Is There A Unity Cult Within The Restoration Movement?

 

Chances are you or someone you know has attended the North American Christian Convention at least once during your lifetime.

Chances are, today, the mention of that name manufactures little more than a passive sense of indifference – save a few blurry memories or lingering feelings of nostalgia from your childhood.

After 89 years of existence, something unexpected is happening . . . and it ain’t good.

The past two years of the convention have been dark. Empty seats are frequent – cordoned off behind curtain walls.  Of the few onlookers who did participate this year, more than half reported being new to the convention and, most likely, were unaware of the Restoration Movement, its challenges, or its history.

Near the turn of the millennium with the rise of church marketing strategies, the diminished role of church elders, and with a new taste for self-determination, mega-church pastors gained enormous influence within the NACC’s various administrative committees. After a decade of competing visions for the future, celebrity pastors consolidated power and now refuse to let go.

Objections? They came and went. Biblically sound advice – ignored. Opposition – silenced entirely.

But let’s back up a bit. From 1832 – 1901 hundreds of thousands of Christians joined an assembly known as the Stone-Campbell Movement (later the Restoration Movement), and early in the twentieth century – through consensus and as a result of internal division – one wing of the movement came to be referred to as unaffiliated Christian Churches. The first to join were Christians seeking unity based on the elevation of Scripture over and above denominational creeds and traditions. By the 1930’s, a handful of Bible colleges and seminaries were established in Nebraska, Oregon, Kansas, Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, Missouri, Texas, and California. Additionally in 1927, dissatisfied with the Disciples of Christ Memphis Convention, the unaffiliated Christian Churches began a national convention of their own. Since then, aided by the expansion of commercial air travel in the 1950’s, the NACC has played a central role for providing ideas, inspiration, and identity to New Testament Christians guided by the lodestar of the first century church.

So 2016. Things have changed. The old guard was deposed and sent packing by what sure looked to me like a hijacking, carried out by a cadre of elitist mega-church pastors and their wannabes. Two years ago Tim Harlow implied that – absent the likes of him and Mike Baker – the NACC was on its last leg,  “reflective of a movement stuck in the same dimension.” He prognosticated that he and his enlightened New Breed would help us evolve to a higher plane, leading this movement and its convention to “change the world.” Anyone rallying to his cause was proof, in and of itself, of the cosmic superiority of . . . those who rallied to his cause.

I remember thinking, “Someone should get that man one of those ‘I’m Kind of a Big Deal’ T-shirts.

The thing is I am very sympathetic to the argument that we need to be willing to change our methods, that we need to look for ways to build unity and tear down walls, that we need to break out of this nostalgic 1981 Christian-ese bubble and respond to culture on its own terms. But when you get to: “Therefore we need to rewrite biblical guidelines for gender roles because up-and-coming millennials believe them to be chauvinistic.” I want to scream, “Are you high?!”

Overnight, predictably, NACC attendances shrank from 10,000 to 5,000 and continue to dwindle. This year, inexplicably, attendance figures were not even made public. Instead, the Christian Standard published the number of registrations as 5,790. (It is a well known fact that registration and attendance figures can vary into the thousands. In 2011 there was a difference of 3,489 between the number of registrations and actual attendees.) And while 2016 registrations were indeed up from 2015, last year’s low of 4,749 wasn’t exactly a high bar to clear.

What is unprecedented about this year’s attendance is that more than half had never before attended the NACC. So while Mark Taylor praises Dave Stone for a job well done, it should be noted that President Stone managed to prune the size of the convention’s historical base down to a couple of thousand people (800 of which were presumably teens from the adjoining CIY Move conference) – and what remains struggles to survive.

When asked about those who did not support the convention, Stone quoted church-growth guru, Kennon Callahan, saying “the day of the denomination is dead.”

Apparently, this lack of “denominational loyalty” somehow justifies the convention’s high tolerance for false doctrine. All things considered, Stone’s “prognosis” that the “future is bright” would have probably gone down a lot better had convention crowds expanded rather than contracted under his watch.

The staple argument convention dignitaries continue to make is that they no longer ascribe to denominationalism. What that means is they, as a matter of philosophical principle, reject the very idea of sound doctrine. They are unifiers and only care about what works. Simply put, doctrine will, for the foreseeable future, continue to be loosely governed. Everything is permitted. Nothing is forbidden. Anyone with the temerity to advocate for sound doctrine is demonized as a denominationalist blinded by jealousy, unconcerned with reaching the masses.

One need only read the Christian Standard here to understand that we are dealing with a unity cult besotted by the notion that there are no such things as biblical absolutes – but simply “tribes” who value various particulates.

The end result? Like the Pharisees of old, these religious populists have decided that Truth needs to be crucified in order to preserve temple unity.

Incongruously, President Stone, like last year’s president, Mike Baker, rhapsodizes about our Restoration Movement forefathers, invoking cliché after stammered cliché about local church autonomy and how “our forefathers were consumed, not to build fences, but to tear fences down.” Stone then concludes his comments with an audaciously cynical plea for everyone to “come back to God’s word.” But five minutes’ worth of serious thinking is enough to bring into question whether Stone is even serious about his most vanilla banalities. There is no serious person — regardless of which side you are on — who believes that Tim Harlow, Dave Stone, et al have, after great efforts of wrestling with scripture through prayer and wanting to chart a biblically sound course through culturally choppy waters, conferred and concluded that egalitarianism is the Will of God. And yet that is the new norm.

And as far as what consumed the minds of our forefathers, Dave Stone would do well to heed these hauntingly relevant words from R. C. Foster, published in a 1950 essay condemning apostasy and the unity cult which had gained a foothold within the NACC’s continuation committee in 1940.

“The North American Christian Convention held in Indianapolis in Oct. 9-13, 1940,  . . . ‘the powers that be’ had attempted to see that there was no controversy, that radical and conservative should have loving fellowship together without any discussion . . . The slogan of the pioneers declared: ‘In faith, unity; in opinion, liberty; in all things, charity (or love)’.  This . . . [they now] change to read: ‘In the things on which we agree, unity; In the things on which we disagree, liberty; In all things, the will to be one.

‘The will to be one’ is the determination of the hierarchy to herd everybody into the one great super-organization.  But the Christian will continue to urge that all should be one in Christ. . . ‘Choose you this day whom ye will serve, but as for me and my house, we will serve Jehovah.’”

Reminds one of the old adage: the more things change, the more things stay the same.

In Dave’s thumbless grasp of leadership, he fails to understand that unity is only desirable when compromise is in service to a more nobler cause. In the past, the nobler cause was to give preeminence to the authority of Scripture. What nobility is there in, now, compromising that authority – not to mention the stability of the nuclear family? The higher, more nobler cause seems only to be American comfort lust.

So there is simply no way that Dave Stone or anybody else can realistically make the argument that unity should be our overriding value. Yes, there is a place for unity. Unity is commanded in scripture and it is critical. But the highest Christian value is obedience. In fact, we were issued the apostolic writings and told to correct, instruct, reprove, and when necessary separate in order to prevent the masses from deciding for themselves what is or is not acceptable to God.

The reality is these celebrity pastors have decided that theology doesn’t matter and view any discussion concerning gender roles (or anything else), not as competing ideas, but as simply a hammer and tongs struggle for power. All calls for unity are, in reality, thinly veiled calls to acquiesce.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s true that some are revanchists saying “follow me and I’ll lead you back to the good ole days.” And I agree, we must avoid such sentiments. But so too affected presidents who proclaim, “The people have decided and I must go with them for I am their leader.

I’m continually struck by how many have done that. And even more how so many of my peers – my betters – are disappointed that I will not live down to their expectations. That what kind of cheeky nonconformist am I to not get in line and, for the sake of crowd-building (which they call evangelism), that I won’t endorse things or preach about things that I don’t believe to be true. To me it’s been shocking to watch people I have known for years who are willing to do exactly that.

Meanwhile, this free association of 1.25 million Christians – approximately 5,700 autonomous congregations – collectively holds it’s breath, waiting to see what’s next.

 

181367_3777061738137_361339878_nTerry Sweany serves as Senior Minister of Playa Christian Church. He received his Bachelor’s in Christian Ministry from Cincinnati Christian University and a Master’s in Marriage, Family, & Child Counseling from Hope International University. He and his wife, Patty, reside in West Los Angeles.

16 thoughts on “Is There A Unity Cult Within The Restoration Movement?”

    1. Thank you for sharing Lynn. It’s difficult to write this about a movement you care for, an event you have derived identity from in the past, and people you have known for years. I am certain there were many things about the convention that were beneficial, indeed, outstanding. So I appreciate your sympathy as I wish I felt free to participate. Again thanks for taking the time not just to read but to comment. God bless.

  1. In the article you mention a “high tolerance for false doctrine,” can you enumerate exactly which false doctrines were publicly taught at the convention?

  2. Egalatarianism has taken over the convention with no room for those who hold a complimentarian view of Scripture. We can not attend the convention without being undermined by it. Last year and next year the same. Thank you for reading and responding.

  3. Terry
    I have read your article and as a small town rural pastor for many years I understand what you are trying to say. I have not attended the convention for many years for various reasons; however, I must take exception when you include Mike Baker and “high tolerance for false doctrine.” I now attend Eastview and there is no preacher that I know that is more right on target exegetically and theologically than Mike Baker. Mike is approachable, humble and loving so in the future I would appreciate it if you would not include him when talking about false doctrine or egalitarianism.

    Gary

    1. Thank you for sharing Gary. I am sure Mike is a great guy – most pastors/minsters are in my experience. I don’t personally dislike him, I just think his decision to feature a secular humanist worldview at the convention causes people to suffer – terribly. Gender has meaning, it is a blessing from God and it matters for a stable society. Unfortunately, Mike decided last year to not be straightforward about the truth in regards to this issue. God Bless.

    2. Gary, this is a comment from a group discussion earlier in a different forum. I’m including it here to help you understand where I am coming from. Thanks.

      “All I can tell you is the feminist movement, while making great strides in some areas of our culture has also contributed greatly to the demise of our culture. William Webb introduced egalitarianism as a by-product of this movement only a few short decades ago. It sells the same humanistic lie that genders are, apart from incidental biological parts, a result of socialization designed to subject women to male domination and it teaches women to compete with rather than appreciate men. Today, while women are more equal than men in this country than any other time in world history, with more opportunities than any other time in our nations history, divorce rates are again spiking, in the last 10 years suicides among single men and women between the ages of 45-60 have, statistically speaking, Sky rocketed, the rate being higher for women than for men. Birth rates are at an all time low. Young girls are brow beaten into believing that being a wife and mother is not enough in God’s kingdom – they must dream bigger. Little boys are shamed for their masculinity. Couples come to me for counseling having never heard of Gods design for genders in marriage. Instead they come in talking about what’s fair. Homosexuality has been normalized, and gender disorders (a disorder of assumption) are going untreated – they too are suffering from higher and higher rates of suicide. The enlightenment of Gods word anticipates all these needs of mankind and offers answers for these issues and hope for these victims of secular humanistic madness. Even as we discuss this our children are no longer safe using restrooms in their schools. I AM NOT CONDEMNING ANYONE TO HELL, I am standing athwart history yelling stop to anyone who will listen. Honestly I am just looking for anyone who I can identify with who believes that there is more than a passing significance to the God given terms male and female. Our society needs truth. Egalitarianism promises women fairness but once they attain it – they discover they have been sold a bill of goods. It over promises and under delivers. Yes they have fairness but women are LESS HAPPY, MORE OVER WORKED AND MORE OBJECTIFIED THAN ANY OTHER TIME IN OUR NATIONS HISTORY. Women are lonely, men are beaten up, and everyone is more depressed. But hey who cares right? As long as it’s fair.

      This is not about doctrinal purity, ego stroking, or righteous indignation. People are suffering. We have the answers but we refuse to help. Why? To fill auditoriums or make money off those who do.”

  4. I agree whole-heartedly with your analysis. I went to school with Mr. Stone and was one of the few who understood right away that he was a compromiser and crowd pleaser. I’m disappointed though, having been gifted with a ministry position at Southeast right out of college I figured Bob Russell would get him straightened out.

  5. For roughly 20 years from the late 80s to about 2010 I did not attend NACC. Basically, the times I had been proved to be entirely irrelevant to the ministry in which I engaged on a daily basis. It was outdated, out of fashion and out of touch, stuck in a style of how ministry was in the 60s. I began attending again 6 years ago, and have been consistent until this year (because of distance). I am going because NACC has started to tackle some issues like multi-ethnic ministry and leadership, urban issues, etc.

    Having given you my context, Terry, I believe you make a large number of unsupported assumptions in this piece. Basically, you contend, “Attendance is down because NACC has been hijacked by egalitarians.” Let me offer some other options for declining attendance.
    1) Many churches that once supported and advertised for NACC do so no longer because they have so much of their own ministry activity going on that they don’t consider NACC of value.
    2) Families who once attended NACC as a family vacation have grown older. The parents still attend — just notice all of the gray hairs. But their children have found other vacation options for their children.
    3) With the convention being on the west coast, large numbers of people who may typically go would not make this trip (with it being long and expensive). They will just wait for two years of the three year cycle when it is in the Midwest.
    4) People are just busier now than 20-30 years ago, and when they have time off they don’t want to crowd it with a convention. They want to plan to relax.

    (Let me make clear, I hold to a modified complementarian view. However, I have never felt the NACC has force on me egalitarianism).

    Further, it appears that you have little exposure to the underbelly of the NACC. Have you served on the Continuation Committee? I haven’t, but my Associate Minister has. When he got back this year, we talked about the attempt to address the concerns of the small town church, and the mega-church bent, multi-ethnicity in planning, as well as a multitude of other concerns that would strengthen the NACC.

    1. I forgot another reason for the decline in NACC attendance:
      5) A multitude of other conventions and conferences are being offered as alternatives to the NACC people pool (Exponential, Catalyst, etc.), which they elect to attend in lieu of the NACC.

      1. Thanks for taking the time to read and leave a message Steven. Here are the statistics from the last 6 years. Perhaps there are, as you say, various reasons for the drop but to me, I see it differently.

        2010 @10,000 Attendance (7,155 Registered)
        2011 10,000+ Attendance (6,511 Registered)
        2012 8,000 Attendance (? Registered)
        2013 10,000 Attendance (? Registered)
        2014 9,183 Attendance (? Registered)

        Women Preaching Era

        2015 5,785 Attendance (4,749 Registered)
        2016 ?? Attendance (5,790 Registered 55% first time, from California. 800 youth)

  6. You said the highest value of Christianity is obedience. But Jesus said the greatest commandment is to Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, etc. and the second greatest is to love each other. Obedience is obviously a huge part of that, but love governs obedience. For one thing, I don’t hear love or concern in this at all. I hear a lot of anger- pretty much all anger that is maybe only surpassed by bitterness.

    Aren’t you a pastor? And this blog is on your church’s page. If a non-believer, or a struggling believer read this- you think they would be brought closer to Christ? To say nothing of the fact that this is totally unrelatable to most people- unless you are in ministry, have had extensive experience with the NACC, or have in-depth knowledge of the Restoration Movement. (I doubt that non-Christians do.)

    It just seems like this is the wrong context to share your issues regarding one of the smaller conventions out there… I wish you could do it without acting like Dave Stone and other church leaders you mentioned were on par with the devil himself, or at least that you could do it on a private blog. Your tone and your article feels like sideways energy; not only does that hinder your ministry, but it doesn’t bring glory to God.

    1. Thanks Haylie for writing. Good point about love being the highest virtue – seriously! I was never comfortable with that line in the first place. But my overall point was that unity can’t supersede obedience. Hopefully you get that.

      I guess it sorta depends on which side of the fence you are on for whether or not you are encouraged or discouraged by the post – right? I have actually, this past week had someone bring their family to visit our church because they “appreciated the biblical stance” I was taking.

      Still, to your point it is probably not a discussion most non Christians would be drawn to. As you may have noticed, the original intent and design of this blog was to attract “seekers” for lack of a better term. It has not worked out the way I had planned at all – to say the least. Therefore, we are in process of disconnecting (but keeping) the blog from our main website.

      I appreciate your taking the time to read the post and for caring enough to offer me some valuable feedback.

      I understand your feelings about my style of writing. I’m not always everyone’s cup of tea – but no one can make everyone happy. I stopped trying to do that a long time ago.

      Again, thanks for your feedback. I believe it has been helpful to me and promise to follow through.

      God Bless

    2. Haylie, this is a comment from a group discussion earlier in a different forum. I’m including it here to help you understand where I am coming from. Thanks.

      “All I can tell you is the feminist movement, while making great strides in some areas of our culture has also contributed greatly to the demise of our culture. William Webb introduced egalitarianism as a by-product of this movement only a few short decades ago. It sells the same humanistic lie that genders are, apart from incidental biological parts, a result of socialization designed to subject women to male domination and it teaches women to compete with rather than appreciate men. Today, while women are more equal than men in this country than any other time in world history, with more opportunities than any other time in our nations history, divorce rates are again spiking, in the last 10 years suicides among single men and women between the ages of 45-60 have, statistically speaking, Sky rocketed, the rate being higher for women than for men. Birth rates are at an all time low. Young girls are brow beaten into believing that being a wife and mother is not enough in God’s kingdom – they must dream bigger. Little boys are shamed for their masculinity. Couples come to me for counseling having never heard of Gods design for genders in marriage. Instead they come in talking about what’s fair. Homosexuality has been normalized, and gender disorders (a disorder of assumption) are going untreated – they too are suffering from higher and higher rates of suicide. The enlightenment of Gods word anticipates all these needs of mankind and offers answers for these issues and hope for these victims of secular humanistic madness. Even as we discuss this our children are no longer safe using restrooms in their schools. I AM NOT CONDEMNING ANYONE TO HELL, I am standing athwart history yelling stop to anyone who will listen. Honestly I am just looking for anyone who I can identify with who believes that there is more than a passing significance to the God given terms male and female. Our society needs truth. Egalitarianism promises women fairness but once they attain it – they discover they have been sold a bag of goods. It over promises and under delivers. Yes they have fairness but women are LESS HAPPY, MORE OVER WORKED AND MORE OBJECTIFIED THAN ANY OTHER TIME IN OUR NATIONS HISTORY. Women are lonely, men are beaten up, and everyone is more depressed. But hey who cares right? As long as it’s fair.

      This is not about doctrinal purity, ego stroking, or righteous indignation. People are suffering. We have the answers but we refuse to help. Why? To fill auditoriums or make money off those who do.”

  7. Unity cult? It’s difficult to overstate unity in the early Restoration Movement. Unity has been, historically, an intimate part of the Restoration Movement. The Campbells (Thomas and Alexander) did not attempt to start another denomination — they stayed in the Presbyterian church until they got kicked out. Then they again did not start another denomination — they entered the Baptist church and stayed in it until kicked out.

    Although there were significant differences theologically, the Campbell movement and the Stone movement united. “In essentials unity, in nonessentials liberty, in all things love” was an early slogan. The list of essentials is quite short — see the Wikipedia article on the Restoration Movement for a list. As the Restoration Movement adopted a name, a standard hermeneutic, and a standard theological approach to the Bible (like so-called denominations have done), it became just as exclusive as, or perhaps more exclusive than other denominations. Unity went right out the window. It’s about time that we got back to our roots, firmly upholding the essentials, and being as open to others as Thomas Campbell, Alexander Campbell and Barton Stone were.

    Your concern for bad doctrine creeping in is great, but you don’t seem to recognize that a large chunk of it came into the Restoration Movement church during most of the 20th century, with a condemnatory (to hell!) attitude towards those who believe differently than us (of course they’re wrong, but “Sons of Thunder” was not a complimentary nickname).

Leave a Reply