By Mike Willis
The restoration hermeneutic has been to find a “thus saith the Lord” for all of one’s practices. Those things that cannot be found authorized by Scriptures are to be discarded. Throughout the years, brethren have demonstrated that things are either “from heaven” or “from men” as Jesus directed us to search with reference to the baptism of John the Baptist.
And when he was come into the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came unto him as he was teaching, and said, By what authority doest thou these things? And who gave thee this authority? And Jesus answered and said unto them, I also will ask you one thing, which if ye tell me, I in like wise will tell you by what authority I do these things. The baptism of John, whence was it? From heaven, or of men? And they reasoned with themselves, saying, If we shall say, From heaven; he will say unto us, Why did ye not then believe him? But if we shall say, Of men; we fear the people; for all hold John as a prophet. And they answered Jesus, and said, We cannot tell. And he said unto them, Neither tell I you by what authority I do these things (Matt. 21:23-27).
The directions to inquire whether a thing was authorized “from heaven” or “from men” is tied to another statement from Jesus. Jesus said, “This people draweth nigh unto me with their mouth, and honoureth me with their lips; but their heart is far from me. But in vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men” (Matt. 15:8-9). Those things that are practiced in religion on no greater authority than the “commandments of men” render man’s worship void of result or useless.
Command, Example, and Necessary Inference
Accepting Jesus’ statements as the truth, since Jesus is “the truth” (John 14:6) and he is the faithful witness about spiritual things (Rev. 1:5), brethren seek to establish divine authority for their practices. We are serious about providing divine authority for all of our practices; this is not a religious game that we play. In studying to provide authority, faithful brethren generally recognize the Bible teaches that God authoizes by three different methods:
1. Direct command or statement. When Jesus or an apostle gives a direct command, all men are bound to obey that command (unless there is something in the context that limits its application). We usually have illustrated these principles with reference to the Lord’s supper. Jesus said, “This do in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19; 1 Cor. 11:24). The command provides divine authority for the church to observe the Lord’s supper. Indeed, a church that does not observe the Lord’s supper is guilty of sin.
2. Approved apostolic example. Another way that authority is established is by approved apostolic example. Paul instructed, “For this cause have I sent unto you Timotheus, who is my beloved son, and faithful in the Lord, who shall bring you into remembrance of my ways which be in Christ, as I teach every where in every church” (1 Cor. 4:17). “Be ye followers of me, even as I also am of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1). “Brethren, be followers together of me, and mark them which walk so as ye have us for an ensample” (Phil. 3:17). The example of the practices of the early church show us conduct that pleases God. We know that the early church observed the Lord’s supper on the first day of the week from the example of Acts 20:7. (Additional information about saints meeting every Sunday can be learned from 1 Cor. 11:20; 16:1-2. The Corinthians assembled for the purpose of breaking bread and also to give; that assembly occurred on the first day of every week.) Consequently, we have divine authority to observe the Lord’s supper on the first day of the week.
3. Necessary inference. The third means by which men learn the will of the Lord is through necessary inference. Peter learned that Gentiles could be saved by the shed blood of Christ on the condition of faith, without being circumcised and obeying the Law of Moses, from necessary inference. On the basis of the vision of clean and unclean animals let down on a sheet from heaven and God’s word, “What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common,” Peter concluded that Gentiles could be saved through faith in Christ. He said, “Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons: But in every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him” (Acts 10:34-35). Peter necessarily inferred from the vision and God’s words that this conclusion was true. In the same manner, brethren necessarily infer from the fact that Jesus instituted the Lord’s supper during the Feast of Unleavened Bread (Matt. 26:17) that the bread used in the Lord’s supper is unleavened bread.
A New Hermeneutic
Our liberal brethren generally forsook restoration hermeneutics during the battle over institutionalism. There were two groups among the liberals: (a) A first group believed that the Bible is the only source of authority and that they can provide Bible authority for church support of orphan homes and other institutions: colleges, hospitals in third world countries (why not in America?), old folks’ homes, summer camps, and a host other things. (b) Out of the first group, another group emerged who believed that the old restoration hermeneutic was to be rejected. This group ridiculed the idea of “command, example, and necessary inference” in their periodicals. I especially recall an article on the 301 cubit ark, which belittled Bible authority.
The “where there is no pattern” argument was used to defend the sponsoring church. The “if we can support orphan homes then we can support colleges” argument was used to justify church contributions to David Lipscomb College, Freed-Hardeman University, Abilene Christian University, and other colleges operated by brethren.
The one thing that is absent from all of the articles, books, debates, and tracts on the sponsoring church and church support of human institutions is the clear presentation of Bible authority for such practices. A few passages such as Galatians 6:10, James 1:27, and Philippians 4:25 were twisted and tortured in an effort to produce some semblance of authority. The following things are conspicuously absent from all such materials:
- A Scripture that gives a command for the church to support human institutions or the sponsoring church.
- A Scripture that is an approved apostolic example of a church supporting human institutions or organizing a sponsoring church.
- A Scripture that contains a necessary inference that a church supported a human institution or participated in a sponsoring church arrangement.
In the absence of divine authority to authorize these practices, brethren who were faithful to the Lord repudiated church support of human institutions and the sponsoring church arrangement.
A New Way To Establish Authority
Forty to fifty years have passed and a new issue is before us. Can the church maintain an on-going and never ending fellowship with those who are teaching doctrines contrary to divine revelation? The issue was raised several years ago when brethren defended an on-going fellowship with those who are teaching false doctrines on divorce and remarriage. It has now extended to include those who are teaching doctrines not revealed in the Scriptures with reference to creation. And, I might add, there is no logical stopping place, although none of those among us who defend the on-going fellowship with those who err on divorce and remarriage or creation can see or admit that logical consequence or would teach that.
Before progressing, let me pause to state that the church is composed of mature Christians and babes in Christ, and members at every step in between. The fellowship of the local church includes mistaken believers who must be patiently taught and trained as disciples of Christ. Recognizing this fact is not the same as extending and maintaining an on-going and never-ending fellowship with those who teach things contrary to divine revelation. Jesus warned those who “shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so” (Matt. 5:19).
How is the doctrine that one can maintain an on-going and never-ending fellowship with one who teaches false doctrine (i.e., things contrary to divine revelation) being authorized? I have not seen brethren present book, chapter, and verse which clearly authorizes the position they have advocated. Romans 14 has been twisted and tortured in an effort to produce some semblance of authority, but this error has been thoroughly exposed and refuted. The following things are emphatically evident in the present controversy:
- There is no command for brethren to have an on-going and never-ending fellowship with those who teach false doctrines.
- There is no approved apostolic example of brethren having an on-going and never-ending fellowship with those who teach false doctrines.
- There is no necessary inference from a Scripture that indicates that brethren had an on-going and never-ending fellowship with those who teach false doctrines.
So, how is this authorized? The argument is simple: Brethren who have spoken out on this fellowship issue do not agree on some aspect of divorce and remarriage, and yet they stay in fellowship with each other. Names sometimes used to create this caricature of inconsistency include Mike Willis, Ron Halbrook, Connie W. Adams, Weldon Warnock, Harry Osborne, Donnie Rader, and others. Now, the same method of attack is being used in regard to the controversy abut the days of creation. It is being murmured that Mike Willis, Dan King, Harry Osborne, Steve Wolfgang, Steve Wallace, and others do not agree on every aspect of Old Testament interpretation, and yet they stay in fellowhip with each other.
If brethren are able to prove that several of these men are inconsistent, does that prove that brethren can have an on-going and never-ending fellowship with those who teach false doctrine? If brethren could prove that several of these men are guilty of showing respect of persons, would that prove that brethren can have an on-going and never-ending fellowship with those who teach false doctrine? No! and repeated a hundred times more, NO! All that would prove is that someone is inconsistent or guilty of showing respect of persons. That would never provide Bible authority for the practice of maintaining an on-going and never-ending fellowship with those who teach false doctrine.
Have we come to the point that no longer are we a body of men committed to providing book, chapter, and verse authority for our practices? Suppose someone were to ask one of these brethren, “Where is your Bible authority for water baptism?” In response they would say, “Consider Mark 16:15-16; Acts 2:38; 22:16; 1 Peter 3:21, etc.” Suppose someone were to ask, “Where is your Bible authority for appointing elders in every church?” They would respond, “Consider Acts 14:23; 1 Timothy 3; Titus 1:5-9; Philippians 1:1.” Suppose one were to say, “Where is Bible authority for using mechanical instruments of music in worship?” They would say, “There is no authority for their use. When men add instruments of music to worship, they violate 2 John 9-11; Revelation 22:18-19; Matthew 15:8-9; 1 Peter 4:11 and other passages. We can have no fellowship with those who pervert the worship of the Lord’s church.”
But, one asks, “Where is your authority to maintain an on-going and never-ending fellowship with those who teach false doctrine on divorce and remarriage or creation?” Now the reply is different. There is no effort to provide book, chapter, and verse authority for their practice. The authority of the practice is this: “Certain brethren (insert the names you wish) don’t agree on every aspect of divorce and remarriage and yet they maintain fellowship with each other.” Brethren, this is a new way to establish authority and it carries just as much weight as “if we can support orphan homes, we can support colleges,” “where is the Scripture that says thou shalt not,” “we do many things for which there is no Bible authority,” and a host of other arguments whose design is to divert attention from what the Scriptures teach.
There are some things with reference to the application of the Lord’s supper that I do not make a test of fellowship. Here are some of them: whether it is observed at 9:30 a.m. or 10:00 a.m.; whether it is observed with one cup of many; whether a cloth is placed over the table when it is served; whether the bread must be broken before or after the prayer; whether the bread is store bought or home made; whether or not a brother feels conscience bound to eat the Lord’s supper at the evening service when he is unable to attend in the morning; etc.. These are all application differences with reference to the Lord’s command to observe the Lord’s supper. Any of us may hold strong conscientious views about some of these points without charging everyone else with false doctrine and sin.
There are some differences brethren have about some aspects of the issue of divorce and remarriage that fall into the same category. Here are some of them: whether the innocent party must initiate the law suit for divorce in order to have the right of remarriage; whether the divorce decree must contain the words “for fornication” in order for the person to have the right to remarriage; what steps a wife may take when in physical danger at the hands of her husband; etc. The difference that these brethren have fall into the realm of application of the one marriage law. In some local congregations, these differences have created tensions among brethren but generally have not divided us. This is the kind of difference that brethren listed above may have among themselves at times — a difference in the realm of application of a law on which we are agreed. Any of us may hold strong conscientious views about some of the points without charging everyone else with false doctrine and sin.
If another thinks that I am wrong in how I handle this difference, he will be my friend to take the Scriptures and teach me a better way to handle it. I make no claims to infallibility. However, I have enough clarity of thought to know that some who are throwing this issue in my face are insincere in so doing. I ask them, “Are you saying that we should draw a line of fellowship between those of us who disagree on some matter about which brother Halbrook and I disagree or brother King and I disagree?” They say, “No, I am not saying that.” I ask, “Are you saying that because brother Halbrook and I can work together in spite of our difference in this realm of application, we should therefore have an on-going and never-ending fellowship with brethren who are openly teaching a different law on divorce and remarriage, such as Homer Hailey, Jerry Bassett, Glen Lovelady, etc.?” They say, “No, I am not saying that.” Well, just what are you saying?
I think the point is this, although it is never expressed: “We are just trying to undermine the influence and destroy the reputation of certain brethren who have spoken out against flagrant false teaching on divorce and remarriage, on the days of creation, and on the spirit of softness and compromise creeping into the church. We are attacking the character of these men by painting them as a bunch of hypocritical, two-faced troublemakers driven by partiality and favoritism.”
Brethren can do better than this. They can respect each other as honorable brethren and go directly to the Scriptures to provide authority for their practice. If they believe that they can invite men to lectureships who are teaching false doctrine on divorce and remarriage, let them say so and then honorably go to the Scriptures to demonstrate their proof for all men to examine. If they believe that they can invite men who are teaching “progressive creationism” (a term which Bert Thompson says is equivalent to “theistic evolution”), let them say so and then go to the Scriptures to provide authority for the practice so that all men can examine it.
Every time you hear a brother say, “Some of the Truth Magazine writers disagree on some aspect of divorce and remarriage, on some aspect of interpreting a given Old Testament passage, or on some aspect of some other point, but they fellowship each other,” ask yourself, “Why is this being said? Is this to provide justification for an on-going and never-ending fellowship with someone who is teaching false doctrine?” If that is the case, just ask them to provide Scripture for their practice. You have no obligation to defend any or all of the men mentioned above. Remember the words of Jesus, “The baptism of John, whence was it? From heaven, or of men?” Find out if their doctrine on fellowship is from heaven or from men! The very argument that is being used should cause an alarm to go off in your mind that says, “This isn’t Bible authority. Why are they bringing this up: To cover up the fact that they cannot provide Bible authority for their practice or to maliciously destroy a brother’s reputation?” Let’s remember these words from divine inspiration:
. . . be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves (Matt. 10:16).
. . . for we are not ignorant of his (Satan’s) devices (2 Cor. 2:11).
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