Sometimes we meet relatives we have heard about but have never actually met. It may be the crazy uncle of family legend. It may be the second cousin once removed who lives on another continent. It may be a close relative lost over time through the quirks of history and personal travail. But when we finally do cross paths with one of them, it is always a time of curiosity and wonderment. We see faint signs of similarity, but notice more immediately how different they seem. In every case, though, the lost relative provides a sort of mirror on our own lives, a chance to reflect with someone who shares so much yet who has traveled a very different path.
This is an account of just such a meeting. In this case, though, the familial ties are not in our DNA but rather in our spiritual parentage. I write as part of the family that has lived beyond your walls — the long-lost relative. I write as one who has taken the road less traveled. I write in the hope that there may be some lessons from which all members of the family can benefit.
A Life in the CGAF
I was born into a family with long ties to the Church of God of the Abrahamic Faith (CGAF). Even more remarkable, I was born into a family that represented a very thin slice of the larger CGAF — no more than 5 per cent. As a boy, of course, none of this was obvious to me. What was plain was that my parents and grandparents loved the Bible. I also knew they defended their faith with unswerving dedication and vigilance. For me, that was underlined by driving 30 miles to church every Sunday, even when it meant going to a very small Sunday school class. What was also evident was that no one ever went hungry after meeting, since food was a frequent and common bond on Sundays — especially the pie and cake at the end. (One of the loving sisters in my home church believed to the day she died that no Sunday dinner was complete without both cake and pie!)
As I grew older, I would hear the tales of the dear brothers and sisters who shared our common faith. Names like Huggins, Long, Tabor, Titman and Ross were uttered with loving care and deep respect. In every case, they lived at least one state away, or even more. Yet they seemed much closer. My Grandpa Ernest and Grandma Laura would often regale me with tales of going to Bro. and Sis. Long’s farm in Kentucky. Occasionally, there were stories of longer trips to the Carolinas with Bro. and Sis. Huggins. I knew these brothers and sisters lived far away. Yet the longer I listened to the tales, I came to realize they were also the pillars and beams of the CGAF.
When I was old enough to actually travel with my parents, I met some of these people of spiritual-family legend. They took on faces and smiles and voices. I learned firsthand why my grandparents loved them so. They loved the Bible. They loved the Lord. And they held to the very first principles I was learning.
My world changed when I was 14, after my grandmother received a letter from a Christadelphian sister in Illinois. She had known Sis. Jenny Keller since the 1930s. Hers was another name that would occasionally arise in family conversation. They had met many years before when Bro. Robert Huggins went to Marion, Illinois, for a weekend fraternal gathering and invited along my grandparents and father. Sis. Keller’s letter informed my grandparents of a new Christadelphian Bible School in West Baden, Indiana. She urged them to go.
“Christadelphian” was not a strange name to me, but it had no face. My grandfather kept a tall stack of sundry Christadelphian magazines in his garage, right next to his rocking chair. Whenever my grandmother’s “to-do” list grew too long, he would slip out to the garage and start reading through the stack.
My grandparents decided to go to West Baden, and invited me along. When we arrived I was simply amazed. I was used to a Sunday school class with two others. Now I was surrounded by what seemed like a sea of teenagers. Thus began for me what has now been 40 years of contact with Christadelphians on four different continents.
Left to right: Sis. Laura & Bro. Ernest Drabenstott, Sis. Edna & Bro. Robert Huggins on one of their
frequent trips together
Over that time, I have deepened my appreciation for the CGAF, but I have also benefited much from loving ties with many Christadelphian brethren. I have seen the very best of both worlds. That said, I must also confess that, like all families, there are moments I would just as easily forget. I firmly believe more brethren — from all sides — would benefit from the blessings that sometimes only happen when you meet a long-lost relative.
What are we to make of these two groups? I leave it to each reader to draw his or her own conclusion. But based on 40 years of observation, I conclude these two communities of believers are members of the same spiritual family that has been separated for a very long time. As with any long-lost relatives, it is not surprising that initial meetings produce a natural wariness and suspicion. If we yield only to such human reactions, however, we will miss the real value of relatives — especially spiritual ones. We can be stronger together than apart. It is the divine law of all families. And it is certainly true with the body of Christ. By the grace of God, we are entering a critical time period when, with His help, we can draw together with spirit and conviction.
A brief CGAF history
Whenever long-lost relatives meet, the starting point is always history. Each side wants to know where the other has been. It is part of piecing together common DNA and common ground. Because the CGAF is such a small spiritual community, we have actually known about and relied on our bigger “relative” for several decades. We make common use of Christadelphian books, magazines, preaching materials, hymnals, and events such as fraternal gatherings and Bible schools.
Yet the reverse is much less true. Because you are the big brother, you have ready access to nearly everything you need. Thus, I frequently encounter Christadelphians who know little if anything about the CGAF. Sadly, what they do know is often based on hearsay. And because there are actually two CGAFs, chances are they may only know the other one.
So, a bit of historical review is in order. The recent article by Bro. Peter Hemingray provides a helpful review of some common history [Tidings, 11/2008]. So rather than repeat his comments, I would like to focus on a few key points in CGAF history that are especially relevant to the current period of discussions on our common future. The first is the beginning of the CGAF and Bro. Benjamin Wilson. He is, in many respects, our Bro. Thomas. The second is the modern CGAF era defined by Bro. Robert Huggins. He is, in like fashion, very much like your Bro. Roberts. Both were towering Bible scholars, but they manifested fruits of the spirit that far transcended their knowledge.
Benjamin Wilson and CGAF beginnings
As noted elsewhere, there were several spiritual forerunners to the Christadelphians and the CGAF. As readers here know far better than I, Bros. John Thomas and Robert Roberts played a crucial role in forging the Christadelphian community that we all know today. In the same way, Bro. Benjamin Wilson was the pioneer who framed the CGAF community as we know it.
Christadelphians will know him best as the author of The Emphatic Diaglott. In my experience, however, the knowledge of his work often exceeds that of the author himself. For instance, I have often noted CGAF connections with Wilson only to hear the reply: “Oh yes, he was a Russellite!” I can assure you he was never such. The confusion probably arises because the copyright for The Diaglott was purchased in the early 20th century by an anonymous buyer who then donated it to the Watchtower Society. The fact that they published his work is a sad, ironic twist of history — nothing more. It must be emphasized that there was never any connection between Benjamin Wilson and the group now known as the “Jehovah’s Witnesses“. By the time they had acquired the copyright, Wilson had died, and there is no evidence at all that Benjamin Wilson ever came in contact with anyone from the “Millennial Dawn Bible Students“, as the denomination was popularly referred to before 1931. (There is a much happier ending to this story, as many may know. In 2004, the Abrahamic Faith Beacon Publishing Society brought home The Emphatic Diaglott and re-published a new version of it, working in partnership with The Christadelphian Advancement Trust.)
Benjamin Wilson was a towering man of faith. He was a printer by trade and printed a newspaper, The Western Mercury, after he settled in Geneva — a small town west of Chicago — in 1844. But he was far more than just a printer. He was also a diligent Bible scholar, to which The Diaglott attests. This translation was truly a labor of love for him. Not only did he spend hours, days, and months poring over the Greek — he probably spent just as much time setting the type for its publication:
“I can now in my mind’s eye see my Uncle Benjamin, sitting at his desk, making a literal word for word translation of the New Testament. I remember seeing the Greek type arrive from England. Many readers of the Diaglott may not be aware that my Uncle not only translated the Diaglott, but took charge of the mechanical work as well. He electro-typed the entire book himself” (Thomas Wilson, “How, When, Where, and By Whom was the Gospel of the Kingdom First Introduced into the Western States?”, The Restitution, Nov. 28, 1906).
Benjamin Wilson believed in the virtue of independent Bible study. He fully understood that it falls to each of us to “prove what is true” and “hold fast that which is good.” It was evident in the many columns he wrote as editor of The Gospel Banner for some 15 years.
This leaning on the Word is nowhere more evident than the Confession of Faith that he, along with fellow brethren, crafted in 1868 when they formed their first congregation of believers in Geneva. It is both elegant in simplicity and gracious in expression. The main points are listed here:
CONFESSION OF FAITH To the Congregation of Disciples of Jesus Christ assembling at Geneva, Illinois;
DEAR FRIENDS: Having for some time been engaged in examining the teachings of God’s Word, we now respectfully present the following as a synopsis of our Faith:
- We believe that there is but “one God, even the Father, who is above all, and through all, and in all them that believe; and one Lord Jesus Christ by whom are all things.” (Eph. 4:6; 1 Cor. 8:6.)
- We believe that the Scriptures are of Divine origin, and that the prophets, Jesus, and the apostles spoke by the inspiration of the Spirit of God. (2 Tim. 3:16.)
- We believe that on account of the disobedience of Adam, all mankind are rendered mortal, and placed under the law of sin and death. (Gen. 3:19; Rom. 5:12; 1 Cor. 15:21.)
- We believe that God in His mercy has provided a way by which man may be delivered from the law of sin and death, and attain to life and incorruptibility through Jesus Christ.
- We believe that a partial unfolding of this way of life is found in the promises which God made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to whom He gave by promise, and to their seed, the whole land of Canaan, for an everlasting inheritance; and that in them and in their seed should all the families of the earth be blessed, and that this promised seed is Christ. (Gen. 12:2,3,7; 13:15-17; 15:18-21; 17:7-8; 26:2,4; 28:12,14; Gal. 3:16.)
- We believe that a further development of the plan of redemption is contained in the promises which God made to David, concerning his seed, “which should be of his sons“, who should sit upon his throne forever. (2 Sam. 7:12-14; 1 Chron. 17:11-15.)
- We believe that this promised seed is Jesus the Anointed; who, being begotten by the Holy Spirit, was born of Mary, who was of the Royal line of David; and hence Jesus is the Son of David and of God. (Matt. 1:8-20; Luke 1:26-76; Matt. 3:17.)
- We believe that this Jesus, when He had finished the work which the Father gave Him to do, “was taken and by wicked hands was crucified and slain“; that His death was accepted by God as a sacrifice for the sins of the world; that He was buried, and rose again from the dead, for the justification and pardon of all who believe the things concerning Him. And that, having been with His disciples for the space of forty days “speaking of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God,” He was parted from them and carried up into heaven, where God hath highly exalted Him, and given Him a name “which is above every name,” and has given to Him “all power both in heaven and on earth.” (John 17:4; Isa. 53:5-7; Gal. 1:4; 1 Cor. 15:3; Heb. 2:9; 9:9-26; Matt. 27:59-66; 28:5,6; Luke 24:50; Acts 2:33; Matt. 28:19; Phil 2:9.)
- We believe that, while Jesus is in the heavens, He is acting as High Priest and Mediator between God and His people. (Heb. 8:1; 1 Tim. 2:5.)
- We believe that this same Jesus who is gone into heaven will return when “the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled“; and that His return will be signalized by the resurrection to life of the sleeping saints, who will be changed from a corruptible to an incorruptible state; and the living ones from a mortal to an immortal state. (Acts 1:11; 3:20,21; 1 Thess. 4:13-17; 1 Cor. 15:51-56.)
- We believe that Jesus is appointed the Judge of the living and the dead, and will “give reward to his servants the prophets, and to the saints, and to all that fear his name both small and great“; and will appoint them as rulers in His Kingdom; while the “wicked will he punish with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his power.” (1 Peter 2:5; Acts 10:42; Rev. 11:18; 2 Thess. 1:9.)
- We believe that Jesus, at His return, will “assemble the outcasts of Israel, and gather together the dispersed of Judah, from the four corners of the earth,” and establish them in the land promised to Abraham, as the subjects of His Kingdom, with Jerusalem as its capital; and that the Kingdom will increase until it has absorbed all nations into it. (Isa. 11:12; Jer. 3:17,18; Rev. 11:15.)
- We believe that Jesus will then be the Prince of Peace; that the nations will “beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nations shall not rise up against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” And that over this peaceful renovated earth, Jesus and His glorified saints will reign for one thousand years. That “at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” “For he must reign until he has put all enemies under his feet.” “Then cometh the end, when he shall have delivered up the kingdom to God, even the Father.” “Then shall the Son also himself be subject unto him that put all things under him, that God may be all in all.” (1 Cor. 15:24-28.)
- We believe that the appointed means by which men may obtain remission of sins, become children of God, and heirs with Abraham and Christ, is through a belief “of the things concerning the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ,” (as briefly developed in the foregoing synopsis), repentance (by which we understand reformation of life), and immersion in water for the remission of sins, “into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” For, says the Apostle Paul: “Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death?… that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.” Then, by a “patient continuance in well doing, seeking for glory, honor, and immortality.” (Gal. 3:26,29; Acts 8:12; 2:38; Mark 16:13-16; Matt. 28:19; Rom. 2:7; 6:3-4.)
- We believe that it is the duty of all who have taken upon them the name of Christ to meet regularly on the first day of the week, to attend to the breaking of the memorial loaf, and the drinking of the memorial cup, and the teachings, exhortations, prayers, songs of praise, etc. (Acts 2:42; 1 Cor. 11:23-29; Eph. 4:11-16.)
We, therefore, desire immersion at your hands, that as faithful soldiers of Christ, we may “fight the good fight of faith, and lay hold on eternal life.”
[The foregoing “(Signed)” indicates that all candidates for baptism were expected to subscribe to the “Confession of Faith” and to sign it.]
* * * * *
Benjamin Wilson knew Bro. Thomas when he lived in Illinois. There is strong suggestion that Bro. Thomas was the one who baptized him. While that is not conclusive, it is ironic that the two were together in Illinois. Both had emigrated from Britain (Wilson coming from Halifax). Both were editors of magazines and had an in-depth understanding of the printing trade. Both had associated with Alexander Campbell, but both had been led by the Bible to go much further in their faith.
Notwithstanding these many things in common, their relationship ended in some difficulty. There was intense interest in resurrection and judgment at the time, coupled with a strong desire to nail down the details. Even after his final baptism, John Thomas continued to develop his thinking on certain details, and finally treated them as first principles. Benjamin Wilson maintained slightly different views on some of the same details, but concluded the particular details were not first principles. Even so, Wilson’s complete views on “incorruptible” and “immortal” are not altogether clear.
What is clear, however, is that Wilson believed strongly that the CGAF and the Christadelphians needed each other as brethren. Even more, he felt it was wrong to be divided. An address he gave in 1868 is typical of the spirit he presented:
“I know there are extremists on both sides: there are those attached to us in particular, as well as those of the Christadelphian order, who run to opposite extremes, and who endeavour to reason the thing out, the one against the other, that each other is out of the faith, and consequently they cannot receive one another. It is hard to talk with such. It is harder still to reason with such, and yet I would, if possible, endeavour to bring these extremists together.”
Robert Huggins and the great divide
The CGAF prospered in the late 19th century. There are written accounts of several hundred congregations scattered throughout the greater Midwest. This rapid growth was due in part to zealous preachers of the Word, preachers who devoted their lives to spreading the gospel message. One fine example of this work was Bro. Almus Adams of Omaha, Nebraska. He would leave Omaha by train on Sunday afternoon, visit various places to preach the gospel, then return the following Saturday afternoon to spend Sunday meeting with his family. Some suggest that during his prolific life of faith he baptized more than 1,000 people.
Sis. Elizabeth and Bro. Almus Adams
from Omaha, Nebraska
Throughout this period, the CGAF was largely a loose confederation. There were family connections and occasional state conferences, but the CGAF community was mostly a collection of small congregations, often located in farm towns, much like the one in which I grew up in Indiana.
The one common thread at the time was a CGAF publication, The Restitution. This weekly publication was actually published like a newspaper, and distributed beyond CGAF members themselves. (The Restitution was the successor publication to Wilson’s Gospel Banner.) It supplied the “glue” that held the CGAF together. It also became the focus for a great turning point in the history of the CGAF.
In the late 19th and early 20th century, storm clouds gathered over the CGAF community when a group of “reformers” came onto the scene. The reformers appear to have been influenced by the Christian Advent church — some of these churches had contact with the CGAF in the late 19th century. A small but powerful group of CGAF leaders began fomenting a significant shift from Wilson’s founding set of beliefs. In particular, they pushed forward three issues: (1) universal resurrection; (2) open communion, and (3) the idea that sincerity of one’s belief is more important than what one believes.
The Restitution was the bulwark against the “reformists” during this period. Its editor at that time, Bro. A.R. Underwood, consistently upheld the Scriptural merits of the Geneva beliefs [See Confession of Faith]. Unable to win on Scriptural merit, the reformer antagonists attacked the character of Bro. Underwood. Secret meetings were held to accuse him of fraud in the finances of the magazine. The five members of the so-called “Ministerial Association” were the driving force in this attack.
Underwood was a steadfast brother. Despite the stinging and unfounded attacks, he refused to give in. Above all, he wanted The Restitution to remain the voice for the first principles espoused by Wilson and others in Geneva. To avoid having it fall into the wrong hands, therefore, he handed over the job of editor to his assistant, Bro. Robert Huggins. So it was that in 1911 The Restitution moved from Plymouth, Indiana (Underwood’s home) to Cleveland, Ohio (Huggins’ home).
Unable to wrest control of the CGAF organ, the Ministerial Association did an end run. They started their own publication, The Restitution Herald. Its first editor was F.L. Austin, one of the five members of the Ministerial Association.
Ironically, the new publication was issued from Oregon, Illinois, less than 50 miles from Geneva. Theologically, though, the distance was much greater. They adopted universal resurrection (also referred to as “broader hope“) and open communion as standing doctrinal planks. The Illinois group built a strong organization. In 1921, they founded The National Bible Institution, which led in the 1930s to Oregon Bible College, where pastors were trained. This college continues today in Atlanta, GA. The Restitution Herald claimed to be the official CGAF organ, and due to its name and the false charges still swirling around Underwood, many believed the claim.
More than 95 percent of the CGAF churches in existence at this great turning point ultimately affiliated with the Oregon, IL, organization, which declared itself the Church of God General Conference. However, many individual churches still kept their old signs, “Church of God of the Abrahamic Faith“.
The Church of God General Conference has been a source of no small confusion for many Christadelphians. Several of these churches still use the name “Church of God of the Abrahamic Faith“, so Christadelphians naturally have some serious questions once they see some of the doctrines that some of these congregations hold (these now include belief in a personal devil). I can assure you that Benjamin Wilson, Robert Huggins, and all of us who follow in their footsteps have the same objections to the General Conference! It must be clearly understood that, since this great divide, the remaining CGAF congregations have neither fellowship nor formal ties with the General Conference.
Bro. Huggins was our true shepherd through this turbulent period. Under his leadership as editor of The Restitution, five CGAF congregations (Cleveland, OH; Unionville, OH: Salem, OH; Roll, IN; and Perryville, KY) stood together against the General Conference. They disassociated themselves through their teaching and their fellowship practice. These five became a closely-knit band largely cut off from other believers.
The Cleveland, Ohio congregation, circa 1910
Fellowship bonds within the five churches were strong and intensely personal. These were the stories of my youth around the dinner table. The fellowship transcended many miles and slow mail Service — mail that took a lot longer to deliver than the instantaneous communication to which we are now accustomed. Through it all, there was devotion and dedication to the faith of those who went before.
Having watched the loss of so many churches to new doctrines, Huggins wrote prolifically to defend Bible first principles. He began a series of twelve Bible lessons in 1917 and completed them a year later. These were published in The Restitution. These lessons became the definitive theology of the CGAF. Importantly, they were written to rebut the doctrinal battles of the day with the General Conference. Robert Huggins was the pivotal figure in that battle. Sometime in the 1920s, the twelve lessons were “epitomized” to become the CGAF “Confession of Faith“. The Confession was adopted by all five churches as their statement of faith. Later, Huggins would write The Bible: Its Principles and Texts.
Like Bro. Wilson, Bro. Huggins had strong connections with Christadelphians. In fact, he was baptized in 1895 by a Christadelphian brother in Henderson, Kentucky. He would maintain ties with Christadelphians all his life.
Above all, like Benjamin Wilson, Huggins was convinced that the CGAF and Christadelphians were members of the same spiritual family. He steadfastly followed a fellowship principle of welcoming Christadelphians to the memorial table (a principle never written down, but which has been a guiding CGAF principle for more than a century). He was similarly steadfast that the CGAF practice a closed fellowship with respect to other Christian churches, including the General Conference Church of God. By common consent, that has remained the practice of the CGAF to this day.
A strong family, a strong house
When long-lost relatives meet, it can be a time when the family is made stronger. A stronger family can create a stronger house, one better able to withstand the storms of life. This principle is also true in our spiritual family and in our spiritual house. The CGAF is acutely aware of this principle because we are a small group of believers, and a small group — like a small house — feels those storms more intensely. That said, the storms are hitting all of us.
My home church in Roll, Indiana, provides a vivid illustration. There was a time when that congregation numbered upwards of 100 people. At the turn of the 20th century, they built a large building to hold their meetings. The community of Roll thrived on the twin economic engines of natural gas (there were gas fields literally in the middle of town, and gas lamps in the building!) and farming. However, over time the natural gas ran out, and the farming began to change. The church building remained, but many of the members were gone.
Roll has been a wonderful home base for many brothers and sisters, a special place that gave me as well as others our first spiritual com- pass. But there is an important fact today that cannot be ignored: those of us who are formerly Roll members clearly outnumber those who are currently Roll members. To be sure, following Christ is not just about the numbers. The congregation in Roll today is a wonderful, loving, faithful bunch. Yet the congregation there would themselves admit that their walk of faith is made more difficult by their dwindling numbers.
Bro. Vaughn Long (the brother who baptized me).
Both were both baptized at Roll in the early 20th century
and were CGAF stalwarts
Roll is not alone in the CGAF community — and the Christadelphian community is familiar with similar stories. A careful review of the numbers would bear out that many of our ecclesias, whether CGAF or Christadelphian, have fewer active members today than they did at their peak. In many cases, that peak came more than a few decades ago. This trend should give us all pause.
In every congregation, critical mass is an important issue. It was God’s wisdom to place believers together in congregations. They are the crucibles in which our faith grows. Yet a critical mass — a certain threshold of membership — is necessary to create a rich environment conducive to maximum spiritual growth.
This principle is founded in the instructions given to Israel for keeping the Passover:
“Tell all the congregation of Israel that on the tenth day of this month they shall take every man a lamb according to their fathers’ houses, a lamb for a household; and if the household is too small for a lamb, then a man and his neighbor next to his house shall take according to the number of persons; according to what each can eat you shall make your count for the lamb” (Exod 12:3,4, RSV).
Why did the Lord want the small houses to join together? Was His deliverance granted only to homes that reached a certain threshold number? His angel surely knows those who are His! No, the reason was because there is strength in numbers. The Lord knew that His people, by joining together, would draw strength from one another. As with Israel, so with us: we draw strength when those who are few in number come together to share our Passover lamb.
The CGAF and Christadelphians both have much for which to give thanks. But the trend lines cannot be ignored. We are on the verge of losing critical mass in some of our congregations and ecclesias. The time to address that is while we still can — not when it is too late. What is more, we have an obligation to consider the spiritual future of those who will live in places far beyond our traditional sites.
We will bequeath a stronger spiritual home to our children and grandchildren if we build it together. Building a home together with brethren is the right thing to do. It upholds the Passover principle — joining those near us when we lack critical mass. It honors a doctrine many of us have lovingly practiced for a century and a half, that the unity of the body of Christ is first among first principles. It will benefit those in our midst who are moving to new places, while also strengthening those who remain where our roots have long been planted.
Building a strong spiritual house is, in fact, a recurring theme in the writings of the apostle Paul. Over and over, he exhorts us to be “house-builders”. This is the very essence of our responsibility as both disciples and shepherds of our flocks. Both of these Scriptures use the same Greek root word that literally means “to be a house builder“:
- “Let us then pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding” (Rom 14:19, RSV).
- “Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing” (1Thes 5:11, RSV).
Together, we have a choice to make. The CGAF and Christadelphians are long-lost relatives who have finally met. We can go our separate ways — each building our own house. Or, we can build one house together. As we make that decision, though, let us clearly understand the consequences. If we build together we will all have a stronger spiritual home, better able to withstand the perils and trials ahead.
Based on my 40 years of experience, I believe both communities, working together, can contribute to one stronger house. For our part, CGAF brethren are faithful and loyal, with a long history of devotion to preserving gospel truth. We have a weeklong summer gathering, other gatherings, and an outstanding youth camp. In addition, we have other qualities that can lift the spirits of our Christadelphian brethren. We are generous and charitable. We emphasize the fruit of the spirit. We are enthusiastic and willing workers. Our musical worship is important to us; we sing well and with all our heart!
Christadelphian brethren also have much to contribute. You are faithful and loyal, with your own history of devotion to the truth. You are dedicated to preaching the Word, both at home and abroad. You offer opportunities for eager workers to help in spreading the gospel. You have many Bible schools, gatherings, and youth activities, which provide an ongoing stimulus to growth in grace and knowledge.
A final and important consideration is that both sides have meetings near those of the other, highlighting regions where mutual support would be welcome.
God’s natural creation offers many lessons for the spiritual. As a farm boy at heart and an agricultural economist by training, I have witnessed many of these in agriculture. Today’s corn plants yield upwards of 200 bushels per acre, roughly double the level of 50 years ago. Those incredible gains were made possible through the ongoing development of powerful hybrids. A hybrid plant brings together traits that would otherwise lie separate. The real power is realized only when the traits are combined. Without such combination, corn yields in the United States would be half what they are today, and more of the world would go hungry.
The apostle Paul was no agronomist, but he certainly understood the power of bringing together complementary strengths. This was, in fact, his oft-repeated exhortation on how we should view the body of Christ. He used the human body to illustrate the principle. The human body needs eyes, hands, feet, ears, arms and legs. Each brings a completely unique “trait” to what is an incredibly powerful hybrid. It would be silly for the eye to say, ‘What good are you, hands?’ We all know how important hands are to the human body!
Yet one of the lessons I take away from my 40 years of experience with both communities is that there are brethren on both sides who confuse unity and uniformity. Unity is a Biblical principle; uniformity is a human one.
Uniformity believes that unity derives from everyone being exactly the same. It holds that strength comes from similarity. It would have the body of Christ become all eyes, or ears, or noses, or feet.
Unity, on the other hand, is Paul’s principle of strength founded on complementary skills. It holds that there is one body, but many members. It recognizes the importance of common Scriptural first principles, but it knows that by God’s grace we all have quite different gifts. It understands that the body of Christ can do far more together than apart.
These are, in fact, the very elements of Paul’s powerful exhortation on the one body in Romans 12. He implores us to begin with a humble spirit. He reminds us that we are one body yet many members. He urges us to take advantage of the many talents in our midst. And above all, he reminds us that it is love that binds us together, as well as the faith we share (the same points are made in Ephesians 4:1-16).
Seizing the future
The CGAF and Christadelphians have lived apart for 150 years. There is a lot of inertia on both sides. Bringing the long-lost relatives into the same house will not happen easily. But the benefits are unmistakable. Whether we look to Paul’s analogy of the human body or the wonder of a modern corn plant, the lesson is the same: we will be stronger together than apart.
Building this house together will not happen by itself. We all have work to do. Hard feelings on both sides must be salved. Assurances on our common faith must be concluded. Yet what will be far more important than any of these is our commitment to building a stronger house together. Such commitment can be found on both sides, but it must be fortified, especially against those who want only uniformity and not true unity.
Though the world has changed much since his time, Bro. Benjamin Wilson would be a loud voice for moving forward together were he alive today. Indeed, his words from 140 years ago ring as true today as they did then:
“What is to be done? Have we not a duty to perform? I should be most happy, my brethren, if any word or advice of mine would be useful to any of you in endeavoring to call your attention to the fact of the important truth that there cannot be two bodies of the Anointed One… I would endeavor to teach [all] the lesson that we are taught in the Scriptures — that, as they believe they are members of the body of Christ, as they believe they are Christ’s, they should bear and forbear one another in love. The spirit of forbearance, you know, is taught, and as disciples of Jesus we are bound to carry out these principles of the gospel of Christ. We are to love as brethren, to be pitiful, to be courteous. How this is lost sight of! Are we always courteous to one another? Do we not rather at times frown and retaliate, and inflict a wound, rather than heal it? This should not be. This is not the spirit of the meek and lowly Jesus. He has said, ‘Learn of me’ — mark the injunction — ‘for I am meek and lowly of heart, and you shall find rest unto your souls.’ We are to learn of Jesus the spirit of meekness, the spirit of lowliness, and we shall find that the same doctrine is inculcated all throughout the apostolic epistles — to forbear with each other, to learn these lessons of humility and lowliness, and not to think more highly than we ought to think, but to think soberly… Brethren, let us then cultivate this spirit of affection and love, this unity of the faith, and I think we may counteract some of the pernicious tendencies of others, who are too domineering in their spirit, and too overbearing, and who do not exhibit the spirit of Christ. And, oh, let us as brethren in the Christ, live like Christ; let us cultivate all those traits of character which were so pre-eminently developed in him… We shall be lights to irradiate the darkness by which we are surrounded, and be as cities set on a hill, which cannot be hid” (Address by Benjamin Wilson, October 25, 1868, Edinburgh, Scotland, published in The Messenger of the Churches, Vol. IV, No. 12, December 1, 1868).