It occurs to me that modern “Christendom” is plagued with two related errors: self-preservation and progressivism. That is to say, we are oriented around preserving our institutions as “our” institutions and we think we know better than.
The church heritage out of which I came, the Stone-Campbell Movement, is a case in point. The Movement was originally a unity movement: “Christians only not the only Christians.” So, as in the famous document known as “The Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery” (signed on 28 June 1804), the elders of the Presbyterian church in Springfield (among whom was Barton W. Stone, for whom the Movement was later named in part) willed that their particular church body, “die, be dissolved, and sink into union with the body of Christ at large; for there is but one body, and one spirit, even as we are called in one hope of our calling.” And, in doing that, they affirmed that “the people henceforth take the Bible as the only sure guide to heaven; and as many as are offended with other books, which stand in competition with it, may cast them into the fire if they choose; for it is better to enter into life having one book, than having many to be cast into hell.”
At first the Stone-Campbellites were able to maintain something of a parachurch association. But in time, they found it necessary to organize and congregate among themselves, apart from the larger body of Christ. Though the larger part of the Stone-Campbell churches have staunchly resisted forming a denomination (the Disciples of Christ, however, did so about thirty years ago), they still “keep to themselves.” They have their own colleges for ministerial training, their own mission organizations, their own national convention (which is simply a very large preaching and teaching conference–it makes no formal or official decisions), and so forth. When I was in Bible college, we jokingly referred to ourselves as the “non-denominational denomination.” (I know, I know, it’s not original.)
More to the point, the early leaders, while rightly orienting themselves doctrinally around the New Testament Church, cut themselves off from historic Christianity by not considering the Church Fathers and Ecumenical Councils. So, on the one hand the Stone-Campbell churches teach the ancient doctrine of the saving effects of the act of baptism (though they don’t call it a sacrament); but on the other hand, they “know better” than Ignatios of Antioch and Irenaeus of Lyons, and the rest of the early Church, and accept Zwingli’s understanding of the non-sacramentality of the Lord’s Supper or Eucharist (that is, that it is merely a rememberance–and not anamnesis in the classic and patristic sense).
Here a group of Christians had a phenomenal opportunity in the new world of the United States, and on what was then its western frontier, to forge a new return to the historic and New Testament Church. A return which would further the case of the Church in America. To lay aside all denominational differences, and return to the one Church of God. Instead, they eventually added yet another to the groups of Christian bodies in our world, further enlarging the schism. And in their Lockean and Baconian rationalistic confidence–well-intentioned though it certainly was–they assumed that 1700 years had given them more wisdom, knowledge and understanding than the Fathers and Mothers of the Church, some of whom had known the Apostles.
This is one large problem I have with modern Protestantism: we all want to work toward unity, but the “benchmark” which could serve to assist us in that, we ignore. It seems to me that if we want to be one Church, visibly and manifestly, it would make sense that we would believe and do those things the Church believed and did before the Great Schism, when it was still one. From the first millennium of the Church’s history, we received a common form of government, our common and sacred Scriptures, the whole and unblemished Faith and Dogma of the Church. We all–in our historic lineages–had the same thing. If we’re really serious about advancing the “cause” of unity, of ecumenism, it makes sense that we would all submit ourselves to the Church of the first millennium.
But perhaps we’re too interested in preserving our own institutions. And perhaps we think we know better than they did.
I am a child of the Stone-Campbell Movement. I embrace my heritage, warts and all. But I am intent on taking the “program” of the Movement to its original intent: to seek and to be part of the One Church of Christ, the New Testament and historic Church. To go forward, it is necessary to return. And such a return must be to the full faith and life of the Church.