"Lovest thou Me more than These"
Over the past twenty years there has been a growing discussion among brethren and in some of the papers expressing fear over the growing centralization of influence and power among editors, papers, evangelical foundations and organizations, and the one college run by our faithful brethren. It has caused some brethren, notably in Texas, to question the very right of an independent organization run by brethren for religious ends to even exist.
Those who support the individual's liberty to organize have felt quite strongly that this growing debate would result in schism among the "conservative brotherhood" (actually there is no such thing as a "conservative brotherhood" but we will be accommodative as a discussion of that point is not within the scope of this article). Because of this fear, privately they have tried to put a "lid" on discussion of the subject in print.
Quite benignly and with high motive, articles dealing with the dangers of organizations and their influence have faded from print. Some have continued the deliberations in independent and expressive journals like Torch and the Gospel Anchor. To judge from the content and tone of the writing done though, it seems as though they have come under a great deal of criticism for doing so. Also, the limited circulation of these papers has not provided a very representative discussion of the issues involved.
This past debate has raised several very good issues that need to be discussed. But, more disturbing than the disagreements are 'the very strong emotions which have surfaced as a result of the dispute. As with any subject which becomes colored by emotion, understanding and patience between brethren has begun to fray.
Is This A New Issue?
To argue that this issue will divide us, is all the more reason to discuss it. Reaching a common understanding is sometimes both arduous and frustrating, but too much is at stake to merely ignore one another and hope the other is "swept" under the rug." The context of the discussion may be new, but the principles underlying the relationship of the institution with the saint are hardly freshly arisen among us.
There are those who worship at the shrine of denominational organizations. They give their money and their lives to build them and they will not turn away from them even for God. Such people have not stopped to realize that they have sworn fidelity to a human organization rather than to God and His Christ. The Psalmist tells us that they who build the house labor in vain unless God does the building (Psa. 127:1). When all is said and done, their only reward will be in the organization they have built; for God will not recognize it or them. They were builders, but they built the wrong kind of house (Gospel Guardian, Vo. 2, No. 25, p. 8).
Brother Cogdill's words were not directed primarily at the unscriptural nature of the organizations he had in mind (though, no doubt, they were unscriptural because of their funding), but his objection was at the place such institutions had in the hearts of those who promoted them. In our discussion today of "our" institutions (and they are only "ours" in the sense that they are run by brethren we trust and have fellowship with), there has been a persistent misunderstanding that opposition to the place an organization holds in a brother's heart is opposition to the organization itself. Whether the misunderstanding is the result of malice, prejudice, or faulty perception, its effects are impossible to deny. It is as difficult to dissuade as the long-lived opinion, held by some that to oppose the church's support of an orphan's home is to oppose orphans! Certainly, ,if God can oppose the place the tower of Babel held in the hearts of its builders, without being opposed to towers, cannot good-intentioned brethren sound warnings of similar quality?
This writer does not oppose gospel papers, religious journalism, or good education. But, we hope that all godly saints are opposed to devotion to any human group, and the power such groups may wield over the independent thought and action of the brethren. To deny that existing groups do have such influence (whether it is practiced or not is another question) is to deny the plain message of history and the testimony of our own eyes. That is not at issue. What is of concern is, what do we do about it?
To quote Brother James Adams, former senior advisor to the Truth Magazine staff, staff writer for Preceptor, and present editor of Gospel Guardian, "The world is full of institutions of every kind, religious and otherwise, but there is one institution that is infinitely superior to all others . . . . an institution of such character and dignity is worthy of a full measure of our devotion: The church 'of our Lord Jesus Christ. The church of the New Testament, as God made it, possesses an organization perfectly adapted to and adequate for the accomplishment of the mission with which God has charged it" (Gospel Guardian, Vol. 3, No. 6, p. 8).
Again, Brother Adams does not address himself to the scripturality or right-to-exist of any institution built by man, but emphasizes their lack of relevance beside the all-sufficiency of the church, the one institution designed to accomplish God's spiritual goals on earth. The institution, right or wrong, is not in competition with, opposition to or supplemental to God's church. It is utterly irrelevant.
We need to learn from the words and experiences of others. The message of the past is the message of today. In considering A. Campbell and his associates, we need to weigh the great good he did against the irreparable harm he wrought in his support of the societies and colleges. The great influence for good accomplished through' the pages of the Gospel Advocate and Firm Foundation should be weighed against their effect in the past thirty years. The colleges begotten by pioneer educators, godly men all for the most part, need to be compared with those same colleges today as they turn out rebellion and falsehood. The ability of power to corrupt the leaders and administrators of these institutions has proven historically to be without exception. Even within the history .of the church we find the warring given that "of your own selves (elderships) shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them. Therefore watch. . ." (Acts 20:30, 31). To oppose what power does to an eldership, is not to oppose the eldership. The conclusion of the apostles was "Therefore watch!" We need to be aware of the dangers among us, and be on guard.
"Today we look diligently for the statement that might justify our conduct. In all of this we are only worshipping the idol of self-justification. If we are wrong, we should face it, and correct it. The greatest act of self-deception is the effort men make to justify themselves" (Cogdill, Ibid.).
James Adams, after quoting the words of Tolbert Fanning who questioned giving any loyalty to human organizations, wrote, "Do we really learn from history, or do we but interpret its lessons in the light of our own ambitious desires for the present" (Gospel Guardian, Vol. 2, No. 4, p. 2)?
"Learning from history" means applying history's lessons to ourselves. If these organizations and associations (whatever they may be) have been so apt to apostasize in the past, we need to guard and be sensitive (even over-sensitive?) to such trends we might be associated with. "Apostasy does not come overnight. It comes gradually and takes us unawares. That is why trends must be noted and departures detected in their beginning. When a trend away from the truth is noted and attention is called to it, it is never taken seriously by many: They `just can's see any harm in it' and the devil will keep them blinded if he can" (Cogdill, Gospel Guardian, Vol. 2, 1 No. 6, p. 9). If we "put a lid" on discussion of any valid topic, we are not avoiding in a healthy way the abuses of the past, but are compounding them. How can we oppose the failings of others if we ourselves are not bound by the same rule?
"The way to meet the problem is... (in) recognizing .all the while the serious dangers inherent in any organization (gospel journals as well as colleges) which influence and mold public opinion. A responsible college administration will be aware of this and will `Lean over backward' to give full and ample opportunity for criticisms to be voiced and for opposing views to be presented. Any college (or journal) which permits itself to be used as a 'propaganda organ,' permitting no expression of contrary views is unworthy of anybody's support" (F. Y. Tant, Gospel Guardian, Vol. 13, No. 8, p. 116).
There is more than one way to "censor" the contrary view-whatever that view might be. The most effective way is to ignore it, limit its expression, and privately discredit it. Papers have a greater capacity to do this than most other institutions for they are designed to be a media of communication with masses of brethren, while colleges and private organizations are not. So, upon the papers lay a greater responsibility than other institutions. Papers run by godly brethren, above all others, need to provide for free discussion and intercourse on legitimate issues, in a setting and atmosphere conducive to finding truth.
Brother Robert Turner, writer for Vanguard and Plain Talk, raised some interesting questions on this issue that have yet to be discussed and decided. "Is it possible for brethren to function collectively in the teaching of the word of God, in some relationship other than that of the local congregation, and not infringe on the allsufficiency of the Lord's church? Or do we need to reexamine our definition of `all-sufficiency'? We will not answer these questions by `blowing our top' "(Preceptor, Vol. 11, No. 11, p. 172). 'Blow our top' indeed. Surely we are capable as God's children to .discuss something as important as this without the mistakes emotionalism genders, that same emotionalism which is so puzzling in our liberal brethren.
It may be presumptuous of this writer to suggest to his brethren anything that flavors of "wise advice." Being young in years and experience, bruised and bloodied by past mistakes, this source is questioned by many, we feel sure. But, love of my brethren and an unconquerable faith in the saint's good will makes me bold. Since all recognize the abuse of the past, it behooves those who write and edit words which reach large numbers of brethren in print to do so with humility and concern for proper influence. Let us refrain from addressing the elderships of all the churches with personal views of wisdom and practice. Let us avoid instructing all preachers in our views of proper and necessary sermon content. We need to beware before we step forward to issue a call, or blow a trumpet, or seek to arouse the "Brotherhood" around, before, or behind us on any issue. The call has already been made by our Captain (Heb. 2:10; Psa. 60:4). We battle against all evil, whatever form it may take. The fault does not always lie with the content of our call, but in its precedent and presumption.
As writers, we need to let the content of our writing be designed to build up and instruct (Eph. 4:29, Col. 4:16). Too often what is written is just plain mean, in its inference, tone, and thrust. This does not negate the truth, but it does make it more difficult to win an argument. "A brother offended is harder won than a city with walls." Or .as Brother Turner put it, "We won't answer these questions by blowing our top." Reasoning together is the only method we have for obtaining unity.
All brethren of contrary views need to divest themselves of any beleaguered mentality. As Brother Cogdill put it, "If we are wrong, we should face up to it, and correct it:" We might add, if we are right, we are in God's hands, and can therefore glorigy God if we are despitefully used. Either way, "everyone who doeth evil hateth the light. . . but he that doeth truth cometh to the light." Only the false way suffers from honest investigation. Repression, denial, stopped ears, and insensitive hearts are not the tools of the seeker of truth.
Those open papers which are published by good and faithful brethren should find means to provide fair and honest discussion of legitimate differences between brethren. Several.means come to mind, but they all fall under the heading "Do unto others, even as you would they do unto you." Men who have been stung by the censorship and unrequited review of brethren in the past should be sensitive to the feelings and conscience of those they may find themselves in disagreement with.
Finally, the papers, colleges, and organizations should be the first to draw attention to and decry their abuse by brethren. Denying a problem does not make it go away. The institution which will last longest as an aid to brethren will be that institution kept in bonds, and carefully pruned by critical and wary leaders. Because, in truth, the officers of such institutions are the only ones who are able to keep their effort viable. Other brethren may criticise, but only those brethren actually associated with these efforts will effect any change. When they are silent, one is only left to wonder whether their power has already corrupted them.
Truth Magazine XXII: 33, pp. 535-537