By Kevin Campbell
Elsewhere in this issue of Guardian of Truth is an article by David Edwin Harrell, Jr., entitled “Some Practical Observations on the Middle-of-the-Road.” It is an article reprinted from the September 5, 1968 issue of The Gospel Guardian. I would encourage the reader to read brother Harrell’s article before proceeding in this article.
First of all, I would like to commend brother Harrell’s article. His assault on the “middle-of-the-road” approach to the institutional/liberal controversies of the ’50s and ’60s is commendable. As brother Harrell points out in his article, there were quite a few brethren back during that controversy who were attempting to ride the fence and stand in the “middle-of-the-road.” He plainly states that “the middle-of-the-roader is no friend to the Lord, or to those who insist on the absolute adherence to his Word.” Later in the same article, he said regarding the “middle-of-the-road” approach that “it is a position of error and it is a position that is here to stay.” That type of militancy against error is to be applauded for it is the only way to stifle the spread of the error.
Preachers of the gospel have a grave responsibility to “preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine” (2 Tim. 4:2). Often this involves controversy and the necessity of taking a stand which may or may not be popular. Warnings must be sounded against innovation and digression (Acts 20:31; Col. 1:28; Matt. 3:7). Often, however, when brethren faithfully warn against error, the cry will go up “Brotherhood watchdog!” The image is called to mind of a vicious, snarling and snapping beast, ready to rend and tear others to shreds. The truth of the matter is, preachers are to “watch (thou) in all things” (2 Tim. 4:5). Isaiah rebuked those of his day who refused to watch and called them “dumb dogs” that “cannot bark” (Isa. 56:10). One who derides the faithful evangelist who is doing his duty reveals a lack of understanding regarding the nature of the evangelist’s work.
Being a young preacher of 25 years of age, I have not personally witnessed many of the battles that brethren have fought against error. I am slowly becoming aware of the dangers posed by well-intentioned men who nevertheless open the door of digression. It is for this reason that I am thankful that brethren like Ed Harrell took the unpopular stand years ago against the institutional error. The firm, uncompromising line that he and others held helped rescue many from the snare of the devil. Some-times it is easy for young men like myself to disregard and disrespect the sacrifice that men of an older generation made for the truth. At the same time, those of us who are younger must realize that we may be called upon to make similar sacrifices and to take similar stands today to ensure sound and faithful churches for the next generation. I must also guard against the possibility that as I get older, I may lose my militancy and zeal for the truth and become concerned with defending brethren who teach error because of our past association. Paul said that we are “not to think of men above that which is written, that no one of you be puffed up for one against another” (1 Cor. 4:6). As evangelists, our aim should be to uphold that truth at all costs.
Sadly, I have watched over the past five years as a great controversy has been brewing regarding the subject of marriage, divorce and remarriage. I really do not think that the fact that there would be a controversy has surprised anyone. As divorce has rapidly increased in the world, brethren have realized that the matter would have to be dealt with more and more. This is because of two factors. First of all, divorce and remarriage have gained wider acceptance in the world. Secondly, a few brethren through the years have held erroneous views on the subject contrary to Matthew 5:32 and 19:9. These combined elements have increased the spread of false doctrine regarding marriage, divorce and remarriage. Therefore the issues have demanded greater attention and false views have received increased opposition. Thus we now find ourselves involved in controversy once again. What will be the outcome? Already churches are dividing over these issues, and brothers and sisters in Christ are being alienated from one another. The only solution to the problem is to “hold fast the form of sound words . . . in faith and love which is in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 1:13).
Today we again find division occurring just as it did in the institutional controversy. Some brethren are openly advocating and promoting false doctrines on marriage, divorce and remarriage. Others are just as adamant in trying to stem the tide of digression by striking out at the error wherever it appears. Sadly, we find another group advocating a “unity-in-diversity” based on a false application of Romans 14. Ironically, this concept was fostered by Ed Harrell in the pages of Christianity Magazine beginning almost five years ago. Tragically, those that are teaching the error are receiving some unintentional encouragement from those who are advocating the “unity-in-diversity” concept based upon a perversion of Romans 14.
As brother Harrell pointed out in his article “Some Practical Observations on the Middle-of-the-road” (Gospel Guardian, Sept. 5, 1968, pp. 273-278), the same thing occurred in the institutional division of the 1950s and ’60s. Liberal brethren were advocating that human institutions be employed to do the work of the church while others were attempting to stop the flood of digression at every opportunity. A third group however, that brother Harrell referred to as the “middle-of-the-road brethren,” contended for acceptance of the practices on the grounds of expediency and unity-in-diversity. Many of the middle-of-the-road brethren were never “committed to the principles underlying innovation” (Harrell, p. 273) but still advocated unity with those who were committed to the invocation. Today we see that history is repeating itself; this time with the issues involved in marriage, divorce, and remarriage. Men today who do not believe the error involved in the divorce and remarriage controversy are attempting to hold the middle ground and extend fellowship to those who are promoting the false teaching. This is precisely the same approach that brother Harrell has advocated in the current controversy although he condemned that very method in the institutional division.
When I first came across the article by brother Harrell from The Gospel Guardian, I was amazed at the apparent discrepancy in his approach to the two controversies. I believe brother Harrell would contend that the two matters are different in the underlying causes. In fact, he wrote in the August 2, 1990 issue of The Guardian of Truth that he was disturbed “that many who espoused this new idea on fellowship (regarding marriage, divorce and remarriage) equated all disagreement with the institutional division of the 1950s. Such simplistic notions, I believe, reveal a troubling misunderstanding of the institutional division.” Brother Harrell seems to imply by this statement, as well as other quotations from his tract Emergence of the “Church of Christ” Denomination, that the institutional division was not primarily over theological differences but more over sociological differences. One quotation from his article in The Gospel Guardian however hits the nail on the head regarding the reason for the division. About three-quarters of the way through the article he says, “The division is doctrinal; we practice being a Christian in different ways.” To borrow a Catholic expression, “Bingo!” Just as brethren back then were violating the doctrine of Christ by introducing organizational innovations unknown to the New Testament, brethren today are advancing concepts of marriage, divorce and remarriage that are equally unknown to the New Testament. The present controversy, to use brother Harrell’s own words, “is a doctrinal” controversy.
There is one major difference between the institutional division and the present conflict: time. At the time that brother Harrell wrote his article, the institutional division was almost complete. He was able to look with hindsight and recognize the trends that lead to the liberalism and the formation of the “middle-of-the-road” approach. Today however, we are still on the front end of the conflict over marriage, divorce, and remarriage. The digression has not yet reached the proportions that it did in the institutional flight. But with the seed of compromise being sown by those who are advocating the “unity-in-diversity” approach, we must ask the question “Where will it lead us in the years to come?” What kind of churches will be left for our children and grandchildren. It is not simply this one subject alone but there is a growing softness towards sinful practices in many places. The atmosphere is ripe for continued compromise and deviation from the truth on a whole host of matters.
Brother Harrell, in calling to mind the failures of brethren to stop the nineteenth century innovations, said that the middle-of-the-roaders “lacked the foresight, or candor, or courage to stop the liberalism at the only place it could be stopped in the beginning.” Today, brethren with fore-sight and courage have been attempting to stop the present digression “in the beginning.” Learning from the mistakes of brethren in the past, these men have been attempting to thwart the effects of false teachers who would compromise the truth on marriage, divorce and remarriage. What has been brother Harrell’s response? The magazine of which he is a co-editor (Christianity Magazine) has, “in the beginning,” labelled these men who are openly fighting this battle as “extremists” who “have their own cause to promote” and who are “attempting to line up followers” and “create a party.” These very same charges were leveled at those who were opposing the liberalism of the 1950s and 1960s. Additionally, brother Harrell “in the beginning” said that these men were making “unheroic personal assaults on an eighty-five-year-old warrior.” In-stead of coming to the aid of those who have been directly affected by this teaching, brother Harrell has chosen to attack the motives of those who are attempting to, “in the beginning,” stem the tide of digression. In the article referred to, brother Harrell wrote, “My protesting, I pray, has never been a personal crusade against anyone. I have not taken my stand because of person – differences with anyone and, consequently, personal friendship cannot solve the problems” (The Gospel Guardian, Sept. 5, 1968, p. 275). Yet brother Harrell has done exactly that in this case, charging brethren who are opposing the error with “making an unheroic personal assault on an 85-year-old warrior” (Christianity Magazine, November, 1988, p. 6).
For the sake of truth and Bible unity, I plead with brother Harrell to examine the path he and others have recently chosen. I beg him to return to the same militant and uncompromising attitude that he displayed during the fight with the liberals in the 50s and 60s. Regarding those who stood firm against the doctrinal error of that era, he said:
Convictions run too deep and courage too unsubdued to close the mouths of those who have committed them-selves to the defense of the principles of consistent scriptural effort to restore the first century church. Surely we have long ago recognized that we can have peace with anyone if we will stop attacking the religious error which they teach. It is far too late now to try to squelch the conviction that the mission of the gospel preacher is not only to teach the truth but also to attack error no matter whence its source (The Gospel Guardian, Sept. 5, 1968, p. 275).
Brethren today have not attempted to make personal assaults on anyone but have rather had the same deep convictions and unsubdued courage in seeking to hold fast the New Testament pattern of teaching on the subject of divorce and remarriage. Truly, error must be attacked “no matter whence its source.”
It is my desire that brother Harrell would repudiate the false “unity-in-diversity” concept that he has espoused based on his inaccurate application of Romans 14 to matters of the revealed faith. May he recognize the dangerous precedent he has set. Others will not be content with the limited application of “unity-in-diversity” for which brother Harrell has contended. The circle of “tolerable differences” (my term KC) will only grow increasingly larger, embracing other false doctrines such as instrumental music, institutionalism, premillennialism, etc. The danger for brother Harrell is that he may have said so much already that it would be difficult for him to go back. Commenting on this very dilemma in the Gospel Guardian, he said, “If a moderate’s craw finally becomes so full that he cannot go on, he has said so much that he cannot go back.” I wonder if brother Harrell today is still willing to stand by his articles that advocate the “unity-in-diversity” approach towards these matters. Can he “go back” or has he “said so much that he cannot go back”? I pray that he will go back and realize the serious effects of the door that he has opened with his misapplication of Romans 14.
The call today is for faithful men who will stand firm against error. With the wide acceptance of divorce in today’s society, coupled with the emotional nature of the issue itself, the time is ripe for further digression from the biblical pattern. May we have the courage, candor, and conviction to speak boldly against his error and to oppose the compromise of the gospel “no matter whence its source.”
Guardian of Truth XXXVIII: 9, p. 21-23
May 5, 1994