By Norman E. Fultz
Truth Magazine is a religious journal now into its 42nd year of publication. It hardly seems possible that I have subscribed to it for all but the first of those years, and I have that year in a bound volume. From very early on when it began as Truth Magazine, I have also submitted a number of articles that have appeared in the paper. The paper has never sought to evade controversy when its editors thought a matter needed discussion. I have by no means agreed with all that has been printed, but it has afforded opportunity for many issues to be discussed in very forthright style. Brethren have often set forth opposing views on a number of topics. Several written debates have been carried in its pages, one as recently as the November 20 issue.
In the December 4, 1997 is- sue, a younger brother (been preaching about ten years) had an article entitled, “Quarreling Brethren: Discouragement to a Young Preacher.” I understand his perplexity as he has struggled to understand the many different articles and sermons that have been presented concerning the matter of fellowship, especially as it is affected by one’s comprehension of Romans 14. My thoughts here do not address an exposition nor an application of this passage. If all that has been written and said on the passage were compiled, it would surely be sufficient for several large volumes. My thoughts here are basically some reactions I had when I first read the article by the young brother.
To several of the thoughts he registered, I could borrow the modern, sometimes overworked phrase, “Been there; done that.” I can identify with the discouragement which controversy among brethren engenders in a young preacher.
When I first began preaching, I was absolutely amazed at the range of issues among brethren. Early on I became aware of a couple of issues. One questioned whether a school operated by brethren in which the Bible was taught as a part of its curriculum had a right to exist. Another was whether a congregation could have a “located preacher,” a man who worked with a single congregation on a regular, full-time basis in the teaching and preaching of the Word. While I was a college student, one of the chief proponents of the “no located preacher” and “no school operated by brethren in which the Bible is taught” position came to the campus. He stirred up no small controversy. Looking back on how the administration of the school handled the matter, I think they did not act wisely. When I then began preaching regularly, there was a congregation of that persuasion not far removed from us. For many years, I received and read journals published by brethren of that persuasion. I also read a published debate on those issues which was held right here in Kansas City. That debate book is still in my library.
Perhaps the issue with which I struggled hardest as a young preacher was one that was getting up a full head of steam about the time I began my first regular work in the boot heel of Missouri. Having only minimally become aware of it while in college, I soon found myself in a real struggle to try to understand what the arguments were all about. It had to do with principles of congregational cooperation, centralization of oversight, and the support of various human institutions to do the work of the church. My struggle with that issue lasted for a few years. I subscribed to and read journals published by brethren with differing views. I discussed it with fellow preachers. I went to hear “lectures” presented by various brethren. (Somewhere I still have a copy of some notes that I made on lessons presented by the late W. Curtis Porter in about 1955, I believe at Paragould, Ark.) I attended a public debate of the topics (several such debates in years following). In fact, it was during the debate that much of what I’d been reading “fell into place” and I began to see more clearly what the furor was all about.
There were other issues and questions which came up and were freely discussed, sometimes very heatedly and very pointedly. I can remember, as a young preacher, once thinking that if I was going to have to constantly be trying to wade through some issue over which brethren were disagreed that I just didn’t think I wanted to preach. However, I learned from the Bible that God’s people have always faced issues, some of them sharply contested and divisive. The prophets in the Old Testament periods had to stand again false prophets. In the New Testament era, there were questions about whether Gentile Christians had to keep the Law of Moses and be circumcised (Acts 15). Those who denied a resurrection (1 Cor. 15:12ff) and some who contended that the resurrection was already past had to be dealt with, for such teaching resulted in the overthrow of the faith of some (2 Tim. 2:17-18). And this is to mention only a few of the issues about which one reads as facing the early disciples.
This young preacher came to realize that there is no central agency or earthly headquarters charged with determining some kind of a creedal body of truth to which all must pay allegiance. Each person is responsible before God for his own study of inspired truth. As to issues that arise among brethren, somewhere along the way I decided that I’d do the best I could to study the word of God on the various questions that arise. Doing so I would eventually (It might take me longer than it takes some, and longer than they think it should take me.) arrive at a position with which I felt comfortable in my handling of the Word. My position might not be “the majority opinion,” but my ultimate judgment is not going to be by my brethren, but by him whom I am attempting to serve (cf. Acts 27:23; Rom. 1:9). And so while the young preacher in the GOT article, and others like him, could wish, as I did (and still do), that brethren could just “sit down face to face, heart to heart” and with “open Bibles” and “open hearts” through “open, honest, meaningful, and forthright discussion” arrive at a common understanding, I know that is not likely. In the meanwhile, as we grapple with the various issues and questions that arise among us, let each of us study while remembering that we have a great work to do affecting “precious souls and the growth of the Lord’s church.” Let us love truth above persons and principles above personalities. Let us be desirous of marching under no banner but that of truth, and let us owe allegiance to none but to him whom we confessed as Lord (Rom. 10:9-10). When brethren become embroiled in controversy, as some seem bound to do, let’s try to observe it from a sufficient distance as to maintain objectivity while remembering the great need to sound forth the word of the gospel to souls that are lost and dying in sin. Let those quarrel who feel that they must, but let us not allow their quarrelling to become a discouragement.
One other thing, the honest and forthright discussion of differences need not degenerate into quarrelling.