Are Churches of Christ Evangelical?: A Historical Question (Part 2)

Richard T. Hughes’s Reviving the Ancient Faith: The Story of Churches of Christ in America is rightly recognized as the premier reference point in Churches of Christ historiography.  Hughes’s analysis is insightful and compelling.  Yet, his slant merits some critique.  In particular, his underlying acceptance of the church-sect typology popular in mid-twentieth century sociology colors his argumentation.  This naturally bears significantly on my question about the Churches of Christ’s theological relationship to mainstream evangelicalism.  Hughes writes:

At the outset of this book, I suggested that the central story of Churches of Christ over the course of almost two centuries was its slow evolution from sect to denomination.  A sect is by definition estranged from the culture in which is lives and from the religious bodies that reflect the culture’s values, and it typically stands in judgement on both.  A denomination, on the other hand, has made its peace both with the dominant culture and with the larger Christian community. (Hughes, Reviving, 254)

At work here are definitions rooted in the church-sect typology but with particular emphasis on the issue of the religious group’s relationship to the culture’s values.  In the typology per se, the relationship to the culture is one important factor but not the overruling definitional issue.  Hughes’s emphasis seems to derive from his focus on the tradition of Barton Stone’s “apocalyptic worldview,” which he defines as “an outlook on life whereby the believer gives his or her allegiance to the kingdom of God, not to the kingdoms of this world, and lives as if the final rule of the kingdom of God were present in the here and now.  Such a perspective inevitably generates a countercultural lifestyle” (Hughes, Reviving, xii).

It is worth noting that, outside the church-sect typology, that is to say, in common English usage, denomination has a less specific meaning:

a religious organization whose congregations are united in their adherence to its beliefs and practices (

a religious group that has slightly different beliefs from other groups that share the same religion (

Likewise, sect has a broader usage:

a : a dissenting or schismatic religious body; especially : one regarded as extreme or heretical; b : a religious denomination (

a religious group with beliefs that make it different from a larger or more established religion it has separated from (

A denomination, then, is merely a religious subgroup with distinguishable beliefs and practices.  A sectarian denomination is a separatist religious subgroup, meaning it defines itself over against those from whom it separates.  The trick here is to recognize the paradox of the definition: the sectarian claims not to be a subgroup but rather to be the only group truly representative of the religion.  Thus, while the religious outsider and the non-sectarian denomination both describe the religion in broad terms, the sectarian describes the “true religion” in terms of the particular issues over which he separates from the mainstream.  Returning to Hughes’s characterization of the Churches of Christ, he is right to identify Churches of Christ as separatist and therefore sectarian, but I think he confuses the issue (1) by overdrawing the distinction between sect and denomination, and (2) by equating the sectarian nature of the Churches of Christ exclusively with the apocalyptic worldview.  A denomination may be sectarian in the basic sense whether it has capitulated to the dominant culture or not.  Yet, because Hughes uses sectarian in the sense of cultural separatist, and because evangelicalism has experienced church splits and separatist retreats over issues closely connected to cultural changes, it is necessary to distinguish between ecclesial sectarians, cultural sectarians, and the combination of the two.

The problem, demonstrated primarily by Hughes’s vague use of worldview, is that the Churches of Christ’s relationship to the culture is more complicated than his use of the church-sect typology can represent.  Because his thesis about the apocalyptic worldview is the heart of his historical analysis, this a major issue.  That he conceives of the major historical dynamics in terms of worldview is his most important insight; that he fails to work out the implications of worldview is the book’s greatest weakness.  All together, though, he has pointed us in the right direction.

In this post, I will try to demonstrate that, despite unique influences and periodic emphases, evangelicals and Restorationists have been adrift in the same worldview waters from the beginning.  In particular, I want to discuss how a marked eschatological ambivalence has characterized both groups because of worldview issues deeper than surface-level articulations by any given spokesperson at any given time.

Eschatological Ambivalence

Considering the relationship between the Churches of Christ and evangelical fundamentalism, Hughes comes very close to my point in these posts.  I need to quote him at length to make the comparison clear:

In some respects, this [sect-to-denomination] transition is astounding, especially in light of the distinctly counterculture dimension of the Stone-Lipscomb tradition in the nineteenth century.  While it is difficult to identify all the factors that facilitated this transition, it is possible to point out certain benchmarks along the way.

Of all those benchmarks, none was more crucial than the ideological alliance that Churches of Christ made with the fundamentalist movement following World War I.  Ideological is a key word in this context, for while Churches of Christ supported much of the fundamentalist agenda, they refused to ally themselves in any formal sense with the fundamentalist movement itself.

This ambiguous relationship is, in some respects, surprising.  One might expect that Churches of Christ would have supported the fundamentalist movement at every step along the way.  After all, Churches of Christ, like fundamentalists, had built their theological house squarely on the Bible, read the Bible from a decidedly Baconian perspective, and categorically rejected Darwinian evolution, biblical criticism, and all other aspects of modernity that seemed to undermine the authority of an inerrant biblical text.

Yet, Churches of Christ stood aloof from the fundamentalist movement, especially during the movement’s earliest years (1910–1918), and they did so for two principal reasons.  First, fundamentalism in that period often connected itself to dispensational premillennialism—a perspective that mainstream Churches of Christ found abhorrent, as we have seen. . . . Second, most in Churches of Christ, steeped in a highly exclusivist perspective, remained convinced that fundamentalists, connected as they were with a variety of sects and denominations, were pseudo-Christians at best. . . .

Fundamentalists and Churches of Christ: A Common Worldview

In spite of all this, however, Churches of Christ and fundamentalists increasingly had a common worldview and common cultural concerns, especially following World War I.  It was not simply that Churches of Christ suddenly moved closer to the historic tenets of fundamentalism; rather, fundamentalism and Churches of Christ both underwent a massive cultural reorientation in the aftermath of World War I.  For all their dissimilarities, the reorientation brought Churches of Christ and fundamentalists into a common orbit of cultural concern.

George Marsden has described the postwar reorientation of fundamentalism in substantial detail in his landmark study Fundamentalism and American Culture.  Like Barton Stone, most fundamentalists descended from a distinctly Calvinist heritage and concerned themselves preeminently with the question of God’s sovereignty over human culture.  In the late nineteenth century, faced with the rise of Darwinian evolution, biblical criticism, and the new psychology that explained God chiefly in terms of human need, many of these Calvinists saw little evidence of God’s rule over American culture.  They saw instead a yawning chasm separating the kingdom of God from the world in which they lived.  Marsden explains that, prior to World War I, many Calvinists embraced distinctly premillennial perspectives, stood separate and apart from politics and culture, found their identity exclusively in their allegiance to the kingdom of God (which they viewed as transcending all the kingdoms of this world, the United States included), and maintained a profoundly pessimistic outlook regarding human progress in science, technology, and politics.  In a word, the fundamentalist worldview prior to World War I often resembled rather remarkably the worldview I have described in this book as the Stone-Lipscomb heritage within Churches of Christ.  (Hughes, Reviving, 254–256)

Hughes is right that Churches of Christ and fundamentalists share a common worldview and that two groups did not “suddenly” acquire this commonality, but it is not the case that they came into a common cultural orbit only after World War I.  They were always in the same orbit.  The rest of Marsden’s historical analysis of evangelicalism and fundamentalism read alongside Hughes’s work clarifies this fact.  The contrast that Hughes draws throughout Reviving the Ancient Faith between Campbell’s postmillennialism, optimism, ecumenism, and church-centrism on one hand and Stone’s incipient premillennialism, pessimism, cultural sectarianism, and kingdom-centrism on the other is in large part the same internal schism that marks the history of evangelicalism.  In other words, while Restorationism’s particular agenda developed out of evangelicalism, from the perspective of worldview analysis the movement did not leave evangelicalism.  Stone, as an important catalyst of the Second Great Awakening, which marked the grassroots expansion of American evangelicalism, did not carry away a unique perspective to the Restoration Movement.  Rather, he carried into the Restoration Movement an important dimension of the evangelicalism he helped form.  Likewise, Campbell carried the progressivist postmillennialism of American Christianity, which also marked early twentieth-century evangelicalism, into the Restoration Movement.  The combination of the two is not unique but rather extremely representative of the eschatological ambivalence that marks the worldview that evangelicals and Restorationists share.  This is why the splits that Hughes traces in connection with the two founders’ differences mirror liberal/evangelical and evangelical/fundamentalist divisions.

Moreover, ambivalence—two contradictory impulses defining the whole—is the key to understanding why it is ultimately futile to consider “Stone’s worldview” apart from “Campbell’s worldview” after the first generation of the Restoration Movement.  As Hughes puts it, Tolbert Fanning “is a classic example of how Churches of Christ in the mid-nineteenth century built their theology . . . from the competing and sometime contradictory perspectives of Alexander Campbell and Barton W. Stone” (Hughes, Reviving, 117).

Fanning’s apocalyptic worldview differed from that of Barton W. Stone in the extent to which Fanning had absorbed the rational and technical perspectives of Campbell.  Stone viewed the kingdom of God as a transcendent reality standing in judgement on human creations and institutions that would not be completely realized in this world until the end of time.  Fanning’s extreme rationalism led him to particularize the transcendent in ways that had been foreign to Stone.  As a result, he virtually identified the kingdom of God with the Church of Christ he know in Tennessee and the Mid-South. (Hughes, Reviving, 119)

And “if [David] Lipscomb was a Campbellite who turned Campbell’s biblicism toward legalism, he also stood squarely in the Stone-Fanning tradition of separatism, apocalypticism, and apoliticism” (Hughes, Reviving, 121).

There has always been an uneasy synthesis in the Restoration Movement that engendered conflicts and divisions.  But maintaining that tension was not possible because of the herculean effort of a few influential leaders.  It was possible, in the first place, because the worldview at work on the level of the movement (not the individual) was never a purely Stoneite or Campbellite.  It was an amalgam that constituted American Protestantism at large: a conflict between optimism and pessimism, progressivism and primitivism, all combined with diverse epistemologies.

Thus, in the wake of the Darwinian paradigm shift, the rise of biblical criticism, and the Civil War, the split between Churches of Christ and Disciples does not just parallel the split between conservative and liberal Protestants: it is the same division.  The intellectualist/populist, wealthy/poor, North/South, and rural/urbanizing divides exist across the board.  If the fact that later Churches of Christ would reject R. H. Boll’s full-fledged dispensational premillennialism obscures the degree to which Churches of Christ were culturally identical to protofundamentalists at the end of the nineteenth century, Hughes at least makes it clear that the Stoneite tradition of incipient premillennialism was very influential at that time and continued to be as the fundamentalist coalition emerged in the early twentieth century.

The rise of premillennialism after the Civil War was the corollary of broad disillusionment with the optimistic, postmillennial vision of American Christianity, as it had significant power to explain the apparent failure of Christian America (Marsden, 22, 39).  While it might seem that Churches of Christ and evangelicals were at that time passing each other by—in retrospect Churches of Christ were moving toward rejecting the Stoneite tradition just when the sectarian, countercultural dynamic of evangelicalism was becoming more prominent—the bigger picture justifies a different conclusion.  Both groups were moving inexorably toward cultural accommodation, and both groups were negotiating the ambivalence of their eschatologies in the process.  It is vital to see the general thrust— not the doctrinal details—of their eschatologies as extensions of worldview.  The paradox of evangelical fundamentalism is in fact a matter of worldview assumptions that are quite contrary to explicit doctrine:

This political-cultural side of the heritage reflects not at all the premillennialism that was taught in twentieth-century fundamentalism but rather a residual postmillennialism that had dominated nineteenth-century evangelicalism. In this view America has a special place in God’s plans and will be the center for a great spiritual and moral reform that will lead to a golden age or “millennium” of Christian civilization. Moral reform accordingly is crucial for hastening this spiritual millennium. Fundamentalists today reject postmillennialism as such, but generically postmillennial ideals continue to be a formidable force in their thinking. Such ideals now appear not so much as Christian doctrine but as a mixture of piety and powerful American folklore. (Marsden, 112)

The eschatological shift within evangelicalism was in part about disillusionment because of the modernization of America, but it was not ultimately an abandonment of the tacit belief that the society as a whole should become Christian.  “Lingering aspirations to a wider social, spiritual, and moral influence” were part still part of the mentality of 1930s separatists (Marsden, 68), which eventually found expression in both the revivalism of Billy Graham’s “positive fundamentalists” (Marsden, 70) and in the later rise of the Moral Majority.  The means, not the goal, was in doubt. Formerly the means was to be the dominant culture.  With the rise of secular modernity, the means in its most radical form became a vision of apocalyptic fiat, that is, a premillennial rein.  Yet, it was never merely that—never simply a passive waiting game, because the aspiration of influence, as Marsden calls it, remained a part of the worldview iceberg beneath the surface.  Separatist evangelicals who rejected the modernist socialization of liberal Protestants, then, (1) conceived of influence within a zeitgeist of pessimism about American culture, (2) found influence to be congruent with the expectation that the Second Coming would establish Jesus’ reign over against the dominant society, and (3) did not conceive of influence necessarily in terms of direct participation in government.  Thus, the way in which separatist premillennial groups would achieve making America into an “outpost of the kingdom” (Hughes, Reviving, 256) was up for negotiation, but it certainly didn’t preclude being separatist and premillennial, and it certainly didn’t require capitulation to the dominant culture.

But perhaps what lacks for real clarity on this point is to define what capitulation might mean.  Again, neither being the dominant culture nor being somehow an outpost of the kingdom to influence the dominant culture (logically for the purpose of transforming it to be a different dominant culture) in any way imply cultural assimilation, compromise, or, in missiological terms, syncretism.  While influence may be distorted in those directions, as I would say, for example, is the case with the Moral Majority, that is not what it means in the framework of a kingdom outpost.  So, in Hughes’s terms, what does it practically mean to “reflect the culture’s values” and to “make peace with the dominant culture” or, alternatively,  not to have “allegiance to the kingdoms of this world” and to have a “countercultural lifestyle”?  If these are absolutes in the Stoneite tradition, then “apocalyptic worldview” must include a conception of “culture” and “society” as inherently irredeemable and somehow ontologically other than the society formed of Christian persons.  Of what, then, would the church’s influence in the world consist?  The most pessimistic, apocalyptic outlook must allow the possibility that the church’s influence might transform society or else deny the power of the gospel.  The question is, transform it how?

The way the Stoneite tradition reconciled pessimism with the power of the gospel was to conceive of the church’s influence separatistically.  Conversion is extraction of a person for influence rather than introduction of influence into the person’s situation.  Transformation happens in the realm of the church over against the realm of society.  If it seems that the church is the same people that form part of society, that is not the reality, because they belong to a different kingdom.  The church is equated with the kingdom, therefore the church cannot exist simultaneously as a part of another society.  Hughes is wrong to characterize Fanning’s view as a move beyond Stone—Stone also equated the church and the kingdom.  In an article entitled “The Kingdom of Heaven, or Church of God” (which is strong evidence by itself), Stone writes:

Should it be asked, “Who constitute this kingdom? or what is the character of its members? The answer is easy; they are those, who have the properties and marks of this kingdom, they are all righteous, they have the peace of God ruling in them, and the joys of the Holy Spirit. None else are recognized as members of this kingdom. (Stone, 29)

Perhaps he thinks of “membership” in the kingdom as one thing and the kingdom itself as another?  That is not the case:

To be born again, is, to be baptised in water; and to be born of the Spirit, is, to be saved by the renewing of the Holy Spirit. Were it possible for an unrenewed soul to be admitted into the kingdom of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, could he see, or enjoy it? could he relish its spirit and enjoyments? Impossible. “For what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness? and what concord hath Christ with Belial? or what part hath he that believeth with and infidel? and what agreement hath the temple of God with idols?” With such a person there could be no fellowship, no enjoyment. Attempting to admit into the church such members has been one cause of her glory departing from her, of that discord, strife and division, which had so long disgraced her in the eyes of the world. O when shall Zion’s glory be restored! One thing is certain, her glory will not be restored till a reformation of these evils be effected– till the church be purged from idolatry, or the service of mammon–from seeking the friendship and honor of the world–from union with the States and Kingdoms of the world–from the vain desire and work of legislating, in order to check and destroy the reigning corruption of mankind–from the vain attempts to have better laws, and better rulers in the civil government to the neglect of the king and kingdom of peace. Had half the Zeal been expended in the cause of christianity, which of late has been spent by religious professors in state politics, religion would have raised her drooping head, and smiled in hope of better times.

Paul to the Corinthians, Epis: 12 chap. beautifully describes the members of the church or kingdom of heaven. “For by, or in one spirit are we all baptised into one body, and have been all made to drink into one spirit.” In Eph, iv 4 v 6. “There is one body, and one spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling. One Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all.”

Where, O Where is this church or kingdom, in which these things are, and which is thus shining! We long to see it–We long to see the world, attracted by her light, flowing to her, and joining with her to glorify our Heavenly Father. (Stone, 29–30; emphasis added)

It is clear that the church and the kingdom are synonymous in Stone’s usage.  Thus, while Hughes may be right in a very nuanced sense to say that Stone’s ethics were grounded “squarely in their anticipation of the final triumph of the kingdom of God” (Hughes, Reviving, 111), it is also true that Stone believed the church is the kingdom and, therefore, conceived of the church’s ethics as participation in the kingdom’s presence as an alternative body politic incompatible with the inherent ethics of “States and Kingdoms of the world.”  For Stone, it was pointless to attempt to “check and destroy the reigning corruption” through legislation, because the kingdom is other.  Influence, then, is not the church transforming the kingdoms of the world but rather the church “attracting by her light,” prompting an exodus from the kingdoms of the world, thereby forsaking their practical functions, such as legislation, to “flow into” the “church or kingdom.”

As is clear in Fanning’s conception, this version of sectarianism is a generalized anti-institutionalism: denominations and secular governments are lumped together because all originate from human wisdom:

These great men of God split with Romanism, Protestantism, and all other forms of human organizations, simply upon the ground that they had lost all confidence in institutions originating in the wisdom of men to save the lost and elevate society to the state of purity required in the New Testament. (Fanning; emphasis added)

But this pessimism about human capacity to create organizations that might “elevate society” is offset by optimism about the church’s ability to do just that:

It is our rejoicing that we have no denomination, party, or creed to defend, and no plans, expedients, or organizations that have arisen, in our wisdom and discretion, to foster. Still, our [534] distinctive position is not negative. Nay, verily; we humbly claim to be the Lord’s freedmen; and, confidently believing that the Church built upon the rock–“the pillar and support of the truth”–has so far weathered the storm of factious opposition, that it will finally triumph over his Satanic majesty’s expedients, we therefore aspire to nothing beyond membership in the body of Christ. All who believe through the apostles’ words we claim as our brethren; and we will have fellowship on no other terms. Believing that all things which pertain to life and godliness are furnished in the Scriptures, we take the Bible, in good faith, as our only creed, and ask no one to believe or do any thing of a religious character for which we have not “a thus saith the Lord.” Not only do we regard the Church of God as competent for all spiritual work, but that the adoption of any other organization for such service, as most displeasing to heaven and injurious to man. (Fanning; emphasis added)

It is important to note that Fanning does not relegate “spiritual work” to the realm of ecclesiology rather than politics:

If God is true, his purposes can not fall; and if the Spirit’s teaching affords the only authority to which we can confidently look, it is our exalted privilege to believe that the time is not far distant when the problem of self-government, civil and ecclesiastical, will have been worked out–when, from the utter failure of worldly-wise organizations for spiritual labor, the Church of Christ, will shine forth “fair as the moon, clear as the sun, and terrible as an army with banners.” Then, and not until then, will her true mission be acknowledged. (Fanning; emphasis added)

Fanning sees civil self-government as doomed to fail in its attempt at spiritual labor.  That is, the church, which is the kingdom, is the alternative political structure that will replace the institutions of civil government in precisely the functions they currently attempt to fulfill.  Any institution or organization not based upon the explicit teachings of the Bible is illicit and will be replaced by the church, which is the kingdom that Christ already rules though the legislation of Scripture.  Thus, if one wonders why in Stone’s mind the church is necessarily other—why his ethics apparently cannot be legislated within American democracy—at least for Fanning the answer is that, because the church is the kingdom, the biblical pattern of church organization is also the only acceptable pattern of political organization.  All other organization is human innovation.

While protofundamentalist tendencies during the post-Civil War era of cultural disillusionment were not constrained by biblical patternism, they were similarly a mixture of spiritual salvation out of the world and church as an alternative institutional presence in the world.  For example, Dwight Moody’s premillennialism meant Christianity was a lifeboat for “saving souls out of a wrecked world” (Marsden, 21), and his followers were simultaneously the impetus behind the rescue mission movement, which, “serving the down-and-out with food, lodging, and the gospel, provided one of the important new institutions of the era” (Marsden, 28).  The dominant society was wrecked, and the saved were coming out of it, but action in society was not out of the question.  It simply required the church to act apart from the dominant structures.

The disassociation of conservative evangelicals from American political and social institutions intensified as theological liberals set greater expectations upon them.  The notorious conservative rejection of the “social gospel” at the turn of the twentieth century was propelled by the association of higher criticism with progressive politics, through liberal acceptance of both.  The modernization of American society, including government, already justified conservative pessimism.  The fact that the same people who were willing to question the inerrancy of the Bible were also willing to equate the secularized government with a supposedly Christian social agenda placed both the government and the social agenda under further suspicion.  This led to an ecclesial sectarianism with cultural implications: churches began to split over theological issues, especially modern scholarship, but that split corresponded with divisions over the church’s affiliation with progressive social policies.  Of course, this did not necessarily equate to cultural sectarianism, that is, strict social and political noninvolvement.  Rejecting the liberals’ social agenda, many conservative Christians became politically conservative, not apolitical.  The more important upshot was the spiritualization of the gospel.  For many, “social gospel” came to mean any version of the gospel in which salvation was not purely spiritual “soul saving.”  And naturally, the more individualistically spiritual the church’s concerns, the less Christianization of social and political structures was in view.

Up to World War I, then, one of the primary worldview dynamics of evangelicalism and Restorationism was an internal tension between optimism and pessimism, which was not overruled by any one eschatological articulation.  Both groups began the nineteenth century in a stream of American optimism and postmillennial expectation.  Restorationism is uniquely marked by the prominence of Stone’s early premillennial pessimism, but the pessimistic turn in American culture, which begot the premillennial turn in evangelicalism, began during Stone’s lifetime.  Additionally, Stone’s perspective was not the only one active in the Restoration movement.  In the latter third of the century, the influential voices of Fanning, Lipscomb, and James A. Harding gave Stone’s cultural sectarianism a conspicuous status in the movement at precisely the same time that conservative evangelicals were coming to believe the social establishment had been compromised and “‘Christian civilization’ had always been an illusory ideal” (Marsden, 39).  Though Stone and his disciples would always have claimed it was illusory, there is no basis to generalize theirs as the true or primary understanding of the Restoration Movement as a whole.  Lipscomb was clearly writing to Restoration churches in the 1866–67 Gospel Advocate articles that became Civil Government (1889).  In order to convince churches with a postmillennial outlook, “Lipscomb flatly rejected the postmillennial suggestion that God would re-establish his sovereignty over the earth “by the conversion of all the people, and the civil government will then be manned by Christians” (Hughes, Reviving, 127).  This postmillennial conception of influence upon civil government—the same one evangelicals were renegotiating—was strong enough among Restoration churches to merit the full force of Lipscomb’s pen.  Yet, his extreme position was idiosyncratic for many (Hughes, Reviving, 134).

Hughes identifies World War I as the turning point at which Churches of Christ lost their apocalyptic worldview:

Their division from the Disciples, costing them both members and property, already had relegated Churches of Christ to a degree of social marginality.  Retention of their historic commitment to pacifism would have marginalized them yet further.  Facing that prospect, many member of Churches of Christ elected to support the American involvement in the war.

However—and here one finds the fundamental issue—they could not support the war and at the same time cling to the apocalyptic/pacifistic perspective of the Stone-Lipscomb tradition.  To support the war, they needed a theology far more progressive, far more amenable to militarism, far more centered on the concerns of the world, and far less focused on the coming kingdom of God.  Such a theology was ready at hand.  The rational, progressive primitivism of Alexander Campbell was as much a part of their heritage as the apocalypticism of Barton W. Stone.  All that remained was for the former to triumph over the latter.

This suggests that R. H. Boll, consumed as he was with sectarian, premillennial perspectives, was simply the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time.  As pacifism grew increasingly objectionable to Churches of Christ throughout the war, apocalypticism—which provided the theological foundation for pacifism—came increasingly under attack.  (Hughes, Reviving, 146)

Yet, while Hughes’s assessment is penetrating, here as well the broader culture featured the same general dynamic.  The conservative evangelicals disillusioned with “modern progress” and taken with premillennialism faced the same pressures to conform to nationalism and the “overwhelming patriotic impulse that swept the country” (Marsden, 51).  As with Churches of Christ’s rejection of Boll’s premillennialism:

At the University of Chicago Divinity School, for instance, dispensational premillennialism (which rejected the equation of the progress of the kingdom and the progress of democratic society) was considered subversive to the war effort and subjected to scathing attacks. Such pressures soon brought almost everyone into line with extravagant avowals of their patriotism. (Marsden, 52)

Furthermore, “the war had accelerated and brought out into the open the secularization that had been growing in American life” (Marsden, 55).  Altogether then, “World War I had produced among many conservative evangelicals both a sense of crisis over the revolution in morals and a renewed concern for the welfare of civilization” (Marsden, 59).  Among conservative evangelicals who had in recent decades begun swimming against the optimistic current of liberal Christian and secular culture, the war acted as rapids that inexorably pulled many back into a fight for Christian America and surfaced latent aspirations of influence.  So arose the quintessential fundamentalists of the 1920s, vying for and ultimately failing to attain socio-political clout.

From then on, a continual vacillation has marked conservative evangelicalism, evincing an as yet unresolved eschatological ambivalence.  While defeated fundamentalists passed into a decade of both ecclesial sectarianism (a marked exit from mainline conservative churches) and socio-political retreat, time would quickly tell that the latter was ultimately an ambivalent cultural sectarianism.  By the early 1940s, some fundamentalists were ready to live without broader cultural alliances, some were reorganizing for the fight, and some were emerging as “positive fundamentalists” or “neo-evangelicals” who hoped a tempered fundamentalism “could still be a formidable force in American culture and a challenge to the dominant trends toward secularism in the West” (Marsden, 64).  Neo-evangelicals challenged premillennialism, along with the anti-intellectualism and the neglect of social issues that were historically bound with it.  These tensions combined with growing discomfort about Billy Graham’s “move toward the respectable centers of American life” to create a “definitive split” in 1957 between neo-evangelicals and “hardline fundamentalists”  (Marsden, 73).  Neo-evangelicals, now essentially mainstream evangelicals, continued in the grip of eschatological ambivalence as the 1960s fomented another conflict over the social gospel, which has not yet fully been resolved.  Finally, the 1970s saw the appearance of the Moral Majority from the ranks of hardline fundamentalists, highlighting the enduring tension within evangelicalism between firm premillennial convictions and fierce political participation.

Churches of Christ during the post-World War I period were, according to Hughes, busy rejecting Boll’s premillennialism, capitulating to the culture, and exchanging cultural sectarianism for purely ecclesial sectarianism:

Those who helped lead Churches of Christ in the 1930s and 1940s toward full participation in political and cultural affairs were almost always people whose roots ran deeply in the soil of the Stone-Lipscomb tradition or who had been shaped by the ideals of that tradition at some point along the way.  Buy how could that be?  After all, apocalyptic pessimism regarding human progress had stood at the heart of that tradition since the days of Barton W. Stone.

The answer lies in the fact that, when the explicitly apocalyptic dimensions of the Stone-Lipscomb tradition began to erode int he period after World War I, those with roots in this tradition typically went one of two ways.  Many who opposed the premillennial position of R. H. Boll simply exchanged the sectarian posture of Stone for the sectarian posture of the radicalized Alexander Campbell.  Where they had once arrayed themselves against the world and its values, they now arrayed themselves against the surround denominations. . . .  Others took a different path.  Refusing to fight premillennialism, but at the same time finding the apocalyptic perspective increasingly irrelevant to the world in which they lived, they shifted their focus to another aspect of the Stone-Lipscomb tradition: the emphasis on faith in a sovereign God.  Severed from its apocalyptic underpinnings, however, this faith quickly became faith in self, faith in nation, faith in the economy, an faith in God to sustain the American system.  In suppressing their emphasis on the coming kingdom of God, these people suppressed as well their sense of divine judgement on human progress and potential.  Ironically, in this fashion they often replaced pessimism regarding this world with faith in faith or the power of positive thinking. (Hughes, Reviving, 158–59)

In truth, the two tendencies Hughes describes were probably both found in most Churches of Christ at the time.  Certainly few if any were unmarked by the strong ecclesial sectarianism he, perhaps uncharitably, lays at the radicalized early Campbell’s feet.  In my estimation, the way the nineteenth century’s eschatological ambivalence worked itself out in the twentieth century Churches of Christ after the Boll controversy is essentially as vapid amillennialism.  As Hughes describes well, the old current of cultural optimism manifests as vague nationalistic humanism.  And, despite the rejection of the premillennialists who championed it, Churches of Christ fully embraced the spiritualized gospel at the turn of the century (Hughes, Reviving, 278).  Hughes quotes Buster Dobbs as a classic example of the Churches of Christ position during the 1960s, when evangelicals were redrawing battle lines over the social gospel:

The gospel of Jesus places the emphasis on the individual.  The social gospel puts the emphasis on the community.  The gospel of Jesus teaches soul salvation.  The social gospel proclaims a community salvation.  The gospel of Jesus encourages an emphasis on heaven and not on earth.  The social gospel employs all of its energy in worldly, not heavenly interests. (Hughes, Reviving, 280)

As one might expect from the spiritualized gospel’s historical development, such a statement is necessarily eschatological.  It is not premillennial, but it is every bit as escapist and otherworldly as the most premillennial theology could be.

Here I want briefly to challenge Hughes’s attribution of the spiritualized gospel among Churches of Christ in part to “the collapse of the apocalyptic vision of Stone and Lipscomb” (Hughes, Reviving, 280).  I would suggest, rather, that the Stone-Lipscomb tradition’s trajectory—through Boll’s dispensational premillennialism as its heir apparent (Hughes, Reviving, 142–43)—was the same as evangelical premillennialism’s: a spiritualized gospel.  It was Campbell’s progressive optimism that, in the wider culture, fostered the social conscience of liberal Christians who rejected the spiritualized gospel.  That heritage continued primarily with the Disciples.  Already in the Stone-Lipscomb tradition, the disavowal of involvement in political and social structures limited the scope of social ethics.  Though Hughes is wont to demonstrate the ethical implications of Stone’s endeavor to live “as if the final triumph of the Kingdom of God were complete” (Hughes, Reclaiming, 73)—as in the case of voluntarily emancipating slaves (Hughes, Reclaiming, 81–87)—I find it difficult to argue that Stone or Lipscomb would have done much for the cause of civil rights in the 1960s.  The spiritualized gospel has its roots buried in the dualism inherent in the Stoneite eschatology.  Stone’s view of the kingdom has some wonderful implications, which Hughes does well to highlight in his effort to “reclaim a heritage,” but the “apocalyptic worldview” ultimately has some troubling limitations that prevent me from accepting it as the best vision of restoration.  Its spiritualistic tendencies are among those limitations.

In any case, the Churches of Christ ultimately resolved the tension between its premillennial and postmillennial impulses by radicalizing its ambivalence in the form of an amorphous eschatology that is vaguely evangelical in its spiritualism, with tinge of nationalism and a touch of humanism.  It is pessimistic insofar as Christians are basically waiting for heaven and optimistic insofar as God’s will is done in the church’s obedience but mostly not much of either.  Granting that much of evangelicalism has a stronger premillennial sense, bolstered by popular influences such as the Left Behind series, a significant portion of mainstream evangelicalism may still be in practically the same situation as the Churches of Christ: an ambivalence grown into uncertainty and even apathy.

In my next post I hope to give a similar account of the worldview commonality between evangelicals and Churches of Christ in regard to epistemology.  Then I plan to clarify what I mean by worldview and summarize my conclusions, leading to an explanation of how missional theology addresses issues related to our common worldview.  In regard to our ambivalent eschatology, I will eventually discuss how missional theology addresses those of us who basically don’t know what the future kingdom of God means for the present, including how we conceive of influence in society.


Fanning, Tolbert. “The Mission of the Church of Christ.” The Living Pulpit of the Christian Church: A Series of Discourses, Doctrinal and Practical, edited by W. T. Moore, 517–536. Cincinnati, OH: R. W. Carroll & Co., 1868.

Hughes, Richard T. Reviving the Ancient Faith: The Story of Churches of Christ in America. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996.

Hughes, Richard T. Reclaiming a Heritage: Reflections on the Heart, Soul, and Future of Churches of Christ. Abilene: ACU Press, 2002.

Marsden, George M. Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991.

Stone, Barton W. “The Kingdom of Heaven, or Church of God.” Christian Messenger 11, no. 1 (September 1840): 28–30.

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