Most people are aware of churches which contain the name “Church of Christ” and “Disciples of Christ,” but most people, including many in those churches, are not aware of the early history of these churches and their founders. This group of churches was, and to some extent still are, the central core of what is called the Restoration Movement. Their founders were Thomas and Alexander Campbell, Barton Stone, and Walter Scott. The major development of this movement occurred between 1823 and the deaths of its founders (Barton Stone, 1844; Walter Scott, 1861; and Alexander Campbell, 1866). The Campbells, Stone, and Scott began their movements independently but had significant mergers in the early 1800s, and these unions were the foundation for the movement that continues to this day.
Of course, most of grass roots members of this movement claim that their true roots go back to the original apostolic New Testament church. But even those who do acknowledge the role of their founders also claim that the “restoration” that ensued was a reestablishing of the New Testament church. The Restoration Movement churches claim that all denominational churches, then and now, have basically apostatized. In the Campbell’s eyes, the Reformation was a good start but stopped short. They agreed with the Reformation principle of Scripture alone rather than ecclesiastically imposed traditions. But they came to believe that the resulting denominations were guilty of the same errors. As we will see, however, it is the Stone-Campbell-Scott Movement that “stopped short” since their “gospel” bears much more resemblance to the Roman Catholic view than that of the Scriptures.
One of the Campbell’s driving passions was to see the various denominations, which he referred to as sectarian, unified by the elimination of what he considered man-made creeds, and a return to the “Scripture alone.” He wrote in the Christian Baptist of 1826, “I have no idea of adding to the catalogue of new sects. I labor to see sectarianism abolished and all Christians of every name united upon the one foundation upon which the apostolic church was founded.”1This is indeed an admirable goal. Campbell frequently focused on Jesus’ mediatory prayer that His followers may be one, in unity, so that the world would believe that Jesus was sent (John 17:20-23). But in reality the Stone-Campbell-Scott Movement began more denominations based on the peculiar biblical interpretations of its founders.
A common name for the members of these churches used by detractors is “Campbellites.” Criticism from evangelicals regarding most of these churches is certainly justified because they have perpetuated a “different gospel” (Gal. 1:6-9) and numerous other heresies. Among their errors is their belief that all other churches, even evangelicals, are false or apostate churches.
Of course, the Stone-Campbell-Scott Movement is not entirely monolithic. Because the pattern of theological identity is tied to an individual preacher’s New Testament interpretation and not a time tested, agreed upon formal creed, there have been numerous splinter groups or off-shoots. Ironically, the Campbellite “creed”, which is “to speak where the Bible speaks and be silent where the Bible is silent,” led to more factions over non-essential doctrines or practices which came to be seen by various individuals and groups as essentials. Some of these doctrinal “essentials,” which separated even Campbellite churches, included questions over whether or not musical instruments were allowed in worship, whether or not more than one cup could be used in communion, the participation of women in worship, the use of Sunday School, church support of or affiliation with religious institutions like colleges or mission organizations, and the historical formulation on the doctrine of the trinity.
The various Stone-Campbell-Scott Movement churches (denominations) exist all over the U.S. and in many foreign countries, with members totaling between three and four million. A large majority of these members have embraced a false, legalistic gospel and are deceiving many others.
Fortunately there have been some positive developments in recent years including the recent conversion of some Churches of Christ into the evangelical mainstream such as Max Lucado’s Oak Hills Church (formerly Oak Hills Church of Christ) in Texas. Also there is a group of Restoration Movement pastors and teachers at their numerous Bible colleges who have recently formed a subgroup within the Evangelical Theological Society and continue to interact with evangelical scholars.
It is important to understand the origin and beliefs of this movement in order to make \
a redemptive response to those deceived by it. So how did this movement begin and how \
did it develop? Where is it today and how can we redemptively engage them? These are the questions we will address in what follows.
History of the Movement
The ideological framework of the early years of the American republic provided a greenhouse for the growth of new religious movements. The pioneer spirit and distrust \
of Old World religious traditions gave rise to a challenge to traditional orthodoxies. The \
growing attitude among many people was that the factions and the confusing myriad of Protestant denominations was a result of departing from the model and teachings of the apostolic church. The denominations were all based on man-made ecclesiastical traditions. What was needed was to return to the self-evident teachings of Scripture and restore the New Testament church.
Most dissident groups were very small but the Stone-Campbell-Scott Movement became more formidable.2 We will trace its development beginning with Barton Stone.
Barton Stone was a Presbyterian minister but always struggled with the “Calvinist” doctrines of election, reprobation, and predestination. He began to question doctrines like these and also the doctrine of the trinity. Before his ordination and call to a church in Cane Ridge, Kentucky, Stone wrote, “I stumbled at the doctrine of the Trinity as taught in the Westminster Confession. I labored to believe it, but could not consciously subscribe to it.”3 Stone was ordained anyway in 1798 amidst some controversy. A great revival broke out in his region of Kentucky about this time and Stone eventually traveled there in 1801 to witness and participate with Methodists and Baptists. He was significantly moved by the emotion and fervor of the participants, and what he interpreted as a free will response to the gospel.
Stone himself organized revivals beginning in June and extending through July. In August of 1801, he held what was called the “Cane Ridge Meeting” which claimed thousands of conversions. In 1803 he withdrew from the Presbytery and later accepted baptism by immersion “for the forgiveness of sins.”4 He led a group of Presbyterians out of their denomination to pursue the ideal of being “Christians only.” This idea appealed to many in other churches and a movement began.
A few years after Stone’s movement began, another Presbyterian minister, Thomas Campbell, left his native Ireland and came to America. He was assigned a pastorate in western Pennsylvania. Campbell, also tired of denominational squabbles and isolation, began to preach for and cooperate with Christians. He was soon joined by his son, Alexander, who quickly became a fruitful itinerant preacher in Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia.5
Both Campbells had been influenced significantly by the rational inductive epistemological methodology of Francis Bacon and John Locke. They were also \
influenced by the anti-traditionalism of Scottish evangelicals Robert and James Haldane. Their resulting message was to dispense with historic Christian creeds, believing them and certain doctrines like infant baptism, to be philosophical speculations. In 1809 Thomas Campbell wrote a manifesto called “Declaration and Address” which was a commitment to self-reliance and the Bible alone, and not “human opinions.”6 Its major presupposition was that the churches have been divided into different parties by “speculative doctrines and human traditions not authorized by the New Testament.”7
One of the divisive issues, then and now, was the meaning, mode, and subjects of baptism. Believing that their previous infant all baptism was in error, the Campbells were rebaptized by immersion in 1812 by Baptist pastor Matthias Luce.
The Campbells met and discussed doctrine with Barton Stone in 1824. They found they had much in common. In fact, they held the same view on most points of belief and practice. So, in 1831 the majority of Stone’s followers merged with the Campbellites.
Ironically, the Campbells and Barton Stone, in their attempt to unify believers, were naïve and short-sighted. They believed if everyone looked past their traditional creeds and to the Bible alone, everyone would become unified in doctrine and in practice. I say “ironically” because what they did was to start another grouping of “denominations” based on their human (flawed) interpretations of the Bible.
The fourth pillar of the Restoration Movement was Walter Scott. Scott was also raised Presbyterian, but upon arriving in New York from Scotland, he became influenced by George Forrester. Forrester was part of the Scottish independent movement to restore the New Testament Church. Their doctrines included baptism by immersion, the Lord’s Supper every Sunday, and foot washing.
Scott was baptized by immersion in 1819, but in 1821 he had also become convinced that baptism must be “for the remission of sins.” That is, he came to believe that baptism was not merely an ordinance or ritual, but a decision of the penitent to release God to wash away our sins—a formal remission.8
As these independent groups began to hear about one another, there was a natural effort to connect and thus unify the Church. This was a foundational goal of these movements. The Campbells met with Walter Scott in 1821 and began their relationship. In 1826 Scott attended a meeting of the Campbell’s association and became even more closely connected. Impressed with his preaching, the next year the association asked Scott to be become their evangelist.
Through his preaching over the next three years, more than 3000 converts were brought into the Stone-Campbell-Scott Movement. A central part of Scott’s message was that in order to be saved, one must have faith, repent, and be baptized for the remission of sins (Acts 2:38), and as a result God would provide that remission, the gift of the Holy Spirit, and eternal life.9
Members of Baptist congregations especially, and even some ministers, were converted to the Campbell and Scott message. This brought resistance and even condemnation by a Baptist association. The Campbellite congregations then voted to dissolve their relationship with the Baptists. At that point, the Campbellite “reformers” became known as “Disciples.” The followers of Walter Scott joined together with them and with Barton Stone’s “Christians” in 1832. But about one-half of Stone’s “Christians” didn’t agree with the Campbell’s emphasis on the necessity of baptism by immersion for salvation (baptismal regeneration), and did not unite.10 The two merging groups adopted the Campbellite name, “Disciples of Christ” or the Stone preference, the “Christian Church.”
The Stone-Campbell-Scott Movement has experienced numerous divisions in their attempts to restore what they view as pure New Testament Christianity. The schisms arose because invariably the practical question arises, “Who determines whose interpretations of the New Testament doctrines and practices are correct?” The issue always comes back to hermeneutics (applied rules of Bible interpretation).
The Campbell’s original rational inductive, direct reference approach was not sufficient in determining questions like the use of instrumental music in worship, how elders should be ordained, whether churches should form organizational alliances including mission societies, colleges, publications, etc. So Alexander Campbell eventually came to realize the problem and accepted a standard hermeneutic approach called “necessary inference” as legitimate in some cases. A “necessary inference” is a deduction based on historical-grammatical and scripture-interpreting-scripture approaches, which is a valid method if used properly. But there was much resistance to any application of “necessary inference” by many leaders in the movement. They thought that this approach compromised their ideal of restoring original Christianity and Christian union based on “the Bible only” and “speaking only where the Bible speaks, and being silent where the Bible is silent.”11
Lacking a sound hermeneutic, then, divisions resulted over issues like the use of instrumental music, the support of mission agencies, and how much understanding a baptismal candidate must have for effectual baptism, and even over whether or not previously baptized people in Baptist or other immersion churches would be allowed communion (Lord’s Supper) if they had an incomplete understanding of the necessity of baptism for salvation.
Another divisive issue, introduced by Barton Stone, was the doctrine of the trinity. Stone interpreted the Holy Spirit as the power of force of God and concluded that the trinity was a man-made tradition. This legacy has had an impact on many Churches of Christ today. It is not unusual to encounter members who basically hold a view that the Holy Spirit and the Bible are inseparably linked. The only time the Holy Spirit is present is when the Bible is opened and read. It is almost like a genie in the bottle. When the Bible is closed, the Holy Spirit returns to the Bible.
In 1906 the U.S. Census Bureau listed three separate divisions within the Restoration Movement. They were the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the Christian Church/ Churches of Christ (Independent), and Churches of Christ (Noninstrumental).
Another major division came about with the influence of a liberal theological movement called “higher criticism” which eventually led to the denial of the inerrancy of the Bible. As this allegedly scholarly movement took its toll on many mainline Protestant churches, it also affected a group of Restorationist Churches. Throughout the 1900’s this liberal view infected a significant number of Disciples of Christ congregations that eventually separated, some of whom still call themselves Christian Churches, and others who formed the Disciples of Christ denomination in 1968.12
The most recent division within the Stone-Campbell-Scott movement is the formation of the International Church of Christ. This movement began at the Crossroads Church of Christ in Gainesville, Florida, in 1967. The minister, Chuck Lucas, began observing the success of aggressive evangelistic groups like Campus Crusade, and the organized discipleship of the Navigators at the University of Florida. He combined the aggressive evangelism and high accountability discipleship with his legalistic framework. His church began to grow significantly.
One of Lucas’s leaders was Kip McKean who went into ministry full time. In 1975 McKean and his wife, Elena, moved to a suburb of Boston and began a very aggressive and demanding program. It was named the Boston Church of Christ. The traditional Church of Christ legalism coupled with the high demand, close accountability structure and use of guilt and manipulation, produced an abusive, mind and life controlling cult. After its first ten years of existence, the Boston Church of Christ with its church plants and world missions programs numbered 25,000 members. Their primary focus was on college campuses.
Most traditional Churches of Christ were highly condemning of this church. In 1993 the Boston Church of Christ broke association with the mainline Church of Christ, and changed its name to the International Church of Christ (ICOC). Kip McKean began a heavy-handed hierarchal control over the planted churches. Numerous churches were disciplined or dissolved for questioning unbiblical practices and legalisms. The blame was always leveled at the “rebellious” defectors by McKean.
The amount psychological and spiritual damage done to many of their “disciples” began to rise and got the attention of many Christian and even secular counter-cult groups. Even the churches in the Restoration Movement admitted the ICOC was cultic. After many testimonies, published analyses, and conferences exposing the theological and methodological errors, Kip McKean announced his resignation in 2001. But in 2003, McKean took over the declining Portland Church of Christ and reinstated his methodology.
By 2004 there emerged three factions from within the ICOC movement. One group of churches agreed with the criticisms of former leaders and made strides to reform, including merging back into mainstream Churches of Christ. A second subgroup of churches, the largest number, wanted some degree of reform but did not want to “overeact”. A third subgroup believed the others had gotten too soft and wanted to return to the aggressive pattern of evangelism, one-on-one discipleship accountability, and denouncing church autonomy. Some leaders wanted McKean’s return and some did not.13In 2006, McKean labeled those who were in line with his ministry the “Sold Out Movement,” and upon his return to his Los Angeles Church in 2007, he called his movement “The International Christian Church.”14
The current church heritage of the Stone-Campbell-Scott Movement usually goes by the names Church of Christ or Christian Church. These titles are essential in their eyes as, keeping with their restorationist aims, they believe this is the name the original churches called themselves (Rom. 16:16). This might be seen as their first mistake. Even the Scriptural references to the churches negate their claim. Only once in Romans 16:16 does the Scripture refer to the church as the “church of Christ,” and here it simply descriptive, not a title. Elsewhere we find the designation “church of God” (Acts:20:28; Gal. 1:13; I Cor. 1:2; 11:22; 15:9; 2 Cor. 1:1; I Cor. 10:32;I Tim. 3:5; 3:15), and many places the Scriptures calls the church by the name of the town it is in (Acts 11:22; Rom. 16:1; Col. 4:16; I Thess. 1:1; 2 Thess. 1:1; Rev. 2:1,8,12,18; 3:1,7,14).
In any case, by whatever name, the churches of the Restoration Movement are guilty of teaching heretical doctrine in several areas. This section will detail their major doctrinal errors.
The Lord’s Supper
One day I received a call from a Church of Christ elder who wanted to have a “Bible discussion” regarding communion. As we met he wrote three verses on a piece of paper: Matthew 26:26, 27, and 1 Corinthians 11:25. After reading the first two verses he concluded that the bread and wine were part of communion representing His body and blood given for us. No disagreement. So I was curious as to why the third verse. As we read it, he noted that Jesus said this is the “cup” of the new covenant, not “cups.” So I asked, “Are you saying that if a church uses more than one cup during communion they are going to hell?”
He said, “I am not the judge, God is.” So I rephrased my question: “If another church of Christ near your church used multiple cups in communion, would you fellowship with them?”
“No,” he answered.
“Then you are saying,” I responded, “that their salvation is dependent on their obeying correctly what you consider a command, because we are commanded to fellowship with fellow believers.”
This exchange shows how extreme some Restorationists can be on the topic of the Lord’s Supper. Not all of them go this far, but most Campbellites do believe that in order to return to original and true Christianity it is necessary to have weekly communion. This weekly “requirement” is not explicit in Scripture, but could be inferred from the early church’s practice of “breaking bread together” (Acts 2:42), and is associated on several occasions with the Lord’s Day (Sunday service). But to interpret these passages as a “necessary inference” and therefore a mandatory practice, absolutely central to Christian worship, is going far beyond what Scripture teaches.
A large segment of the Campbellite movement prohibits the use of instruments in worship. They believe that there is no mention of instruments in the New Testament. In fact, they believe that the only time an instrument is mentioned in the New Testament, it is used negatively (1 Cor. 13:1). They see the alleged silence of Scripture on the use of instruments in worship as prohibitive. Therefore, they cannot be used to worship “in Spirit and in truth.” Instead, these churches use acapella choirs.
But, again, this is a legalistic misuse of Scripture. Even if the New Testament did not mention or command the use of musical instruments in worship, it would not follow that they are prohibited given that (1) churches are commanded to sing songs in worship, and (2) musical instruments are clearly allowed in the Old Testament.
But the truth is that Scripture commends and commands our use of musical instruments in worship along with singing in the Old Testament, in the New Testament, and in the new heavens and earth. In Psalm 150: 3-5, we are called to praise Him with trumpets, harps and a lyre, stringed instruments, a pipe, and cymbals. In Psalm 71:2 God is praised with harp and lyre (also Ps. 33:2 and 147:7). In Psalm 45:8 worship with stringed instruments “have made you glad.” And then we see in the new heavens and earth that God enjoys praise and worship with instruments. In Rev. 5:9, 14:2-3, and 15:2-3, harps are used in deep and sincere worship of God.
Campbellites display their myopic vision of Scripture by saying that these passages are confined to periods outside of the New Testament Church, as if God didn’t repeatedly say that He changes not. He is the same yesterday, today, and forever. But, in any case, we can show the Church of Christ member that his own statement is false. We find God instructing His church in the New Testament to worship in “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” (Col. 3:16; Eph. 5:19). The reference to “psalms” here is instructive. The Greek word psalmos means “a striking or twitching with the fingers on musical strings, a sacred song sung to musical accompaniment.”15 So, we do have a clear New Testament mandate to use musical instruments in worship.
The Holy Spirit and the Trinity
As mentioned earlier, Restoration leader Barton Stone was the first among them to have problems with the doctrine of the Trinity due to his rationalistic approach to interpreting the Bible. Initially Stone was also vague in his doctrine of the dual natures of Christ and the incarnation. Being accused of Arianism (the denial of the divinity of Christ), he tried to clarify his earlier statements, but was not very successful.
Regarding the Person of the Holy Spirit, Stone wrote the following heretical statement: “I understand the Spirit of a person is not the person himself. We often read in the Bible that the Father loves the Son, and the Son loves the Father, but we never read of either the Father or the Son loving the Spirit as a person, or of the Spirit loving the Father or the Son.” 16 Alexander Campbell along with Stone distrusted theological paradoxes (like the Trinity) and shared Stone’s aversion to the Nicene Creed which concluded that the Godhead was one divine essence in three coeternal Persons (hypostaseis). He considered this a humanistic philosophical creation.17
One of the problems here is that both Stone and Campbell had a contradictory approach to interpreting Scripture. On the one hand, they insisted on letting the Bible speak for itself, yet on the other hand they subjected God’s revelation to human rationalism refusing to allow the Bible to say what they found contrary to human reason. If they were consistent, they would have seen that the Bible does explicitly affirm the deity of three distinct Persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (cf. John 1:1; Phil 2:5-12; Col. 2:9; John 16:5-15; Acts 5:3-4), and it reveals the truth of the triune God, while still retaining a place for the mystery of it (Deut. 29:29; Matt. 3:16-17; 28:18-20; Rom. 11:33-34).18
The most visible issue and distinguishing mark of the conservative Churches of Christ, is their doctrine of the meaning and purpose of baptism. The subjects and means of baptism is not very controversial as they are basically the same as Baptists and other denominations who believe that baptism by immersion is to be performed on penitent believers. But the Campbellite movement by and large believes that baptism is one of five or six steps one must take in order to be saved. Those steps are to hear, believe, repent, confess, be baptized, and obey the New Testament commands. Related to baptism, their view is often referred to as “baptismal regeneration.”
Alexander Campbell’s view of the meaning and effect of baptism noticeably shifted during the decade of 1820-1830. He went from baptism (immersion) being emblematic of salvation already received, to believing that real or actual forgiveness came only by the shed blood of Christ through faith in Him, but the “formal” remission of sins came in baptism, the current heretical view. Campbell stated, “I do earnestly contend that God, through the blood of Christ, forgives our sins through immersion— through the very act and in that very instant. . . . No one has ever received pardon by faith only. Water baptism, with faith as the principle of action is the means through which God by the power of the blood of Christ imparts remission.”19 When pressed on the question of whether or not this requirement of obedience made baptism “a work,” Campbell answered, “We do not place baptism among good works. In baptism we are passive in everything but giving our consent.”20
Campbell and the resulting churches of Christ are wrong. Faith alone in Christ’s perfect righteousness is the ceasing to do anything. Repentance is surrender also and therefore repentance and faith alone are passive. Campbellites invariably begin to add obedience to the New Testament commands as the way of salvation. But it is by grace and therefore cannot be any works of ours (Rom. 11:6, 1 Cor. 1:30-31; Eph. 2:8-10; Gal. 2:16; Rom. 3:19- 5:2). More will be said about the heresy of baptismal regeneration as it relates to the Campbellite’s “different gospel”(Gal. 1:6-9) elsewhere in the this issue.21
There are some differences today among the various subgroups of the Restoration Movement regarding baptism. Most agree that believers’ baptism is unqualifiedly essential to salvation, but differences occur over whether God accepts the pious unimmersed, or the pious who didn’t fully understand why they were being baptized at the time.
In summary, the Stone-Campbell-Scott Movement began with an idealistic motive: to eliminate man-made divisions among Christian churches or denominations. They aimed to return to the Bible alone (the Reformation principle of sola scriptura). But they were wrong to not realize that the time-tested doctrines of the faith, summarized in the creeds, have great value in mitigating subjectivity of human interpretation.
Evangelical denominations (those who believe in the infallibility of the Bible as the rule of faith) do agree on the essential doctrines of the faith. This is because we also believe in the general perspicuity of the Bible (clarity of Scripture on important or essential teachings). It is true that denominations may elevate certain non-essential doctrines to a higher status than they should, but again these are non-essentials.
We are all called to study to show ourselves approved and even to test all prophetic utterances and hold fast to those which are true (Acts 17:11; 2Tim. 2:15; 1 Thess. 5:20-21). But we are also called into a corporate and historical body, and we are wise to be well-acquainted with the time-tested Councils and Creeds endorsed by the evangelical movement. The Stone-Campbell-Scott tradition does not stand up under informed scrutiny.
Craig Branch is the Director of the Apologetics Resource Center, Birmingham, Alabama.
1 See Biographical Sketch On the the Life of Alexander Campbell” (internet article accessed at www.therestorationmovement.com/cmbla.htm.
2 Two of the early and smaller dissident groups were those led by James O’Kelly, who had separated from the Methodist Episcopal Church around 1792; and Abner Jones and Elias Smith who came out of the Baptist tradition in 1801 (See Reid, Linder, Shelley, and Stout), eds., Dictionary of Christianity in America [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1990], 1005).
3 Foster, Dunnavant, Blowers, and Williams, eds., Encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movement (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 706.
4 Ibid., 60-61.
5 William Baker, ed., Evangelicalism and the Stone-Campbell Movement (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2002), 10.
6 Ibid., 11.
7 Encyclopedia, 140.
8 Ibid., 674.
9 Ibid., 675.
10 Dictionary, 1007.
11 Evangelicalism & the Stone-Campbell Movement, 15.
12 Dictionary, 1007-1008.
13 See the article, “30 Years, the Boston Church of Christ/International Churches of Christ” (accessed at www.Reveal.org).
14 For a detailed expose of ICOC errors and harmful practices, request ARC’s information packet via practices, request ARC’s information packet via 0102).
15 W.E. Vine, ed., Vines Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, vol.3 (Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming Revell Co., 1966), 229. See also A T. Robertson’s Word Pictures in the New Testament, vol. 4, (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1931), 505.
16 The Encyclopedia, 713.
17 Ibid. 356-357.
18 For a thorough biblical exposition of the \
revelation of the Trinity, contact our office and request our information packet on the trinity (www. arcapologetics.org); Also see the article by Ron Rhodes, “Defending the Deity of Christ and the Trinity against the Jehovah’s Witnesses,” Areopagus Journal 5:4 (July-August 2005): 23-28.
19 Encyclopedia, 58-59.
20 Ibid. p.59.
21 See Craig Branch and Brandon Robbins, “Does Baptism Save?” There we tackle the proof texts used not only by the Campbellites but also groups like Seventh-day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, United Pentecostals, and Roman Catholics.