Learning the Lessons of the Nashville Meeting

By Wayne Greeson

0n December 1-3, 1998 in. Nashville,, Tennessee, selected speakers discussed some of the issues dividing the “churches of Christ.” The issues addressed matters such as the history of the current division, whether there are patterns, how we determine authority, the difference between church and individual activities, the social gospel, institutionalism, church cooperation and fellowship. On each issue there were affirmative and negative speakers from the “institutional” and “non-institutional” sides. At the conclusion of each set of speeches, the audiences directed written questions to the speakers.

I was not an invited speaker at the “Nashville Meeting.” I was a spectator, but I do not intend to remain a silent spectator. I feel compelled to put pen to paper and make some observations. One of the questions that I have heard repeatedly concerning the Nashville Meeting is, “Did it do any good?” The answer to this question depends entirely upon what good one expected to be done. If one asks the question meaning, “Did the liberals repent by giving up the church support of human institutions, the social gospel and accept the New Testament pattern and authority?”, the answer is “No.” If one asks the question meaning, “Did the meeting do any good; was anything gained?”, the answer could be “yes,” but only if we are willing to learn and apply the lesson that can be learned from the Nashville Meeting.

The “Church of Christ” Denomination

I have heard the term “divided brotherhood” used repeatedly over the years to refer to the differences among those identified as belonging to churches of Christ. I have always believed that this term and others of like flavor have been inappropriate and unscriptural. We do not read of a “divided brotherhood” in the New Testament. Individual Christians and churches were either sound and faithful, holding fast the Word and sound doctrine or they were false and unfaithful, departing from the Lord and teaching and practicing those, things they had not heard or seen from the apostles (see 2 Tim. 1:13-14; 4:1-5; Tit. 1:9; 1:13-14; Rev. 2-3).

It was never more apparent than in Nashville that the term “divided brotherhood” is not only inappropriate but just plain wrong. The differences between conservatives and the liberals are not matters of superficial and inconsequential opinions. The differences are as deep and wide as the River Jordan at flood-time.

The liberals constitute a denominational body calling itself the “Churches of Christ.” They have their own set of auxiliary organizations, they support and defend; they have their own human traditions, terminology and theology they promote; they have the social gospel and all its worldly and material trappings; they have their own denominational religious organizations, from the “sponsoring church system” to the “Boston church system.”

It is true that there is a split among the liberals. I believe the two basic groups have emerged. These groups could best be described as the “modernists” and the “traditional liberals.” Both groups were represented at the Nashville Meeting and gave ample evidence of their views and practices. The “modernists” are those liberals who have accepted virtually every denominational innovation and rejected the binding authority of the Scriptures. The “traditional liberals” are those who continue to profess to hold to the authority of the Scriptures while accepting only some of the innovations of institutionalism and the social gospel. These liberals are traditionalists in the truest sense. They are attempting to draw the line against the growing progressive tide of the modernists’ innovations, while they continue to defend their own “traditional” innovations introduced into the church thirty and forty years ago.

The Modernist Liberals

The distance the modernists have departed from the Bible shocked many at the Nashville Meeting. One speaker called for a “new hermeneutical principle.” He explained that we cannot and should not accept anything from Acts to Revelation as authoritative or binding. He said that the “canon” was not completed until 400 A.D. He argued that the early church did not have a completed canon as their authority, thus nothing from Acts to Revelation is binding upon us.

Other modernist liberals heartily endorsed and defended all forms of institutionalism and the social gospel. They proposed that the church should support orphanages, widowages, hospitals, colleges, gymnasiums and anything that was deemed to “do good.” The example of Jesus was used to defend these practices. Some argued that the church could do anything that Jesus did. Since Jesus fed people, the church could feed’people. Since Jesus healed the sick, the church could build hospitals. Since Jesus did “good,” the church could do what it wanted as long as it was deemed “good.”

The modernists rejected any distinction between the responsibilities of the individual and the church. They even went to the point in rejecting separation and autonomy between congregations. One speaker argued that since one Christian could comprise a congregation, whatever one Christian did, the church was doing. Thus, whatever one. Christian could do, the church could do. He went a step farther and argued that whatever two Christians could do together, two congregations could do together. If all the congregations of a city decided to pool their resources together and do a “good work,” they could do so.

Do the modernists reject a pattern in the New Testament for the church to follow? Some appeared to imply this very strongly. One vehemently denied that he rejected a pattern. Of course he believed there was a pattern. The pattern for the church was simply to follow Jesus and do good.

Just how far and how denominational have these modernists become? I talked for a few minutes with one of the speakers, a preacher for a large “Church of Christ” in Dallas. He told me that he did not see anything wrong with using instruments in worship, although he would not openly advocate their use. Further, he argued with me that baptism was not necessary for salvation.

He asked me, “Do you mean to tell me that God will condemn people to Hell because they were not baptized?” I answered, “Sin condemns people to Hell, according to Jesus (Jn. 3:17-18). Baptism is part of God’s plan to save people, not condemn them.” In our discussion, I would quote Scripture to make my points. His response was to say, “You and your brethren have been trained to debate and I have not. I am just telling you what I feel in my heart.” Brethren, it is nearly impossible to teach and convert those who rely upon their own hearts, rather than the Word of God (Jer. 10:23; Prov. 20:24).

The Traditional Liberals

While most brethren recognize the apostasy of the modernist liberals, some are unwilling to recognize and accept as a reality the apostasy of the traditional liberals. Some brethren speak and act as though the differences between the conservatives and the traditional liberals are slight and only matters of opinion. Some have said, “I would worship with them except they practice things I conscientiously cannot accept.” Others speak of having “limited fellowship” with the liberals, working or worshipping with them in areas where we do agree.

To suggest that these things are matters we cannot “conscientiously” accept is to imply that they are not sinful but matters of opinion within the scope of Romans 14. Brethren, either the teaching and practice of institutionalism, the corruption of the organization and work of the church and the social gospel is sinful or it is not. The practice of sin is not a slight matter nor a mere difference of opinion.

If institutionalism is sinful, then those teaching and practicing it are in sin and they need to repent. Further, we have no business fellowshipping them in any manner (Rom. 16:17-18; 2 Pet. 2:1-3). The New Testament does not recognize “limited fellowship. ” Either we are cleansed from sin and have fellowship with God and each other or we do not (1 Jn. 1:3-10; 2:3-6). There is no halfway, “limited” state of fellowship.

What do the traditional liberals believe and teach? They do not believe and. teach what they did thirty years ago. Thirty years ago it was agreed that we established biblical authority by divine command, approved example and necessary inference. Further, it was agreed that the New Testament was a complete divine pattern for the work of the church. The debates on the issues thirty years ago was over the application of these principles. The Nashville meeting showed how far the traditional liberals have drifted from these principles.

Many of the traditional liberals have rejected necessary inferences as binding authority and they strongly question whether approved examples were binding authority. More than one traditional liberal argued that the only binding authority in the New Testament was direct commands. This led some to question when Christians should take the Lord’s Supper since the only time designated is by inference from an example (see Acts 20:7). One speaker stated his notion of authority was where Jesus was very exact in his command,. we are to be very exact; where Jesus was not very exact, then we are not be very exact. This fuzzy idea of authority is what has lead many to accept institutionalism and tolerate and then embrace modernism.

Many of the traditional liberals have rejected the biblical idea of a binding pattern for the work of the church. Several years ago they argued about the nature of the pattern, in Nashville several argued there was no pattern for the work of the church. If God warned Moses to follow the divine pattern in making the shadow, how much more shall God hold us accountable for following the pattern of the better covenant? (Heb. 8:5-6; 2:1-3)

One of the obvious lessons of the Nashville Meeting is that the traditional liberals may not have gone as far as the modernists, but they are just as surely in apostasy. The modernists are the product of the traditionalists. The modernist liberals are but the second generation, the fruit of the institutional apostasy of the forties and fifties. The proverb is true, “As is the mother, so is her daughter” (Ezek. 16:44). The Boston church scheme is but the daughter of the Abilene church Herald of Truth scheme. The human scheme for the church to support every human institution from colleges to the Red Cross is but the daughter of the human scheme for the church to support orphanages. The rejection of the New Testament authority and pattern for the work of the church and the acceptance of human institutions to supplant the work of the church in the forties and fifties laid the foundation for the modernists.

Where the first generation of the institutional apostasy wanted to draw lines declaring, “We shall go no farther,” the second generation has marched blindly forward. The words of the prophet apply very readily to the traditional liberals and the seeds of institutionalism and denominationalism they have sown. “For they have sown the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind: it hath not stalk; bud shall yield no meal: if so be it yield, the strangers shall swallow it up” (Hos. 8:7).

The apostasy of the traditional liberals is further seen in that.they continue in the same camp with the modernists. The traditional liberals readily and loudly object to the extremes of the modernists and yet they will not openly reject and break with them. One of the traditionalists explained that he believed that churches could not support colleges, yet he could not say it was wrong and break fellowship with those who do so. This thought was repeated by others, “We don’t think they (the modernists) are right, but we can’t say that they are wrong.” The attitude of the traditional liberals towards the modernists is one of strained fellowship and unscriptural union rather than scriptural unity. This is a far cry from the New Testament attitude towards those who do not teach and practice sound doctrine (see 2 Jn. 910; 1 Jn. 3:24-4:1; Rom. 16:17-18; 1 Tim. 1: 18-20; 2 Tim. 2:14-19).

Is it possible that the traditional liberals can be persuaded to give up their human institutions, innovations and schemes and return to the biblical pattern and authority? It is unlikely that most can be reached. “They loved to wander, they have not refrained their feet, therefore the Lord doth not accept them” (Jer. 14:10). The generation that went through the division pitched their tents towards Sodom thirty years ago and they have no intention of pulling up stakes and joining the hated “antis.” While most of the second generation within the liberal camp has furthered the institutional apostasy and moved into rank modernism, a few have turned the opposite direction. A few young men who did not go through the division have examined the issues and asked for scriptural authority for things practiced. When no authority was given, they left the liberal church. Others have seen the unscriptural practices of institutionalism, the sponsoring church and the social gospel tear up and tear down the scriptural autonomy and spirituality of churches. They left the liberal camp in disgust.

We can reach and teach the younger generation. This will only happen if we stand militantly upon the Word of Truth. If we only offer mere “differences of opinion” and compromise with the liberals then we will reach no one.

Love and “Attitudes”

There was a lot of talk at Nashville about attitudes and love. Many liberals decried the attitudes of thirty years ago when the controversy was hot. Some of the liberals suggested that the “non-institutional brethren” continued to have an attitude problem. The oft repeated solution was, “We need to learn to love each other more and have a more loving attitude.”

Bitter and malicious attitudes are wrong and should not be tolerated. At times some have displayed these attitudes. Such attitudes need to be repented of and put away. However, the appeal for love and proper attitudes was more often an appeal for toleration and acceptance, rather than an appeal against maliciousness. This appeal showed a complete lack of understanding about the true nature of love.

True love of God and brethren demands obedience to God (Jn. 15:14). This love compels us to reprove and rebuke those who are disobedient to God and not to tolerate and accept their error (Prov. 27:6; Lk. 17:3; Eph. 5:9-11; 1 Tim. 5:20; Tit. 1:13; Rev. 3:19). It was this true love that moved Jesus to drive the animals and moneychangers out of the temple and silence the Pharisees and the Sadducees (Jn. 2:14-17; Matt. 22-23). The proper spirit of love caused Peter to sharply rebuke the new Christian Simon (Acts 8:18-24). Love caused Paul to withstand Peter to his face and rebuke him for his hypocrisy (Gal. 2:11-14).

If the proper rebuke does not lead the erring to repentance, then love compels us to disassociate from them that they might feel ashamed and turn from their error (Matt. 18:15-17; 1 Cor. 5:4-8; 2 Cor. 2:6-8). Love further teaches us to mark and avoid those who are false teachers (Rom. 16:17-18; 1 Jn. 4:1; Rev. 2:2).

Sadly, this godly love and concern for the truth and for those in error is lacking in many of my brethren. Mike Willis delivered one of the strongest speeches given in Nashville. He passionately revealed and rebuked the sin of institutionalism and then he issued a clear and plain call for repentance. His love for those present was evident in his sincere efforts to urge them to quit their sinful practices. Afterwards, Mike was pounced upon by some of his “own brethren” who denounced him for his “poor attitude.” About a dozen young preachers gathered around Roy Lanier, the opposing speaker, in order to apologize for Mike’s “attitude.”

Apologizing for the truth does not display an attitude of love. Tolerating and accepting those practicing sin is not a “proper attitude.” It is the spirit of error, not the spirit of truth. Toleration and acceptance will never lead those in error to the truth.

The traditional liberals have tolerated and fellowshipped the modernists for years while disagreeing with their practices. How many do you suppose they have “converted”? It is very apparent that the modernists have grown in number to the point that they out number the traditional liberals. Their numbers continue to grow at the expense of the traditionalists. I hope and pray some of my sleeping brethren wake up and learn what love is and the proper attitude we should have towards those in error.

The Need for Honorable Controversy

It was apparent that some of the liberals came to Nashville with the idea of a “love in” rather than a frank and open discussion of the issues. A few expressed surprise that some were even discussing these issues as they had not studied these issues for years and some had never studied them.

It was evident that many liberals are still not interested in honest open Bible study and discussion. Over five hundred gathered at the discussions and the conservatives outnumbered the liberals by five to one or more. The conservatives outnumbered the liberals by a wide margin despite the fact that the liberals far outnumber conservatives nationwide and particularly in Nashville. It has been my experience in every debate with the liberals on the issues that conservatives always outnumber the liberals by wide margins even though the liberals have far greater numbers.

Brother Marshall Patton best summarized the benefit of meetings, discussions and debates such as the Nashville Meeting. He suggested that the Lord’s church and truth have always been triumphant in the “crucible of controversy.” Brother Patton went on to quote the apostle Paul, “For there must also be factions among you, that those who are approved may be recognized among you” (1 Cor. 11:19).

The liberals run away from debates and discussions, such as the Nashville Meeting, for the same reason most denominational preachers and members fear debates. They do not have the truth and they realize that they will suffer exposure in the “crucible of controversy” (see Jn. 3:19-21). The enemies of Jesus tried to debate him openly until they realized they could not answer the truth he spoke. They quit debating with him then (Matt. 22:46). The enemies of Stephen quit disputing with Stephen because “they were not able to resist the wisdom and the spirit by which he spake” (Acts 6:10).

Brethren, I fear a rising sentiment among my brethren that controversy and debate are. wrong and are to be avoided. The truth is always controversial and offensive to those (Matt. 13:21; 13:57; 15:1-14; Jn. 6:60-64). The weapons of our warfare demand controversy for the “pulling down of strong holds; casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor. 10:4-5; Eph. 6:16-17). When we give up controversy, we will give up truth.

Grace, Fellowship and Continuous Cleansing

The saddest and most important portion of the Nashville Meeting were those remarks made by several liberal speakers on sin, grace and fellowship. Their remarks were virtually identical to what I have heard and read from those promoting “Continuous Cleansing.” If these remarks did not shake those who are promoting this false doctrine then they are beyond help and hope.

Several of the liberal speakers expressed bewilderment over the division. “Do not all of us have sins of which we are unaware,” they wondered out loud, “and does not the grace of God take care of or cover those sins of ignorance?” If this is so, then we are all ignorant sinners forgiven by the grace of God and we should mutually recognize this fact and have fellowship with one another.

One speaker used the false Calvinist doctrine of the imputation of the righteousness of Christ as a means of bringing fellowship between the liberals and conservatives. He pointed out that everyone had just sung the song containing the verse, “dressed in His righteousness alone, faultless to stand before the throne.” He suggested we should practice what we sing and recognize we all had sin and that we could only stand justified before God dressed in the righteousness of Christ. With this idea of sin, grace and forgiveness, he did not understand why we could not have fellowship. He went on to argue that an “incorrect stance does not jeopardize our salvation” and that “the grace of God covers doctrinal sin.”

The Scriptures do not teach that God’s grace covers sins of ignorance, weakness or inadvertence or doctrinal sins without a recognition, repentance and confession of those sins. God’s grace has not appeared to save us in ignorance and sin. God’s grace has appeared to all men to raise us out of ignorance and sin by instructing us how to deny sin, how to “liver soberly, righteously and godly” and how to receive forgiveness for sin (Tit. 2:11-12; 1 Jn. 1:9; Acts 8:2024).

The influence of Calvinism has made a profound impact upon the liberals. The effects of Calvinism are evident. Their Calvinistic view of sin and grace has opened their fellowship. The traditionalists continue to fellowship the modernists, despite their repudiation of the modernists’ practices. Meanwhile the modernists are rapidly moving to fellowship the Christian Church and they are making overtures towards other denominations. As this false notion of grace has broadened the fellowship of the liberal church, the influences swept in by the broadened fellowship have pushed the liberals faster and farther towards the rest of the denominational world.

Those brethren who promote the doctrine of “Continuous Cleansing” and those who continue to ignore the issue as “unimportant” are deceiving themselves. The influence of this pernicious doctrine is already motivating some young men to broaden the bounds of fellowship and introduce liberal and denominational influences.

You say it can’t happen to us? This very thing was going on at the Nashville Meeting. One young fellow from a “conservative” background and who continues to profess to be a “conservative” was in Nashville actively promoting fellowship with the liberals. He passed out a flyer advocating union with liberal congregations based upon the false notion that “continuous cleansing” covered our sins of ignorance. Brethren, it is time those asleep wake up!


I do not fear for the truth and the Lord’s church. They will continue to stand and shine radiantly and triumphantly. I do fear for some of my brethren and the paths they are pursuing. The Nashville meeting revealed much about the liberal camp, but the meeting revealed even more about ourselves. The same problems and attitudes that brought division thirty years ago, one hundred years ago and two thousand years ago are among us today. There are those who are even now introducing heresies and there are those who are following them into apostasy. The lessons of Nashville will be wasted if we do not examine ourselves in the light of God’s Word and the apostasies of the past. I hope and pray that we learn those lessons.

Guardian of Truth XXXIII: 6, pp. 168-169, 180-181
March 16, 1989