For the Want of a Nail!

By Hershel Patton

Sidney J. Harris wrote an article in his syndicated column (Nashville Banner, August 4, 1971) entitled “Catastrophes Begin with a Nail.” Because what he says is so true, I want to copy here the major portion of his column, and then make a few applications of the principle set forth to spiritual matters.

“Most looming crisis, when they come, has had their origin for want of a nail.

“You remember how it goes: For want of a nail, a shoe was lost; for want of a shoe, a horse was lost; for want of a horse, a message was lost; for want of a message, a battle was lost, for want of a battle, a war was lost; for want of war, a kingdom was lost; and all for the loss of a nail.

“Corny as that sounds, the fact of the matter is that history does hang on such little things as much as on any grand design. So do most large tragedies, which have their origins in tiny flaws unperceived at the time. What we, call a catastrophe usually starts with a nail.

“A crack so tiny it could not be seen was responsible for the collapse of the Silver Bridge over the Ohio River a few years ago, killing 46 persons. The crack led to the breaking of a crucial steel eye bar, which plunged the 1,700foot suspension bridge into the river.

“Not long afterwards, investigating a plane crash in which almost 100 were killed, the CAB found that the mechanical difficulty leading to the crash originated in a small metal part it would have cost a dime to replace. But nobody had bothered to check it out.

“These examples could be multiplied scores of times. It is hardly ever that some gross malfunction is responsible for a disaster — for gross malfunctions can usually be caught before they do much damage. It is almost invariably some little defect that passes hasty or negligent inspection (Emphasis mine H.P.) Think of this the next time you are sitting in a plane, at the ramp, waiting to take off, and silently cursing the mechanics for being so tediously thorough.”

And, we would do well to think of this the next time we want to do something religiously and are anxious to “take off,” but held back while others are being tediously thorough in checking for Bible authority. Apostasies and divisions — great catastrophes — of the past have occurred when men rushed into actions and arrangements because they “looked good” and “accomplished good” instead of measuring for Bible authority. The Missionary Society and Instruments of Music in worship are examples of attractive endeavors that men hastened to embrace about a century ago, “fussing and fuming” at those who tediously searched and asked for scriptural authority and which resulted in a great cleavage among professors of New Testament Christianity and the establishment of the First Christian Church (another denomination). It all happened “for the want of a nail.” Just one nail Scriptural of authority would have been all that was necessary to bring about acceptance of these things by all Bible loving people. Recognizing the need for such authority, with a diligent search revealing none, the catastrophe could have been avoided. But the “nail” was not found and many determined to “take off” without it, so, there was disaster.

Todays Spiritual Catastrophes

Today, professors of New Testament Christianity are again experiencing a catastrophic rupture of fellowship-a “looming crisis–and, all “for the want of a nail.” Liberal promoters “whistle in the dark” saying the “Antis” are dying on the vine, and we have very little opposition, However new congregations, made up of saints who reject modern innovations (churches functioning through human societies and institutions; centralizing the work of many churches under one church-eldership) – the Sponsoring Church; churches engaging in secular and social endeavors are springing up daily, older congregations boldly announcing their opposition to such liberalism, and these churches are growing. This distinction is not only being recognized everywhere all across the United States, but in Africa, Australia, Philippines, Japan, and wherever the Bible is taught, believed, and followed.

Promoters of the above mentioned practices are not only aghast at what their practices have brought about, but are now expressing alarm at further liberalism in their ranks — a looming crisis. At a workshop conducted by and at Abilene Christian College in Abilene, Texas, preachers and teachers in the church of Christ openly advocated (to the astonishment even of some liberals) (1) adopting the church of this century to the surrounding of the world by -brethren involving themselves in the same worldliness as found around them-like adapting hippy-type music in the church to attract the hippy crowd. The speaker called it “holy worldliness”; (2) tongue speaking should be practiced today and brethren should not oppose those who do speak in tongues; and (3) the Bible as a whole is not the inspired word of God. Indeed, there is a crisis of liberalism-and, all “for the want of a nail” – the nail of authority!

Brethren who desired to centralize the functioning of many churches through human institutions or a Sponsoring Church, and have the churches function in secular and social endeavors, were so thrilled over the good prospects of their devices that they did not tediously check for the nail of authority, and when it war, pointed out to them that it was lacking, they said it does not matter. If is not needed. We can build without it. Once this attitude was accepted, it is no wonder that others reached out for other things-tongue speaking, holy worldliness, Bible not an inspired standard, etc. Truly, ignoring this first little break-“no authority needed for some things” leaving out this nail), has brought on tile present crisis. The whole idea of New Testament Christianity is threatened.

The Basic Cause

In a recent correspondence with Brother Batsell Barrett Baxter, he wrote, “Herschel, the difference between us is not, as you think, a loyalty to God, Christ, the inspired scriptures and the church, but rather an interpretation of the scriptures. You have, now I shall speak frankly, bound where the scriptures do not bind. Your unnecessarily limited interpretation of the way congregations can cooperate with each other is a twentieth century reenactment of the Pharisees teaching as their doctrines the precepts of men (Matt. 15:9).” Involved in this statement is the idea that there are matters wherein we are not bound by scripture. I am accused of binding something belonging to this realm. But, what practice have I bound? Actually, I simply question a practice that Brother Baxter advocates. Churches cooperating is a realm he mentions where the scriptures do not bind. Now, I do find instances of churches cooperating in the scriptures. Churches sent wages to Paul while he preached at Corinth (2 Cor. 11:8). These churches cooperated in supporting Paul by each one sending to the same place-preacher. Churches of Macedonia and Achaia cooperated by each one raising funds, selecting her own messenger, and sending to the poor saints in Jerusalem. This is scriptural cooperating by churches. I have not bound this type of cooperation; the scriptures do, if we admit what the scriptures say as binding. Brother Baxter advocates one church ~group of elders) setting itself up as a “Sponsoring Church,” or some brethren forming a corporation or institution of some kind to receive funds from the churches and then dispense those funds in whatever work (evangelism, benevolence, etc.) is planned. This is not only different from the Bible “pattern,” but it also violates the responsibility of elders and the independence and autonomy of the local church as set forth in the scriptures. Brother Baxter says the scriptures do not have to be followed here… the nail of authority for his action is not needed. Really! Who is making a law where there is none? Who is “teaching as doctrine the precepts of men”?

I am aware of general and specific authority, of the realm of the “generic,” but before anything is permissible in this realm, as a “how,” “means,” or “method,” the thing itself must be authorized, be lawful (I Cor. 10: 23). Before “church” camps and recreational halls can be justified as a “how” of meeting mans social needs, it must first be shown scriptural for churches to meet this need that is a part of its mission. The Sponsoring Church, Societies, Institutions, etc. are not “hows” of evangelism and benevolence, but organizations (other than a local church) that must use means 1hows) in doing tile work. Churches have scriptural authority to engage in evangelism and limited benevolence, using means that are commensurate with Bible instruction, but churches contributing funds to an organization that selects and uses means and methods of functioning is without Bible authority.

The difference between brethren today therefore is indeed a loyalty to God, Christ, the inspired scripture, and the church, and not just a matter of “judgment” or “how” the Lords evangelistic or benevolent or edification work is to be done.

The divisions, heart-aches, alienations, and extreme apostasies that have taken place, and are still taking place, all go back to “the want of a nail.” Once the nail of authority is omitted (“We dont need Bible authority for a lot of things we do”, “There is no pattern”), the great crisis (catastrophic apostasy with its alienations) is inevitable — And “All for the Want of a Nail.”

TRUTH MAGAZINE, XVI: 43, pp. 10-12
September 7, 1972