Review of the Harrell-Willis Exchange

By Tom M. Roberts

One of the most unique religious exchanges between brethren occurred during the lectures at Florida College, February 5, 1991. The participants were Ed Harrell and Mike Willis, introduced by then-president Bob Owen, as they discussed Marriage, Divorce and Fellowship. Though not a part of the regular lectures, the feature was arranged by the college due to the heightened interest among brethren upon the publication of Homer Hailey’s book: The Divorced and Remarried Who Would Come to the Lord. The single session was arranged so that each speaker had one thirty-minute speech, a ten minute response, a period of questions from the audience (moderated by Clinton Hamilton), concluding with a short summation by both participants. The open forum has proven to be, historically, one of the highlights of the lecture week and this year was no exception.

The uniqueness of this particular discussion lay not in the fact that a controversial subject was brought before the audience. Indeed, open forums seem to imply contradictory positions. But this session was outstanding in that the disputants both disavowed the position that Hailey advocates while disagreeing on the limit of fellowship brethren should have with Hailey. This writer was struck with how nearly bizarre a situation was created in which two brethren agree so entirely about a teaching that both regard as destructive to society at large and to the Lord’s church in particular, yet in which one brother felt so compelled to defend his continued fellowship with the chief advocate of the error in question. The broader application of this thorny problem is that of limiting fellowship with anyone who teaches false doctrine that might cause brethren to lose their souls. The approach each participant made in attempting to answer this was his own as each represented only himself: not the college, any congregation or “the brotherhood.”

It was felt by the editor of Guardian of Truth that sufficient time has passed since the time of the lectures (Feb., 1991), so that a more dispassionate approach to this subject can now be made than earlier. Certainly it is a time for deliberate and not rash consideration of a volatile issue that carries the potential of alienation of brethren.

While not eager to review this exchange, I was in the audience and heard what was said. I have both printed copies of the material and tapes of the speeches, having covered the material many times. I do not claim to be neutral. I believe brother Harrell to be woefully wrong in his position and practice and will say so in this review. In my opinion, he is unduly influenced by feelings of loyalty to a friend. But I will try to be fair and just in my remarks, believing that Ed will know that I am sincere and free of animosity. I believe he knows that I bear him no ill will whatsoever; on the contrary, one can only admire the candor and frankness with which he speaks. This is a serious matter and feelings run deep, but so does our desire to communicate and understand what each one is saying.

It is well-nigh impossible to separate the defense Ed makes of his position from the defense he makes of brother Hailey. He takes severe umbrage at what he sees as personal attacks on an esteemed friend and, while defending brother Hailey’s honesty and integrity, weaves honesty and integrity into the very definition of fellowship with those who teach error. Those “personal attacks” became “the trigger for this present larger discussion.” He labeled those attacks as “mindless creedalism that crushes free discussion and intimidates brethren,” “a reign of terror,” and attempts by critics to “coerce into conformity by personal threats.” Yet this personal defense of Hailey as a “comrade” of long standing did more to inject Homer Hailey as a personality into the discussion than did those who object to the doctrine which he teaches. Universal attestations by critics of Hailey’s doctrine of their love and esteem of Hailey himself were viewed by brother Harrell as “fawning praise” and “slobbering compliments.” This assessment of the honesty of brethren (which was pointedly rejected by Connie Adams in the following day’s open forum), will figure prominently later in noting the arguments Ed advances on behalf of fellowship with those who teach doctrines which will condemn one’s soul.

Basically, two views of fellowship were espoused. Beginning at the question of fellowship toward brethren such as Homer Hailey, the broader question encompasses fellowship with anyone who teaches doctrines that might cause souls to be lost. Mike Willis urged a limitation of fellowship; Ed Harrell proposed continued fellowship.

Mike Willis affirmed a Bible basis for fellowship established upon (1) a total and understandable revelation of all truth in the Scriptures, (2) the revelation of the specific will of Christ regarding marriage and divorce (Matt. 19:9; et al) which calls for (3) fellowship within that revelation and rejection of those who go beyond it. Clearly, Willis associated his position with that of the apostle Paul in that men should “speak the same thing and be of the same judgment (1 Cor. 1:10). ” His plea was that “early restorers sought to achieve unity of all Christians by a restoration of the primitive gospel.” His approach was that which most in the audience, rightly or wrongly, had advocated through the years as being the heart and soul of the restoration concept. Brother Willis quoted from Thomas Campbell’s “Declaration and Address,” N.B. Hardeman’s Tabernacle Sermons, and M.C. Kurfees, among others, to identify what he was teaching with that position held by brethren through the years. Division among brethren, on the other hand, splintered the restoration when some began to teach “unrevealed opinions” regarding mechanical instruments of music in worship and church support of institutions. Brother Willis labeled Homer Hailey’s position on marriage, divorce and remarriage as an “unrevealed opinion” which divides brethren. As noted, Ed- Harrell would agree that brother Hailey’s position is an “unrevealed opinion,” but would insist on maintaining fellowship with him even as he teaches it. By contrast, brother Willis sought to prove that a call for fellowship with those who teach “unrevealed opinions” is a call for union and not unity; a step toward the denominational “unity-in-diversity”; an abandonment of the restoration plea.

Romans 14 was widely used by both brethren in their discussions. Mike Willis applied it to matters of individual judgment or opinion (“matters of authorized liberties” such as meats and days, the context of Romans 14). In careful consideration, he noted that one brother is “weak in the faith” (“lacking in knowledge” quoting Bryan Vinson’s Paul’s Letter to the Saints at Rome, p. 260) and another 6 1 strong,” but neither is sinful. It is equally right to do either action; it is sinful to condemn one another; both do what they do “as unto the Lord”; both are clean; their actions are good. In such areas of judgment, God receives both brethren and brethren are to continue fellowship with each other. Pressing this point with telling force, Willis asked, “Does adultery fall into the category of things discussed in Romans 14?” “Is the man who commits adultery ‘weak in faith’ or sinful?” “Is it equally right to commit or not commit adultery?” “Can one commit adultery ‘to the Lord’?” “Is adultery ‘clean’?” etc. These penetrating questions drove to the heart of the issue and to the proper use of Romans 14.

Noting that brother Harrell improperly uses Romans 14 in argumentation, Willis referred to Ed’s series on “The Bounds of Christian Unity” as advocating “unity-indiversity” on matters of “the faith” “tolerates contradictory teachings and practices on important moral and doctrinal questions’ (Ed Harrell, Christianity Magazine, May, 1990).”

That which seems to lift the issue clearly above a consideration of Homer Hailey’s position only is hereby addressed: If Romans 14 permits fellowship with brethren who advocate “contradictory teachings and practices on important moral and doctrinal questions,” how and where does one draw the line of fellowship? Our institutional brethren are asking, “If you can have fellowship with Homer Hailey, why can’t you have fellowship with us?” Mike also asked if Romans 14 thus applied to the deity of Christ, water baptism and homosexuality. Why does Romans 14 cover the preaching of error on divorce and not on these other “important moral and doctrinal questions?” Beyond a doubt, these are questions that are to the point and which, in my judgment, brother Harrell did not and cannot answer. Further, there are very practical considerations which come to mind and must be addressed. Is one only to allow brother Hailey to teach this doctrine or should we receive into our fellowship those who would practice what he preaches? Are we to allow aliens the right to keep mates of adulterous relationships but restrict children of God from keeping mates of adulterous relationships? What happens when children of God intermarry with aliens and we have a mixedadulterous relationship? This approach to fellowship with those who teach sinful doctrines about divorce and remarriage would open a snake’s nest of problems which none can foresee or unravel. Brother Harrell is, in my view, opening the door to larger and knottier problems than his defense of brother Hailey’s right to continued fellowship and use by faithful brethren. Brother Willis, while urging an absence of “intolerance and rash action,” rightly called for a return to preaching a revealed gospel while we avoid unrevealed theories which divide brethren.

Review of Harrell’s Material

Brother Harrell rejected Mike Willis’ explanation of the Bible basis for fellowship out of hand as a “simple assertion” with no basis in fact, stating that Mike “refuses to address that question.” Referring to the first eight articles of his Christianity Magazine series, he claimed to have addressed that question himself, professing fellowship to be limited by: (1) a climate of dissension, (2) clear and intolerable immorality, (3) where no good conscience preval s and (4) judgment calls as to the clarity of NT instruction and the honest intent of brethren. He stated he (Ed) has “tried to outline how I decide (how to distinguish faith and opinion, tr); brother Willis has informed us what the decision is.” He accused Mike of making a “sectarian creedal statement” by affirming that certain issues (pacifism, the covering question) fall into the category of Romans 14 and others do not (divorce, etc.) without detailing “how” the issues are different. On the other hand, brother Harrell proposed a new hermeneutic on fellowship based upon at least three principles.

First, he suggested a different exegesis of Romans 14. He denied that it applies to matters of no consequence to God, to matters of personal judgment, in spite of the context, and concluded that matters of “the faith” were included. Ed would thus apply Romans 14 to matters of moral and doctrinal importance (without himself stating why this does not violate the context or without stating why this application would not include institutional brethren, homosexuals, etc., as well). Nothing in the four principles from the Christianity articles nor this first hermeneutic principle provides substance to the claim that Ed has provided an answer to the “how” brethren are to make a distinction between faith and opinion.

Secondly, Ed proposed that each Christian and local church make a determination of the “honest intent” of those who teach other views of morals and doctrines (but not fellowshipping those who “flaunt” truth). This determination of “honest intent, ” however, must not hinge on the subject matter being taught. It is rather a heart judgment based on the observed life of the person who teaches otherwise. Hailey’s honest intent would make what Hailey teaches of no consequence to fellowship. Any brother’s honest intent would make his contrary view of no consequence to fellowship. Theoretically, an honest brother could never hold a false position! Ed’s “how” he would fellowship brother Hailey (and others who teach contrary doctrines on divorce, etc.) is a highly subjective determination that the teacher is honestly intent on teaching the truth. I would like to hear why this is any different from the denominational plea that “any belief is right if you honestly believe it.” Denominational people claim honest intent; churches of Christ have not cornered the market on that. As Mike reminded Ed: Oral Roberts claims to be honest. Ed Harrell is on record that he believes Oral to be honest. Is Ed ready for fellowship with Oral Roberts? This hermeneutic seems to force Christians to read hearts (a subjective process), rather than judge doctrine (an objective process). Just a thought: If we can determine hearts of those who teach contrary doctrine, why can’t we judge hearts of those who agree with us and get rid of dishonest brethren who teach the same doctrines we do? This might be as beneficial as reading the hearts of those who disagree with us!

Thirdly, brother Harrell proposed that contrary views of Scripture, if honestly held, should not limit fellowship since all biblical teaching is not of equal clarity.” In other words, teaching a contrary doctrine does not make it false and one cannot be labeled a false teacher on the basis of teaching alone. While certainly agreeing that the book of Acts is not as difficult to study as the book of Romans we must still press the point that perception does not determine whether or not a matter is truth. Truth is objective, not subject to my permission, approval or agreement. The fact that something may not be clear to me does not alter its binding force nor suggest that we may have fellowship simply because we disagree or fail to understand it alike. Does a lack of understanding on one thing suggest that we cannot be sure about any doctrine? The question is: “Is Scripture clear on anything?” How does Ed Harrell determine what Scriptures are clear and which are unclear? That they may be clear to him does nothing to establish an article of revealed truth. He may be clearly wrong. Which is faith and which is opinion? If Mike is guilty as charged by Ed in that he does not give a “how,” in determining between faith and opinion, so also is Ed guilty. Further, does this lack of clarity apply only to divorce or is baptism, worship, institutionalism, etc. included? Why is it that only divorce is so unclear that we should not limit fellowship on it? Should we be able to plead toward God for fellowship with him on the basis that he did not give an understandable revelation, a “clear” statement of faith?

Frankly, this approach that truth may be bound only if one understands it scares me. Does truth lie in my perception of it or in the fact that God has revealed it? My lack of perception of truth does not excuse me; my disagreement with truth does not make my belief right; there is only one way on some matters. I know Ed would vehemently disagree with this and I certainly do not charge him with this view, but the consequence of this statement would imply that God has not given an understandable revelation simply because brethren have debated it for 45 years or because five or six views exist. Is baptism not clear simply because the majority of the religious world has never understood it or because there are different views around about baptism? Is there not a single teaching on baptism? On marriage? On divorce? Is it not true, or are we just being simplistic when we preach “be not foolish but understand the will of the Lord” (Eph. 5:17), or “Whereby, when ye read, ye may understand my knowledge in the mystery of Christ” (Eph. 3:4).

Brother Harrell’s view of fellowship seems to be a demonstration of reaction, dependent upon “whose ox is being gored.” He stated that neither he nor Hailey would fellowship a “clear adulterer.” This begs the question. Whose definition of “adulterer” shall we use? If we use the definition of children of God who are living in adultery, he and Hailey would agree though more liberal brethren would be gored who would permit the guilty party to remarry. But if we use Hailey’s definition of aliens who are living in adultery, Ed would not limit fellowship because this is Hailey’s ox that is being gored because of his particular definition of what constitutes adultery.

What about the institutional “ox”? Ed would limit fellowship with liberals. But why is the institutional ox any different from the divorce ox? Johnny Ramsey, Roy Lanier, etc. are examples of those brethren who would claim to be honest persons who differ with Ed about institutionalism and would like to have fellowship with Ed. Why is their ox gored, but not Hailey’s? Yes, let us be, as Ed stated, “clear about clarity.” Is the truth on institutionalism clearer than on divorce? Who said so? Are aliens in adultery more honest than brethren in institutionalism?

In trying to deal with the inconsistency of fellowshipping Hailey and not fellowshipping liberals, Ed defined a false teacher as “either ignorant . . . deluded . . . or a deceiver . . . he is not honestly mistaken about God’s clear instructions.” Accordingly, he can fellowship Hailey because he is honest, but he cannot fellowship liberals because they are all dishonest, having been exposed to clear truth but disobedient to it. Hailey has been exposed to truth (Ed has tried to convert him) but simply holds a different view about an unclear subject and cannot be a false teacher.

But try that definition on the apostle Paul when he laid waste the church. He was involved in the murder of Christians and taught that Jesus was an imposter. He was guilty of both doctrinal and moral sin and he pleaded ignorance (1 Tim. 1:13). Was he a false teacher when he was guilty of denying Jesus? Or was he just guilty of holding to a contrary view that was covered by his good conscience (Acts 23:1), his honest intent that would have permitted fellowship even when he blasphemed? Here is a clear case of something that Ed says cannot exist, but does, and which is a denial of his very definition of a false teacher. Paul was informed yet ignorant, honest but errant. Ed stated: “I have been dismayed to read articles on Homer Hailey that have been filled with fawning praise of his honesty and integrity while accusing him of violating clear biblical teaching. That is absurd. If honest and informed people disobey clear biblical instruction, God is the author of confusion.” Either God authored confusion or Ed is wrong in his definition. Paul was informed, being advanced beyond his peers (Gal. 1:14), honest, yet ignorant of the clear teaching of Scripture and a false teacher and a murderer. Was he worthy of fellowship? By Ed’s definition, he was. But if Ed can judge a person’s honesty no better than to accuse many friends of Hailey as “slobbering” and “fawning” when they express love for Hailey, how can he be assured that he can judge the honesty of liberals when they also claim to love God? This suggests that any system of fellowship that is based on subjective reading of hearts is flawed.

Brother Harrell suggested that we have two alternatives: either follow the hermeneutical approach which he has outlined (which suggests a solution) or demand “total agreement about ‘the faith’ – a term with undefined boundaries but including, apparently, a single teaching on divorce” (which suggests chaos). Brother Willis’ material did suggest a broader choice than this. While emphasizing the objective approach to fellowship that is provided by measuring every doctrine by the word of God, Mike also acknowledged that Romans 14 has been provided by God to permit differences in matters of indifference to God. Brother Harrell may scoff at this but it is a part of the inspired wisdom which God provided to avoid the splintering condition its absence would demand. Romans 14 is the safety valve, if you will, of the fellowship question. Matters which are truly parallel to the examples in Romans 14 (meats and days), matters which are of personal opinion (though strongly believed), and of “doubtful disputation, “provide areas of disagreement between strong (taught) and weak (untaught) brethren wherein fellowship may be maintained while judgment is deferred to God. This has been our actual practice in the past concerning the covering question, pacifism, and a host of other problems. We have permitted God to be the final Judge and have maintained fellowship in thousands of local churches while yet recognizing a continuing need to study. None of us will ever be able to make an exclusive list that will determine which subjects of study are to be included in Romans 14. (And both Mike and Ed agree that no one should even try.) But this chapter, with all its relevance to so many questions of fellowship, cannot be stretched to cover a single item of revealed truth, the disobedience of which would condemn one’s soul. Homosexuality, the divorced and remarried who would come to God, institutionalism, and other subjects that matter to God and, about which God will hold us accountable, have no place in the deliberations of this great chapter. But it must occupy a place in our determination of fellowship between brethren who hold differing opinions.


No brotherhood decisions were attempted nor made at the open forum study between Ed Harrell and Mike Willis. We will continue to be faced with choices as to whom and over what subjects we will fellowship one another. The ball is in our court now as we turn to God’s word and continue our study. Let us be sure that we conduct our studies and attitudes in such a manner that God will be pleased lest we lose that most important blessing of all: fellowship with God.

Guardian of Truth XXXV: 14, pp. 432-435
July 18, 1991