Speaking Smooth Things About . . . Romans 14 and Fellowship

By Tom M. Roberts

The militancy and aggressiveness of the gospel of Christ is an undeniable facet of New Testament Christianity. The uniqueness and distinctiveness of Jesus as the Son of God, the church which he established, and the “one faith” that the Holy Spirit revealed allows no quarter or compromise with false Christs, counterfeit churches, and perverted gospels. A battle has been engaged between the forces of good and evil and we are involved whether we like it or not. Jesus said, “He who is not with me is against me” (Matt. 12:30). Timothy was urged by the apostle Paul (who, as much as any other disciple, exemplified militancy) to “fight the good warfare” (1 Tim. 1:18). He also instructed the Ephesian brethren to “Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand” (6:11ff).

In such a battle, there can be no fraternizing, no compromise with the enemy. The Bible is replete with examples of those who compromised: Adam and Eve, Balaam, Samson, King Saul, Judas, Demas, and many others. The Judaizing teachers wanted compromise on which gospel they accepted and were soundly rebuked by Paul (Acts 15:1ff; Gal. 1:6-9; etc.). From ancient times, advocates of “unity in diversity” (compromise) have had prominent spokespersons. The theme of this issue of Truth Magazine reflects the warning of Isaiah against those of his day who said, “Speak to us smooth things, prophesy deceits” (30:10). Against this sentiment, Paul warned that we must, “Preach the word! Be ready in season and out of season. Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering  and teaching. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables” (2 Tim. 4:2-4).

Every generation has those who are ashamed of the gospel (Rom. 1:16), those who want “smooth things” and those who have “itching ears.” Like those of Israel who wanted to be “like the nations about us” (1 Sam. 8:5), we have some in the church who plead for unity in diversity, who want tolerance toward error, who are willing to sheath their sword and sit down at tables of compromise with those in error. Reactions against strong preaching abound. The editor and staff writers of Truth Magazine have been accused of “turning off a whole generation of younger preachers” because of the “hard preaching” being done. Many churches today are filled with unrest because strong preaching of- fends some while others feel that distinctive preaching is being omitted. I know of churches which have had to plead for their preachers to speak plainly, to preach a distinctive gospel message. Some of these preachers have gone into the liberal, institutional fellowship because they refused to preach the distinctive gospel in a local church and courted unity in diversity until asked to leave. When they leave, they find a church where smooth things are more palatable, where tolerance for error has a home. Epithets of disdain are hurled against those who preach “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27). They are “watchdogs,” “guardians of orthodoxy,” “new Catholics,” “buzzards looking for dead carrion,” or “brotherhood managers.” Please note the disparity between those who want smooth things in doc- trine but who are willing to use vitriolic language toward brethren who insist on sound doctrine.

Some who are currently espousing “smooth things,” who want tolerance toward error and unity in diversity, those who are embarrassed by strong preaching, have found what they believe to be comfort in Romans 14. This chapter of the Bible which directs brethren to receive one another in “matters of scruples” (v. 1), “authorized liberties” (1 Cor. 8:9; 10:23), is being twisted and wrested (2 Pet. 3:16) so that some are willing to receive one another in sinful doctrines and practices. A rationale for open-ended fellowship with sin is being preached across the nation and around the world by esteemed brethren who, because of their reputation and popularity, are leading many astray. Of course, different brethren accept varying degrees of smooth preaching, but that there is a movement, a voice, a rationale for apostasy cannot be denied.

The leading voice for smooth things today is Christianity Magazine which began its maiden voyage into the sea of religious journalism by the keynote: “accentuate the posi- tive; eliminate the negative.” That this is thematic and not incidental nor accidental is indicated by instructions to its writers from an editor to limit the use of Scripture. “Each article is thus to be short and limited to one major point. Do not tell us all you know, but what you know most surely. Generally speaking, two or three passages should provide a sufficient base for such articles — perhaps even one.” Not content just to limit the amount of Scripture, the same editor proposes suggestions to make the articles “popular.” “Obviously, what we are after is a piece of journalistic writing. The thrust of the article should be practical, speaking to the real needs of people. The style of writing should be popular. We urge you to be your creative best: think of interest-catching leads, sharp illustrations, and, if appropriate, and if possible, sprinkle in a little wit.” (Contrast that with the instruction of Paul to Timothy and Titus and the difference is obvious.)

Lest someone think this approach to religious writing inconsequential, error has been boldly taught by Ed Harrell in his series on Romans 14 in defense of Homer Hailey’s error (cf: Homer Hailey: False Teacher?, Nov. 1988; The Bounds of Christian Unity, Feb. 1989-May, 1990). Though this series of articles was a bold departure from the stated editorial theme of non-controversial material, that same editorial policy was reinstated when numerous brethren asked to respond. In effect, error was taught smoothly by Ed Harrell and no rebuttal was permitted. None of the other editors ever publicly rejected the error that was taught. Thus, Romans 14 was twisted by brother Harrell to teach that it “tolerates contradictory teachings and practices on important moral and doctrinal questions” (May 1990). The “important moral and doctrinal question” put under the aegis of Romans 14 by brother Harrell was the error taught by Homer Hailey on “aliens who would come to God” in adulterous marriages.

As this controversy has spread, and as Romans 14 has been widely used as a defense for fellowship on adulterous marriages, other brethren have advocated this twisted use of Romans 14 to allow fellowship in other areas. We have seen the beginning of departure, not the end.

The Language of Smoothness

It is not hard to recognize the voice of those who want “smooth things” to be advocated today. There are key phrases and “Shibboleths” that reveal a softness toward sound preaching and a desire to promote compromise. Have you been hearing this lately?

We need to have unity in diversity. We have more in common with some people than we have disagreements. Let’s just emphasize our agreements.

Let’s eliminate the negative and accentuate the positive. We have heard too much of preaching that is against sin.

We need to love one another and stop all this preaching against things. The Bible is just a love letter, not a pat- tern book.

We are hearing too much about the church and not enough about the cross; too much doctrine and not enough about Christ; too much law and not enough about grace.

We need to stop judging in matters of opinion such as shorts and swim suits, the use of wine, how many times members ought to attend worship services, clapping in services, gambling, and such like.

Who can say for sure that a certain doctrine is absolutely wrong. Do you know everything? Are you setting yourself up to the another’s judge?

There are so many different positions on this subject (remarriage and adultery, use of wine, etc.) that who can be sure which is right. The Bible is just not clear on this subject.

It seems like there are some brethren who are intent on controlling the brotherhood. We need to have a moratorium on controversial preaching.

Let’s just let each local church decide for itself who it is going to receive into its fellowship. It is nobody’s business but the local church.

Have you heard about the large crowds that turned out to hear brother P.M.A. Goodspeak? We need to get him here for a meeting so we can have large crowds too. He doesn’t condemn anyone.

Aren’t you tired of the old church of Christ traditions? We need to tune in to the Spirit more and liven up our worship with new songs like they sing at camp, clap our hands, be less formal and have shorter sermons.

We need to learn the language of young people. They are the church of tomorrow and we need to do things for them to keep them interested in the church. If we don’t watch out, we are going to lose our young people to other churches that have planned youth programs.

Brethren, the battle against unity-in-diversity will never be won. The cast of characters and list of issues will change from generation to generation. Within the Lord’s church are some that are “ashamed of the gospel.” However irate some become when this charge is made, it must be emphasized that there are brethren who want to be tolerant of error, fit into modern society, eliminate strong preaching against sin, and go smoothly into apostasy. Their policy for smoothness is to use Romans 14 as a chapter of permissiveness, allowing error to be fellowshipped. Of course, some are ignorant of the danger and are shocked to hear this condemned, blaming those who oppose the error as the instigators of controversy. Some stand on the side lines, shaking their heads, dismayed that names are called, hoping it will all go away of its own accord. However, we need not be naive. Error will disappear only when it is met by the “sword of the spirit” (Eph. 6:17). Such battles do not permit smooth sailing into apostasy. There will be controversies, battles, debates, and discussions. Through this fiery time, truth will triumph and those who want “smooth things” will depart into their place. Has it ever been any different?