A New Approach to the Problem of
"Current Issues" Among the Brethren
James W. Adams
Many times writers are not understood and what they write is not appreciated because they take for granted their readers are en rapport with themselves. In other words, they assume too much. Lest such be so relative to this report, attention of our readers is called to the fact that we are assuming they are concerned over controversy among brethren, possessed of a sincere desire for unity without compromise of truth and conscience, and are deeply distressed. by reason of our present divided state over (1) church support of human institutions, (2) centralized control and oversight of the work and resources of many churches in benevolence and evangelism in the so-called "sponsoring church," and (3) church sponsorship and support of entertainment and recreational activities. (We use the word "church" in the local, not universal, sense.) Assuming this to be our readers attitude, we can reasonably expect them to be interested in our remarks.
The "New Approach"
We call this a new approach. In reality, it is not completely new. From the beginning of current controversies, preachers have had private meetings and discussions with brethren of the opposite persuasion, and have lamented the all too often unwillingness of such brethren thus to discuss our differences. Therefore, a meeting of this kind is neither new nor alarming. The meeting we are going to report was only larger and, by reason of those involved, slightly more significant, in the eyes of some, than others previously held. By this we mean: there were more persons involved and most of them were brethren who have been prominent in the battles which have been waged over the so-called "issues." This does not alter, in any significant particular, the character of such a meeting, but it seems to intensify the "concern" of some, hence we mention it.
The Arlington, Texas Discussion
From January 29 to February 1, 1968, twenty-eight brethren met at Arlington, Texas and engaged in a discussion of the "issues" which divide us. Fourteen men represented each point of view. There were ten sessions, each two hours in length, plus a short evaluation session at the close. The meeting was conducted on the premises and in the buildings of what is called "The Arlington Christian Youth Center." This is a type of country club arrangement owned and operated as a private, non-profit corporation by brethren in the Fort Worth-Arlington area. Each person present paid a nominal fee for housing and food. Other facilities were made available to us at no charge. The "Center" is located in a rural setting, four miles south of Arlington, Texas, and was ideal for the type discussion engaged in. We make this explanation for the record and to restrain, if possible, any from jumping to unwarranted conclusions.
How the Discussion Came About
The Arlington meeting resulted from a previous meeting. In the spring of 1967, Brother Norman Starling of San Marcos, Texas a long time personal friend of this writer called via telephone to say: (1) He and Brother Reuel Lemmons - editor of the Firm Foundation - had been discussing for some time and deploring the divisions among the brethren. (2) Their conversations finally resulted in a challenge to "do something other than just talk." (3) Consequently, they conceived the idea of getting together a relatively small group of reasonably "representative" men to discuss differences-representative in the sense of being capable of representing correctly and convincingly their respective positions, not in the sense of having any delegated or inherent authority to speak for anyone else, individual or church. Having told me this, Brother Starling asked! "Would you be willing to participate in such a discussion and could you find three or four others to do likewise?" After some thought and further discussion of the matter, I answered, "Yes, I do not see how I could in good conscience refuse provided it be understood: (1) each man represents only himself, (2) no compromise of convictions or conscience be involved, and (3) the -meeting be conducted without publicity before or after?"
As a result of this telephone conversation nine of us met in April 1967 at Buchanan Dam near Burnet, Texas and spent three days together discussing our differences eight hours each day. This was an informal meeting with no agenda or restrictions. We simply told each other what we found wrong with the other's teaching and practice. There was absolute honesty and frankness with no hedging or subterfuge. Good humor and a spirit of brotherliness prevailed. When it was over, we all felt we knew one another better, loved one another more, and were not quite so far apart as we had been before. It was, therefore, suggested we attempt a more formal meeting, with an agenda, involving a larger group of men, with the view to publishing the proceedings if they seemed to merit it. The Arlington meeting was the result. Those present at the first meeting were: Harry Pickup, Jr., W. L. Wharton. Jr., Roy L. Foutz, James W. Adams, Norman Starling, J. D. Thomas, Hulen L. Jackson. Eldred Stevens, and Reuel Lemmons.
Arrangements for the Arlington Meeting
Brother Harry Pickup, Jr. and this writer agreed to assume the responsibility of getting together fourteen men from among those with whom we agree in teaching and practice, and Brother Reuel Lemmons agreed to do the same among those with whom he agrees. Norman Starling agreed to serve as a coordinator between the two groups. Brother Pickup and 1, with the counsel of others, selected twelve men in addition to ourselves to ask to the proposed discussion. He contacted six of these men and I contacted six. Our choice had to be made more or less arbitrarily as there are hundreds of men who could have ably represented our position in such a discussion. We tried to select men from various parts of the country who would in the aggregate fairly represent the thinking of brethren on our "side" of the controversy. The men we ' chose and who came and participated were: Roy E. Cogdill, Floyd Thompson, W. L. Wharton, Jr., Robert F. Turner, Bryan Vinson, Sr., Stanley J. Lovett, Harold Fite, Clinton D. Hamilton, Franklin, T. Puckett, Melvin Curry, Dudley Ross Spears, Harry Pickup, Jr., and James W. Adams. Roy L. Foutz was to have been present, but illness in his family prevented and Melvin Curry served in his stead.
Those brethren who came and represented the opposite point of view in the discussion were: J. D. Thomas, William (Bill) Humble, Johnny Ramsey, Gus Nichols, Roy H. Lanier, Sr., Jimmy Allen, Allen E. Highers, Alvin Jennings, Eldred Stevens, Hulen L. Jackson, Reuel Lemmons, H. A. (Buster) Dobbs, Lewis G. Hale, Paul W. Phillips, and Hardeman Nichols. Some of these brethren were replacements for some on their team who had to leave the meeting to fill previous commitments. Brother Norman Starling served as coordinator and general chairman of the meeting. A man from each group served with him each session as co-chairman to insure good order and fairness in all matters.
Procedure of the Meeting
The meeting was conducted as follows: There were five major sessions and five minor sessions, a major session followed by a minor. There were five assigned topics: (1) How to determine Bible authority; (2) church action as distinguished from individual action; (3) the work of the church; (4) congregational cooperation; (5) how to attain and maintain fellowship. They were discussed in the order of mention.
Each major session consisted of two forty-five minute prepared speeches (most of them manuscripts) and two fifteen minute rejoinders by two men, one from each group. The minor session followed each major session and was devoted to six fifteen minute rejoinders by three men from each group on the subject discussed in the major session immediately preceding it plus a period of thirty minutes which there were questions and answers or short speeches of no more than five minutes by as many as could speak in the time allotted. This procedure was followed in the discussion of each topic.
Roy E. Cogdill and J. D. Thomas spoke on "how to determine Bible authority." Floyd Thompson and Johnny Ramsey spoke on "church action as distinguished from individual action." W. L. Wharton, Jr. and Gus Nichols on "the work of the church." Robert F. Turner and Roy H. Lanier, Sr. spoke on "congregational cooperation." Bryan Vinson, Sr. and Jimmy Allen spoke on "how to attain and maintain fellowship." The limitations of space will not permit us to mention the speakers in the minor sessions.
When the participants were invited to the meetings, they were told, "Our aim is absolute fairness, scrupulous respect for the conscience of every person, assumption of honesty and sincerity of each person, and demeanor befitting professed gentlemen, Christians, and brethren." It is our belief that this aim was realized in the spirit of the meeting as it was conducted. It was further stipulated that discussion would be strictly limited to what the Bible teaches on the subjects considered. This was not fully realized, but it was as nearly so as is probably possible in the crucible of controversy.
The meeting was not a "pink tea" nor a "back slapping or wire walking exercise." It was not a "decision making" conclave. It was a vigorous, exhaustive study of the questions which divide the two groups of men who were represented in the light of the teaching of the Scriptures. It was not a "unity meeting" in the sense of two dissident groups meeting to effect some sort of compromise to accomplish organic union. It was a unity meeting only in the sense of two earnest, sincere groups of men discussing Bible teaching relative to their respective teaching and practices with the view to trying to find common, scriptural ground on which the unity of God's people might be affected.
The discussion was different from other discussions only in that there was no audience except the participants themselves. It was so arranged with the hope that such might preclude the temptation to substitute personality for argument, showmanship for scholarship, and self -vindication for the interests of truth. It is our conviction it had this effect. Each man pressed his points with ability and vigor on the basis of his own, personal convictions without regard even to what some of his own group might believe about the matter. In all debates we say, "Truth is the object of controversy, not victory," but such is seldom realized. It is my personal belief that it was probably more nearly true in this discussion than any which I have been privileged to participate in or attend on these particular themes.
What Did the Discussion Accomplish
First, let me say, it will have accomplished nothing if brethren representing either point of view in this discussion (men who were present, or men who were not) seek to use the fact of its having been conducted to gain some sort of tactical advantage by placing interpretations upon it which it will not bear. There are at least two dangers which we face in this regard. Of these we were fully aware when we agreed to engage in the discussion, but we did not regard them as being of sufficient merit to justify our refusal to participate.
(1) There is the danger that each group of men will be misunderstood and misrepresented by the people with whom it stands identified in teaching and practice. All too many are quick to reach uninformed judgments and to hand down ill-advised pronouncements. There is also the distinct possibility that there are many who would rather fight than not, who really would not welcome a restoration of peace on any basis. A rash of this sort of thing in either group or both would certainly adversely affect the results of the discussion. It is hoped there is enough maturity and sincerity on both "sides" of the controversy to preclude this occurring.
(2) There is the danger that men who were present and men who were not will overestimate the accomplishments of the discussion, and, being by nature optimistic and idealistic, will overstate the case and create thereby unjustified apprehension and/ or impossible expectations.
Those who write or speak concerning this discussion should seek to inform themselves before doing so, then express themselves with intelligent restraint being careful to distinguish between their own interpretation of the meeting and what was actually said and done. For instance, it would be ill-advised and completely erroneous for one on the pro side of Current issues to conclude and announce to the world at large, "The Arlington meeting presages a general return of our, prodigal anti brethren to the fold." It would be quite as erroneous for one on the con side of current issues to infer and aver, "The Arlington meeting demonstrates that the liberals are about ready to throw in the gauntlet." It would be equally fallacious for the optimist to cry out, "Love has conquered; differences will be ignored, and diversity in fundamental practice tolerated." Fully wrong would be the pessimist and mote-hunter who wails, "Just a bunch of compromisers selling the truth down the river."
What did the meeting accomplish? It restored communication between brethren among whom it was all but extinct. It demonstrated that bitterness, acrimony, and personal vindictiveness and such like are not inevitably present in discussions' between brethren who differ. It proved that discussions can be conducted in which the teaching of the Bible on the points at issue is the sole consideration. It confirmed what all rational brethren have known all along, but have not practiced it; those labels and epithets prove nothing and are childish, irrelevant, and futile. The terms "anti" and "liberal" used without qualificatiori are alike repulsive to the respective groups of men to whom they are applied. They do not really advance the cause of either group unless the excitement of prejudice and party loyalty through feeding a spirit of sectarianism be regarded as indispensable to truth and unity. A number of those present from both groups at Arlington expressed themselves as being willing and ready to abandon the practice of applying such derogatory labels to each other. This within itself was noteworthy and no mean accomplishment.
My Personal Appraisal of the Arlington Meeting
It would be foolishly idealistic to the point of naiveté to regard this discussion as a major breakthrough in the settlement of current issues and consequent division. While I do not share the sentiments of Brother Reuel Lemmons in viewing our differences, as highlighted at Arlington, as matters of opinion and human judgment, I believe his appraisal of the affair as "a step in the right direction" is a sane, sensible judgment of its accomplishments. It was this, and no more.
In my view, the discussion made one thing crystal clear: we can never have unity until there can be a meeting of minds relative to a clear-cut, unequivocal, lucid means of determining what- ire essentials and what are incidentals in Divine Revelation, particularly in the realm of apostolic examples. It is not enough to assume that our differences are trivial because they involve only the question of "where to place a wavy line."
The wavy line has been used by a prominent writer in his development of an involved system of Biblical interpretation to illustrate the line of demarcation between the essential and the indifferent. He--said, "Optional and binding methods." Where to place this line when dealing with Biblical matters is of tremendous significance. Settle this problem and we have no issues connected with the subjects discussed at Arlington with a few possible exceptions. While this matter was vigorously debated at Arlington, we reached no agreement in our opposing attitudes. Until we do, there can never be unity. We can improve our attitudes and restore communication. We can talk with one another more rationally and effectively by reason of such improvement. But, we can never be united until we decide where to put the wavy line.
A Parting Admonition
The major and minor speeches in this discussion will be published. Manuscripts are even now being prepared from the tape recordings. There will be public announcement of progress as time passes. Let us all act wisely and scripturally by patiently waiting for the book so that we may reach judgments and make evaluations on the basis of facts not hearsay and unjustified interpretations. If it is the judgment of any that such a discussion is not advisable, let no one impugn his desire for peace, truth, or unity by reason of such judgment. On the other hand, let him not suppose that his judgment must become the standard by which others act in this regard. It is possible, just barely possible; their judgment might be as good as or better than his. Let not their soundness, unwillingness to compromise with error, ability to deal with matters affecting the peace and unity of God's people, and wisdom in prosecuting the fight for truth be impugned. The Arlington meeting was a discussion between two groups of reputable brethren concerning their differences in the realm of Bible teaching and practice with a view to promoting "the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace." This is all it was. Let the printed book speak as to the weight and reasoning and Scripture texts relative to the determination of truth on the subjects discussed. Let time and forthcoming events prove whether or not such a discussion is meritorious. Having participated, this writer believes such meetings conducted throughout the United States by sincere brethren might in time open doors to unity and peace which otherwise will be forever closed.
TRUTH MAGAZINE, XII: 8, pp. 5-9