EDITORIAL -- The Terms "Liberal" and "Modernist"

Cecil Willis
Marion, Indiana

The most modernistic known by me of the papers published by our brethren is Mission Magazine. They monthly issue forth their "relevant" messages on poetry, politics, education, race relations, evolution, academic freedom, and religious satire. In the October, 1971 issue, page 30, they had occasion to say a few words about Truth Magazine. Following is the paragraph about us, written by the Editor (Roy Bowen Ward) in an article pertaining to religious labels.

"Religious labels are notoriously slippery, especially labels such as 'liberal' and modernist. Truth Magazine, published by the Cogdill Foundation and edited by Cecil Willis, is forever attaching the label 'liberal' to men such as Reuel Lemmons, editor of the Firm Foundation, and B. C. Goodpasture, editor of the Gospel Advocate. On the surface, this seems too ridiculous for comment; but the editor and various writers in Truth consider that Lemmons and Goodpasture are somewhat free (i.e. liberal) in their interpretation and application of scripture especially when it comes to such things as 'the sponsoring church,' the 'Herald of Truth,' etc."

Brother Ward and Mission are so modernistic that it appears absurd to them that anyone would consider Reuel Lemmons of the Firm Foundation and B. C. Goodpasture of the Gospel Advocate in any sense religious liberals. Since there is some questioning of such labels, perhaps a few words about the terms "liberal" and "modernist" might be in order.

When there is some question regarding a religious issue, that question can only be settled by going to the highest authority on the subject, and that is the Bible. When there is a question raised about the usage of words, the highest authority which I know to consult is the latest Webster's Unabridged Dictionary, Webster's Third New International Dictionary, from which the following definitions are taken.

There are many different definitions of the word "liberal" and its various inflections. In fact, Webster takes four columns of small print to define and to illustrate the word "liberal" and its various forms which are used to mark distinctions of case, gender, number, tense, person, mood, voice, and comparison. Certainly no one would expect the scores of different definitions all to apply to any one person. Neither does Brother Ward.

A "Modernist"

Perhaps we should first discuss what a "modernist" is. "Modernism" is "a practice, usage, or expression peculiar to or characteristic of modern times." In that sense, both Goodpasture and Lemmon8 are "modernists" regarding the practices of the "sponsoring church" and the "Herald of Truth," since these practices originated this side of and outside of the New Testament. And I might add, they are in this sense "modernists" regarding a good many other practices.

However, Brother Ward is saying it is "ridiculous" to refer to Goodpasture and Lemmons as "modernists," in the classical religious usage of that term. "Modernism" usually is defined as "a movement in Protestant Christianity originating in the latter half of the 19th century and continuing to the present that seeks to establish the meaning and validity of the Christian faith in relation to present human experience and to reconcile and unify traditional theological concepts with the requirements of modern knowledge."

In harmony with this definition, much of what appears in Mission is "modernism." They are perpetually harping that first century preaching is not relevant to twentieth century life. They state that by Bible preaching, we are answering questions which no one is asking. One correspondent whose letter was captioned "Relevant lightning" said in the same October, 1971 issue: "The issue of tongue speaking has received more than its fair share of coverage in Mission (Much of the coverage was favorable to tongue speaking-CW), and now it is time for us all to move on. As long as fifty to sixty million Americans are poor (approximately nineteen percent of American families of four live on less than 2,500 dollars annually) as long as a very senseless war continues, as long as there is racial injustice, as long as we are all exploited by those who would destroy our environment, as long as many have never loved or been loved, and as multitudes go unchurched, we cannot afford the luxury of theological quibble. The charismatic pros are concerned over whether or not it thundered, while the cons are still looking for the rain (July, 1971). Many of us are left longing for those proverbial lightning bolts of relevance."

Relevance, to this Mission writer, relates to poverty, the Vietnam War, racial injustice, environmentalism, and the "unchurched." He did not state how he would "church" them. He might be one of the modern ecumenists among us who would be satisfied so long as they are in any "church." Modernists among the Mission writers would "establish the meaning and validity of the Christian faith in relation to present human experience..."

Furthermore, modernism of several different hues has been advanced and taught in Mission. They have sought "to reconcile and unify traditional theological concepts with the requirements of modern knowledge." Consider what they have done on the subject of biological evolution. They awarded Neal D. Buffaloe Second Place in their annual awards program for his article "God or Evolution?" which appeared in the April 1969 issue. Buffalo argued that modern "evidence" is too great to permit belief in the old six-day fiat creation position, and the Bible must be reconciled "with the requirements of modern knowledge." Buffalo said: "It is true that the thesis here defended does conflict with the Bible as literally interpreted. In fact, any acceptance of organic evolution leads logically to such a conflict. One must accept all of evolution or none. And the evidence for organic evolution is overwhelmingly convincing." Further he said, "either the Genesis account of the 'days' is non-literal or it is false." Now Brother Ward, this is classical denominational modernism! You find plenty of it in Mission. And Brother Ward, as Editor, is primarily responsible for it being there.


But what about Brother Lemmons and Brother Goodpasture? Are they "modernists?" Not in the sense of trying to eliminate the miraculous from the Bible, and not in the sense of advocating biological evolution. However, both of them defend and advocate practices that began this side of and outside of the New Testament. One of the definitions of "liberalism" is that it is synonymous with "modernism." But I have never charged either Goodpasture or Lemmons with teaching classical denominational modernism.

However, they are religious liberals. And plenty of the definitions of "liberalism" are applicable to them. To illustrate, "liberalism" is a "lack of strictness or rigor"; "broad-mindedness"; "principles, theories, or actions that are liberal." Both Lemmons and Goodpasture have shown a marked "lack of strictness" in Bible interpretation. In order to sanction the "sponsoring church" concept, they must disregard Bible teaching on congregational independence and equality. They have demonstrated an unwarranted "broad-mindedness" in Bible application that has led them to commit what the Bible calls "lawlessness" (See ASV I Jno. 3:4; Matt. 7:23). Furthermore, each one of them defends some "Principles, theories, or actions that are liberal." Hence, they each are guilty of "liberalism."

But what is a "liberal"? In its comprehensive definition, a "liberal" is one that "suggests an emancipation from convention, tradition, or dogma that extends from a belief in altering institutions to fit altering conditions to a preference for lawlessness; on the one hand it suggests a commendable pragmatism, tolerance, and broadmindedness and on the other a highly questionable unorthodoxy, experimentalism, or positive irresponsibility." Admittedly, this is a very broad definition. But most everybody has known that the word "liberal" had varied hues. I still maintain that some of the shades of liberalism depict the religious stance of Lemmons and Goodpasture. They believe in "altering institutions to fit altering conditions. . . ." Look what they have condoned in order to meet conditions to conduct a nationwide television and radio program. They have structured the church into an inter-church relationship which the New Testament church never had. They have so altered the church that 3,000 churches now function through one eldership that of the Highland church in Abilene. If this action does not fit the definition of "liberal," I do not know what it would take to fit it.

Webster states that a "liberal" is one "free from restraint or check"; "not strict or rigorous"; "not confined or restricted to the exact or literal"; "broad-minded"; "not bound by authoritarianism, orthodoxy, or traditional or established forms of action, attitude, or opinion"; "not strict in his observance of orthodox, traditional, or established forms or ways"; "an adherent or advocate of liberalism esp. in terms of individual rights and freedoms from arbitrary authority."

Anyone of a half-dozen of these definitions will fit Goodpasture and Lemmons. In relation to the Bible, they have become "broad-minded," especially when it comes to applying Bible authority to modern day practices. They have become "free from restraint or check" by God's Word. They have gone beyond what is written (I Cor. 4:6). They refuse to be "confined or restricted to the exact or literal." They declare that the "direct-method" (See Phil. 4:15, 16) will not work in this 20th century. Furthermore, they have refused to be bound by the Biblical "forms in action, attitude, or opinion." They are "not strict in his (their) observance of orthodox, traditional, or established forms or ways." They prefer the individual freedom to disregard the "pattern" rather than to submit to arbitrary Biblical Authority. While they are not miracle-denying modernists, they are pattern denying liberalists. It does not bother my conscience any to apply the term "liberal" to brethren Goodpasture and Lemmons, for I think they fit several of the definitions precisely.


I guess I should not be overly upset by using Brother Ward's strictures about the usage of labels, since he uses the term "liberal" in the same issue in which he condemns my usage. In an opinion survey on "Are Christian Colleges Worth Supporting?" Brother Ward states "Some believe the colleges are now infiltrated by or even guided by liberals who cannot and will not benefit the cause of Christ. Some are turning to support Schools of preaching, rather than Christian colleges." Is this usage of "liberal" "ridiculous" Brother Ward? I guess you can tell who Ward has in mind as thinking the schools are run by liberals; he lists those who are turning to the support of Schools of Preaching.

And others use the term "liberal." In the October 11, 1971 Christian Chronicle there is an ad advertising the initiation of a new paper to be called Reader's Digest. The first seven inches of the full-page ad are emblazoned with "Another Liberal Magazine?" This paper advertises itself as a "secular magazine by and for members of the churches of Christ." They state they "will be the only churches of Christ publication with a substantial secular circulation." They also add, "We will bring you the important developments in politics, science, and the arts as they relate to the churches of Christ in a world perspective." The paper will be published by Eddie Eanes, Roger Mannon, and August Spies, "three men in their very early 20s." These three men advertise themselves as "The one who published Global Village, the first churches of Christ ecology book." Now, do you see what I mean when I refer to some of my brethren as "Liberal?"

November 25, 1971