Religious Journals — Guardians or Disturbers of the Faith

Bill J. Humble
Ever since the earliest days of the restoration movement journals have exerted a great influence in molding brotherhood thought. Entering thousands of homes over widespread areas, these papers have served to acquaint brethren with the progress of the church elsewhere, draw brethren together, and crystallize thinking on brotherhood problems.

The influence of brotherhood papers is well illustrated by such journals as the Christian Baptist, Gospel Advocate and many others. Established in 1823, the Christian Baptist was published by Alexander Campbell while he was still preaching among the Baptist churches, and its influence was so great that when Campbell finally withdrew from the Baptists, thousands joined him in the work of restoring New Testament Christianity. A half-century later, David Lipscomb published the Gospel Advocate, and almost singlehandedly, he stayed the tide of digression in the South. Let no one doubt the influence of religious journals!

Good or Bad?
The question is often asked, “Has the influence of these papers been good or bad? Have they been guardians or disturbers of the faith?” Unfortunately, the answer must be: both! The influence of the papers, as with men, has been both good and bad. The papers have done much to advocate the restoration of the New Testament church; they have converted thousands to this plea; they have drawn the brethren together and encouraged them to greater zeal and activity. This is the positive good side, but the bad is also there. The papers have sometimes abandoned and opposed the restoration ideal, promoted unsriptural ideas, and brought controversy and division to the brotherhood. There have been some who have exclaimed disgustedly, “The church would have been far better off had these papers never existed.” Of some papers, but not all, this is true!

Surprisingly, the same paper has sometimes been both a guardian and disturber of the faith at various periods in its history. The restoration movement would never have grown so rapidly during the decade of the 1830s had it not been for the Millennial Harbinger, but after congregations had been established in many areas, Campbell became the champion of a national missionary society, through which these congregations might cooperate in evangelism. For nearly ten years before the American Christian Missionary Society was established in 1849, Campbell wrote article after article pleading for such “cooperation.” Had it not been for the influence of Campbell and the Harbinger, the society would not have been established in 1849. Now, was the Harbinger a guardian or disturber of the faith? It was both; for upon the society question, at least Campbell abandoned the very principles which had given birth to the paper.

The American Christian Review, edited by Benjamin Franklin in the decades after the Civil War, was at one time the most influential paper in the entire brotherhood, and it opposed the missionary society vigorously. Franklin’s Review was undoubtedly a staunch guardian of the faith. Yet, in later years the Review fell into the hands of brethren who used it to oppose “located preachers” and colleges operated by Christians. The Review thus became a disturber of the faith, promoting views which cannot be defended by God’s word, sowing discord and division among brethren.

Since papers have been, and will probably continue to be, both guardians and disturbers of the faith, how may we determine whether the influence of any particular paper is good or bad, whether it is defending truth or disturbing brethren? The following general principles should help us to answer this question.

Guardian of the Faith
If a religious journal is to be a guardian of the faith:

1. It must stand for the faith! This is actually the fundamental test, and all else is secondary. If a paper is teaching the truth, it is a guardian of the faith. The paper may not be large and influential; it may not be popular. (David Lipscomb was always pictured as a “mean ill-tempered little man” by the majority who favored the society.) But only truth, not circulation or influence, can determine whether any journal is defending the faith.

If a paper has a scriptural attitude toward truth, its writers will admit, “This paper is fallible, but the New Testament is infallible.” The readers will be admonished to search for a “thus saith the Lord,” not for a “thus saith the paper.”

2. It must allow brethren to discuss questions and problems freely. This spirit of free inquiry lies at the very heart of the restoration ideal. The idea of “restoring” New Testament Christianity implies a search for long-lost truth, and this necessitates study, inquiry, and discussion. Our brethren have always believed that as they study scriptural questions and weigh controversial issues, they draw nearer the truth, and the religious papers have always served as a medium through which these discussions should be conducted.

The willingness of such great editors as Campbell, Franklin, and Lipscomb to open their columns to those of opposing views is an index to their greatness. Searching for truth, they encouraged frank discussions of controversial issues.

3. It must be interested in presenting truth in love, not in crucifying some brother or group of brethren. The paper must be an instrument of truth, not a weapon of character assassination. Let the brethren ponder their problems, but let them do it in love and understanding.

Disturber of the Faith
On the other hand, a religious journal becomes a disturber of the faith whenever:

1. It teaches false doctrine. Again, this is the basic test. When a paper defends a teaching not in harmony with the New Testament, when it “rides some hobby” (as brethren often put it), the paper becomes a disturber of the brethren. The paper need not be small to be guilty. It could be a large and influential journal, even supported by a majority of the brotherhood; but when it teaches false doctrine, it is disturbing the faith. Just after the Civil War, it was the small and unpopular Advocate which said, “Each local congregation is sufficient to do the work God has given it,” while the larger papers favored the society.

Today, there are some papers which disturb the faith by teaching that it is wrong for brethren to operate Christian schools. They charge that the school is doing the work of the church, but these papers err in failing to distinguish between congregational and individual responsibilities. On the other hand, some brethren go to the opposite extreme and insist that the churches may subsidize the colleges out of the church treasury. But if the college is not doing the work of the church, what right does it have to be supported out of the churches’ treasuries? None! When a paper teaches that the college may be included in the church budget, it is a disturber of the faith, just as certainly as if it went to the opposite extreme.

2. The paper becomes “the” authority. There is nothing more dangerous than for a paper to become so influential with a segment of brethren that they say, “I have such confidence in that paper and its editor that I’d believe nearly anything I read in it.” When brethren become that loyal to any paper, the seeds of disaster have been sown. Unwittingly perhaps, that authority of men has been substituted for revelation.

This is exactly what happened in the decade of the 1840s, when the way was being prepared for the society. When Campbell began to plead for a means by which the churches might work together, the majority of brethren said, “We have such confidence in Bro. Campbell and the Harbinger that we just don’t see how he could be wrong.” And disaster struck!

3. The paper abandons the “sound doctrine” for which it once contended. We do not preach “once safe, always safe” and the fact that a paper once was sound in teaching does not guarantee it perpetual soundness. The American Christian Review, once an effective instrument for good, later became a disturber of the faith.

Even today, brethren who once preached the autonomy and all sufficiency of the local congregation shudder when some preacher announces that he will discuss these same themes; for they fear that some “pet institution” may be criticized. Could it be that principles are being abandoned?

4. The paper refuses to allow brethren to study vital problems. When any paper stifles free discussion of current issues, it assumes an omniscience which Campbell, Lard, and Lipscomb dared not assume. When thousands of sincere brethren conscientiously question some practice and ask that it be studied in the light of the New Testament, and when some paper defends the practice by saying, “We are teaching the truth on this question, and no hobbyist on the other side has any right to be heard,” that paper is treading the brink of disaster. Let brethren discuss the questions which confront the church! Truth will prevail! But let no  paper become so arrogant that it says, “What we teach is the end of truth. No further discussion is necessary.”

Let all papers say, “Our quest is for truth; our spirit is brotherly kindness; our aim is to present all views fairly.” And a grateful brotherhood will rise up and say, “These papers are all guardians of the gospel.”

(Taken from The Preceptor, July 1956)
Truth Magazine II:5, February 1958, 10-11, 15
Truth Magazine Vol. XLIV: 10 p22  May 18, 2000