By Robert Wayne LaCoste
Regrettably, few religious teachers want their doctrine publicly examined in honorable debate or discussion. One reason no doubt is because, over the years, many debates have been nothing more than an exercise in two speakers trying to see which one could out insult the other. I’m not sure what that should be called, but it is not debating.
However, that’s not the main reason men who teach error reject honorable debate. They know full well their doctrines can not stand the test of public scrutiny. False doctrine just can’t be defended with any reasonable amount of success. In other words, when denominational teachers weigh the possible gain against the conceivable losses, they are quick to retort, “We don’t believe in debating.” As one Christian Church preacher told us several years ago, “We used to debate the instrumental music question, but we don’t do that anymore. The last time we did, we lost members left and right.” We don’t agree with that ideology, but we do understand it! Though he may not have intended to do so, this gentleman spoke for more than himself.
In the latter part of last year I had the opportunity to begin plans for a real in-depth study on denominational error. The effort was designed to look at the various main religious bodies from not only an historical standpoint (founder, origin, place, etc.), but focused in on main beliefs. As the series developed on paper, I tried to put myself in those folks place who would read our personal letters of invitation to attend. I did not like what I saw. If I were them, I would see this as simply another “church of Christ” preacher taking potshots at different churches. I was compelled to take a different approach. I began a diligent search for any material I could get my hands on written by respected men of the different churches. It didn’t take me long to gather quite a bit of material. What creed books I didn’t have of the different churches, I was soon able to obtain. I wanted more than that though. Soon, I had articles, interviews and tracts by well known men of every major religious body in America. I decided in all fairness to quote from their own materials and compare that with Scripture. Each one in the audience then could simply compare. The challenge to this was not in gathering the material or using it fairly. The challenge was going to be the actual manner of the comparison. How do you compare truth with error, showing the importance of one and the condemnation of the other and still retain objectivity and prudence? Every gospel preacher will tell you this is the greatest of challenges in the presentation of God’s word and the rebuke of error.
The main motive behind this series was not to inform members of the church on different denominations. The main reason was to invite different religious people to come and in a somewhat tranquil and unimposing atmosphere, get them to realize why we believe and teach as we do and get them to question why they are what they are religiously.
Still, something was missing. If fairness is going to be truly the order of the day, then why not invite any preacher of any of these churches to respond publicly on anything we say or do, with the repeated encouragement to correct us on any matter they feel we have misrepresented or misstated. This was not to be considered a “challenge” for a debate. This was simply a way to show all listeners how sincere and deeply serious we were about facts.
The series began. It went back to look how apostasy begins in any generation; how shortly after the church began there was corruption in the early church at Corinth (A.D. 60; 1 Cor. 1). From there we showed how it took nearly six centuries to eventually become the Roman Catholic Church. We took a look at the Reformation and Restoration periods and all the while we sent letters to the churches that came out of the many passing years. We did have different denominational people attend, but it wasn’t until we had our investigation on Joseph Smith and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (The Mormons) that we received an opportunity to have a public discussion on our differences.
The Mormons realized this was no job for a young missionary or bishop of their own ranks. Mr. Darryl Townsend, their stake president for this part of Texas was their spokesman. He and I over many weeks tried to plan a period of study that would be beneficial. To them, debate was out of the question. Though they felt we would behave honorably, they simply felt “uncomfortable” with it. I didn’t push it therefore, but agreed to an exchange where affirmative material for the most part would be the main oratory. We agreed there should be given time to the audience for questions, as long as they were written down and were proper questions. We agreed that perhaps more than one speaker would be profitable. Though we were at liberty to use up to 3 speakers, no one was under any obligation in that regard. We knew who we wanted. Harry Osborne would come from Alvin, Texas and present material on “Prophets and Prophecy,” I would try to show facts concerning “The New Testament Church,” and brother Joe Price would deal with “The All Sufficiency of the Scriptures.” Joe Price has lived with, worked with and converted members of this church over the past seven years he has lived in the state of Utah. He preaches for the church in Kaysville, Utah.
I was disappointed that Mr. Townsend was their only speaker, but he was well qualified to espouse Mormonism and he conducted himself as a gentleman. Surely, we did the same.
The first night, a large crowd gathered and in our building that seats 300, there were few seats remaining. We were blessed to have many gospel preachers in the audience. Among them were Jim Ward, Robert Turner, Tim Coffey, Elton Haley, Jack Holt, and Robert Farish. Mr. Townsend spoke over an hour on the origin and some of the main doctrines of Mormonism. Joe Price and Harry Osborne then responded with the material mentioned above. Time ran out on us, but on the second evening I began by talking about the one true church and Mr. Townsend then talked about the Church whose headquarters are in Salt Lake City, Utah. Afterwards we dealt with the written questions we had received and Mr. Townsend answered some of the questions our brethren gave him. All speakers had about the same amount of time on the floor.
We know not what may have been accomplished by this activity last month. As God knows our hearts it was our desire to openly discuss matters which divide people spiritually. Of course, God doesn’t expect results from us, just the effort. He will take care of the results (1 Cor. 3:7). The feedback from brethren was encouraging. In fact, most said they thought it went better than most debates they have witnessed.
Certainly it was far from being the ideal arrangement, bu who knows? Perhaps in time, more people will see the need and importance of reasoning together in an effort to ascertain truth. Truth should motivate us to arrange the method or exercise necessary to preach the gospel. If false teachers refuse to sign propositions, then we must search for other opportunities to reach out to the lost. May our Father bless us in these efforts and defeat us in anything contrary to his will.
Guardian of Truth XXXIII: 18, pp. 560, 566
September 21, 1989