By Ron Halbrook
I regret the need for this discussion but am glad to have it with him, knowing his kind spirit. Both of us intend to conduct ourselves as Christians (Matt. 7:12). We hope to promote study, not start a running battle. I am glad to defend the action of the West Columbia church and its elders because our action is authorized by Scripture. With the elders’ permission, I will use some material which they have used in communicating with others on this topic. On behalf of the elders and the whole church, I commend brother Turner for expressing his reservations without bitterness. We are not far apart as we begin our study; may God help us to be even closer together at its end, “for we be brethren” (Gen. 13:8).
Bible Basis for Asking Questions on Current Issue
Anti-literature brethren called literature “creedalistic” and anti-class folks called classes “denominational,” but that did not make it so. Brethren showed such practices were scriptural under the generic authority to teach.Every passage instructing elders to watch, oversee, and guard the church authorizes them to ask questions by generic authority (Acts 20:28-32; 1 Pet. 5:1-4). 1 Timothy 4:1-3 warns about the rise of certain specified issues: “forbid-ding to marry, and commanding to abstain from meats.” That did not mean Paul was unconcerned about other matters, but the Ephesian elders were authorized to ask preachers questions such as:
1. Do you forbid to marry? 2. Do you command to abstain from meats? 3. Do those who forbid to marry depart from the faith? 4. Do those who command to abstain from meats depart from the faith? 5. Does preaching “Jesus Christ, and him crucified” include warning of the departures mentioned above?
Someone may disagree with our elders’ format, timing, wording, or some other judgment, but they are authorized to ask specific questions.
1 John 4:1-6 charged early saints to ascertain what preachers believed about certain false doctrines circulating at that time. Brethren were to “try the spirits” with this test: “Every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God: and every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God.” This investigation could include asking a man orally or in writing, “Do you teach that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh?” If he answered, “I teach only the Bible,” a proper response would have been, “What does the Bible say on this specific subject?” 1 John 4 commands all of us to test teachers; the eldership here chose to send out questions as one way to obey that command.
Paul dealt with a specific list of questions and issues which were current in Corinth (1 Cor., chapter noted):
1. too much confidence in preachers (1-4), 2. moral issues such as living in adultery (5), 3. going to law with brethren (6), 4. danger of fornication (6), 5. marriage questions (7), 6. meats offered to idols (8-10), 7. role of women (11), 8. Lord’s Supper (11), 9. disorder in worship by abuse of miraculous gifts (12-14), 10. doctrine of the resurrection (15), and 11. collection on the first day of the week (16).
Brethren were warned not to support teachers who taught different doctrines on any of these matters (1 Cor. 4:6, 17; 14:37;15:33-34;2Cor.6:11-18;11:13-15).Such passages authorize elders to question preachers on their stand on Bible issues at any time. When they ask, we are authorized to “always give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you” (1 Pet. 3:15). To ask and answer elders’ questions no more makes a human creed than to ask and answer questions during a debate (Acts 15:2,7; “dispute” definition).
The elders have discussed for years the need to be as careful as possible in our overall program of spreading the gospel and supporting preachers. The questions reflect many such discussions with the elders, although I did the writing, as they often have me do. Most questions relate to divorce and remarriage, such as those the elders asked Don Givens in 1985 (GOT, 7 May 1992). They have agonized over the growing trend for reputable men to waver (Don Givens, Homer Hailey, Lowell Williams, Jerry and Don Bassett, W.L. Wharton, Terry Sumerlin, etc.). PietJoubert has been supported for years because brethren did not ask questions (recent Paul Williams report, South Africa). The use of these questions was the decision of local elders in the work of a local church. A few other brethren have asked for a copy in wrestling with the same problems. Whether they use a similar format is their own decision. We leave local churches to do their own work. There is no brother-hood wide organization, questionnaire, or mechanism for reviewing the work of preachers on a brotherhood basis, just local churches making independent decisions. The bottom line is our elders do not intend to support men who spread dangerous error on divorce and remarriage, or any other form of digression.
Brother Turner, The Elders, and I Agree
Brother Turner, the elders, and I agree that the passages he cited teach that the whole counsel of God is the only standard of truth, excluding human creeds of every kind (2 Cor. 10:12-13; Acts 20:28-32;1 Pet. 3:15; 5:1-4;1 Jn. 4:6; 2 Jn. 9-11). The questions are preceded by the banner,
“What Saith The Scripture? (Romans 4:3),” with a request for information on “what you believe the Bible teaches on a number of matters. Our purpose is not to create a creed, because we recognize that the New Testament itself reveals the pattern of sound words, and we can neither add to it nor subtract from it.” The elders said the list is in no sense “final or exhaustive.” Only the Bible, not these questions, is the “authoritative doctrinal formula,” “standard of ministerial qualifications,” etc. (“creed” definitions cited by Turner). The Apostles’ Creed is so called because that is what it claims to be. Our questions are called nothing more than questions because that is all they claim to be. We fully endorse the quotations from Lard and Campbell upholding the Bible and rejecting human creeds.
Brother Turner, the elders, and I agree:
Did not Jesus, Peter, and other disciples reply to specific questions asked of them (Jn. 4:9; Acts 11:1-3; Matt. 16:13)? Yes, specific situations provoked appropriate questions, and were answered in the light of truth (Matt. 22:230.
The elders explained the specific situation which provoked appropriate questions: “Dangerous error and a spirit of compromise are spreading.” “Preachers whom we have all known and loved in the past have embraced or excused a number of strange doctrines (Heb. 13:9).” Brother Turner wonders why not question only those believed to be “in error.” That is a judgment call; the elders tried to be impartial, and men they thought to be sound are revealing very unsound views in recent years. Can he offer any advice on how elders can ask questions of preachers considered for support without being charged with creed-making?
Brother Turner, the elders, and I agree that 28 questions cannot identify those who fully “walk in the old paths.” The elders spoke in the context of the old paths on the subjects specified, then explicitly said the topics covered are “not…a creed,” not “final or exhaustive,” “because we recognize that the New Testament itself reveals the pattern of sound words, and we can neither add to it nor subtract from it.” As to “fellowship,” the elders refer to financial fellowship, meaning they will not support men “carried about with every wind of doctrine” (Phil. 4:15-16; Eph. 4:14; 2 Jn. 9-11). For instance, the elders will not support men to preach that saints and sinners have different marriage laws, that “abortion-on-demand” is “a matter of personal choice,” or that churches are apostate for providing “the Sunday night communion” (sample questions). Brother Turner will commend the elders for that determination and agree it is scriptural not creedal. The elders do not refuse to support anyone because of a variation in interpreting a question, lack of 100% agreement on every aspect of a subject, or a man’s preference of another format for stating his stand. All those variables occurred without anyone losing his support!
Paul warned of men who “depart from the faith” by teaching “fables and endless genealogies,” “science falselyso called,” “the resurrection is past already,” “forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from meats” (1-2 Tim.). He did not mean that those six issues alone are the sum total of the faith, nor that soundness on “the 6” (or “the 28”) is a sufficient “test for orthodoxy,” nor that the only way to depart is by embracing those six errors. “The 6” are “less than the whole truth,” but reflect elements of truth. It could be said, “Men who are drifting would resent and would refuse to answer these six simple questions, but men who uphold the truth are always glad to `give an answer’ speaking `as the oracles of God’ on any Bible subject (1 Pet. 3:15; 4:11).” If someone felt he had a valid reason for not answering, he could offer it. Just as early elders could have asked men about “the 6” without creating a human creed, so can elders today. Hopefully, brother Turner will agree.
The elders asked questions in an effort to avoid creedalism. To support preachers sound on the music issue but not on premillennialism, or sound on those matters but not on institutionalism, or sound on all those subjects but not on divorce and remarriage, is rank creedalism. We agree on that principle. The only question is how to learn where a man stands. The alternative to don’t-ask-don’t-tell and to creedalism is to ask direct Bible questions like our elders did. When to ask, by word or letter, and what to ask, are matters of judgment for each local church. We do not bind our judgment on others, nor wish them to bind a prohibition on us (Rom. 14:1-3). Either extreme is creedalism.
The real danger is not elders asking questions but brethren winking at the unmistakable signs of a new apostasy. Too many brethren are compromising with flagrant error on divorce and remarriage (Matt. 19:9), sectarian and liberal concepts (1 Tim. 4:1-3), unity in doctrinal diversity (2 Jn. 9-11), the positive mental attitude philosophy (2 Tim. 4:1-5), and rampant worldliness (Rom. 12:1-2). We all agree saints must question preachers about these serious dangers but disagree only on when and how. While differing on this one judgment, “we be brethren” in a common cause, not enemies at war with each other (Gen. 13:8; Phil. 1:27).
Guardian of Truth XXXVIII: 11, p. 18-19
June 2, 1994