I don’t remember the first time I heard the names of Alexander or Thomas Campbell, or of Barton W. Stone, but I’m fairly certain I was in college before I began to learn the story of the brave men to whom I owe so much. As these men found themselves in a changing world with an uncertain future, they rejected the formalizations promoted by the churches of which they were a part, instead positing the radical position that the Good News of Jesus was open and accessible to everyone.
“It is not necessary,” Thomas Campbell wrote, “that persons have a particular knowledge or distinct apprehension of all divinely revealed truths in order to entitle them to a place in the Church; neither should they, for this purpose, be required to make a profession more extensive than their knowledge: but that, on the contrary, their having a due measure of Scriptural self-knowledge respecting their lost and perishing condition by nature and practice; and of the way of salvation thro’ [sic] Jesus Christ accompanied with a profession of their faith in, and obedience to him, in all things according to his word, is all that is absolutely necessary to qualify them for admission into his Church.” In other words, we don’t all have to agree about every issue of doctrine before we can all be one in Christ. What really matters is that we understand our helplessness without God, acknowledge our dependence on Him for salvation, and declare our obedience to Him as Lord of our lives.
The men who founded our fellowship were courageous activists who leave to us not only words, but their priceless example. As ministers of established churches with long and noble histories, they questioned the practice and teachings of their institutions, seeking to make the Gospel more relevant and accessible to their communities. It is often times all too easy for us to take the ideas put forth by our founders and set them up in a system of creeds and dogmas of our own making while ignoring the true spirit and purpose of their actions. We, like Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, insist that “because of our traditions, every one of us knows who he is and what God expects him to do,” though, when asked how and why these traditions were started, he can only reply “I don’t know.” In the same way, we enshrine the teachings of our fathers as unimpeachable pillars of a new institution, an institution they likely would have fought just as strongly against.
Our fellowship was born of innovative men in uncertain times questioning the doctrines and dogmas of their day, and asking why they could not set these traditions aside to be, in their words, “Christians only”. Now we who inherit their legacy face our own uncertain times and difficult questions – questions and challenges which they could neither foresee nor imagine. We do not honor our fathers with blind allegiance to their creeds, but by boldly continuing their spirit of innovation, crafting new approaches to changing questions of faith while preserving our heritage to whatever extent we can. As we move to the future, we must look to the past and learn its lessons without seeking to return there, knowing we live in a world different from the one we remember.