I still believe that with the guidance of the Holy Spirit and a determination to resist the siren songs of the partisan slogans on both sides of a culture war divide, Christian unity can be maintained even among those with sharp partisan differences… The Stone-Campbellites failed to look beyond the partisanship a century and a half ago, and their movement therefore experienced a permanent fissure. Unless they make a conscious effort to forge a different path, the “young, restless, and Reformed” Christians may experience a similar division today.
This month, Kevin DeYoung, a pastor and professor at Reformed Theological Seminary (as well as a popular author and a major figure in the “young, restless, and Reformed” movement) wrote an insightful article for the Gospel Coalition tracing a movement fissure that is in the making. On one side of the divide are Reformed racial progressives who support Black Lives Matter and denounce Donald Trump and Christian nationalism. On the opposite side are Reformed political conservatives who voted for Trump and who believe that Black Lives Matter is anti-Christian. And in the middle are two groups of moderates – one group that leans toward the progressives and probably did not vote for Trump but wants to keep the peace with the conservatives, and the other that leans toward the conservatives but does not want to disfellowship the progressives even while questioning some of their decisions.
DeYoung places himself in this last camp of conservative-moderates. He would like to reunite the coalition, but fears that it already may be too late to bring the progressives and conservatives together again – a situation that he finds lamentable, especially in view of the common theological ground that the two camps share on so many other issues. After all, as DeYoung noted, all groups in this coalition of conservative Presbyterians, Reformed Baptists, and the like are biblical inerrantists and strong Calvinists, and most are complementarians or at least lean in that general direction. With so much to unite them theologically and even culturally, are issues of race and politics really sufficient to permanently break apart this coalition?
No one can reliably predict the future, of course, but for insight into this question, I’d like to consider the historical experience of another evangelical movement that experienced a permanent schism over race and politics in spite of its message of unity and the moderation of its most prominent leader. That movement is 19th-century Stone-Campbell Restorationism.
At first glance, the Stone-Campbell Restorationist movement, which eventually gave rise to the Churches of Christ and the Disciples of Christ (as well as the Independent Christian Churches), might seem an unusual choice for an analogy with contemporary conservative Reformed evangelicalism. As a product of the heavily Arminian Second Great Awakening, the Stone-Campbell Restorationist movement was one of the most strongly anti-Calvinist Protestant movements in American history; the free will of the unregenerate sinner to choose or reject Christ was a key tenet for the movement. But aside from this point of theology, which obviously is at odds with the views of the “young, restless, and Reformed” movement of the early 21st century, 19th-century Stone-Campbell Restorationism and early 21st-century conservative Reformed evangelicalism share a great deal in common: Both movements were strongly biblicist, both favored rational and logical appeals over emotional displays, and both promised a textual and theological pathway to the restoration of the original Christian message. Presaging the trans-denominational appeal of 21st-century Reformed evangelicalism, the 19th-century Stone-Campbell Restorationist movement drew converts from Baptist, Presbyterian, and Methodist groups in roughly equal measure. But perhaps most significantly, Stone-Campbell Restorationism paralleled the “young, restless, and Reformed” movement in its view of the church’s relationship to politics; although interested in social and political reform causes, many members of the movement believed that the restoration of the New Testament church offered a pathway to social reform that was superior to what any political party could advocate. The only problem was that the members of the movement could not agree on what that pathway should be. Nowhere was this more evident than on the issue of slavery.
Most members of the Stone-Campbell movement, which was concentrated most heavily in the Appalachian and trans-Appalachian regions of Ohio and Tennessee, were generally opposed to slavery. Some of the northern Ohio Campbellites were abolitionists, and a smaller number of southerners (especially those in Alabama or Texas) owned slaves, but the majority believed in abstaining from direct participation in slave ownership – yet they disagreed about how to do it.
One of the leading voices among the conservatives was David Lipscomb of Tennessee. When Lipscomb was a boy, his father traveled to Illinois to free the family’s slaves, but upon reaching adulthood, Lipscomb himself seems not to have fully shared his father’s views, since he owned five slaves at the time of the 1860 census. But Lipscomb was not a Confederate. In the presidential election of 1860, he voted for the Constitutional Union Party candidate John Bell, not a secessionist or states’ rights Democratic candidate. During the Civil War, he refused to fight, and by the end of the war, he had become so disillusioned with politics that he decided to renounce voting in the name of Christ. Only through the pursuit of the kingdom of God could a Christian reform society; politics would only corrupt the church and corrupt the Christian.
The most politically prominent figure among the progressives was James A. Garfield, an Ohio Disciples preacher-turned-politician who served as a Union general and was later elected president of the United States after serving in the US House of Representatives. Garfield became increasingly agitated about slavery during the late 1850s and, immediately after the Civil War, he embraced the cause of Black voting rights and the Radical Republican vision of Reconstruction. His strong antislavery views led him to embrace a path to social reform that Lipscomb considered dangerously heretical. For Lipscomb, slavery seems to have been a matter of indifference, but violence and politics were not. For Garfield, freeing the slaves and protecting African American civil rights were important enough causes to fight for – even if it meant rethinking the principles of biblical interpretation that had guided the “founding father” of the movement.