by Douglas A. Foster, professor; director, Center for Restoration Studies, Abilene Christian University

Prepared for Stone-Campbell Dialogue, Cincinnati Bible College, November 27, 2000

As a church historian and a student of the Stone-Campbell Movement, I was struck by your description of Alexander Campbell’s struggle to define the relationship between congregations. In the Christian System Campbell, using the term “principle of cooperation,” suggested that the relationship was analogous to the relationship of an individual Christian to all the others in a local congregation. Christians could not legitimately create any coercive structure above the churches; rather congregations should voluntarily pool their counsels (and presumably resources) to promote the general good of all the churches.

Your characterization of Campbell’s idea of church government as “pure democratic”—a naive faith that the majority would make the right decisions and the minority dutifully fall in line—may very well be accurate. This would certainly fit well the ethos of the American frontier in which Campbell operated.

However, I wonder if Campbell’s understanding of the nature of the governance of the church could be seen more in line with a classical understanding of the consensus fidelium—the consensus of the faithful—rather than pure American democratic ideals.

In the Christian tradition it has been taken for granted from the days of the primitive church that the consensus of Christians is not the result of a process of opinion-building by human decision. Rather, the truth that constitutes consensus is given by the revelation of God in Christ and is communicated by the Holy Spirit. The means used by the Holy Spirit is the proclamation of the Word of God (the gospel of Christ) by word and deed, including the administration of the sacraments. The consensus of the Christian community of faith manifests itself in various ways, such as in worship, confessions, joint action, lifestyle, and various customs. It finds fulfillment in the life of a local congregation that confesses and acknowledges together that God is here at work.

Holy Scripture is the basic document of church consensus. All other actualizations of the Christian life find their norm here … Encyclopedia of Christianity, vol. 1, p. 668.

My sense of Campbell is that though he may sound like he is using the rhetoric of democracy so familiar to the people of nineteenth-century America, his thought is more in line with the idea of the consensus fidelium.

His supposedly democratic tendencies can be seen in this light. His anti-clergy sentiment was tied to opposition to any concentration of power that could usurp the authority of the Body seen in this context. His interest in an educated leadership certainly does not contradict this. Bethany College was a liberal arts school whose original charter forbade the establishment of a Department of Theology, providing that all students would study scripture. My sense of the Disciples’ “conventions” that began nationally in 1849 was that they were meetings that in some way tried to discern the “consensus of the faithful” and to coordinate efforts in carrying it out. The American Christian Missionary Society created at the first national convention was definitely something that had been forming in the minds and hearts of many in the churches of the Stone-Campbell Movement for years. The conventions were certainly not legislative or juridical like the assemblies of most other groups.

This same desire to discern the consensus of the faithful was at the heart of the momentum to restructure the Christian Churches in the 1950s and 1960s. Ronald Osborn’s seven principles quoted in Dick’s paper all reflect in some way the understanding of the church as servant—but acting together in covenant.

… In the early days of our movement, common procedure was for the founding members of a congregation to subscribe their names to a church covenant. Thus they bound themselves with promises having implications both material and spiritual.

The mutual involvement of the churches in a denomination is this kind of relationship. It is of the nature of a covenant with God and with one another. There are moments in history when such a pact is formally ratified, as by the Scottish Covenanters or by those who entered into the Formal Declaration of Union establishing the United Church of Christ. There are other situations in which the covenant is an implied relationship, mutually accepted and sustained, as in the life of our own brotherhood.

… It is altogether appropriate that in the process of restructure we should develop this concept more fully by devising a declaration of our covenant in Christ, by which our congregations may bind themselves to one another in the common life and mission of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) for the service of God. Ronald E. Osborn, Restructure: Toward the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), pp. 36-37.

Covenant, then, becomes the foundation for the way the churches relate to one another. In the Design for the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) this relationship is manifested between congregations at regional and general levels. Osborn states in the same document that most Disciples had recognized “the insufficiency of congregational autonomy” and repudiated “the anarchy of independency,” recognizing “the need for a mutuality of concern among the congregations as well as a church structure that can give effectiveness to this concern and to the common mission.” In other words, a better way of discerning the consensus of the faithful was needed.

Obviously those who were responsible for implementing what became the Design for the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) believed that the structures put in place would best (or at least better) facilitate that covenantal way of life. In your best judgment, the Design allows (or allowed in 1968) you to be the servant church you are called to be.

Yet you admit that structures, even those unobtrusive structures you put in place in 1969, “have a tendency to demand service rather than remaining servants.” The structures you chose in creating this most “undenominational denomination” seem to reflect, however mildly, a set of organizational assumptions characteristic of modern thought, that were even then proving less and less effective. (See Ronald E. Osborn, “The Irony of the Twentieth-Century Christian Church (Disciples of Christ): Making it to the Mainline Just at the Time of Its Disestablishment,” Mid-Stream 28 (July 1989):293-312.)

Please don’t misunderstand this observation as a self-righteous condemnation of Disciples structures. Both Churches of Christ and Christian Churches/ Churches of Christ have our structures too! They may be less formal, but they are no less real and, for the most part, no less modern.

My point is that in the post-modern era we seem to be entering, attitudes are quite negative toward any kind of hierarchical structure, however benign. One of the operative models in this new era is of horizontal networking—using communication technology like the world wide web and e-mail to stay in constant and instant contact, disseminating information, sharing resources, requesting assistance, pulling needs and resources together—allowing for “interdependence, synergy, and sharing of resources.” One may think the component of mutual accountability would be missing in such a potentially anonymous setting; yet amazingly the opposite is often true.

This kind of horizontal networking relationship has its negative potential—as do all human efforts. Yet it tends to work easily across barriers that modern structures inevitably erect and maintain. This turn of events is certainly leading many in Churches of Christ into wider connections and cooperation with believers outside their confines faster and more widely than ever before.

As was the case with the missionary societies and related structures in the nineteenth century, support or non-support of any structure seems always to become the test—the mark—of being part of the body, and therefore seemingly an inevitable source of division. The same is as true of informal structures as it is of formal ones.

The bottom line question, then, might be articulated like this: “How can we best live in covenant in our own times, discerning the consensus of the faithful, and acting as a servant church in the world?” Is that best done with the kind of modern structures Disciples set up in the last decades of the twentieth century, or do we all need to rethink carefully the routes our churches will take in serving Christ and each other—in discerning the consensus of the faithful in the twenty-first century?