Holt-Smith Debate On The Church And The Eldership

By Ron Halbrook

Charles A. Holt of Chattanooga, Tennessee and J.T. Smith of Lake Jackson, Texas debated the nature of the church and of the eldership for five nights (30 Sept.-4 Oct. 1985) in Lake Jackson. Holt’s moderator was Terry Gardner of Indianapolis, Indiana and Smith’s was Elmer Moore of Lufkin, Texas.

The discussion was. exemplary from several standpoints and proves that debates properly conducted are effective tools for teaching and learning. Visitors came from several states. The demeanor of everyone involved, speakers and audience alike, was dignified and courteous. The disputants presented their views with clarity and pressed them with firmness, effectively using many overhead projector charts. Darrel Rowell of Dumas, Tex. helped with Holt’s charts and Bill Robinson, Jr. of Ft. Worth with Smith’s. This was not just a “Preachers’ debate,” but other men and women including teenagers expressed their delight at being able to understand and learn from the discussion. Many of them made notes from the speeches and charts for further study.

The Issue Stated

Two radically different concepts of the church and its eldership were tested in the crucible of debate. Holt views “the local ecclesia” as nothing more than saints in a given area who act individually or together at times, but who are not “an organized, functional, institutional entity. ” He regards elders as merely the “relatively more mature” members who lead the saints in some sense without formal appointment or authority. Smith taught that the local church is an organized, functional, institutional entity with a revealed work and formal organization, and that God requires Christians to be a part of this body. To show that other men see the same danger in Holt’s views which Smith sees, a chart labeled “Others Get the Point” displayed this statement by F. Furman Kearley (editor of the Gospel Advocate):

The upholding of his (Holt’s) position would basically bring to an end the church of our Lord Jesus Christ, and destroy all of the teaching, role and function of Biblical elders (letter dated 15 July 1985).

Some Terms Defined

In explaining that the ecclesia is nothing more than disciples or saints, Holt objected to making it “something more” by the use of terms such as “local,” “church,” “functional unit,” and “corporate worship.” Holt stressed that all duties are given to individuals (Rom. 14:12), not to the church as an organization or institution. As to terms used, Smith pointed out that the Bible does not use Holt’s words “individually,” “local ecclesia,” “the only functional unit” (the individual), or a number of words in Holt’s propositions. Both men then agreed that we all use such expressions to explain, define, and amplify our points, but we must show that the concept itself is biblical. Smith agreed that we will be judged individually and not collectively, but explained that we are to be judged in part on whether we properly serve God in such organized, functional units as the family (Eph. 6:14), the government (Rom. 13:1-5), and the local church (1 Cor. 11:17-34).

Since Holt claimed to be very concerned about the proper use of words, Smith offered several charts on definitions. The following terms may describe a local church. Organized means a systematic arrangement such as is seen in Titus 1:5 and Philippians 4:14-16; functional, fulfilling a function as in 1 Timothy 3:15; institutional, organized to accomplish charitable and educational activities (1 Cor. 12:28); entity, existing independently (1 Cor. 12:27); and body corporate, a society capable of transacting business as an individual (1 Tim. 5:16).

When Holt kept using “institutional” as a stigma in reference to the idea of a local church, Smith asked on a chart, “Is My Opponent Institutional?” Pete Rose is a baseball institution. The “Jesus Movement” folks would regard Holt’s insistence on an assembly in Hebrews 10:25 as legalism, “the establishment,” and “institutional religion.” The local church organized with elders is an institution. The Catholic hierarchy is an institution. “Institution” like “contend” and many other words may be good or bad according to their use in a given context.

Since Holt strenuously objected to the church as a “body corporate,” that expression was explained on another of Smith’s charts: body, a unit formed of a number of persons; corporate, combined into one body; body corporate in law, a corporation; corporation, a body of associated persons. “Question: What is there about the expression body corporate that has provoked such an onslaught by brother Holt?” A separate chart pointed out that Holt’s “local ecclesia” is an institution in the view of “Jesus People,” and organization because of some systematic arrangement necessary to obey Hebrews 10:25, a corporate entity or a body composed of individuals, and a functional unit if able to perform any regular function as a body.

In spite of these efforts, Holt continued to assert that no one could “prove that the local ecclesia constitutes ‘something more’ than a group of saints.” But it was shown throughout the debate that the local church is a group of saints formally organized by God with a revealed pattern of work, worship, and organization.

So determined was Holt to stigmatize and eliminate the word “church ” as a translation of ecclesia, as a root of error, and as “a mark of the beast,” that he said it was used by the translators under the threat of death by an “edict of King James.” When documentation was requested for this bizarre claim, none was offered. The American Standard Version (1901) renders ecclesia “church” and was translated by 101 of the world’s ripest Greek scholars, who certainly were not worried over an “edict” from King James!

To show a local ecclesia is not a functional unit, Holt asked regarding the audience gathered in a school cafeteria for the debate, “Is this a body politic here tonight?” Smith countered with the question, “Is it the local church?” He reminded everyone that Holt had commended the Southern Oaks Church of Christ of Lake Jackson for arranging the debate, which proves that he can distinguish a gathering of saints (which may include “relatively more mature” people) from a local church organized with a formal eldership.

1 Timothy 5:16, A Key Passage

Holt stressed very early that a local church is “nothing more than disciples/saints” and challenged Smith to prove it is “something more. ” 1 Timothy 5:16 became a key passage. “If any man or woman that believeth have widows, let them relieve them, and let not the church be charged; that it may relieve them that are widows indeed.” The following chart by Smith distinguished action on the part of individuals which is not local church action from the work of the local church:



Notice that the church is not charged with the relief work performed by certain individuals, in order that “it” may be free to relieve “widows indeed.” The individual action might even include several relatives working together, but the church is something more than several Christians working together. The church is an organized, functional entity including a formal membership and eldership. Its mission in benevolence is clearly defined and limited by passages such as 1 Timothy 5:16, and its formal organization is specified in passages such as 1 Timothy 3.

Individuals serve God in some matters separate from local church action, and God equipped the local church with an all-sufficient organization to fulfill its own work of benevolence and evangelism without giving financial gifts or donations to human institutions such as missionary societies, colleges, orphanages, or the like. It was emphasized that Holt had understood and taught these very principles during the controversies of the 1950’s. But Holt insisted that the “it” or ecclesia in 1 Timothy 5:16 was in no sense a “body corporate or an institution.” “It’s just disciples together.” This he offered to prove on the premise that Christ died for the church, not for an institution (Eph. 5:25).

But as Smith explained, the church for which Christ died involves a relationship which includes responsibilities in the local church. Several times Holt said this interposes a “body politic” between man and the Savior, but Smith argued that it stood between man and God only in the sense that all duties stand between man and God. An obedient faith stands between man and God. Our spiritual relationship with the Lord involves duties and privileges in serving Him, some of which are fulfilled and enjoyed in the local church arrangement. This is seen again in 1 Timothy 5:16 where individuals can function separately from local church work while the church, the “it” in this passage, “can function as an individual.”

After Holt protested that “‘it’ is not an organizational entity that can be sued” except by suing each separate person, Smith later quoted lawyers to confirm that even Holt’s loosely conceived “local ecclesia” could be sued as an “it.” The treasury of 1 Corinthians 16:2 was also used to show how the church could function as a separate entity, distinguishable from one person or even several individuals, but Holt interpreted the passage as purely personal: “Lay up by yourself somewhere.” But that contradicts the provision, “that there be no gatherings when I come.” Acts 6:1-6 was also used to show that the church was organized with special servants, pooled funds, and a work to be done outside the assembly. This proves the local church continues to exist and function through its agents, even when not assembled. Holt would only say the church was “not an organization or body corporate.”

“Something More” In Matthew 18:15-17

Smith early introduced the three stages of action in Matthew 18:15-17 to show that church action is “something more” than individual or even group action. If our brother sins against us, we first go to “him alone,” then take “one or two more,” then “tell it unto the church.” But Holt using his charts 5 and 6 insisted that even when saints function “together with other disciples” or “other members in assemblies,” the assembly is in no way a functional unit. Only “individual Christians are the functional units.” But another chart of Smith’s showed that the “Local Church in Matt. 18:15-17” is a functional unit. At stage two, “individuals act together not as (a) local church,” even though they may function together with other members in study, prayer, and song. Stage three pictures “something more” – take it to the church! What more is there at stage three? Just more witnesses? A local body of saints organized with elders (Tit. 1:5)? Or something else? Holt finally intimated that it was just more witnesses!

The individual Christian loses all personal identity when he becomes a member of the “local church,” Holt often repeated. As a member of the local church, the saint is a “pew sitter” with “no voice or vote,” said Holt, who in derision parroted over and over the line that a saint is told he must “be taught, obey and pay.” This line, Smith answered, ridicules the pattern of teaching in Acts 2:42, just as sectarians ridicule Acts 2:38 or Mark 16:16. “And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers.”

Godly elders consult other members in the course of their work, Smith noted, but God’s plan of church government is not democracy or counting votes. Contrary to the “pew sitting” charge, Smith’s sermon on Sunday before the debate emphasized personal faith and responsibility. Elmer Moore preaches in Lufkin and said that the Holt doctrine taught there years ago leaves a legacy of “pew sitters” who refuse to accept any active responsibility in the local church!

Legitimate Or Usurped Authority?

Holt pressed hard that Smith’s view of the church puts an eldership between man and God. Elders were constantly compared to the Pope and Holt repeatedly claimed, “You give away all your rights when you submit to elders.” His appeals to throw off this yoke of authority sounded much like people in the woman’s lib movement who say husbands have no authority in the home and like free love advocates who cry they are releasing people from the shackles of marriage. Such deceptive cries of “freedom” defy God’s arrangements for order and government in civil affairs, home life, and the local church. Smith asked if we should tell wives to get back to God and not have husbands over them – husbands standing between the woman and God. Holt’s answer was, “She is under Christ when under her husband.” He sees the principle in the home but not in the local church.

Smith used numerous charts, passages, and definitions from standard Greek dictionaries to show that elders have a legitimate sphere of authority to lead in decision making in judgmental matters in the church, just as husbands do in the home. The term “rule” in that sense is used of elders in the church in 1 Timothy 5:17 and of fathers in the home in 3:4 and 12. Smith made it very clear that the authority of elders is “delegated, not primary,” and that they must use it 4cas exemplary leaders, not harsh and hypocritical dictators” (1 Pet. 5:34). They “rule in judgmental decisions to expedite the local church’s work.”

Holt refused to review these charts, alternately claiming to agree with the definitions and to disprove them by the force of his other arguments. For instance, he claimed the ideal of being not lords but servants in Matthew 20:26 was proof enough, but Smith showed that this ideal excludes the arbitrary, abusive ruling of 1 Peter 5:3 but not the legitimate rule of 1 Timothy 5:17. Also, Jesus excluded one Apostle aspiring to rule over another, but himself delegated a proper rule of the Apostles over local church affairs in Acts 6:1-6.

Holt regards any effort to give God’s people an “organized form” as the “basic fallacy” in false religion. Somehow brethren should assemble as per Hebrews 10:25 for 44 pure unstructured functioning” without forming autonomous congregations in various localities around a city. “Church” should be regarded as “singular” in any given city, “churches” plural only within a country or province. The idea of autonomous Southside and Westside churches in a city was condemned, but Holt said he had not worked out all the implications of this new found truth. Everyone was left wondering where it is all to lead. Smith pointed out that it led Alvin Jennings to propose that all elders in a city may constitute a single board of elders over all groups meeting in a city (How Christianity Grows in the City, p. 64). Since Holt defied anyone to find two churches in a city, Smith gave Romans 16:3-5 to show that a church was meeting in someone’s home, in addition to the church addressed by the Roman letter.

Holt explained that all terms such as “church” in Acts 20:28, “flock” in 1 Peter 5:2, and similar expressions refer to God’s people without limitation “to any segment, ‘local church’ or functional entity.” The church is equally applies to one and all without regard to location.” Any corporate action or local eldership conceived of as separate from other groups meeting in a city are regarded by Holt as sinful, sectarian fragments.

What then are we to make of passages like 1 Peter 5:2, which teaches elders, “Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof”? Smith said such passages limit each eldership to one local church. This does not put elders over a local church or local unit of any kind, but addresses Christians and elders scattered in every place, Holt said. In his view, when elders are told to feed and oversee the flock “among you, ” it means “any and all you can find” from place to place. Smith observed that Holt was drifting from a city bishopric to a district or regional bishopric, if not to a universal bishopric!

The identifying marks which follow represent a false view of the church, “no matter what it is” called, said Holt. But Smith supplied the passages which show that the New Testament church had these very marks to which Holt objected:

1. You can organize IT or bring IT into corporate existence – Acts 20:28.

2. Give IT distinctive name by which IT is commonly known – Romans 16:16.

3. Join IT – Acts 9:6.

4. Hold membership in IT – 1 Corinthians 12:14,27.

5. Be excluded from IT – 1 Corinthians 5.

6. Install officers to exercise authority over IT and all ITS functions – Titus 1:5.

7. Form a treasury as a part of ITS corporate existence – 1 Corinthians 16:1-2.

8. Make contributions to IT – 1 Corinthians 16:1-2.

9. Be an employee of IT – 2 Corinthians 11:8.

Appointment or Claptrap?

The appointment or installation of elders as officers in the church is regarded as impossible by Holt. Elders are people who reach a relative degree of maturity which automatically qualifies and constitutes them as overseers (in some sense which excludes authority to make decisions for the church). The common appointment idea is “hocuspocus”and “claptrap.” People who are already elders may be reminded or assigned their duties, but Holt claims it is impossible to confer on them any station or position which they do not already have by virtue of their qualifications. This reminded Smith of what denominational people say about the “claptrap” of baptism and what free love advocates say about the “hocus-pocus” of a marriage ceremony – how could such action confer anything on people which they did not already have by virtue of preexisting qualifications?

To show that it is possible to appoint someone to a station or position for which he is qualified already, Smith referred to the appointment of Matthias in Acts 1:15-26 and compared it to the appointment of servants in Acts 6:1-6. “Matthias was not made an apostle” in a true and genuine sense, according to Holt. His argument is that “the Lord did not authorize this action” of replacing Judas with Matthias. Smith asked why no one was rebuked, as in Galatians 2:14. Acts 1:24 points out that God and not man chose Matthias, who was thereafter “numbered with the eleven apostles” (1:26; 2:1,14, etc.).

Elders: Men, Women, Young, and Old?

Smith said the following points “Stand or Fall Together.” If there is no formal eldership, the only qualification is experience, and there is no appointment or authority, then women can be elders, bachelors and old maids can be elders, and one man or woman can serve alone as an elder! Following the logic of his premises, Holt answered, “Paul was an elder-bishop-pastor.” Titus and Timothy were pastors, therefore the letters bearing their names properly may be called “pastoral epistles.” Timothy though young in years (1 Tim. 4:12) was relatively mature. Holt added that this must be true because a new Christian might be 60 years old and a more mature one 20. Smith pointed out that Holt had departed from both Scripture and his proposition’s reference to “the older” and to “age,” and to “experience.”

Also, Holt made it evident from his explanations of maturity in Hebrews 5:12-14 and 1 Corinthians 3:1-3 that women cannot be excluded in his concept of elders. Smith pointed out that the instructions of Acts 20:28 were given to elders (v. 17), which includes women by Holt’s definitions. This was emphasized by Smith more than once and was never denied by Holt. Galatians 6:1 tells of an elder’s work, Holt said, and, “Who is that? That’s any of you. . . . If you can do that, you had better get up and do it, my brother. Or sister, doesn’t make any difference!”

Holt often indicated that God’s elders “take heed to the flock” while modern elders “take heed to the budget,” but Smith showed that proper oversight includes both. Various instances of arbitrary, abusive rule by elders who failed to consult and communicate with the flock were mentioned. Smith pointed out that abuses of the Lord’s Supper do not nullify proper observance of the Supper. The answer to the extremes of salvation byfaith only and works only is “the obedience of faith” or “faith which worketh by love” (Rom. 16:26; Gal. 5:6). The solution to the extremes of hierarchy and anarchy is scriptural local church organization (Phil. 1:1; Tit. 1:5). Smith pled for the “truth between extremes.”


Although Holt opposed Smith’s views on the church and the eldership, he advocated unity-in-diversity and said Smith was not a false teacher (2 Pet. 2:1). Holt was asked how far we could go on that premise. Should we apply the principles of 2 John 9-11 or those of Romans 14 to differences over instrumental music – the idea that people unscripturally divorced and remarried may keep their new mate – premillennialism – churches building kitchens and gyms – the sponsoring church concept in the Herald of Truth – churches giving financial gifts or donations to human organizations such as missionary societies, colleges, orphanages, etc.?

Holt’s answer was,

If we are going to split up and begin to brand everybody because they teach something on divorce or remarriage or on the church or on any conceivable thing, you can imagine, as a false teacher, no wonder we are in the mess we are in.

When Smith later put the above quotation on a chart, Holt said as to whether he believes in “unity-indiversity,” “I sure do. . . . That’s what Romans 14 is all about.” It was very evident that he wanted everyone to know that he applies Romans 14 rather than 2 John 9-11 to the issues noted above. This is the approach advocated by Carl Ketcherside, Leroy Garrett, Edward Fudge, and Rubel Shelly, not by Christ and the Apostles. Will Holt join these men in applying unity-in-diversity to baptism? That remains to be seen, but Holt has been in tune with much of the unity-in-diversity doctrine and practice for the past 15 years.

For audio cassette tapes ($10.00), contact J.T. Smith, P.O. Box 698, Lake Jackson, Texas 77566. For video tapes ($40.00), contact Chuck Ainsworth, 114 S. Magnolia, Lake Jackson, Texas 77W. The charts are available from the disputants (Holt, P.O. Box 21584, Chattanooga, TN 37421). This debate had been scheduled originally for 1969 in Chattanooga, Tennessee, but Holt backed out. For the benefit of brethren east of the Mississippi River, he has agreed to repeat the debate during 3-7 March 1986 at the North Hixon Church of Christ in Chattanooga.

Guardian of Truth XXX: 2, pp. 40-41, 52-53
January 16, 1986