by Tom McLemore
At the beginning of the nineteenth century, there were some men in this country who sought to bring order out of the religious chaos. They were disgusted with denominationalism because they believed confidently that Christians ought to bring about the answer the prayer of the Lord Jesus (John 17:20, 21) by being unified. But upon what basis could unity and oneness among God’s people be had? What is the ground that is common? What principle is universal in nature and one that all can accept?
With the Bible, and the Bible alone, as their guide, they committed themselves to the declaration, “We speak where the Bible speaks, and we are silent where the Bible is silent.” With this as their principle, they set out to find common ground on which all professed followers of the Lord could unite and at the same time not have to sacrifice any matter of faith.
With regard to particulars, how would such a principle work? These men who sought to promote unity said that the Greek word translated “to baptize” means to immerse. They knew that no one will say that immersion is not baptism. Immersion was not in dispute, but the question of whether or not sprinkling or pouring can be accepted as a scriptural substitute was in dispute. That baptism is immersion was common ground. There was the ground for union.
They also considered the matter of who ought to be baptized. From what Bible had to say, they laid down the principle that penitent believers should be baptized. The entire world accepts that. No would say that penitent believers were not such as ought to be baptized. The question that was in doubt and dispute was whether others who were not penitent believers (such as infants) should be baptized. That penitent believers should be baptized was common ground. There, also, was the ground for unity.
These men who sought to be the answer to the Lord’s prayer for unity among his followers investigated the issue of human names and human creeds. They were convinced by what the Bible taught that the name “Christian” was one that every follower of Christ on earth could adopt and not sacrifice a single matter of faith. Where is the person who would deny on the basis of the Bible that Jesus’ disciples should be called “Christians?” That those who belonged to Christ should be called “Christians” was common ground, and ground for being one.
When it came to worship, being determined to be governed and guided purely by that which is taught in the New Testament, these men committed themselves to practice nothing for which they did not have plain, expressed declaration in a form unquestioned. Therefore, they were confident that they were obeying God when they decided to sing in worship to him. There is not one person who will deny that the New Testament teaches Christians to sing in worship. What is in dispute is whether music of a kind distinct from singing (that is, music made on musical instruments) may be added and the singing still be pleasing to God. All will admit that Christians may worship God acceptably by singing praise to him. That was common ground. That was ground for unity.
For half a century, those who had adopted such an approach worshiped without the use of instruments. They were governed by the universal principle, by common ground. They all said they could worship God without the instrument, and they did. But some left the universal principle, the common ground, and introduced instruments into the worship of God. Strife, division, and bitterness tore apart a once happy, whole-hearted, and united brotherhood.
You will admit, will you not, that the scriptural, safe, and sound position on what baptism is, who should be baptized, what followers of Christ should be called, and that singing praise to God is acceptable worship is on common ground. The same is true regarding all other scriptural matters of faith and practice.
Our plea if for all to unite, discarding all that does not stand on this common ground...all that is admitted to be nonessential. Then union, peace, and harmony among all who seek to follow Christ. Then the prayer of the Lord will be answered. Then Paul’s directive to agree and to be united in the same mind and the same judgment (1 Corinthians 1:10) will be fulfilled. Let us all take our stand on common ground!
(The preceding was inspired and shaped significantly by words N. B. Hardeman spoke in his opening speech in The Boswell-Hardeman Discussion on Instrumental Music in the Worship conducted in the Ryman Auditorium, Nashville, Tennessee, May 31 to June 5, 1923).
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