The Psychology of Unity

B. J. Humble’s article “The Influence of the Civil War” examines the role the Civil War played in precipitating the eventual division of the Stone-Campbell Movement into the Disciples of Christ and the Churches of Christ. Traditional historiography with its hagiographical bent painted the movement’s post-war unity as an anomaly on the American religious landscape. Humble, however, probes beneath the surface in line with more recent revisions in the traditional approach. He examines the rhetoric of the anti-society Disciples before the outbreak of the war and after. Tolbert Fanning is a noteworthy example, as a prominent even the premier voice of the Disciples in the South. Before the war he was opposed to the missionary society but professed spiritual unity with its members nonetheless. What changed after the war for Fanning, and for many of the anti-society Disciples in the South, was not the stance toward American Christian Missionary Society itself but a subtler shift in the way that opposition manifested itself. Fanning wrote later of the pro-society Disciples in the North: “Should we ever meet them in the flesh, can we fraternize with them as brethren?” He shifted from calling the members of the Society “brothers” to referring to them as “monsters in intention, if not in very deed.”

Fanning’s behavior and Humble’s observations have interesting implications for understanding the nature of division. It is notable that an issue which existed before and after the war should be treated so radically differently over time. The doctrinal reasons for opposing missionary societies had not changed, but the issue suddenly became so divisive that it became a lightning rod for splitting a movement that had not even a generation earlier come together for the common purpose of Christianity unity. The relevant change came when an issue of doctrinal opinion took on personal overtones.

Of course that is an oversimplification. It is equally true that the issue of missionary societies had not fully come to a head until after the Civil War. Certainly the actions of the American Christian Missionary Society during the war had confirmed many of the fears of anti-society Christians that were merely theoretical prior to the war. The political endorsement of the union by the Society—which in the South amounted to a wholesale endorsement of war, tyranny, and the slaughter of Christians—could only reinforce and intensify anti-society sentiments wherever they already existed. More importantly still, the issue of missionary societies should not be isolated as the sole cause of division. The factors were multiple and complex.

It is nevertheless telling how radically the Civil War and the personal animosity it engendered altered the way doctrinal heterogeneity was treated. Gregory E. McKinzie, in his article “Barton Stone’s Unorthodox Christology,” recounts the early Christological controversy that threatened the proposed unity of Stone’s and Campbell’s movements. These two great fathers of the movement differed publicly and vocally on so basic and critical an issue as whether or not Jesus was God. Campbell published an article in response to Stone in which he stated “I fraternize with [Stone] as I do with the Calvinist. Neither of their theories are worth one hour…” Stone responded that if Campbell only called brothers those who, in Campbell’s words, “supremely venerate, and unequivocally worship the King my Lord and Master” then Stone was not his brother at all. Yet in spite of this strong rhetoric, the two men were architects of a unity between their two movements on the grounds that Bible-based unity transcended metaphysical uniformity.

Yet the same movement which united in spite of foundational theological difference split in the wake of the Civil War because significantly less dramatic doctrinal differences took on the character of personal loyalties. There a sense in which most Christian division can be reduced to this basic human flaw. I refer here not to functional division but spiritual division, since obviously a body of believers who believe it is a sin to have a kitchen in a church building cannot flourish shackled (at least architecturally) to a body of believers who meet in a building with a kitchen. The watershed, however, between this functional division and a true spiritual rupture comes when people begin to associate their doctrinal beliefs, no matter how strongly held, with their identity. Then, a dispute over personal opinions becomes a dispute between persons. It is the difference between a Tolbert Fanning who can attend a meeting of the American Christian Missionary Society and call its members his brothers and a Tolbert Fanning who calls a sectional meeting in the South and demands repentance from the “monsters” in the North.

It is interesting to note how frequently unity is sought through ever more distilled doctrinal confessions, with mixed results. From the Nicene Creed to the Restorationist “no creed but the Bible” to modern moves like paleo-orthodoxy, Christians hope desperately to achieve some semblance of Christian harmony by codifying from without what it means to be a Christian. Instead, it might be fruitful to consider that perhaps unity begins not at the level of doctrine but at the level of human psychology. The seed is planted when I identify as a Christian and only a Christian in a way that ultimately defies logical formulation because it consists in the mysterious working of Christ in me. Then, I recognize that I am a Christian definitionally and a Restorationist only incidentally. Then, recognizing that truth exists and warrants our faithful and diligent pursuit, you and I may work out our salvation with fear and trembling and tension and dispute and study and prayer and, most importantly of all, a Spirit of unity that vivifies all our collective efforts.

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