Since We Know The Problem,
What Will We Do About It?
James P. Needham
(A sequel to "Babble From Bible Classes, Piffle and Pabulum From The Pulpit." Recognizing that we have a problem is one thing; figuring out what to do about it is another.)
At the repeated invitation of Mike Willis to write, I recently sent him an article for Guardian of Truth. I entitled it, "Babble in Bible Classes, Piffle and Pabulum From Pulpits." This article has received overwhelming positive response from many parts of the country. I am continuing to receive letters about it. It seems that it is very much in season and touches what is on many minds. It is satisfying to know that I am not alone in my observations, even though I can handle that if I have to. It appears that the matters dealt with in the article have touched a tender chord in many hearts. Here are some comments taken from my mail:
"Just read your article in this week's Guardian Of Truth. It is so true that it scares me. I have had the feeling for a number of years now that the conservative church in general was really `loosening up'. . . A lot of my thoughts are much like yours. I'm afraid that I don't have to be a prophet to see what's coming down the line for the church. I pray to God that I'm wrong. I used to enjoy The Torch. May God bless you for your long stand for the truth" (TN).
"I just wanted you to know that I appreciate all that you said. I am awfully afraid that the church, all across the nation, is in real trouble because of the things you point out in that article" (Ala.)
"I have had exchanges with older and younger preachers, in private and public settings, where they would not defend what they believe, or else their efforts were so shallow, I could have argued their position better than they did. I have attended gospel meetings, where preachers spent 15 or 20 minutes of time before ever mentioning or reading a passage of Scripture (I am talking about `conservative' churches and preachers). When I left, I felt empty and irritated, because there was no substance to the lessons that were presented. Even my young daughters noticed and commented about the absence of Scripture in the lessons they heard. Some simply tell you they don't preach on anything controversial. . ." (Cal.). ("Out of the mouths of babes ..." I once heard a denominational preacher say he doesn't preach about sin because sin is bad news, and the gospel is good news! Perhaps some of our brethren have been drinking at the same fountain. To say the least, some are not far behind him. jpn)
"I just read your article `Babble in Bibles Classes, Piffle and Pabulum from Pulpits,' and I want to say AMEN! As we travel all over the country in our meetings we see exactly what you described in too many churches . . . Keep preaching it like it is . . ." (KY).
"An outstanding article on preaching in the 11/16 issue of Guardian of Truth. It is right on the bull's eye. We need more such articles. Since I became a Christian in 1952 I have not seen the Lord's church in the condition it is tonight including the years during the institutional controversy. Men who should know and stand for the truth have no backbone. I have profited from what you have written through the years" (AL).
"I like the article you had in Guardian of Truth and agreed with you 100%. I wish more people would speak out. Some of our young preachers are pitiful what effect can God's word have with that kind of preaching? It takes the whole counsel, in season and out of season. Jesus taught that one soul is worth the whole world; really Jim, I am concerned about our Lord's church so much worldliness, material-ism, the dress in most places is a disgrace. When your generation is gone, what will happen? Sometimes I feel I know how Isaiah and Jeremiah worried. Do you ever think that perhaps people from India, Russia, and other foreign countries will be coming to America to teach them the truth?" (KY) (From an aged saint that has weathered many a storm in the kingdom and has meant so much to me and mine over many years, jpn).
"We wanted to write and thank you for your wonderful article of Nov. 16 in the Guardian of Truth. Your observations are wise and right on target. I hope many will read it and profit . . . One . . . preacher used to do a wonderful, scholarly, job on the radio. His program used to be 15 minutes long and he could say so much in that time. He is now on the air for 45 minutes and the `new' approach is chit chat and don't hurt anyone's feelings. The gospel is not allowed to prick because they don't let it do its work. They constantly apologize for the Truth. I fear this is probably true in many places and only a sample of what is going on nationwide.
"Do you think it is going beyond just not studying (to which there is no short cut)? It has become chit chat from the pulpit and from Bible class teachers, but now they are not even wanting to assemble or cut it very short. Preachers we used to hear that used to study are often the very ones socializing, etc.
"I hope ones not only read your article but are listening to what you are saying. Where are we headed? All this watering-down is alarming! ... I never dreamed I would hear preachers actually encouraging members not to at-tend assemblies. That day is here . . . May God be with you and your health so you can continue to sound forth these wise things we need to heed. Thank you for your faith-fulness" (FL).
These are some samples from my mail. It is obvious from what they say and the wide area from which they come, that my observations are not isolated cases, but that the problem is systemic. Something has gone wrong in the very heart and core of the Lord's church and its effects are widely seen throughout the body. What is it, why is it, and what can be done about it? These are the questions.
Since the problem, to a large extent, is societal, it is not surprising that others are thinking along with me in the same vein. In the October 1994 issue of The Spiritual Sword, editor Allen Highers had a splendid editorial on this very subject. I wish I had the space to print his entire article, but I don't. But here is one thing he said, "There was a time when one almost never heard of anyone `leaving the church.' People sometimes became unfaithful, went back to the world, or ceased to be active members, but the thought of their leaving and joining some denomination was rare indeed. It almost never happened. Why? It was because members of the church at the time were nearly all grounded in the faith. They knew what was wrong with denominationalism, even if they did not always live up to what they knew was right. They might become unfaithful, but they could not bring themselves to join some religious institution they could not find in the Bible ..."
In my estimation the phenomenon I have described is as old as the church itself: the church in every age has been and continues to be influenced by the society in which it exists. It is no surprise that the church at Corinth could gleefully keep a fornicating brother in its fellowship when we realize the moral condition of the society in which it existed. The Roman Catholic apostasy occurred because the church existed in a dictatorial empire where the central figure was the emperor. Reputable church historians, even some Catholic scholars, say that the organization of the Catholic church is but a clone of the Roman Empire in which it was spawned. The church aped the society in which it existed and continues to do so.
The church in America exists in a materialistic, humanistic, hedonistic, world. There is a strong tendency toward anarchy; a disregard for authority in almost every phase and facet of society: the government, the schools, the homes, the churches, etc. On December 2, Lamar Alexander, a Republican candidate for president, former governor of Tennessee, and Secretary of Education, made this very significant statement on a national TV program: "Our institutions are falling apart: our schools, our homes, our churches and our synagogues." Even people outside the Lord's church can see what is happening in our world, and it's not happening just in the Lord's church. In one of the letters I received, a dear sister says, "Our big lovely buildings in . . . (her city) that were once full and growing are now tiny congregations struggling to stay alive; you have heard I'm sure that . . . (a congregation well known to me jpn) went to . . . (another congregation well known to me JPN) ...now . . . (at that congregation jpn) attendance is less than a 100 on Sunday morning. Also, (another well-known congregation jpn) is hanging on by a thread .. . (Another well-known congregation) is small they aren't growing." So, the problem is wide-spread. The older churches that have meant so much to the cause of Christ over the years are struggling to stay in existence and are made up largely of senior citizens. The thriving churches are those which provide what the Lord never intended his church to provide, recreation, and entertainment, etc.
As the institutions of society fall apart, so do the churches. The movements, philosophies and tendencies of society eventually find their counterparts in the churches. It does not surprise me that there are preachers and churches that endorse homosexuality, abortion, etc. There is no better evidence of the world's influence on the church than the "stand-for-nothing-fall-for-everything" condition we see in the Lord's church in our time. What is the source of this cancer? The answer is, denominationalism. I have said for a long time that brethren generally have not realized our greatest source of danger. It is Protestantism, not Catholicism or atheistic Communism. Protestantism's live-and-let-live, everybody-has-a-right-to-his-own-belief, faith-only philosophy has found its way into the church. This is the source of the major apostasy in the Lord's church that has taken place in our lifetime. Surely we all know that the innovations of the past 50 years came right out of Protestantism into the church. All of them were in the denominations before our brethren adopted them. Brethren used to make fun of church kitchens, etc. in denominational churches, now the liberal churches of Christ have out denominationed the denominations. I can well remember when the Presbyterian church in my home town added a kitchen. My brethren thought it was hilarious; the very idea of a church having a kitchen! Now the brethren have a separate building for recreation, banquets, showers, etc. "You've come a long way, baby!"
How and why does this happen? Let me suggest some possible reasons:
1. It is the result of indecisive, indistinctive, imprecise and watered-down preaching and writing that issues from many pens and pulpits today. This has filled the church with unconverted persons who either ignore, or disregard the divine pattern. Many stand for almost nothing and fall for almost everything. These people, I think through lack of teaching, are seeking in the church what the Lord never placed there and who don't know their left hand from their right when it comes to Bible authority and the mission of the church.
When editors and preachers publicly announce a policy of "accentuating the positive and eliminating the negative" that they are not going to deal with controversial subjects, or so-called "brotherhood issues," they thereby announce that they are going to preach less than the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:35). They thus portray a self-righteous spirit of spiritual elitism that pronounces an implied judgment upon those who have an open-door policy, and what's worse, they thereby brand themselves as different from Christ and the apostles, because they set out to do what they didn't do. We are plainly told to ". . . have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather reprove them" (Eph. 5:17), and to, ". . . rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith . . ." (Tit. 1:13). Any preacher who doesn't follow these instructions is not worthy of the name of a gospel preacher, and would do the church a favor if he found some other line of work. He is a threat to his own soul, and worst of all, to the souls of others. Paul said, "Take heed unto thyself, and unto the doctrine; continue in them: for in doing this thou shalt both save thyself, and them that hear thee" (1 Tim. 4:16).
It is easy to dismiss "brotherhood controversies" as "just preacher fusses," and from that "justify" withdrawal in a sort of a self-righteous elitist attitude, but that's a bit too simplistic for men of maturity and good judgment. In some "brotherhood controversies" there have been some elements of personality conflicts, power struggles, and political struggles, but this is rare, and easily discerned. After all we have the written word and we can compare what we see and hear with what is divinely revealed and discern both good and evil (Heb. 5:14). Where would we be today had brave men of the past not had the courage to challenge the innovators? Were the "brotherhood controversies" over instrumental music, the missionary society, premillennialism, institutionalism, etc. just preacher fusses, political posturing? What if the brethren in those days had taken the modern "positive" approach?
I do not hesitate to say that the greatest internal danger we face today is soft pussy-foot preaching and writing that dumbs down the church and causes it to lose its sense of distinctiveness and identity. It has caused the church to kind of meld into the religious world as just another denomination. The most frequent comment I hear about much of today's preaching and writing is "no substance." The objective of such preaching and writing is not to challenge people to follow the divine pattern, but to follow what makes them feel good about what and where they are and what is popular. These brethren cannot preach or write against specific sins like social drinking, immodesty,gambling, institutionalism, unscriptural congregational cooperation, premillennialism, Calvinism, etc. because that would be negative. How long has it been since you heard a sermon on these and related subjects? They cannot do what Paul told Timothy to do, to "reprove, rebuke, and exhort with all longsuffering and teaching . . ." (1 Tim. 4:2), for that's two-thirds negative!
These brethren have a stated policy that they will not print articles on controversial subjects in their papers, but they are not averse to printing their views on controversial subjects; they just refuse to print opposing views as if they are the final arbiters of truth and the regulators of what the brotherhood should read. They have a closed-door policy like the Gospel Advocate has had for three or four decades, and their policy will yield for us the same results as it has for the liberals; it will rear a generation of lopsided people who bear a deep prejudice toward and an abysmal ignorance of anything other than what the editors and writers want them to hear and believe.
These brethren are so sweet-spirited that they shrink from calling one who teaches what they say is false doctrine a false teacher. They have not yet favored us with the proper nomenclature for such people. What does one have to do to be a false teacher other than teach false doctrine? Please tell us! The Bible calls people who teach false doctrines false prophets, false teachers, and heretics. If this is wrong, tell us why. If these brethren have had a new revelation on the subject, they need to tell us about it. They say they don't agree with the false teaching but they defend the false teachers and condemn those with whom they say they agree. They continue to use the persons whose positions they say they disavow, but would not dare to use the brethren with whom they say they agree!
Something is convoluted here! If people who teach false doctrine are not false teachers, what are they? Please tell us what to call them, and give us the divine authority for what you say.
Those who are so imbued with this type of preaching and writing must feel very uncomfortable when they read their New Testaments, what with all the controversies about circumcision, eating of meats, etc. I guess these were just preacher fusses! Paul was such a controversialist; in every letter he took issue with the opposition, exposed their false doctrines, and tried to persuade others to do the same thing. I think we had better take notice when brethren develop better manners than Christ and the apostles had!
2. These conditions develop because the watchmen on the wall of Zion: elders, deacons, preachers, and to a lesser degree, brethren generally, are asleep on duty. The major part of the responsibility lies at the feet of elders and preachers. Many of them have baptized people without teaching them. They sell people a baptismal job like one would sell a person a new car. When a brother visited a church that had baptized 200 people in a year, he asked, "where are all those people you have baptized, your membership doesn't show it?" He got the reply, "They came up out of the baptistry, went out the back door and haven't been seen since." Untaught people who bring their denominational baggage with them into the church eventually become elders, deacons, preachers, and Bible class teachers and then dump their baggage into the lap of the Lord's church and division and apostasy set in.
I received a letter from one young preacher who was offended because he thought I was laying all the responsibility for the present situation at the feet of young preachers. I have explained to him that I said in the article that there are many notable exceptions to what I have said, and I thanked God for them. Well do I know that some older preachers who ought to know better are part of the problem. The truthfulness of my statement is evidenced in my mail when it is said that some who have stood for truth in the past (that would be older preachers), now have gone soft and stand for nothing. I know and acknowledged this. I despise double standards, and I don't believe I endorsed such in my article, and I have this to say about our present condition: One of our current problems is that some elders who went through the struggles of the past are now oblivious to what is happening or else they have lost their love for truth and their faith, at least to some extent. They are swept off their feet by some of the young sensational preachers who have come along to succeed some of us old fossils. These young men are often fancy dressers and entertaining motivational speakers. They appeal to young people, and fascinate some of the older ones, not with the gospel of Christ straight from the shoulder, but with piffle and pabulum, flattering words and pop psychology. Their sermons make people feel good where they are like they are and don't contain enough gospel to fill a thimble. They have a positive approach only, and stay clear of controversial subjects, mainly because they are either soft on them, or they occupy a false position on them. These men are used and promoted and praised by elders and brethren who ought to know better. Older and well-seasoned preachers who bear the scars of many a battle are put on the shelf. The very brethren who could do the teaching the church so desperately needs at this critical moment are sitting on the pew listening to piffle and pabulum, or "chit chat" as one of my correspondents called it. It is disappointing to see that those who have the most Bible knowledge and who bore the battle in the heat of the day are appreciated and used the least. The very preachers who could turn this situation around are turned out to pasture, and too many brethren love to have it so. A brother recently said, "Brother (a well-known preacher of my generation, jpn) held us an excellent meeting, but he's too old." Two sisters were overheard following a service during a gospel meeting. One asked the other, "Are you coming back tomorrow night?" To which she replied, "For sure, I want to see what the preacher will be wearing." The local preacher and the visiting preacher were overheard discussing what each would wear the next night! One sister said, "I could listen to him all night; I just love his baby-blue eyes"!
Elders who use preachers just because they are young and popular with little or no regard for the quality of their preaching are not leaders but followers. They are simply jumping on the bandwagon and becoming part of the problem rather than being the solution.
Over and over again younger members are leaving the old churches that have sound and solid preachers and going to more liberal churches in the community where they have a preacher and a program that appeals to young people. I know of many congregations where by far the majority of young people have switched congregations because they say, "There is a lack of spirituality," or "nothing is happening in that church," or "they are too negative. " This is quite wide-spread. The questions I have asked in these situations are: What do you want to happen, and what do we need to do that we are not doing that would make us more spiritual? I receive no answers. These people either don't know what they want, or they are ashamed to really say what they want. I think I know what they want. They want the church to provide for them what the Lord never intended that it should provide, namely, recreation, entertainment, and, in some cases, more emotionalism in the services. We hear such expressions as "creative worship," which being interpreted means more emotion in the services, clapping of hands, people speaking up from the audience, and "Bible" classes where people sit around and simply "chew the rag," or "chit chat." As one young per-son described her Bible class teacher: "He just let's us sit around and talk about whatever we want to talk about." One elder said when we ask a person to teach a class, we certainly should not tell him/her what to teach.
When people charge that "nothing is happening at church," I ask, "what do you want to happen?" The church that meets and engages in scriptural worship is causing to happen everything the Lord has authorized to happen. What happens as the result of this activity in the hearts of the worshipers is determined by their attitude toward that activity, and the extent to which and the manner in which they personally and scripturally participate in it. If they don't get anything out of the worship, it is likely because they didn't put anything into it. People who are looking for more than this in the Lord's church are looking in the wrong place. They can find what they are seeking at the YMCA, or some denominational church, or some liberal "churches of Christ." Elders, preachers, and churches who give in to the demands of these people are not worthy to be called elders.
Some time ago I received a letter from a sister who said that our worship is not spiritual enough. She affirmed that the pulpit was invented and elevated above the audience by Martin Luther, and that it needs to be destroyed. The pews need to be removed so folks can sit in a circle on the floor, hold hands, turn the lights down low, and tell each other their burdens and ask for prayers. She affirmed this is how worship was conducted in New Testament times, though she gave no evidence, and I've been unable to find any. She detested the idea of people sitting in pews listening to one man (the preacher) do all the talking elevated above the audience. I am going to adapt to the church what Mark Twain said about Americans, "The problem is not that church members know too much; the problem is they know so much that ain't so." My reply to the sister was, "If Mar-tin Luther invented the pulpit, where did Nehemiah get his?" (Neh. 8:4). (If some of us senior citizens sat on the floor we would never getup!)
3. The present situation occurs because too much time, talent, energy, ink, and paper are wasted on useless controversies that arise out of human pride, personal jealousy, and soul-damning strife. There is a manifest lack of humility manifested in many controversies. A writer commits himself to an untenable position, and when others try to ex-pound unto him the way of God more perfectly his pride and arrogance push him to ridiculous lengths to try to find ways to defend his position and save face rather than to humbly say, "Thanks for helping me learn the truth." So, he tries and tries again and again by perversion of Scripture and mental gymnastics to justify himself and so the controversy drags on and on. Such people don't understand the law of holes, it says, "When you see you are in a hole, stop digging." It is really shocking to see the lengths to which such brethren will go to try to defend an untenable position. They will even cause brethren to doubt their common honesty, which is sad indeed.
This is no criticism of critical and even lengthy discussion of substantive issues. Such is part and parcel of the faith. The circumcision issue in the first century is a prime example. It was an issue that had to be settled no matter how long it took because it struck at the very heart of the gospel; does the gospel stand alone, or does it depend to some extent upon the Law of Moses? Paul said he gave place to its perpetrators, "No not for an hour that the truth of the gospel might continue with you" (Gal. 2:5). Substantive issues must be discussed by the brightest minds in the church, no matter how long it takes to settle them.
What Can We Do?
Since it is obvious from my correspondence that a good many brethren recognize that we have a problem, the next question is, "What can we do about it?" I suggest the following:
1 Let elders and churches across the country insist that preachers hue the line, or send them packing. This may sound harsh, but critical times call for decisive action. This is not a game, but serious business. Elders and churches deserve the kind of preaching they are willing to tolerate. It is easy for elders to follow the line of least resistance and go along to get along with what they know deep in their hearts is wrong, or at least leads in the wrong direction. The longer they fail to act, the harder it is to do the right thing and the greater will be the damage when they do it. We should never be influenced by kinship or friendship to tolerate that which is detrimental to the Cause of Christ.
2. Let preachers and elders who recognize the problem begin to speak out about it. The problem will never go away by everyone's playing "shut mouth." Silence is not golden in time of crises, it could be just plain yellow. It is so easy to follow the line of least resistance, just ride the tide, go with the flow, and fail to take seriously the fact that God is watching and will hold us accountable. Don't trade present peacefulness and pleasure for future punishment. That's a terrible bargain!
3. Let the older, well-seasoned preachers who still have opportunity pull out those old frayed discolored sermon outlines and blast away let the hammer down put the peddle to the metal! Exchange the small arms fire for the heavy artillery. Make your presence known. Follow God's command and, "Cry aloud, spare not, lift up thy voice like a trumpet, and shew my people their transgression, and the house of Jacob their sins" (Isa. 58:1). Preach on how to determine and apply scriptural authority, the work of the church, the autonomy of the church, the identity of the Lord's church, why we sing and don't play, the horrors of hell, the beauties of heaven, what's wrong with denominationalism? Why the church of Christ is not a denomination, etc. When I hear people say the younger generation doesn't buy those old arguments against instrumental music, institutionalism, etc. I reply, "That's because they haven't heard them; they've just heard about them." It's the responsibility of older preachers to make sure they hear them and understand them. To fail to do so is to fail a divinely given responsibility. Paul said to Timothy, "And the things that thou hast heard of me among many witnesses, the same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also" (2 Tim. 2:2). Peter said, "Wherefore I will not be negligent to put you always in remembrance of these things, though ye know them, and be established in the present truth" (2 Pet. 1:12). "Moreover I will endeavor that ye may be able after my decease to have these things always in remembrance" (2 Pet. 1:15). We need to learn that the purity of the faith depends upon a constant repetition of the basic principles upon which it rests.
As a boy growing up in the church, in almost every gospel meeting there was one sermon on what is wrong with instrumental music. I never heard a single sermon on the organization of the church, the autonomy of the church, the all-sufficiency of the church, or what is wrong with the missionary society. Not until recently did I ever hear any church or preacher advocate worshiping with instrumental music, but in the early 1940s the autonomy, independence, and all-sufficiency of the church began to be violated, and we all know the results. This demonstrates the ravages of neglect. The church was kept abreast on what is wrong with instrumental music in worship, but was allowed to forget the principles that made the missionary society unscriptural. Consequently human institutions to do the work of the church and sponsoring churches again reared their ugly and divisive heads. It has been almost 50 years now since these divisive issues were spawned, and look at the consequences! It is said that they who refused to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Let us take warning, and heed!
4. Let the younger preachers gird their loins and learn what it means to "do the work of an evangelist, make full proof of thy ministry" (2 Tim.4:5). "If thou put the brethren in remembrance of these things, thou shalt be a good minister of Jesus Christ, nourished up in the words of faith and of good doctrine, whereunto thou hast attained"( 1 Tim. 4:6). Preach the word in season and out of season. Take your sermons from the eternal and inexhaustible well spring of God's divine word, rather than from the swill troughs of denominationalism. As Foy E. Wallace, Jr. used to say, "Soft soap from the pulpit won't cleanse the sinner in the pew." Some people make things happen. Others sit back and watch things happen. Yet others, simply ask, "What happened?" Which are you? Which do you want to be? You decide, but you must answer to God for your decision. An older preacher recently asked a young preacher how long had it been since he preached on the identity of the church. The young preacher replied, "I never have." Is there any wonder why conditions are critical?
5. Let editors and writers get with the program, and bring our problem to the forefront. The old proverb says the pen is mightier than the sword. It's hard to over estimate the influence of the printed word, for good and bad. Whether it is for good or bad is determined by the writers and the editors.
Meanwhile, thanks for all who wrote or called to en-courage me in this matter.
Guardian of Truth XL: 5 p. 16-21
March 7, 1996