Ephraim’s Idols

By Ron Halbrook

“Christianity in a Changing World: ” A Stirring Lesson by Guy N: Woods

Guy N. Woods, Associate Editor of the Gospel Advocate, preached a stirring lesson on “Christianity in a Changing World” at the Abilene Christian College lectures of 1939 (Abilene Christian College Bible Lectures, 1939, Delivered in the Auditorium of Abilene Christian College, February, 1939, Abilene, Texas [Austin, TX: Firm Foundation Publ. House, 1939], pp. 42-59). It is worthy of reading and re-reading. After recounting the obstacles overcome by the cause of Christ from its inception through its irresistible march across the earth, Woods recounted the hellish work of innovators who corrupted that cause and the courageous work of the reformers who contributed to a restoration of New Testament Christianity. Referring to the labors of reformation and restoration, Woods asserted,

With what earnest care and concern should we view the work of the past, that we might discover the causes of our achievements, and thus safeguard them for the future!

Principles are succinctly stated which returned men to the religion of the apostles: 1. The determination to overthrow denominationalism. 2. The Bible alone is all-sufficient for acceptable faith and practice in religion. 3. Christ is served by faith and by obedience to his word without waiting for mysterious or incomprehensible powers to overtake us. 4. A balanced and unrelenting emphasis on faith, repentance, and baptism as conditions of pardon. 5. Purging our speech of all human names and phrases in favor of Bible language. 6. Exalting the local church as “God’s own missionary society for the evangelization of the world” and repudiating as sinful every perversion of that plan. 7. Returning to the form of worship outlined, in the New Testament. Woods observed that our preaching must be saturated with these themes because “the moment we lose sight of them, we begin to return to the bosom of the great apostasy.”

Next, Woods raised the red flag of caution against signs that augured revolutionary and ruinous changes on the horizon in 1939. He especially noted:

1. The tendency toward institutionalism. This is where the oft-quoted statement appears:

This writer has ever been unable to appreciate the logic of those who affect to see grave danger in Missionary Societies, but scruple not to form a similar organization for the purpose of caring for orphans and teaching young men to be gospel preachers.

He affirmed that local churches can do their own work without getting involved with “boards and conclaves unknown to the New Testament.” Then he commended the Tipton Orphans Home “conducted by the elders of the church in Tipton, Oklahoma, aided by funds sent to them by the elders of other congregations round about.” A protest against other arrangements was added.

2. The Pastor System. Brethren were warned against slighting the rightful place of elders in God’s plan for the local church, especially against transforming the preacher into a modern-day pastor who “takes charge” of the church.

3. Tendencies toward Compromise. Distaste for debate and controversy was softening some brethren. The spirit which aggressively assaulted denominationalism was being replaced by maudlin pietism and sectarianism.

There is much to commend itself in this sermon. Woods has complained that brethren have quoted his warning against institutionalism without including his commendation of the Tipton arrangement. Woods should not be misquoted, but he needs to see that the commendation is inconsistent with the warning. Did Tipton have so many orphans among the disciples locally that it was necessary to build special facilities and to call for other congregations to help in the overwhelming emergency? Or, was this orphanage built as a focal point to which orphans were to be sent from other congregations – and to which financial donations were to be sent by other congregations? Such a compromise of God’s plan for the sufficiency and autonomy of the organization of each local church is indeed a tendency toward institutionalism! As proof, we point out that in debates in the 1950’s with Roy Cogdill the propositions affirmed by Woods defended not only the Tipton arrangement but also the Tennessee Orphan Home arrangement of a board wholly unattached to any local eldership, but which gathers orphans and funds from many churches, the very thing which he specifically protested in his 1939 speech. The tendency became a pattern. Woods solved his inconsistency not by rejecting every vestige of institutionalism but by accepting more and more institutionalism.

Now Woods has put his hands to the helm of the Gospel Advocate, the paper that has persistently fought in favor of institutionalism since World War II. In fact, the Advocate has embodied all the signs which Woods once said augur revolutionary and ruinous changes. Institutional preachers such as are featured constantly in the Advocate – with Editor emeritus Ira North, Jr. a prime example are expected to be youth and recreational organizers, promoters of machinery unknown to the Bible, pyschology counselors, Postive-Mental-Attitude motivators, community social mixers, business administrators, and the like. Only the blind cannot see the evolution of modernday denominational pastors who “take charge” of complex plants and programs rather than preaching the simple gospel of Jesus Christ. Maudlin pietism, compromise, and the how-to-win-friends-and-influence-people philosophy is already the order of the day among institutional churches. The return “to the bosom of the great apostasy” is much underway. So much so that the words of the prophet are fulfilled again, “Ephraim is joined to idols: let him alone” (Hos. 4:17).

If we cannot call Ephraim back, we can be forewarned not to follow his course. If we will read thoughtfully, Guy N. Woods’ stirring sermon on “Christianity in a Changing World” can be a wonderful aid in promoting vigilance in our day.

Guardian of Truth XXVII: 9, pp. 268-269
May 5, 1983