The Harrell Booklet on the Bounds of Christian Unity

By Connie W. Adams 

In November 1988, Ed Harrell wrote an article in Christianity Magazine entitled “Homer Hailey: False Teacher?” This article grew out of what brother Harrell called “the personal attack on Hailey” and said this article “is my personal defense of Homer Hailey as a man who has earned the respect and esteem of the Christians of our time.” He referred to “the re- cent personal attacks on him” and said they “seem to me to be an unheroic assault on an 85-year-old warrior.” While it was true that several brethren (this writer included) had reviewed the public teaching of brother Hailey on marriage, divorce and remarriage, after the incidents at El Cajon, California and Belen, New Mexico, all of these reviews took pains to express love and respect for brother Hailey as a man. Nobody attacked his character or integrity. It was his public teaching which was being examined in light of what the Bible teaches on the subject in question.

Very frankly, brother Harrell owes an apology to those who reviewed brother Hailey’s position for his mischaracterization of their reviews. Had that been forthcoming long ago, it would have relieved much of the tension which has developed since. It is one thing to review what a brother has publicly taught and quite another to indict his character. Now, in a strange twist, the character of those who have opposed the Hailey position has been seriously challenged. We have been treated to articles and lectures bemoaning the “lack of integrity” of some brethren who have been outspoken on the subject.

This article by brother Harrell on brother Hailey is a watershed event in the history of the present controversy over Romans 14 and the issue of fellowship as it concerns the marriage, divorce and remarriage issue. It was this article which led to the series of 16 articles by brother Harrell on “The Bounds of Christian Unity” which ran from February 1989 to May 1990. Now that this has been published as a booklet, I lament the fact that the Hailey article was not included in the booklet for it provides the backdrop of this series.

It is now being said that this series was only an historical study of how brethren have dealt with matters of difference over the years. With much of what brother Harrell wrote in this series, we have no complaint. That he is a well-trained and eminent historian is beyond dispute. But in the course of these 16 articles, he made some statements which have given voice to a widening difference over Romans 14 and the implications of it as it is considered in relation to the matter of divorce and remarriage. In summarizing the division which produced the Christian Church, brother Harrell wrote, “In short, by the end of the nineteenth century Christians generally recognized that the movement was dividing not because of doctrinal questions, but because of different mindsets” (my emphasis, CWA). I fear that we now have different mindsets at work and the issue of marriage, divorce and remarriage and related questions of fellowship of those who would make room in the churches for adulterous marriages simply demonstrates these two mindsets. One mindset views Romans 14 as dealing with matters of permitted liberties while the other views it as an umbrella under which all manner of differences may be tolerated, both in the realm of doctrine and morals.

Brother Harrell wrote, “It is obvious that Christians sometimes disagree about scriptural instruction, even in matters of considerable moral and doctrinal import” (Christianity Magazine, May 1989, 6). He proceeded to say that this is the “issue addressed in Romans 14.” It is on this basis that “unity in diversity” is promoted. This same argument was advanced by W. Carl Ketcherside, Edward Fudge, R.L. Kilpatrick and others to extend the umbrella of fellowship to include instrumental music, institutional- ism, premillennialism, and a host of other things. While brother Harrell would not accept the conclusions of these men, he has left the gate open just as surely as those men have. The arguments advanced by brother Harrell have become a rallying cry for those of the same mindset.

Faith and The Faith

It is true that in Romans 14 the term “faith” is used to describe matters of conscientious scruple. “Whatsoever is not of faith is sin” (Rom. 14:23) concerns the brother who violates his conscience. But “the faith” on the subject is “there is nothing unclean of itself” (v. 14). On that basis “let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind” (v. 5). The issue of marriage, divorce and remarriage must be settled by the passages where God has addressed that subject (Matt.

5:31-32; 19:3-12; Mark 10:11-12; Luke 16:18; Rom. 7:1-4;

1 Cor. 7). You can no more put adulterous marriages into Romans 14 than you can instrumental music or missionary societies. “The faith” will not allow it. Unauthorized practices cannot be rightly included regardless of the degree of honesty and sincerity of the proponents of such practices.

Harmful Consequences of Erroneous Teaching on Romans 14

The outcroppings of this view of Romans 14 are be- coming more evident with each passing day. Consider the following consequences:

1. Error is minimized. Questions such as “who has the list?” of things to include or exclude from Romans 14 leave the impression that truth and error are so scrambled that we cannot sort them out and the only alternative is “unity in diversity.”

2. The danger of false teachers is obscured. Whether or not a teacher is honest and sincere does not mitigate the damage which error does to the soul and the harm it causes to congregations. Out of this has grown the bizarre view that unless a brother possesses the character liabilities of 2 Peter 2, then we dare not call him a false teacher. 2 Peter 2 is not the only passage which deals with error or false teachers.

3. This mindset contributes to relativism. We have an ever increasing number of “grey areas.” Jesus said, “Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free” (John 8:32). “Buy the truth and sell it not” (Prov. 23:23). Truth can be ascertained. Marriage is the most basic of all human relationships. Can we not know the will of God on such a fundamental issue? This is at the bottom of the shift in the content of preaching we are hearing. The fear of appearing to be authoritarian, dogmatic, or one of those “black or white guys” has led to watered-down preaching with its story telling, personal experiences, lessons from movies or television shows. Reading a passage of Scripture, putting it in context and then coming straight at the audience with practical applications would be a great novelty in some pulpits now.

4. This mindset promotes elevating men beyond “what is written” (1 Cor. 4:6). We can all learn from good men who have studied well. All of us believe in showing “honor to whom honor” is due. But good men can be wrong and their influence can lead souls astray. No doubt, Paul had great respect for Peter, but that time at Antioch Peter was wrong in his conduct toward Gentiles and Paul withstood him “to the face” and that “before them all” (Gal. 2:11-14). Later, Peter referred to Paul as “our beloved brother Paul” (2 Pet. 3:15-16). We do our good friends no favor by ignoring the harmful effects of erroneous teaching.

5. This mindset leads to fellowship with all forms of error. If Romans 14 is elastic enough to encompass adulterous marriages, then what is to prevent acceptance of unscriptural worship in the form of instrumental music? Rubel Shelly has room for both in Romans 14. I do not charge brother Harrell or those who stand where he does with going that far. But unless I have seriously misjudged history, their students will do so. The student often outruns the teacher.

The publication of these articles in booklet form means that there is no backing away from the positions advocated to which a number of us have taken exception. The circulation of this booklet can only widen the gap for where it appears, there will be those of us who will review it and point out the dangers of statements made which some of us believe to be erroneous. This also poses a dilemma for some of brother Harrell’s close associates who said after the appearance of these articles that they did not agree with what he said about Romans 14. Do they now agree, or do they not? We shall see.

In the meantime, all of us must study our Bibles, keep open minds to any truth which has eluded us, guard our hearts, maintain proper love and respect for each other, but above all, for the truth revealed in the word of God.