By Lewis Willis
In all the controversies that have raged in religion, we in Churches of Christ have urged the solution to be the inspired Word of God. We have noted passages which tell us how the Scriptures came and what they are designed to do in establishing man’s fellowship with God and retaining it. We have cited passages like 1 Corinthians 2:9-13, 2 Timothy 3:16-17, 2 Peter 1:3 and 2 John 9-11 to show the function of the Scriptures in leading us to God’s approval. Sectarians have charged our position to be nothing more than our “interpretation” of these passages. Even so, brethren have been of one voice in declaring this truth.
Unfortunately, through the years we have seen many controversies arise within the Church. Many debates, both public and private, have been waged in efforts to resolve these differences between brethren. Both sides of each issues have stood so solidly that division has resulted. The confusion has arisen because some have introduced into the life and action of the church things for which there is no New Testament authority. When Scriptures have been introduced which are violated by the innovation, the cry is made that the opposition which we have raised is but our “interpretation” of these passages. Those who have opposed unauthorized innovations have been of one voice, as with regard to the errors of sectarianism.
However, in recent years some brethren have come along who deplore this state of division among those who have stood together in the past. It is as though they have suddenly discovered division to be wrong. They knowingly or unknowingly ignore the face that brethren have been crying out against division for years. While the efforts to unite brethren are praiseworthy, the appeal for unity is but are statement of the division. But, a new twist has been added to this modern appeal for unity. These late-arriving reformers have accepted the position that all of these divisions are but matters of “interpretation” or opinion. They have, furthermore, concluded that there are bodies of essential and non-essential techings that have been overlooked in the heat of controversy. Some have gone so far as to distinguish between “gospel” and “doctrine,” insisting that if we are right regarding “gospel,” being right about “doctrine” is not all that important. Today it is not uncommon to hear every divisive issue among brethren over the last 150 years classified as “non-essential doctrine” which should never have been allowed to disrupt the fellowship of God’s people. Their position is that things like the instrument, missionary society, premillennialism, orphan’s homes, Herald of Truth, fellowship halls, etc., were all elevated to brotherhood misunderstanding due to imperfect knowledge respecting the passages that became the focus of these controversies. In the view of the modern “unity advocate,” those who introduced all of these things into the affairs of the church were nothing more than “well-meaning” brethren whose efforts should have been applauded, rather than condemned. Without exception, those who have opposed these unauthorized and unscriptural doctrines and practices are viewed as arrogrant, ungodly “know-it-alls” who caused the divisions.
I suppose it will come as no surprise that the “unity advocates” know just the Scriptures which will correct the “horrible mess” which those of us who have opposed unscriptural innovations have caused. They are fully persuaded that these “issues” should be totally ignored in the interest of unity at any cost. Books, journals, tracts and articles are being written telling us just exactly where we need to “straighten up and fly right.” The arguments are “profound,” especially to those who make them. But I have noticed something rather interesting in their writings which I think brethren should consider.
They cite passage after New Testament passage to prove that brethren are to be united, that they are to love one another, that patience, forebearance and understanding are to characterize our every word and act. We know this is so, because the New Testament teaches as much. They labor to show scriptural evidence that everyone must understand the truth about the person of Christ and must obey the 96gospel” in order to be in fellowship with God. In their dissertations, every soul must obey the Gospel or he is lost, and, all of these who have observed the essentials must be united or they stand condemned. How do we know this is so? Because the Scriptures say so! Everyone, it is argued, can understand this.
But when we start studying about instrumental music, missionary and benevolent societies, premillennialism, etc., we are dealing with a completely new set of rules. The New Testament Scriptures which are so easily understood by all with regard to the person of Christ, faith, repentance, confession and baptism, suddenly become complicated, unclear and subject to dozens of different renderings which makes unity impossible.
I was just thinkin, why do you suppose these men are persuaded it is possible for us all to understand the “gospel” alike, but it is impossible for us to understand the “doctrine” alike? It seems to me if the Scriptures can be understood regarding unity and love, they can be understood with regard to singing, the sufficiency of the church to fulfill its mission without adding human institutions, the limit of the authority of elders, etc. How can a preacher keep a straight face when he stands to speak on unity, quoting understandable Scripture and then argue that that same Scripture cannot be understood with reference to the issues over which brethren have divided? One would think there is a distinct possibility that those who fail to see through their little mental exercise are unable to see because they don’t want to see. The next time you are approached by one of these fellows, why not ask him why John 17:20-21 is so much more easily understood than Ephesians 5:19 or 1 Peter 5:2? However, get ready to witness some hermeneutical gymnastics. To us common folks that word means “the science of interpretation and explanation.” They will do whatever is necessary to get where they want to go!
Guardian of Truth XXXI: 16, p. 490
August 20, 1987