The Legacy of Campbell’s Error

by Steve Dewhirst
Sentry Magazine, December 2000

Alexander Campbell

Alexander Campbell (1788-1866) was a remarkable man, but he was just a man, subject to error even as the rest. for all of his great learning, teaching, and writing over many years, he was profoundly wrong in his understanding of one vital aspect of the New Testament church and his error has caused trouble for brethren ever since.

As early as 1831, Campbell encouraged local churches to band together in cooperative efforts, based on the assumption that evangelism is a work of the church universal, rather than the duty of individual saints and congregations. He offered no scriptural proof that the church universal has any collective work at all, and acknowledged the lack of a Bible pattern. But nonetheless, he persisted in his view which was widely accepted by his contemporaries.

In answering an inquiry of a reader in 1834, Campbell used this rationale to press his point:

"The church, viewed in this light, is not one congregation or assembly, but the congregation of Christ, composed of all the individual congregations on earth. In this work of conversion the whole church, by natural necessity, as well as by the authority of the great King, must cooperate." (Millennial Harbinger, Vol. 7, No. 5)

At least three misconceptions leap off the page.

First, the church universal is not comprised of all local churches everywhere. Not even in today's world where most groups use a common name. The body of Christ is comprised of saved individuals. To argue that local churches make up the universal, one must be able to produce scripture that demonstrates the point. Or in lieu of scripture, one must be willing to argue that every single member of every single local church is in a right relationship with the Lord. Jesus' own letters to the seven churches of Asia should be sufficient to dispel any such notion. True membership in the universal body of Christ is determined by Christ, alone; but membership in local churches is determined by fallible men who may frequently err. Yet men enjoy thinking themselves part of something "bigger" than just a local group because it appeals to our vanity. Human pride lies at the root of all digression.

Campbell's second error is the assumption that the work of converting the lost is a function of the whole (universal) church "by natural necessity." The question is, what natural necessity? He answers in his next paragraph:

"The primitive congregations communicated jointly and cooperated in everything that was beyond the power of a single congregation -- in prayers, in counsel, in labor, in giving and receiving."

But where is the scripture to prove this point? Campbell offered none. If one cites the collection for needy saints in Judea, he should recall that the project was initiated by the apostle Paul, not as a work of any local church. And beyond the urgent need of destitute saints, where does scripture ever describe one local church transferring funds to another, for any purpose? Furthermore, where is a scriptural example of a local church ever taking on a work beyond its own ability to fulfill?

Such "natural necessity" exists only in the minds of men with big dreams and schemes; those who want to organize "the brotherhood" when, by its very nature, it has no organic organization or human leadership. Local churches and individual disciples in Bible times were content to do their own work in their own communities. It's still the most effective way to save souls.

Campbell's third mistake is found in his bold statement that local churches must work jointly in the task of evangelism, "by the authority of the great King." Exactly where is that authority to be found? Where is the authoritative principle in scripture that will allow the type of "cooperation" Campbell had in mind? He advocated that local churches in various districts meet periodically to discuss "ways and means" of supporting a traveling evangelist to preach on their behalf (see MH, Vol. 2, No. 10). In his view, this was an effort to activate the church universal in the work of evangelism. This foundational concept of local churches aligned together and thus comprising the saved of the earth is sectarianism, pure and simple.

The fruit of Campbell's sectarian perspective was the American Christian Missionary Society, established in 1849. On a national scale, the society sought to "organize the brotherhood" and have autonomous churches relegate their lawful work to a human institution. It raised quite a stir and divided many brethren. But the scheme was justified in the mind of Campbell because he viewed evangelism as a lawful work of the church universal, which could only be accomplished if the church were organized in some way. In reality, the church universal has no collective work, nor any human organization for discharging it. All individuals who belong to Christ are to be workers in His kingdom, but Christ has established no human head to orchestrate any collective-church projects on a national or international scale.

Problems in Our Day

The issue of institutionalism, which has divided countless brethren in this century, is directly attributable to the misconceptions aught by Campbell and others.

  1. That the universal church is made up of all congregations wearing the common name Church of Christ; and
  2. That the universal church has been assigned some collective work that requires "brotherhood organization" to carry out.

These principles are so thoroughly ingrained in the thinking of many, that most brethren who advocate such arrangements as the "sponsoring church" don't even try to defend it from scripture anymore; it's become a given. And as with Campbell, a sort of pragmatism has settled in which uses its efficacy as "proof" of its legitimacy.

The result of failing to differentiate the nature of local churches from the universal, mixing them all into one big pct, has resulted in a palpable sectarian spirit among many brethren, especially those in institutional churches. And it's perfectly understandable (not right, but understandable). In order to create the illusion of Bible authority for collective schemes, brethren have had to argue that all local congregations make up the church universal and that the church universal has a collective work to do. These two foundational points have never been proven from scripture! But to many brethren, the assertion of a concept is synonymous with proof And since these errant principles have guided brethren for many years, they are generally accepted without any real examination. Consequently, some brethren talk about The Church of Christ or the churches of Christ as a great monolithic body of churches -- which is precisely what they have become. In intertwining themselves together in endless cooperation projects, they have erected the superstructure of a human denomination, in spite of their hollow claims to the contrary.

But those of us in non-institutional churches struggle with this concept, too, and we ought to be honest about it. We may not have a problem with "cooperative projects" and the like, but many of us seem to have the notion of "cooperative doctrine" and sometimes even "cooperative expedients" to be imposed on all churches everywhere. When we hear of local churches "withdrawing fellowship" from other local churches, it ought to alert us to the fact that brethren arc under bondage to some serious misconceptions. Either they believe, with Campbell, that the church universal is comprised of all local churches and that discipline is necessary to "keep the church pure," or else they don't understand much about fellowship, or both.

Likewise, when we cling tenaciously to the non-official-but-apparently-non-negotiable-name "church of Christ" based on the rationale that it identifies us as belonging to a brotherhood of "sound churches," we have revealed our own inclination toward Campbell's error. We picture ourselves as part of a network of churches that should all use a common name for the purpose of defining ourselves - not as belonging to Christ, but to a group of churches. Surely nothing is more repugnant to the mind of Christ than the creation of a sect from simple, New Testament Christianity. And anyone who views himself justified before God because he belongs to the right clump of churches all wearing the right name is sectarian, whether he can see it or not.


Alexander Campbell didn't originate this error blurring the distinction of the universal and local church, but he perpetuated it by virtue of his considerable influence. Disciples of Jesus Christ do not belong to any body of churches. We belong to Christ as saved men, and we belong to a local church. Besides that, we belong to nothing! We should never feel pressured to support "Church of Christ" projects that seek to organize the universal body of Christ, contrary to scripture. Nor should we feel obligated to wear any "proper name," so designated by mere men, to identify a sect of "faithful" churches.


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