EDITORIAL — The Taproot of Digression (I)

By Cecil Willis

The history of man is the history of his digressions from Gods divine will. Man has, at one time or another perverted and polluted every divine provision of God. He has corrupted the sacred worship, distorted the organization of the church, and perverted the divine mission of the church. Again and again, man has changed the unchangeable. Herein has been the source of a multitude of digressions.

In discussions of digressions, we frequently have been content to walk around the outer edges, and snip off a few leaves or small branches from the digressive tree. In this article, and three others to follow, we want to discuss the real taproot of digression, and to discuss the appearance of this digressive principle in the past and its recurrence among us again at this present day.

The Basic Assumption

The basic assumption of the digressive is that there is no New Testament binding pattern. In 1940, A. T. Degroot, the now famous Disciple of Christ historian, wrote a book entitled The Grounds of Divisions Among the Disciples of Christ. Degroot charged that the assumption that there is a pattern revealed in the New Testament is the ground of the various divisions among professed Christians. Degroot stated his intention in the book as follows: “It is the purpose of the present work to trace the genesis and exodus of the divisions which have come to pass in the Restoration movement. In the process of this uncovering we shall endeavor to ascertain the generating cause of these schisms. Having made our investigations in advance of the writing of this Introduction, we are ready to set forth our thesis, namely: that the principle of restoring a fixed pattern of a primitive Christian church is divisive and not unitive” (pg. 8).

Degroot is perfectly willing to admit that the early leaders in the Restoration effort believed that the New Testament contained a normative pattern. In speaking of the position of Thomas Campbell, as declared in the Declaration and Address, Degroot said: “It was the underlying assumption of Thomas Campbell that the New Testament contained the pattern of a one-and-only primitive Christian Church” (pg. 4). Indeed, it would be a contradiction in terms to speak of a Restoration movement and then to deny that there was anything normative about the New Testament church to restore. Degroot admits that Alexander Campbell, in his early years, shared his fathers concept about the New Testament containing a divine blueprint.

The Anti-Complex

Degroot spoke of what he called the “anti complex,” and by this he meant the disposition to look upon the New Testament as a blueprint for the church for all times to come. The “anti complex” was the disposition and belief “that the New Testament contains the blue prints and specifications of a one-and-only primitive Christian church.” (P. 50). Since Alexander Campbell, in his early years, shared this belief, Degroot therefore says, “In the formative years of the Disciples Alexander Campbell became the spiritual father of the present day Churches of Christ, or conservative branch of the Restoration Movement” (p. 51). What was there about Campbell in his early years that made him to be called “the spiritual father of the present day Churches of Christ”? It was the fact that he then believed the New Testament was for all time a divine pattern.

This so-called “anti -complex” Degroot referred to as “the conservative or more literalistic forces. . .” (p. 93). Of this conservative group of brethren, Degroot said: “It was the tendency resident in every religion of a Book to interpret that religion in a very literal manner, involving an exact reproduction of the forms and methods of the ancient faith.” (P. 92). This “anti complex” resulted in the “habit of demanding chapter and verse as authority for every office and work in the church. . . .9 (P. 123). Later when mechanical instrumental music and missionary societies were introduced (which admittedly were no part of the New Testament church), Degroot said conflict was inevitable. “Only an abandonment of the proof text method could ease the tension created by these different practices” (p. 184), and back then a host of our faithful brethren were unwilling to give up the “proof text method.”

The 50 – 50 Brethren

As the various new practices were introduced, conflict was inevitable between those who believed the New Testament contained a once-for-all-time pattern, and those who did not believe the New Testament was normative Back then, they even had their “middle-of-the-road” brethren, who parallel the effort of the present day Firm Foundation and its enigmatic editor to stand in the middle of the road. Some of the brethren (notably J. W. McGarvey, Moses E. Lard, Robert Graham, W. H. Hopson, and L. B. Wilkes of the Apostolic Times) sought to defend missionary societies and yet strongly oppose mechanical instrumental music. They had the same problem with consistency that the Firm Foundation now has as it attempts to condemn the church support of orphan homes under boards and the church support of colleges, even while they attempt to defend sponsoring churches.

Degroot said the “50-50” brethren (as he called them) had the least defensible position. He said, “A case could be made for a legalistic design of the church . . . if one accepted the premise that the purpose of the New Testament was to reveal the blue print and specifications of unchanging modes of work and worship.” (p. 121). Or, one could deny the New Testament was intended to reveal a pattern, and some justification could then be found “for new experiences in religious life and labor” (p. 121). But neither position could justify entirely those who “took a 50-50 position.” But the tide a century ago was against those who contended that the New Testament was a divinely given blueprint to be reproduced in every age. Degroot said such brethren were “a progressively diminishing constituency.” (p. 121).

Division Comes

Eventually there was an open rupture in the church. The division followed the lines of those who believed the New Testament was normative, and of those who did not believe the New Testament pattern was binding. Degroot said, “From the time of the 1906 Church of Christ lapse into an unrelieved worship of as (sic) assumed pattern church in the New Testament, the Disciples have been free to explore the field of unity with a more experimental mood.” (p. 194).

The taproot of digression was the assumption that there is no pattern. The early leaders of the Restoration effort believed in a pattern. Degroot admitted: “The orthodox teaching of the Restoration leaders was that the New Testament contained perfectly discernable blue prints and specifications of a one-and-only church. This remains as the assumption of the present day Churches of Christ” (p. 217). More correctly, it might be stated that this was the posture of the Church of Christ in 1940. Soon thereafter the digressive spiel of “no pattern-ism” was to be heard throughout the land, even among certain ones in the Churches of Christ, as I propose to show in later articles.

The thesis of Degroot in his book is that there is no pattern for the church revealed in the New Testament. This is the ground of Digressivism, and whoever holds that premise is digressive, regardless of whether he wears the label “Disciples of Christ” or is called a member of the “Church of Christ.” Degroot concluded, “If more than a century of demonstration may be termed historical proof, it should be clear that there is no blue print of a single church in the New Testament.” (p. 219). While Degroot, like so many other digressives (both past and present), did not like the label “liberal,” at least he said: “. . . the non-conservative Disciples have come to view as illusory the idea that a Golden Age of perfect men and institutions existed in the past. They distrust lets-go-back defeatism.” (p. 220).

Degroot then stated again, in closing, his premise: “It is, to the writer at least, evidence in abundance that the principle of restoring a fixed pattern of a primitive Christian church is divisive and not unitive.” (p. 220). Now, why have I devoted so much time to this discussion of Degroots book? It is in order that you might see that “no patternism” is the basic digressive principle. A century ago a small group of brethren took their stand that there was a divinely revealed New Testament blueprint for the church, which should be reproduced in every century. The “non-conservative” (Liberal!) digressives maintained that the New Testament did not contain a divine pattern, and therefore that the New Testament was not normative at all. It was this basic disagreement that aligned the Churches of Christ, and the Disciples of Christ in their respective camps.

In the articles to follow, I want to show that there are now among us once again those who deny that the Scripture reveals a pattern which we should follow in all ages. Such pattern deniers (which cause them to result in being pattern-perverters) also do not like to be called “liberals.” But they are the logical and historical descendants of the Disciples of Christ of a century ago.

June 8, 1972