EDITORIAL — The Taproot of Digression (II)

By Cecil Willis

In a previous article, I documented from A. T. Degroots book, The Grounds of Division Among Disciples of Christ, that the precise disagreement among brethren a century ago centered around whether the New Testament was ever intended by God to produce a once-for-all-time pattern for the church, as regards worship, mission, and organization. The liberal Disciples of the 1900s no more liked to wear the label “liberal” than do the modern-day liberals among us.

In this article, and in two other articles to follow, I wish to show that there are multitudes among the Churches of Christ today who have accepted, and who now promulgate, the basic premise of digressivism, namely: that the New Testament does not constitute a binding pattern for the twentieth century church. This is the heart of digression, and it is now rampant among Churches of Christ, as I purport to document in the following articles. You will notice that our liberal brethren also disclaim the label “liberal,” but they are liberal none the less.

Carl Ketcherside

The New Testament, in Heb. 8:5; Gal. 6:2; and Jas. 1:25, indicates that God revealed a divine “law” (or “Pattern”) which man is obliged to follow exactly. Brother Carl Ketcherside has used virtually the exact terminology of A. T. Degroot and other liberal Disciples of Christ in attacking the pattern principle. Let me repeat the premise advanced by Degroot: “that the principle of restoring a fixed pattern of a primitive Christian church is divisive and not unitive” (p. 8). Brother Ketcherside will accept this premise, without changing a word. In fact, Brother Ketcherside recently devoted an entire year of study in his paper Mission Messenger to proving that there is no divinely established pattern. Some brethren among us today wonder why we cannot unite with Brother Ketcherside. It is precisely because he has much more in common in principle with the liberal Disciples of Christ than he has with those of us who stand where the Churches of Christ have always stood, and contended that there is a one-and-only pattern for the church revealed in the New Testament.

Here is how Brother Ketcherside worded the Disciples of Christ premise, but which premise Brother Ketcherside also accepts: “Would it shock you too greatly if I came directly to the point and suggested that perhaps God gave us no pattern at all in the commonly accepted usage of the term by the various factions calling themselves The Church of Christ” (Mission Messenger, Feb., 1970).

More precisely in the terminology of A. T. Degroot, Brother Ketcherside, in the same issue Of Mission Messenger said, “Nothing has been more productive of dissension among us than the concept that God intended to provide for us a specific pattern complete in minute detail and that this pattern constitutes an inviolable law for His children in all ages, climes, and conditions . . . I am urging that the whole 6pattern concept which makes of the apostolic letters mere legalistic documents be examined calmly and dispassionately. This is not an adoption of liberalistic philosophy.”

Note that Brother Ketcherside goes out of his way to assure us that his doctrine of no-patternism is not “an adoption of liberalistic philosophy.” It would be refreshing to meet at least one liberal sometime who would admit he was a liberal. Degroot denied the applicability of the label “liberal,” and Brother Ketcherside for some reason seems to think that someone just might think he has advocated a wee bit of liberalism. The truth is that his doctrine that the New Testament was not intended to convey a divine pattern is the very essence of liberalism, his protests to the contrary not withstanding.


A few years ago M. F. Cottrell, who was living in Denver the last I knew of him, wrote a book entitled Refocusing God, the Bible and the Church. Cottrell has had a rather motley history. He started out with the old Ketcherside element in the church, spent a few years with those of us who are now labeled by the liberals as “Anti,” and now in sentiment is with the new Ketcherside position. Under a heading entitled “Hypersensitivity to Scripturalness and Results,” Brother Cottrell advocates the basic premise of digression, namely that the New Testament is not a book of divine pattern to be followed and duplicated. Cottrell said, “If we see God as the monster of heaven, a needless hypersensitivity toward being scriptural is created. This type of legalism inevitably binds and limits God (by His own rules) to where he cannot work” (pp. 26, 27).

I did not know we could be too sensitive about following the instructions of God, but the anti-legalist (i.e., the liberal) speaks of “a needless hypersensitivity toward being scriptural. . . .” Furthermore, Brother Cottrell said, “As a result we find ourselves suffering from paralysis by analysis. While stressing scripturalness, we analyze until we paralyze.” (p. 27). The alternative is completely to disregard the divine Word of God, and then one would not have to worry at all about scripture analysis.

Further in his advocacy of digressivism, Brother Cottrell said: “We have long been taught and trained to look and ask for patterns. Sometimes the author wonders if we havent almost developed pattern obsessions. It seems that when good brethren begin some good work, the first thing we hear is Where is the pattern? Most of us think there must be one or else we cannot proceed.” (p. 121).

I have never thought it was such a bad practice to inquire “Where is the pattern?” In fact, I think we should make that inquiry before we even begin. But like Degroot and Ketcherside, Brother Cottrell is challenging the basic thesis that we must even inquire as to whether there is divine authority for the action. ` Of course, Cottrell also denies be is liberal.

Mack Langford

Another example of one within the Churches of Christ who has advocated the basic tenet of digressivism is Mack Langford, who did live in Collingwood, New Jersey. I do not know if he still lives there or not. Langford said the “Church of Christ concept of worship is rooted in two things: the idea that worship is essentially a legal procedure demanding utter “rejection of any human creativity in favor of Gods absolute and final command; and the presupposition that there is a carefully stated pattern of worship in the New Testament which must be slavishly followed” (Quoted from Riverside (Wichita, Kansas) Church of Christ Weekly News Bulletin, April 3, 1966).

Brother Langford maintains that it has now been demonstrated by American and German scholarship that there is no New Testament pattern. Hear what he says: “Recent scholarship, German and American, has stated over and over that we know little about the first century Church, and there is no such thing as a final pattern for worship, polity and missions, yet we in the Church of Christ continue to insist that the New Testament is a blueprint which must be exactly reproduced.” He also states that the “New Testament is no legal document outlining in detail a planned procedure of worship; there are no orders of worship to guide us. Instinctively we know this”

Back in the 1950s, in the space of a few months, fourteen gospel preachers, and most of whom were from the Chicago area, forsook the Churches of Christ and aligned themselves with the very liberal Disciples of Christ. The basic thesis of the Disciples of Christ is that there is no New Testament pattern. I think I have adequately shown from their own statements that brethren Ketcherside, Cottrell, and Langford have accepted the basic error of the Disciples of Christ. In principle, they have rejected the basic position of Churches of Christ, and they therefore might as well align themselves with the Christian Church. Perhaps personal preference and family tradition might stand in their way, but no principle that they hold dictates that they should continue with the Lords people. In sentiment, they belong with the Christian Church who was the first to deny the New Testament constitutes a divine blueprint.

In two articles to follow I want to demonstrate that others in what some call the “mainstream” Churches of Christ accept the same presupposition regarding the New Testament. Yet they also seem to be completely unable to understand why anyone would call them “liberal.”

TRUTH MAGAZINE, XVI: 32, pp. 3-5
June 15, 1972