Guilt By Association

In the 1840’s, Barton Stone wrote, “Brother Campbell has to suffer on my account what I have had to long suffer for him. He is malevolently assailed for holding me in fellowship … and I have been with equal malevolence assailed for holding him in fellowship, because of his supposed errors (1).” We might look back and see the big picture of two men seeking to restore Christianity to its primitive state, but even they had disagreements on doctrinal issues. What they were unwilling to do was to make those doctrinal issues a matter of fellowship, something that few are willing to do today.

The unified one’s of Ephesians 4:4–6 were their rallying point, and they could agree that Christ had only one church and that the Holy Spirit was the promised Comforter. Their one hope was in the resurrection of Christ because He was their one Lord, and their common faith was in Him. Furthermore, they both preached a believer’s immersion with Campbell being more inflexible on the point than Stone. God the Father was the one in whom they held fast. On these, they found an orthodoxy of unity, and beyond that, they wished to follow the direct commands of God while leaving inferences, inductions, and deductions from the Scriptures to one’s private interpretation and pious following.

The issue about which Garrett gave Stone’s words relative to Campbell had to do with Christology. Theologians have long debated certain points of the person of Christ, and Campbell and Stone absent any ancient creeds did the same. They disagreed on some points, and in the Campbell-Rice debate, Rice was quick to point these out to Campbell about his esteemed brother, Barton Stone. Nevertheless, despite such theological contentions, Stone and Campbell still believed that unity could be maintained because they were united in those from Ephesians 4:4–6.

Many still assume that if we associate with certain brethren or institutions (Valkyries) that we endorse their “errors.” I understand that there are times when we ought to remove ourselves from the fellowship of erring brethren. (cf. 1 Corinthians 5; Romans 16:17–18; 2 Thessalonians 3:14–15; 1 John 4:1–3). Nevertheless, we also must not look for ways to avoid brethren whom the Lord may approve (cf. Romans 14; Galatians 2). For some of the very reasons that we would not associate with brethren, we must ask whether it is truly a matter of sound doctrine or one of personal preference and comfort. If Campbell and Stone could still play nice, shouldn’t we try to find a way to do it too while not compromising the teachings of the Lord?

  1. As quoted in Leroy Garrett, Stone-Campbell Movement (Joplin, MO: College Press Publishing Company, 1985), 124.

Steven Hunter (PhD, Faulkner University) is the preaching minister for the Glendale Road Church of Christ in Murray, KY. He's also authored several books for Start2Finish, and Classically Christian explores Christianity from a church-historical perspective. Steven enjoys reading books, drinking coffee, and is a practitioner of Goshin Ryu Jujutsu—a traditional Japanese martial art.