My grandson Drew loves “trains that go.” And so whenever he comes over to spend some time with me, I’m always looking for something that runs on tracks for us to ride together. This is what got us on “Rosie” a couple of weeks ago, one of the McKinney Avenue Transit Authority’s Vintage Streetcars that runs the hour long circuit through Uptown, the West Village and the Arts District. Drew liked the clanging bell, stopping at all the traffic lights (he though it was funny that a “train” had to stop for cars instead of the cars having to stop for the “train”) and the rumbly ride. I liked the history.
Our conductor, while waiting at one of the designated spots along the line to keep us on schedule, filled me in on some of the history of Dallas streetcars. The part of the story he told me that I found to be the most intriguing was about how streetcars stopped running in Dallas in the name of progress and in the interest of modernity in the mid-1950’s, and only staged their comeback in the late 1980’s when their rails were accidently “rediscovered” during a downtown street repaving project. The Dallas Tolley line got “refounded” on tracks that had been around for the better part of a century, but not used for more than 30 years. “And if those tracks hadn’t been there,” our conductor told me, “it would have been impossible to put them down today.” “Just too expensive,” he explained.
As Drew and I finished our ride, I got to thinking about the tracks that our church runs on, tracks that were laid down by those who came long before us. Of course, this is generally true of us as Christians. Everyone who is a Christian believes in Jesus Christ “through the word” of the Apostles (John 17:20; Acts 2:42; I John 1:1-4). They are our access to the true faith that was “once and for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3), and the good stewards of the treasure that was “entrusted to us” (2 Timothy 1:13-14) that we are, in turn, expected to “guard” and “entrust” to other faithful men and women so that the Gospel can continue its advance (2 Timothy 2:1-2). We build on the foundation of the apostles and the prophets (Ephesians 2:20), the only foundation on which Christianity can be built (I Corinthians 3:11). This is what the Creed affirms when it names a belief in the “apostolic” nature of the Church of Jesus Christ as one of the nonnegotiable basics of Biblical Christianity. We run on those tracks as a church, as all churches that acknowledge the Scriptures to be their authoritative norm for faith and practice do. But Northway has an additional set of tracks on which it runs, the tracks of the Stone/Campbell Movement.
Northway is a congregation of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), one of three church families that trace their roots back to the early 1800’s and the Christian Movement in Kentucky that was led by Barton W. Stone, and the Disciples of Christ Movement in Pennsylvania, Virginia (now West Virginia) and Ohio that was led by Thomas Campbell and his son Alexander, to unite the church of Jesus Christ by a conscious return to the clear teachings of the New Testament in order to make her mission of preaching the Gospel to the whole world more credible. For years this was known as our “Plea,” and it was what defined us as a church. For our first 100 years as a church, whenever anybody asked a Disciple what we were about, there was no hesitation or confusion. Both inside and outside our walls, we were known to be a movement that was actively seeking the unity of the church by a simple return to the teachings of the New Testament alone in order to better facilitate the work of the Great Commission.
John 17:20-21 is the Biblical statement of our Movement’s historic Plea. In the middle of His High Priestly Prayer in the Upper Room on the night He was betrayed, Jesus asked –
…not for these only (“these” are the Apostles – the 12 minus Judas Iscariot), but also for those who will believe in me through their word (that’s us – the church built on the Apostle’s Teaching contained in the New Testament – we believe “through their word”), that they may all be one (that’s the specific petition of this prayer that Jesus prayed on the night before His saving death – an appeal for unity – that we who believe in Him through the Apostle’s word would be one), just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me (Here Jesus Christ gave the world the right to judge the validity of the Gospel’s claim based on the visible unity of the church).
The late Tony Dunnavant, the noted Stone/Campbell Movement historian who taught at Lexington Theological Seminary, urged us as Disciples to get back to our roots by calling ourselves “The People of the Prayer.” What prayer? This prayer of Jesus Christ found in John 17 – the prayer of the “Plea.” Just like the tracks that the McKinney Avenue Trolley runs on through downtown Dallas had to be “refounded” in order to become a working streetcar line once again, so I believe that the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is going to have to “refound” the Plea as the tracks on which we run.
To do this, I would suggest this process –
- 1. Read Thomas Campbell’s Declaration and Address (You can access it at http://www.mun.ca/rels/restmov/texts/tcampbell/da/DA-1ST.HTM, and then read a really useful paraphrase of it (reading 19th century English can be demanding) at http://www.mun.ca/rels/restmov/texts/tcampbell/etc/DA-KS.HTM. This was the statement of principle first published in 1809 that set our Movement in motion. More than any other document that’s been written, it is Thomas Campbell’s Declaration and Address that spells out the principles and purposes that first brought us into being, and that, some would say, still have to have some meaningful expression in our life and witness if our continuing existence as a church is to be justified. Incidentally, it was reading this document 40 years ago that actually made me a Disciple of Christ. As I read it when I was 18 years old, I said to myself that I wanted to be part of a church that stood for the things that it was advocating, and I believe that the vision it casts can still have that kind of power.
- 2. Spend some time with the documents of the 1909 International Centennial Celebration and Convention of the Disciples of Christ that was held in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Program can be accessed here: www.mun.ca/rels/restmov/texts/jhgarrison/ccp/CCP302.HTM, and the report with the full texts of all the speeches and sermons can be accessed here:www.mun.ca/rels/restmov/texts/wwarren/ccr/CCR00A.HTM. In this exercise, I would pay particular attention to –
“What is the Mission of the Disciples of Christ?” George H. Combs, pp. 24-31 “Our Twofold Mission” W. E. Ellis, pp. 195-198.
“Our Twofold Mission” L. O. Bricker, pp. 198-200.
“Our Twofold Mission” H. E. Van Horn, pp. 201-203.
“Origin of the Restoration Movement” J. J. Haley, pp. 333-336.
“Origin of the Restoration Movement” Frederick W. Burnham, pp. 336-340.
“Origin of the Restoration Movement” J. H. MacNeill, pp. 340-343.
“Unity in Diversity” T. P. Haley, pp. 343-346.
“The Origin of the Disciples of Christ“ F. D. Power, pp. 347-349.
“Thomas Campbell and the Principles He Promulgated” W. J. Loos, pp. 349-350.
“Thomas Campbell and the Principles He Promulgated” C. M. Chilton, pp. 351-354.
“Thomas Campbell and the Principles He Promulgated” Effie L. Cunningham, pp. 354-356.
“Thomas Campbell and the Principles He Promulgated” H. L. Willett, pp. 356-360.
“Thomas Campbell and the Principles He Promulgated” Clinton Lockhart, pp. 360-362.
“Progress and Achievements of a Hundred Years” P. J. Rice, pp. 411-415.
“Progress and Achievements of a Hundred Years“ Mrs. A. M. Haggard, pp. 415-419.
“Progress and Achievements of a Hundred Years” H. L. Herod, pp. 419-421.
“Progress and Achievements of a Hundred Years“ C. J. Tannar, pp. 422-426.
“Outlook and Appeal” Miner Lee Bates, pp. 435-440.
“Outlook and Appeal“ Harry D. Smith, pp. 440-444.
“Outlook and Appeal“ Mrs. Louise Kelly, pp. 444-447.
“Outlook and Appeal” A. D. Harmon, pp. 447-449.
“Outlook and Appeal“ B. A. Abbott, pp. 449-453.
When Victor Knowles did this for his message at the 2009 Centennial Celebration of our Centennial Celebration (The Bicentennial of the publication of the Declaration and Address), he wrote –
The centennial celebration was designed, in part, to create in the hearts of the younger generation “the same zeal for the great fundamental principles of this movement which characterized our fathers, who were willing to forsake all for the defense of the Reformation which they had espoused.”
…I was struck by the singular summation. “In this Centennial year we shall best honor these illustrious men [such as Thomas Campbell and others] by contending earnestly for the very thing for which they contended. The unity of all believers… On a basis of Holy Scripture… To the end that the world may be evangelized.”
I cannot improve upon that. I can only say that in this bicentennial year of the Declaration & Address that we shall best honor our heritage by returning to those same principles and with equal passion proclaim them: the unity of all believers, based on the Word of God, that the world might be won. In so doing we will be honoring that poignant prayer of our Lord Jesus Christ who, 2,000 years ago, lifted up His eyes to heaven and prayed to His Father. “I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word . . . that they all may be one . . . that the world may believe”
The bright line connecting the principles and purposes of our founding in Thomas Campbell’s Declaration and Address in 1809 with the concerns and convictions of the Movement on its 100th birthday in 1909 is vivid and vital.
- 3. And with those two reference points from our founding in 1809 and our reclaiming and celebration of them in 1909 at our Centennial, go looking for them now in our life as a church at 200. They’re there, but just like the tracks of the Dallas Trolley buried under decades of the asphalt of progress and modernity, they will have to be sought and restored.
Peter Morgan, the retired President of the Disciples Historical Society, on the occasion of the Bicentennial of the Declaration and Address in 2009 told the Stone/Campbell Dialogue –
We can employ a continuum when assessing Disciples faithfully living the Declaration and Address today: conscious competents (do it well and know what they’re doing), unconscious competents (do it well, but don’t know what they’re doing), conscious incompetents, (don’t do it very well, but realize they are incompetent), and unconscious incompetents (don’t do it well and don’t have a clue). I place Disciples with the unconscious competents (do it well, but don’t know what they’re doing).
I’ll give Peter the benefit of the doubt in this assessment. Frankly, I suspect that it’s overgenerous in its estimate of our faithfulness in living into the Declaration and Address as Disciples, but Peter is one of the kindness men that I have ever known in my dealings with our church’s leadership, and therefore I will not treat as a fault what I have personally experienced from him as his great strength. And so, while I may have some lingering doubts about the conclusion that he has drawn from his use of it, I nevertheless find his continuum for thinking about our faithfulness to the Declaration and Address to be a really useful way for thinking about what we are doing with the tracks of our Movement, the tracks that were put in place by Thomas Campbell with the publication of Declaration and Address in 1809 and the tracks that were still evident and in use in 1909 at our Centennial as a Movement, but tracks that seem to have gotten covered over by our Bicentennial in 2009. Peter believes us to be “unconscious competents” as Disciples when it comes to our faithful living with the Declaration and Address. I suspect that we are more “unconscious incompetents.” But either way, it will only be by rediscovering those tracks and then intentionally running on them again as a church that there will be any chance for us to become “conscious competents,” and why would we want to be anything else?