Modernism in Churches of Christ

By Steve Wolfgang

Informed students of the history of the Lord’s church know that past examples of modernism(1) among professed members of the Lord’s church are not hard to come by. In the very first chapter of one of the most recent (and one of the best) studies of the Disciples of Christ and Churches of Christ, we are told that “Toward the end of the (nineteenth) century a number of liberal ministers became bold enough to publicly defend evolution, higher criticism, and some of the other controversial scientific theories of the day.”(2) This “new liberal spirit ultimately led a large segment of the church into the mainstream of liberal American Protestantism in the twentieth century” and “also resulted in another major division of the movement.”(3)

Even within the lifetime of most Truth Magazine readers, examples of those who espoused modernism are prevalent. In Louisville, where I now live, the Taylor Boulevard congregation was troubled in the 1940’s over the liberalism of James A. Warren. who “embraced outright modernism.”(4) Warren left and moved to Chicago, publishing a tract, “The Heresy of Legalism”(5)on one of the way-stations to his modernistic destination. He was not alone. According to another historian of recent developments in Churches of Christ, “in the 1950’s, in the space of a few months, fourteen gospel preachers, most of whom are from the Chicago area, forsook the Churches of Christ and aligned themselves with the very liberal Disciples of Christ.(6)

In Indianapolis, the city in which I was born and raised, David Bobo, minister at one of the “Churches of Christ” there, and a graduate of the Disciples of Christ seminary there (Christian Theological Seminary), began to espouse some modernistic viewpoints. Speaking on the Abilene Christian College lectures in 1960, Bobo dealt with “Alleged Discrepancies of the Bible.” Among other things, he pointed to the “number of different writers participating in the writing of Biblical history, each inevitably from his own particular viewpoint and with his own set of emphases …. All these things . . . could not have failed to produce a certain diversity underneath the over-arching unity of the Bible.”(7) In his analysis of the ACC lectures, William S. Banowsky summarized the thrust of Bobo’s lecture. “After stating `that on the surface there are innumerable discrepancies in the Bible,’ Bobo jolted many of his Lectureship predecessors by asserting: `Nothing is really at stake here except the possible theory that every original writer . . . was miraculously guarded against any minute lapse or slip.”(8) Banowsky further informs us that, according to Bobo, ” `the many discrepancies of the Bible’ fall into three categories, verbal, historical, and ideological. He stressed that there are discrepancies in all of nature and that the Bible is not proved invalid because it contains those `normal discrepancies which characterize all other manifestations of God-given life.’ ” Furthermore, “admitting that some of the discrepancies could not be `reconciled or eliminated,”(9) Bobo had these choice words for those who disagreed with his modernistic position:

In their efforts to deny all discrepancies they have resorted to unscholarly, ridiculous, and sometimes dishonest means. Regardless of how good and pious their intentions may have been, their methods have often been below the level of respectability. This likewise has continued down to the present time . . . . Such behavior is sub-Christian . . . .(10)

Bobo’s views were the subject of a thoroughly documented article by William E. Wallace, then preaching in Indianapolis, in this periodical in 1965.(11) According to Wallace, “Professor J. D. Thomas of (Abilene Christian) College critically reviewed Bobo’s positions in a number of articles which appeared in the Gospel Advocate and Firm Foundation. (12) It is interesting to notice Wallace’s comment that, despite such clear statements as quoted above, “Bobo would deny that he is a modernist.”(13) and it is instructive to hear our brother’s general (and we believe quite incisive) observations regarding modernism:

Modernism appears in varying degrees. There are different kinds. Only the extreme modernists are really willing to accept and wear the label. I doubt that any preacher associated with churches of Christ would appreciate being labeled a modernist, yet there are preachers among us who are definitely modernists. Modernism is better described than defined.(14)

Though more veiled and not as open or blunt as his views expressed a dozen years earlier, Bobo’s comments at several of Carl Ketcherside’s unity forums, which this author attended in Indianapolis in the early 1970’s, display his attitude toward the Scriptures. They were published, interestingly enough, in Mission magazine,(15) which a former editor of this journal has called “the Number One espouser of theological liberalism among churches of Christ.”(16) Brother Willis, both in that article and in a previous series, documented evidences of modernism up to that point among Churches of Christ, particularly at Abilene Christian College, R. B. Sweet Publishing Company, on the staff and board of trustees (including faculty at Abilene and Pepperdine Universities), and elsewhere.(17)

Connie Adams, formerly of the Truth Magazine staff and now editor of Searching The Scriptures, has also documented in this paper instances of modernism among Churches of Christ, including an “award-winning” Mission Magazine article written by an elder in an Arkansas church which openly advocates theistic evolution.(18) Even among our brethren who have espoused institutional or social gospel concepts of Christianity, men such as James D. Bales and Ira Y. Rice, Jr., have for a decade chronicled instances of theological liberalism or outright modernism among those claiming to be members of the Lord’s church.(19)

In 1972, Mission, a paper staffed by those at least nominally claiming to be members of the Lord’s church, and whose Board of Trustees is filled with faculty members from colleges supported by funds donated from the congregational treasuries of “Churches of Christ,” published perhaps the most open exposition of outright modernism among Churches of Christ up to that time. In “Every Scripture Breathed of God is Profitable,” Warren Lewis, a graduate of one of “our Christian colleges” and several other institutions of higher learning, stated his premise as “the fact that scripture does not agree with itself,” and concluded with the question, “but what about the clashes and jars? The knots of disagreement in scripture cannot be untied. Nor, indeed, should one try to untie them.”(20) In between he seeks to argue by raising questions such as “how can we say that scripture is breathed of God and profitable when it has jarring, clashing disagreements within it, when it makes things up that most likely did not happen, and when what it teaches about Jesus in one place does not tally with what it teaches about Jesus in another place?”(21) Several years later, the September, 1974 issue of Mission contained a survey (quite informative) of the controversy over such matters by Don Haymes, and a rejoinder to his critics by Warren Lewis. Lewis offered a few more instances of what, by his own definition, compose “clashes and jars,” and reiterated his basic contention that “each of the gospels paints a picture of Jesus which is so different from the other three that the story-level-at the verbal, literal, word-for-word level of the accounts-we are unable in many cases to say what Jesus in fact did or taught. Clashes and jars of this kind are to be found on every page of the gospels. And the doctrines about Jesus from gospel to gospel based on these clashing stories do also equally jar among themselves.”(22)

This article was not designed to be (and because of space limitations cannot be) a refutation of various claims made by these intellectual wonders. Its sole design has been, at the request of the editor, to document instances of modernism among some claiming to be members of the. Lord’s church. In the face of accumulated evidence supporting that thesis which crosses my desk quite frequently, I am constrained to say that one who would deny such a proposition has either played Rip van Winkle for the last thirty years, or else simply has no conception of what modernism is. That some among Churches of Christ are following the familiar path trod by their counterparts of a century ago in the. Disciples of Christ is too plain to be debatable. What the next few years bring, as those imbibing one degree or another of these views gain control of the institutional manifestations of “Churches of Christ,” will be interesting but awful, in every legitimate sense of that word, to behold.

Truth Magazine XXII: 45, pp. 726-727
November 16, 1978

1. For a definition of modernism see my article on “Modernism among Evangelicals” elsewhere in this series.

2. David Edwin Harrell, Jr., The Social Sources of Division in the Disciples of Christ, 18651900: A Social History of the Disciples of Christ, Volume 11 (Atlanta: Publishing Systems, Incorporated, 1973), p. 15.

3. Ibid. See also pp. 9, 434, n. 167.

4. James P. Needham, “The Taylor Boulevard Trouble,” Truth Magazine, VIII: 2 (November, 1963), p. 39; see also Connie W. Adams, “Old Songs, New Singers,” Truth Magazine, XVII:13 (February 1, 1973), p. 202.

5. A copy of this pamphlet is in the Pamphlet File at the Disciples of Christ Historical Society in Nashville; Xerox in author’s possession. James D. Bales replied to Warren in a tract of his own, “The Heresy of Legalism?” also in the author’s possession.

6. Cecil Willis, “The Taproot of Digression: ‘No-Patternism,’ ” Truth Magazine tract, p. 15. This excellent tract was originally a series of articles appearing in Truth Magazine in 1972.

7. Cited in William S. Banowsky, The Mirror of a Movement Churches of Christ as Seen in the Abilene Christian College Lectureship (Dallas: Christian Publishing Company, 1965), pp. 110-111.

8. Ibid., p. 111.

9. Ibid., p. 139.

10. Ibid.

11. William E. Wallace, “Modernism in Indianapolis,” Truth Magazine, IX:12 (September, 1965), p. 271.

12. Ibid.

13. Ibid.

14. Ibid.

15. David H. Bobo, “Looking For New Light in the Scriptures,” Mission, V:5 (November, 1971), p. 133; and “Worship and Unity,” Mission, V: 8 (February, 1972), p. 230. While not printed, a speech Bobo delivered before the 1974 Unity Forum in Nashville contained an obviously loose concept of authority and what most members of the churches of Christ would likely consider rather modernistic statements. The speech was attended by several on the Truth Magazine staff.

16. See Cecil Willis, “Theological Liberalism: Is There Any?” Truth Magazine, XVII: 19 (March 15, 1973), p. 293.

17. See Cecil Willis, “Theological Liberalism at Abilene Christian College,” appearing in the August, 1972 issues of Truth Magazine, 4-part serial.

18. Adams, “Old Song . . . .

19. See Bales’ Modernism: Trojan Horse in the Church (Searcy, Arkansas, 1971) and Rice’s Axe on the Root series followed by his monthly periodical, Contending For the Faith.

20. Mission, V:7, January, 1972, pp. 195, 200.

21. Ibid., 198-199.

22. Warren Lewis, “Let’s Look at the Text-Again!” Mission, VIII:3 (September, 1974), p. 86. Mission has also recently published “The Infallibility of the Bible and Higher Criticism” by one of the more modernistic of the participants in the “Battle for the Bible” controversy, Harry R. Boer (see references in my article on “Modernism and Evangelicals” in this series).