Of Spiritual Evolution and Embers Waiting to Glow as Flame

It has been said that in this universe, the only constant is change.  It’s all around us:  an individual is born (or germinated, or hatched, or otherwise reproduced), grows, matures—all aspects of life—and dies—which is also part of life.  As individuals are born, others die, and the population is in constant flux.  The weather changes, which affects biological communities.  The movement of the planet around the sun invokes changing seasons.  On a more cosmic scale, stars explode, shedding their elements.  Planets form.

Change is inevitable and unavoidable. 

The great British naturalist, hailed as a visionary by some and a devil by others, described his concept of a tree of life based on the processes of natural selection.  Figure 1 is an image of Charles Darwin’s early concept in his own handwriting, taken from one of his journals.  


Figure 1.  Darwin’s original concept of a “Tree of Life.”

He wrote of this concept:

“The affinities of all the beings of the same class have sometimes been represented by a great tree. I believe this simile largely speaks the truth. The green and budding twigs may represent existing species; and those produced during former years may represent the long succession of extinct species. At each period of growth all the growing twigs have tried to branch out on all sides, and to overtop and kill the surrounding twigs and branches, in the same manner as species and groups of species have at all times overmastered other species in the great battle for life. The limbs divided into great branches, and these into lesser and lesser branches, were themselves once, when the tree was young, budding twigs; and this connection of the former and present buds by ramifying branches may well represent the classification of all extinct and living species in groups subordinate to groups. Of the many twigs which flourished when the tree was a mere bush, only two or three, now grown into great branches, yet survive and bear the other branches; so with the species which lived during long-past geological periods, very few have left living and modified descendants. From the first growth of the tree, many a limb and branch has decayed and dropped off; and these fallen branches of various sizes may represent those whole orders, families, and genera which have now no living representatives, and which are known to us only in a fossil state. As we here and there see a thin straggling branch springing from a fork low down in a tree, and which by some chance has been favoured and is still alive on its summit…. As buds give rise by growth to fresh buds, and these, if vigorous, branch out and overtop on all sides many a feebler branch, so by generation I believe it has been with the great Tree of Life, which fills with its dead and broken branches the crust of the earth, and covers the surface with its ever-branching and beautiful ramifications.”

From the biological perspective, genetic changes in populations may be the result of random changes or genetic mutations, which, if they confer a benefit, are likely to be carried on in future generations.  That is not to say that all change is good.  Some mutations are harmful, and are therefore less likely to be passed on in the progeny.  Some harmful changes do survive, thus hereditary diseases and genetic disorders and cancers.

As a biologist and a Christian, it is not unexpected that I should start thinking about similarities between living things in nature and living entities in the realm of faith.  I started thinking about the relationships among religious denominations from the same perspective as the relationships among species in the biological world. 

In a recent series of studies I participated in regarding church history, as well as in a class I taught to a group of college students, we explored the beginnings of many of the various churches in existence.  The take home message was that all of the “denominations” have distinct dates of origin, e.g., Lutheranism began in 1517 with the nailing of the 95 Theses to the door of the Cathedral.  When considering the churches of Christ, however, while there was discussion of the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement, the conclusion was that this group actually traces its lineage directly back to the first century, specifically to the day of Pentecost somewhere around 27-33 A.D., and the first great sermon preached by Peter to the assembled Jewish masses that had converged for required Temple worship in Jerusalem.


Figure 2.  A phylogeny of religious denominations.

But is that a fair and reasonable and unbiased way to consider this question?  I came across this phylogeny of religious bodies (Figure 2) when I began thinking about this puzzle.  Notice that the Restorationist line has two origins: one that is the claimed unbroken chain and the other the line of direct evidence, leading from the Calvinistic branch of Protestantism, through the work of those like Presbyterian Barton W. Stone and Presbyterians-turned-Baptist, Thomas and Alexander Campbell.  Other like Walter Scott had been Baptist, and even the man who would eventually define the separation of the Disciples line from the churches of Christ in 1906, none other than David Lipscomb, began his religious life among the Baptist ranks.  Early 19th century restorationist and frontier preacher, John Mulkey started his career as a Baptist, as did his contemporary, Raccoon John Smith. 

I mention these things because these men were instrumental in the development of the Restoration Movement.  Not one of them was a member of the Disciples or churches of Christ when they began to think about returning to the Bible for guidance in revisiting and restoring a more primitive expression of Christianity untainted by the accretion of creeds, catechisms, and confessions of faith.

In fact, to my knowledge, there is no verifiable historical or sociological evidence of any group practicing “New Testament Christianity” in any unbroken chain since 33 A.D.  So why is it so easy to accept something with no actual evidence?  Of course, one favorite answer would have to be “faith.”  We have faith there was a “faithful remnant” of Christians somewhere hidden from persecution and oppression much as there was always a faithful remnant of Jews who did not take up idols and fall away from their faith during the periods of captivity in the Old Testament.   

This same concept is mirrored in statements like one of my favorite religious fantasies (if not fallacies), that being that if a Bible were to wash up on some distant shore and uneducated natives were to take that alone at face value, the only expression of Christianity they could possibly demonstrate is that of a particular sliver of a branch of the Stone Campbell Movement.  (Of course, the sliver changes depending on which group the preacher belongs to, but that is beside the point.  Oh, and never mind that they can’t read English, either.)

The call of men like Thomas and Alexander Campbell was to unite the Christians in all of the sects or denominations, a call that speaks more directly to the phylogeny of Christian denominations in Figure 2.  The philosophical descendants of the Restorationists should be the most ardent in a continued attempt to unite all Christians, but instead, we are among the most splintered of religious bodies.  If we cannot achieve any sense of brotherhood within the many disparate branches of the churches of Christ, or among the branches of the Stone Campbell Movement, our calls for unity are met with little more than derision.

While calling for unity, congregations continue to split.  Neighbors who call themselves by the same religious name do not interact because the other “does not follow with us” over some binding link of interpreted or interpolated law that we have forged in the 2,000 years since the early church mushroomed across the known world of the Roman Empire, and according to tradition, beyond to places like India, preaching peace and hope and justice.

We cannot hope to recapture the unity of the Spirit among all Christians when we actively strive to alienate and divide those who share our most recent demonstrable heritage.  Our actions belie our orations.  It should not be so.

On Sunday, August 18, 1889, in Sand Creek, Illinois, Daniel Sommer delivered his “Address and Declaration,” which was the formal beginning of the schism that ultimately divided the Disciples line from the churches of Christ.  It is rather obvious that Sommer’s speech was directly playing off of Thomas Campbell’s “Declaration and Address” of 80 years prior.  The irony is that Campbell’s work called for unity.  Sommer’s work called for division.

Sommer was a firebrand who tirelessly beat the drum for separation from the Disciples during the middle of his career for their “innovations.”  For that, his legacy is one of divisiveness.  But many people do not know of the remorse at causing such discord that he expressed later in life in largely disregarded works such as “The Rough Draft.” There, according to historian Leroy Garrett, Sommer’s “…theme was: “If we can search out the things we can agree on, and unite on them, and work together, we’ll have unity!”” 

In his landmark history of the Stone-Campbell Movement, Garrett wrote of Sommer:

“He dictated to his son Allen a final statement to his brethren in which he stated that his chief concern in life had been “the disciple brotherhood” and his chief grief was its divisions.  Jesus’ prayer for the unity of his followers was on his mind.  He expressed similar feelings in the last lines of his life story, referring to “a divided and disgraced brotherhood,” and noting that it was those who strained certain scriptures who were to blame.  His last line provided an ominous epitaph to his own life:  The strainers have all come to grief sooner or later.”    

In the biological concept of evolution, once speciation has occurred, it is highly unlikely for disparate groups to unite and again form a single entity.  But biological evolution is not subject to conscious manipulation.  In matters of faith, we have the power by force of will and reason to change things, to eliminate barriers and come together.  It was Jesus’ hope that all of his followers whether descendants of Abraham or the sheep of a different fold be unified in purpose.  While centuries of human desires and the power struggles of warring egos have brought nearly immeasurable division, that original intent is still an attainable goal.  The plea of the early Restorationists can provide a path to it.  Creeds and dogmas and doctrines of opinion erect weak walls.  Truth and trust can tear them down.  Only then can a greater building be built on the only foundation that will stand.  I hope we may soon see the end to that counter-productive building outward and join together to build upward like they did in the earliest days of the Christian movement. 

In its essence, the true promise of Christianity is to shine a light to dispel the darkness of fear and oppression and evil.  Imagine if all the tiny lights scattered like starlight reflected in dew drops on the ground were to someday truly be one: the light from that city set on a hill would shine as never before.  And then maybe we could experience the spirit of unity, the unity of purpose and the shared vision that changed the world twenty centuries ago. 

The ember still burns among many fires. 

Fan the flame.



One Response to Of Spiritual Evolution and Embers Waiting to Glow as Flame

  1. Thanks so much for the thoughtful post. As one who grew up in the Restoration Movement, and now preaches for a church of Christ, I found it interesting.
    I’m involved in two prayer groups with denominational pastors. One group, the larger one, has an intense loyalty and unity among all of us (I’ve been in this group around 14 years). All we do is pray. We don’t discuss the areas in which we differ. We just pray. We pray for each other and for spiritual awakening in America and in our region. This group prayer session is a major highlight of my week. No theological discussions ever happen. The group of around 20 men includes two of us from the Restoration, but also Methodists, Baptists (African American and white), Pentecostals, Charismatics, Assembly of God, Episcopalians and even an occasional Catholic priest (although the last one to attend has now moved). One guy jokes that he is a ‘Bapticostal’!
    The other group – about six of us – meets every two weeks. These men are from several denominations although it’s not as diverse as the larger group. This one began as a prayer group, but has morphed into a theological discussion group along the way. I sense that, although our prayer time is good, this group could easily go ‘off the rails’.
    It seems to me that when we separate the emphasis on prayer & spiritual formation from our meetings, unity is doomed. Paul himself noted that the Corinthian church had severe disunity because they were still carnal and had not matured spiritually (1 Cor. 3:1-4). Growing our churches spiritually and training them in a robust prayer life is the key to a unity that will last.
    Thanks and I hope that you keep writing about this vital subject.

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