Essential Catholicity and the Christian Church

 Every social movement is empowered by a vision that expresses the central ideas and purposes of its founders.  This vision draws others into close association and together they begin the process of moving from vision to ongoing social movement. That process inevitably includes the developing of institutional forms that carry it forward into the social setting. In this process, however, the vision always is modified and in danger of being displaced by new commitments that arise in the life of the continuing institution. Furthermore, as the social setting changes, the vision also must be restated in order to give direction and power to the ongoing movement that it originally inspired.

From its origins in the work of Thomas Campbell (1763–1854), the Disciples of Christ movement has been empowered by the vision of Christian unity. Its most succinct statement is in Proposition One of the Declaration and Address: That the Church of Christ upon earth is essentially, intentionally, and constitutionally one; consisting of all those in every place that profess their faith in Christ and obedience to Him in all things according to the Scriptures, and that manifest the same by their tempers and conduct, and of none else; as none else can be truly and properly called Christians.” In this and the further propositions which he set forth, Thomas Campbell articulated a point of view that can be called essential catholicity.

Leadership in this movement devolved upon his son Alexander Campbell (1788–1866) who shaped the ecclesial implications which simultaneously embodied and constricted the vision. More than any other, the younger Campbell defined, on the basis of his study of the New Testament, the elements of “gospel order”: baptism by immersion of penitent believers for the remission of sins, the every Lord’s day Lord’s supper, a congregationally based ministry of elders, deacons, and evangelists, and self-sufficient congregations linked in informal networks of common faith and practice.

By the second century of the Disciples movement, the time had come to restate this vision of unity—in order to free it from the institutional shackles that had emerged over the course of four generations and to give it a new expression suitable for a greatly changed social setting. The person who led the way was the long-time Baltimore pastor Peter Ainslie (1867–1934) who, in the Disciples’ General Convention of 1910, “stirred the Disciples with a dramatic call to return to their original commitment to the cause of Christian union and to take steps toward realizing that purpose.”

Ainslie inspired the creation of the Disciples’ Commission on Christian Unity, founded and edited a quarterly journal dealing with Christian unity, lectured widely, and published three books on unity. His understanding of Christian unity developed throughout his ministry until he became, to use the descriptive title suggested by Charles Clayton Morrison, “a catholic protestant.” Ainslie came to believe that all Christians should practice Christian unity and that the result would be that they would find ways to overcome the divisions over doctrine, worship, and other matters.

He began to plead, Morrison observed, “for a catholic church membership, a catholic creed, a catholic administration of the eucharist, and a catholic ministry.” He turned against the efforts to base Christian unity on agreements on doctrine or other matters. “Only when Christians turn from a book church, a dogmatic church, a historic church, to the real church, the living church, the church of which Christ is actually the Head, can they find catholicity and a mode of ecclesiastical behavior acceptable to him whose body the church is.”

Although Ainslie was not a systematic thinker, three Disciples theologians—near contemporaries of Ainslie’s—developed similar expositions of the Disciples’ vision of Christian unity:  Frederick D. Kershner (1875–1953), William Robinson (1888–1963), and Charles Clayton Morrison (1874–1966). Each of these theological leaders sought to reclaim Thomas Campbell’s vision and to present it in a new way that suited the religious and social conditions of the first third of the twentieth century.

To read the full essay, click here The Disciples Vision of a United Church.

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