The Churches of Christ began as a unity movement (1790-1801) shortly after one of the great spiritual awakenings that followed hot on the heels of the Declaration of Independence of the thirteen colonies of the United States (1776). The European Renaissance (1200-1600) was replete with an awakening of reading the newly printed Bibles that had been translated into the languages of the people, and a rebellion against the paternalistic control, the taxes and the biblical errors of the Roman Catholic Church that had dominated Europe for almost a thousand years. It seemed like each European nation and each century spawned a new denomination of believers, enthusiastically worshiping God more biblically.
Finally we come to the American frontier, as European-Americans bought, stole and pillaged Native American land rapidly westward. Horseback circuit riding traveling preachers would attract eclectic crowds who no longer adhered to their original denominational divisions. To the worshipers it seemed like God was bringing in a new age of unity and several new denominations sprang up around this enthusiasm, one of which was the Restoration Movement pushed by such preachers as Barton W. Stone, Alexander Campbell and David Lipscomb. Their two strongest doctrines were that one should not be divided by denominational titles and creed books, and we should all be baptized (immersed) as believers for the remission of sins. Other major doctrines were pre-millenialism (Christ was coming back soon to rule on earth for a thousand years), no professional clergy (the priesthood of all believers), and many churches were pacifist (turn your swords into plowshares).
Competitiveness and Nostalgia
The primitive nature of the early Restoration Movement spawned two nasty traits: competitiveness and nostalgia. Competitiveness spawned huge entertaining debates that could go on for weeks, Campbell becoming a famous debater. Competitiveness and debates quickly defined lines in the sand: if you don’t believe x then you are not one of us: baptism for the remission of sins, believer’s baptism, Lord’s Supper on the first day of every week. Nostalgia also spawned a need to keep things the way they were on the frontier: simple unadorned church buildings, old-fashioned songs, no instruments of music, no ordained clergy, no church hierarchy and no para-church organizations. Churches quickly fought and divided over each of these “innovations” that horrified and scandalized the faithful remnant.
The hard line Churches of Christ have camped around three major ideas:
1. The one true church has no hierarchy and no denominational name or headquarters on earth,
3. the Five Acts of Worship: the Sunday morning worship service must replicate New Testament worship services of the early church:
a. Singing with no instrumental music (unless you belong to the hard line instrumental music group, in which case you must use instrumental music in order to obey God),
b. the Lord’s Supper every Sunday,
c. Giving money to the church
d. Men praying,
e. Men preaching
Where did they go wrong?
Jesus and his apostles never asked for the worship service to be uniform. Jesus did ask to be commemorated in the bread and the cup. The apostle Paul did rebuke one church for being selfish about the way they did not share their meals together, and for having disruptive worship times that were confusing and self-aggrandizing rather than edifying and encouraging(I Cor 11-14). James rebuked Christians for treating the rich better than the poor in the church services, which he said showed they really did not believe they were saved by the gracious gift of forgiveness (ch. 2). Paul instructed that there be the reading of the Hebrew Scriptures in churches (I Tim 4). But beyond that there are no instructions that tell the early or later church to do things a specific ritualistic way in order to be pleasing to God.
This upsets many obsessive people in the hard line Churches of Christ, so they came up with complicated hermeneutical principles to divine exactly how to replicate the early worship service and thus to be pleasing to the Lord when all the other denominations are not. Never mind the fact that they are following a commandment that does not exist; it soothes them and makes them feel they are holy by just showing up every Sunday morning (and Sunday night and Wednesday night and gospel meetings and mowing the church lawn and painting the church classrooms).
Jesus’ spirituality did not revolve around a church building. When he was kicked out of all the synagogues he continued to preach in homes and on hillsides. The congregation, as far as he was concerned, was anyone he interacted with, believer or unbeliever, everyone was part of his church that he wanted to talk to and influence. And what Jesus taught was not how to congregate, not how to collect and spend church money, not how to sing, but how to treat each other with respect, how to overcome bitterness and hatred, how to tell the truth, and how to live a life of light in a dark world. These are things that are difficult to obey. It is much easier to show up for church and do a five point ritual than to examine one’s heart and repent of bitterness.