Send As SMS

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Poison in Our Roots

This year marks the 100th anniversary of two tragedies in the Restoration Movement.

The first was the official recognition by the US Census Bureau, upon the word of David Lipscomb, that the Churches of Christ and the Disciples of Christ had become two separate religious bodies. The generally recognized issues leading to this division were the use of instrumental music in worship, and the formation of missionary societies to oversee cooperative mission efforts. This year, in 2006, many conferences have focused on an optimistic hope for reconciliation between the groups in the future. But enormous differences remain.

The second has received less attention in the press, yet may provide more clues about what went wrong in the Restoration Movement, and how it might be corrected. On February 21, 1906, the Supreme Court of the State of Illinois handed down a decision in the case titled "The Christian Church of Sand Creek, Shelby County, Illinois, versus The Church of Christ at Sand Creek." That case decided the ownership of church property subsequent to a very public and ugly church split. What a tragedy that Christians went to court against other Christians, appealing all the way to the state Supreme Court, over some dirt, boards, and nails. One side got what they wanted--ownership of a little land and a small building. Meanwhile the Bride of Christ was humiliated as the world looked on. And a noble movement for unity was brought to a standstill.

The splitting of the Sand Creek church triggered the division of the entire Restoration Movement. The events that culminated in the court decision of 1906 (and the official recognition of the split in the 1906 census) began decades earlier. There were two competing mindsets within the Restoration Movement that were becoming more and more intolerant of one another. At the center of the conflict was disagreement on how to understand the silence of the scriptures. Differing views on this principle gave birth to raging controversies about such practices as church festivals, choirs, missionary societies, and the practice of hiring preachers from outside the congregation.

In 1889, a crowd of 5000 assembled to hear Daniel Sommer, editor of the Octographic Review, and Elder P. P. Warren of the Sand Creek church. After Sommer preached on the controversies for an hour and forty minutes, Warren gave the Address and Declaration, concluding with the following statement:
And now, in closing up this address and declaration, we state that we are impelled from a sense of duty to say, that all such as are guilty of teaching, or allowing and practicing the many innovations to which we have referred, that after being admonished and having had sufficient time for reflection, if they do not turn away from such abominations, that we can not and will not regard them as brethren.
The Sand Creek Address and Declaration was a watershed document in the history of the Restoration Movement. Since that time the movement has fragmented into dozens of factions, following the suicidal pattern established at Sand Creek. Any effort to reunify these fragments must address the underlying issues and mindsets of the Sand Creek split.

For my next few articles I intend to examine the events at Sand Creek. These events are part of our history, and have had a profound effect on who we are and how we think. Painful though it might be, we need to examine what went wrong at Sand Creek and how it has affected us. Then we must aggressively eliminate the remnants of those mistakes that continue to thwart our efforts for unity. Let us pray for open hearts as we consider the poison in our roots. And let us pray that God will give us hope, and a better understanding of the way forward.