By James W. Adams
Some weeks past (November 1620, 1987), it was my pleasure and privilege to attend a religious discussion between Keith Sharp of Lakeland, Florida and Lewis G. Hale of Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. The debate was conducted in Russellville, Arkansas, a beautiful, small city at the foot of the Ozark Mountains. Nature was resplendent in her coat of many colors and the weather cold but invigorating and delightful. The discussion was conducted in public facilities – an auditorium at the County Fair Grounds. Crowds were only average in number, but consistent, orderly, and respectful. The conduct of both disputants was impeccable, and the gravity and the importance of the occasion recognized and respected by all. Each disputant pressed his points of view with vigor, yet with courtesy and proper regard for the other. Nothing occurred that was beneath the dignity of the church, the gospel, or the high standard of ethical conduct to be expected of Christians. This was a debate between brethren in the Lord, members of the body of Christ, and the entire affair was in keeping with this fact.
The subjects of discussion concerned what have come to be known as “The Issues.” To be more exact, they were concerned with: Church support of human institutions in benevolence; the cooperation of churches in benevolence and evangelism through a “sponsoring church”; and the scope of the responsibility of churches in benevolence (general or limited to “saints”).
The “conservative” congregation in Russellville which sponsored brother Sharp in the discussion did not begin as a result of a division in one of the churches of the city. A group of brethren who lived in and near Russellville and who could not conscientiously worship with any of the then existing congregations in the city decided to form a congregation in which they could so worship. Brother A.W. Goff moved to Russellville to work with them as a preacher of the gospel. His and their labors have succeeded splendidly. The Eastside Church of which they are a part is an active and growing congregation with a nice brick meeting house in a good location. Brother Goff has militantly pressed what he conceives to be the truth (and what I believe to be the truth) both in the pulpit of the Eastside congregation and on the radio. Some have consequently left churches of the area which, for want of a better term, we call “liberal” to have fellowship with the Eastside brethren. Such brought about a challenge from a congregation in Ola, Arkansas (a nearby town) for a public discussion of differences. Eastside chose Keith Sharp to represent them, and Ola chose Lewis G. Hale. Propositions were agreed upon and the debate occurred.
Keith Sharp is a comparatively young man in the early years of middle life. He is well educated, a careful Bible student, an excellent speaker, and a forceful personality. He came well prepared for the discussion and acquitted himself with dignity, ability, and effectiveness. Not only was he strong in the affirmation of his propositions, but acutely perceptive in recognizing the weaknesses and inconsistencies of his opponent’s argumentation and clear and definite in his responses. In a word, Keith is an excellent debater. I have known and loved him from his boyhood; his recently deceased father and his mother have long been among my dearest friends; hence I took a great deal of personal pride and satisfaction in Keith’s excellent handling of this debate.
The first debate on these issues in which I was involved was the now famous Cogdill-Woods Debate in Birmingham, Alabama. It occurred thirty years ago almost to the day. I was brother Cogdill’s moderator in that discussion. Though a generation of time has passed and many subsequent debates have occurred, nothing seems to have changed. So-called “Conservative” and “Liberal” churches yet pursue widely divergent paths and the differences grow greater and the cleavage wider. Brother Hale produced nothing new in his argumentation. In fact, one can reasonably well get everything he presented in the debate by reading the book he published more than thirty years ago entitled, “How Churches Can Cooperate, God’s Work in God’s Way.”
Brother Hale seemed more concerned about confusing his audience than convincing them of the absolute truth of his propositions. I was amazed and disappointed to hear him construct arguments the major and minor premises of which involved incidents widely separated from one another by years of time while the validity of his argument depended upon their having occurred or the situation to have existed at the same time, which he stated to be the case. I do not wish to impugn brother Hale’s honesty, but he is too good a Bible student not to have known better. As evidence of brother Hale’s effort to confuse rather than convince was the fact that, in his last speech, he made an appeal to the audience for a decision in his favor on the basis of “reasonable doubt.” It seems to me that this was a tacit admission of defeat. Besides, it was his practice that was the occasion of the controversy, hence if reasonable doubt were a proper basis for a religious decision affecting the destiny of man’s immortal soul, it would be employed to decide the matter in favor of the positions occupied by brother Sharp. Never in more than fifty-five years of gospel preaching and attending and participating in debates have I heard a disputant plead for a favorable decision from an audience on the basis of 4treasonable doubt.” I confess: this was brand new. As far as I am concerned, brother Sharp clearly exposed the lack of validity of all arguments adduced by brother Hale, hence I came home completely satisfied with the results.
Another thing surprised and disappointed me relative to brother Hale’s defense of his position. He was asked repeatedly about certain avant garde practices of brethren with whom he is more or less aligned. I have yet to hear him repudiate any of th m, however “far-out” they are, with the exception of “the Crossroads and Boston movements.” He even stumbled and was evasive relative to Alvin Jennings and his “urban church” concept and practice. In all other cases, he would say, “Yes, I would endorse that under proper circumstances” or something to that effect. He always failed, however, to tell us what those circumstances are. I have always considered brother Hale to be one of the more conservative of the so-called “liberal” brethren, but I have had to revise my thinking. I really do not know anything the brethren are doing that he would actively oppose.
In my judgment, Keith Sharp answered every argument and every quibble and inconsistency in brother Hale’s presentations. The only disappointing thing from the conservative standpoint about the debate was the attendance by preachers and brethren outside of Russellville. Only a few years ago, preachers and brethren by the scores would have been present in support of the truth. Does this signify diminished concern with reference to the relevancy of a discussion of these issues, and/or a growing aversion to a public negation of religious error and a conversion to detente and sweet-spirited tolerance? May this not be true. If it is, it is indeed “later than we think!”
In conclusion, may I say to brethren everywhere: If your situation calls for a debate with proponents of error “within or without,” you may call upon Keith Sharp to represent you and the truth with complete confidence. The truth will not suffer in his hands.
(Note: If anyone is interested in obtaining tapes of this discussion, they may be obtained from: Stephen Saunders, P.O. Box 221, Fordyce, A R 71742. The 8 tapes will be $16. 00 plus postage and handling. Also tapes of the Sharp-West Debate and the Sharp-Polk Debate may be had for the some price. These debates were on: Cooperation of Churches in Evangelism and Benevolence, Limited Benevolence, and Church-sponsored Recreation and Entertainment [Social meals].)
Guardian of Truth XXXII: 8, pp. 234-235
April 21, 1988