History and Background of the Institutional Controversy (4)

By Steve Wolfgang

Since I have already used this speech to act as historian, preacher, and reporter, I will go ahead and try my hand at prognostication! About a decade ago, a preacher from the institutional persuasion asked me two questions at the conclusion of a gentlemanly discussion of our differences: (1) Was this division preventable or inevitable, and what might have been done to preclude the division of churches? (2) Is it reversible – is there any possibility of the restoring of fellowship and a feeling of brotherhood and good will to any level even approaching that of a generation ago? I would like to answer the second question first.

My answer is, “No” – although I hasten to add that I would be happy to be proven wrong and to be relieved of my cynicism. A wiser historian than I has stated the case fairly starkly, however, in terms with which I must concur. Remarking on the aftermath of the Arlington Meeting, Ed Harrell asked, “Does anyone seriously believe that … the thousands of unscriptural promotions dreamed up will . . . suddenly, or slowly, begin to disappear? Of course not. No man could bring it off; not 20 or 50 or 200 men could bring it off. And not only could they not, they will not bring it about.”(1)

In essence, what those of us you call “anti” are asking of our brethren is what you have been asking of the Christian Church people with whom the Joplin-type “Restoration Forums” have been conducted over-the last several years – or what H. Leo Boles asked of them at the “National Unity Meeting” in Indianapolis in 1939,(2) almost a half-century ago: that you give up the practices which divide us. Sadly, we recognize that you are not likely to react positively to such a suggestion. Indeed, it was the recognition of the fact that this was not going to happen which caused thousands of conservative brethren to renounce the many loyalties in this world – to alma mater, congregations where they once worshiped, past friendships, even family – and go their own way.

Such a movement to turn the clock back would require that institutional brethren in thousands of places make a conscious decision to place fellowship with their noninstitutional brethren on a higher plane than the support of human institutions – and I think everyone here knows that simply isn’t going to happen. Again, I would be delighted to be proven wrong, but everything except my wishful thinking tells me otherwise.

Furthermore, the situation seems to be moving in the wrong direction for anything like this to happen. Just as some of you have discovered that your differences with even the “independent” Christian Churches (to say nothing of the “Christian Church/Disciples of Christ”) involve far more than just instrumental music, so most of us who have tried to follow what is developing among institutional brethren perceive a steady shift away from the church described in the New Testament. As one of the respondents to my survey put it, “It isn’t just supporting an orphanage anymore. The liberal church in town here split this congregation almost eighteen year ‘ s ago over the orphanage issue – but ironically doesn’t support one to this day! What they have done is to accept people we have withdrawn from, no questions asked; or accept in full fellowship people who have left here after hearing, preaching- they didn’t like on divorce and remarriage, the role of the Holy Spirit, examination of premillennial claims or of the Masonic Lodge -all of them ‘shaken in’ with the clear understanding that they will not hear any preaching on those or any other controversial issues. Don’t let someone tell you it’s just ‘sending a few dollars a month to an orphanage’ – it’s how we look at the Bible, the church, living the Christian life, and much more. The longer it goes on, the more incompatible we will become.”

That this is not just the isolated carping of a disgruntled “anti” is seen, I think, in the 1986 “Expression of Concern” signed by hundreds of preachers of the institutional persuasion.(3) While their concerns are specifically directed toward the theistic evolution problem and other situations at ACU, they also state more general concerns:

I. We are deeply disturbed over the liberalism that is so evident in the brotherhood today. By “liberalism” we mean especially the following items, though not excluding other specifics that could be mentioned:

A. There is a drifting from the Bible-centered, definitive, distinctive doctrine that once characterized our preaching. Presently, uncertain sounds and weak messages emanate from many pulpits among us. Brethren are becoming accustomed to diluted and polluted preaching. We are rapidly approaching the point where many of our people, including preachers and elders, no longer know the difference between true Christianity and the corrupted forms of it so prevalent about us.

B. There is a concerted effort on the part of some of our brethren to restructure the organization, worship and work of the church along sectarian lines, thus tending to denominationalize the New Testament body of Christ.

C. A spirit of doctrinal compromise and fellowshipping of those in blatant religious error has permeated our ranks.

D. The world has made alarming inroads into the church. Instead of the church influencing the world for righteousness, as it should, the world has adversely affected many brethren in matters of morality and conduct of life.

E. The typical emphasis of the denominational world on recreation, entertainment, and solving the social ills of society has been incorporated into the thinking and programs of many congregations, supplanting the God-given work of meeting the desperate spiritual needs of those both within and without the body of Christ.

No “anti” could have stated the case better. Indeed, from attending lectureships in the last five years at Pepperdine, ACU, Lipscomb, Freed-Hardeman and several “evangelism workshops,” my observation is that these brethren are exactly right in their analysis – particularly with regard to the “social gospel” aspects of institutional churches. Just within the past year or two, I have seen articles in the Gospel Advocate encouraging, without rebuttal or rebuke from the editor or anyone else, the use of church buildings not just for fellowship dinners justified as “love feasts” but for “Scouts, quilting groups, exercise meetings, senior citizens, family reunions, receptions, and youth basketball and volleyball teams” in addition to “seminars on aging, divorce recovery, self-esteem, personal finances, stress and biblical exposition of books” – as if all were equally justifiable.(4)

Others, enough to lead me to believe these are not isolated incidents, have advertised secular adult education classes, English as a second language, and GED classes offered by the church; counseling centers, medical-dental clinics, daycare centers, and “counseling services” which provide, among other things, job placement services. Brethren who might have been scandalized even a decade ago by the use of the church building for a “Chris Christian Concert” or a “Day at the Movies” (both with an admission fee) or a youth rally featuring the “World’s Largest Hot Dog” all in the name of the crucified Christ – “ain’t seen nothing'” yet .(5)

Nor is it simply that many institutional churches seem to be hip-deep in the social gospel. Some who seem unwilling to accept or even to wrestle with the implications of following “commands and examples” seem bent on short-circuiting the process by challenging the validity of such an approach altogether. An approach which gratuitously sweeps aside any attempt to discover the details of God’s plan is ultimately as offensive to “conservatives” as some of our reactions may be to those who are set to “re-examine traditional Restoration hermeneutics. ” Indeed, upon reading one such effort produced by an institutional brother on “establishing authority,” one non-institutional preacher remarked, “I could come nearer enjoying unity and fellowship with a conservative Southern Baptist.”

Furthermore, to the historian, the current trend toward abandoning attempts to ascertain what is authorized by utilizing commands, examples, and conclusions drawn therefrom (giving them the back of the hand only to replace them with humanly-perceived “principles”) is old news.

These hoary ideas, laden with nineteenth and twentieth century cultural values, are the very arguments promulgated a century ago by those who were moving to become what we know as the Christian Church (particularly the Disciples of Christ). Once any attempt at a literal understanding of the Bible was abandoned, these concepts were advanced to “defend” everything from instrumental music to women preachers to the “higher criticism” of the Bible. Just as an example, notice this excerpt from an 1893 Christian Standard article entitled “No Man Wishes Women to Keep Silence in the Churches,” in which one writer argued, “A principle may set aside an apostolic precept. It may brush aside an apostolic decree. We do that constantly. We follow the apostolic example whenever we like it; when we do not, we depart from it.”(6)

Given this historical perspective, it is difficult to understand how someone who argues that there is “no pattern” expressed in Scripture regarding the work of the church, and that we are therefore at liberty to do whatever seems best to us, can gainsay the identical argument, which is now being advanced by defenders of instrumental music in the worship.(7)

But the end is not yet: even more fundamental concepts such as the inerrancy of Scripture are being questioned by some. Although the inerrancy of Scripture and other related concepts have been challenged by some on the “fringes” of “Churches of Christ” (in Mission, for instance), it is still startling to read the following assertion by a professor in a “Christian college,” and published in a journal long associated with that institution.(8) “It is consistent to believe that the Bible is authoritative in matters of faith and practice, but may be incorrect in geographical or historical details. Once a person abandons the concept of divine dictation, he must abandon the idea of inerrancy.” I would like to believe that this is a misprint, or that I have somehow misunderstood the author, but it would not be the first instance of doubt being cast upon the veracity of Scripture by those who are freely accepted and granted the “right hand of fellowship” by institutional brethren. No is it an unexpected development among those who believe it is a work of the church to financially support “the ministry of continuing study toward a doctorate.”(9)

I believe these brethren who “Expressed their Concern” have put their finger on an historical undercurrent which was also revealed in the aftermath of the instrumental music/missionary society division. Those who are on the “pro” side of both sets of issues soon discovered that they were not a homogeneous group, and found (or are finding) reasons to separate from each other. As was the case with men such as J.W. McGarvey or Isaac Errett, first generation leaders who serve as a “bridge” for a little liberalism often discover that succeeding generations are not content to stop where their forebears drew arbitrary lines, and are determined to carry to logical extension the incipient practices of the former generation.(10)

Even before I mailed my survey forms, I received an unsolicited letter from a young, but influential, preacher in what I would identify as the Firm Foundation/Spiritual Sword “orbit.” He was insistent to tell me what I already knew: “that a very deep schism exists now in the institutional churches of Christ and when the final division comes (and it will) it will be greater in scope than that which occurred in 1952-1954.” This young preacher’s observations on developments within the “left wing” of institutional churches of Christ simply confirm Ed Harrell’s prediction more than 20 years ago that “the time will come when the editorial era of B.C. Goodpasture will evoke only embarrassed, apologies from sophisticated leaders in the Church of Christ.”(11)

From a diametrically opposite perspective, a young man who left the “conservative” church in which he was raised , sojourned awhile among the institutional churches, and is now involved in a denominational group on the state university campus where he is a professor – comes this analysis: that among institutional brethren there are “two fractions (not counting the MISSION-types, who are mainstream to liberal evangelicals) – one set is as ‘patternistic’ as conservatives without the common set of ‘examples, commands,’ etc. The other is a ‘grace-unity’ type that wants to retain C of C identity/features without having to defend them rigorously. The latter is a Christian Church with a capella. music.”

Given these circumstances, to ask a question about restoring fellowship with the “antis” is to answer it. It would border on the absurd if it were not a logistical impossibility. And, it appears to me that in answering the second question, we have come a long way toward the answer to the first. Was the division so totally doctrinal that it was caused by the sheer force of logic on the one side and stubborn stupidity in the rejection of that logic on the other? In truth, although logic and doctrine played an important role, division came not just because brethren disagreed (which they did) or because some people misbehaved (which also occurred). They divided because they had divergent concepts of God, the Bible, the church, how to live as a Christian, and a host of other things. That is the sort of thing that likely will not be reversed by this meeting or a dozen like it, unless I miss my guess.

What then can meetings like the “Nashville Meeting” produce? Several things come to mind. (1) It might result in some people changing their rands, their lives, and their convictions about some of these issues. (2) More likely, it will simply reinforce convictions already long held. (3) It will provide an insight for learning about each other, which might be useful even if nothing else results. (4) From my perspective, it may help some of us who are younger resolve that it will not happen again in our lifetime, if we can help it at all. Perhaps such divisions are inevitable every two or three generations as new levels of perceived sophistication are attained. But I would like to think that by learning from the past, by teaching “with great patience and instruction” (2 Tim. 4:2, NASB), and by recognizing the factors and circumstances which breed division, perhaps our children or their children can avoid a quick rush into another division which can never be healed. Maybe the task is futile – some whose judgment I respect have said as much. But I must try.


1. Harrell, “Middle of the Road,” p. 275. Even after heterodox theology among the Herald of Truth staff was publicly exposed by some of its staunchest former supporters, it quickly became cleaf that the critics were not about to abandon their allegiance to the principle of broadcast evangelism under a large, centralizing church; nor could any influential body of preachers muster enough influence to “kill” such a program. See Memphis Meeting With Representatives of Herald of Truth: September 10, 1973 (n.p., n.d.).

2. H. Leo Boles, “The Way of Unity Between the ‘Christian Church’ and Churches of Christ” (Memphis, TN: Getwell Church of Christ, 1985). This pamphlet is a reprint of Boles’ speech which was originally published serially in Gospel-Advocate 81 (May-June 1939 issues), and responded to in Christian Standard 74 (May-June 1939). See also “Unity Urged for Church Branches” (Indianapolis News, May 3, 1939), and Indianapolis Star 36 (May 3, 1939), p. 15; “Disciples Discuss Unity With Churches of Christ Leaders,” Christian Evangelist 77 (May 11, 1939), pp. 499-500. For accounts of Boles’ speech, see J.E. Choate, I’ll Stand on the Rock. A Biography of H. Leo Boles (Nashville: Gospel Advocate Company, 1965), and The Anchor That Holds (op. cit.), 147-152.

3. An Expression of Concern (Ft. Worth, TX: Gospel Preachers, 1986). See also Roy Deaver, “Two False Extremes: Anti-ism and Liberalism,” Spiritual Sword 16:2 (January 1985), p. 6; Garland Elkins, “The New Anti-ism” Spiritual Sword 17:1 (October 1985), p. 17; Thomas B. Warren, “Anti-ism Shackles the Church; Liberalism Opens the ‘Floodgates’ of Apostasy,” Spiritual Sword 17:3 (April, 1986), p. 1; Probably the most complete statement of the position of this “cluster” of brethren vis-a-vis institutionalism is Thomas B. Warren, Lectures on Church Cooperation and Orphan Homes (Jonesboro, AR: National Christian Press [reprint]; original edition, 1958).

4. Douglas F. Parsons, “Increasing Church Visibility,” Gospel Advocate 130:3 (March, 1988), pp. 24-25. For an interesting and still-relevant exchange on “social-gospelism” among churches of Christ, see J.W. Roberts, “What is the Social Gospel?” Gospel Advocate 104 (July 2, 1959), 419-420; and Ed Harrell, “Thoughts on Dishonesty,” Gospel Guardian 11:20 (September 24, 1959), pp. 312-314; and Harrell, “The Social Gospel,” Gospel Guardian 12:15 (August 18, 1960), pp. 225ff.

5. Ashwood Leaves (Nashville, TN), February 2 & 9, 1986, and October 11, 1987; Bering Today (Houston, TX), July 1978; see Steve Wolfgang, “Social Christianity,” Weekly Reminder 16:46 (August 16, 1978), pp. 1-3).

6. George T. Smith, “No Man Wishes Women to Keep Silence in the Churches,” Christian Standard 29 (October 7, 1893), p. 798. For further discussion and documentation of this kind of reasoning, see David Edwin Harrell, Jr., The Social Sources of Division in the Disciples of Christ, 1865-1900 (Atlanta: Publishing Systems, Inc., 1973), especially chapters I and 13 (Harrell notes in the Preface that “the first and last chapters, taken together, are an interpretive essay on the sociological development of the church”).

7. For the present state of this argument, see Alan E. Highers, “The Status of the Instrumental Music Controversy,” in Dub McClish, ed., Studies in I and 2 Thessalonians and Philemon: The Seventh Annual Denton Lectures, November 13-17, 1988 (Denton, TX: Valid Publications, 1988), pp. 480-493.

8. John T. Willis, review of William J. Abraham, The Divine Inspiration of Scripture, in Restoration Quarterly 29:3 (Third Quarter, 1987) p. 169. For previous discussion of similar statements, see the references to David H. Bobo’s 1960 Abilene lecture in Banowsky, 109-110, 139-140, 145; and Warren Lewis, Every Scripture Breathed of God is Profitable,” Mission 5:7 January 1972), pp. 195ff; responses in March and April 1972 and rejoinder by Lewis in July 1972 issues of Mission; Lewis, “Let’s Look at the Text – again!” Minion 8:3 (September 1974), pp. 86ff; R. Lanny Hunter, “Restoration Theology: A Schoolmaster,” Minion 7:12 (June 1974), pp. 356ff.; editorially truncated response by Ron Halbrook and Steve Wolfgang, “The Approval of God,” Mission 8:4 (October 1974), p. 123.

9. Bill Flatt, “Harding Graduate School of Religion Commencement, 1975” Gospel-Advocate 117:26 (June 26, 1975), p. 404. On the preoccupation with academic degrees and “scholarship” among institutional preachers, see Ralph T. Henley, “Scholarship,” Spiritual Sword 6:3 (April 1975), 35ff.; and Henley, “How to Get A Cheap Degree Cheap,” Gospel Advocate 119:18 (May 5,1977), 276-277.

10. See Harrell, “Middle of the Road,” 274.

11. Ibid.

Guardian of Truth XXXIII: 10, pp. 296-297, 309-310
May 18, 1989