By Alan Highers
(This article is a response to Dick Blackford’s article “Reply to a Spiritual Sword editorial published in the October 21, 1993 issue of Guardian of Truth.)
I. A Personal Word
Before responding to Dick Blackford, I would like to offer some personal expressions. I have had a cordial relationship with several of those with whom I disagree, who are on the “other side” of the issues. A.C. Grider listed me in his autobiography as the “best debater” he ever met. He sent me a copy of his book and inscribed it: “To my good friend Alan Highers.” Franklin Puckett referred to me as the strongest debater he ever heard for “bur position” on the issues; his statement was conveyed to me by Roy Cogdill during the “Arlington Meeting.” I heard brother Cogdill preach on several occasions. He was an able preacher and always treated me with courtesy and consideration.
Prior to my first public debate, I went to the home of W. Curtis Porter and studied with him at length (approximately eight hours). On the day he died, he called for me to come to the hospital but I was out of town. I drove to Monette, Arkansas, to attend his funeral. I always wanted a book from his library as a keepsake, but this never materialized. H.E. Phillips has always treated me with kindness. For a number of years he and I would exchange rare debate tapes that we discovered. Tom O’Neal and I have been friends since college days. I have never been closely associated with James W. Adams, but in our contacts he has impressed me as a perfect gentleman. From time to time I hear from Yater Tant (I once met brother Tant’s mother); his letters are always interesting and filled with good humor. My relationship across the years with such men as Connie Adams, Eugene Britnell and Dick Blackford has been infrequent, but congenial.
Several attended the debate I had in 1988 at Neosho, Missouri, with Given Blakely of the Christian Church on the subject of instrumental music. Dick Blackford and his son were there, and I think also Harry Pickup, Jr., Hiram Hutto, Paul Keller, and possibly others. I appreciated their presence, and in the course of the debate I told Blakely (in response to a question he asked about divisions among us) that I had more in common with these brethren than I did with him! (See Highers-Blakely Debate, p. 117.) I mention these things merely to indicate that a spirit of congeniality can exist even in spite of basic differences.
II. The Spiritual Sword Editorial
In the October 1992 issue of The Spiritual Sword, I wrote an editorial regarding the dangers of theological liberalism. The article consisted of twenty-three paragraphs. In one of those paragraphs I included two sentences and one footnote pertaining to those with whom I disagree on the issues of church cooperation and benevolence. To date, there have been four full-length articles in two different publications reviewing my statements. These have been: “Joash: From Good Start to Tragic End” by Harry R. Osborne, Guardian of Truth, January 21, 1993; “Problems of Theological Liberalism,” by Earl E. Robertson, Gospel Truths, January 1993; “Facing Facts or Covering Tracks,” by Jack L. Holt, Gospel Truths, April 1993; and “Reply to a Spiritual Sword Editorial,” by Dick Blackford. Brother Blackford was kind enough to send me a copy of his article along with an invitation to write a response.
For the benefit of those who may not receive The Spiritual Sword, perhaps it would be helpful for me to give the background and quote the sentences which have provoked such a bountiful outpouring of replies. I pointed out that liberalism is a problem being faced now by all religious groups. I stated that its presence, even in the body of Christ, can be attributed to several factors: (1) the general tenor of the age in which we live, (2) the currents of contemporary religious thought, (3) the influence of denominational seminaries and theological schools, and (4) the presence of some among us who are seeking a “renewal” and “restructure” of the church. I then stated:
The problems of theological liberalism in our midst have not arisen because we support orphan homes or engage in church cooperation. The very suggestion that this is the cause (as found occasionally in the periodicals of our anti-cooperation brethren) manifests a myopic analysis and a failure to recognize that some of the most liberal thinkers among us came from the most conservative backgrounds, including some from their midst.
The footnote stated: “Edward Fudge, who denies eternal punishment in hell, came from the anti-cooperation movement. Leroy Garrett and Carl Ketcherside emanated from the anti-college, anti-located preacher faction.”
I believe that the point is legitimate. We are often labeled as “liberal” because of our position on “the issues,” yet I believe in verbal inspiration, the inerrancy of the scriptures, and the necessity of biblical authority. You may disagree with what I teach, but there is a difference in disagreeing over what the scriptures teach and in denying the inspiration and authority of the scriptures. If I disagree with a Baptist regarding the teaching of Acts 2:38, I may think he is in error but I do not call him a “liberal” if he believes the Bible is the inspired word of God. The contention that liberalism has resulted from our position on “the issues” is finger-pointing at its worst; it is wishful thinking on the part of those who make the charge because it allows them to say, “See, I told you so.” The fact of the matter is, however, that liberalism has permeated nearly every religious group in America for reasons which I have already cited, and it is counter-productive to any further discussion among us for this ridiculous charge to be continually repeated.
We believe the support of orphan homes is authorized by the Scriptures, and we defend it on that basis. I have done so in two public debates; one of these was published in book form and is now out of print; the other has been widely distributed on tapes. In neither of these discussions did I adopt a liberal attitude toward the scriptures, nor did I defend church support of orphan homes on the basis that scriptural authority is unnecessary. All may not agree that I established my case by the scriptures, but they cannot say that I disregarded the scriptures in my presentation. How does an attitude of respect for the authority of the Scriptures, even if one disagrees with the application, create theological liberalism and its ensuing problems? The charge simply is not true. The allegation does not make sense.
I pointed out in my editorial that all of us are susceptible in this day to the inroads of liberalism. Liberalism has crept into such conservative denominations as the Southern Baptists and the Missouri Synod Lutherans. I particularly mentioned that liberalism does not arise from the support of orphan homes or church cooperation, and I stated that the anti-cooperation brethren (more about the term later) have produced a few liberals of their own. Frankly, I did not call attention to this in a gloating spirit, but rather to illustrate that all of us suffer from this cancer in today’s religious climate. There is not necessarily a cause/effect relationship so that what we believe will lead inexorably to liberalism. There are outside forces at work today over which we have no control because liberalism is cropping up even among the most conservative religious groups.
Now, Dick Blackford understandably wants to make a distinction between the liberalism of Edward Fudge and the liberalism of someone like Rubel Shelly. He says that Fudge’s denial of eternal hell is totally unrelated to his prior opposition to support of orphan homes and church cooperation, but the liberalism of Shelly, for example, is related to our support of such works because we say, “We don’t have to have authority for everything we do.” Well, again, the analogy just will not hold. I have never said, “We don’t have to have authority for everything we do,” either in defense of cooperative and benevolent works or otherwise. In fact, I have probably criticized that idea as thoroughly as brother Blackford has. Furthermore, I was a member of the Getwell church in Memphis when Rubel preached there, and I can assure you that Rubel never took such a position. Thus, the suggestion that there is a “connection” between our position on “the issues,” and the theological liberalism characteristic of some, is utterly without foundation.
I could argue there is, in fact, a connection between the earlier views of Edward Fudge, Charles Holt, and others, and there present posture. I could argue that extremes beget extremes, and the pendulum simply swung from extreme right to extreme left. Some brethren believe this is what actually did occur. It seems more logical to me, however, to believe that both Fudge and Shelly were tainted and influenced by some of their professors in higher education rather than to suggest that either of them went “off’ in consequence of their earlier beliefs about “the issues,” whether one way or the other!
Most of what brother Blackford says in his article has no relevance to what I believe and teach. He goes on at length about those who believe “there is no pattern,” etc. I have never rejected the scriptures as “pattern authority.” Those who read The Spiritual Sword know that I and other writers have strongly maintained that the scriptures constitute a pattern for the church today. He is the man who at this point misrepresents and creates a “straw man.”
Reference is made to A.C. Pullias and his tract entitled “Where There Is No Pattern.” This small tract, published thirty years ago, is often mentioned by writers in papers such as the Guardian of Truth, but the only thing I see quoted is the title, not the body of the tract. Brother Blackford tells us, “No tract did more harm to the cause of Christ in leading the apostasy over institutionalism …” Why did he not quote from the tract to document this harmful teaching that helped to lead the church into apostasy? Apparently brother Blackford thinks the title of Pullias’ tract is, “There Is No Pattern,” but that is not what the tract says and it is a blatant misrepresentation to suggest such. Let us examine what this tract actually said. In the opening paragraph, it is stated: “Where there is a divine pattern in any particular area of work and worship, the loyal Christian will follow that pattern without variation.” Brother Pullias went on to say, “Certain principles must always be kept in mind in the glorious task of restoring New Testament Christianity. First, there is a realm of faith where the specific pattern has been given.
When God has spoken on any subject through the pages of the Bible, what he has said is definitely in the realm of faith” (emphasis added). Notice further: “When God has given a commandment and a plan, or method, for the execution of that commandment, then both the commandment and the plan of execution are matters of faith.” What, then, did brother Pullias mean when he used the expression, “where there is no pattern”? Hear him: “There are many examples of instances when God has given a definite commandment, and has not given instructions as to how this commandment shall be obeyed. In these cases, all things must be ‘done decently and in order,’ and in a manner consistent with what God has revealed in his
word.” In the concluding sentence of the tract, he said, “Rock-like firmness in the realm of faith, and the spirit of Abraham in the realm of judgment, are both essential to the successful restoration of New Testament Christianity.” Now, where did he ever say there is no pattern? In truth and fact, he said just the opposite! He utilized exactly the same principles that W. Curtis Porter set forth in his debate with J. Ervin Waters on classes and cups! One may not agree with Pullias’ application of the principle, but one cannot truthfully say that he denied a biblical pattern. I am shocked at the manner in which the title of this tract has been distorted to convey an impression that is wholly different to what the tract itself plainly teaches. It is little wonder that readers of certain journals have a perverted conception of what we actually teach. After all, they have been told that we believe “there is no pattern,” that “we don’t need scripture,” and that “we don’t have authority for everything we do.” (These statements are all enclosed in quotes in brother Blackford’s article. Pray tell, who is he quoting?) Further, to suggest that Pullias left the church (as Dick does) as a result of what he taught in his tract is truly preposterous. Those who know the history of the situation know this is not the case. This is just another example of supposition and reading into a situation what one wants to see.
Brother Blackford intimates that some of us have just discovered the pattern; that it has only been in the last four years that the subject has been preached; and that 25-30 years ago he and his associates were preaching the pattern while we were all preaching “Where There Is No Pattern.” My, my, “upon what meat doth this our Caesar feed, that he is grown so great?”
Take note of the following:
1. In The Spiritual Sword for October 1973 (I believe that was more than four years ago), Roy Deaver wrote an article entitled “The New Testament Is the Pattern.”
2. In the April 1975 issue of The Spiritual Sword, there appeared an article, “The New Testament Is the Pattern for Men Today,” by Alan Highers. This article was reprinted and included in Rightly Dividing the Word (the 4th annual Shenandoah Lectureship in San Antonio, Texas, 1990).
3. In the October 1970 issue, Andrew Connally wrote an article on the subject: “We Must Have Bible Authority.” He stated, “Everything believed and practiced in religion must have authority.” This is the very opposite of what brother Blackford alleges against us in his article.
4. The Spiritual Sword for July 1973 contained an article by James D. Bales entitled “The People Without the Pattern?” in which he refuted the idea that there is no pattern for the New Testament church. He stated, “The very concept of covenant involves the fact of a pattern, or blueprint …”
5. In the 1970 Freed-Hardeman lectureship, Gus Nichols said, “In the New Testament we have divine authority for everything that we are to do in religion.” This contradicts brother Blackford’s allegation that we say no authority is needed.
6. Hugo McCord wrote in the Gospel Advocate in 1963, “According to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glory, even from eternity, God laid out a plan, a blueprint, for man’s good that would be as fixed and unchangeable as God himself.”
7. Roy Deaver, in the 1977 Freed-Hardeman lectureship, argued: “The scriptures teach that in Christian work and worship we must do only that which is authorized by the word of God.” Again, this statement is in direct opposition to the charges and allegations which brother Blackford and others have made against us. They may think that we act without Bible authority, or that we have failed to establish Bible authority for our practice, but they are wrong when they flatly assert that we do not believe in Bible authority or the divine pattern! Where is a sense of journalistic ethics? I ask you to read brother Blackford’s article carefully and to compare what we actually believe and teach with what he says we believe and teach! Are these sources I have cited not equally as available to our critics as they are to us? Is there no a journalistic obligation to ascertain what we actually teach and to represent us truthfully, accurately, and fairly?
Some may have taught that we do not need authority for what we do, but that has never been generally characteristic of us, and it is dishonest to repeat these charges over and over again.
Brother Blackford refers to my debate with Blakely on instrumental music, and says, “Brother Highers had to affirm a pattern in worship.” Had to affirm a pattern in worship? He further states: “Brother Highers and his associates have not been willing to accept the consequences of the `no pattern’ doctrine.” Certainly not; we do not believe it! The articles and citations which I have listed above all show that to be the case. We believe that whatsoever we do in word or deed, i.e., in teaching or in practice, must be “in the name” or by the authority of the Lord (Col. 3:17). That is not a position I just discovered last week; it is a conviction which I have held and proclaimed for all of my adult life. Brother Blackford lives in a dream work, not a world of reality, when he charges us with teaching otherwise; yet, judging by the frequent repetition of this misrepresentation by so many such writers, I am led to wonder if they are merely reading and quoting from each other. Certainly, they have not researched what some of us have written in order to represent us accurately.
We do not agree with brother Blackford as to what the pattern is in the work of the church, but that does not mean that we reject the New Testament as a pattern. Our difference is over what the scriptures teach, not whether the scriptures are authoritative!
III. The Use of Descriptive Terms
Brother Blackford, in his article, expresses his displeasure because “brother Highers referred to us twice by the prejudicial term, `anti-cooperation brethren.’ It seems to me that Jesus said something about “Why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?” (Matt. 7:3) And Paul once inquired, “Thou therefore which teachest another, teachest thou not thyself’?” (Rom. 2:21) Brother Blackford does not seem to be acquainted with these passages. It takes a strange and twisted form of logic to callus by pejorative terms such as “liberal,” “liberal brethren,” “more liberal than he is,” etc., and then to complain about what he is called! In his first paragraph he stated, “My use of the terms `liberal’ and `conservative’ apply to the institutional issues among brethren.” That statement is somehow supposed to cleanse and sanctify the use of the objectionable appellations! The word, liberal, has a meaning; it is not a particularly pleasant word to any conservative group of believers. Yet, brother Blackford and many of those associated with him persist in applying that expression to those of us with whom they disagree, and most of the time they do not even use the “cleansing and sanctifying” explanation in the process! The term is prejudicial, plainly and simply, without question and without doubt. No amount of “disclaimers” and “explanations” can make it otherwise. Further, all of us know, if we have studied at all, that it is a term usually applied to those who no longer believe in the inspiration or the authority of the scriptures. You may disagree with my understanding of the scriptures, but you cannot read what I have written and listen to what I have spoken and rightly call me a “liberal.” It is not only prejudicial, but it is also an obvious misrepresentation because it uses the word in a way and manner that is contrary to its accepted definition.
Brother Blackford’s “explanation,” of course, is no explanation at all. In fact, it is very much akin to the explanation that Baptist debater Bob L. Ross gives for calling us “Campbellites.” He says he does not do it in an “offensive” way, but only to describe a “system of belief’ such as Calvinist, Lutheran, and the like. We know, however, that “Campbellite” has a long history as a derogatory term, and it takes more than neat little distinctions to overcome the fact that it arouses prejudice, ill will, and preconceived notions. So it is with the word “liberal,” as used with reference to those of us who unreservedly believe in the verbally inspired and authoritative word of God.
As for the expression “anti-cooperation brethren,” I chose it because I believed it to be the most descriptive and least offensive term by which I could briefly describe those whom I had in mind in my editorial statement. I recognize the difficulty in finding descriptive terms by which we can identify each other. It is regrettable that such is necessary at all. “Liberal” is a word known throughout all of the religious world, however, and it is used in a particular and restricted sense. It is unconscionable to assign a wholly new and different definition to that word (perhaps known only to the writer and his regular readers) and to apply it to individuals to whom the word does not, and could not apply in its general, ordinary, and accepted meaning. “Anti,” on the other hand, is a word meaning “against,” and it does not of itself necessarily carry prejudicial implications. No one in the pro-life movement, to my knowledge, objects to being called “anti-abortion.” No one is the peace movement thinks it is prejudicial to be called “anti-war.” I have never taken offense when Christian church preachers have called me “anti-instrument.”
But it is objected that the error is in saying that one is “anti-cooperation.” Brother Blackford goes on at length about this. He says that he is only against a certain kind of cooperation. But some consideration must be given to context. When we say that someone is “anti-cooperation” in the context of discussing “brotherhood issues,” it is clear that we are identifying one who is opposed to the type of cooperation which has been under discussion for the past forty years. Such an understanding is inherent in the circumstances. I know that some will try to parallel this to their use of the “liberal” label, but for the reasons already stated I do not believe they are the same. For my part, I would be glad to use some other descriptive expression if (1) it fairly conveys the meaning, (2) does not require extensive explanation, (3) and can be used without offense. At the same time I think brother Blackford and others ought to give some thought to the manner in which they have utilized the “liberal” epithet.
There has to be a better way to disagree than we have found thus far. When this controversy first began, I can remember that brethren who disagreed continued to conduct meetings where they had gone before. Roy Cogdill and Homer Hailey went to any number of places that practiced the type of cooperation and benevolence which they opposed. Roy Foutz was a Mend of my father and held meetings where we lived. In time, however, controversy arose over whether these and other brethren could preach in meetings without mentioning their views. Ultimately, the preachers felt they had to express their convictions, and congregations decided they did not want men in meetings who opposed the work they were endeavoring to do. As time passed, the gap between brethren widened. Today, as all know, there is little communication between us. Yet, we are in agreement on some very fundamental matters. We believe in the verbal inspiration of the scriptures, we teach the same plan of salvation, we are all seeking to convert those who are outside of Christ, and we all oppose certain movements which have arisen both from within and from without. It is a pity that we are unable to work together, yet I confess at the present time I do not see a way. We are practicing that which we believe the scriptures authorize, and you feel that what we are doing is out of harmony with the scriptures and that we cannot be in fellow-ship.
In closing, I would ask brother Blackford and others to consider his own advice. He says, “The gap between conservative and liberal brethren will not be bridged until we accept the fact that there is pattern for the work and organization of the church and until we correctly represent (without prejudicial terms) those with whom we disagree.” I have shown that (1) we believe the New Testament is the pattern, (2) we have been misrepresented by statements to the contrary, and (3) we have been unfairly and prejudicially labeled as “liberals” when such is not and never has been the case.
Guardian of Truth XXXVII: No 21, p. 16-19
November 4, 1993