The Nature of Christian Unity: Historical Understandings of Churches of Christ

Written by Douglas A. Foster, The below are excerpts from a paper presented at the Stone-Campbell Dialogue in June 2004.

The nineteenth-century origins of Churches of Christ are suffused with ideas that could easily be labeled ecumenical despite the communion’s twentieth-century reputation for exclusivist sectarianism. The Stone-Campbell Movement from which Churches of Christ emerged was clearly a Christian unity movement. The strategy for effecting unity proposed by leaders like Barton W. Stone and Thomas and Alexander Campbell, however, was an appeal to individual Christians—the faithful scattered throughout the sects—not to denominations. When true Christians abandoned the divisions represented by the mutually exclusive denominations to unite on the clear teachings of Scripture—those ideas on which all evangelical Christians already agreed—without human philosophies and traditions, visible unity would be the result. In every locality persons united to Christ would come together to form a church of Christ, inherently one with all other such groups. Early leaders rejected the Protestant invisible church idea of an existing spiritual unity because they believed it justified continued division between denominations. **

Thomas Campbell articulated the idea in 1809 in one of the classic documents of the movement, “The Declaration and Address of the Christian Association of Washington (PA).”

Prop. 1. The Church of Christ upon earth is essentially, intentionally, and constitutionally one; consisting of all those in every place that profess their faith in Christ and obedience to him in all things according to the Scriptures, and that manifest the same by their tempers and conduct, and of none else; as none else can be truly and properly called Christians.

Prop. 2. That although the Church of Christ upon earth must necessarily exist in particular and distinct societies, locally separated from one another, yet there ought to be no schisms, no uncharitable divisions among them. They ought to receive each other as Christ Jesus hath also received them to the glory of God. And for this purpose, they ought all to walk by the same rule, to mind and speak the same thing; and to be perfectly joined together in the same mind, and in the same judgment.

Prop. 9. That all that are enabled, thro’ grace, to make a profession [of their faith in, and obedience to Christ, in all things according to his word], and to manifest the reality of it in their tempers and conduct, should consider each other as the precious saints of God, should love each other as brethren children of the same family and father, temples of the same Spirit, members of the same body, subjects of the same grace, objects of the same divine love, bought with the same price, and joint heirs of the same inheritance. Whom God hath thus joined together no [one] should dare to put asunder. **

In a sense, this earliest unity impulse in the Stone-Campbell Movement was a modification— a hybrid perhaps—of the spiritual and organic unity ideas. Leaders believed there were true Christians in all the denominations, yet they were not satisfied with the idea that unity was already perfect in some intangible spiritual plane…

The platform on which unity was to be effected consisted of the clear teachings of scripture—particularly the New Testament. They drew their restitutionist plea partly from the ideas of their Presbyterian Puritan forbears and from Enlightenment assumptions about human ability and knowledge that had been “democratized” in the American frontier. ** Many advocates of restorationism in the past had seen it primarily as a means to separate true Christians from the corrupt visible church in order to restore purity. Leaders in the Stone-Campbell Movement, however, saw a restoration of the clear, unmistakable teachings of scripture as terms of Christian fellowship to be the only means whereby all Christians could be united. ** This idea became an essential part of the movement’s thought early in the nineteenth century when the religious groups around them were for the most part uninterested in unity. **

The question of precisely what must be restored varied somewhat among early leaders. Thomas Campbell’s son Alexander emphasized getting at the details of Scripture—the facts concerning what God wants people to believe and practice. He called these facts “the ancient gospel and order of things.” In a series of articles published in his journal The Christian Baptist between 1824 and 1830, Campbell developed many of the tenets that would come to characterize the movement, including its congregational polity with elders and deacons, and worship practices such as celebration of the Lord’s Supper every Sunday. **

Barton Stone also emphasized scripture as the source of knowledge for the Christian. He insisted, however, that without the Spirit of Christ, precise knowledge could never effect unity. He wrote in 1835:

The scriptures will never keep together in union and fellowship members not in the spirit of the scriptures, which spirit is love, peace, unity, forbearance, and cheerful obedience. This is the Spirit of the great Head of the body. I blush for my fellows, who hold up the Bible as the bond of union yet make their opinions of it tests of fellowship; who plead for union of all Christians; yet refuse fellowship with such as dissent from their notions. Vain men! Their zeal is not according to knowledge, nor is their spirit that of Christ. There is a day not far ahead that will declare it. Such antisectarian-sectarians are doing more mischief to the cause, and advancement of truth, the unity of Christians, and the salvation of the world than all the skeptics in the world. In fact, they create skeptics. **

** Footnotes are found in the original paper. Please find and read the unabridged paper at

Douglas A. Foster served as professor of church history and director of the Center for Restoration Studies at Abilene Christian University for twenty-seven years and now serves as scholar-in-residence. He co-edited The Encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movement and The Stone-Campbell Movement: A Global History and has published several books and articles on Stone-Campbell history and racism in American Christianity. His latest book is “A Life of Alexander Campbell.”