EDITORIAL — The Taproot of Digression (IV)

By Cecil Willis

In the previous articles in this series, we have shown that the basic fallacy of digression is its denial that the New Testament was intended by God to reveal a binding pattern for the church to follow for all time to come. We have discussed the positions of the Disciples of Christ, then the positions of Ketcherside and those who parrot him, and in the last article we discussed the modernism being advocated by writers in Mission magazine. In this article I want to discuss the position of some who might well be represented by the Gospel Advocate, and others who share the brand of institutional liberalism which the Advocate promulgates.

Varieties in Liberalism

Liberalism presents itself in various shades and hues. Not all liberals are liberal to the same degree. Some accept the basic premise of liberalism, but will not accept as yet all of its conclusions. Liberalism has positions on various essential points of Bible teaching. Hence, one might speak of liberalisms view of God, Christ, miracles, the Bible, or the Church. Some of the liberals among us who have spoken regarding the church and the Bible have not yet had their “say” regarding God and Christ. I wish they would speak up and tell us what they think of God and Christ. Perhaps this shocking bit of information might awaken a few of our brethren. But the time is not yet quite right for the liberals to tell us how the concept of God has “evolved,” or for them to re-write the sacred account of the miracles. They are now reluctant to deny the virgin birth of Christ, or to disclaim His bodily resurrection. The liberals now are speaking mainly regarding the Bible and the church. But their entire speech is not yet before the brethren.

One liberal brother has told us what be sees in the Bible. He does not view Holy Scripture as most of us in the past have viewed it. To Brother J. P. Sanders, this is how he views the Bible: “In the Bible I see some exquisitely religious lyrics, some repugnant and nationalistic verse, some incomparably beautiful erotic poetry, some profound mythology, some colorful and at times amusing folk lore, some legends and fables, some great rules for community life in ancient society, some tiresome regulations of ritual and diet, some dazzling — if not schizophrenic — visions, some dull didacticism, some dynamic and moving preaching. Nowhere-nowhere-do I find a consistent diagram or blueprint of what life should be or what the church should be. I see in it mans sorrow and anguish, his despair and hope, his loving and living, his hating and dying — but I do not find a schematic program of salvation” (J. P. Sanders, Restoration Review, March, 1967, p. 51).

Some of the liberal brethren will not now go quite as far as does Brother J. P. Sanders. Perhaps I should here call attention to the fact that there are two brethren named J. P. Sanders, and to state that the one quoted is not the one who for many years was associated with David Lipscomb College. The J. P. Sanders being quoted is the one who preached for the Rockford, Illinois Church of Christ, and who since has found his rightful place in the Christian Church. Before he left the church, he was mouthing the basic sentiment of the Christian Church. The fundamental principle of Digressivism, as I have sought to show in this series of articles, is its denial that the New Testament reveals a once-for-all binding pattern. Note again Brother Sanders statement: “Nowhere-nowhere-do I find a consistent diagram or blueprint of what life should be or what the church should be.”

There are many liberal brethren who will not now voice some of the sentiments expressed by Brother Sanders regarding what he thinks the Bible to be, but who share at least to some degree his sentiment that the New Testament does not reveal a blueprint for the church.

“Mainline” Churches

Some have come to refer to churches, which hold the position of the Gospel Advocate or Firm Foundation (and I might add, it is impossible to hold the position of both, for they hold diametrically opposed positions) on institutionalism and sponsoring church-ism, as “mainline” churches. The Mission magazine writers consider those who stand where most of the Gospel Advocate writers stand to be hidebound traditionalists. They might even label them opprobriously as “biblical fundamentalists.”

But the men who have taken the lead in contending for the sponsoring church, indirect support of gospel preachers, and the church support of human institutions (whether benevolent, educational, or evangelistic) have been forced to adopt the basic tenet of digression in order to contend for the position they have taken. The leading institutional defenders have been forced to admit that gospel preachers were directly supported in the New Testament (see Phil. 4:10-18). They have had to admit that local, churches can, and did, care for their own (see Acts 2, 4, 6). They have been forced to admit that they can find no example in the New Testament of anything like 3,000 churches functioning through one eldership (as is done in the Herald of Truth).

The only way they have been able to make any semblance of defense for these digressive practices has been by adopting the basic premise of liberalism: namely, that the New Testament does not reveal a binding pattern.

The logical necessity of taking such a position has embarrassed some of the institutional defenders. For example, Brother Clifton Inman, in my debate with him in Parkersburg, West Virginia, felt the necessity to spend much time trying to show that the New Testament does reveal a binding pattern on some things. He merely contended that there was no pattern regarding how churches could cooperate. I tried to make Brother Inman see that if there is no divine order, then there can be no disorder. If nothing is revealed about how churches may work together, then any cooperative of churches, from the missionary society on down, would be permissible.

Note how Brother Inman denies the New Testament reveals a pattern: “The assumption is made that Philippi sent this money directly to Paul rather than to the treasury of any church in Thessalonica or elsewhere. The accuracy of this assumption we cannot tell . . . It seems very unlikely therefore that they were following any pattern, or setting any pattern, of how money was to be sent to preachers” (Bible Herald, March 15, 1957, p. 2).

The only difference between Brother Inmans position, and the position of the digressive Christian Church, is one of degree. Brother Inman denies that is a pattern for congregational cooperation; the Christian Church denies there is a pattern at all. Mack Langford denies there is a pattern for “worship, polity and missions.” Inman denies that there is a pattern regarding how churches may work together. Yet Inman, and others of the institutional liberal faction, hilariously castigate unmercifully men like Mack Langford as dangerous liberals.

Other Pattern Deniers

That noble warrior (pardon me while I laugh) of liberalism, Guy N. Woods, said: “Besides, there is no exclusive pattern of church cooperation taught in the Bible” (Cooperation in the Field of Benevolence and Evangelism, p. 7). If one will read current issues of the Gospel Advocate, he will find Guy Woods “tearing his shirt” as he fights liberalism. (Perhaps I might more appropriately have said “splitting his pants.”) I wonder if it never occurred to Brother Woods that he might be one of the primary sources of the liberalism now so very prevalent among the churches where he preaches. For fifteen or twenty years, Brother Woods has done his very best to show “there is no exclusive pattern of church cooperation taught in the Bible.” I cannot see why such a man would be so upset if Mack Langford would want to go a step or two further and declare, “There is no such thing as a final pattern for worship, polity and missions. . .” But my Brother Woods can get righteously indignant at men like those pattern deniers in Mission, or a Mack Langford. Those liberal brethren ought to feed Brother Woods out of his own liberal spoon. Perhaps they can teach him what some of his “Anti” brethren could not teach him: namely, that he has joined the digressives when he starts down the road of No Patternism.

Nearly twenty years ago G. C. Brewer, whom historians are apt to call the Isaac Errett of the Twentieth Century (if Goodpasture does not win that label), began to pitch his battle for sponsoring churches on the ground of pattern denying. Brewer said in the good old Gospel Advocate: “My whole contention was that the exact method of cooperation was not revealed and that we do not have a blueprint, therefore, by which to go.” Even Highlands employee, E. R. Harper, made the same basic digressive thrust. Referring to a statement made by Yater Tant in which Tant said “The Scriptures authorize a pattern for congregational cooperation,” Harper said, “This we shall prove is not true” (Harpers Answer to Tants Booklet, p. 3). Brother Harper then proceeded to deny that the New Testament reveals a divine pattern of congregational cooperation.

Now Brother Harper has out a new book in which he is crying like a baby about the young generation of liberals that has arisen in “mainline” Churches of Christ. Even B. G. Goodpasture, who published Brewers pattern-denying statement, now, affects to be strongly opposed to liberalism, and like Guy N. Woods, assays to smite the liberals “hip and thigh.”


In this series of articles, I have tried to show that the basic error of the digressive in every generation is his denial that the New Testament reveals a divine and binding pattern. I have documented the pattern denials of liberals past and present. I have shown that those aligned with the Gospel Advocate and Firm Foundation are only a little less liberal than the liberals they pretend to be opposing so strongly.

There should be a warning in all of this for us all. Perhaps this warning is best stated in Hebrews 8: 5, “See, saith he, that thou make all things according to the pattern.”

TRUTH MAGAZINE, XVI: 34, pp. 3-5
June 29, 1972