Otey-Briney Debate

By Joshua Gurtler

Throughout the Bible as well as history the refusal of men to study and discuss God’s word has been an ever present problem. Because of cowardice, selfishness, a lack of love, or just plain hard-heartedness, men are apt to keep their thoughts to themselves or in tight circles rather than boldly bringing them into the light for a critical analysis and/or consideration. Recall the Jews refusing to discuss Christ’s question, “Was the baptism of Christ from heaven or men?” (Mark 11:27-33). Or the unwillingness of the Pharisees to listen when Nicodemus said, “Our law does not judge a man unless it first hears from him and knows what he is doing does it?” (John 7:50-53). What about the Jews who, rather than meeting Stephen’s argument, chose to stone him instead (Acts 7). While standing in judgment upon these, today some brethren ironically manifest the same close-minded attitudes thus putting shackles on the truth.

God repudiates such demeanor when Paul says, “Now I exhort you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all agree, and there be no divisions among you, but you be made complete in the same mind and in the same judgment” (1 Cor. 1:10) which can only come by such devotion as seen in the Berean brethren of Acts 17:10, 11. Based on these principles I commend to you the following discussion.

During the days of September 14-18, 1908 brothers W.W. Otey and J.B. Briney, at the meeting house of the Trinity Methodist church in Louisville, Kentucky, engaged in a series of discussions. The two questions discussed are seen in the following propositions.

(1) The use of instrumental music in connection with the songs sung by the church on the Lord’s day, when assembled for edification and communion, is opposed to New Testament teaching and sinful. W.W. Otey, affirms. J.B. Briney, denies.

(2) The use of such organizations as the Illinois Christian Missionary Society, the Foreign Christian Mission Society, etc., is authorized in the New Testament Scrip-tures and is acceptable to God. J.B. Briney, affirms. W.W. Otey, denies.

Instrumental Music in the Lord’s Church

After the “Christian church” and the “Disciples of Christ” gained much popularity after introducing the musical instrument into the worship of the church and dividing congregations coast to coast in the latter part of the 19th century, it behooved many faithful brethren to continue teaching, preaching, writing, and even debating the issue in the hopes of reaching one soul who “sins and unintentionally does any one of the things which the Lord God has commanded not to be done, and he becomes guilty” (Lev. 4:22). Such was the desire of brother W.W. Otey who taught faithfully on this subject and eventually led him to the engagement we are here considering.

Even though the first affirmative speech belonged to brother Otey, he let brother Briney do most of the affirming through a thirty-nine year old article Briney had written before accepting the instrument into the church. Briney here aptly affirmed that Christians were commanded only to sing (1 Cor. 15:15; Eph. 5:18, 19; Heb. 13:15). He went on to say, “I affirm that an instrumental accompaniment is an addition to the ordinance, and effects its character, and is therefore an infringement of the divine prerogative.” Brother Otey stood by these words and drew the following conclusions. (1) As music in the church, New Testament Christians are authorized only to sing, (2) anything additional is foreign to God’s word. “But in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men” (Matt. 15:9). (3) If the instrument is used as an expedient, then it is still sinful for it “wounds the conscience” of many brethren and drives the wedge of division in the Lord’s body (Rom. 14:15; 1 Cor. 8:12, 13).

Briney’s replies were, through the whole debate, unfortunately unconvincing and unscriptural and clearly contradictory on a number of occasions. At one point he was quoted as saying, “The New Testament is silent in regards to the use of the instrument in worship,” and then turns around and says, “the New Testament authorizes the use of instruments of music in the worship of God.” Which is it? Trying to justify an unscriptural practice often leaves one speaking out of both sides of his mouth.

Brother Briney was then corrected after trying to support his practice by Miriam’s use of instruments in O.T. worship (Exod. 15:20) and shown that the old law was taken away (Gal. 5:9-11; Col. 3:14-17; Rom. 7:1-6). His argumentation then took an unbelievable turn when Briney said that only the “ceremonial law has been taken away leaving us with the Psalms and prophets. Anything from them that is not forbidden in the New Testament is thus authorized.” We know, however, that in Matthew 17:1-5 at the site of the transfiguration, God told the disciples that Christ is who we are to follow today excluding both the Law of Moses and the prophets.

To the argument that instruments are used in heaven in the book of Revelation and so we are to do as well, Otey responded, “While I am in the temporal kingdom of my master here and serving Him here below, I try to be abundantly satisfied with the provisions He has made for me .. . when I enter the pearly gates . . . if He puts a harp in my hand there, I shall loyally and joyfully play it, but inasmuch as he has not put one in my hand here below in the church, I refuse to dishonor Him by playing one in the worship.” How pleased the Lord would be if we would simply settle for the provisions he has made for us here!

The last argument worthy of mentioning is when Briney said, “harmonious melody of the accompanying instruments, edifies me … it has a subduing effect upon me. You know, my friends, that music has a taming effect even upon wild animals. You can mange them better, it subdues them.” To that Otey confirmed that Briney had just proven his point, “my good friend has given me the very illustration which proves just that . . . the mere sound of an instrument does appeal to the `fleshly’ sense of hearing . . . but remember our worship is not `fleshly’ but `spiritual. And with this, the first half of the debate ended with the affirmative proven.

Missionary Societies

In the second half of the discussion, brother Briney was responsible for proving that the missionary societies are authorized in the N.T. Scriptures. (See proposition #2 at the beginning of this article.) As could be expected, Briney’s time was filled with less of a scriptural discussion and more of an appeal to emotions by arguing that the ends of such justifies the means used. At one point he erected a map on the stage and pointed out all of the congregations established by their society and asked how one could condemn so much good work being done. He demanded that brother Otey tell how much work he was doing without a missionary society. To such a pompous and “this-worldly” attitude Otey quoted Matthew 6:1-4, “Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them, otherwise you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven.”

The only three Scriptures Briney used to support his practice were passages he said were clear examples of missionary societies in the New Testament. First, Christ’s “limited commission” to the apostles in Matthew 10 was proposed to fill such. Otey shows it falling far short in the fact that they weren’t the church, they weren’t under the New Covenant, and they were later instructed differently after the kingdom was established. Secondly, Briney said that the appointing of the seven in Acts 6 was a society. Otey said that would be impossible because it was the work of only one individual autonomous church and not the work of one head controlling multiplicity of churches. Third, it was suggested that the work done by the brethren in Acts 13:1-5 was such. Otey again corrected brother Briney showing him that no organized group of churches had sent these men out to do the work of the Lord but rather the Holy Spirit (v. 2).

Whatever cases are recorded in the Bible, one fact is always crystal clear, never do we see one church or eldership, or organization overseeing, directing or dictating the work of another church or the use of their funds. Never!

Otey laid a foundation for the work of the church as taught in the New Testament. 1. There is only one religious body (Eph. 4:4-6) with one head (Col. 1:18). Proponents of missionary societies neither believe this nor do they practice it. 2. We need no addition to what God has given us (2 Pet. 1:3). 3. Otey indicated that many of the characteristics of the societies indicate a worldly origin and tendency (Col. 2:8, 9). 4. The only way we see the work of the Lord being supported in the New Testament is by individual churches making an autonomous, conscious decision to directly support faithful men in the preaching of the word (Phil. 4:15, 16).

An interesting thing occurred when, after brother Briney repudiated the teaching of delegate assemblies in societies, Otey showed that the Illinois Missionary Society uses such which left Briney denying the very society that he agreed to affirm.

I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in these subjects or in studying religious debates. Some of my other favorites include the Bates-Teller discussion on the existence of God, the Warner-Fuqua debate concerning whether or not non-Christians are amenable to the law of Christ, the Halbrook-Freeman debate on marriage, divorce, and remarriage, the Houchen-Tatum debate on four errors of the Baptist church, and the Cogdill-Turner discussion dealing with institutionalism.

I often have brethren tell me that debates are inappropriate and are even a sinful means of teaching the truth. It’s interesting that Christ didn’t know that when he de-bated with the Pharisees and scribes on many occasions, or Paul when he reasoned in the School of Tyranus or with the pagans on Mars Hill, or even when he with-stood Peter to the face because he “stood condemned” in Galatians 2.

It is true that there may be abuses of something that is right and legitimate in and of itself. Just because Peter abused his office of an apostle and elder ostracizing certain Gentile brethren doesn’t mean that such positions are sinful. In the twenty plus debates I have studied, yes there were inconsiderate attitudes at times, but in every case the truth was taught and I continue to learn valuable insights into the Scriptures with each succeeding one.

I would hope that all brethren would have the open-mindedness to discuss every issue as we are commanded, in our search for the truth. Proverbs 27:17 tells us that “iron sharpeneth iron,” but too often we end up leaving our swords in the sheaths of ignorance or proof texts rather than wielding them as commanded and testing them “to see if you are in the faith.”

It was once said that if triangles made God he would be three-sided, and such is true among many today. Whenever we refuse to study, discuss, and yes even de-bate God’s word on any given subject we become like the triangle, making God fit into our comfortable compact mold and resort to idolatry, lest we “see with our eyes, and hear with our ears” and are inconvenienced by the rigidness of truth. Let us therefore take a stand as our faithful examples of old did in order that we may be “ready to give a defense.”

Guardian of Truth XL: No. 23, p. 18-19
December 5, 1996