Captives of the Word is the compelling title of one of the most interesting books about the Restoration Movement. Written by Louis and Beth Cochran, this readable volume underscores the commitment of our forefathers in Christian Churches and Churches of Christ to follow the Word of God as their only rule of faith and practice.
The book’s flyleaf reads, “The boldest Protestant Reformation since the time of Martin Luther was born in a place called Brush Run, Virginia, in 1811. It spread across the frontier like wildfire, destined to be the most fascinating chapter in America’s religious history. Captives of the Word is the story of the Restoration Movement. Its dramatic evolution took it from a congregation of 30 to 6 1/2 million communicants, leading to such divergent groups as the Christian Church, the Churches of Christ and the Disciples of Christ.”
“The Movement which began with Thomas Campbell and his son Alexander was fully and unmistakably American. It could only have been nurtured in the soil of a free country, among liberty-loving pioneers. The heroes of the story, contemporaries and successors of the Campbells, include strong, crusty frontier characters.”
The book’s title, Captives of the Word, brings to mind Ephesians 3:1 where the Apostle Paul called himself a “prisoner of Christ Jesus.” Founders of the Restoration Movement were in a positive sense chained to the Bible. They were determined to “speak where the Bible speaks and to be silent where the Bible is silent.” They had “no book but the Bible, no creed but Christ, no name but the Divine name.”
The Restoration fathers were determined to do “Bible things in Bible ways and call Bible things by Bible names.” It was their intent that by studying and obeying Scripture they would not only come to a fuller knowledge of the truth but others would join them in the same worthy pursuit.
The initiators of the Restoration Movement encouraged all followers of Jesus Christ to abandon the man-made denominations that separated them from other believers and become unified by a common loyalty to the Christ of the Bible. Thomas Campbell stated in his Declaration and Address, “That the church of Christ upon earth is essentially, intentionally, and constitutionally one; consisting of all those in every place that profess their faith in Christ and obedience to him in all things according to the Scriptures.”
A generation later, David Lipscomb became concerned that unity not be pursued at the expense of Scripture. He wrote, “Truth first, union afterward; and union only in truth.” No wonder members of Christian Churches and Churches of Christ were sometimes referred to as “a people of the book.”
Sadly, that early commitment to Scripture seems to have gradually waned over the years. Sound biblical doctrine is now often regarded as divisive and extraneous. The latest church growth trend or outreach strategy seems more relevant and exciting. Like the Athenians in Acts 17, we spend our time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.
We would do well to return to our roots and become known again as “a people of the book.” The Apostle John wrote, “See that what you have heard from the beginning remains in you. If it does, you will also remain in the Son and in the Father. And this is what he promised us—even eternal life” (1 John 2:24, 25). Good traditions give us roots and need to be retained if they were founded on truth and provide a solid foundation for healthy progress.
The custom of using only the Bible as the basis of truth is a practice that we need to again embrace with a passion. There is a spiritual famine in the land and people are starving for the Bible. They may not identify it as exactly that, but Jesus taught, “Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4).
A return to an emphasis on Scripture must begin with local preachers. There is something spiritually strengthening that happens when the Word of God is revered, taught, and applied. That’s why I encourage younger preachers to make 90 percent of their preaching expository—just going through a book of the Bible verse by verse. That gives preaching a biblical balance, feeds the believer, and actually edifies the preacher because he preaches from the overflow, instead of just bringing up memory verses that reinforce what he wants to say.
Surprisingly, expository preaching convicts the seeker as well. In his book, Overhearing the Gospel, Fred Craddock points out that non-Christians actually hear the gospel better if they think it’s not directed at them. They’re not on the defensive and the Holy Spirit works in an unexpected way to convict and to save. “For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12).
I am convinced the brief, four-week sermon series that is popular with many preachers today would be much more effective if they came on the heels of a 12-week series through the book of Ephesians or the life of Moses instead of just following a similar topical series from the previous month. Then the topical series would be like a tasty dessert after a substantial meal. A consistent diet of preaching the Bible verse-by-verse would nurture the souls of our people and deepen our understanding of God’s Word. And, we might again be known as “a people of the book.”
I like the way The Message paraphrases 2 Timothy 4:3-5: “You’re going to find that there will be times when people will have no stomach for solid teaching, but will fill up on spiritual junk food—catchy opinions that tickle their fancy. They’ll turn their backs on truth and chase mirages. But you—keep your eye on what you’re doing; accept the hard times along with the good; keep the Message alive; do a thorough job as God’s servant.”
Bob Russell is the retired senior minister of Southeast Christian Church, Louisville, Kentucky. Copyright 2015 by Bob Russell. Permission to copy this column may be obtained by writing Debbie Carper, Southeast Christian Church, 920 Blankenbaker Pkwy, Louisville, KY 40243. Find Bob’s books and sermons online (www.livingword.org).