December 18, 2017

The Gospel: Bound or Bent?: (A Review of Bruce Edwards, Jr.)

By Steve Wolfgang

I have been asked to review the most recent material submitted by Bruce Edwards, Jr., for publication in Truth Magazine. I have refrained until now from commenting publicly or in writing specifically about Bruce's voluminous writings during the last few years, even though I have had a good deal of contact with Bruce during that time. This contact includes not only several personal conversations but a rather lengthy exchange of personal letters between us during the same general period of the exchange of letters between Bruce and Edward Fudge, now edited and published as A Journey Toward Jesus. The only major exception to my familiarity with Bruce's recent writing is the material published in Arnold Hardin's bulletin. Brother Hardin rather unceremoniously removed me from his mailing list (as I understand he has done to others as well) several years ago when I had the audacity to question some of the things taught in that bulletin. It is this sort of paper - The Persuader, Mission, etc. known as espousers of liberalism in one form or another, to which Bruce has increasingly lent his influence and support in the last few years.

Some Introductory Matters

My restraint in commenting about Bruce's writings stems as much from lack of time due to involvement in other projects as much as my personal disinclination to enter into an expose; it certainly has not been because of any approval on my part of the course of Bruce's published material nor his attitude therein expressed. I do see the need for that sort of thing, however, and have been in general agreement with some who have taken some abusive criticism for their review of Bruce's material.

The editor of this paper is not the only one to request that I review the material Bruce sent to him for publication. Bruce himself specifically named me as one of the few he wanted to review it, stating to Mike Willis, "1 would personally rather see you or Ron (presumably Ron Halbrook SW) or Steve do the responding because we have had so much contact" and furthermore stating his opinion that those of us mentioned would not be "as inclined to make the kind of prejudicial statements that Lavender did in his article" (Edwards letter to Mike Willis, 6 November 1978; the reference is to Bill Lavender's review of Journey Toward Jesus which appeared in the September 21, 1978 issue of Truth Magazine (Volume 22, no. 37).

The only comment I care to make regarding Brother Lavender's article is to add a loud and hearty "Amen!" to it. I thought enough of the Lavender article to reprint it in the local church bulletin where I preach, as Bruce would know had he not requested us to remove his name from the Expressway mailing list over a year ago. In my estimation, Brother Lavender said many things which perhaps should have been said long before now and which will bear repeating. Bruce's booklet of correspondence with Edward has been circulated and recommended in the Louisville area (and elsewhere) by some who share the convictions and opinions expressed in that correspondence, in an attempt to win converts to those views. It is nothing short of amazing to me to behold the close mindedness of those who are either following or preceding Bruce down the road he now travels. Those of us who are styled "narrow-minded" or "legalistic" because we may preach somewhat more critically than happens to suit some who pride themselves on their broad mindedness often take and read many papers with which we disagree (and have to pay for most of them); but these self-proclaimed "enlightened ones" cannot be bothered to read the other side, or will cut you off if you dare to disagree with what they write.

There is an additional consideration which should be mentioned by way of introduction before I undertake to consider Bruce's most recent article (which I shall do by simply taking his remarks in order and making some general observations regarding them). Anyone who undertakes a critical review of another's position, particularly in religion, runs the risk of being labeled a "head-hunter," "spiritual policeman," "brotherhood watchdog," on a "witch-hunt" or some other equally uncomplimentary terminology. The following comment from one of the "evangelical" writers from whom Bruce has so much affection fairly illustrates, in another context, the hazards of "heretic detecting." John R. W. Stott, an Anglican writing in Christianity Today (November 4, 1977, p. 35), questions whether public exposure is the best way to deal with such problems because "heretics are slippery creatures" who often disguise their true intentions by the misleading usage of familiar language. "Besides," he says, "in our age of easy tolerance, the arraigned heretic becomes in the public mind first the innocent victim of bigoted prosecutors, than a martyr, then a hero or saint." It occurs to me that what Bruce has done is to deliberately set himself up for a review which he knows in advance will be critical. Whether he has done this with the conscious intention of creating sympathy for his position by appearing to become a "martyr," I cannot say, but no doubt that will be the effect in the minds of some who will read this exchange. Nonetheless, I believe response needs to be made to a number of Bruce's very personally insulting and prejudicial remarks, and if I am to be cast in the role of the "big bad Wolf," so be it.

On "Career Management" And Character Assassination

In his letter to Mike Willis, Bruce goes to some length to argue that he cares not what brethren think about his teaching or whether they approve or not. He says, in part, "I have long ago ceased to care per se what the writing or preaching brethren say or feel about me. I do not look to them for spiritual health or approval. Some have indicated they can `make me or break me' career-wise . . . but I am unwilling to `play up to' those brethren who are reputed to be somewhat in order to have this `support."'

All of which may be very interesting but is nonetheless quite inconsequential with respect to the issue at hand. I know of no one dedicated to the truth who would not agree wilt the principles Bruce propounds and seems to think he alone follows - that we should all preach our convictions regardless of the outcome in the eyes of men, even our brethren in the Lord. I suspect that more than a few preaching brethren who, along with their families, have suffered spiritually, emotionally, financially, and in every other way on account of their convictions beyond anything Bruce has ever experienced would find such pompous pronouncements at best slightly humorous if not downright disgusting. The fact of the matter is, despite Bruce's pious platitudes in this regard, that when a number of churches who had been assisting Bruce financially began to question Bruce's teachings of late and then to discontinue supporting Bruce as he spread his opinions about grace and fellowship, there was considerable crying about "brotherhood policemen and watchdogs." Those who, like Bruce, espouse these noble ideals need to practice what they preach and be willing to openly and publicly own up to what they believe, and suffer the consequences - financial or otherwise - without either whining about being "persecuted" or resorting to devious methods or aloofness to hide their beliefs from those who support them financially. This is simply basic intellectual honesty. (Should anyone doubt that this has occurred in Bruce's case I believe ample documentation could be supplied, since Bruce evidently has no objection to the publishing of personal correspondence.)

It is curious to me, though, that with all of Bruce's protestations about not caring what anyone else thinks or being unwilling to "use" anyone else to give him a badge of legitimacy, Bruce in his very next paragraph does just exactly that - using my name. In an attempt to make his work in Manhattan, Kansas, appear to be "as sound as any congregation in Kansas or Ohio or Kentucky" (why he should single out those places I know not), Bruce says, "You ask Steve Wolfgang who spent a Sunday morning with us: He sang, prayed, ate the Lord's supper, participated in class, commended my sermon, bid the church godspeed. Am I to take that as endorsement or not? If I am the false teacher I am supposed to be, Steve must have compromised his convictions because he made no attempt to 'convict the gainsayer' or warn the brethren in any way that I was a wolf in sheep's clothing. If I felt about him the way he and you seem to feel about me, I know I couldn't have been silent. "

The fact of the matter is that my wife and I worshiped in Manhattan not only because it was the only place we knew of to worship in that part of central Kansas (we were returning from a meeting in Denver, Colorado) but also because I happened to know that there was at least one family in the Manhattan church who, despite Bruce's assertions to the contrary, were very definitely in favor of his leaving due to his publicly circulated views on grace, faith, etc. While in Manhattan I discussed just such mattes with the head of one of the four families which composes one-fourth of the Manhattan congregation. As to my "endorsement" of Bruce, he well states later in his letter, "I do not personally think that every single. act of fellowship must constitute an endorsement of everything the other fellow believes in . . . . " Exactly so. I was not about to breeze into a place almost completely unknown to the church and create a ruckus during Bible study or worship, though I would likely have responded had Bruce taught something plainly contrary to the Scriptures instead of preaching, as he did, a rather standard, Christianity Today type lesson on the significance of "Christ and the Six o'clock News" with the gospel plan of salvation tacked on to the end. He invited comments from anyone during the Bible study; I took him at his word and commented where I felt it was appropriate; he commended my remarks. I told him his lesson was well-presented and interesting, which it was, though certainly not distinctive either in content or format. It was a very general type lesson to which (except for the last five minutes) most conservative denominational preachers could have said "amen." It contained no false teaching as far as I could ascertain, but then it did not condemn very much either. I suppose many of us, myself included, have on occasion preached general lessons on the need for faith such as that one. I am somewhat surprised (but perhaps it is only my naivete showing) that Bruce would attempt to use such an incident as a badge of his "orthodoxy."

Finally, for whatever it is worth, it should be noted that the "make or break your career" syndrome evidently runs on both sides of this issue (as if it had anything to do with the substance of the issue itself). I recall vividly receiving a letter several years ago from a close personal friend who at that time held (and still may for all I know) some of Bruce's notions on the grace/fellowship issues. In that letter I was warned of dire consequences to my "career" as a preacher and my "success" in that endeavor if I should continue to be associated with Truth Magazine. All of which has absolutely nothing to do with the issues at hand; why Bruce should introduce it I know not, except it be to cloud the issues and make it appear that what we are engaging in is nothing more than a squabble by a bunch of prideful, self-promoting, professional, career-oriented preachers.

On Judging Motives

Bruce seems to be overly concerned that someone might be guilty of judging his motives, or those of others who hold his persuasions. I have no desire to defend or endorse anyone who is guilty of passing judgment on another's motives, whether it be done by one who might agree with me or whether it is done by Bruce Edwards, Jr. Thou art the man, Bruce, when it comes to motivejudgment. I shall not belabor the point, but if the following quotations from "The Bound Gospel" do not constitute unjust and unholy judgments of the hearts and motives of those whom Bruce condemnsl- pray tell what would it take to do so? Bruce has written off a good segment of his brethren, including evidently most preachers, as egotistical power-seekers who seek only their own glorification and gratification. One gets the distinct impression that Bruce thinks most of us have terrible attitudes, and that seems to bother him much worse than the rankest doctrinal error. Notice the following excerpts: Bruce says we have "succumbed to . . . the desire for a king. A creedalism that was formerly unofficial and unarticulated is now becoming more and more explicit -day by day various editors are drawing up the peculiar list of doctrines that will constitute . . . faithfulness . . . . "' Somewhat later he accuses those of us who do not use Acts 2:38 the way he thinks we ought to of simplistic, shallow misapprehension of the Scriptures. Quoth he, "Have we not . . . taken it as a glib prooftext for some peculiar distinctiveness about 'our church' and missed the profound depth that is there? Yes, I am convinced it is so . . . . We have taken a gospel which is simple and made it simplistic. " Bruce furthermore would have us believe that the major concern for truth, in his words, "championed in churches of Christ" is only that sort of partyism "where in fact much of the emphasis is on certain 'key' issues - issues which preachers, editors, elders and other leaders are able to 'keep track of' in terms of party platforms acrd unwritten creeds. " That there may be instances of this sort of attitude among some people I would not undertake to deny, but if such comments do not represent wholesale, across-the-board accusations involving judgment of others' motives, I am not sure what it would take to constitute such things.

Bruce seems to be making, in his writing, the somewhat egotistical error (common to those who have preceded Bruce on his circuitious "journey") of assuming that because he may once have had in his heart a legalistic and sectarian concept, therefore everyone who does not now agree with him or follow him along the primrose path must also have legalistic or sectarian concepts.

What Is The Issue?

As to the more substantial portions of Bruce's article, I find much in his comments on fellowship with which I do not disagree. This review was not designed or intended as a detailed scriptural exegesis or criticism of Bruce's use of passages of Scripture. Bruce uses many passages, which like the Baptist who cites a multitude of passages on "faith" to prove "faith only," touch neither top, side or bottom of the proposition which he sets out to prove. I disagree with none of the passages which Bruce cites, but I do deny that most of the conclusions which he draws from these passages are warranted by these Scriptures. Much of what I preach on the question of fellowship proper sounds very similiar to what Bruce espouses in his article. I am not sure that we move in the same direction from whatever common ground we may occupy there, however. Bruce has tried to lend an air of legitimacy (or "orthodoxy," if I may be permitted the use of that word) to his teachings by claiming privately that he is not saying anything not said by men such as Ed Harrell or Robert Turner. I am not sure that this is so, and would suggest that Bruce and others who really think they are saying the same thing as Harrell, Turner, et. al. reread articles such as Turner's "Stand Up And Say It" or Harrell's "Love It Or Leave It."

Secondly, Bruce does not say much more in "The Bound Gospel" than what he has already said before in previously published writings -- writings which have (I believe rightly) brought critical reactions from a number of brethren who are careful and diligent students of the Scriptures. In essence, this most recent article of Bruce's clarifies nothing.

In the exchange with Mike Willis which elicited these most recent articles from Bruce, Mike asked Bruce a number of questions which I find quite germane to the issues which separate Bruce and myself (as well as Bruce and others). I shall not reproduce Mike's questions here, lest this review become unduly long, but they were good questions which focus the issues clearly. I am sure Mike would be happy to supply a copy of those dozen questions to any interested reader. The point is, as far as I can tell from reading "The Bound Gospel" there is no serious effort made to consider most of them, let alone any attempt to give an unequivocal answer! Bruce has simply reconfirmed in my mind his unwillingness to face up to some substantive issues.

It appears to me that crux of Bruce's article follows his quotation of Phil. 3:7-I 1. Several paragraphs later he concludes: ' My faith-response is to try diligently to understand and obey all that 1 find in His word whether command, example or inference - and exhort others to do the same. My 'holding firm to the word' involves this life-long walk with the Lord . . . which demands my attention to obedience, while trusting in the sacrifice of Jesus to cover my sins. . ., confessing all known sins and asking God to forgive those as yet undiscerned by a faithful heart striving to please Him. " This is all well and good, so far as it goes, but the fact is that it completely skirts the issue. How does one determine when his 'faith-response" and "walk" is in harmony with what God wills? To Bruce's rhetoric most good Southern Baptists and many other denominationalists could offer a resounding "Amen." They would insist that their walk of faith is based squarely upon God's grace, and that they "hold firm to the word" and demand attention to obedience. But they just do not see that baptism is a condition of salvation! Let Bruce address himself to this issue: Is the necessity of baptism for salvation "too clear for any `honest heart' to miss"? Does a person's salvation depend upon his being "right" (or "right enough") on this "issue"? If it does, what makes this particular issue such a special category (to Bruce)-but not to the Baptist (or Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, etc.) "man of faith" who uses Bruce's identical words about his profession of faith, life-long walk with the Lord, etc? Could it be the fact that Bruce was "raised in the church" and this issue has some particular emotional appeal to him, inbred from childhood, or is it indeed something "too clear for any `honest heart' to miss" and, therefore, a command of the Lord necessary to salvation? Bruce may regard such questions as "trite," but he has made no attempt to date to come down and deal with them - and I predict he will not. Should he decide to do so, I think he may find they focus the issues of difference between us rather clearly, and indicate that what separates us is not personal animosity, pride, creed-making, power politics, etc. though there may indeed be instances of all this. It is certainly true that those who teach the truth may have bad attitudes, or that I or others may hold the wrong disposition regardless of whether we hold a true position on a given issue; it is possible to be lost in spite of the fact that one teaches the truth. But all these questions are not really the central issues, as interested parties can readily see.

The same point may be made with respect to Bruce's comments under Roman numeral "V." When Bruce says, "To place some honest brother or sister who misunderstands at this point (according to my fallible judgment) some point of Scripture in the same category as a willfully disobedient rebel is to suggest absurdity. If there are occasions in your life where you have been honestly mistaken, you know then that all people who fail to see your point are wicked reprobates. " I ask "What points"? Baptism? Evolution? The inspiration of the Scriptures? The deity of Christ? I know a good many urbane, well-educated, morally upright people who "just don't see it like I do" on these and other rather basic points. Is a neo-orthodox theologian who lives a "good life" replete with "good works" and talks, as Bruce does, of his "walk of faith" and "commitment to the word" and all of Bruce's other borrowed catchphrases a "wicked reprobate?" (Why Bruce should inject such a loaded term connoting total evil I cannot understand - unless it be to cloud the issue.)

Finally, I want to pay some respects to Bruce's comments on "fellowship" and "local churches" as "functioning units." I ask Bruce the same questions I have asked Edward Fudge on this point (and have yet to receive an answer). If all those "in Christ" (I presume Bruce is as yet unwilling to recognize the pious unimmersed as in Christ, though some clarification from him might be in order on this point) are "one in the Lord" but simply cannot have local fellowship (sharing) together in the same local church, how can we speak of division over issues such as instrumental music or support of institutions? If you have a "Christian Church" composed of baptized believers on one corner and a "Church of Christ" composed of baptized believers on the next corner in the same town, aren't they all "one in Christ" but just unable to have "fellowship" together in a local sense because they differ on issues like instrumental music? If this is all there is to "fellowship," how can there be "division"? 1 seem to recall Bruce Edwards asking Edward Fudge some similar questions in some correspondence somewhere but I do not recall reading a clear, unequivocal answer? I wonder how Bruce now deals with such questions since Edward has now evidently "converted" him? Perhaps one or both of them will clarify their position for us.

Conclusion

Preparing this review has not been an easy task. Were it not for the weight of the central issues involved, and for the rather high stakes (human souls) which are being affected by teachings like Bruce's, I would have declined to invest the time, effort, and emotional and spiritual energy necessary to bring to publication. Even now there are questions in my mind as to the wisdom of giving Bruce any more public exposure than he has already received, or of appearing to make a martyr of him in the eyes of some. Again, it was done at his request, and I am glad to know that Bruce realized that Truth Magazine would publish his material, and that he felt there were some of us who are not on a personal crusade against him. It is sorrowful to have to engage in this sort of critical endeavor, and someone who has never done so cannot realize what an agonizing experience it can be, and is. But who can abide the aternative, which is to sit in sweet blissfulness, ignoring both the teaching and consequences of the positions which have turned Bruce (and others who do or may follow) in his present direction? I certainly cannot continue to sit quietly by, and say nothing. With the hopefulness that some may begin to see the consequences of the road Bruce now travels, or be stengthened in their convictions, I submit this review "with fear and trembling." May the Lord help us to see and do that which is right.

Truth Magazine XXIII: 26, pp. 425-427
June 28, 1979

Share