Some Observations on the Langford-Welch Debate

By Ronny Milliner

The week of August 14-18 was a busy one, but it was spiritually encouraging. Brother John Welch of Indianapolis met Mr. Jack Langford of Fort Worth, Texas in a religious debate in the Richmond-Petersburg, Virginia area. At 10:00 in the morning these two men discussed whether Peter and Paul preached the same gospel. At 6:00 in the evening the question concerning the impossibility of apostasy was considered. This portion was broadcast live over a radio station in Indianapolis by way of a phone line. Finally at 7:30 p.m. the debate focused on baptism. Brother Welch defended the truth on water baptism against Mr. Langford’s view that we are saved by a spiritual baptism.

It will not be our purpose in this article to review the arguments of the speakers. We will leave that to one more qualified. Instead we would like to point out some side observations we noticed during the week of the debate.

The Aim of the Debate

Why have such a discussion? One reason was to defend the truth. Such a duty has been imposed upon all Christians. We have been exhorted “to contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). We should be like Paul and be “appointed for the defense of the gospel” (Phil. 1: 17). Stephen debated with those of the Synagogue of the Freedmen “and they were not able to resist the wisdom and the Spirit by which he spoke” (Acts 6:9-10).

A related reason to debate is to rebuke error. Some say, “Yes, preach the gospel, but don’t condemn others.” But the Bible is clear regarding our responsibility to rebuke error. For example, Ephesians 5:11 says, “And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather expose them.” It is not enough to not be a part of denominational error, we must also expose it for what it is. Those who teach false doctrine need to be noted and avoided (Rom. 16:17-18).

Of course the ultimate end of all of these efforts is to save a lost soul. There is nothing more precious than a soul (Matt. 16:26). As we look about and see many caught up in religious error, let us be busy “pulling them out of the fire” (Jude 23).

The Atmosphere at the Debate

The followers of Mr. Langford hosted the first two nights of the debate in the West End Community Center in Richmond. I have attended several debates, but I don’t recall such fine hospitality being extended as was done by these individuals. One member invited us all over to his house for lunch after one of the morning sessions. On Tuesday night after the debate was over they provided donuts with coffee or milk for all who wanted some. These folks certainly did not “forget to entertain strangers” (Heb. 13:2), and their example certainly is noteworthy.

Not only was there an atmosphere of hospitality, there was also an air of zeal among Mr. Langford’s followers. After each session we would be swamped with them coming up to us to discuss the subjects further. We would usually spend one to two hours a night talking about the Bible with these well-studied people. Unfortunately this zeal was like that had by the Jews. Paul spoke of their “zeal for God, but not according to knowledge” in Romans 10:2.

The Attendance at the Debate

Another expression of their zeal was in their attendance at each session of the debate. Many of these individuals had taken off from work to be at the debate. Most of the debates which I have attended saw a gradual decline among those present as the week went on. But this decline was not true of the Langford-Welch Debate. The attendance was consistent during the whole discussion.

Of course we were pleased also to have several brethren visiting with us who had come from some distance. The Bill Whitaker family and the Duane Washburn family had come from Indianapolis to attend the debate. Brother and sister Robert Welch, brother and sister Harry Lewis, Rick Hubbard, and the Wayne Greeson family all had come to assist John in the debate. We also had brother and sister James Walker of Louisville, Kentucky to join us for the last two nights of the debate. The sacrifice of time and expense on the part of these Christians is certainly commendable. But such is how it should be among those who “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness” (Matt. 6:33).

The Adversary at the Debate

While we could see many good traits in Mr. Langford’s followers, they were still under the influence of a false teacher. To watch Mr. Langford during the debate was to be reminded of the words of Jesus in Matthew 7:15. He warned, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves.” While Mr. Langford promised liberty, he was really bringing people into bondage (2 Pet. 2:19).

The great tragedy of the week was to see the blind being led by the blind and realizing “both will fall into a ditch” (Matt. 15:14). In discussing the Bible with some it became apparent that “they did not receive the love of the truth, that they might be saved” (2 Thess. 2:10-12).

The Association During the Debate

One good thing which came as a result of the debate was the encouragement of being in the company of God’s people. Opportunities abounded for us to just sit around and talk about the Bible with good Christians.

The Bible encourages as to this end. “Therefore comfort each other and edify one another, just as you also are doing” (1 Thess. 5:11). “Therefore let us pursue the things which make for peace and the things by which one may edify another” (Rom. 14:19). This type of association is what is truly meant by the word fellowship.

The Apathy During the Debate

While there were many good things about this debate, the apathy manifested by most of the Christians of central Virginia was shameful. There were more out-of-town visitors at this discussion than there were visitors from local congregations in the area. Of 8 congregations within an hour’s drive of the debate only about 5 percent of the members in these congregations attended the debate. Elders and preachers did not attend the debate like they should have. Brother Harry Lewis commented that there should have been a Christian there for every one of Mr. Langford’s people present.

Yet this type of apathy is not just characteristic of central Virginia. Many other debates and gospel meetings throughout the country are not attended and supported by Christians like they should be. Such indifference can be discouraging to a preacher who is trying to defend the truth. Can you imagine how Paul felt in his defense before Nero? He said in 2 Timothy 4:16, “At my first defense no one stood with me, but all forsook me. May it not be charged against them.”

Paul exhorted in Galatians 4:18, “But it is good to be zealous in a good thing always, and not only when I am present with you.” Christ died for us that we might be a “people zealous for good works” (Tit. 2:13-14). Christians should “be ready for every good work” (Tit. 3:1).

The Aftermath of the Debate

Not only did we have many of Mr. Langford’s followers attend the debate, we also had individuals present from the Pentecostal Church, the Christian Church, and the liberal church. Thus we have several contacts to be following up on in the coming weeks. Who knows what opportunities for further study might come from this discussion. We must do our very best to sow the seed and water it. Surely God will give the increase (1 Cor. 3:6). “Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your labor is not in vain in the Lord” (1 Cor. 15:58).

Let us thank God for the good that has been done, and continue to seek his blessings in our future efforts for his glorification.

Guardian of Truth XXXIII: 20, pp. 626-627
October 19, 1989