By James P. Needham
Labels are used to inform. They tell us what’s on the inside. Labels are very common in religion; there are Calvinists, Catholics, Protestants, Baptists, etc. These labels tell us what’s on the inside. Labels are not unusual in the church when divisions occur. A hundred and fifty years ago the church divided over the missionary society and instrumental music. Those who promoted these innovations called themselves “progressives.” Those who opposed them were called “non-progressives.” Then there was division over whether it is scriptural to have multiple communion containers on the Lord’s table and multi-level Bible classes. Those who held to these ideas were called “antis,” “one-cuppers,” and “no-class brethren.”
In our life time we have witnessed division over centralized control of congregational resources under the sponsoring church arrangement where the sponsoring church receives funds and their oversight from several churches to do certain works, and whether churches can scripturally subsidize human organizations to do what is thought to be the work of the church, such as colleges, orphan and old folks homes. Those who promoted these innovations are called liberals and those who oppose them are called conservatives, and a few other choice epithets I won’t mention here.
As time has passed, the liberals have divided into other groups over what liberties could be taken with the word of God. They have now split into two opposing camps: Conservative liberals and ultra-liberals.
The ultra-liberals are the ones pushing for “a new hermeneutic,” that is, a new way of interpreting the Bible. They deny that the Bible is a pattern. They deny that we can determine authority from examples and necessary inferences. Here are some of the positions taken by this group:
- Instrumental music in worship is not unscriptural. Some of these churches have instrumental and non-instrumental services. One of their preachers said, “I don’t go around preaching against instrumental music.”
- The church of Christ is a denomination.
- There are Christians in all the denominations.
- Church is always supposed to be a party.
- They fellowship Christian Church preachers. (The Christian Church is the result of the division 150 years ago over the missionary society and instrumental music.)
- We are saved by grace only.
- Church grants to human institutions, including secular schools and colleges operated by brethren.
- General benevolence, which looks upon the mission of the church as a sort of a sanctified Red Cross society whose mission it is to improve people’s standard of living, sometimes called the “social gospel.”
- We need a new hermeneutic; a new way of interpreting the Bible. Which is not new at all. Their concept originated in modernism in the 19th century. It denies any pattern authority in the New Testament.
The conservative liberals were once with those who are now the ultra-liberals. Originally they were all in the same boat. The more conservative among the liberals broke camp with them when they carried their hermeneutic to its logical conclusion. The breaking point was the preaching of error on the Herald of Truth radio program. They abandoned the Herald of Truth, but continue to defend and practice the sponsoring church concept. Under the leadership of Ira Rice, Jr., the conservative liberals have waged a heated battle against the excesses of the ultra-liberals, but have never renounced the issues that divided us in the first place, namely, subsidizing of human institutions from the church treasury or the unscriptural cooperation of churches, known as sponsoring churches, by which the Herald of Truth radio and TV programs are operated. They are against church-furnished recreation of all types, and the fellowshipping of the Christian church. They claim to be against church support of secular colleges and schools though they say very little on this issue.
They have a good deal more in common with us conservatives than with the ultra-liberals, but they bear strong feelings against us and have isolated themselves from both camps. They call us “antis” and never miss an opportunity to bash us in their papers, and continue to have occasional debates with us on these issues, though these are becoming fewer and fewer. This group is undergoing a good deal of controversy at the moment over whether all service is worship and the personal indwelling of the Holy Spirit. They are having some very heated discussions in their papers.
The conservatives today can express nearly all their positions from the liberals’ writings of the 1930s and 40s. Nearly every one of them, and especially the leaders among them, used to take the exact same positions that we take on institutionalism, congregational cooperation, and church-furnished recreation, contributions to colleges, etc. If anyone doubts this I’ll be happy to document it from my files. In fact I learned much that I know about these matters as a young preacher from studying the preaching and writing of Guy N. Woods, Foy E. Wallace, Jr., G.K. Wallace, Glenn Wallace, A.C. Pullias, Charles Holt, B.C. Goodpasture, E.R. Harper, N.B. Hardeman, etc. all of whom cast their influence in the camps of the liberals. In the early days of this controversy there were several debates between conservative preachers and those who went liberal. They were confronted with quotations from their past writings. It didn’t take long for them to decide they didn’t want any more debates! They were challenged to answer themselves.
It is difficult to explain what happens to people who know the truth and then depart from it, but it happens. It happened in the first century; it happened in the 19th century, and it has happened in the 20th century, and I guess it will keep on happening. Maybe there is an answer in these two passages of scripture: 1 Corinthians 11:19: “For there must be also heresies among you, that they which are approved may be made manifest among you.” 1 John 2:19: “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would (no doubt) have continued with us: but (they went out), that they might be made manifest that they were not all of us. When the devil gets in the church there has to be some way to get him out. Really the only right way to do that is to stand stedfastly for the truth. When that is done, the devil will flee from us, but he won’t stay gone (Jas. 4:7).
What of The Future?
Conservative brethren are the only hope for saving a remnant today, and yet that is becoming more and more precarious day by day. There is a general wave of softness creeping over conservatives today similar to that which preceded the apostasy of the 1940s through the 1970s. This soft attitude, like in the past, cries out for only positive preaching and writing and for unity-in-diversity; you believe it your way and I’ll believe it mine, and I’ll meet you in heaven! They want to dispose of differences over things that matter to God which are plainly taught in the Scriptures by governing them by the principles stated in Romans 14, that govern things that don’t matter to God. The end result is that they claim God doesn’t care what one believes on the marriage question, etc. It’s not hard to see where this will lead them. It is a fact of history that often today’s radical is tomorrow’s liberal.
Another issue that has come to the forefront is a false interpretation of Genesis 1. There are two main positions: (1) the days of Genesis 1 are not seven literal contiguous solar days of 24 hours, but long periods of time, perhaps even millions of years. (2) The days are literal 24-hour days, but there are gaps between them, perhaps millions of years. Both are futile efforts to harmonize the Bible with the speculations of so-called modern day science.
Discussion of this matter has been quite intense in the last year, and there is a willingness on the part of some conservative brethren to tolerate it, to slip it under the umbrella of Romans 14 like in the discussion of the marriage, divorce, and remarriage question. Some are saying they don’t believe these concepts, but they are willing to make room for those who do. This is “unity-in-diversity,” purely and simply, though some don’t like the label. If this is not a proper label, what label would be appropriate? Is it really true that we can’t see the Bible alike? The church has not seen the last of division over human wisdom and doctrines. There is a major apostasy in every generation. History will bear this out.
Is It Wrong?
I hear by way of the grapevine that some are criticizing me for mentioning the names of people with whom I disagree and putting it on the Internet. Of course, this is nothing new. Every gospel preacher who defends the truth against error has the same result. I am told that I should have gone to these people personally. I wonder if they would give this same advice to the apostle John in the case of Diotrephes (3 John 9, 10), the apostle Paul in the cases of Hymenaeus and Alexander (1 Tim 1:20), Alexander the coppersmith (2 Tim. 4:14), in the case of the Corinthian church, and Paul’s rebuke of Peter before the whole church at Antioch (Gal. 2). Hundreds of millions more people have read these criticisms of persons by name than will ever read mine.
If a person thinks his doctrine or actions are scriptural, why would he resent having his name attached to them? Does he teach truths and commit actions of which he is ashamed, even though he feels they are scriptural? Paul warned about being ashamed of the gospel and those who defend it (Rom. 1:15; 2 Tim 1:12, 16). Or does he realize his actions are not scriptural, so wants to keep them hidden or isolated in the area where they are taught or committed?
It is obvious that some brethren think exposing error is not part of the doctrine of Christ. If this is true, I wonder why such occupies such a large portion of divine revelation, both in the Old and New Testaments. Why did Christ spend so much of his time exposing the doctrines of the Jewish sects and the Rabbis? It was the late Cled Wallace who said we should not have better manners than Christ and the apostles. Paul said, “Follow me as I follow Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1). That’s good enough for me and should be good enough for everyone.
1600 Oneco Ave., Winter Park, Florida 32789