Devoted to the Propagation and Defense of New Testament Christianity
April 22, 1971
NUMBER 49, PAGE 5a-7

Alexander Campbell's Anti-Society Position — — V

Colly Caldwell

Alexander Campbell showed intense concern in his early preaching for unity. He taught that all men should unite upon the Bible and be members of the church of Christ, Christians only. He did not wish to establish a new church. He sought to make men see that the only way to be saved was to be added by the Lord to the old church established in Jerusalem. To that end he dedicated his efforts during the years before 1830. He examined the practices of American denominationalism and repudiated every item of faith or practice which he could not find authorized in the Scriptures. He fervently believed that God would recognize the existing churches as churches of Christ if they would follow only the Bible and leave their human creeds. This they would not do and Campbell finally left them to associate himself with men and women who would follow only the New Testament and worship God according to its patterns.

Among those things to which Campbell objected was the organization of benevolent and evangelistic societies both by the Baptist and Presbyterian churches. It is my conviction that it was primarily this issue which caused Campbell's break with the Baptists. He had been allowed to remain in Baptist fellowship with his ideas on baptism. The Baptists were willing to immerse, many demanded that form, and those of the "free-will" persuasion respected his position that baptism was for the remission of sins, though many of them did not hold that position themselves. The frontiersmen were not particularly at odds with Campbell over his views on instrumental music in worship because they did not possess too many pianos or organs on the frontier. I am not saying that these issues did not enter in to his decision to leave the Baptist fellowship, but the heat of the arguments Campbell made against the Baptists about the time of his departure was centered in the "anti-mission" debate between himself and those who sponsored national organization for Baptist churches.

Church Government

Campbell's primary objection to extra-congregational organizations was that they are all "unauthorized in the New Testament."' The organization (or type of government1 which God had ordained, Campbell wrote, was the congregational form. Each local church was to be autonomous in all its activity, and this precluded any combination of churches into organizations larger than the local congregation, or separate from it. He said, "In their church capacity alone they moved. They neither transformed themselves into any other kind of association,. nor did they fracture and sever themselves into divers societies."2 Campbell described a "church of Christ" as simply a "society of believers who have accepted the New Testament, expressed their faith in baptism, and met together in one place." This group, organized under its bishops (elders), "is perfectly independent of any tribunal on earth called ecclesiastical," he wrote.3

Campbell believed that the church exists as an absolute monarchy under Christ. The congregations are distinct communities composed of individual members but under the same rule of Christ as stated in His word. In every congregation there are appointed certain men who meet the Bible qualifications of bishops to function in the capacity if our civil magistrates. These men are to oversee the congregation making such judgments in the realm of expediency as are necessary. They are to assume no authority in the realm of legislation themselves but are to exemplify objection to Christ. If this be true, he argued, it must certainly be true that no tribunal higher than the officers of the local congregation have any legislative authority over the congregation.4 Campbell was right!

Illustrative of Campbell's intense efforts to defend these views on local autonomy was his answer to comments made by Robert B. Semple, a Baptist preacher and elder in eastern Virginia. Semple's views were expressed in a letter published in The Christian Baptist, in which he contended that the Bible left church organization to the exercise of man's discretion. He compared it to a scaffold which must be adapted to the house. Accordingly, it will necessarily be modified to fit the particular church or group of churches it is intended to serve.5 Campbell answered that church organization was not a matter of discretion. If it were discretionary, no form of church government, including Papistical and Episcopalian, would be condemned. He said that if Bishop Semple included synods, councils, and associations under the term "church government," he readily agreed that the Bible said nothing about them. The conclusion of Bishop temple's argument, wrote Campbell, was nothing less than the progression of church government from congregations to associations to state conventions to an approximate of tome or Canterbury.6

Campbell affirmed that the Bible is not a general charter for congregations but a prescription for every requisite rule of congregational behavior and organization. If the Bible were a general charter, it would authorize sanctions and penalties and the enforcement of them by whatever organization those involved might choose. According to Campbell, this would place the discretionary government authorized by man's judgment on a par with the authority of Christ in that it could punish those who did not abide by its enactments.7 In the course of the seven years in which The Christian Baptist was published, several other objections to Campbell's position relating to the autonomy of congregations were advanced, all of which Campbell answered with feeling. When some suggested that the Bible did authorize synods, associations and societies in the book of Acts, chapter fifteen, Campbell said that only Presbyterian prejudices would allow anyone to adopt such a view.8 The Holy Spirit, he said, not the men involved, decided the issue which had caused the confusion which resulted in the meeting described in that chapter.9 Campbell argued that those who did not obey the decisions announced by the apostles on that occasion were condemned. He asked how the advocates of cooperative organization could hold guiltless those who did not join into and obey their decrees.10 He further contended that the men involved in the "august assembly in Jerusalem" were of a different order and perfectly qualified by inspiration to state the decision which had the full force of law and forever settled the question. He asked if any present day association could make such claims.11

Another correspondent raised the question, "If one is disciplined in his home congregation, does this put him out of the church altogether?" The writer was suggesting that if one could appeal to no higher tribunal than the local congregation, its judgment, whether just or unjust, had the effect of either condoning him or condemning him. Campbell answered saying: "I cannot give my voice in favor of appeals to any tribunal, but to the congregation of which the offender is a member; neither to a council of churches specially called, nor to an association. The old book, written by the Apostles, has compelled me to hold this dogma fast. 12 One can easily see that the question of whether or not congregations of the Lord's church may build and maintain separate organizations (societies) through which to do their work is in reality, a question concerning the nature of the organization of the church itself. Campbell and all the faithful have argued that the Lord authorized only one organization through which to do the church's work. It is the congregation. If the church may build and maintain a benevolent or evangelistic society, then it may build a separate synod, convention, or council to oversee all the work of all the congregations. Campbell found that those who defended societies eventually had to support broader organization in order to maintain consistency.

Objection On The Basis Economic Involvement

In the first volume of The Christian Baptist, Campbell had much to say concerning the economic aspects of the "missionary plan" of his day. He was amazed at the huge sums sent to societies for evangelistic and ministerial work. How very different was this plan for enlightening the world, from that recommended by the Savior and his apostles, he exclaimed! 13 In subsequent articles he ridiculed many specific "schemes" conceived to raise money to promote the societies. He specifically mentioned as unscriptural the "Missionary Wheel" and the "Missionary Stall," in which ladies worked to make money for the churches to send to the support of missionary organizations. The "Missionary Wheel" was the spinning wheel. Those wishing to donate would send their flax to the women who spun it into cloth, sold it, and donated all receipts to the organizations for which they were working. The "Missionary Stall" was a booth in which the ladies of the church sold donated garden items, flowers, etc., to raise money for the societies.14

The church has one means of financing its activities and that is through the return by each Christian of a liberal portion of that with which he has been prospered. This is to be given into a collection on the Lord's Day (1 Cor. 16:1-2). Nowhere does the Bible authorize any other means of raising money by the church. Campbell knew that and objected to the means of raising money for the societies. He also objected to the spending of thousands of dollars in needless organizational expense incurred by the societies.

Effects Of His Teaching

The Christian Baptist had a wide circulation and Campbell's views on societies were accepted in many Baptist congregations. One reader from Kentucky believed that Campbell had "well night stopped mission operations" throughout Kentucky. 15 Other correspondents from Louisiana, Virginia, and other parts of the South also wrote of Alexander Campbell's increasing influence as an anti-missionary society leader.

The very great appeal of Campbell's position was that the people could find the congregational form of organization recurring again and again in the Scriptures, and they could find no Biblical authority for other organizations. Campbell continually came back to the proposition, "Where is the society in the Bible." If the people were going to claim to do all things by the Bible, they had to find it. They could not and they rejected it. The early position of Campbell was built upon that very simple proposition. It could not be undermined. It was true.


1 The Christian Baptist, I (March 1, 1824), p. 157.

2 CB, I (July 4, 1823), p. 14.

3 CB, I (June 7, 1824), p. 216.

4 CB, V (March 3, 1828), p. 199.

5 CB, V (April 7, 1828), P. 207.

6 CB. V (May 5, 1828), p. 239.

7 CB. V (June 2, 1828), p. 250-53.

8 CB, III (June 5, 1826), p. 230.

9 CB, V (June 2, 1828), p.253.

10 CB, IV (August 7, 1826), p. 14.

11 CB, VI (December 1, 1828), p. 123.

12 CB, VI (March 2, 1829). p. 200.

13 CB, I (September 1, 1823), p. 47.

14 CB, I (October 6, 1823), pp. 63-54.

15 CB, II (April 4, 1825), p. 182.