Subjectivism (II): A Nineteenth Century Problem

C. G. (Colly) Caldwell, III
Temple Terrace, Florida

It is amazing sometimes to listen to advocates of error boasting of their theories as if they had discovered some new truth. It is not unusual at all to hear young men expressing some thought never entertained by them before in terms indicating that they think their positions are new to the world. At least their enthusiasm is admirable. It is very perplexing, however, (and I might add disgusting) to witness older men who claim to be quite familiar with Restoration history gloating over their "discoveries." In the past few months we have seen this type egotist at work as well.

The patterns of digression toward subjectivism are very similar in many cases. The time period chosen to illustrate that fact is the quarter century following the open rupture resulting from the introduction of the missionary society and instrumental music (1865-1840).

Before looking at nineteenth century history, however, it should be noted that "subjectivism" did not first appear after the missionary society and organ questions arose. Among Christians that type thinking dates back to second century gnosticism. Seeds of it can be seen even in some of the problems Paul warned about at Corinth. It is at the heart of denominationalism.

Progression of Digression

The long discussion leading to the establishment of the American Christian Missionary Society (1849) heralded the departure from Biblical authority. The introduction of the organ into worship brought the appeal for physical stimuli to the emotions one step closer to victory. Early in that dispute which separated Christian churches from churches of Christ, tile question of fellowship was raised. Those who saw that many would not be forced into practicing what they believed to be unscriptural began to ask what should be done with these 11 cantankerous dividers of the church."

Moses E. Lard was among the first to sense widespread feeling in this direction in 1865. Evidently trying to cut the question off at its root, he suggested that division was impossible 11 among Christian churches." Brethren could not divide nation-wide, he argued, because the churches are too autonomous. There are no tribunals to declare a division. One problem with Lards thinking was that the very ones bringing about the division had created nationwide organization and thus had taken away local autonomy.

For several years the theoretical aspects of the question of fellowship were discussed. Ben Franklin, in answer to the question, "Do you intend to make the organ a bar of fellowship?" answered, "We do not propose to make it anything. We want simply to have nothing to do with it" (American Christian Review, September, 1872). David Lipscomb, expressing the same idea, denied that division was worse than compromise and said that it "ought to come" if brethren persisted in introducing innovations (Gospel Advocate, December, 1883). Many today have lost the spirit expressed by Lipscomb, wanting unity at all cost on any human grounds. The defense of truth is not being considered by many as a primary test of fellowship with God. Fellowship with God is being sold for union with man!

Jacob Creath, Jr., sounded another warning. "When a man leaves the Bible alone, there is no rest for him this side of Rome. The most that can be said for all those persons who have ceased to the silence of the Bible is that they are only partly in the reformation" (Gospel Advocate, 1875). John F. Rowe called it the "new order of things" as opposed to the "ancient order of things" taught by the "reformers." The point was that these men recognized that many were no longer interested in what first century Christians did: they were interested in what their "liberty in Christ" would allow them to do. Rowe saw it as a trend toward denominationalism. Men who felt that way about Bible authority were not fighting the denominations any more, he said. In fact they were no longer sure that the denominations were not "denominations" (segments) of the New Testament church. Rowe also saw that that kind of preaching produced weak Christians (American Christian Review, March 1880). He was right! It will today!

The question of "liberty in Christ" was generally coupled with unwarranted emphasis in preaching on "grace." Every responsible preacher of the Gospel knows that he must emphasize the grace of God in his preaching. He also knows, however, that he must be careful not to leave the impression that Gods grace will overlook irresponsibility in dealing with Gods revealed truth. The term "legalism" was the word used as a slur against those who believed that obedience to the Gospel (including submission after baptism) was coupled with grace in salvation.

David Lipscomb viewed these signs as "Strange Developments" in an article under that title (Gospel Advocate, March, 1884). He could see that what all the talk about "legalism" and "liberty" really meant was that some were going to have their innovations regardless of the lack of New Testament authority and that they were going to give up the written objective standard in deciding who to fellowship (which meant that they would fellowship any baptized person except those who strongly opposed their innovations).

The next step was taken by the Christian Evangelist. In its pages it carried on a campaign to get the brethren to accept the "pious unimmersed" into fellowship. We could preach, its staff wrote, that the Bible teaches immersion to be necessary to salvation but that does not mean that the unimmersed will be lost in hell. I am not kidding you! They really said that! Alexander Proctor in 1878 called immersion a "rite" and said that the New Testament was not concerned with such "ceremonies."

F. D. Srygley could not possibly conceive of such reasoning (or lack of it). He said that if immersion was necessary to salvation but that one could be saved without it, nobody would be lost and "you may as well convert hell into a calf pasture and be done with it" (Gospel Advocate, January, 1890). The Christian Evangelist came back with the ineffective response, "The church of Christ believes that it is wiser to keep the spirit of a commandment than the letter." Srygley in his usual inimitable way replied, "This talk about the spirit and the letter of commandments usually comes from men who want to feel goodish, but do as they please in religion." He added, "The point is, does God require man to conform his life to an external standard, or does lie leave him to determine his own course by an internal light?" (Gospel Advocate, August, 1890). that is the issue in subjectivism! !!!

End Results

One more point. If the subjectivist accepts the logical conclusion of his argument, he will become either a theological liberal, a neo-ortliodox, or an agnostic. R. C. Cave unloaded that bombshell on the brotherhood in St. Louis (1889). Denying the virgin birth and bodily resurrection of Jesus, Cave declared that "the Christian Church makes nothing a test of fellowship but that which a mans own conscience tells him is right and true . . . Strict loyalty to self is the real loyalty to God." Those who denied it were termed "legalists." Cave was not alone. Men like Alexander Proctor and G. W. Longan were right with him. Longan went so far as to say that Matthew and Mark were confused" on the second coming of Christ. The Christian Church since has had many defections to modernism and agnosticism. That type thinking, leads nowhere else.

December 14, 1972