Congregational Cooperation Issue During the Restoration Movement

by George P. Estes
via Gospel Guardian, May 3, 1956

Behind the thinking of the men who attempted to restore the New Testament church lie two basic premises or accepted facts: first, that the church as it existed in the apostolic age contained no admixture of human doctrine and was, therefore, a God given and perfect pattern in respect to its form, organization, design and function for all succeeding generations; and second, that the New Testament presents the full and complete revelation about that church. There was general agreement here. But where does divine revelation end and where does human wisdom begin? Did God reveal in the New Testament a complete and full plan instructing the church how it should carry out its mission, or did He leave the methods to the discretion and judgment of men? What constituted congregational independence in the apostolic era and how did congregations cooperate in that age? These have proved to be the most vexing questions to answer in the history of the entire Restoration Movement and from them stemmed the great controversies. Brethren reached different conclusions in their concept of the church and found themselves at variance on how churches can cooperate. Debates and open division have resulted. More space has been devoted to these subjects in the publications edited by brethren than to any other. The purpose of this article is to set forth, from a historical point of view, a brief survey of the cooperation controversy and to give credit to whom credit is due.

In 1799 the Haldane brothers broke with the State Church of Scotland (Presbyterian) and attacked the Calvinistic doctrine of predestination [Watters, History of British Churches, pg. 16]. Thomas Campbell's affiliation with them is explained by Robert Richardson: "The Haldanes in Scotland were engaged in this work. A considerable missionary society was formed for the above purpose. It consisted in part of the Episcopal Church in England. Thomas Campbell sympathized with the work and became a member of the society" [Memoirs, Vol. I, pg. 73].

In America Thomas Campbell formed the Christian Association of Washington in 1809. It was constituted a society not a church and had a secretary and treasurer and a committee of twenty one. Its purpose was to promote simple evangelical Christianity and to support ministers in this, though it never sent out a minister. "Neither Thomas Campbell himself, however, nor those associated with him had a full conception of all that was involved in these principles." [Memoirs, Vol. I, pg. 238]. This association formed the Brush Run church in 1811. Although Campbell believed in "the independence of the local congregation from presbyteries and synods" [Garrison and DeGroot, The Disciples of Christ, pg. 155], nevertheless, he held to the idea of societies and association of churches through which evangelistic work is to be carried out.

In 1811 Alexander Campbell became the preacher for the Brush Run church. It applied and was admitted to the Redstone Baptist Association in 1813 but withdrew in 1823 over doctrinal differences. Whereupon, it promptly joined the Mahoning Baptist Association, which was more sympathetic with the restoration principles and "claimed to act in an advisory capacity only." [West, The Search For the Ancient Order, Vol. I, pg. 66]. The churches sent messengers to the annual meeting of the association. It received money from the churches and directed the evangelistic work. In 1827, Walter Scott became an evangelist for this association on the Western Reserve (Ohio). He was familiar with the writings of John Glas of Scotland. Glas believed an evangelist possessed an extraordinary office like the apostles in contrast to the ordinary office of a teacher or pastor. [History of British Churches, pg. 9]. Likewise, Scott considered the work of an evangelist as itinerant in starting and organizing congregations rather than located with a congregation. Campbell held to the same view: "Evangelists are a class of functionaries created by the church but do not serve it directly. They are sent out into the world. 'To do the work of an evangelist' indicates his duties, rights and privileges. His work is to plant and organize churches wherever he may be laboring." [Christian System, pg. 85]. The fault with such thinking lies in the fact that the work of an evangelist is a function rather than an office and Paul's words "Do the work of an evangelist" are to Timothy while he was staying in Ephesus, not traveling from city to city.

Barton W. Stone sought to unite forces with Campbell and the Reformers. "Stone looked at the Mahoning Association and wondered. Twenty years earlier he had renounced all human organizations by dissolving the Springfield Presbytery. Should the union be consummated, would the "Newlights" be called upon to work through these organizations?" [Earl West, Congregational Cooperation, pg. 6]. In 1826, Stone began to publish the Christian Messenger. It carried a discussion between himself and Scott on the cooperation question. Stone and his brethren were against Annual Meetings and Conferences and felt the Reformers were too much like the Baptists. Scott defended the Association by claiming it did not take away any independence of the churches in the transaction of their business nor did it legislate to them. Its purpose was to bring the churches in closer connection with one another, strengthen the bonds of union, help destitute churches and set things in order. The sound scriptural position Stone took cannot be questioned; Campbell's practice lacks scriptural proof. Did not the influence Campbell attained through publications, popularity by debates, and prominence by writers and historians leave Stone a rather dim figure and also prevent his contribution to the Restoration Movement from receiving due recognition? Finally, unrest and criticism led Scott to the disbanding of the Mahoning Association, though both he and Campbell were in favor of retaining it.

From 1823 to 1830 Campbell published the Christian Baptist. In it he exposed all innovations and corruptions and advocated the restoration of the ancient order of things. He attacked "unauthorized organizations of the church; and all 'popular schemes' for the support of the clergy, churches and societies." [The Disciples of Christ, pg. 176]. "But the delegates, are they representative of the churches? If so, what do they represent? The wish, desire or conscience of them at home? This is possible in national councils and in life but not in things pertaining to the kingdom of God.... The power of an association is declared in fact to be inferior to the power of a single congregation." [Christian Baptist, 1826, pg. 267]. "Every Christian who understands the nature and design, the excellence and glory, of the institution called the church of Jesus Christ, will lament to see its glory transferred to a human corporation. The church is robbed of its character by every institution merely human, that would ape its excellence and substitute itself in its place." (Christian Baptist, 1823, pg. 33].

It is impossible to reconcile Campbell's teaching with his practices during this period at the Brush Run church. It is impossible to reconcile Campbell's teaching which was in two Baptist Associations. In 1830 he began to promote "cooperation meetings" at first in counties, but they grew to districts, states and finally national (Missionary Society of 1849). If they are wrong on a large scale, then they are wrong on a small scale. In 1830 he began to edit the Millennial Harbinger in which he changed his editorial policies and upheld doctrines he had formerly condemned. He began a series of articles about the church and cooperation of churches to defend the district meetings. He started by saying that the mission of the church is to preach the gospel to the world, but ten churches could do more than one and a hundred more than ten. He appealed to the geographical divisions of the 'churches in the apostolic agethat all Christians united in prayer; that there was collective cooperation in contributions raised; that the kingdom is one; that cooperation requires consultation and intercommunication of churches; and strong churches are to help the weak. [Millennial Harbinger, 1831, pp. 436-438; 1832, pp. 244-250]. A summary statement is as follows: "In all things pertaining to public interest, not of Christian faith, piety or morality, the church of Jesus Christ in its aggregate character, is left free and unshackled by any apostolic authority." .... we "are left without a single law, statute, ordinance or enactment in the New Testament." [Millennial Harbinger, May 1849, pg. 270]. Herein is the concept of the universal church with no divine plan and so it is left to devise its own plan in the most expedient way.

Why did he change? Sweet points out the parallel movements of church and state; that the trends in the government influenced the churches. Through this period there was nationalization in the country, centralization in the churches. [Story of Religion In America, Chap. VIII]. Campbell also gained wide recognition and worldly fame through his debates, publications and personal appearances. "When Mr. Campbell established Bethany College 1840, his developed belief in general support of evangelistic and other activities enabled him to assume that the churches ought to support it, since it was designated — by him, if not by them — to train ministers and other young people for Christian living. Program makers for the district and state gatherings soon learned that they could be almost certain to get this prize attraction, the nationally eminent debater and orator, on their list of speakers if they would permit him to give an address on education and take an offering for the college." [History of Disciples, pg. 242].

Opposition to the cooperation plans began as early as 1836. T. M. Henley from Virginia wrote: "It appears to me there is a falling off in some measure from what we set out with — `a restoration of the ancient gospel' and order of things, and a pure apostolic speech." He goes on to say the cooperation meetings with a president, secretary, messengers from churches and laying off of districts is the principle of the Baptist Associations with the exception of their creed. [Millennial Harbinger, 1836, pp. 333-334].

Jacob Creath Jr. was the first real foe to the Missionary Society. It was necessary for one with such an indomitable character to lead the opposition. With boldness of spirit, he rose up against the popular trends; with fearless courage, he clashed with Alexander Campbell. Creath had learned the truth by reading the Christian Baptist. He believed the Harbinger of 1849 and following had changed its editorial policy and was promoting ecclesiasticism. He desired to call a convention of all the churches to see whether or not the Missionary Society was scriptural. To Campbell he wrote: "Now, permit me, my dear brother to say in all kindness and candor, that your brethren who now oppose conventions, and who have opposed them since they entered this Reformation, are equally sorry to find you and others opposing conventions in the great platform you laid down for us in the Christian Baptist, and now to find you and them, advocating conventions as zealously as you then opposed them. If you were right in the Christian Baptist, you are wrong now. If you are right now, you were wrong then." [Millenial Harbinger, Nov. 1860, pg. 615].

"The advocates of the conventions have totally abandoned the rule on which we and all Protestants set out — that the Bible alone is the religion of the Protestants. They have not produced one single passage of scripture, to countenance these assemblies from the New Testament." . . . . Because our Father divinely commissioned His Son to our world, and His Son sent the apostles as missionaries to the world, and they divinely organized individual congregations all over the Roman Empire, in the first century, does it, therefore, follow, that we in the nineteenth century, without any divine warrant, and contrary to our own rule of faith, have the right to call conventions, form Bible, missionary and tract societies, elect popes, and do all the things we wish? My logic does not run that way. They had divine credentials for what they did. We have none for what we are doing. This is the difference between them and us." [Millenial Harbinger, 1860, pg. 615].

The value and worth of Creath's work can be seen in the following fact: those who accepted his belief (that the local church is the only divine organization given) became the church of Christ; while those who followed Campbell's cooperation plan formed the Christian Church. They are listed separately in the census of 1906. Creath never attained the prominence of Lipscomb mainly because he never edited a paper; however, he laid the foundation which marked the turning 'point in the controversy.

Tolbert Fanning possessed profound wisdom and a penetrating insight into the problems of his day. He would ponder and meditate upon a question before making a decision but when that was made he was unyielding. Creath and Fanning are two of the most underrated and underestimated men of the whole Restoration Movement. Though much of Fanning's writing is negative and against human organizations (Missionary Society), nevertheless, he accomplished more fully what men had attempted to do a century before his day — a presentation of the true nature of the apostolic church.

He started the Gospel Advocate on October 10, 1855, "to give the subject of cooperation a thorough examination." Lipscomb took up where Fanning left off and expounded for the rest of his life the fundamental doctrines of the church he had learned from Fanning. The following quotations are typical of the pointed, terse way Fanning expressed himself: "It is well for brethren to decide the question as to the utility of such organizations to keep the church alive. Can she perform her mission on earth without the aid of human legislation? Can the churches of Christ cooperate without converting them into human establishments? This embraces all the controversies of the age. Settle this point and all sincere religionists will become one." [Gospel Advocate, Feb. 1857, pg. 54]. "We have made up our minds long ago, and unless better reasons are shown we shall consider all religious expedients as unnecessary and in opposition to the reign of Christ." [Gospel Advocate, May 1857, pg. 131].

"Each church must be left free to perform her own duty at her own time and in her own way. On this plan the active energies of the respective congregations are called forth and success is made sure." [Gospel Advocate, 1857, pg. 217].

The monumental work of David Lipscomb needs no recommendation for it speaks for itself. He stood like the rock of Gibraltar against the Missionary Society and all other human innovations. To follow the divine order was his goal. His method was primarily through teaching and by his articles in the Advocate the tide was turned. Lipscomb emphasized the local church and believed if each congregation carried on its own program it cooperated with others doing the same work; that there is a difference between cooperation and organization.

"Two farmers, living as neighbors work side by side. One has work to do that he cannot do himself. So, he asks aid from his neighbor. Each farmer pursuing his own independent course cooperates. The emergency that necessitated the call for aid ends and the farmers are left free without the encumbering machinery." [Earl West, Congregational Cooperation, pp. 17-18]. He placed the Missionary Society and all human organizations formed by cooperative efforts in the category as banks, railroads, governments, sectarian synods all of which tended toward corruption. The tendency of man has been to try to improve upon divine wisdom.

"The congregations of the Lord, Lipscomb contended, are by nature organized cooperative bodies, ordained by God. All work which is done in these bodies is true cooperative work. Every individual in any part of the world, working in true cooperation in these bodies, is necessarily cooperating with every other." [Earl West, Congregational Cooperation, pg. 18].

The question rose again in Henderson, Tennessee, in 1910. The Advocate carried a notice of a meeting to be held in Henderson and invited the elders and preachers in the surrounding area to attend in order that they might become better acquainted and discuss concerted action of the churches. The Henderson elders were appointed to accept money and take the oversight of an evangelist in West Tennessee. Lipscomb criticized the meeting as being unscriptural. He wrote: "All meetings of churches or officers of churches to combine more power than a single church is wrong .... For one or more to direct what and how all churches shall work, or to take charge of their men or money and use it, is to assume the authority God has given to each church." [Gospel Advocate, March 24].

The issue did not rise again until the present sponsoring church controversy or for a period of some forty years. During this period there have been great promotions of institutions and very few lessons on the basic fundamentals relative to the form, design, organization and function of the church. As a result we live in a generation of brethren, many of whom are not aware of the implications and dangers of brotherhood projects.

The sponsoring church is comparable to that form cooperation which rose in Texas shortly after the Civil War. "A local church was appointed through which the other churches could do their mission work .... In short, a way was provided for the church universal to act through the elders of a local congregation." [Earl West, Congregational Cooperation, pg. 4]. It finally became the Texas State Missionary Society. Concerning this Lipscomb wrote: "Now what was that but the organization of a society in the elders of this church? ... The same course was pursued in Texas a number of years ago. The elders of the church in Texas were made the supervisors of the work, received the money, employed the preacher, directed and counseled him. For a number of years they employed C. M. Wilmeth. He then dropped out of the work and the Texas Missionary Society took its place. Other experiments along the same line have been made. All of them went into the Society work." [Gospel Advocate, 1910, pg. 364].

The gospel plan of salvation and the meaning of the word baptism lay buried for centuries under the confusion of sectarian interpretation until men of the restoration movement by study, discussion, writing and debates, freed them from the traditional views set forth by creed books and expounded the scriptural meaning. The same must be done concerning the church and church cooperation for the scriptures are inspired by God "that the man of God may be complete, furnished completely unto every good work" (II Timothy 3:17), not part of the works.