I was reading a book review of a new biography of Alexander Campbell this week. The reviewer said that the new biography examines Campbell’s legacy in a critical light, acknowledging the greatness of Campbell but also his flaws and shortcomings. This is in contrast to some previous Campbell biographies which in some were not biography but hagiography, that is an ideal presentation of someone that praises and never criticizes.
It is a reminder of why we don’t call ourselves “Campbellites.” First, we should never call ourselves after any man, no matter how great – 1 Cor. 1:12.
Second, it goes against Campbell’s own plea. In reply to a New Orleans newspaper, Campbell wrote, “You have done me, gentlemen, too much honor in saying that I am the ‘founder’ of the denomination, quite numerous and respectable in many portions of the West, technically known as ‘Christians,’ but more commonly as ‘Campbellites.’ I have always repudiated all human heads and human names for the people of the Lord, and shall feel very thankful if you will correct the erroneous impression which your article may have made in thus representing me as the founder of a religious denomination.” (Campbell, II:441). It was this sentiment that prompted John Smith’s statement at Georgetown, Kentucky in 1832, when the followers of Campbell and Barton W. Stone united in that place. “Let us, then my brethren, be no longer Campbellites or Stoneites, New Lights or Old Lights, or any other kind of lights, but let us come to the Bible and to the Bible alone, as the only book in the world that can give us all the light we need.” (West, I:33).
Third, we always need to be careful who we put up on pedestals. They can come crashing down on us later, when their flaws are revealed.
Having said all that, however, should history be erased because people are flawed, even sinful? Earl West gave his assessment of Daniel Sommer, a powerful preacher and very influential in the period in which churches of Christ separated from the Disciples, or the Christian Church. “For our part we are not willing that his extremes should blind us in seeing the real greatness in the man, nor shall our willingness to see his greatness stand as an obstacle to our seeing his extremes.” (West, II:305).
Identity problems lie at the root of some of our nation’s troubles now. There are those who view America’s past as nothing but flawed. So, they want to erase it. Then there are those who see the new culture as equally flawed. So, they resist it. The problem is, if this is how we identify ourselves, whether supporting the traditional culture, or trying to establish a new one, we are still following flawed men.
In a world of confused identities and flawed cultures, maybe we should try looking in a new direction.
“But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, for the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor, that He, by the grace of God, might taste death for everyone.” – Hebrews 2:9. The message to a tired and weary people was to keep their eyes on Jesus! Though it was tempting to avoid persecution by looking to angels, or even past heroes like Moses, they needed to focus on the One who suffered and died, but now crowned with glory and honor at the right hand of God.
We need to see Jesus, not only because He suffered for us, but also because He identifies with us. He is not ashamed to call us brethren – Hebrews 2:11. He shares our nature – Hebrews 2:14. Even with our flesh and blood existence, even with our failures and sin, He identifies with us and helps us with our weaknesses of the flesh. He defeated the strong man and through His death released us from the bully on the block, so to speak.
Not only did He suffer and die for humanity, but He gives aid to humanity as He took on our nature. As such He is a merciful and faithful High Priest – Hebrews 2:17, able to give perfect representation on our behalf. And as such He gives aid to us in our temptations.
The problem when we exalt men and identify with a particular culture is that there is a tendency to assume one’s culture is superior and all others are inferior. Also there is a tendency to accept those who are similar, and reject those who differ. Everett Ferguson offers the following considerations about differing cultures:
“The Middle Waghi people of New Guinea see ultimate good in terms of the clan (outsiders have no rights; forced marriages must be accepted for the good fo the clan; it is not wrong to steal from a non-clan member; and an individual may be expected to confess a crime he did not commit in order to the let the guilty person off who may be more vital to clan life). Security is found in the clan alone ( selfishness and privacy is frowned upon; competition between clan members is an offense to all, and education of the young is the responsibility of the whole clan).
In India, time is circular, a continual rerun of persons and events. Individuals can be reborn many times at different levels of society. All good in the world is limited, thus one individual’s gain can only come at the expense of others. Cows are sacred.
In the United States, people have yet another point of view. Cars are sacred. They are convinced man completely controls his world, thus glorify science and educations to the exclusion of the spiritual realities. Individual rights are supreme and no one must be told what to do. Equality is more important than liberty or honor. Friendships are superficial. Success is defined in terms of mobility rather than stability. Youth is more valued than age.” (Ferguson, 32).
But now consider what happens when an individual identifies with Jesus. “Therefore, from now on, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we have known Christ according to the flesh, yet now we know Him thus no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things become new.” – 2 Corinthians 5:16-17. Instead of looking at others as being inferior or unacceptable, humanity can now be viewed through the eyes of Christ. Thus the message to mankind is one of reconciliation. To be united with God through Christ, and thus united to one another. “Now all things are of God, who has reconciled us to Himself through Jesus Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation.” – 2 Corinthians 2:18
The motives for this new identification are several in the context. The love of Christ compels us – v. 14. We no longer live for ourselves, but for Christ – v. 15. Even a healthy fear is a factor, as we know the “terror of the Lord.” – v.11. Finally, there is a partnership with Christ – v. 20.
We have choice for identity. We can choose the ways of men, past or present. Or we can choose the way of Christ.
Who do you identify with?
Campbell, Alexander. The Memoirs of Alexander Campbell – 2 vols. Robert Richardson, ed. Nashville: Gospel Advocate Co., 1956 reprint of 1897 edition.
Huffard, Everett. Deciding to Grow – Church Growth Perspectives from 2 Corinthians. Abilene, TX: Quality Publications, 1983.
West, Earl. The Search for the Ancient Order, vol. 1. Nashville: Gospel Advocate Co. 1950.
________. The Search for the Ancient Order, vol. 2. Indianapolis: Religious Book Service, 1950.