By Steve Wolfgang
Some time ago I was approached by certain brethren affiliated with institutional churches, asking if I would explore possibilities (and make arrangements, if possible) for a meeting with institutional and non-institutional brethren (“antis” and “liberals,” – please pardon the “shorthand,” but precisely defining, describing, and explaining in detail all that is involved in these labels will unduly lengthen an already over-long article). Since that time, many have asked me”What do you hope or think will come from such a meeting?” Some have asked sincerely, wanting to know my opinion. Some have asked baitingly, thinly veiling an implication that I must be naive or stupid even to consider the possibility of meeting. In truth, I have asked myself the same question many times. Regardless of the motivation, I believe it is a relevant question which deserves a fair answer.
Before answering the question, let me provide some background information on how I became involved. During the fall of 1986, 1 received a call from Alan Cloyd, a member of the Vultee church in Nashville. I had known Alan for more than ten years, since his parents began visiting the Expressway church in Louisville, where I was then preaching. Alan’s parents, though members of the Christian Church, attended our services on several occasions. Though Alan had been raised in the “independent” Christian churches (North America Christian Convention) and attended their college in Cincinnati, he left that group in 1972 through the efforts of Marvin Bryant and Robert Shank, who were concentrating at that time on reaching and teaching denominational preachers – a work in which Alan joined and continues to the present.
Over the next decade, I had a number of conversations with Alan, both in Louisville and at various lectureships and elsewhere. Alan was prominently involved in the attempts (popularly styled the “Joplin Unity Forum”) to initiate discussions between the conservative Christian Churches whom he had left, and the non-instrumental (but “institutional”) churches of Christ with whom he now works. When Alan and others involved in these meetings decided they wanted to explore the possibility of doing something similar with “noninstitutional” brethren, Alan called me.
I must admit that I was skeptical, and responded somewhat negatively to the inquiry. Given the rather cavalier and supercilious treatment I and others have received from some institutional brethren in the past; and knowing that nothing much had changed as a result of a similar meeting in Arlington, Texas in 1968; and being further aware of the negative criticism generated by the Joplin-type meetings among some institutional brethren, my initial thinking was that nothing good could come of such meetings.
My feelings about the Joplin-type meeting, which I expressed to Alan, are that they have been and will continue to be more beneficial to the Christian Churches than to the institutional Churches of Christ. My personal opinion is that for every person who may be persuaded that instrumental music is wrong to the point that he will surrender it, there will be a dozen (maybe more) headed in the opposite direction. Over the next generation, I predict that there will be increasingly open cooperation between the two groups – without the Christian Churches surrendering their instruments and with many in the institutional churches willing to accept that practice, or simply to look the other way.
Thus, I was somewhat hesitant to entertain notions of similar discussions. I was not then and am not now interested in anything which would promote compromise or foment strife and disturbance among brethren. But I did not want to brush aside brusquely a polite inquiry which seemed only to ask, “Can we talk?” So I promised to discuss the matter with a few brethren whose judgment I respect or with whom I have had close relationships in the past, and get back in touch with- Alan.
After numerous telephone conversations with about a dozen such brethren, I proposed that Alan come to Tampa in late January and meet with some of the brethren with whom I had discussed his proposal. He came, we met privately in a motel conference room, and lively conversation ensued – but we parted on a hopeful note. Since that time, I have circulated a number of “memos” among several brethren, in addition to many more telephone conversations. As things progressed, I also began to “pick the brains” of brethren in various places where I happened to be in gospel meetings – with varied, but generally positive suggestions to carefully pursue arranging such a meeting.
What Might Come From A Meeting?
But, to the question: What might come of such a meeting? First, let me say that I am not naive enough to believe that any wholesale change of opinion will come – on either side of the questions that have divided churches since World War II. The Arlington Meeting certainly did not produce any such results (although it did produce, in my humble opinion, an excellent study tool – The Arlington Meeting book.) As Ed Harrell remarked in the aftermath of the Arlington Meeting, “Does anyone seriously believe that . . . the thousands of unscriptural promotions dreamed up will . . . suddenly, or slowly, begin to disappear? Of course not. No man could bring it off; not 20 or 50 or 200 men could bring it off. And not only could they not, they will not bring it about” (“Some Practical Observations on the Middle-of-the-Road,” Gospel Guardian, September 5, 1968, p. 275).
But allow me to mention some smaller-scale, positive (in my view) possible results of such a meeting:
1. Obviously, more study will be done, both by those attending the meeting and by those whose interest is kindled afterward, possibly by reading the book which may result. I am requesting that all those who plan to participate in the meeting read or re-read The Arlington Meeting Book, the Cogdill- Woods Debate, James Adams’ “The Church and Institutionalism,” and other relevant material which has likely been gathering dust on the shelf for fifteen or twenty years.
2. Also, more preaching will be done on these issues, if only by those preparing to attend. I don’t know how long it has been since you heard a good, clear lesson on the problems of church support of human institutions, sponsoring churches, etc., but I know I have done considerably more preaching on these issues since becoming involved in the preparation for meeting with those who differ on these questions.
3. As a result, I have been reminded that there is a whole new generation in supposedly “conservative” churches which has heard precious little (and consequently knows next to nothing) about why the congregations where they worship don’t support orphanages or why the preacher is so adamantly opposed to that awful fellow, “Harold Truth.” Hopefully, the proposed discussion with institutional brethren will stimulate fresh thinking and preaching, perhaps for the first time, among younger preachers and Christians. In this way, a kind of “creedal conservatism” which adheres to certain doctrines or behaviors without truly understanding why may be avoided.
4. In the same vein, I have been reminded that the same condition exists among institutional brethren, even preachers. In several private discussions with institutional preachers which I have held in conjunction with my recent meetings at various places, I have discovered that their “younger preachers” (under about age 40) are frank to admit that they know nothing of what the dreaded “antis” actually believe, teach, or practice. This is a significant factor in my thinking regarding these proposed discussions – to expose a whole new generation to scriptural teaching on the spiritual nature and work of the church – concepts which may be new and foreign to many of them. Again, I do not foresee a wholesale abandonment of social-gospel-type practices (indeed, such discussions may have the effect of driving them deeper into a defense of such things) – but I am not willing to prejudge an entire generation, either.
5. One consequence of such discussions may well be an encouragement for brethren to arrange local studies of these issues on a local level, as appropriate. Already, because the preacher at an institutional church in my own area is aware of these proposed discussions, he and some of the brethren where he preaches have shown a willingness to meet for discussion and Bible study. Several “study sessions” have already occurred. Again, I am not sanguine about the possibility of much changing, but I cannot in good conscience refuse to discuss the Scriptures with anyone who is willing to do so. And who knows what might come of such Bible study? The word of God is just as powerful as it ever was to convert those who are willing to hear its message.
6. Indeed, the possibility that the study and proclamation of truth may convert some from institutionalism provides much of the impetus for my involvement in these proposed discussions. One well-respected brother, a participant in the Arlington meeting, recently wrote me that he had received a “letter from an institutional ‘missionary’ stating that my work in the Arlington Meeting book helped change his mind about cooperation issues. Many others have written appreciation for the effort. The Arlington Meeting did do good.”
7. In the same vein, if a book of the speeches and exchanges in question-answer sessions could be published, representing the cream of mature thinking and the best defense of both positions, it would serve as yet another tool for Bible study and the exposition of scriptural teaching on the nature and work of the church.
8. Also, there is a kind of what Ed Harrell has called “lower good” – the understanding of the thinking of others who differ, which might result. As he stated two decades ago in a series of lectures designed to discuss differences between Churches of Christ, Christian Churches, and the Disciples of Christ, “The result will not be union … But it might be understanding. As an immortal soul, my deepest hope is the attainment of salvation through literal obedience to the word of God. As a mortal man, I believe the greatest achievement in life is the gaining of an understanding of one’s self and those who differ from you. I do not believe we shall ever reach accord in things spiritual, but if we could attain the lower good of understanding why, the insight would serve us well in our struggle in this life” (“Peculiar People: A Rationale for Modern Conservative Disciples,” in Disciples and the Church Universal.- The Reed Lectures for 1966, Disciples of Christ Historical Society, 1967, p. 44; reprinted as “I Am A Biblical Literalist,” Gospel Guardian, January 2, 1969, pp. 529ff).
9. I must keep reminding myself that, whether uninformed, misguided, or simply stubborn, these brethren who represent the institutional mentality are brothers for whom Christ died – “brothers in error,” no doubt – but still not to be given simply the back of the hand with contempt when such a proposal for study is made.
What Harm Might Come?
To be fair, there are some possible considerations on the “negative” side of such a proposal, and I wish to consider some of them briefly.
First, it should be made clear that this is not a “summit conference” or a convention of self-appointed “delegates” to some brotherhood conclave. Such a concept is false and should be rejected at the start, and it is something of which we all must continually remind ourselves so that our thinking may be as clear and undenominational as possible.
Second, I am quite sure that one result of such meetings is that aspersions will be cast at-me and perhaps At others who become involved in this venture. I am currently trying to complete the biography of Roy Cogdill, and among the papers he committed to my care is a file regarding the reactions of some “conservative” brethren to the Arlington Meeting, at which brother Cogdill was one of the speakers. All sorts of negative reflections upon brother Cogdill’s character, mental judgment, and commitment to Christ and his Cause are contained in those letters. Some were, I am sure, well-meaning, and others were, in my judgment, petty and just plain mean. I have been caused to reflect upon Luke 23:31 in this regard. If Roy Cogdill was accused of “going liberal” for speaking at Arlington, what will some of my brethren say about me? Time will tell.
Third, let me make plain that I realize there will probably be some who cannot, in all good conscience, participate in such a forum. If that is the case, that is fine with me, and no one should cast aspersions in their direction. I would hope that those who cannot conscientiously participate will show similar restraint toward those who do. Each one must find his own way here. Several of those with whom I have consulted about this proposal have asked not to be included in them. I respect and love these brethren and their decision not to participate will not affect my relationship with or respect for them. (On the other hand, there are some brethren who seem intent on condemning such an attempt to discuss issues without checking the facts first.) It ought to be obvious that just as no one is bound to attend or approve of these meetings, so any brother is free to attempt to arrange whatever kind or format of study session suits him best.
Fourth, some have criticized brother Cloyd for his participation in endeavors called “Restoration Leadership Ministry” and/or “Restoration Forums” or “Joplin Summits.” Likewise, I am not comfortable with such terminology and the mentality it betrays. But does one simply reject any overtures for Bible study from those who do not already agree with “us?” Are we doomed to preach only to the converted? Even if Brother Cloyd were openly affiliated with a missionary society or some official denominational agency, how can one turn down an invitation from one who says, “If you brethren have the truth, I want it” (and I personally accept Alan as sincere when he says that). In one sense, how could someone raised in the Christian church, coming into the fellowship of institutional churches only in 1972 (long after institutionalism had ceased being a topic of discussion), know anything different? Wouldn’t it be better to accept such an invitation and teach the truth to such individuals?
Finally, one thought which has haunted me is: what if some, particularly of the younger men from “conservative churches” who inherited this division (not having witnessed it or participated in it first-hand), hear and are swayed by the “siren song” of liberalism and are lost to that persuasion? In my more rational moments, I realize the answer is: “let them go, if those be their true sentiments.” Better for them to be swayed now, in their youth, than twenty years from now when their influence will have increased – and proportionately, their ability to lead others astray with them. Still, 1 do not wish to become party to the shipwreck of the faith on the part of any, young or old, preacher or any other Christian.
But the bottom line, for me is: Can a Christian reject a proposal, offered in good faith, for Bible study? Perhaps some may think the circumstances of this particular arrangement are not the best (and each one is entitled to his own opinion about that). But this is the first time in my preaching life that someone from the “other side” has reached out and said, “Can we meet together and consider our differences? ” I do not see how I could reject such an offer especially when I am told, “You pick the time, the place, the topics, the men you want to speak” and am given liberty to make requests regarding who speaks on “the other side,” subject only to the provisions that that those invited be “knowledgeable and men of good will.” Given such “carte blanche,” I fail to see on what grounds a Christian could reject such a proposal. Could you?
I will be happy to hear the criticisms (constructive or otherwise) or the suggestions anyone may care to make about the wisdom or advisability of such a venture – particularly would I appreciate any suggestions anyone may have on how it can be made the best study session possible on divisive issues.
Since this article was drafted, Alan Cloyd has voluntarily stepped back from the project (as he indicated he might from the outset) – not because of disinterest, but because of his feeling that he has become a “lightning rod” for adverse criticism among “institutional” brethren, due to his involvement in the “Joplin-type” meetings with Christian Church preachers. He has asked three others – Hardeman Nichols, Jimmy Wood, and Herman Alexander – to assemble a group of brethren who can best represent the viewpoints of various institutional brethren. If things go smoothly and plans materialize, a meeting in a hotel-type conference setting in Louisville or Nashville in early December, 1988 seems possible.
A brother has also since loaned me copies of two articles from a small journal to which I do not subscribe. The editor of that journal refers to me by name (and to several others who met in Tampa in January – including Melvin Curry, Clinton Hamilton, Robert Jackson, and Ferrell Jenkins) and makes a variety of uninformed and inflammatory comments, using terms like “plains of Ono,” “occasion to seek a basis for compromise,” and “embracing and toleration of error.
Since I am not interested in advertising such prejudicial rhetoric, I will not even name the source, but I wish to use this occasion to ask that brethren who feel the need to respond to this proposal do so responsibly. To suggest that a meeting this editor knows little or nothing about compromises the truth is an insult to the integrity and dedication of brethren Curry, Hamilton, Jackson, Jenkins and others whom I have asked to consult with me on this matter. But what is worse is the editor’s failure to contact any other participants other than Alan Cloyd – whom he professes to mistrust profoundly. Though the editor has known for months (since Alan Cloyd wrote him in July) who was involved in the Tampa discussion, not once did he bother to check with any of the other participants – Curry, Hamilton, Jackson, Jenkins, or this author – for firsthand knowledge about the particulars of the Tampa meeting.
Had he done so, instead of rushing into print with irresponsible allegations, he would have learned that nothing is “set” about these meetings – not the date; not the topics; not the participants (or the number thereof). While there was some discussion about the relative wisdom of inviting a limited number – such as was done at Arlington – my own idea is to issue a “whosoever will” invitation, once the topics and speakers are finalized. Not even the location is set. Even if one could speak for all of Louisville (as the editor implies he does), that is still beside the point since this is not being “sponsored” by any church or group of brethren (whether in Louisville or elsewhere) – it is purely an individual arrangement.
Lest anyone should wonder, Louisville was suggested simply because it is a central location, and if I am to be the one to handle the logistics of getting a hundred or more brethren together in an individual setting (a conference-type hotel, for example), I need to be relatively close to the location. I was unaware that I needed an editor’s permission to a meeting of individual Christians in Louisville – or elsewhere.
Nor was there any attempt to “exclude” individuals from the Tampa meeting; but there were some logistical problems
in getting a larger number of brethren together at the time brother Cloyd could be present. Alan had asked me to try to gather a number of brethren who might be interested in discussing the differences between institutional/noninstitutional positions, and I had to make some personal choices about whom to ask. Most of those invited had been participants in the Arlington Meeting. I had asked several other people to be present – including at least one preacher from Louisville – but many were unable to attend for various reasons (sickness, not being able to come to Tampa at that time, other activities, etc.).
Some may not like my choice of participants; that is their prerogative. I do not demand that everyone agree with the way I do things. But I do ask that before someone “writes me up” (and falsely implicates others in the process) that they extend the common courtesy of checking the facts before rushing into print.
I can certainly understand why brethren might have reservations about such a meeting. As this article indicates, I have some myself. But at the same time I have serious questions about some of the objections raised in some quarters. One brother, whom I esteem highly as a personal friend, wrote me that some brethren thought “someone was trying to sell the farm.” I’m not sure exactly what that means, nor would I know how to do that even if it were my intention. Does anyone know who’s got the deed? Again I ask: How can we preach about “unity” while rejecting overtures to meet with those who are divided from us?
It may be that such a discussion is ill-advised and will not occur. But if it does not materialize, it will be because responsible brethren deem it unwise, and not because of irresponsible editors or other writers who speak before they seek to learn the facts. I would welcome response from readers of this article about whether you think it wise to pursue such discussion – not to “compromise” or “tolerate error” – but simply to discuss issues which have divided brethren. If any responsible brother wishes further information, I will happily respond to brotherly inquiries.
Guardian of Truth XXXII: 1, pp. 14-15, 22-23
January 7, 1988