the “only Christians” and those who understand that “We are Christians only, but not the only Christians.” The “only Christians” view cannot survive except in an atmosphere of sectarian pride and judging. Worst of all, the defenders must twist the new covenant into a way of righteousness through law. This error is like the Galatians’ heresy. A greatly alarmed Apostle Paul admonished the Galatians that “the slave woman and her son” has no inheritance with “the free woman and her son.” Consider that church members and prospective members with honest and good hearts reject and leave churches in tears or in disgust because they become disheartened by the callous, self-righteous proclamation of the one true church.
CLEARING A PATH FOR CHRISTIAN UNITY
How do sects support their doctrine that their church alone is true, the only one going to heaven? Their doctrines are a misinterpretation and misuse of the Holy Scriptures. Picture your reflection in the fun house distortion mirrors at fairs and carnivals? Some mirrors make you look thinner and taller, some shorter and rounder, and other weird contortions. All the features of your appearance could be seen, but the features were distorted. This is the effect that misinterpretation and misuse of the scriptures can have on the word of God. Paul encouraged Timothy: “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.” (2 Timothy 2:15, ESV). Consider how sectarians distort select scriptures to support their exclusive status and judgment against others. These distortions must be corrected to clear a path for Christian unity.
“He answered, ‘Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be rooted up.’” (Matthew 15:13, ESV). Is Christ’s word about uprooting “every plant” a sweeping judgment against every Christian church but mine? In Matthew 15:1-20, Jesus confronted the religious hypocrisy of the Pharisees and scribes, arising from their self-righteous religious devotion to the time-honored traditions of their elders. Their traditions were logical applications of the Old Testament pattern which they bound as law or sacred ordinances. In their view all Jews should have honored these traditions; like washing hands, not eating unclean foods, and keeping offering vows (called Corban or Korban). They bound these traditions upon themselves and others with such great pride and weight, that they violated the clear commandments of God, like honoring their parents, loving their neighbor, and showing mercy to sinners. In Matthew 15:13, Jesus meant that his heavenly Father did not plant these hypocritical and blind guides among the teachers of the law. As the Father would uproot them, the disciples of Jesus should let them alone. In other words, the disciples should ignore their judgments and avoid the trap of their pride and hypocrisy.
Is our time any different? Shouldn’t we too be on guard against the leaven of prideful and controlling hypocrites in the Christian brotherhood? Beware of those who assert their own privileged status based on their traditional interpretations of the New Testament pattern. They judge the faithfulness of all others to God based on agreement and submission to their traditions and interpretations. Yet they must know that they even fall short of God’s glory in vital areas of faithfulness; for their own sermons are full of judgments against their own congregations. Thus, they are blind to the fact that their self-righteous and self-exalted judgments are a barrier to God’s mercy. Alarmingly, they distort God’s sovereign grace by making it the exclusive privilege of only those who accept their system. Their system is a topical arrangement of New Testament proof texts, some Old Testament proof texts, preferred interpretations, and inferences that are institutionalized as doctrine and practice. But unlike Christ’s Apostles, they make little room in their fellowship for differences of opinion and conscience. Christ’s Apostles made ample room for fellowship, providing that God’s gospel of salvation and freedom in Christ was not nullified, and the churches promoted the spiritual growth of all believers by teaching truth and correcting error in love and respect.
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 7:21, ESV). Near the end of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus challenged those who claimed to be disciples, but who were really hypocrites. They do not enter the kingdom of heaven because their righteousness is just like the scribes and the Pharisees (See Matthew 5-7). They call Jesus Lord, but do not do the will of God. This is a danger to all who hypocritically call Jesus Lord. Sects tragically misinterpret Matthew 7:21 by equating the cherished proof texts of their church tradition with the will of the Father. The New Testament is the will of the Father; and we must test human interpretations and claims of what the authoritative pattern is. Beware that proof texts can be misused to support sectarian bias. Even if a proof text is used correctly, the use could still be out-of-context and so narrowly defined by the traditional usage that members of the church fail to apprehend the meaning in light of the fullness of the divine revelation. The result is group distinctiveness built upon select scriptures, biased interpretations, and superficial practices. The Lord simply warned against pride, even in great works, as assurance that a disciple fulfilled the will of God. Instead, the will of the Father requires the inward, humble, trusting, Golden Rule standard of righteousness that Jesus seeks of us.
“Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” (Matthew 7:13-14, ESV). Are you aware that this passage is notoriously misused by Christian sects and cults to prove that their group holds the only true way to heaven? Suppose one of these groups only has a few million members on this earth of several billion souls. The tragedy of this erroneous interpretation is that far less than the small number in that group will actually be saved. Realistically, too many in the group fall short of the group’s expectations.
Jesus did not pronounce a fatalistic predestination, but that is how many have misinterpreted him. The Apostle Paul provided insight into how many more could have been saved under the Law of Moses if they had only understood. He said: “Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved. I bear them witness that they have a zeal from God, but not according to knowledge. For, being ignorant of the righteousness that comes from God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.” (Romans 10:1-4, ESV). Evidently righteousness is required to be right with God and saved from sin. How do we come by righteousness? We are righteous not by our works, but by the atonement of Christ, who is God’s gift. God clearly reveals and gives His saving righteousness through the gospel, but it was possible to know and receive the saving righteousness of God by faith in ancient times and under the Law of Moses. Romans chapter 4 provides two examples of this in Abraham and David. Sadly so many of the Jews had missed this in Jesus’ day due to the misleading doctrines and practices of the scribes and Pharisees, who sought a righteousness of their own according to the traditions of their elders of the Law.
The parallel narrow gate or narrow door passage of Luke 13:22-30 makes it clear that Jesus intentionally challenged the narrow-minded sectarians of his generations. Someone from the crowd asked Jesus if those who are saved will be few. Jesus exhorted his Jewish inquirer and other Jewish listeners to strive to enter the narrow door, lest they miss their opportunity for salvation before the door is shut. Those striving to enter are contrasted to the tragic reality of those cast out of the kingdom of God. Did you notice who are cast out? Those cast out are the self-righteous and hypocritical; but not those who are among the many from all over the world. Many, not few, enjoy the kingdom of God with the forefathers of the faith.
The narrow door is not a fatalistically determined outcome at all. Jesus never intended it as a prophecy of an outcome that he foresaw for the whole world or even for the Jewish people for all time. But Jesus did know his own people, their leaders, and their prejudices about the nature and mission of the Messiah. He knew that many of his seeking hearers in his time would not be able to enter the narrow door. Why? The answer is that they ultimately rejected Jesus and the way of his teachings, which revealed the true way of God’s will and grace. They sought Jesus for self-interested purposes rather than for the happiness of their heavenly Father. They asserted their own nationalistic plans and righteousness. Jesus captured the essence of the tragic choice of the self-righteous and self-willed by this saying: “And behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.” (Luke 13:30, ESV).
Therefore, sectarians misuse this passage when they uphold their constituted pattern of doctrine and practice as the epitome of the narrow gate, because they think their scheme is the most complete and error free of all. Is that not the same kind of arrogance that Jesus encountered from those who put themselves forward as “first?” The fallacy of righteousness by the most complete and error free pattern is that it compels strict judgment against visible variations from the pattern. Then, it encourages praise for like-minded support of the pattern, and bolsters camaraderie of self-righteous judgments against any who disagree as a matter of faith, conscience, freedom and reasonable difference in opinion.
The hope of the gospel offers us much more than a fatalistic outcome resulting in astronomical numbers lost, and so very few being saved. Gospel hope is a hope against hope bringing the promise of God to Abraham to life. It’s a living promise and we live in the days of ever increasing fulfillment. The promise was and is: “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them. So shall your offspring be.” (Genesis 15:5, ESV). Can you number the stars? Has God’s promise failed?
“So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter.” 2 Thessalonians 2:15 (ESV). This passage assures us that the New Testament as the written teaching of the apostles and prophets contains the same message they orally taught the early church. The context of the Apostle Paul’s exhortation in 2 Thessalonians 2:13-17 is thanksgiving to God, who assures the success of His saving work in our lives. The Church’s election, sanctification and eternal assurance is based on God’s grace, as the written tradition reaffirms. So then the exhortation to stand firm and hold to the traditions should not be twisted to mean a logical system of New Testament doctrine that is asserted as the marks or pattern of the one true church. Christians must learn to uphold Christ Himself as God’s revealed pattern for the church, and the Holy Spirit as God’s mark or seal of who belongs to Him. Any church’s historical pattern of teachings should be subject to its growing understanding of Christ and humbly practiced by it with a stewardship in the Spirit that honors the gospel and the mind of Christ. If a church is watchful to keep the foundation and priority of God’s work of grace in Christ, then it can embrace the cherished traditions of the New Testament as Christ’s gift for completing His earthly and eternal purpose for His beloved church. The New Testament is not the property of just one historical tradition; but belongs to all who call upon the name of the Lord Jesus with sincere conviction.
THE PILGRIMAGE CONTINUES
Christian brotherhood, and its foundation upon our Lord Jesus and his Apostles, begins in the First Century. Through the Apostles Jesus Christ established his church – a pilgrim church, because it journeys towards God’s planned perfection for it. The churches of the First Century received the inspired word of God from apostles like Peter and Paul, yet they did not realize perfection in doctrine and practice. Some congregations were commended for their example while others were rebuked and warned. Christ warned that he would remove the unrepentant churches from his hand; but the judgment was his to exercise. The pilgrim reality of Christ’s church cautions that we abstain from judgment and condemnation, even while we warn and correct to exhort sound doctrine and obedience. Remember, Jesus admonished: “Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more.” (Luke 12:48b, ESV).
The Bible consistently reveals the truth about God’s people with complete candor. In the New Testament, the apostles and other servants of Christ struggled greatly for pure and sound doctrine with fatherly pastoral care in order to overcome falsehoods and to edify the church. In every century the church struggles to grow in the unity of the faith and the knowledge of the Son of God. But the Apostle Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian Christians reveals that growth in spiritual maturity and unity was frustrated by division among Christians. Divided, disputing groups of Christians contradict the spiritual reality of the body of Christ: Christ cannot be divided. Not carefully building upon the foundation of Christ, sectarians were destroying the temple of God by their fleshly pursuit of human wisdom. In judgment day God would not ignore the sin of destroying His holy temple, the church. What could they do to stop this and to turn things around for the church? What they could do is certainly a pattern for us.
The practice of spiritual maturity according to the divine pattern of Christ in the New Testament is also the solution to practicing Christian unity; not a system of select commands, examples, inferences and preferred interpretations that we can never completely agree upon. The day of unity will never arrive so long as the unspiritual mind prevails, choking the Christian brotherhood with sectarian arguments and prideful judgments against any who reasonably disagree. However, the spiritual mind of Christ overcomes the fleshly nature that breeds unspiritual interest in controversies over the Biblical pattern. What then can Christians do to help all who sincerely call upon the name of the Lord to realize more of the unity that Jesus himself prayed for?
First, Christians must seek the spiritual mind of Christ. Christ’s mind would enable mature and proper judgments — not infallible — regarding all matters of spiritual things expressed in spiritual words. Whatever differences existed between various groups, the mind of Christ would help them to approach one another with the common goal of unity in Christ.
Second, Christians must build upon the one foundation of Jesus Christ with care to edify and not to destroy. Christ’s mind is marked by spiritual maturity. Those with Christ’s mind are also builders of spiritual maturity and unity, the precious metals. But the reality is that others, who are fleshly in mind and divisive in their pride, build with weaker and less precious materials. God will judge the quality of each one’s work at judgment; but the work, for better or worse, remains a part of the living and growing temple, the church. God did give a perfect plan and a perfect pattern, but perfection is not the edifice built by Christians in this age. Spiritually minded Christians build model churches, but none build perfect churches.
Third, God gave each Christian builder and worker of the spiritual church a different contribution for the sake of edifying his people. Their contributions are the riches of diversity whether they build with gold or stubble. It is an amazing miracle of God’s ability to use frail human beings as partners of His grace. The great mystery of this miracle will be disclosed fully through the fire of judgment, so that all that is of flesh is destroyed leaving the eternal spiritual kingdom, the pure bride of Christ. I muse with awe at the historical circumstance that forces Christians of various historical traditions to depend upon each other and to share together the ever increasing riches of our fellowship with Christ. No church or brotherhood is an island in the history of the Christian faith. For example, my congregation is enriched by spiritual songs and music composed by Christians spanning time and crossing divisions – although physically they themselves lived in a certain time and attended a certain church. This is only a small part of what we are richly blessed with because of many others; but it illustrates how Paul tried to transform the sectarian-minded into Christ-minded Christians: “So let no one boast in men. For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future – all are yours, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s.” (1 Corinthians 3:21-23, ESV).
Does this interdependence among the traditions of historical Christianity justify division, sectarianism and denominationalism? By no means! While Christians plant, water and build, God gives the increase; and God is all wise, sovereign and faithful. God’s wisdom, sovereignty and faithfulness guide all things to His blessed end; and God’s plan for His church will not be defeated by the historical problems of spiritual immaturity and division. Yet throughout history, even in Corinth, zealous sectarians have held up their teachers and teachings against and above all others. They reason that Jesus embraces them to the exclusion of others. This arrogantly and ungratefully ignores the nature of a pilgrim church, of human builders, and of the sovereignty of God and the miracle of God’s work. Jesus himself was sinless and perfect on this earth, but he refused to act as judge before the time. Why should we who are sinful on this earth, run ahead of our Lord and pass judgment before the time?
As I applaud Christians for avoiding sectarian judgments; I commend churches for guarding against false doctrines. We should restore the basic facts and principles of the apostolic church, and instill diligence in practice of the sound doctrine of Jesus Christ. I do believe that in spite of our disagreements that most believers are sincere and good in heart, and do love the Lord and His church. The church in every age has a great responsibility to exercise the caution of pure doctrine as it promotes the spread of the gospel, its spiritual blessings and freedoms. But our responsibility never elevates us to judge that we are the only Christians; for this sectarian attitude frustrates the call of our Lord to be one just as he prayed (John 17). In Jesus’ prayer, the very standard and ideal of unity for his disciples is the personal and perfect relationship that he had with his Father. Therefore, this prayer expresses the church’s pilgrimage; and we must persevere in this quest with a stewardship arising from a bond of peace and spiritual maturity.
THE IDENTITY OF THE PILGRIM CHURCH IS SIMPLY CHRIST
The church on earth is a pilgrim people of God, composed of congregations of Christians all over the world on a journey of time and destiny with her Savior and Lord. Living in these latter days we are aware of a great historical heritage of faith for almost 2000 years for the Lord’s church. We are who we are today due to the choices of our forefathers and our own choices, good and bad. But thankfully by God’s mercy and providence we know and follow His Son Jesus Christ; and we can confidently seek unity under our common confession that Jesus is the Christ.
Indeed, the New Testament itself reveals the foundation for a nonsectarian, nondenominational unity and fellowship among Christians: Christ. He is our sole and complete basis for acceptance with God and our divine pattern for reaching the eternal goal God has designed for us. Our quest to discern and fully embrace Christ as our authoritative pattern honors the Lord and provides the church with a compelling example. The message of the New Testament is that Christ alone has the exclusive approval of His Father. Glory to God Christ is our substitute, representative and mediator. Christ alone is the completion of the Law and the Prophets. Christ alone is the image of the glory of God. Christ alone is our wisdom, righteousness and sanctification. Christ alone is the anchor for our soul. Christ alone is our all in all; Christ alone is the Spirit of life; and Christ alone is our hope of glory. Well grounded Christians should rejoice in this, and should not add their own righteousness to the righteousness of Christ to bolster the approval of God or to boast of a special status with God in comparison to others. God forbid we forget that as sinful and weak human beings none of us are infallible, perfect or completely pure in understanding and practice – not as individuals or churches.
Who are we? We are the body of Christ, but we do not have exclusive rights to the name of Christ. We bear a common name, Christian, which honors our Lord and promotes the unity for which he prayed. We are Christians, but we are not the only Christians. We do not wear this name in the spirit of sectarian ownership, for the name Christian is an honor to wear and we are thankful that we belong to Christ. As Christians we seek God’s eternal thought and plan for His creation. We seek to imitate Christ, to grow in Christ’s mind and to transform into Christ’s image, the image of God. Christ is God’s eternal thought for us. What a great pattern and destiny we have!
Together we can act with hope to relieve the Christian brotherhood of sectarian pride, authoritarian abuse and fleshly barriers to Christian fellowship. We must hear the Bible as the word of God; embrace the gospel in its original centrality and clarity; and restore the church and Christian living to their original purpose in line with the gospel of Christ. Only then will we prioritize unity of faith and admonish doctrinal simplicity as a path for encouraging fellowship, not to boast of distinctiveness. Moreover, we can optimistically engage in opportunities for study that could lead all friends of Christ, including ourselves, more perfectly in the way. Imagine experiencing the brotherhood of hope and love that really desired such unity – the world would be Christ’s. May God be glorified in His church and in His Son, Christ Jesus!
 Pilgrimage to Christian Unity is Copyright © by D. Bryan Buttram, November 2006, with substantial revision in June 2007. Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved. The footnotes of this document contain important reference information. I exhort you to be noble-minded and search the scriptures. See Acts 17:11. [Buttram, D. Bryan. Pilgrimage to Christian Unity. WordPress.com. 09/01/2007].
The Principles and Objects of the Religious Reformation, urged by A. Campbell and Others, briefly stated and explained, by R. Richardson, 2nd ed., revised and enlarged. Bethany, VA: A. Campbell, 1853. Richardson was an apt spokesman for the movement because he was a close co-worker with the founders and promoters.
Richardson explained that Protestants protest the authority of priests and popes to dictate the Christian faith. In comparison sectarianism exalts human systems of doctrine in authority, so that Christians are forbidden to disagree with these systems in their private judgment. So sectarianism causes the Bible to become a sealed book, since people do not try to understand it for themselves. Richardson, Principles, p. 6. David Lipscomb, a respected educator and publisher of the restoration effort, contrasted sectarians with truth seekers. He wrote: “A sectarian is one who defends everything his party holds or that will help his party, and opposes all that his party does not hold or that will injure the strength and popularity of his party. . . . Hence the party line defines his faith and teaching. . . . A truth lover and seeker always looks into whatever party he comes in contact with and will first look to see what truth the party holds. . . . Usually each party holds and emphasizes some particular truth in a way of its own. . . . He [the truth seeker] will approach every teacher and every system as holding and cherishing some truth that he desires to learn and hold.” Lipscomb, David, “A Sectarian and a Truth Seeker, ” in the Gospel Advocate, June 2006, Vol. CXLVIII, No. 06, page 7 (Reprinted from the June 27, 1907, issue of the Gospel Advocate, page 409.” See Matthew 23, Luke 18:9-14 and Philippians 3:1-11 for manifestations of the sectarian spirit – being self-righteous, judgmental, authoritarian, divisive, and biased in support of the sects system.
Supporters of the movement came to call their noble quest the restoration plea.
Richardson, Principles, pp. 25-31. Richardson distinguished between whether the Christian faith is regarded as personal or doctrinal. Without minimizing the importance of doctrine, he asserted that the Christian faith is personal, but sects regard it as mostly doctrinal. Consequently denominations were requiring a confession of their church doctrines, while nonsectarian churches simply required the “heartfelt acknowledgment that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God.” Richardson explained that the Christian faith is not a system of doctrine but a sincere belief in the person and mission of Jesus. The faith is personal because it is one person believing in another person; believing the simple facts about Jesus as Messiah who takes away sin; being led to love Jesus, to trust him as savior and to walk with him as teacher. See also John 1:9-13 and Acts. Acts provides sermon summaries and excerpts of the gospel message and how early believers were converted. Significantly, the content and object of faith before baptism was simple.
For example, Richardson discussed the action and design of baptism in chapter VI, explaining a simple, biblical, nonsectarian view of baptism in order to promote unity. He gave evidence why most should be able to accept believer’s immersion in water as a means for the assurance and enjoyment of salvation, but not a “procuring cause” of salvation, which can only be what Christ did to save us from sin. He also saw an erroneous trend in his day to replace the proper function of baptism with mere feelings. See Richardson, Principles, pp. 63-73.
This is my understanding and summary. Over the years many doctrinal disputes, even legitimate and significant disputes, have frustrated realization of practical unity. Does this experience compel Christians to embrace denominationalism as a legitimate expression of the fullness of the Christian faith? I think the history of Christian thought largely answers “No”; because although unity is difficult in practice, unity is the prayer of our Lord Jesus, and New Testament teaching exhorts the churches to this goal in practice regardless of the difficulties. See John 17 and 1 Corinthians 1-3. Instead the history of Christianity reveals, in spite of the evidence of division, that the church is genuinely concerned about how to achieve unity. After the first century the church sought to achieve unity through an ecclesiastical structure and official adoption of creedal statements by convening councils. Since then many solutions have been offered; including tolerance of denominationalism, congregational autonomy, restoring New Testament Christianity, evangelical cooperation for revival, ecumenical cooperation for social change, charismatic renewal for unity in the Spirit, and the community church or house church movements for freedom from denominational church traditions. The list is not exhaustive, but I think it reflects a sincere, fallible effort among Christians to find the path to greater Christian unity.
While I summarized these key principles from my life-long learning and teaching, you can read Thomas Campbell’s declaration and other original restoration documents on the World Wide Web at http://www.stonecampbellresources.org (Restoration Movement. Dr. Hans Rollmann. Modified 3/17/06. Dept. of Religious Studies at Memorial University of Newfoundland. Accessed 11/11/06); and http://www.mun.ca/rels/restmov (Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement Resources. James L. McMillian. Modified 6/24/04. Always Books: Springfield, IL. Accessed 11/11/06). Campbell, a historical planter and promoter of the restoration had thoughtfully articulated his thinking on Christian unity and freedom in a document he wrote in 1809 called the “Declaration and Address.”
There are numerous historical accounts of the restoration movement, but brief and informative accounts are: Mattox, F.W., revised by John McRay, The Eternal Kingdom: A History of the Church of Christ. Delight, Arkansas: Gospel Light Publishing Company, 1961 (defining the significance of the history of restoration in the context of church history); and Humble, B.J. The Story of the Restoration. Austin: Firm Foundation Publishing House, 1969. A large history of the Restoration Movement is The Stone-Campbell Movement: An Anecdotal History of Three Churches (Joplin: College Press Publishing, 1981), by Leroy Garrett. Garrett’s book is helpful for understanding the original, strong foundational theme of unity in the Restoration Movement. Unfortunately, this unity and anti-sectarian theme may be minimized or neglected altogether in other historical accounts.
This beautiful truth supporting this slogan is in John 13-17, Romans 14-15, 1 Corinthians 8-10, and Ephesians 4.
I use the phrase “friends of Christ” to honor Christ by care in how I speak of Christians who belong to a different historical church heritage, and genuinely confess Christ and strive to follow his teachings with a good conscience. Thus, believers may be to us like the man in Mark 9:38-50, who was “not one of us”, yet for Christ because he was not against Christ. How we treat others who are sincerely for Jesus is critical to the visible unity for which Jesus prayed in John 17. See also Francis Schaeffer, The Mark of the Christian (InterVarsity Press, Eight Printing, June 1976. L’Abri Fellowship, ©1970).
 Galatians 4:30 applied to a specific sectarian teaching from ancient Jewish Christians that compromised the integrity of the gospel. We should try to understand how to apply the gospel truth of Galatians to free today’s church from sectarian slavery.
 As a matter of fact, the New Testament teaches only one church and one Lord, Jesus Christ. The true church is the universal and ageless spiritual body of Christ with Christ himself as the head. Nevertheless, the phrase “one true church” as applied to a distinctive historical movement or heritage who uses the phrase to judge and distinguish themselves as the only ones going to heaven is going beyond what is written and beyond what can honestly be supported by truth and history. See 1 Corinthians 4:6. See my reasoning and footnotes under the headings “The Pilgrimage Continues” and “The Identity of the Pilgrim Church is Simply Christ.”
See how these same ideas infiltrated and affected fellowship in the early church (Acts 15:1-6, 15:19-21, 21:17-26, Romans 14, 1 Corinthians 10:23-11:1, 1 Timothy 1:3-11, 4:1-5, and 1 Corinthians 9:19-23). Thus, Jesus warned about a real danger.
Compare Matthew 23 and Luke 16:5-12 where Jesus commanded his disciples to respect the teachers and teachings of those who sit in Moses’ seat, but not to follow their hypocritical teachings and practices.
See Luke 18:9-14, Romans 11, and 1 Corinthians 1:18-31 (revealing the perils of self-righteousness).
 A proof text is a verse or text of scripture used to support a point or position of doctrine.
See Romans 14–15, 1 Corinthians 1–4, Galatians 1–2, and 1 Timothy 1:3-17 (warning against misuse of the law and reminding that sound doctrine is in accordance with the gospel, the source of mercy that none deserve). Robert Richardson explained that the restoration movement maintained that Christ himself is the basis for union and not the remote points of Christian doctrine. Asking if men must understand astronomy to benefit from the sun, he asserted that this fact [Christ is the basis for union] is a splendor we must not diminish; and that all other propositions or doctrines are subordinate to this. Richardson, Principles, pp. 44-45. My opinion is that the effort for systematic church doctrine is useful for teaching and understanding; but we must be humble enough to admit it is arranged, explained, and sometimes misused by human wisdom.
Robert Richardson observed that there were Christian sects that used the Bible as a collection of proof texts without recognizing the Bible’s own well-defined purpose and plan. He admonished that we must approach scripture with the humility and teachable disposition of a child, to determine the meaning of a text from its context letting scripture be its own interpreter, and then allowing ourselves to be led by the scriptures. Richardson, Principles, pp.16-17. While it is not wrong to cite proof texts in support of our beliefs and practices; we must be accurate with the truth in context of the immediate writing and consistent with the Bible’s own well-defined purpose and plan. For example, one traditional use of Nadab and Abihu’s punishment in Leviticus 10:1-3 is as an Old Testament proof text for a principle of Biblical interpretation: all expedient practices of the church must be authorized by the New Testament. An expedient is a useful way of getting something done. Since Christians should want to do God’s will, the debate hinges on whether Christians have the freedom to choose ways that are prudent in light of the scriptures; or are Christians bound by a method of reason for discerning what God has or has not authorized even though He was silent on the specifics. So, silence is treated as a prohibition if the scripture otherwise provides specific direction, and as a freedom if scripture is general in its guidance. Nadab and Abihu had a commandment to burn specific incense before the Lord, and the scripture was silent on the kinds of prohibited incense. If there had been no specific command then any incense would have been acceptable. Although this rule seems to appeal to human logic, even Moses did not reason according to an iron clad rule of interpretation. In Leviticus 10, after Moses became alarmed about additional violations against the authorized pattern, he exercised prudence and fairly considered the motive and circumstances. The reason God punished Nadab and Abihu was because their disobedience showed they did not respect God’s holiness. The call and responsibility to honor God’s holiness cannot be reduced to human applications of an authoritative rule of interpretation (See Mark 7:1-23, showing how the religious rule-keepers failed to honor God’s command). Christ, who honored God’s holiness, showed that God’s law cannot be reduced to crudely-applied proof texts (See Matthew 12:1-14 and John 5). Extracting an iron rule of interpretation for authoritative practice from Leviticus is an improper method for New Testament Christians. Beware that elementary principles of the old written code can result in creating human traditions that dishonor the commandment and holiness of God, and restrict God’s own gift of Christian freedom under the new covenant. See Romans 7-8 and Galatians (proclaiming the experience of freedom as a gift of salvation, sanctification and glorification).
See Matthew 12:1-14, 15:1-20, and 23:1-36 (showing how Jewish religious leaders distinguished themselves in similar ways).
See Luke 13:22-30.
Romans 3:21-31 (showing in the context of Romans 1-5 how Christ’s atonement reveals God’s own saving righteousness).
The word “many” is used in the context of warning and promise. Sectarians turn warnings into a divine predestination of the ultimate outcome and destiny of humans. But the promise displays the operation of grace, not irresistible, but ultimately victorious due to God’s faithful love. See Romans 5 which proclaims the far reaching power and coverage of God’s grace.
See Romans 11:11-12 and Revelation 7:9-17 (revealing the destiny for the uncountable fullness of Jews and Gentiles).
See e.g. John 6 (showing that their prejudices were rooted in a nationalistic zeal for an earthly king to uphold their cause).
Biblical statements showing the accomplishment of the promise in OT and NT are showing evidence of the progress toward the ultimate fulfillment, and do not diminish the wondrous expectation that is revealed in respect to the final outcome. See Deuteronomy 10:22, Hebrews 11:12 and Revelation 7:9-17.
Be warned against the danger of vesting human logic with God’s authority, by treating the faith as a legal system of rules and traditions. Legalism eclipses the power of God’s work through Christ for us and in us. Legalism is not exclusively the notion of righteousness by merit; but more commonly it is a crude misapplication of law or principles nullifying justice and mercy (See Matthew 12:1-14 and 15:1-20). Moreover, a religious or moral manifestation of legalism can be found in the false belief that God completes His work of salvation by means of law and rituals, thus attempting to reform the flesh, after beginning His work of salvation through the Spirit (See Romans 7-8, Galatians 2-3 and Colossians 2-3).
See Galatians 4:14, Ephesians 4:11-16 and Colossians 1:24-2:7 (confirming Christ is the pattern for his church); and see 2 Corinthians 1:21-22, Ephesians 1:13-14 and 2 Timothy 2:19 (assuring Christians that God knows and marks them as His own). Indeed the conversion of Cornelius shows that the gift of the Holy Spirit is evidence of God’s acceptance (See Acts 10, 11 and 15; and see also Romans 8, Galatians 3 and 1 John 2).
See Galatians 2:1-3:9, 1Timothy 1, Titus 2–3, and 2 Peter 3:14-18 (reaffirming the gospel as the foundation and mainspring of Christian growth and sound doctrine).
New Testament writings were written to deal with the imperfection and to help believers to grow toward a goal that would only be completed by the appearance of Christ. See 1 Corinthians 3 and Ephesians 4.
See Revelation 2-3. Other examples are: Churches in Galatia were strongly rebuked for compromising the truth of the gospel by adopting the marks of covenant status under the Jewish law and traditions. Churches in Corinth were admonished to deal decisively with problems of immorality and division. Churches in Thessalonica were commended for their great example to all other churches.
See Revelation 2-3.
1 Corinthians 1-3.
Disagreement is historically and experientially self-evident. Just learn church history or participate in any adult Bible class discussion. Christians disagree even when being genuine with the Bible, because of sincere and valid reasons from Bible study, their desire to practice the truth according to their conscience, and their realization of the freedom Christ calls us to.
See 1 Corinthians 1-4.
The righteousness of faith in Christ is the ground of salvation, growth in the Spirit and fellowship — even between Jewish and Gentile Christians who differed uncomfortably in religious customs, culture, food requirements and other rules. See Galatians 2.
Romans 9-11 show us how awesome our God is in being able to work out His purposes in spite of human failure.
See 1 Corinthians 1. In Corinth one division laid exclusive claim to Christ.
Jesus, perfect representation of God his Father, came to earth to save not to judge. How much more we imperfect members of Christ’s body on earth should be humble and submit to the way of our Savior? See John 12:44-50.
Even if a church is not doctrinally a sect, sadly it may still cultivate and express a sectarian spirit of self-righteousness and being judgmental. The sectarian spirit manifests itself in churches, movements and denominations from exalted conclusions about cherished interpretations and practices; particularly that they are more right in their doctrines and practices than all others.
Ephesians 4 and 1 Corinthians 3. Ponder that the same church that introduced critical falsehoods in the first four and a half centuries of church history, also exercised a victorious faith over the Roman Empire in fulfillment of prophecies in Daniel and Revelation; and at the same time it protected the truth about the person of Jesus Christ and the foundational doctrines of the Christian faith from many weeds and wolves within the church. Early statements of the faith are historical evidence of their historical victory confirming the faith while the canon of the New Testament was still in development stages. Two excellent resources are: Ferguson, Everett, Early Christians Speak. Abilene: Biblical Press Research, 1981; and Stevenson, J., editor, A New Eusebius: Documents illustrative of the history of the Chruch to A.D. 337. London: SPCK, 1957.
Matthew 3:13-17, Hebrews 5:1-10, Hebrews 9:11-15, Revelation 5, 2 Corinthians 5:21, John 6:27, and 1 Timothy 2:5-6.
Matthew 5:17-18 and Romans 10:4.
Hebrew 1:1-4 and 2 Corinthians 4:3-6.
1 Corinthians 1:28-31.
Colossians 3:11, 2 Corinthians 3:17-18, and Colossians 1:27.
1 Corinthians 1:18-2:5, Romans 3:21-31, and Philippians 3:1-11.
 Ephesians 3:20-21.