Church Infallibility

Foy W. Vinson
Elgin, Illinois

The doctrine of "church infallibility" was developed in the apostate church or the sysstern now known as Catholicism as a matter of necessity. Having departed from scriptural ground for its doctrine and practice and therefore being unable to justify such by the scriptures, it became necessary to substitute one standard for another in order to satisfy the minds of those who might be interested enough to question any matter. What better way could this be done than by convincing its gullible adherents that what the church does is unquestionably right, that it is infallible in its every decision and hence needs no Bible proof for anything? As a result of this concept which has been adhered to for centuries, Catholics scoff at any attempt to question them on the basis of the teaching of the scriptures. They have lost all respect for God's word because this standard was discarded for another.

The word of God belies the doctrine of infallibility. The New Testament very lacidly declares the possibility of apostasy and even describes instances of it. Paul speaks of a man being "overtaken in a fault" (Gal. 6:1) and some who "shall depart from the faith." (2 Tim. 4:1) James writes as follows: "Brethren , if any of you do err from the truth, and one convert him; Let him know that he which converteth the sinner from the error of his way shall save a soul from death, and shall hide a multitude of sins." (Jas. 5:19-20) The danger of the concept of infallibility is brought to the forefront by Paul's warning: "Wherefore let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall." (I Cor. 10:12)

The retort might be made, however, that the above scriptures only deal with individual instances of fallibility or apostasy and do not disprove churrh infallibility. But of what is the church composed? If a single individual is fallible and can apostatize, then two or more individuals are also fallible and can apostatize. And if this be true, then every member of the church is fallible and subject to error. Thus it follows that the church is fallible because the qualities of the individuals who constitute an organization or group cannot be one thing and the qualities of the organization or group itself be another. If the members of a church are lukewarm the church is lukewarm. If they are untaught then the church is untaught. If they are strong and faithful then the church is likewise. And if the members are fallible (and all are) then the church is fallible (and it is!).

Even without the above deductions the New Testament sustains the view that churches as well as individuals can err. In 2 Thessalonians 2:3 Paul in speaking of the second coming of Christ says: "Let no man deceive you by any means: for that day shall not come, except there come a falling away first, and that man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition." The Apostle in speaking of the "falling away" which would occur before Christ's second advent was most assuredly not alluding to the apostasv of some individual or even a number of individuals. Such departures had undeniably occurred repeatedly from the very inauguration of the church as is illustrated by the case of Ananias and Sapphira. (Acts 5) What Paul did contemplate in this language was an apostasy general in its nature and far-reaching in its scope. Here was something which would be easily recognized and which would not only involve individuals but also churches and even virtually all of them! This great departure is now a matter of history and we know in a general way that in the early part of the second century and thereafter the apostolic church gave way to the man of sin", the "son of perdition," experienced a "strong delusion" and "believed a lie," thereby becoming the apostate church instead of the apostolic church. This proves beyond doubt that the church not only was but is yet fallible and that if such an apostasy could happen once it can happen again. We would do well to remain ever mindful of this.

Still another proof of the fact that churches can fall and lose their identity as the body of Christ is found in Revelation 2:5. Christ is addressing the "church of Ephesus" (verse 1) when he says: "Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do the first works; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will remove thy candlestick out of his place, except thou repent." Our Lord is here speaking to a church which has already fallen and warns it that unless repentance is immediately forthcoming its candlestick (Rev. 1:20) or identity will be removed. So the Lord's church is not infallible.

In spite of our knowledge of the above truths, I fear that I detect in the church of the Lord today an attitude of infallibility. We have been fed upon the doctrine of "We are right and everyone else is wrong" so long and so extensively that it seems we have perhaps unconsciously but nevertheless actually assumed that we (the church of Christ) cannot be wrong. Hence when someone raises a question as to some practice of the church many become repugnant to even the intimation of the possibility of wrong. Their attitude seems to be: "Why, the very idea! How dare you suggest that 'the church' might be wrong!?" I cannot conceive of any attitude fraught with more dangerous or destructive ramifications than this!

More and more today it appears that elders in many places are assuming an air of infallibility. And to make matters worse, most members evidently are willing to accept them as such. Several years ago when I was attending a college operated by brethren, one of the officials of the school (who was also an elder) defended the practice of accepting contributions from churches with the question, "Who are we to tell the elders of a church that they ought not to send a contribution to the college?" In other words, he felt that the action of elders as such was not to be questioned. I would like for some one to point out to me the difference between this concept and the papal doctrine which says that when the pope speaks "ex-cathrdra" his declarations are to be regarded as infallible and hence unquestionable.

I have before me at this writing a statement from the elders of a church with which I have labored in the past. The statement was prompted by questions raised by some of the members regarding the scripturalness of certain practices engaged in by the congregation. The nature of this statement leads me to believe that these eleders, whom I love dearly, unwittingly have fallen captive to the idea that at least a certain amount of infallibility inheres in the eldership and that they have the prerogative to act as the "conscience" for the rest of the flock! The statement begins as follows: "We (the elders-FWV) unanimously believe . . . " Then follows a declaration of their belief without the mention of a single passage of scripture or any effort on their part to justify or defend their "belief" by the New Testament. Then they have the effrontery to ask that all questions regarding their belief and practice come to an immediate cessation! And upon what basis is such a request made? Simply upon a staternment of their "unanimous belief."

My brethren, truth is not determined by the "unanimous belief" of the elders or the general feeling and practice of "the church." It was determined by our Lord nearly two millenniums ago and is revealed to us today in the New Testament. The need has not ceased for "proving all things" and "holding fast that which is good" (I Thess. 5:21 ) and being "ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear." (I Pet. 3:15) May God keep us from the attitude of "I am right and cannot be wrong" and fill us with the feeling of "I want to be right and know and do only thy will." This is our need!

Truth Magazine IV:8, pp. 14-15
May 1960