A Review of the Sutton-Meredith Debate

By Ray Madrigal

On September 4-5, 7-8, 1989 a religious debate was held in Paducah, Kentucky and in Metropolis, Illinois on the benevolent institutions issue. Plans for such a discussion in the Western Kentucky-Southern Illinois area began in 1987 as the result of several personal studies I conducted with brother Floyd Wiley, a retired preacher among the institutional brethren. Although we discussed the possibility of debating one another, we decided to solicit the services of brethren who would be “representative” of our respective positions. He contacted brother J. Noel Meredith, of Lawrenceburg, Tennessee while I asked brother Carrol R. Sutton, of Albertville, Alabama to debate the issue.

Proposition 1

During the first two nights, hosted by the 32nd Street church in Paducah, brother Sutton affirmed the following proposition:

The Scriptures teach that churches of Christ may not build and maintain benevolent organizations such as Boles Orphan Home, Tennessee Orphan Home, Childhaven, and Home For the Aged for the care of the needy.

In his first affirmative speech, brother Sutton built a solid foundation for the discussion by appealing to the need for biblical authority in all matters. He demonstrated how to establish scriptural authority (command, example, necessary implication) by citing various aspects of the Lord’s Supper. Using his patented cloth charts, he ably distinguished generic from specific authority. If God had told Noah to use “wood,” any kind of wood would work. But since God specified “gopher” wood, all other kinds were eliminated. Just as God commanded Naaman to wash in the Jordan (specific body of water), he also specified who is to preach, edify and relieve: the church! All other organizations are excluded when God specified the church (1 Tim. 5:16). Sutton then presented several charts showing the nature of the benevolent institutions named in the proposition. In his chart entitled “Is Boles Orphan Home A Benevolent Society?”, he pointed out that the board of directors make up “Boles Orphan Home” and that this board supervises and oversees the work of caring for orphans. The board provides a home, it is not a home! In this arrangement, the board stands between the churches (who merely send funds) and the work being done (place, facilities, necessities, personnel).

Brother Meredith began his first negative speech by stating that brother Sutton’s chart on authority was “a fine chart.” He agreed with 95 percent of its contents. Yet instead of dealing with the 5 percent difference, which represented the proposition of the debate, he simply ignored it. He proceeded to argue that “there are three divine institutions: the home, the church, and civil government.” Since all three of these can fail or “collapse,” they can each be “restored.” Orphan homes simply seek to restore what was lost (the natural home). He said these “legal homes are divine institutions.” Meredith shifted the focus of the debate by discussing the scope of benevolent work. Appealing to 2 Corinthians 9:13, he proclaimed that “churches can help saints and sinners.” In support of his position, brother Meredith cited quotations from Roy Cogdill, Fanning Yater Tant, Homer Hailey, A.C. Grider and W.E. Bingham.

In his chart #7, Meredith asked brother Sutton if the following statement was true or false:

All passages which authorize the performance of religious acts, and which make specific reference to the Christian individual are passages which authorize the indicated acts to be performed by the individual exclusively.

This chart was repeatedly presented by Meredith and would prove to be quite damaging toward the end of the debate. He citied texts such as Jude 3, 2 John 9 and Colossians 3:17 in affirming the falsity of the above statement, since these passages apply to both the individual and the church. Meredith asked if “a church could pray for wisdom (Jas. 1:5), be a doer of the word, practice pure and undefiled religion, or keep itself unspotted from the world (Chart 14).”

In his second affirmative, brother Sutton observed that brother “Meredith got off on another subject, the objects of church relief.” Throughout the course of the four-night debate, Meredith diligently avoided the real issue of churches building and maintaining benevolent organizations and focused attention on the scope of relief work. Sutton reminded Meredith that they both had signed propositions on the scope of benevolent work and that he would be glad to discuss that subject for four nights at a later time. But this debate was on church support of benevolent institutions.

Meredith, in his second negative speech, maintained that boards are equivalent to church trustees who hold property and are simply meeting the legal requirements of organized “home work.” Churches, as such, cannot do such work. “Can the church go into a needy home and tell them what kind of beans to buy, what kind of milk, and when to spank? . . . No, we turn that over to parents’ trust, and so with the board of directors.”

Throughout the discussion, brother Sutton showed parallels between the missionary society arrangement and the set-up of these benevolent organizations. Both originated in the minds of men, are of human origin, are designed to do the work of the church, have a board of directors, and have their own constitutions and by-laws among other things. Meredith responded by asserting that they are not parallel. Missionary societies are an ecclesiasticism and have no right to exist. They are “an association of churches, while orphan homes are an association of children.”

Proposition 2

During the last two evenings of the debate, J. Noel Meredith affirmed the following proposition while Carrol R. Sutton denied:

The Scriptures teach that churches of Christ may build and maintain benevolent organizations such as Boles Orphan Home, Tennessee Orphan Home, Childhaven, and Home For the Aged for the care of the needy.

In his first affirmative, brother Meredith presented his basic argument, summarized in the chart below:

Chart 1

The Basic Argument

If it is the case that:

1. Needs of orphan children must be adequately met.

2. Care of orphan children is not the job of Christian individuals exclusively.

3. An orphan child’s needs cannot be adequately met without his being part of a home.

4. The church, without any further organization, cannot function as a home.

5. The Bible does not specify the kind of home that must be used to meet the needs of orphan children.

6. Homes structured like Childhaven are homes or benevolent institutions which may meet legal requirements.

7. A church may contribute from its treasury to a home for orphans.

Then it is the case that: (see proposition 2 above)

Meredith attempted to prove that each of his seven basic points was true. Yet while he offered many emotional appeals he did not give a scriptural reference for point #7. In support of point -3, Meredith cited Psalm 68:6. Sutton later thanked Meredith for quoting that passage: “That’s what I contend for; why put them in an institution? He (God) didn’t say benevolent societies, he said families!”

In almost all six of his affirmative speeches, brother Meredith followed the same outline of presentation. He began with his “Basic Argument” (Chart 1); following with a discussion of “The Principle of Love” (Chart 2). Meredith continued his presentation with a discussion of the Greek word for “visit” (episkeptomai) and its significance for the debate. In Chart 16, Meredith offered a syllogism:

Chart 16

Church & Individual

Major Premise: All passages which relate to peculiarly religious matters are passages which apply with equal force to the church and to the individual Christian.

Minor Premise: 2 John 9 is a passage which relates to peculiarly religious matters.

Conclusion: Therefore, 2 John 9 is a passage which applies with equal force both to the church and to the individual Christian.

He asked the audience to consider other passages such as Jude 3 and 2 Timothy 3:16-17. “Are these just for the individual?”, Meredith asked. By the same logic, James 1:27 applies to the church as well as to the individual.

Brother Meredith went on to discuss the various and sundry needs of children; and if churches may help natural, original homes, they can also assist “restored” legal homes. He then presented a make-shift transparency entitled “Sutton’s Home.” While brother Sutton maintained that a place, necessities, facilities, and personnel could be provided, he would limit such a “home” to “poor orphan saints.” His next chart showed that while Sutton would agree to a church buying $10,000 worth of fertilizer for the preacher’s yard, Sutton would oppose the church spending a dime for milk to feed a starving orphan. Sutton mentioned that Meredith “got a little carried away on the fertilizer (amount).”

While brother Sutton consistently and forcefully met each argument and every question presented by his opponent, Meredith stedfastly refused to do the same. On Tuesday night, Sutton asked Meredith if “the church may give money to a natural Baptist home or to a natural non-religious home?” Meredith said that “the church can give to what an individual can give to.” Sutton pressed further: “May an individual give to a natural Baptist home or to a natural nonreligious home?” Meredith replied: “The church can give to what the individual can give to.”

Although the truth was ably defended and error effectively exposed each night, the final session on Friday night proved to be most devastating to the institutional position. In his first speech that evening (his fourth affirmative in the debate) brother Meredith asked Sutton the following question: “Do you believe that a woman must wear a covering on her head in worship services?” In his next speech, brother Sutton responded: “You’ve got to be kidding? On this proposition, brother Meredith? . . . Is this introduced for prejudicial reasons?” Meredith later tried to explain his query by appealing to the use of the plural pronoun humas used in 1 Corinthians 11. “He (Sutton) understands that a plural number applies to the church in 1 Corinthians 11 but he has trouble with it in Galatians 6:10.”

During his first speech on Friday (fourth negative in series), Sutton presented two transparencies which summarized Meredith’s unscriptural and inconsistent concept of both the home and church.

Meredith’s Home

1. Parents do not live with children.

2. Chidlren do not know who their “parents” are.

3. Children may not ever see their “parents.”

4. “Parents” do not administer discipline (spank).

5. “Parents” do not administer actual care – cook, clean, give shots, etc. NOTE: in these matters the “parents” hire others.

6. The “parents” beg from churches, other organizations, and individuals to supply money (including the United Way, et. al.).

NOTE: Meredith’s home is not a real home. It’s not even close to being a real home! It’s just a 24-hour-a-day day care center.

In his next chart (Transparency 92), Sutton presented a hypothetical conversation between two members of “Meredith’s Church” after they discover an abandoned infant child in front of the meeting house:

Meredith’s Church

(1) Two men find a young child. “What will we do?”

(2) “Individually, we visit the fatherless thru the church treasury.”

(1) “We’ve discharged our responsibility when we gave into the church treasury.”

(2) “The church can’t care for the child. That’s home work. The church is not a home.”

(1) “The church could send a donation to a benevolent society, such as Potter Orphan Home & School – but our treasurer is out of town and can’t write a check.”

(2) “The church could send the child to Potter – but it’s not equipped to care for children under three years old.”

(1) “1 guess we’ll just have to let her starve.”

(2) “Woe be unto us! Why did we ever join the liberals?”

(1) “I have an idea! Let’s call Carrol Sutton. He’ll come and personally care for the child out of his own pocket or he’ll get some of the other anti’s to help.”

Sutton continued to expose Meredith’s inconsistencies and errors as well as reveal the abuses and wastefulness of these benevolent institutions. He maintained that even if such institutions were scriptural, they would not be expedient on the grounds of waste, abuse, and impersonal care.

The debate was well attended all four nights. 175 were present for the first session Monday night in Paducah, with an average nightly attendance of 145. Institutional-affiliated brethren made up about 25 percent of the audience in Paducah and about 40 percent of the audience in Metropolis (unscientific estimates). Every audience was courteous, quiet, and interested in the two-hour sessions each night. Discussions and one-on-one studies are in progress in the wake of the debate, although no immediate “conversions” are apparent. Yet the truth was defended and presented, and will certainly accomplish what God desires.

If anyone is interested in audio or video tapes, just contact me at the above address. May God bless you in your study and in your efforts to reach the confused and those in error.

Guardian of Truth XXXIV: 6, pp. 177-179
March 15, 1990