by Richard L. Hamm, General Minister and President, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

Presented to the Stone Campbell Dialogue, Cincinnati Bible College, November 27-28, 2000

Structured for Mission: Together

The Stone Campbell movement was in large measure born in rebellion against the middle judicatory authority of the Springfield Presbytery. The precipitating issue was the Presbyterian practice of “fencing the table,” by which members had to be examined by elders and deemed “worthy” of admittance to the Lord’s Supper. Campbell found this practice unconscionable. However, his refusal to participate in it was only one symptom of much broader concerns about how the church had been bound by various human traditions and authorities.

The Nature of the Church

Alexander Campbell understood the church as being much more than a social organization. It is the incarnation of Christ in the world, the embodiment of Christ’s life (by “Christ’s life,” Campbell meant not simply Jesus’ earthly life and ministry, but the living Christ, resurrected and present in the world). The church is the embodiment of the Holy Spirit, which Campbell identifies with the resurrected Christ (II Corinthians 3:17: “Now the Lord is the Spirit….”). Thus, the church is a saving institution because (and only because) it is the spiritual Body of Christ.

Since the church is the spiritual Body of Christ, it follows that the fragmentation of the body must be perceived as scandalous and sinful. Christ prayed that those of the church “may be one….that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:21). An implication of this prayer is that if the church is fragmented, the world will perceive the church to be simply and merely one more social institution that divides and fragments like any other social institution. Thus, the world will not be able to perceive that the church is the spiritual body of Christ seeking to bring salvation and wholeness to the world.

D. Ray Lindley, a member of the Disciples’ Panel of Scholars from 1956-1962, wrote the following in regard to Campbell’s ecclesial views:

The abiding sin of the church is the sin of fragmentation. If Roman Catholicism fragmented the church by making a fraction of the church, the papal system, the authority; and if Protestantism fragmented the church by extracting the Bible which tells of the incarnation, from the life of the church which is a continuation of the incarnation; the sin of Disciples has been that of imputing to the local congregation, which is also a fragment of the church, an authority which properly belongs to the whole church. We have emphasized independence at the cost of an essential interdependence.In his early career, the issue of Campbell’s opposition to all forms of ecclesiastical control was his affirmation of the autonomy of the local congregation. *1

Campbell’s desire was to free the church from anything that would bind its power as Christ’s redemptive Spirit moving in the world. His “religious populism,” evidenced by his frequent use of phrases such as, “The voice of the people is the voice of God,” was born of his concern that human institutions and authorities had captured the Spirit and held it hostage to idolatrous claims.

Nevertheless, there were contradictions within Campbell’s ecclesial views which would sow the seeds of division within the Stone Campbell movement itself. For example, in a debate with N.L. Rice, he said,

“Weak minds are the slaves of old times, and of old customs. They need the crutches of antiquity, and human authority. But men of vigorous minds ask, what is truth? Not who says it.”

In the same debate, Campbell also said,

“I am opposed to all innovations. Innovations, with me, are not the creations of last year, last century, nor of the last millennium. Innovations are customs, usages, rites, doctrines that commenced one year after John wrote the word amen at the end of the Apocalypse.” *2

Thus, Campbell made the case for Biblical authority in all matters yet invited Disciples to question even that authority. Campbell dealt with these contradictions by developing the “principle of cooperation.”

As Lindley says, “The same faith which Campbell posited in the ‘brethren’ with regard to the administration of the affairs of the local church was posited in the aggregate of the local churches in the administration of the affairs of the kingdom. Just as surely as all ‘supra local’ organizations were deterred from coercing the local congregation, so all local congregations were under an imperative to combine voluntarily their joint counsels in making plans for the general good……In discussing the ‘Body of Christ,’ he [Alexander Campbell] pointed out what he considered to be such necessity: ‘This institution, called the congregation of God, is a great community of communities – not a community representative of communities, but a community composed of many particular communities, each of which is built on the same foundation, walks according to the same rules, enjoys the same charter, and is under the jurisdiction of no other community of Christians, but is to all other communities as an individual disciple is to every other individual disciple in any one particular community meeting in any given place.” *3

So Campbell lays the foundation for a church that will be governed by pure democratic principle. He holds an unswerving faith that the majority of believers will make correct choices and that the minority will accept the judgment of the majority as authoritative. (I believe this “unswerving” faith in the ability of the majority to make correct choices belies a naivete born of unbridled enthusiasm for the nascent American experiment in democracy, but a naivete shared by many of Campbell’s countrymen in those days.)

It was not long before Campbell began to rue the poor quality of leadership that was being provided by lay leaders (he had strongly opposed the institution of clergy as innovations which tended to usurp the authority of the Body). Thus, for the sake of pragmatic need, he advocated an educated leadership for the church. Bethany College was founded in large measure with the education of such leaders in mind. Though modern Disciples often use the word “clergy” to refer to those of the “order of ministry,” such a word does not accurately express our tradition and belies that fact that our Disciples “ministers” have no special authority over our Disciples laity. Our ministers are set aside by ordination for servant leadership, not for special privilege.

Campbell soon regretted the rapid development of a myriad of colleges and agencies that purported to serve the church but which were operated by independent boards or executives and not subject to the churches’ authority and discipline. This led to Campbell’s encouragement of agencies that would be subject to the churches through “conventions” that would provide a representative voice in governance and policy. To this day, Disciples gatherings are a mix of official voting delegates of congregations and other parts of the body and of as many non-voting delegates as may wish to participate. Voting and non-voting delegates alike have voice.

Thus Alexander Campbell, who had once been unwilling to acknowledge the validity of any organization beyond the congregation, himself established a college and became the first president of the American Christian Missionary Society (in 1849). These changes in understanding and practice can be attributed to his belief in the unity of the church of Jesus Christ, which he considered the embodiment of the Spirit of the living Christ, faith in democracy, and a kind of pragmatism that sought to bridge the gap between the ideal and the possible. It is these same three characteristic beliefs (the church is the Body of the Spirit of the living Christ, the church is essentially, intentionally and constitutionally one, democracy is an appropriate means of governance) coupled with pragmatism that marks Disciples life and leadership to this day.

The Restructure of 1968

By the 1950’s, there had arisen among much of the leadership of the Disciples of Christ a felt need for a re-visioning of the Brotherhood (as it was known in those days) and a restructuring of our life and ministry. The envisioned restructure was driven by seven principles as enumerated by Ronald Osborn *4 (the commentary after each principle is my own):

I. The Brotherhood seeks structures rooted in Christ’s ministry made known through Scripture.

Of course, any suitable church structure will necessarily facilitate Christ’s ministry as made known in the scriptures, for the church is, after all, the “Body of the Spirit of the living Christ.” Our work is Christ’s work.

II. The Brotherhood seeks structures that are comprehensive in ministry and mission.

The ministry and mission of Christ is not merely local, but global. We are called to witness from our doorsteps “to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Thus a suitable church structure will enable both local and global work and will facilitate our commitment to the work of the whole (ecumenical) church.

III. The Brotherhood seeks structures by which congregations may fulfill their ministries.

The focus of any suitable structure will be upon helping congregations be faithful to the whole ministry and mission of the church. Therefore, “overseas ministry” for example, is not primarily the ministry and mission of a unit of the church (known as the Division of Overseas Ministries in the restructured church) but is a ministry and mission of every congregation which is helpfully facilitated y the Division of Overseas Ministries.

IV. The Brotherhood seeks structures that are responsibly interrelated.

Any suitable structure will have parts that are interrelated and interdependent as befits the Body of Christ (“For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.” I Corinthians 12:12)

V. The Brotherhood seeks structures that manifest both unity and diversity.

Unity does not mean uniformity. Any suitable structure must allow for all to follow their Christian conscience.

VI. The Brotherhood seeks to be ecumenical.

Any suitable structure should make it possible for Disciples to work with other communions of the Body of Christ as we feel led to do so.

VII. The Brotherhood seeks structures faithful in stewardship.

Any suitable structure should seek to make the most faithful, effective and efficient use of the resources available for the ministry and mission of the church.

The resulting Restructure was approved by the International Convention in 1968 and implemented with the first General Assembly in 1969. The name of the church was changed from the Christian Churches (Disciples of Christ) to the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). This change of name was a recognition and a sign that Disciples were coming to see themselves as one church rather than as a mere convention of churches and agencies. The foundational basis of our life together is a covenantal polity.

The covenant that is at the heart of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is rooted in this same new covenant that has always been the foundation of the church of Jesus Christ. It is a three way covenant between God, us, and one another. We understand ourselves to be part of the “ekklesia,” the community of the called. We live not by a contract which emphasizes rights, but by a covenant which emphasizes responsibilities. A contractual way of life invites “winner take all” strategies and the competitive hoarding of the church’s gifts. A covenantal way of life together, however, calls for interdependence, synergy and the sharing of resources. It also calls for mutual accountability to one another before God.

We Disciples are yet on a pilgrimage, and we need to maintain flexibility in our structures. Our life will be marked by continual change and the need for flexibility, just as people on a pilgrimage pitch their tent now here and now there, as they move down the road. As Duane Cummins put it, The Design gave us the possibility of “more equitable balance between some of our ageless polarities: freedom and community, unity and diversity, congregationalism and catholicity” *5

Nevertheless, the human condition is such that structures have a tendency to demand service rather than remaining servants. Thus, we must always remember that the primary purpose of the Regional and General manifestations is not to be ends in themselves, but to enhance the faithfulness and effectiveness of congregations, providing ways and means for congregations to address the world faithfully and effectively. Yet congregations must also remember that, while they are fully church, they are not by themselves the church fully.

So, when we are meeting in a congregational meeting, we are church. When we meet in regional assembly, we are church. When we are doing mission work in say, the nation of Lesotho in southern Africa through the Division of Overseas Ministries and with our ecumenical partners, we are church. Yet, in each case, we are part of the whole Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), — indeed, I believe we are meeting and acting and serving as part of the universal church of Jesus Christ.

We Disciples are a people of the Table…….the Communion Table. The Table, rather than a body of doctrine, is at the center of our life together, reminding us that we are part of the Body by the grace of God and that we are called to live grace-fully with each other. Thus, when we are at our best, our congregational, regional and general life is an expression of covenant (and of the church ecumenical *6), as we care for one another even in the face of our differences of opinion.

We are in covenant, meaning we are ethically and spiritually bound to cooperate with one another because, having accepted God’s covenant with us, we have entered into this covenantal polity with one another and with God! So while we are not legally bound to work together, neither is working together optional: it is the essence of the church as we understand it. Our strength comes from the fact that we work together because we are called to faithfulness, not because we are legally bound to do so.

When we are at our best, we discover God has granted us just the right balance of freedom and responsibility. This is how this church works. When it does not work, it is usually because someone embraced the freedom of the covenant but forsook the implied responsibility to work together as the whole community of Christ’s church.

We Disciples have a great deal of maturing to do if we are to claim that we truly live by a covenantal polity! We need to spend more time reflecting upon who God is calling us to be and seeking to understand what the implications of that are for what we do and how we do it.

*1 The Panel of Scholars Report, Volume I, p.191, “The Structure of the Church.”
*2 Lindley offers these quotes which come from the Campbell-Rice Debate, p.608f
*3 The Panel of Scholars Report, Volume I, p. 193-4, “The Structure of the Church.”
*4 Restructure Toward the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ): Intention, Essence, Constitution” by Ronald Osborn, 1964, Christian Board of Publication
*5 Handbook for Disciples by Duane Cummins
*6 The one, holy, catholic and apostolic church of all times and in all places.