By Mike Willis
This special issue on preaching is a call for brethren to return or adhere to, as the case may be, Bible preaching. The temptation to be “conformed to this world” (Rom. 12:2) is not limited to conformity in moral degeneration; there is also a temptation to allow this age’s view of preaching to shape our own, that we be conformed to the image of modern denominationalism in our preaching.
This temptation to depart from the “old paths” and change the content of the message of the gospel is not new. It has repeated itself in many different apostasies. The apostle Paul warned of departures from gospel preaching as he wrote to Timothy:
I charge thee therefore before God, and the Lord Jesus Christ, who shall judge the quick and the dead at his appearing and his kingdom; Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears; And they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables (2 Tim. 4:14).
In this article, I want to document the trends away from gospel preaching as they have occurred in other apostasies in the hope of identifying dangerous trends among us today.
When Moses Lard warned of the trends toward liberalism in his day, he opened his article with this pertinent observation:
The prudent man, who has the care of a family, watches well the first symptoms of disease. He does not wait till his wife is helpless, and his children prostrated. He has learned that early cures are easy cures, while the late ones often fail. On this experience he resolutely acts, and the world applauds his wisdom. Why should not the same judicious policy be acted upon in the weighty matters of religion?(1)
We hope to identify the roots of liberalism which gave birth to innovations in the past with the hope of making adjustments and corrections to avoid committing the same sinful departure from the word of God which has occurred on several occasions in the last 150 years.
The Christian Church Apostasy
The successes of early restoration history in America were thwarted by the divisions which the introduction of church supported missionary societies and instrumental music in worship caused. These led to division among the people of God, creating the Christian Churches and churches of Christ. As the apostasies developed, one of the noticeable changes was in the preaching. Lard warned, “Effeminate sentimentalism, and a diluted, licentious charity, are the carbonic gas of the kingdom of Christ. No soul of man can live in them or with them. The truth dies under their blight, while the church grows cadaverous and lean.”(2) He continued,
He is a poor observer of men and things who does not see slowly growing up among us a class of men who can no longer be satisfied with the ancient gospel and the ancient order of things. These men must have changes; and silently they are preparing the mind of the brotherhood to receive these changes. Be not deceived, brethren, the Devil is not sleeping. If you refuse to see the danger till ruin is upon you, then it will be too late. The wise seaman catches the first whiff of the distant storm, and adjusts his ship at once. Let us profit by his example.
Let us agree to commune with the sprinkled sects around us, and soon we shall come to recognize them as Christians. Let us agree to recognize them as Christians, and immersion, with its deep significance, is buried in the grave of our folly. Then in not one whit will we be better than others. Let us countenance political charlatans as preachers, and we at once become corrupt as the loathsome nest on which Beecher sets to hatch the things he calls Christians. Let us consent to introduce opinions in politics as tests of fellowship, and soon opinions in religion will become so. Then the door of heresy and schism will stand wide open, and the work of ruin will begin. Let us agree to admit organs, and soon the pious, the meek, the peace-loving, will abandon us, and our churches will become gay worldly things, literal Noah’s arks, full of clean and unclean beasts.(3)
He warned of dangerous attitudes in preachers: “The vanity to become a popular public speaker, to sway great audiences at will, and to be puffed in newspaper paragraphs as the distinguished so and so, is a dangerous vanity, which preachers may well afford to decline.”(4)
Earl West marked the same changes in the pulpit in his excellent work The Search for the Ancient Order. Surveying the Post-Bellum days (1865-1875), West wrote,
The demand for progress among some took on various characteristics. In some cases it threatened the basic conception of what constituted a New Testament Church. There was a definite trend to make the church another sect among sectarians; another denomination in denominationalism. There was also abundant evidence of a definite revolt against the past. Men who symbolized the previous generation were set for a stormy session. Progress also courted a more fashionable appeal to the rich by what many considered an extravagant expenditure for church buildings. The cry for progress also demanded a new position for the preacher and a different content to his message.(5)
The changes noted bv West included (a) The trend toward fashionable church buildings, (b) The trend in preaching, (c) The place of the preacher. Writing about the trend in preaching, West Observed:
The cry for progress also expressed itself in new trends for preaching. Indeed, this was the point where the drift now centered. Some brethren were becoming extremely intolerant toward the preaching of the “first principles.” Preachers stressing these were less popular than before. The cry for higher spirituality was everywhere heard. J.B. Briney, realizing a change had come over the content of the sermons, wrote the following:
There are some among us who seem to have imbibed quite an antipathy to first principles. They love to talk about a “higher spirituality,” a “deeper piety,” a “broader love,” etc. Were it not that these men make such lofty pretensions to a “higher spirituality,” you would be led to think that this is the very article they most need . . .
The man that is tired of the first principles of the doctrine of Christ is tired of the only thing that can convert men to God, and lift their souls in holy aspirations toward heaven. But when a man says he is tired of first principles, what does he mean? Does he mean he is tired of faith? No. He has much to say about faith. It is his theme on all occasions. Does he mean that he is tired of repentance? Certainly not. He is for repentance, theoretically, at least. What, then, is the substance of all this opposition to first principles and to the men who are devoted to them? Simply this: “I am tired of baptism for remission of sins.” This is what you get when you simmer all this talk about a “higher spirituality,” etc. down.
Men were heard to speak frequently of “legalism” and “the spirit of the New Testament.” Preachers were now preaching, not the “letter” of the New Testament, but the “spirit” of it, an attitude that (Isaac) Errett championed. . . .
A class of men yet remained, however, who preached the first principles, who insisted upon a “Thus saith the Lord” in their preaching. Against this class of men, the ugly title of “legalist” was continually hurled. Ben Franklin, Moses E. Lard, John W. McGarvey, David Lipscomb, and Tolbert Fanning were now classed as “legalists.” Some who laid claim to have progressed a little more had reached the point of denying completely that there was a law under Christ. . . .
Moses E. Lard, however, looked with pathetic humor upon these more progressive men. He wrote:
They are partial to the “pious” in other sects; yet they pounce unmercifully upon the faults of their own brethren. They appear doubtful that their brethren are right in anything . . .
These “progressive” men, Lard went on to say, were sweet and pious as long as a sectarian was their mark, but they were “ferocious as a hungry hippopotamus” when a brother was to be dispatched. In the pulpit their greatest delight appeared to be to preach so that no one knew what they believed. Their greatest desire was to let the world know they were out of sympathy with their brethren. These men, in their pursuit of a “higher spirituality,” had abandoned preaching on the gospel plan of salvation.
Ben Franklin admits that “progress” is a good word, but he expressed a fear that brethren misunderstood it. These who cried for “progress” showed an extreme dislike for a “Thus saith the Lord” and for a “It is written,” said Franklin.(6)
The change in preaching was also noticeable in the gospel papers. During this period, Benjamin Franklin’s American Christian Review was the most popular periodical circulated. Franklin was too conservative in his preaching for the progressives so a new paper to be edited by Isaac Errett was created. It was The Christian Standard. West characterized the two attitudes of the editors and papers saying, “The Standard, however, conceived its role to be that of ‘moving forward,’ adapting the church to changing environmental factors. Franklin resisted these changes, clinging to the older practices.”(7) Franklin was characterized as “perverse” and “stubborn”; he was regarded as a “pest upon the body ecclesiastic” and a “millstone around the neck of the reformation.”
J.S. Lamar, the biographer of Isaac Errett, wrote of the conflict between Errett and Franklin.
Elder Benjamin Franklin was by no means without gifts. Commonly, it is true, though not always, he wrote in a slapdashing sort of style, but his pen was trenchant, and he always called a spade a spade. He would have been the last man in the world to speak of it as an “agricultural implement.” His paper was the leading, and for a long time the only widely circulated weekly among the Disciples, and he wielded great influence.(8)
But Franklin manifested an “ungracious spirit,” became “intolerant” toward those who recognized Christians in other denominations, charging that they were “falling away,” “compromising the truth of the gospel,” and making a “bid for popularity.” Because of dissatisfaction with the Review, the Christian Standard was born. Lamar continued,
I would say nothing here derogatory of the editors of these papers. They represented and fostered that unfortunate type of discipleship to which allusion was made in a previous chapter – a type with which the leading minds among the brotherhood could have no sympathy. We may credit these writers with sincerity and honesty, but we can not read many of their productions without feeling that we are breathing an unwholesome religious atmosphere. They seem to infuse an unlovely and earth-born spirit, which they clothe, nevertheless, in the garb of the divine letter, and enforce with cold, legalistic and crushing power. The great truth for whose defense the Disciples are set, demanded a wiser, sweeter, better advocacy – an advocacy that should exhibit the apostolic spirit as well as the apostolic letter.(9)
The Christian Standard was born out of a desire “for a weekly religious paper of broader range, more generous spirit and a higher order of literary skill and taste than any that had yet appeared under their patronage.”(10)
W.T. Moore (1832-1926), one of the leading liberals among the Disciples, became concerned about the direction of preaching toward the latter part of his life. In 1918, he edited The New Living Pulpit of the Christian Church, to which he wrote an introduction lamenting the direction of preaching in the Christian Church. He cited these criticisms:
(2) The union sentiment which is so prevalent at this time is doing much to change the character of preaching. For some time preaching has ceased to be doctrinal in most of the pulpits. . . A spineless gospel will not save the world, though it should be proclaimed in the interest of so beautiful a cause as Christian union. . . Even a union that cannot bear the sunlight of truth would be worse than the present divisions.
(3) Economical and social questions are having their influence on the pulpit of the twentieth century. . . .
(5) Closely akin to the foregoing is the song service. This has already come to be a prominent feature in many churches. In these churches the music is of more importance than the preaching…. In many of our present day churches the organ and choir have the first place, and this makes it impossible for the preacher to do his best, being conscious that he is practically playing second fiddle to the “Stormy Petrel” that plays and sings for the church.
(6) The demand for short sermons is compelling preachers to reckon with the time limit to such an extent as to make it impossible for them to preach great sermons even where they are abundantly able …. At most the preacher is allowed a half hour for the delivery of the most vital message that mortals ever heard; and worse than all he knows he must not exceed this time limit, for how can he hold the attention of the audience when a mental dinner bell is ringing?
(7) Much of the preaching of the present time is sensational and lacks vision. Such preaching as that of Billy Sunday, etc., may be interesting to listen to but it does not feed the soul with the food that builds up the spiritual life. But the people cry for the sensational, they want something to make their ears tingle, and that they can taste on their tongue. . . . It is like drinking intoxicating beverages, the more one has the more one wants.
Not much of this kind of preaching has found hospitality among the Disciples. But in some churches the doors have been thrown wide open and it has been invited to come in, and in all such cases the churches have ceased to grow spiritually, though the audiences may have doubled, or even quadrupled. . . .
. . . In short, are not our churches in danger of changing the worship into an entertainment for the enjoyment of the senses, rather than the furnishing of food to feed hungry souls with the bread of life?(11)
W.T. Moore’s call for a change in the pulpit was ineffective in stopping the trends of liberalism. He was trying to stop the very liberalism which he had helped to create, to kill the Frankenstein monster of his own creation. Liberalism moved further than he wanted it to go but he was powerless to stop it.
We are in a position historically to judge where the trends led. The movement away from a “thus saith the Lord” led the Christian Church into the mainstream of Protestant denominationalism. The most liberal branch took control of the ecclesiastical institutions (missionary societies, orphan homes, colleges, etc.) and led the church into the ecumenical movement. A small group protested, resulting in a division that was formally crystallized in 1968 when the Independent Christian Churches refused to take part in restructuring the Christian Church into full-fledged denominational organization. The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) long ago abandoned belief in the inspiration of the Bible and have just recently had a controversy of no small proportions over whether or not to elect a president who approved appointing homosexuals as preachers. The Independent Christian Churches, still hold to the inspiration of the Scriptures, but are nevertheless involved in many unscriptural activities.
The Institutional Apostasy
In the history of the churches of Christ, the spirit of apostasy has also done its work. Many of our readers already can identify many similarities in that recent apostasy and the one faced a generation before in the division with the Christian Church.
Perceptive men saw the spirit of apostasy developing before the actual introduction of church support of colleges and orphan homes. Cled E. Wallace wrote about “The Right Kind of Preaching” saying,
Much is being said about the right kind of preaching and writing. Charges of “hard” and “soft” are being bandied back and forth. With as plain a book as the New Testament in hand and with its abundant supply of examples of the very best preaching and writing, it ought not to be difficult to determine the kind of both that should be done. . . . Men who say the most about “the right method of approach,” “constructive articles,” etc. betray the fact that a lot of their ideas come from modern psychology, materialistic philosophy, and sectarian sources, rather than from Jesus and the apostles. It is futile to do a lot of talking about the method of approach, when you never approach. It would improve some preachers and writers if they could forget about the method and go ahead and approach.(12)
In 1967, the Indianapolis area churches formed a sponsoring church arrangement to conduct a “Campaign For Christ.” They secured Pat Boone to lead the singing and Jimmy Allen to do the preaching, The Gospel Guardian put out a special issue in June to discuss “Campaigns For Christ.” Editor Yater Tant observed,
“Campaigns for Christ” is not an isolated or independent development. It grows right out of the post war (World War II) mania to get the Church of Christ “On the March.” It is part and parcel of an almost pathological desire on the part of some brethren to change the “image” of the Church of Christ from a small, rural, isolated, lower-middle class people to a powerful, successful, aggressive, sophisticated society which is rapidly forging to the front as the leading non-Catholic church of America! (118)
Indeed, the image of the church was changing and nowhere was it more noticeable than in the pulpits and bulletins of the churches.
Brethren noticed that the bulletins of the liberal churches contained nothing distinctive in their teaching. Most of the bulletins ceased to be a teaching mediums and began to be used to advertise the various social activities of the local church. When an occasional article did appear, the article contained nothing distinctive. Articles on the identifying marks of the New Testament church, water baptism (its subject, action, and purpose), conditions for salvation, possibility of apostasy, etc. no longer appeared. The articles in some church bulletins among us could appear in any Baptist and Methodist church bulletin.
The deterioration of the distinctive plea of the pulpit was also noticed by some of the less liberal liberals. On September 10, 1973, a meeting was called with the representatives of the Herald of Truth in Memphis, Tennessee. The liberal brethren were alarmed at the message they were not hearing on the Herald of Truth program. Attended by over 200 preachers, the critics “made it unmistakably clear, that aside from the doctrinal error under consideration, they and multitudes of others were disappointed by the largely nondistinctive type of preaching currently done on the program” (p. ii). Time and again the less liberal element among the liberals protested the non-doctrinal preaching, watering down of the restoration plea, and pentecostal preaching on the Herald of Truth.
The trend has continued to develop, almost unabated. Two groups have emerged among the liberals, just as distinct as the two groups among the Christian Churches. The more liberal minded are rapidly moving the liberal churches into the mainstream of Protestant denominationalism. They control most of the institutions (colleges, orphan homes, hospitals, etc.). A smaller group has formed in opposition to the more liberal trends of their brethren. This group consists of the writers for Firm Foundation, The Spiritual Sword, Contending For the Faith, and other smaller journals. J.A. McNutt wrote about “Gospel Preaching” as follows:
About 25 years ago, when Mission Magazine appeared, we began to be told that the older generation of preaching could not talk to the young, intellectual, sophisticated members of society. Doubts were expressed that the New Testament church could be restored. Eliminate the negative, accentuate the positive was the cry. Quit claiming we were the only Christians and just profess to be Christians only. Be less exclusive, listen to others, and learn from what they (the Baptists and the Catholics) offer.
Look at what this advice has gotten us in the last 25 years: (1) Loss of strong doctrinal preaching and efforts to take the gospel to a lost world. (2) Emphasis on social and economic problems. (3) Compromise with denominational bodies (which failed to move them but weakened us) and (4) Accommodation to worldly standards of conduct. Some churches have given up on gospel meetings. Where once the word was boldly proclaimed, we now have counseling sessions designed to build our self-esteem, while thousands die without ever hearing a gospel sermon.(13)
Contending For the Faith contains a steady diet of warnings against specific cases of apostasy with detailed documentation to leave no question about the liberal teachings being exposed.
These brethren cannot turn the tide of liberalism. They might as well try to move a mountain with a spoon. The very liberalism which they created and defended in the 1950s has grown into a mighty force which they could no more stop than W.T. Moore could the liberalism of his day.
The unity-in-diversity message of Leroy Garrett in Restoration Review is accepted among many liberal churches. There is a significant movement to extend fellowship to the Independent Christian Churches, the instrument of music no longer being a significant difference to some liberal brethren. Garrett’s series on “What Must The Church of Christ Do To Be Saved” is not falling on deaf ears. He calls on the churches of Christ to confess that we have been wrong in charging that others churches are denominations and we are not, in our position on instrumental music, in our restoration hermencutics, in being “male dominated,” etc.(14) This is the direction that the mainline liberal churches is headed.
Learning From the Past
Reminding ourselves of the early steps of apostasy in the past should alarm us to the incipient forms of liberalism among ourselves. We must not bury our heads in the sand and pretend that similar departures from gospel preaching cannot infiltrate us. I am convinced that they not only can but already have infiltrated us.
Sometimes what is not said is more important than what is said. We tend to notice the latter quicker than the former, but each can do its damage. There are some things which are not being said in our church bulletins. I have received some church bulletins for well over a decade and never seen anything distinctive in their pages. If this reflects what is also heard from the pulpit, these churches have not heard gospel preaching for years. These bulletins have quit printing articles on the identifying marks of the New Testament church, water baptism (its subject, action, and purpose), conditions for salvation, possibility of apostasy, immodest dress, dancing, smoking, gambling, social drinking, and such like (Gal. 5:19-21).
We have some rare churches among us! These churches are so strong that they can go a decade without preaching to their members about the sinfulness of denominationalism, faith only, possibility of apostasy, Calvinism, the identifying marks of the New Testament church, immodest dress, mixed swimming, social drinking, etc. The churches with whom I have worked have not been so strong. I have seen the need to preach on these subjects regularly, for the sake of the young Christians growing up there, reminding the older Christians, teaching the new converts, and warding off the influence of the denominational world about us which so affects our thinking.
We have preachers who are enamored with Charles Swindoll, James Dobson, Max Lucado, and other popular poppsychology preachers, but have little use for anything produced by their brethren. Roy Cogdill observed, “If a preacher does not feed his own soul on the word of God, he cannot be expected to impart such food unto others. A constant study of the truth is therefore essential. Preachers who preach on current events, book reviews, modern philosophy, etc. are simply distributing the kind of food they partake of themselves. Such preaching would create a famine of God’s word.”(15) We are seeing advertisements for “gospel” meetings featuring lessons on time management, managing one’s personal finances, tri-angular relationship, and other self-help, pop psychology themes.
The writing which is popular is patterned after the human interest pages of the daily newspapers. Again, what is said is generally true, but we should not equate human interest stories with gospel preaching and Bible teaching! Slipping in one Scripture in a human interest article does not make it Bible teaching. Bulletins and journals which specialize in this kind of writing rarely present an article which is distinctive; most articles appearing in such publications could appear in nearly any denominational bulletin or periodical in the country.
This special issue of Guardian of Truth is designed to awaken us to the trends that are occurring. It is a call for retrenching ourselves, immersing ourselves in the word of God, and sending forth a clarion sound in the message we preach. We hope that those in the pew will demand Bible preaching, driving from their pulpits anyone who dilutes and weakens that message by failing to preach the distinctive doctrines of the Bible.
Guardian of Truth XXXVI: 3, pp. 66, 94-98
February 6, 1992