Liberal or Conservative: What is the Standard?

By Rodney Pitts

There was a time when all churches of Christ seemed to be standing for the truth of the Scriptures. People had basically accepted the idea that one did not have to wonder what would be taught or practiced in churches of Christ in different areas, but could simply walk into any building bearing the name and never worry. There were no liberal and conservative congregations, for all churches were thought to be basically conservative in their approach to Bible authority and its application in matters of the work of the church, etc.

In the 1950s, however, the church faced tome serious problems that had actually been boiling for some time. As a result of differing views concerning Bible authority and institutionalism that were just beginning to show up in full force, various churches began to split and the brotherhood was divided. The terms “liberal” and “conservative” took on special meanings in relation to this split. Congregations that favored the use of institutions to do their collective work were labeled “liberal” for their lax or loose stance on Bible authority. Those who disapproved of these innovation were labeled “conservatives” or “antis.” People had to begin asking questions concerning doctrine and practices of churches that they had at one time visited and worked with in harmony. Families and friends were divided, and in most cases, remain divided today.

Yet in the face of all this division, people began to make the same type of mistake as was made before the division in believing that for the most part, one could determine a congregation’s stand for truth by simply asking a few questions concerning the work or-organization of that church. It was thought that if you could determine that a church took a “conservative” stance on these matters of institutionalism, you could then rest assured that everything that was practiced or taught at that particular congregation would likely be in harmony with God’s will. And, it seems that this standard for judging a congregation’s soundness still lingers on today. This is done despite the fact that many of these congregations or their leadership may have already accepted certain beliefs that are foreign to the Scriptures and that deny their very basis for a stance against institutionalism.

I have not been preaching full-time for very many years, but I have been on both sides of the institutional question. I grew up in institutionalism, but took a stand against this error several years ago. I have now been associated with “conservative” churches long enough to realize that the term “conservative” connected to the word church means no more than the words “Church of Christ” being placed over the door. Brethren, it has been a long time since the division took place, and the Devil has been working overtime!

I am finding more and more that some congregations that may not send money to an “orphanage” or involve themselves in arrangements like that of the Herald of Truth, etc., are no more conservative than those we might term as rank “liberals.” Modernism and. humanism have “crept in unawares” and we are now facing issues and stances that are just as serious as those that divided the church in the 50s. Elders and other brethren who would never stand for $1 out of the church’s treasury to be sent to some institution are now taking strange positions on marriage and divorce, social drinking, abortion, etc. I know of brethren who have faced public opposition from elders and other members because they taught the truth concerning the alien sinner’s need to repent of his or her apparent adultery, immodest apparel, dancing, and even such subjects as situation ethics and abortion. Can we still continue to call these congregations “conservative” where the truth is opposed and false doctrine is taught and even practiced?

Brethren, let’s wake up and realize that God did not place a congregation’s stance on institutionalism as the “ultimate standard” of all judgments concerning its soundness. No one sin is any more acceptable to God than any other. James states that “for whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all” (Jas. 2:10). Please understand that I am not advocating congregational fellowship or disfellowship as our institutional brethren see it, nor am I stating that I believe that because some members of a congregation are in error that the whole congregation is in error. Neither am I saying that mercy and patience should not be practiced in relation to these people and congregations. But, when truth is censored and false doctrine is taught and even practiced with no repentance forthcoming, we as Christians must take appropriate action concerning those brethren despite their stand against institutionalism.

This article has not been easy for me to write. My thoughts that have been penned here are the result of much sorrow and heartache concerning men and brethren I know and love. Yet, I believe it is the truth and that it needs to be preached without fear or hesitation. For, if we are not careful, we will “strain out the gnat and swallow the camel” (Matt. 23:24).

Guardian of Truth XXXIII: 7, p. 197
April 6, 1989