‘A Capella’ churches—from the Latin ‘as in the chapel’ of the Renaissance cathedrals—are designated by their practice of singing unaccompanied by any instruments. However, this is not the only practice that distinguishes them from mainstream Churches of Christ. The designation ‘A Capella’ is really just an obvious marker: issues such as baptism have always been more on the agenda. A Capella churches are generally committed to replicating the practices of first century Christians according to their observations from Scripture.
How did the A Capella Churches of Christ come to exist in Australia? Should we simply dismiss them as insignificant or even misguided?
To understand how these churches came inhabit the Australian landscape, we must revisit early twentieth century tensions within the Australian Churches of Christ. A. R. Main (Principal, College of the Bible, 1910-1938) was a fine example of trying to faithfully balance the tension between the biblical authority and Christian unity. He acknowledged that advocacy for the restoration of biblical baptism was in danger of privileging intellectual propositions rather than submission to the Lordship of Christ. However, Main was not ready to jettison a strong stance on baptism, contending that discipleship without immersion was at best tenuous.
In his quest for church unity, T. H. Scambler (Principal, COB, 1938-1944) was more flexible than Main on issues of doctrine. This led to disagreement between the two and ultimately amongst the wider fellowship. The tension resulting from the conservative reaction to the unity impetus was somewhat mitigated by the appointment of A. W. Stephenson as editor of the Australian Christian in 1941. He attempted to give a voice to both sides of the debate, although he feared that accommodation to the conservative position would cause the Movement to become a ‘self-satisfied sect’. One of the key concerns of the ‘conservative position,’ is the insistence that water baptism is the point at which the sins of the penitent believer are forgiven. Any deviation or concession regarding this practice is seen as unfaithful to the teaching of Scripture.
In 1937, John Allen Hudson visited Australia from the United States and was warmly welcomed by local churches. He travelled Australia, he sought out disciples committed to the more ‘conservative position.’ In Tasmania he met a man named Colin Smith whom he later invited to study at Abilene Christian College in Texas. There, Smith completed his ministry training and returned to Australia in 1941, settling in Sydney and calling people to return to the ‘restoration’ position he judged to be faithful to Scripture. From this time forward the A Cappella churches gained momentum with over 60 American missionaries coming to Australia between the late 1940s and the mid-1970s.
When we consider this tension within the Australian Churches of Christ in the early twentieth century, it is understandable that a new conservative movement was able to gain some traction. The identity of these churches is firmly rooted in a position that judges itself to be faithful to Scripture amid an environment of doctrinal compromise. In some ways Stephenson’s fears were realised as the A Capella churches have often exhibited a sectarian tendency to require other Christian groups to conform to their understanding of the New Testament pattern of doing things.
One of the glaring deficiencies of this mindset is a lack of hermeneutical humility. A century earlier Alexander Campbell had identified humility of mind as an integral part of interpreting Scripture (The Christian System, 1835). In his famous Lunenburg correspondence (1837) he challenged those who insisted that Christian identity was to be fostered exclusively through a meticulous approach to Scriptural words. Campbell challenged this legalistic mindset by contending that we can only be responsible according to the knowledge we possess. Campbell quoted the Pauline epistles, which encourage movement toward perfection without invalidating the status of the imperfect as Christians. He distinguished between errors of understanding and wilful errors, contending that the former cannot be indicted to the same degree as the latter. He stated that humans tend to condemn those they consider to hold less intelligent opinions in certain matters but are prone to ignore those areas in which they themselves are weak.
In the Lunenburg correspondence but also in many other documents, we discover that the Stone-Campbell movement had a strong emphasis on unity from the beginning. When challenged to trade this emphasis for doctrinal purity, Alexander Campbell refused to define the essentials of the movement or lock into creedal patterns and clearly defined boundaries of inclusion and exclusion. He held this position in the Lunenburg correspondence without diminishing the necessity of responding to Scriptural imperatives. Campbell offered future generations an example of generosity and veracity that have not always been appreciated.
The A Cappella Churches of Christ in Australia have been strongly identified by their adherence to particular doctrinal issues they believe have been undervalued. Their perspective does have some legitimacy in an environment that has often been too keen to trade veracity for a supposed sense of unity. However, any emphases dogmatically pursued risk skewing integral witness to Christian faith.
Today, the landscape of society has changed and in a culture that is hostile to Christianity, the introspective emphasis of the A Capella churches is struggling to connect with those searching for Christ. These churches have traditionally been committed to a recreation of first century church practices, but this goal is being challenged. The biblical documents gifted to us from a first century context can guide us in a genuine quest to engage faithfully with 21st century culture, not from a perspective of trying to mirror externalities but rather through engaging with and embodying the spirit of what is witnessed to in these documents.
There is a definite trend in Australian A Capella churches away from doctrinal obsession and a willingness to engage with culture alongside mainstream Christendom, especially among the emerging generations. The way forward for these churches is the rediscovery of a hermeneutical humility advocated by Alexander Campbell, combined with the recovery of their Christological roots which proudly trumpeted the slogan ‘no creed but Christ’.
Jarrod Thomas is married with four children. He is a member of the West Heidelberg Church of Christ, a full time gardener, a lay preacher and a masters student at Stirling Theological College.