This is a guest blog by David Rawls
In 1988 I was baptized in a little pond in Central Ohio. Shortly after this event, I decided to go to a Bible College to be trained in the Bible so I could help young people who were struggling with life. When I entered Bible College, I was introduced to a Christian movement that I had never heard of before. It was called the “Restoration Movement.” This Movement was a result of 19th century reformers who saw how denominational churches in America had drifted away from God’s word and teaching. The focus of the Movement was a return to the primitive New Testament church. The Restoration Church had two major themes: biblical authority and the unity of all believers. Men like Thomas and Alexander Campbell, Barton W. Stone, David Lipscomb, Racoon John Smith and others led this Movement. By 1860 Restoration Churches had nearly 200,000 members. These reformers emphasized such things as believer’s baptism by immersion, regular communion, and local church autonomy. It was the teachings of these reformers which began to shape my life.
Meanwhile, over the last 10 years or so, I have come to the realization that Jesus taught a gospel that was focused on nonviolence or peace. When we look to the gospels we see, especially in the Sermon on the Mount, that Jesus taught his disciples to love their enemies and not to do harm to them. For Jesus, this was not simply words but this is how he lived his life, even to the point of death. Nonviolence was how the church, in its first 300 years, interpreted Jesus’ teaching. It was only after the church was influenced by Constantine that there was a shift in thought concerning peace and violence. In the last 10 years, in my pursuit to understand the peaceful gospel, I have been digging into the early church fathers and the works of Anabaptists. Yet, it is only recently that I was shocked to find out that the early Restoration Movement leaders also taught nonviolence. They believed that nonviolence was part of the primitive gospel of the New Testament. I was shocked, because I had taken classes both in undergrad and graduate school on the history and thought of the Restoration Movement. I don’t remember any discussion of Restoration leaders focus on nonviolence as part of the gospel. Yet, leaders like Alexander Campbell, Barton W. Stone and David Lipscomb had a rich theology of nonviolence. In this blog I want to look at some of Alexander Campbells arguments for a peaceful gospel. I will be using Campbells “Address on War” as well as the work from historian Craig M. Watts, which will show that Campbell had a well-developed theology of nonviolence.
When it came to war, Campbell believed that Christians could not participate in war, as to do so would mean killing other Christians in other nations. He believed that no nation was Christian except the church. The church was the “one nation composed of all the Christian communities and individuals in the whole earth.” For Campbell, this meant that Christians could not take up arms because they would be killing other Christians. Campbell asked the question, “Can Christ’s Kingdom in one nation wage war against his kingdom or church in another nation?” His answer was an emphatic, “No.” War for the Christian was not an option. His problem was not so much nation against nation as it was a theological problem of church against church. Campbell had a high view of unity and the church could not have unity if Christians were killing other Christians.
To understand Campbells gospel of peace, one must first understand his postmillennialism. He believed that the best way to usher in God’s reign on Earth was for the church to recover the original gospel, which included the gospel of peace. Craig Watts claims Campbell “had no intention of passively waiting for the millennium.” He believed that one had to enact, in the present, his understanding of the future millennium. Campbell maintains that for man, “the principles of his government” are “to give them a taste of, and a taste for, heavenly things.” This meant that the Christian could not participate in war and violence because the millennium would be a time when the earthly powers would, according to Isaiah, “beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks, and learn war no more.” This view had an evangelistic appeal to it as well, because people could get a picture of what the future would look like as they observed the church in the present. This probably explains why Campbell thought unity was so essential. If the church could not be united, why would anyone want to be a part of it in some future state. If the church killed people now, why would people desire to be a part of a future death and dying.
Much of evangelical Christianity is a hodge-podge of thought which tries to tie together a belief in God which separates itself from the ethics of Jesus. Campbell, however, believed that faith and works go together. He believed that the ethics of Jesus are not simply to be admired but are to be practiced. Jesus pacifist ways were to be lived out by the church. Campbell believed that Jesus was at war but his war was not waged like the wars of the World. The World uses swords to subdue its enemy. The World uses violence to beat people into submission. Campbell, though, rejected this coercive method. He said, “To conqueror an enemy is to convert him into a friend.” As he explained, “All arms and modes of warfare are impotent, save the arms and munitions of everlasting love.” This is a courageous contrast to the view of Luther and Calvin, who believed violence was a tool of God. Campbell would have none of this, believing that if one cannot support war by appeal to the life of Jesus, then the Christian has no business in being a part of or supporting any type of violence or warfare. Christian ethics mattered to Alexander Campbell.
Campbell was a deep and systematic thinker. If Christians could not go to war with Christians of other countries, if Christians were to live in such a way as to promote a heavenly new millennium which was free of violence, and if the ethics of Jesus did not promote violence, then the conclusion for Campbell was that Christians had no business in fighting at all. Campbell sums this up in the idea that, “A Christian man can never of right be compelled to do that for the state, in defense of state rights, that which he cannot of right do for himself in defense of his personal rights.” He goes on to say, “No Christian man is commanded to love or serve his neighbor, his king, or sovereign more than he loves or serves himself.” In other words, if a Christian cannot go to war for himself, he also is forbidden to go to war for his country. Many Christians have conceded that we are not commanded to go to war as individuals but have made the argument that we could go to war for our country for a good cause. Campbell rejects this dualistic approach. If one cannot kill for a personal cause, then one cannot kill for the state, no matter how noble the cause. For Campbell, this is a matter of witness for the Kingdom of Heaven. The church must refrain from any violence.
When Jesus was being arrested in the garden, and Peter used his sword to cut off the ear of one of those seeking to arrest Jesus, he told Peter to put away his sword. Jesus famous line, “He who lives by the sword will die by the sword,” was the very line upon which the early church based its commitment to nonviolence. Campbell also saw this as an important ground for his non-violence. He would ask, “Have not all nations created by the sword finally fallen by it?” Although Campbell would not necessarily appeal to the inherent pragmatism of nonviolence, it is a practical witness to the Kingdom of Heaven. Campbell’s observation was that in the moment nonviolence will not necessarily work but over the long haul of history violence has arrived at the same point: failure. Violence has never proven effective. It certainly has momentary victories but all nations have failed or will fail at some point. Jesus teaches us, according to Campbell, that ultimately victory will come by laying down the sword. It will be the slain lamb that will win the day. This is critical to understanding Campbell.
This is a brief overview of some of Campbell’s views on nonviolence and the way of peace. Hopefully, the reader recognizes that within the 19th century Restoration Movement, the belief that restoring the ancient church of the New Testament required commitment to nonviolence. For those, like myself, who presumed examples of peace must be sought outside of the Restoration Movement, the good news is that we no longer need look beyond our Movement. Certainly, we can learn a lot from other tribes of Christians but we can also know that these reformers took the gospel of peace seriously. It is now up to the spiritual descendants of Campbell to once again raise the banner of peace. Nonviolence is not simply a secondary issue for the church but is at the heart of the gospel of Jesus. It is time to make the Restoration Movement great again by lifting high the name of Jesus. We do this by living out the peaceful ways of Jesus.