By Ron Halbrook
January 7, 8, 9, 1974, we attended the annual Abilene Christian College preacher workshop. Every session was attended, extensive notes were taken. Not only did we discuss the speeches with other sound brethren who attended, we talked to some of the speakers personally and even got a question on the floor in one of the public forums. Just as the workshop closed, we ran into a young preacher whom we once greatly admired and still love; sad to say, he is one of the victims of current error on grace, faith, unity, and fellowship. When he asked for an evaluation of the sessions, we responded, “I am more convinced than ever in my life to resist liberalism and compromise in every form; what I have seen and heard here are the sad fruits of gradual drifting.” After several months of reflecting on what we saw and heard there, we are sharing some of those events along with our reflections on them.
When we arrived, J. D. Thomas was concluding the keynote speech, in which he highlighted the relation of love to unity. “We need more love. Too many say, ‘Yes, but …… He seemed to imply that love will allow unity and fellowship to continue amidst all the diversity which would be expressed on the program. But (yes, brethren, there are some valid “but=s@?), love is too often used as a nebulous generality. “By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God, and keep his commandments” (1 Jn. 5:2). Love does not tolerate sin and false doctrine, but seeks to rescue brethren from such.
Not only liberalism in regard to the church’s mission and organization, but also Classical Liberalism; Christian Church doctrine, and mushy denominationalism were expressed from the platform. To recall a phrase from Moses E. Lard, if the kind of “love and unity” we hear so much about today is accepted, what used to be New Testament churches “will become gay worldly things, literal Noah’s arks, full of clean and unclean beasts” (Lard’s Quarterly, Vol. II, 1865, p. 262). Lard wanted no part of “effeminate sentimentalism” and was “accused of writing too severely on these matters.” But he recognized the innovations of his day for what they were: a great victory for unbelief through the stratagem of a series of small victories. “It is high time that manful and outspoken voices were lifted against them. They are the insidious leaven of Satan.” The next comment by Lard might well have been written as a prelude for the A.C.C. workshop. “He is a poor observer of men and things who does not see slowly growing up among us a class of men who can no longer be satisfied with the ancient gospel and the ancient order of things. These men must have changes; and silently they are preparing the mind of the brotherhood to receive changes” (ibid. pp. 258-262). Two of the six papers presented at the forum were exceptions to this pattern.
“Woman’s Place in Church Activity”
Norman Parks (Murfreesboro, Tennessee) delivered a main address on “Woman’s Place in Church Activity.” Parks coupled Gen. 1-27 with Gal. 3:27 in an effort to prove there are “no restrictions on activities in the communal relations (i.e., church activities, RH) on the basis of sex.” He avoids -the force of other passages by affirming that they represent synagogue practice or cultural concessions and that “the Bible is not a timeless blueprint” anyway. That the wife must obey the husband may be like the slave must obey his master-“it no longer applies in our society.” But since Parks claims Gen. 1:27 and Gal. 3:27 are normative (even to the exclusion of other passages), one wonders if he is not appealing to a blueprint and practicing the same “simplistic Biblicism” he charges others with. It must be nice to have it both ways: the Bible provides a “blueprint” for sexual equality, but the Bible is not really a “blueprint” at all! Preach it round; preach it flat.
Robert Marshall (Torrance, California) gave a “Comment” paper pointing out that whereas the gospel is offered to all mankind freely on the same terms, “the New Testament does not remove all subordinate roles.” Respect for such roles is presented “on theological grounds,” not just cultural. Both he and Cecil May, Jr. (Vicksburg, Mississippi) pointed out that the roles of each sex are “transformed in Christ, not removed or switched.” 1 Tim. 2:8-15 “forbids certain activities,” i.e. woman leadership over men in the church. In the “Discussion” period, May responded to a question by Doug Parsons (Overland Park, Kansas), “Man and woman are equal like Jew and Gentile.” God gave the gospel to all. Peter says, “Heirs together of the grace.” Parsons needled Parks for making Gal. 3 “determinative” to the exclusion of all else. Clifton Rogers (Dallas, Texas) forced Parks to defend explicitly woman apostles, prophets, evangelists, and teachers, all leading in mixed assemblies.
“Liberalism in the Church”
“Liberalism in the Church” was prepared by Glenn L. Wallace (Visalia, California), and read by “Buster” Dobbs (Houston, Texas) due to Wallace’s illness. This was the high point of the series. “Liberalism is in our ranks today,” including “bits and parts of the old liberalism and the Neo-orthodox positions. . . . ” Mission was repeatedly cited as a prime example. Many satellite issues were mentioned, but Wallace sees “our liberalism” chiefly in the rejection of the New Testament as a “blueprint.” Some want to “restructure the church . . . without a blueprint of Biblical patterns.” They will “open the gates on the fellowship question” and create “brotherhood without boundaries.” “Either we have a blueprint in the Bible or we have no blueprint, and those who take the position that we do not have a blueprint should not be permitted to use the Scriptures in support of anything that they say or do.” “. . . the Neo Pentecostal and the theological liberal are brothers under the skin. They reject a Biblical blueprint; they both seek God in their own human experiences. . . .” If this ‘formula for failure” be accepted, “we may as well burn down our building and join the church of our choice.'” Wallace complained that some churches “have adopted … the total social gospel outreach … classes for the mentally retarded, adult tutoring, youth recreational programs, Headstart programs … credit union for the poor. ..’legal counseling’. .. .””Our liberal brethren do not always fly their true colors. They are often guilty of theological double talk. Some men can deliver a speech and then spend twice the time in explaining what they did not mean, than it took to give the speech in the first place.” He ended, “It is later than we think.” Yes, and it was later than the Wallaces and Dobbs thought 20 years ago when they gave impetus to emotionalistic pleas, no-patternism, centralization, and social-gospel programs via twisting passages like Gal. 6:10!
In Raymond Kelcy’s (Oklahoma City, Oklahoma), “Comment,” reservation was expressed. “I do not see abandonment imminent. . . .” Some say, “Love unites, not doctrine,” but both are needed, he added. F.L. Lemley (Bonne Terre, Missouri) attacked the pattern concept, offered Rom. 14 as the solution, and said when we distinguish between “errors of intellect and rebellion of heart” we will realize “there is not a false teacher in this house.” “I have not seen a charismatic brother who is a false teacher…. Brethren, ‘we be brethren.’ ” Paul’s case shows sincerity does not cover for the sin of false doctrine, responded Dobbs.
Edward Fudge (Athens, Alabama) asked Dobbs, “What do we mean by a blueprint? Why haven’t we eliminated our own differences.'” Dobbs cited 1 Cor. 11:9; standing for truth may result in some factions; it can be avoided only if we “compromise conviction.” Fudge asked Kelcy isn’t it true that we must answer yes to the question, “Are those known as the church of Christ a denomination.'” since they are “larger than the local church but smaller than all the people of God.” Many Christians “haven’t heard of the Restoration Movement, but to answer yes shows signs of a dangerous concept,” said Kelcy. Noting Lemley’s denial that “our pioneers had all truth,” Fudge asked him, “What are our good points that keep you with us?” “Freedom to believe in Christ, study, and express myself,” answered Lemley. Returning to Dobbs, Fudge explained, “There is one body and all the saved are in it; this is `the church of Christ’ in the Bible. But a historical group has taken this name.” Doesn’t “we as a brotherhood” sound denominational.’ Dobbs agreed such, a phrase “might not be best. We should say the Bible teaches, not this is what the brotherhood believes.”
Joe Barnett (Lubbock, Texas) pressed’ Lemley to admit he believes the Bible gives some kind of a pattern- “Christ is an absolute pattern,” he admitted. In the forum, we personally asked Lemley if 1 Tim. 3:1-15 does not affirm the pattern concept; he then told the audience 1 Tim. 3 is not an absolute pattern even if there are qualified men in a church.
A member of the conservative Christian Church, Thomas Thurman (Cincinnati, Ohio), pled for ” `Organized’ Support for Missions,” under a regional board of elders. Each region could have its own board. The Bible “pattern … for church – missionary relationships” is found in Acts. Thurman thinks the prophets and teachers of Antioch “may” have represented several churches in Antioch-“the first mission board.” The “overseas evangelizing association” might solve some abuses in mission work. “In actual practice churches
of Christ do have representatives on various boards (camps, colleges, evangelizing associations, etc.)…. But for some reason, never made quite clear to me, when it comes to mission work a line is drawn. This position which allows for the operation of colleges under trustees who are representatives of the church while failing to allow missions similarly to function seems totally untenable to me. . .” Good luck, friend; some folks called “antis” have been trying to get that point over for many years without much success!
Earl West (Indianapolis, Indiana) “Commented” that the key to abuses in mission work is to teach properly local churches and their elders. Robert Fife (Milligan College, Tennessee) also of the conservative Christian Church, “Commented” that no method “is a binding pattern that would not work under persecution.” He, too, was mystified at those who want centralized “cooperation in benevolence, but not in missions. What principle makes the difference’?” Thurman got up and again underscored the inconsistency of claiming the church can work through college or camp trustees but not missionary trustees.
In his “Questions,” Ferrell Jenkins (Tampa, Florida) pointed out to West the similarity between his sponsoring church arrangement and Thurman’s evangelistic association of elders. West responded that the sponsoring church created “no extra-Biblical organization” but the association plan did. Thurman answered Hulen Jackson (Duncanville, Texas) on “why can’t the local church give the leadership without the committee you propose” by saying that plan is permissible, but the sponsoring church taking funds from many churches “is taxation without representation.” In an exchange between West and Fife, West said the college is only a “human institution” parallel to Christians running a “hardware store-it is not connected to the church just because the people are Christians.” But Thurman was up again asking if the churches could use and support A.C.C., why not also his association? This brought Jackson to his feet affirming college trustees “do not represent local churches,” the school is “an adjunct to the home, not the church,” and, “I will resign as a board member of A.C.C. if it ever changes that concept.”
Jenkins scored with the interesting point that Thurman’s association might oversee local preachers in the region since they are sometimes abusive! Also, after the program, Kent Ellis (Austin, Texas) reminded West that Thurman’s association plan had already been used for city and area wide “Campaigns for Christ.” With our own ears we heard West innocently and meekly deny knowledge of any such thing!
“Authority and Tenure of Elders”
“Authority and Tenure of Elders” was presented by Everett Ferguson (Abilene, Texas). One’s abilities and qualifications involve not only natural endowments, but also “developed abilities.” One who serves others well develops leadership qualities. An elder is able to oversee, manage and exercise authority because he has used his gifts to serve, thereby developing the power of true leadership. Thus Heb. 13-17 says “obey,” meaning to be persuaded by or to follow. Christians will “voluntarily subject themselves” to “the moral authority of service and example.” An elder is one “out in front in the care of spiritual needs.” Many passages were discussed, the major thrust being that elders have authority based on gifts, developed, abilities, and service, “not coercive authority or political authority.” Their tenure or “term is determined by continued qualifications.” Ferguson raised the question whether “stipulated terms” should be assigned to facilitate the ability of the church to review and “withdraw approval” if necessary.
Virgil Jackson (Eugene, Oregon) said since elders need to retire for various reasons, the “term concept is helpful.” Whereas a man should be “appointed for the term of his qualification,” an annual review, i.e. one year term, could be good. Cline R. Paden (Lubbock, Texas) felt Ferguson was saying “it is forbidden to forbid,” i.e. denying a basic ingredient of the elder’s authority: “punitive power.” Ferguson responded he did not mean “to exclude discipline,” adding later that several of the comments offered by others on discipline “complemented” his paper. In the question period, Leonard Gray (West Monroe, Louisiana) asked Ferguson, “Is the authority in leadership and character, or in. the office’?” He answered, “Both in a sense. There must be character and leadership first, then recognition of it for the office.” Ike Summerlin (Austin, Texas) felt elders get too involved with “physical work,” to which Ferguson agreed, adding, “We could use deacons more.” Paden pressed Ferguson to be more explicit on whether the elder’s authority is “just good example” or an authority in office which he did not have before appointed. Ferguson explained that he distinguished between the individual or “personal influence” and the collective responsibility or “decision making for the church;” the former exists before appointment, the latter only after.
“Responsible Christian Journalism”
The editor of Mission, Victor Hunter (Dallas, Texas) spoke on “Responsible Christian Journalism.” The Christian journalist “cannot begin by staking out boundaries beyond which he will not operate” based on any party, organization, or dogma. A good journal “is concerned with the meaning of Jesus Christ,” which includes “any topic under the sun, from church to child care, from student unrest to states rights, from religion to racial conflict, from politics to pornography, from gospel to government, from ghettos to gerus, etc.” “Faithfulness to the gospel” is not “maintenance of the status quo.” The church is best served by editors who “question church, policies, practices or doctrines,” not those who “foster, conserve and protect.” The latter functions are especially characteristic of papers serving human institutions (publishing houses, colleges, etc.). (Hunter later told me personally that some A.C.C. professors were forced off his staff by the college.) Every subject should be explored with “diversity of opinion.” Truth should be pursued since it always “is filtered through the spectacles of one’s own subjectivity.” A journal should “examine, analyze and report” and leave it to the church to “preach, teach, counsel, evangelize, edify, and minister. . . .”
Hollis Miller (Murray, Kentucky) “Commented” that God’s “completed revelation” should be presented in journals, not “skepticism.” “The New Testament writers are the first Christian journalists,” and they limited themselves by revealed “dogma.” “Journalism is just a preacher’s chalkboard,” added Eldred Stevens (Dallas, Texas). “Some openness is doctrinal instability,” he continued, citing 2 Jn. 9; Rom. 16:17; 2 Tim. 2:2. Stevens dubbed Mission “the voice of theological liberalism in the church today,” adding of Hunter, “He wants restructure, not restoration.” This is the path of J. S. Lamar and Isaac Errett, Stevens said; they judged the Gospel Advocate as narrow, hurtful, unwholesome, cold, legalistic. They began the Christian Standard to exemplify “Christian character instead of orthodoxy” and a major division finally occurred. “Another breach is on the horizon.” We might add that students of church history will recognize Hunter’s answer to a later question on whether he believed the Bible was inspired. “I don’t accept a theory of inspiration, but I accept inspiration.” So said Isaac Errett in his attempt to set aside verbal inspiration and infallibility, almost in those exact words! (The Missouri Christian Lectures of 1883 (Rosemead, Calif.: Old Paths Book Club, 1955 reprint), pp. 117-204). As McGarvey said, if Errett (and Hunter) are right, “. . . we know that some uncertainty attaches to their (Bible writers, RH) writings, and, what is worse, we know not how to locate this uncertainty in any certain place, but are compelled to let it spread like a mist over the whole Bible…. It takes away certainty even from the apostolic commission, for, if this theory be true, who can affirm with entire confidence that Jesus ever said, ‘He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved.’ ” (Ibid., pp. 184-185).
In the question period, Carroll B. Ellis (Nashville, Tennessee) expressed agreement with Miller and Stevens. Ellis asked Miller about the term “party champion” and his answer showed that what some call partyism is merely ‘”being Biblical,” as with Acts 2:38. Dudley Lynch (Dallas, Texas) asked Miller to clarify freedom; Miller said, “Freedom in Christ is exercised within the confines of revealed scripture…. To say the Bible is not sufficient is beyond the limits of Christian freedom.” A staff writer for Mission, Warren Lewis, tried to rescue Hunter by asking if he expected his staff to be devoted to Scripture, to which he answered yes. The problem here is ambiguity, as is seen from Warren’s later statement to Tom Roberts that the Holy Spirit told him “what the writings of Luke mean today, not what they meant in the first century.” Stevens did admit the Gospel Advocate lacks the open debate characteristic of earlier days.
Firm Foundation editor Reuel Lemmons (Austin, Texas) spoke on “Brotherhood Politics.” All should seek the power of good influence (salt, light), but “the unholy use of power is the danger.” Too many make personal views “tests of fellowship” and “center on rotten situations” which do not really exist; this is self-promotion. When men weigh what they should teach or do against what the reaction of the people will be, “that is brotherhood politics.” The church is suffering “a major crisis of confidence” because too much dirty linen is being hung out for all to see “without constructive help” being offered. “Let us throw the rascals out!”
In some of the most astounding “Comments” we ever heard, Stanley Shipp (St. Louis, Missouri) admitted to having been guilty of about everything Lemmons mentioned and more! Shipp was syrupy, sickly, and sorry. (I felt like a priest at a confessional!) Dan Anders (Houston, Texas) pointed out that Lemmons failed to indict the liberals, but used the “keepers of orthodoxy” for all his illustrations. Lemmons said he had often been charged with being on both sides of the fence. He said, “I never stamp the party line,” but, “If you want those on the right to hear you, you must talk on that side and if you want the left to hear you, you must talk on the other side.” Anders later pressed Lemmons as to why the liberals were not included in his indictment, so he finally said (as did Roy Ward of Oxford, Ohio, former Mission editor) that the “ultra-right” must be hit “because most pressure comes from there now.” When Leonard Mullens (Dallas, Texas) asked Lemmons if he agreed some liberals are trying to “restructure the church,” he said he feared “over-reaction” would do worse damage than liberalism. Anders and Mullins pressed Shipley to tell us what to do about immoral brethren and false teachers; he first said we must go to the individual, then conceded we might have to go’ to the local church, but said he was not convinced we ever “have the right” to go further in public exposure.
J. D. Thomas assured us that “we all believe in God and are totally committed to Christ; we believe in the inspiration of the Bible. We believe the Bible is the place to get the answers.” In spite of the fact that we differ on how to get the answers out of the Bible, “we be brethren.” This theme was continued in the closing prayer, as the leader said he had learned the spirit of love and toleration for the first time at this workshop. There were two, overriding themes which surfaced again and again during the 3 days: (1) this “broadminded”spirit of love and toleration which is supposed to solve all the diversities and (2) a growing liberalism which is increasingly, unabashedly Liberalism. Leroy Garrett agrees liberalism was a strong theme, but thought the “reactionaries” were “in the ascendancy” (Restoration Review, Feb., 1974, p. 231f). Read the handwriting on the wall again, Brother Garrett. Generally, what we saw was the older men, with graying hair, desparately trying to put the brakes on liberalism, and a good number of younger men urgent to speed up the progress of liberalism. But the real hitch is the emphasis on “toleration,” “love,” “brotherhood,” and “we be brethren” which came from many others. This is the blanket that is supposed to be thrown over all the diversity, and the resistance to liberalism will be blunted by this device. This is the very atmosphere in which liberalism moves best. It will continue to grow, consolidate its gains, and finally exert its burgeoning strength in a real showdown. As Eldred Stevens said, “Another breach is on the horizon.”
Truth Magazine, XVIII:50, p. 3-7
October 24, 1974