Mormons and the Disciples of Christ

April 23, 2012

Writers on Mormon history frequently mention the Disciples of Christ as close counterparts to Latter Day Saints during the first generation of these religious bodies. The primary point of comparison is that both movements sought to restore primitive Christianity.

Mormons and Disciples both emphasized three ideas: 1) The Bible describes the church as God intends it to be. 2) Most of the time since the period described in the New Testament has been marked by aberrations in doctrine and practice. 3) Their respective movements represent authentic restorations of “the ancient order of things.”

As a life-long member and long-time minister of the Disciples of Christ, I have been particularly attentive to this early linkage, and I have in my own mind objected to the casual comparison of these two impulses in early nineteenth Christianity.

Granted, Joseph Smith and the Mormons on the one hand and Alexander Campbell and the Disciples on the other sought to recover the purity and power of New Testament Christianity.

Why, then, did these two movements develop so differently? The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), to use the contemporary name of the one movement, have remained within the boundaries of classical Christian doctrine and practice. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints have become a new religious movement with strong connections to orthodox Christianity but significantly different elements in theology, churchly practice, and sacred writings.

One of the reasons why Disciples have stayed with the main Christian stream is that from earliest days, they have understood restoration to be the minor premise in their syllogism. The major premise has always been the unity of the church.

One of the clearest and useful statements of the Disciples’ preference for unity is a paper written by Thomas J. Liggett, who spent his career as missionary, church administrator, and leader in theological education. President Liggett, who died March 27, 2012, and is being honored in memorial celebrations around the country, prepared these remarks for the School of Theology for the Laity at East Dallas Christian Church in Texas, June 22, 1979. The paper was later published in Mid-stream: An Ecumenical Journal.

Although this paper does not discuss the 1830s’ similarities of Mormons and Disciples, it does offer six reasons why Disciples consistently chose unity over restoration. This consistent choice is one of the reasons why the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) have remained within the sphere of classic Protestant Christianity.

The concluding paragraphs of Liggett’s paper state his conclusion forthrightly:

Our movement began with the dual emphasis of Christian Unity and Restoration. These two ideas, compatible and complementary in the beginning, eventually were perceived as existing in tension with one another. As this tension grew, we were led to make value judgments and to choose between them. The Churches of Christ and the independent Christian Churches, while exhibiting significant differences of interpretation of restoration, seem to have chosen “restoration” as the primary value. Each movement, in its own way continues to seek to restore the New Testament Church. Neither participates in the formal manifestations of the ecumenical movement of the 20th century.

The Disciples of Christ, on the other hand, have chosen “Christian unity” as the primary commitment and value. We have participated from the beginning in local, regional, national and world ecumenical bodies. We have encouraged “mission churches” to enter united churches, we are participants in the Consultation on Church Union and we have engaged in union conversations. We believe that this commitment to Christian unity is based solidly on Biblical and theological grounds. We believe that it constituted a major commitment of Thomas Campbell and Barton W. Stone, and became a major commitment for Alexander Campbell in his mature years. We frankly admit to having given priority to Christian unity rather than to Restoration, particularly in any legalistic sense. There have been solid reasons for this decision, some of which are identified above. The choice has been made and the direction has been set. The full expression of our commitment to the one, universal church continues to be our task.

With the support of the Council on Christian Unity of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), I have prepared T. J. Liggett’s paper for republication in an electronic version. To read the entire paper, click  Why the Disciples Chose Unity.

T. J. Liggett: “A Profile of the Disciples of Christ”

April 17, 2012

T. J. Liggett–An Ideas-Driven Leader

Most of T. J. Liggett’s years as president of Christian Theological Seminary took place before personal computers had become ubiquitous, but T. J. was a master in using a typewriter for his communications with staff, faculty, and professional colleagues. People who worked with him quickly became accustomed to receiving the notes and memos that he whacked out on the portable typewriter that sat on the credenza behind the swivel chair at his office desk.

T. J. also used his typewriter to work up his ideas on the important matters of seminary, church, and public affairs. He had great skill in getting his thoughts down in logical order, thus demonstrating his analytical power and revealing one of the reasons why he was so persuasive in his relations with faculty, trustees, church members, ecclesiastical leaders, and people in business and politics.

Of course, T. J.’s ideas were much more important than his typing skills. His educational background, including completing residence for the Ph.D. degree, his years of missionary service and executive leadership, and his work as theological educator were driven by his strong theological understanding and his passion for the Gospel. T. J. was an ideas-driven leader.

When an agreement was reached for the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) to enter into a series of bi-lateral conversations with the Roman Catholic Church, T. J. Liggett was a natural choice to be the person who could explain the Disciples to the Roman Catholic delegation, most of whom would know very little about this minor body within the Reformed Tradition. T. J. had worked in Catholic cultures and with Catholics. He moved easily among people of power, whether that power was exercised in church, business, or government.

Furthermore, he had his own way of understanding his church, the predominately English-speaking body that in North America has been known in recent times as the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

At the first convocation of the Disciples-Roman Catholic Bi-lateral, T. J. made his presentation. The version later published in Mid-stream (the quarterly journal of the Council on Christian Unity) bears the marks of T. J.’s “typed by hand” notes. More important, however, is the fact that this paper show his incisive ability to describe the essence of things. He begins with a simple disclaimer:

This profile is excessively brief and utilizes generalities which are not universally valid, nor do they represent the consensus of Disciples leadership. It is, rather, the summary of one person’s evaluation of the present status of the Disciples of Christ. Hopefully, it will serve the purpose of stimulating the dialogue which we are initiating and which will provide multiple opportunities for assessing the accuracy of these generalizations and the relative importance of the salient features of the profile.

In the body of the paper, T. J. provides his own summary of how the Disciples came to be. Incisively, he discusses mission strategy and the issues of culture that necessarily shape the life of any church. T. J.’s long involvement in the Disciples’ missionary enterprise helps him emphasize the international aspects of the Churches of Christ-Disciples of Christ church that he represents. His final paragraphs depict the stance that he hopes Disciples and Catholics can adopt as they move into their conversations.

In this theme of church and culture, the Protestant-Catholic dialogue could be very fruitful. Protestants seem to have been successful in contextualizing the Gospel in each culture, but we have done so at the expense of catholicity. The Roman Catholic Church has sought and achieved an expression of catholicity, but often at the expense of the indigenization of the Gospel in each place. Each of us is now striving to recover the “lost dimension,” and we could be mutually helpful.

The Disciples, born of a passion for Christian unity and acknowledging the normative character of the Church of the New Testament, with involvements in 28 nations of which only nine have identifiable “Disciples churches” (the other 19 are united churches), and with organic church union being seriously considered in three of these nine (Great Britain, New Zealand, and United States), enter into dialogue with the Roman Catholic Church not with pride in a growing denominational strength, but in the evidences of the emerging oikoumene.

T. J. Liggett, who was born in 1919, died March 27, 2012, in retirement at Pilgrim Place, Claremont, California. With the permission and support of Robert K. Welsh, president of the Council on Christian Unity of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) which publishes Mid-stream, I have prepared a new electronic version of T. J. Liggett’s paper “A Profile of the Disciples of Christ.”

To read the paper, click A Profile of the Disciples of Christ.