Personal Observations On The Nashville Meeting

By Mike Willis

On 1-3 December 1988, brethren met in Nashville, Tennessee to discuss issues which have divided us. Above 500 brethren were in attendance at most sessions, with the session on Friday night having over 700 present, according to estimates which I received. The audience was heavily weighted with non-institutional brethren outnumbering institutional brethren from 5-1 to 10-1 (the institutional speaker on Saturday morning said that he did not recognize anyone present). Steve Wolfgang and Calvin Warpula arranged the meeting.

Several speakers of the institutional persuasion made comments regarding their not having recently studied the issues under discussion. More than one speaker stated that he was born after the division and had never studied the issues; another said he had not considered the issue in 20-25 years. The lack of attendance by institutional brethren manifests lack of interest, just as the absence of the instrumental music brethren at the Joplin debate reflected their lack of interest in studying the question of the use of mechanical instruments of music in worship. A few might say, “We are interested in seeing this division healed,” but actions speak louder than words; absence from the discussion, refusal to announce the discussion, boycotting the discussion, etc. indicates that some brethren have no interest in seeing our division healed (at least not enough interest to meet to discuss our differences).

Some non-institutional brethren were hesitant to participate (though some who chose not to participate did attend) in the discussion for fear that this might be a “plains of Ono” compromise meeting. The institutional brethren made several comments about the nature of the meeting being different than they imagined; apparently some of them were expecting a meeting to emphasize what we had in common. To a man’ the institutional brethren made evident that unity could not be had without removing what divided us. As I prepared for my speech at the meeting, I resolved that no one would misunderstand me as wanting some kind of compromise for the sake of union; if I erred, it would be on the side of being too bold in calling for repentance than in being too timid, resulting in being understood as calling for peace at the expense of the truth. I do not think anyone went away from the meeting thinking the truth had been sold down the river.

There were several very obvious issues which divided the two groups of brethren with reference to which I would like to comment.

Bible Authority

Throughout the discussions on institutionalism, the sponsoring church, and church-sponsored recreation, noninstitutional brethren emphasized that Bible authority must be respected. That institutional brethren were moving away from Bible authority was conspicuous then and even more conspicuous today.

Reuel Lemmons called for re-thinking our position on Bible authority. He said that the idea of authority being established by command, example, and necessary is an 18th century manmade rule. He stated, that he rejected apostolic examples and necessary inferences as a means of establishing Bible authority. He related a discussion with a Christian Church preacher who challenged his thinking about necessary inference. Someone had stated that we learn that unleavened bread should be used on the Lord’s table by necessary inference and asked, “Would it be scriptural to have ham and gravy on the Lord’s supper?” The Christian Church preacher replied, “Why not? The Lord’s supper was joined to a ‘love’ feast. ” Lemmons cited this example in his denial that examples and necessary inferences are binding.

Richard Rogers also stated that examples are not binding. He said that we learn the Lord’s will by two ways: divine precept and divine principles. He stated that he had learned not to use the law of God to break godly men. He suggested that part of our problem was that we have spent too much time in Acts – Revelation and not enough time studying the gospels and learning about Jesus.

Bill Swetmon charged that seeking to establish Bible authority by command, example, and necessary inference led to hardline patternism. This patternism led to division. He suggested that the early church did not determine right and wrong by appealing to command, example, and necessary inference from a New Testament. For his evidence to prove this statement, he affirmed that the New Testament did not exist as a canon of text until the fourth century. Other statements were made which implied that “we do many things for which we have no authority.” “Some things are permitted which are not authorized.” Swetmon called for a “new hermeneutic.” His statements were so loose that brother Warpula took 5-10 minutes on Saturday morning to patch them up.

In addition to making such statements which undermine Bible authority, some of these men insisted that we all have the same respect for the Bible. Reuel Lemmons insisted, “Don’t accuse me of not respecting the truth. I resent that.”

While our institutional brethren were telling us that restoration patternism leads to division and were calling for brethren were very divided. Johnny Ramsey, Roy Lanier, and Stafford North were more nearly in agreement with noninstitutional brethren than with Bill Swetmon, Reuel Lemmons, Randy Mayeaux, and Richard Rogers. There was wide divergence in thinking among institutional brethren. On the other hand, I did not perceive one speaker expressing disagreement with another speaker (even with regard to the judgment of how to persent his material) among noninstitutional brethren. There existed the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace which our liberal brethren were saying could not be attained by those advocating patternism.

The emphasis on book, chapter, and verse preaching appears to be gone from our liberal brethren. Passages such as 2 John 9-11 were being reinterpreted to allow a broader fellowship. Indeed, the concept of Bible authority is an area for concern, standing in the way of unity between brethren.

Work of the Church

A second area of concern pertains to the work of the church. All were agreed that the church could be involved in the works of evangelism, edification and benevolence. All agreed that the church has an obligation to provide for public worship. Beyond this, however, agreement ended.

The institutional brethren were divided among themselves regarding the work of the church. Some seemed rather concerned about the “liberalism” of others pertaining to the work of the church and made statements indicating that the work of the church was not involvement in business, politics, and recreation. Others used the life of Jesus as a pattern of ministering to the outcasts of society, calling for ministering to the felt needs of men. So long as evangelism of the lost is the goal, churches could build medical missions, gymnasiums, kitchens, job placement centers, and day care facilities.

The recent article (November 1988) by F. Furman Kearley, editor of Gospel Advocate, was cited by several to show the institutional mindset regarding the mission of the church. He wrote,

The church may assist with child day care centers, Christian schools, Christian camps and other expedient means that provide an opportunity to save souls.

Institutional brethren’s involvement in works other than evangelism, edification, and benevolence was boldly defended by

Randy Mayeaux and others. Calvin Warpula stated that “binding the brokenhearted” involves the church in building day care centers, schools, unwed mothers homes, etc., but he assured us that this was not the social gospel. These works were not only authorized by the Scriptures, they were demanded by the pattern of Jesus’ ministry to social outcasts. Despite their denials, this is the social gospel.

Whatever will make the church grow is justified in the minds of liberal brethren. Lewis Hale compared buying an advertisement in a newspaper to buying Kentucky Fried Chicken to draw a crowd. One’s motive would determine whether or not one’s action pleased God, he affirmed.

Congregational Autonomy

Another concept which divided us as brethren centers around congregational autonomy. Reuel Lemmons charged that we have made a fetish out of the doctrine of congregational autonomy. Calvin Warpula cited Acts 9:31 as evidence of a religional collectivity of churches.

Beginning with the acceptance of the sponsoring church form of church organization, the institutional brethren have accepted mother churches overseeing mission works. Now the Boston movement has blossomed among them. Defenses are being made of one eldership over all of the churches in an area, pillar churches overseeing the work in sections of the nation, and other forms of centralization of organization. In this context, brother Lemmons affirms that we have erred in making a fetish of autonomy. The institutional brethren seem to be unsettled with regard to just how much centralization is acceptable.


Several broad appeals for fellowship were expressed throughout the session by institutional brethren. Indeed, brother Warpula made this a repeated point of emphasis in his remarks. “Anywhere God has a child, I have a brother.” We were encouraged to be tolerant of each other. Fellowship of doctrinal errors was justified on the basis that Paul called the Corinthians “brethren” even though they denied the resurrection. (1 Cor. 15:33 specifically called on the Corinthians to break fellowship with those who denied the resurrection.) Things learned from inference and deduction could not be made tests of fellowship, one affirmed. Some were obviously ready to extend the hands of fellowship to those in the Independent Christian Church fellowship.


These conclusions seem evident to me from this meeting: (a) There is no such thing as a little liberalism. The denial of Bible authority in one area leads to rejection of God’s word in other areas. (b) Liberal churches are rapidly moving into the mainstream of Protestant denominationalism. (c) Liberal churches are divided, with the middle road “new anti’s” taking shape.

The “new anti’s” are in a sad position. Men such as Johnny Ramsey, Roy Lanier, and Stafford North looked most inconsistent of all. They charged that church support of human institutions is sinful (these brethren believe that orphan homes must be placed under elderships), but they do not believe that this sin breaks one’s fellowship with God or brethren. I would like to make another appeal to these brethren to renounce all church support of human institutions, involvement of the church in works not authorized in the Bible, and join us in standing opposed to all forms of liberalism.

Finally, I would like to publicly express appreciation to Steve Wolfgang and Calvin Warpula for arranging the study session. I cannot doubt that good comes from such sessions and stand ready to participate again whenever the opportunity is presented. Truth has nothing to fear from rinvestisationl Wherein I do not have the truth, I want it. I stand willing to renounce anything I preach or practice which is not authorized of God and for that reason, I stand ready to hear my brethren tell me wherein I am wrong.

I am thankful that I was permitted to participate in this session. I am even more thankful for those preachers younger than me who got to witness first hand what liberalism has done to the church. What they saw win be remembered much longer than what someone might tell them is occurring. Many came away from the meeting committed anew to preaching only what is authorized of God.

Guardian of Truth XXXIII: 2, pp. 34, 53-54
January 19, 1989