During the 1930’s and 1940’s, a group of congregations were pushed out of the mainstream of the Churches of Christ because they believed that when Jesus returns, he will reign for 1,000 years on the earth. Most Churches of Christ interpret the “millennium” in Revelation 20 figuratively rather than literally. A gracEmail subscriber in Tennessee asks how this church division might now be set right.
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The history of Christianity has included some horrendously unchristian behavior — Catholics and Protestants killing each other, Calvinists and Lutherans persecuting Anabaptists, and majorities mistreating minorities within most denominations. The persecution and expulsion of premillennial believers by the mainstream Churches of Christ is one such tragic and unholy example. It is ironic as well, since the founders of the Stone-Campbell Movement included premillennialists and postmillennialists alike, and since “millennial fever” was a major motivating factor in the Movement’s inception.
In the 1930’s and 40’s, however, a debater-preacher named Foy E. Wallace, Jr. led a largely-successful crusade to stamp out premillennialism among Churches of Christ — leaving in his wake a figurative trail of corpses of many godly men and women. The anti-premillennial frenzy Wallace generated in the Churches of Christ included book-burnings, McCarthy-like accusations and stranding missionaries without support in distant lands. My grandfather, W. N. Short, a missionary in Africa from 1921 until he died in the 1980s, was a victim of the purge — not because he held premillennial views, but because he would not denounce a fellow-missionary who probably did.
The purge was doubly sad because it deprived the mainstream brotherhood of some of its most pious and Christ-centered people. The premillennial minority, from Robert H. Boll down to present-day editor Alex Wilson, have, more consistently than the mainstream, focused on Jesus, preached the grace of God and worked for unity among all believers in Christ. They also tend to exhibit a spirit of humble dependence on God to accomplish his work — their view is clearly that God and not man must bring about the kingdom. They continue today, mostly around Louisville, Kentucky, where they have a school of biblical studies and the paper “Word and Work.”
Now would be a good time — doctrinal differences notwithstanding — for leaders in the mainstream Churches of Christ to apologize for these sins of the fathers against the premillennial minority, and for Church of Christ publishers, periodicals, colleges and other institutions to find ways to welcome these excluded brothers and sisters back into the family. If congregational autonomy and freedom of conscience mean anything, they mean that individuals and local churches may exist in full fellowship with each other even though they differ in understanding –concerning this topic and a whole host of others. May each one of us determine, as individuals and as congregations, to do that very thing.