By Steve Wallace
We can often benefit by looking at our own actions in light of what others have done. This is especially true when two divergent courses of action can be contrasted and applied. With a view to possible present application, let us notice two different methods of dealing with the issue of church contributions to missionary societies which con-fronted brethren in the 1800s.
C.L. Loos versus Tolbert Fanning
Brother Loos was a believer in church support of missionary societies. Speaking of those opposed to them, he wrote:
…Those few who have been of late days persistently and noisily denouncing missionary associations, have, by the unsanctified bitterness and rudeness of their at-tacks, given full evidence of the causes of their opposition, a lack of knowledge, of an enlightened piety and a true spiritual culture. To attempt to teach such men is well-nigh useless, as it is almost hopeless (Millennial Harbinger, June, 1886, 274-275).
Throughout history, when a message has been found to one’s dislike, the tactic of “shooting” the message bearer has often been employed (Jer. 38:1-6; Matt. 12:24; 2 Cor. 10:10).
Contrast Tolbert Fanning’s actions during the same controversy as recorded by James R. Wilburn. In 1859, Fanning attended the national meeting of the American Christian Missionary Society and was given opportunity to speak. Wilburn writes,
While Tolbert Fanning continued to emphasize the church as the proper missionary society, he was also anxious that love and peace might continue to flourish. Before taking his seat he tenderly said, “But I am happy to say, that from what I have heard on this floor, we are one people.”
Fanning’s remarks were made with the hope of provoking a discussion. Consultation in Tennessee had brought unity among those who were previously divided.
Surely his friends here were capable of the same calm deliberation toward such peaceful fruit (The Hazard of the Die, 194-195).
Brother Fanning’s course of conduct in seeking to provoke discussion of differences as described above was in harmony with biblical cases where differences were dealt with (John 6-9; Acts 17:11-12; Paul’s letters to the Corinthians; Jude 3).
These two examples have some bearing on present controversies among brethren. Let us note the following, timely lessons that we can learn:
1. Brethren today who engage in impugning other brethren’s motives and putting the worst interpretation on efforts to teach or to combat error are involved in conduct with an unsavory history. Those who promoted error in the past (the missionary society) saw fit to employ such weapons. This led to their dividing from those who were walking in truth and uniting with others who were teaching and practicing error. In the current climate where doctrinal unity-in-diversity is being promoted this kind of conduct is especially dangerous as it can lead to toleration of any kind of error.
2. It is clearly good, right and honorable to seek discussion of issues that are troubling brethren. Brother Fanning’s efforts led to unity with those who were walking in truth and the manifestation of those who were not. As sad as division is, when brethren persist unrepentantly in error it is helpful that they be known for it (1 Cor. 11:19; 1 John 2:19). Brother Fanning had nothing to apologize for in trying to promote discussion between brethren with opposing views. Likewise, we are right to try to promote discussion with those who have taught or promoted the error troubling churches in our day such as divorce and remarriage, unity-in-diversity, centralization, etc. In contrast to this is our next point.
3. When brethren engage in the kind of conduct exemplified in brother Loos’ writing they are stifling Bible study between God’s people. We all know that good will not come by quarantining those who differ with us in order to stifle discussion and debate.
4. Our generation owes a debt of gratitude to men like Tolbert Fanning and other faithful men of his day. They were criticized and even slandered openly in what was one of the most popular brotherhood papers of their day. Yet, they were not influenced by what other brethren or the world thought. They stuck with the Bible and continued to teach the truths that both the lost and the saved needed to hear (1 Tim. 4:16). There must have been unpleasant times for them, but there is peace in walking with the Lord (Phil. 3:17; 4:9). Their work in teaching and defending the Gospel allowed the church in America to continue to our day (Acts 20:28-32; 2 Tim. 4:1-4).
We should soberly reflect upon these two examples from the 1800s. They provide a helpful backdrop for dealing with differences among brethren today. The fact that Fanning’s course would logically lead to unity in truth and Loos’ to unity in error should not be lost on our generation. May we all seek to conduct ourselves in a manner that would lead to the unity that our Lord has made possible through his word (John. 17:21-22; Eph. 4:1-3).
Guardian of Truth XLI: 9 p. 16-17
April May 1, 1997