1950s: Seedbed for Current Liberalism

By Richard Boone

What has brought us to the present day? What lies ahead in the future? To answer these and other important questions, it is wise and useful for us to study our past. That is what this article is all about.

For the last 40 years a division has existed among churches of Christ concerning human institutions and their relationship to local churches. In recent years another battle has arisen among those churches which accepted institutional thought and practices from the 1950s – abandonment of the Scriptures in authority, teaching and practice. Legion are the sermons, articles, tracts, books and lectureships which are trying to stem this swelling tide of apostasy.

I do not believe that everyone who disagrees with my position on the relationship of human institutions to the local church is from the same mold as many of the leading voices currently heard among institutional brethren (i.e., Rubel Shelly, Mike Cope, Randy Mayeux, Max Lucado, etc.). In fact it has been quite refreshing to hear several among institutional churches reemphasize the need for Bible authority in teaching and practice in recent years. I cite the following as evidence: the 1990 Dallas Meeting (especially the session on Biblical authority), Goebel Music’s Behold The Pattern (1991), Rightly Dividing The Word (Vols. 1 and 2; lectureship of the Shenandoah Church of Christ, San Antonio, TX; 19901991; edited by Terry M. Hightower), the Freed Hardeman University “Preachers and Church Workers” Forums (19891991), the 1993 Spiritual Sword Lectureship (“The Restoration: The Winds Of Change”), articles in The Spiritual Sword, etc. I rejoice that there is a renewed interest in biblical authority! However, my joy is tempered by two important facts: (1) the reality that these brethren still employ the sponsoring church arrangement and advocate church support of human benevolent organizations, and (2) the rhetoric which is used to justify these practices. It is the same justification which was used in the 1950s.

I believe the justification of the 1950s for these practices planted seeds which, over time, led to a change in views toward biblical authority, the mission of the church, the worship, etc. For me to believe this is one thing; to document it is another. To the best of my ability and as objectively as I could, I carefully studied and documented the reasoning used in advocacy of these practices from four major debates. Frankly, I was surprised at some of theological and weak arguments used to support the sponsoring church arrangement and church support of benevolent organizations. While some may disagree with my conclusions, I believe they are historically accurate. As we pursue matters pertinent to this historical connection, all I can ask of each reader is that he will read objectively and that we will strive to handle the Scriptures and the historical records honestly. I now beseech your careful attention to that end.

The Danger of Self Deception

One of the greatest dangers in evaluating any problem is self-deception. When one refuses to remove his “rose-colored glasses,” he will not face problems objectively, therefore analyzing and solving them is difficult, if not impossible. The Bible warns about the danger of being self deceived.

In the context of reliance on human wisdom Paul plainly stated, “Let no one deceive himself ” (1 Cor. 3:18). Pertaining to proper self evaluation he also said, “For if anyone thinks himself to be something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself’ (Gal. 6:3). In a book which is most practical for daily Christian living, James warned that Christians should not deceive themselves (Jas. 1:22,26). The apostle John admonished Christians not to deceive themselves about sin in their lives (1 Jn. 1:8). How are these warnings relevant to the subject at hand?

We can deceive ourselves about ourselves – our relationship to God (2 Cor. 10: 18), our brethren (2 Cor. 10:12), or the spiritual condition of the local church of which we are a part (Rev. 23). Self deception can also skew our perspective of history. When we do not want to admit mistakes or failures, we can choose to ignore persons, places, events and/or concepts which are more than mere anecdotes. It is the reasoning which says, “Don’t acknowledge what anyone might bring up and it will be as if it had never happened.” It appears (to me at least) that this is often the perspective of those who continue to hold to institutional thought and practices. Don’t mention what was said (orally or written) or done. Just ignore “antiism” and it will go away. This sentiment has even been expressed. Lest institutional brethren rain fire down upon me for that assessment, let me make some further remarks.

While there were sinful attitudes and actions on the “liberal” side of this division, there were also the same on the “conservative” side of it. Borrowing from Steve Wolfgang’s historical material presented at the 1988 Nashville Meeting, “It is no doubt true that there may have been many instances of no institutional brethren who used `mirror logic,’ vacating the premises before they were invited to leave, displaying rancorous attitudes in the process, heaping derision and vilification upon their ‘liberal’ opponents. I am not arguing that noninstitutional brethren always behaved themselves as they should; surely there is enough sin to go around in this or any other division” (“History and Background of the Institutional Controversy,” Guardian of Truth, XXXIII:9 [May 4, 1989], 16). This present article does not claim perfection in attitudes and actions during the 1950s from the “conservative” side. It must also be candidly stated that we can err in our view of the history of this division. That is an ever-present danger for us, too. I am sure that there are institutional brethren whose historical view of institutionalism is much different from our own. The best I know to do is to be as objective as possible in hearing and learning from what history has to tell us. None of us can afford to be self deceived!

Error’s Methodology

“For Satan himself transforms himself into an angel of light” (2 Cor. 11:14). This is not a surprise to diligent students of the Scriptures. Jesus warned that false teachers would come as wolves in sheep’s clothing (Matt. 7:15). Such is the means of Satan – working under a false guise. It should not shock us, therefore, that if Satan and his messengers work by such means, that their fruit – error – accomplishes its destruction by the same means. In fact, we are taught just that via several comparisons in the Bible.

Leaven: This term is used in good and bad ways. We are concerned here with its use in describing the work of error. Originally, this term referred to dough which was soured and wine which was fermented. This was done by the chemical change of the substance whereby the atoms of soured dough or fermented wine continue their motion until all of the substance became leavened or fermented. From this background came its spiritual application to false doctrine or toleration of ungodliness among Christians (Matt. 16:6; Mk. 8:5; Lk. 12:1; Gal. 5:8; 1 Cor. 5:68). This is why we must be so vigilant (1 Pet. 5:89). The continual and unobservable work of error sneaks up and seizes us before we realize what has occurred. This is why error can be so powerful in an individual, local congregation or the brotherhood.

Cancer: What dread and fear this term strikes into our hearts when the diagnosis has been made! Why? Because we understand the undetectable and destructive nature of this disease within the human body. The method and consequences are no different in the spiritual realm. In fact, Paul described it this way: “But shun profane and vain babblings, for they will increase to more ungodliness. And their message will spread like cancer. Hymenaeus and Philetus are of this sort, who have strayed concerning the truth, saying that the resurrection is already past; and they overthrow the faith of some” (2 Tim. 2:1618; italics mine, rb). Like cancer, this is how error accomplishes its devastation – slowly and undetectably.

Drifting: Timothy was charged as a young preacher to wage the good warfare with faith and a good conscience lest he, like Hymenaeus and Alexander, “suffer shipwreck of the faith” (1 Tim. 1:1820). The journey of a Christian toward heaven thus has its parallel to a ship’s journey. Again, this is where error is so dangerous.

We are warned to “give the more earnest heed to the things we have heard, lest we drift away” (Heb. 2:1; italics mine, rb). To better understand the necessary implications of this phrase, consider the remarks of W.E. Vine who says that this term literally means “to flow past, glide by, is used in Heb. 2:1, where the significance is to find oneself flowing or passing by, without giving due heed to a thing” (Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words I:339). This describes the nature of most apostasies from the faith. They occur slowly over a period of time. Before we realize it, we are far removed from the truth. A careful study of the Ephesian church’s history in light of Revelation 2:17 is helpful in under standing how easily, slowly and unnoticeably drifting can occur. That is why we must always be careful and pay close attention to what we hear, say and do lest we contribute to the apostasy of individuals or local churches.

The Rhetoric of the 1950s

Before proceeding with the reviews of debates from this decade, I should explain how I did my research. From each debate, I wrote the arguments presented in defense of each position (regardless of my personal view) and documented them by page number. By the time I finished, I had 35 pages of single-spaced notes. I then grouped the arguments of each debate into sections – scriptural, logical reasoning, history, personal, etc. From these groupings I chose the material which is here presented. I triple checked all materials used for accuracy. I have tried my best to be objective in preparing this article. If you judge otherwise, please attribute my failure to weakness of the flesh, not the spirit.

The Indianapolis Debate (W.L. Totty/Sterl A. Watson and Charles A. Holt; Garfield Heights church of Christ; October 1822, 1954): This debate included three subjects. Totty and Watson affirmed: (1) the right of local churches to support colleges, (2) the right of local churches to support benevolent organizations, and (3) the sponsoring church arrangement (such as the Herald of Truth program) for evangelism as scriptural. Holt denied these (7,69,185). My review of Totty’s and Watson’s material falls into two categories.

Attitudes toward authority: Several statements manifest weakness toward authority and the need for scriptural support of a proposition. Space permits only a few examples to be listed. The standard of authority often called upon was the beliefs and practices of the pioneers and the generation of preachers between 19001950 (1416). Furthermore, a December 6, 1950 letter to Robert Welch from W.L. Totty said, “There are many things in church work which are not directly commanded by the Bible” (157). Totty listed various methods of traveling, telephones, typewriters, etc. While these are not directly commanded by the Bible, they are authorized under generic authority. But to parallel and include colleges and benevolent homes under the same reasoning simply will not work. There is a vast difference between helps in completing a task (modes of travel, phones, typewriters, etc.) and changes in the organization doing that task (from God’s – the church – to a human organization – college or orphan home). Moreover it was stated that the church could do like its Head (234,259260,306). Just as Jesus healed all and preached to all, so should we use every means – including benevolent homes and sponsoring church arrangements – to show mercy and preach. Finally, since every detail of every benevolent case in the New Testament could not be given, how could one say that the New Testament churches didn’t have benevolent homes (167169)? These were the types of reasoning used to “justify” institutionalism and the sponsoring church arrangement in this debate. Frankly, I was shocked!

Scriptural argumentation: For the right of the church to support colleges, it was affirmed to be a “good work” (Tit. 3:8; 13,31). It was said that parents should send their children to Bible colleges to avoid leading them into temptation at state universities (Matt. 6:13; 57). Wherever the gospel is preached (and it is in the college according to Totty), the church can support it (1 Tim. 3:15; 57). Parents are to nurture their children (Eph. 6:4; 57). For church support of orphan homes, Gal. 6:10 and Jas. 1:27 were cited (7778,111,168,172), as was 1 Timothy 5:910 (132133). Benevolent homes are a method, an expedient, therefore justifiable (114). Since the individual and the church are the same, they can do the same things (132). To support the sponsoring church arrangement in evangelism, the following passages were given: Matt. 28:1920 (187,285286), Eph. 2:10 and Tit. 3:8 (194195), and 2 Cor. 8, Acts 11, and Rom. 15 (216,261265). Also, what Jesus would do came into play here (234,306).

The Harper Tant (#2) Debate (E.R. Harper of Abilene, TX and Fanning Yater Tant of Lufkin, TX; held at Abilene, TX; November 2730, 1955): Officially, the propositions said, “The Gospel Guardian, with her associate organizations or companies, is scriptural in design (purpose), teaching and practice” (Tant affirmed; Harper denied; 2), and “The church of Christ, South Fifth and Highland, in Abilene, TX, is scriptural in organization and in her teaching and practice in congregational church cooperation” (Harper affirmed; Tant denied; 94). However, Tant succinctly stated the real issues under discussion in this debate with three questions: “(1) Does the New Testament furnish a pattern for the cooperation of congregations?.. . (2) If there is a pattern for cooperation, is the kind of cooperation in the Herald of Truth according to the pattern? (3) Is the pattern (if one is set forth) obligatory on churches today, or do they have freedom to cooperate in ways not embraced in the pattern?” (2). Now to my review of Harper’s portion of this debate.

History: Much was advanced for cooperative efforts based on what brethren have done in the past. The Hardeman Tabernacle meetings, the Louisville, KY meeting with Foy E. Wallace, Jr., the Fort Worth, TX Norris Wallace Debate, the Houston Music Hall meetings (all of these before 1950) were listed as the universal practice of brethren in cooperative efforts (910,3435). Why were these practices now being repudiated by some (169170)? Tant appropriately responded by showing that a practice is not proven to be scriptural or unscriptural by appealing to history, but to the Bible and the Bible alone (178). Amen!

Scriptural argumentation: Although Harper was to deny that the Gospel Guardian setup and practice were unscriptural, he never produced a single Scripture showing wherein it erred. Not one! He referred often to history and maligned the Guardian and its writers much. The only statement of significance in his opposition to the Guardian was one which showed a weakness toward authority: “There is no `exclusive pattern,’ there is no `pattern exclusive,’ the one to everything else, by which a man is `bound’ and that he has no way on earth of doing it in any other manner…. There is no bound, exclusive method of cooperational patterns that excludes any other method” (910).

In defense of the sponsoring church arrangement for evangelism (which includes the Herald of Truth radio program), Harper said that as Noah had liberties in building the ark, so we also have liberties in choosing our methods in preaching the gospel (105106). He referred to the New Testament examples of benevolence as the pattern for the sponsoring church arrangement in evangelism (1 Cor. 16; 2 Cor. 89; Rom. 15; 91,108109). There are no distance limitations on the Great Commission (100101,143144). 1 Timothy 3:15 and Matthew 28:1920 place upon us the responsibility to preach to all nations, therefore we can use whatever means are necessary to accomplish this task (112,167). If we have to stop the worldwide spread of the gospel through such arrangements it would be lamentable; almost “the end justifies the means” philosophy (81). Harper mentioned his “component parts” argument (152155) which Tant readily refuted (160161). He continued to urge all to work together (Eph. 4:16), that isolationism would not help (171). Tant responded to his appeal by admonishing all to continue to go to the Scriptures in study and discussion and stand thereon. Thereby unity will be maintained (173178).

The Porter Woods Debate (W. Curtis Porter of Monette, AR and Guy N. Woods of Memphis, TN; Garfield Heights church of Christ, Indianapolis, IN; January 36, 1956): During the first two nights of this debate brother Woods affirmed, “It is in harmony with the Scriptures for churches to build and maintain benevolent organizations for the care of the needy, such as Boles Home, the Tipton Home, and other orphan homes and homes for the aged that are among us” (7). Brother Porter denied this. On the last two nights of the debate brother Porter affirmed, “It is contrary to the Scriptures for churches to build and maintain benevolent organizations for the care of the needy, such as Boles Home, the Tipton Home, and other orphan homes and homes for the aged that are among us” (133). Brother Woods denied this. Now to a discussion of brother Woods’ material.

Scriptural argumentation: Woods began as though the point of discussion was the care of the needy (Eph. 4:28; Jas. 1:27; Acts 20:35; Mk. 14:7; 1 Tim. 5:16; 910,7071). This was not (and is not) the point of difference. Furthermore, Acts 11:2730 and 2 Corinthians 89 were introduced to show that churches could cooperate with one another in satisfying benevolent needs (77). Again, this has never been disputed. The point of difference centers around this question: Is the organization advocated by Woods (a chartered, corporate benevolent home business) necessary to accomplish the church’s work of benevolence as exemplified in Acts 11 and 2 Corinthians 89? Woods also cited Galatians 2:10 saying that it required what he advocates to “remember the poor” (182). This is, essentially, the sum of Woods’ scriptural arguments.

Other comments: One of Woods’ main lines of reasoning throughout the debate was that the New Testament examples of benevolence gave no specific details of the methods used, therefore we are at liberty to use whatever methods we deem expedient (10,30,31,36,4647,54,79, 94,103,116,119,146,79,215). Since we don’t have the specifics, how could Porter oppose orphan homes? Porter responded twofold: (1) The discussion is not just about methods of accomplishing benevolent work, but about which organization shall do it – a corporate business benevolent home or the local church, and (2) the same reasoning which Woods uses to allow benevolent organizations (“no specifics on how to do it”) could just as easily justify missionary societies (4546,69,80,127128,163164,171173). In fact, Christian Church preachers have used the same reasoning in defending the Missionary Society (see the Otey Briney debate).

Woods also used Thomas Warren’s “The whole of a thing is the sum of its parts” argument (7578,147148,276 278). In essence this says, “(1) We must care for orphans and the aged. (2) Local churches can assist in doing this. (3) Churches can cooperate in benevolent actions.” With none of these statements is there any objection. The problem with the premises is, though, that they do not take into account what Woods calls for in his proposition – that corporate benevolent organizations be chartered. Furthermore, Porter presented a “deadly parallel” to Woods’ use of this reasoning that would, on the basis of the same reasoning, justify missionary societies (166168,197199,278279). It is an inevitable and inescapable conclusion.

The Cogdill Woods Debate (Roy E. Cogdill of Lufkin, TX and Guy N. Woods of Memphis, TN; Phillips High School Auditorium, Birmingham, AL; November 1823, 1957): During the first three nights of this debate Cogdill affirmed, “It is contrary to the scriptures for churches of Christ to build and maintain benevolent organizations for the care of the needy, such as Boles Home, Tipton Home, Tennessee Orphan Home, Child haven and other orphan homes and homes for the aged that are among us” (11). Woods denied this proposition. On the last three nights of the debate Woods affirmed, “It is in harmony with the scriptures for churches of Christ to contribute funds from their treasuries in support of the Herald of Truth Radio Program conducted by the Highland church of Christ, Abilene, Texas, as a means of cooperating in accomplishing the mission of the Church of the Lord” (193). This debate equally discussed the relationship of benevolent organizations to the church and the sponsoring church arrangement for evangelism. A review of Woods” material now follows.

Benevolent organizations: Woods offered the following passages in advocacy of local church support of benevolent organizations: 1 Tim. 5:16 (7071,182), Jas. 1:27 (128,182), and Galatians 6:10 (163164,183). Strangely, he even denied that Acts 6 was a case of benevolence (66). Besides these verses, Woods used many other avenues of reasoning. He argued that the church has the responsibility to restore a broken home (en loco parentis) (30,3233,160162). What Woods never met on this question was the fact that God never gave the church the responsibility to restore a broken home. Yes, he does teach that needs are to be met, but never that the church should restore that home once it has been destroyed. He implies that since Cogdill offers no “positive” plan for orphan care, he has no right to object to what Woods advocates (29,179). He says that benevolent homes are justified by the numbers of children “we” help (106107). Although totally false (as numerous articles could show), Woods argued that opposition to church supported institutions was a “new” idea just started in the 1959s (124). Ultimately, Woods said that the methods he advocates were expedient (162).

Sponsoring church arrangements: Woods began his defense of this by stating that the Great Commission “alone justifies that program (network radio and TV efforts, rb) and similar efforts” (195; see also 251,359). He further said, “Without some sort of cooperative effort, it is impossible for this commission to be carried out” (196). Cogdill later responded to such remarks (318,342). Woods asserted that there was no exclusive pattern for cooperative work, therefore the sponsoring church is just one of many acceptable methods (196197,252,328329). He later added that if Cogdill could not produce a plan whereby more people could hear the gospel preached on Sunday mornings, he ought not to complain about what the Herald of Truth was doing (271). This also involves the “numbers” game (see 237). He attempts to make Highland’s setup with the Herald of Truth program parallel to Acts 11, but the work and circumstances are different in both instances (200201,232). He argued that the Highland/Herald of Truth arrangement parallels 1 Cor. 16:12, 2 Cor. 89, and Rom. 15, but they clearly do not mirror each other (260261,288289). Finally, one interesting observation: the only night in which Woods came out from the start basing his position on scripture was the last night. He used Matt. 28, Mk. 16, 1 Cor. 16:12, 2 Cor. 89 and Rom. 15 (318322). It is sad that all of his speeches were not so conducted.


One of the main lessons I have gleaned from studying and reviewing these debates is that when one seeks to justify a desired or current practice, several types of argumentation will be presented. It will make little difference how weak or skewed the reasoning is. The solid, scriptural appeal that characterized many brethren in previous decades was not found in their argumentation and reasoning to support institutional practices. This weakened reasoning, when digested by later generations, has eventually led to an abandonment of the Scriptures. The men who initially supported these efforts have not totally abandoned the Scriptures or the appeal to them for authority, but they planted seeds whereby further apostasies have arisen. To deny this is to deny the available historical evidences.

I cannot close without a word of warning for those of us on the noninstitutional side of this division. In matters of morality, doctrine and congregational activities, seeds have been and are being planted which lead us away from sound biblical interpretation, teaching and practice. Those who have led the way will not go as far as subsequent generations will go. My worry is this – where will we be 20, 30, or 40 years from now? Think about it, brethren. It can happen to us, too!

Guardian of Truth XXXVIII: 19, p. 16-20
October 6, 1994