“What religion are you?”
“Well I get that, but what kind of Christian?”
“Um, just Christian.”
Growing up on Cincinnati’s west side, where Roman Catholicism reigned supreme, I constantly had this exchange with kids at school. Growing up in a Restoration Movement congregation, I was taught from my youth that our church was simply Christian—nothing more, nothing less. It wasn’t until years later when I was in seminary that I learned there was another biblical name that could describe my tribe.
Disciples was the moniker that Alexander Campbell preferred; he was repulsed that some referred to his group as “Campbellites,” so he sought a more fitting description. One of the early ideals of our Movement was to call biblical things by biblical names. Terms like Presbyterian or Episcopalian described a system of church governance, and no one in the New Testament claimed those titles. Additionally Lutherans and even Campbellites emphasized an individual more than Christ. Seeing that Disciple was frequently used to describe believers in the New Testament, it was a term he used and one that stuck.
But by the time of my youth, the late 1970s and early 1980s, this term was anathema by Bible-believing Christians. It was avoided by many because they felt that some had abused it.
Friends, FORTIFICATION is a force of the Restoration Movement. The more popular term today would be gatekeeping—the idea that certain people get to define who is in or out.
Fortification was well established in the Movement in which I was reared: we were Christians only, but we were extremely selective about whom we partnered with or read or listened to. Before I became familiar with our Movement’s history, I thought fortification was always part of our identity. But it wasn’t. It was a reaction in a time when there was much at stake, and it’s something we today would do well to ponder.
THE ORIGINS OF THEOLOGICAL LIBERALISM
It’s always challenging to describe our split with the Disciples of Christ. It’s a conflict that spans nearly a century, and most of the events that led to the split were anticlimactic—the result of smaller tremors that occurred years prior. Additionally, the key issues behind the rift are theological in nature and tend to be deeper than the average person cares to explore. But since my goal throughout this series has been to simplify the complex, I’ll see if I can offer a streamlined explanation of events.
More than anything, this means we must familiarize ourselves with theological liberalism.
First, let’s define what we mean when we say “liberal” in this context. In America today, the term liberalism bears political baggage, and it can prohibit our understanding of the conflict. In its simplest form, liberal is a comparative term—a position established from the median—the opposite of conservatism. Generally, conservatism is associated with tradition and liberalism with freedom.
When thinking about the streams of our Movement, the median is regularly ascribed to my tribe, the Independent Christian Churches. The more conservative position is held by the Churches of Christ (non-instrumental) and the liberal position belongs to the Disciples of Christ. Theological liberalism among our Movement is considered the counter-orthodox perspective. It turns its back one thousands of years of biblical interpretation and considers the Bible as more human and less divine.
The roots of theological liberalism stem from Europe and developed years before our Movement even existed. Entire encyclopedias have been written on this topic, so forgive me for highlighting only three of the influences of this perspective.
1. Historical Criticism
Higher criticism of the Bible started to emerge in Europe in the late 1700s. German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834) was a rather influential thinker in this approach to biblical interpretation (also called a hermeneutic). Historical Criticism viewed the Bible as a purely human invention, denying any divine inspiration of the text. This meant that the existence of biblical miracles could not be accepted, and the historical accuracy of events found in the Scriptures could not be relied upon. In this view, the Scriptures were no more profound than any other piece of ancient literature. All humans could do with the Bible was to attempt to discover what the original authors were trying to accomplish.
2. The Social Gospel
Birthed by German theologian Albrecht Ritschl (1822-1889), the focus of the Social Gospel was bringing the kingdom of heaven to earth. While this is definitely an aspect of the gospel, this view overemphasized the need for the church to make the world a better place while underemphasizing (and oftentimes eliminating altogether) the eternal/salvific power of the gospel. Ritschl argued that the church’s first and greatest calling was to address the ills of society. In this paradigm, the Bible was no longer an authority but was to be viewed under the authority of moral responsibility. God’s wrath and judgment became repulsive concepts because it conflicted with the idea of God’s love.
Charles Darwin (1809-1882) published a book unveiling his theory of evolution in 1859. In subsequent decades, his observations on biological development were freely applied to social, political, and religious fields. Much has been written about Darwin’s struggle with faith, and his views of creation reflect his inner turmoil. But the emergence of a godless evolution, combined with the theological movements described above, served to marginalize the Scriptures.
In the years to come, biblical and theological scholars would be influenced by these views and inspired to create new ways to view the Bible. The authority of the Bible was weakened and work of the church was reimagined to accommodate this perspective. For our Movement, which spent its formative years calling for a return to New Testament Christianity, the stakes could not be higher. Eventually these views made their way across the Atlantic Ocean and, after the Civil War, began to change the way our churches would preach and teach the Bible.
THE INFILTRATION OF THEOLOGICAL LIBERALISM
The influence of theological liberalism slowly started appear in the Movement through various issues, but the most simple way to frame this conflict is to explore how it impacted pastoral training.
For any religious movement to be successful, it’s critical that their leaders be able to articulate and teach the essential ideals and practices. Producing an educated clergy generally requires institutions to train them. Throughout our Movement’s history, however, higher education for ministers has always been a source of contention. As mentioned in the previous installment, southern churches tended to be more primitive and anti-intellectual in nature, so there was skepticism toward academic institutions. And with what began to emerge in the early 1900s, their suspicions seemed justified. The roots of the fracture is best understood by looking at what occurred at two institutions:
1. The University of Chicago
While there were plenty of seminaries throughout America at the turn of the 20th century, there were very few that taught our Movement ideals. In the late 1800s some of our Movement’s ministry students started to enroll at the University of Chicago; this was a peculiar choice as it was a Baptist school. A robust gift from John D. Rockefeller helped establish Chicago’s divinity school as one of the Midwest’s most respected seminaries. And it was a hotbed for theological liberalism.
To provide a cultural lab for Movement students, a Disciples Divinity House was founded at the University of Chicago in 1894. The thinking behind the Divinity House was that ministry students from the Movement would then have a stable base from which to navigate their theological training while gaining exposure to Restoration ideals. Herbert Willett founded the Divinity House. While Willett was educated at Campbell’s Bethany College, he did advanced work at Yale Divinity School, where he became a proponent of theological liberalism. Even though the Divinity House taught the tradition of the Movement, students were encouraged to integrate a theologically liberal view of the Scriptures into their thinking. In this setting the high view of the Bible, which was historically inseparable from the Movement, was now taught as an archaic inconvenience.
After a few years, when the ministry students began serving in churches, this theological liberalism made its way to our pews. It did not go unnoticed, and, in the early 1900’s, Movement publications were full of arguments about clergy trained in Chicago.
But this conflict was just getting started.
2. The College of the Bible
The beginnings of the College of the Bible in Lexington were intertwined with that of the University of Kentucky. Founded at the conclusion of the Civil War, it rivaled Bethany College as one of the most respected ministry training centers in our Movement. Right about the time that Willett started the Divinity House, JW McGarvey was named president at the College of the Bible. McGarvey was an unquestioned conservative and made sure professors (almost all of whom were educated at the College of the Bible or Bethany) used the Bible as their primary textbook. For decades to follow, it was the disciples of McGarvey who were the champions of biblical orthodoxy in our Movement. He served as president until his death in 1911. Within just a few years after McGarvey’s death, the entire faculty at the College of the Bible turned over and was restaffed with professors influenced by the theological liberalism of the University of Chicago.
The shift at the school was relatively under the radar of the Movement churches until a student there mailed a letter to all the college trustees and supporting churches to reveal the truth. Immediately, Movement publications began to argue about the teaching at the College of the Bible; the controversy played out in the pages of Christian Standard, the most influential publication of our churches. Eventually, the trustees were influenced to conduct an investigation of the faculty, but the proceedings were a farce. The trustees were firmly behind the faculty and ultimately determined that they were without fault.
This was a pivotal moment within our Movement. To offset the theological liberalism taught at Lexington, ministry schools were started in Cincinnati, Louisville, and Grayson, Kentucky. Within a four-decade period, approximately two dozen Bible colleges and seminaries were founded. Just as it happened with the Churches of Christ, there was now an “us” and a “them.” The battle lines had been drawn, and it was time to fortify for the fight.
THE FIGHT AGAINST THEOLOGICAL LIBERALISM
Other church networks found themselves in similar fights with theological liberalism; in the following decades, many of the mainline denominations would succumb to the ideology. But in the early decades of the 20th century, while churches were combating theological changes, there were cultural changes taking place with America. The combined impact of these shifts alarmed many Christians. The key incident here took place in 1925, when a high school teacher in Tennessee was put on trial for teaching Darwinism to his students. The Supreme Court eventually reversed the guilty verdict of John Scopes, leaving many conservatives believing the very essence of American faith was in danger of being eliminated.
To defend these ideals against the erosion of both cultural and theological liberalism, fundamentalism emerged. Fundamentalism was the elevation of certain fundamentals of faith that needed to be endorsed for one to be considered orthodox; this included affirming the inspiration of Scripture, the virgin birth, substitutionary atonement, and the belief in biblical miracles. Many in our Movement, motivated by fortifying against the Disciples, stood under the banner of fundamentalism. My alma mater, Cincinnati Bible Seminary, became the Movement’s flagship institution for fundamentalist values.
As in any conflict, there will always be collateral damage, but the fight with the Disciples was far more traumatic than the split with the Churches of Christ. The fracture with the Churches of Christ was more of a drifting—a realignment. The break with the Disciples, however, escalated to personal attacks and even the filing of lawsuits; part of the fight included theologians retaining the right to legal counsel in case they were sued for libel. Eventually, there was a call by independent Christian Church leaders to pick a side: are you with us or with the Disciples? This view to declare a position was on full display: in the late 1940s, Christian Standard began to publish a list of faithful leaders, churches, and organizations. And when this became too complicated, the McLean family in Springfield, Illinois began publishing The Directory of the Ministry as a more complete listing of the Bible-believing institutions in our Movement.
Each move resulted in a counter move. In 1948, a Disciples commission was created to explore a potential restructuring of the fellowship. Twenty years later, at the International Convention of Christian Churches, the Disciples of Christ voted to become a full-fledged denomination. Even though there were still skirmishes after 1968, the fracture was complete; there were now three distinct tribes within the Restoration Movement: the Churches of Christ, the Independents, and the Disciples.
BREAKING DOWN THE WALLS
So what can we take from this fight? I’ll have some more detailed thoughts about this in the final installment of the series. Until then, I can think of no better way to view this conflict than to highlight the ministry of James DeForest Murch (1892-1973).
I’ll admit straightaway: Murch is my Movement hero. Even though he passed away before I was born, I feel a kinship toward him. He wasn’t perfect, to be sure, but he was thoughtful . . . and a little arrogant. A few years ago, I was talking with an older Movement leader who had spent time with Murch. I had to ask him if my idolization was misplaced. “Was he a good man?” And much to my relief, I learned that he was.
Murch’s professional life was lived in the midst of the fight with the Disciples. While he was passionate for biblical fidelity, he couldn’t bring himself to vilify the Disciples’ opposition. Yes, he preached and taught and argued for orthodox positions. And Murch would also refute Disciples’ positions from the pulpit or in publications.
But Murch always led with love.
As the Disciples of Christ became more liberal, Murch continued to fellowship with them; it wasn’t that he agreed with their view of Scripture, but that he was convinced that the Disciples would never return to the true faith if they were shunned. He refused to blacklist people and, ultimately, this proved harmful to his reputation. He was routinely criticized for his lack of visible fortification.
Even beyond the conflict with the Disciples, Murch championed our plea of unity. While many in our Movement built fortifications, he saw the unity plea as an opportunity to encapsulate the growing evangelical movement. In 1950, Murch convinced a young revivalist named Billy Graham to come to Cincinnati for a crusade. Even though the event was a huge success, nearly all the Movement churches in the city refused to participate in such a denominational event.
Until his dying day, Murch viewed himself as part of the Movement. In his autobiography he wrote,
“I love the Brotherhood . . . Throughout the years I have maintained fellowship with a great company of brethren across extra-congregational lines—a fellowship which has not in the least caused me to compromise my convictions grounded in the Word of God. I shall continue to do this because I think Christ would have me do it and regardless of whether others like it or not.”
Not only am I a disciple of Jesus, I think I’m a disciple of Murch as well.
My college professor and noted Movement historian Dr. James North does an admirable job of summarizing the issues of theological liberalism in chapter ten of Union in Truth.
It’s a little difficult to obtain, but Murch’s biography Adventures in Christ reveals the way he dealt with the Disciples split.
In 1915, Edwin Hayden wrote a counterargument to the Disciples’ version of events called “50 Years of Digression and Disturbance.”
Victor Knowles delivered a lecture at Pepperdine University in 2007 that simplistically charts the split with the Disciples.
Photo by Namroud Gorguis on Unsplash