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Doctrinal Discussions:

History Of The Church Of Christ

July 21, 2006

This is a revision of my 2002 article titled, "History Of  The Church Of Christ". I noticed that most people never make it to the end of that article. I have decided to reverse the chronology, working backwards through the history, rather than forward.  I hope that this encourages more people to examine the true history of the Church of Christ, as well as to see where we need to go from here. Bernie Parsons

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History Of The Church Of Christ

By Bernie Parsons - May 30, 2002  Revised July 21, 2006


My Interest In Church History Explained

My Very Rude Awakening

I am a member of the church of Christ. I spell the word church with a beginning lowercase letter "c". The Greek for the word that we call church is ekklesia, and means "called-out assembly". Therefore, I consider myself a member of the called-out assembly of Christ. I affiliate with Christians who meet under the formal church title of Church of Christ, spelled with a beginning uppercase letter "C". Why the distinction, and what is the difference?

I don't mean to anger or alienate my brothers and sisters in Christ, but the Church of Christ (spelled with the uppercase) is pretty much a full-blown denomination. Understand that I was reared in the Church of Christ, was baptized at age thirteen in it, and have preached in the Church of Christ since I was sixteen years old, beginning back in 1967. I am no novice in the church. My assessment comes after working within the Church of Christ for more than thirty-nine years.

I first knew that something was wrong the day that I approached an older, well-liked, and long-established preacher to seek answers to some doctrinal questions that troubled me. (He was the man who had baptized me during a "gospel meeting" when I was thirteen years old.) I was seventeen years old at that time, and was young in the faith and in preaching, and was diligently seeking spiritual answers to spiritual questions. When the answers this preacher gave me did not seem to fit the scriptures, I raised that question with him. He immediately accused me of getting my doctrine from "liberal" sermon books. I told him, that, no, I was getting my ideas directly from the Bible, and not from sermon books. He pointed a finger in my face, and said, "That's your mistake, right there!"

From that day forward, I began to question from whence came our doctrines in the Church of Christ. If using the Bible as a sermon source is a mistake, what constitutes a proper source? I began to pay even more attention to the sermons of older preachers, checking the doctrine against my Bible. The aforementioned preacher once sent his right-hand man to tell me that the preacher didn't like my thumbing through my Bible during assembly, since visitors might think that I was questioning the truth of what he was preaching! This stunned me, as that very same preacher began every lesson by inviting the audience to follow along with his lesson in their Bibles, "to see if the things that I teach are contained in the scriptures". He also invited anyone who caught him in a mistake to please point it out to him.

I had a lot of love and respect for this man. He had baptized me during one of his "gospel meetings", although I had been contemplating becoming a Christian for several years prior to even having heard his name. As a small boy of about seven or eight years of age, growing up in the Appalachian foothills of eastern Kentucky, I had a desire to preach the gospel. From the time that I was ten years old, I felt the need to repent and dedicate my life to the Lord. My mother took us to church assembly (which most people call "worship service") regularly, and became a member of the church early in my life. She sat us down nightly and read the scriptures to us, asking questions to make sure that we were paying attention. I was.

Armed with years of Bible tutelage at the feet of my faithful Christian mother, I began to preach from the Bible when I was sixteen. When I graduated high school at age seventeen, I moved with my mother and four of my siblings to the Ashland, Kentucky, area. The older preacher in question "allowed" me to preach and teach Bible study at several local congregations of the Church of Christ that were under his control. When I began to ask what I thought were pertinent and vital questions, he replied with stock answers widely recognized as "official" Church of Christ doctrine. The only problem was that some of the answers didn't fit what I already knew the Bible to be teaching.

By the time that I was about eighteen years old, he scheduled a "business meeting" in one of the local churches, where he had several of his devout followers accuse me of preaching false doctrine. He removed the names of my mother and my siblings, as well as mine, from the church roll book. The sad thing is that I didn't even know such a book existed! Even so, and even at that tender age, I knew that it was not right for him to punish my mother and siblings for my own so-called "transgressions"! Anyway, he spread the word that I was not to preach in any of the several local churches that he controlled--I had been "disfellowshipped" for preaching false doctrine!

I was devastated. I worked in a local hospital at the time, so I would often go into the men's restroom in the basement, crying and praying to God to help me understand. I bawled my eyes out. I had placed a great deal of faith in this man, and he had rejected me for asking Bible questions, and expecting Bible answers. After all, he had often stated, "We speak where the Bible speaks, and are silent where the Bible is silent." Yet, he had rejected and condemned me for "speaking where the Bible speaks".

Divine Revelation

One morning, as I was crying and praying in the restroom, I asked God mournfully, "Lord, if I cannot have faith in this man, who can I trust?" Remember that I was about eighteen years old, a fresh, green preacher from the hills of eastern Kentucky, and I had placed my faith in this older preacher. What happened next was so vivid and simple that it stunned me. The Lord spoke to me.

You may laugh, if you desire, or you may wag your head, and proclaim, "He heard voices in his head!" as if to insinuate that I am mad. I didn't hear a vocal sound, as if another person were speaking to me. What I heard were words in my mind. Here are those words, and then you may judge whether or not I be mad!

"Listen to my Son--Jesus!"

It made so much sense that I marveled at this stunning revelation! If I could not believe this beloved preacher who had baptized me, who could I believe? Jesus, the Son of God! Over the next several days, as I contemplated this new perspective and pondered those words of wisdom from God, I sought what this new outlook meant to me. I eagerly embraced the concept of listening to Jesus, but how? Did not the scriptures say that the word had to be preached by a preacher, in Romans 10:14-15? I had heard that verse quoted by this preacher often enough!

Gradually, I was able to wrap my mind around several simple truths. The first was to question the authority of preachers, beginning with the one who had "thrown me out of the church"! If God writes my name in the Lamb's Book of Life, what right does a man have to take it out of that book? Therefore, the church roll book, which is not authorized by scripture, and conflicts with the Lamb's Book of Life, is one of the first things that I rejected. (Until we were marked from the preacher's roll book, I didn't even know that he had one, or that churches practiced this strange sort of spiritual accounting.)

The second thing that I rejected was the absolute authority of preachers. A preacher is only a preacher of righteousness if he preaches righteousness! Otherwise, he is a preacher of his own words. There are several scriptures that deal with this problem. Here are just two:

Jeremiah 23:1: "Woe be unto the pastors that destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! saith the LORD."

Ezekiel 22:28: "And her prophets have daubed them with untempered morter, seeing vanity, and divining lies unto them, saying, Thus saith the Lord GOD, when the LORD hath not spoken."

I realized that one can only follow a preacher inasmuch as that preacher follows the Lord.

1 Corinthians 11:1: "Be ye followers of me, even as I also am of Christ."

With this understanding opened to me, I realized that many preachers serve themselves more than they serve God. Preachers are to preach the word of God. Jesus was the word of God made flesh, John 1:14. I was to follow Jesus--after all, had not God said, "This is my beloved Son, hear ye Him"? This launched me into a rapid study of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. I had studied those books several times before, but now I was looking at them through fresh eyes.

Again, I faced the question, "What does it mean to hear Jesus?"

The second eye-opening, mind-boggling answer flashed into my brain. If Jesus spoke it, I must believe it! It was that simple! Armed with this new insight, I approached Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John once again. Wow! The truth began to flood my thirsty soul. I began to truly drink from the fountain of the living waters. I savored the words of my Savior, and my whole outlook on the church, and Christianity, underwent a fundamental shift. I often stayed up until 2:00 AM, poring over the scriptures, reading the Bible from Genesis through Revelation. So many doors of understanding opened to me during that period of Bible study that I had the sensation of walking down a long corridor, with doors on either side. As I walked along, one door after another opened to me. It was a profound spiritual experience.

I noticed more and more doctrines espoused by popular preachers in the Church of Christ that did not square with the Bible. I detected more and more violations of the motto, "We speak where the Bible speaks, and are silent where the Bible is silent". I suddenly found myself questioning even that statement. Like so many of the doctrines that I heard proclaimed as "gospel truth", it was not a direct quotation from the Bible--so where did it originate?

Trouble In Paradise

My search for truth--both in the scriptures, and about the Church of Christ--led to much heartache and trouble. Because I insisted on a "Thus saith the Lord" for all church doctrine, and as I uncovered the truth about the history of the Church of Christ, I became persona non grata in the local conservative Churches of Christ.

The previously mentioned, well-known local preacher, who strictly controlled several local congregations, not only claimed to have disfellowshipped me at the congregation that I attended, but saw to it that I was not welcome at the other local churches that he controlled. This was hard on me on several fronts. First of all, I had been reared in the Church of Christ, and was taught that it is "the one, true church". I had been taught that the "liberal" Churches of Christ were hell-bound, so I could not associate with them. Yet, the local conservative churches would have none of me, or my family!

Additionally, members of my wife-to-be's family were active in one of the local conservative congregations. When I was first cut off from the church, I was forbidden to date my fiancée, because of my status in the church. Later, after we were married, I was hounded by family and church members to "make things right" with the offended preacher. What that meant, in essence, was that I was to go to him, tell him that I was wrong and he was right, and beg his forgiveness. (One man even went so far as to suggest that my wife leave me, as we were not married in the eyes of God--seeing as she was a believer, and I was an "unbeliever", thus making the relationship "adulterous"!)

Instead, I began to meet with my mother and siblings at home for what we then called "worship service" or "church service". We were immediately told by members in good standing that we were not a true church, because we refused to meet at their meeting house, which they called the church building, with them. It was the old proverb about being condemned if you do, or condemned if you don't. If we met with them, we were not in good standing, because we had been "disfellowshipped". If we met at home, we were not in good standing, because we were not meeting with them!

This led me to dig even deeper into the scriptures to learn what it meant to be the church, and how to conduct an assembly of the church that was "acceptable to God". My understanding of what the Lord's church is began to shift as I compared what I found in the scriptures to the actual practices of the local church. I began to get a faint picture, a fuzzy silhouette of what the true church is supposed to be! It was not what I had seen in the local Churches of Christ! This led me to probe even more this peculiar people calling themselves the one true church, the only saved body of Christ--which goes by the name, Church of Christ!

In the meantime, my wife and I had married, and had our first child, a darling daughter. My wife expressed a desire to rear her in a Church of Christ which meets at a building, and we set out to find one that would accept us. We came upon the Westwood Church of Christ, just outside of Ashland, Kentucky, which I had not even heard about. I had not heard about it, because the entire congregation had been "disfellowshipped" by the preacher who had cut my family and me off from their local congregation. So closely knit was the little group with which I had been affiliated earlier, that they had never even hinted that this little group of Christians existed nearby. We were warmly embraced at Westwood, and I was allowed to preach and teach again in a Church of Christ.

The preacher there, a fine Christian named Cleatis Davis, along with his whole congregation, had been "disfellowshipped".  I was relieved to find that I was not alone in how I had been treated, and yet angered to discover that the preacher who had run me and my family from the Ashland church had done the same to literally hundreds of others over the years. As thrilled as I was to be accepted by this new congregation, I was soon being corrected by my beloved brother Davis. He wanted me to preach that "every time that the door is open, every church member MUST be in attendance". Instead, I had preached that people should WANT to be in the assembly, and not merely to be there because that they were forced to be there. I began to wonder where this "open door" doctrine had originated, for it surely was not in the New Testament.

Being young--I was about 21 years old by this time--I decided that maybe my education at the feet of my mother had not been enough. Maybe I needed to be schooled in the true doctrines of the conservative Churches of Christ. After all, did they not have all the truth--and were they not the one, true church?

The Quest Begins

I grew up in the Church of Christ in the 1950s. Those of other religious persuasions in our little community derisively referred to us as "waterdogs" and "Camellites". I knew that the waterdog insult had to do with our belief in adult baptism for the remission of sins, as the Bible teaches. I had also heard some of the older men in the congregation speak of Alexander Campbell, so I knew that Camellite was a corruption of the term Campbellite. I also knew that the older brethren in the church had rejected this label, saying instead that they were merely Christians.

I needed answers desperately, so I subscribed to a "conservative" periodical called the Gospel Guardian. I was both illuminated and made to despair at what I read in the Gospel Guardian. There appeared to be an all-out war between the conservative and liberal factions of the Church of Christ. While reading these conflicting articles, often containing contradictory doctrines, I was introduced to sources of reading material on what was being called the Restoration Movement.

I was amazed at what I had found. Not only was there a current fight between factions of the Church of Christ, but there had been fights in the church during the 1950s, as well as earlier ones involving a man named David Lipscomb of Nashville, Tennessee, at the turn of the century.

Armed with my newfound information, I began to pursue a deeper understanding of the scriptures than what the unwritten, but quasi-official, Church of Christ doctrine provided. At the same time, I yearned for the history of this group with whom I am affiliated, known as the Church of Christ. What I learned on both fronts stunned me, but put me on the true path of righteousness!

I purchased a couple of books on Alexander Campbell and J. W. McGarvey. I could see from reading their articles on various subjects that they were pioneers of sorts, and had broken with prevailing Protestant doctrines of their times. I became curious about these men, and others that I began to see mentioned. One source led to another, and I was going to the library (there was no public Internet in the 1970s and 1980s!) to research the likes of Alexander and Thomas Campbell, Barton W. Stone, J. W. McGarvey, "Raccoon" John Smith, and others.

I discovered that it had been the hopes of men like Alexander Campbell and Barton W. Stone, who were Presbyterians, that all Christians renounce their distinct church names, along with associated creeds and "confessions", and simply be known as Christians, or disciples of Christ. They also urged the renouncing of creeds and doctrines not found in the scriptures of the Bible, particularly the New Testament. It was from Thomas Campbell, father of Alexander Campbell, that the statement originated, "We speak where the Bible speaks, and are silent where the Bible is silent." His original version was, "“Where the Scriptures speak, we speak; where the Scriptures are silent, we are silent.” I was excited to learn this important fact. I needed to know more about this man who had lived from 1788 to 1866, and whose words were still being quoted in the 1970s as reverently as scripture itself.

During the 1980s and 1990s I continued to study the scriptures, while researching the lives of the men of the so-called Restoration Movement. It was so called, because these men preached that, by studying the Bible, one could uncover the divine pattern, as it were, of the church, as opposed to the pattern set forth by men in the Roman Catholic church, or men of the subsequent Reformation of that body, know as Protestantism. They could thereby "restore" the church to its primitive state.

Slowly, but surely, I not only uncovered the history of the group named the Church of Christ, but I also discovered when many of the doctrines had originated! Many were quotations from these revered men of the American Restoration Movement, or, as it is often now called, the Stone-Campbell movement. Many other doctrines came from other powerful and persuasive men throughout the 100-year-old history of the Church of Christ.

I Work My Way Backwards

As I studied the history of the Church of Christ, I quickly discovered the names of many revered men in the Church of Christ. It took several decades, with my research greatly aided by the Internet in the late 1990s, to fully understand and appreciate the development of the religious body which carries the name Church of Christ (or, as known by some, Churches of Christ).

In the early 1970s, I subscribed to a periodical known as the Gospel Guardian. It was recommended to me by preaching "conservative" brethren. I was eager to learn more about what the Church of Christ believed, and to see where my Bible education at the feet of an unlearned mother--a fine Christian, with a fifth-grade education--had been faulty.

I was immediately bewildered and disheartened. On the pages of this publication were charges and counter-charges. I had dropped into the midst of a raging battle that I had not known even existed. I had heard a few remarks over the years about "conservative" and "liberal" brethren, and "conservative" and "liberal" churches, but had not really understood what all the fuss was about. Now I was treated to a knock-down, drag-out competition of ideas and doctrines. Of course, the guardians of the gospel at Gospel Guardian insisted that they alone stood for truth and righteousness.

Yet, the ideas that they advanced were not so much rooted in scripture, but in the words of men who had come before them in the Church of Christ. There was a hollowness, and a pharisaical timbre to the articles. What I perceived was a strong defense, not of the Bible, or the called-out assembly of Christ that is described in the Bible, but of a set of doctrines espoused by certain writers and editors of publications put out by members of the Church of Christ in the early, and mid, 20th Century.

I suddenly realized what had happened to me, and why I had fallen out of favor in the local churches. I was not following a particular man, nor was I a proponent of a particular faction within the Churches of Christ. Rather, I was following Jesus. I had taken to heart the admonitions that I had heard as a child in the 1950s to "Speak where the Bible speaks, but be silent where the Bible is silent". I was attempting to preach the Bible in its simplicity and entirety, and had unwittingly crossed swords on certain doctrines with a preacher in the conservative wing of the Church of Christ.

Finally, I understood why he had accused me of reading the wrong sermon books. Upon my denial of that, and my assertion that I used only the Bible as the source book for my sermons, he had exclaimed, "There's your mistake!". In other words, I was supposed to be reading the correct sermon books--the ones from the conservative branch of the Churches of Christ.

It was then that my admiration for my own mother, and her godly teaching of the unadulterated scriptures, increased greatly. With only a fifth-grade education, she had taught us the Bible, purely and simply. She had no knowledge of the different factions within the body, and had not read the writings of the celebrated editors out of Nashville, Tennessee, and Austin and Abilene, Texas. The doctrines that our family believed were simply those that the scriptures taught.

I had no interest in what the founders of the colleges and the editors of the periodicals were teaching. They were men, like me, and it was obvious that their education had not helped them much. There was too much controversy from both camps, and too much disagreement. I resolved to study only the scriptures, and teach only what the Bible taught. However, I already had some limited knowledge that I had gleaned from a few articles written by Alexander Campbell--and those were firmly entrenched in my inquisitive mind.

On the model of Campbell, I was determined to be a peacemaker, not a divider. I was determined to "speak where the Bible speaks, and be silent where the Bible is silent". It has been a lonely road, and I have often been rejected, ostracized, condemned, and repudiated. The "liberals" consider me "conservative", while the "conservatives" are persuaded that I am a "liberal". Perhaps I am a moderate--which is not altogether a bad thing, since the scriptures teach moderation in all things!

What follows is my discovery of truth regarding the Church of Christ, with which I have always been affiliated--and continue to be. As you read, I pray that you will understand my mission.


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