When Alexander Campbell began the "Christian Baptist" (1823) he had much to say about the domination of churches by clergy, councils, Synods, and Associations. He wrote, "the church of Christ is, in propria forma, the only institution of God left on earth to illuminate and reform the world..." and "in their church capacity alone they moved...." He was, at the time of this writing, a member of a church which was in the Redstone Baptist Association. Later he became a member of the Wellsburg church, which joined the Mahoning Association with his approval. He even published, without comment, "Carson's Reply to Brown" which said that churches assembled to give advice to other churches "will degenerate into an engine of Satan." He then opposed the dissolution of the Mahoning Association. How is such seeming vacillation explained?
His explanations indicate that in his objections to Associations, etc., he thought only in terms of ecclesiastical domination (as seen in Roman Catholicism and State or Creed-bound Protestant churches.) It never seemed to occur to Campbell that the mechanical structure itself (a plurality of churches seeking to act as one, even if only in limited fields) necessitated an "executive board" or oversight that "dominated" (wisely or unwisely) the churches in the team.
Campbell's power of reasoning was not faulty; he began with a false base. He thought of the universal church as a functional organization, made up of local churches. The scriptures describe the universal church by many figures, all of which picture individual saints as the units. The body is made up of members (Rom. 12:4-f.; 1 Cor. 12:12-f), branches on the vine are individuals (Jn. 15:1-6), the family consists of brothers and sisters. Campbell even said "The kingdom of Jesus Christ consists of numerous communities..." when scriptures say it consists of citizens (Eph. 2:19). Couple Campbell's first error with his concept of the "the church" (univ.) as having some organized function to perform, and we see why he sought some means for the collective action of churches. He freely acknowledged that the scriptures gave no instructions along this line, but concluded it was therefore a matter of expediency, to be determined by men.
To avoid apparent inconsistency with his earlier attacks on associations, he said his strictures on such applied only to "internal" affairs of the churches. Of course scriptures make no such distinctions in the work of overseers. Paul thanked a local church with local government (Phil. 1:1) for their "fellowship in the gospel (1:5; 4:15). He was recommended to an "external" work by a local church (Acts 14:26-27); 15:40), and reported "external" work to James and the elders in Jerusalem (21:17-19). Campbell was grasping at straws.
His persistence in this course led him to "approval of the Baptist associational formulas, pruned of certain..." abuses. He was president of the American Christian Missionary Society (1849), and advocated a far more general church organization. Must we of this generation remain blind to the lessons of our own history?