Introduction to Debate
Several months ago, I wrote an article on instrumental music in worship and how it affected the fellowship of the saints. Ron Tate, who is affiliated with the independent Christian Churches, wrote me a lengthy letter in disagreement with my material and argued the unity-in-diversity approach to unity on the subject of instrumental music. Inasmuch as he had given so much thought to this subject, I suggested that we have a three article exchange to be published in Guardian of Truth and one of their journals if he could secure one to carry the exchange. He was unable to secure a paper, but I consented to publish the exchange any way. I asked brother Donnie Rader to carry the negative in the exchange.
After receiving brother Rader’s response to his first affirmative, Ron Tate dropped out of the exchange and has not answered my last letter (although several months have passed since I wrote him). Therefore, I am publishing both articles and leaving it to the reader to conclude why Mr. Tate chose not to continue the discussion.
Proposition: The Scriptures teach that we must have unity in doctrine on a core gospel but allows unity in diversity on doctrinal matters.
The first order of business at the outset of this discussion is to define what is meant by the terms “core gospel” and “doctrinal matters.” The term “core gospel” refers to those essentials of the faith which are based on clear, specific statements in the Scripture and, as such, are not negotiable.
“Doctrinal matters” are those areas that are not ad-dressed by specific commands and, as a result, disagreements have arisen within the Restoration movement over the appropriateness of their presence in the life of the body of Christ.
Great statements and slogans, which rallied many people to the restoration ideal, were articulated during the beginning of this movement. Some of those statements were:
“In matters of faith, unity;
In matters of opinion, liberty; In all things, love!”
“Let us speak where the Bible speaks,
and remain silent where the Bible is silent!”
The principles, embodied in these slogans and statements, challenged individuals and, sometimes, entire churches to consider a new and fresh approach to the unification of God’s people.
A thorough study of the Scripture reveals that there are those things which are essential matters of faith to which we must hold. We also find that these essential matters of faith are relatively few in number. When one thoroughly examines the Scriptures to find those areas which are absolutely necessary for one to be in Christ, the following essentials become apparent: acceptance of the authority and existence of God (Heb. 11:6); acceptance of the deity and the Lordship of Christ Jesus who is the only way to heaven (John 14:6); acceptance of the Scriptures as the infallible, inspired and complete Word of God (2 Tim 3:16-17); acceptance of the church as the entity for which Christ died, to which he adds those who are being saved (Acts 2:47) and in which we must be dwelling when he returns (Eph. 5:23); acceptance of the importance of immersion in effecting the new birth (John 3:5; Rom. 6:4; 2 Cor. 5:17); acceptance of faithfulness to him as a way of life (Matt. 16:24; 1 Cor. 4:2). To the degree that there is agreement regarding these essential matters of faith, unity is a reality.
But how do we handle matters of opinion? In fact, which things are matters of opinion? Which things are essential? In order to answer these and other legitimate questions, honest and devout men continued to search for a method which would provide them with the answers. As a result of their efforts to restore New Testament Christianity, the old methods of interpreting the Scriptures (hermeneutics) began to fail. It is important to note that the men who began what we know as the Restoration Movement disagreed quite strongly among themselves over certain issues. However, in spite of this disagreement they did not divide. These differences were the result of different hermeneutical approaches (i.e. our particular way of deciding what we believe and practice from the Bible).
The hermeneutic to which brethren in the churches of Christ have subscribed calls for a direct command, an approved example or necessary inference for a matter of faith or practice to be authorized by the Scriptures. Brethren from the Independent Christian Churches, who were just as desirous of following God and his Word, developed a different but equally valid hermeneutic which called for obedience to direct commands, an understanding of what is non-scriptural (things not mentioned in Scripture, e.g., church buildings, song books, communion sets, instrumental accompaniment, collection plates, etc.) and a recognition of what is anti-scriptural (i.e., is it prohibited by the Scripture?).
It must be understood that each of these hermeneutics came into being as a result of the efforts of human beings. It must be recognized that neither hermeneutic has the status of Scripture nor is either infallible. To elevate our personal hermeneutic to the point where we equate it with Scripture itself is one of the most serious mistakes that Christians can make. The process is inductive in nature and comes from the study, prayer, beliefs and scholarship of human beings. It is a serious matter to draw lines of fellowship based not upon the Scriptures themselves but on human scholarship.
There is virtually universal agreement within the two remaining segments of the Restoration Movement (Churches of Christ and the Independent Christian Churches) that commands are given to be obeyed and are not optional. (Note: The group which identifies itself as “Christian Church Disciples” has long since abandoned the notion that biblical commands are important.) To continue to associate the Independent Christian Church with the highly organized, denominationally structured “Christian Church Disciples” indicates that some 40 years of recent Restoration history has been ignored.
What about “approved examples”? The question “Are they binding on Christians today?” can be re-stated as follows: “Are people today required to imitate the actions of individuals or churches recorded in the New Testament?” Is the lack of a “direct command” or an “approved example” sufficient to prohibit particular actions?
Thomas Campbell set the stage for this discussion in the American Restoration in his Declaration and Ad-dress and his thoughts have been repeated by some restorationists since that time. He said:
We dare, therefore, neither do or receive anything as of Divine obligation for which there cannot be expressly produced a “Thus saith the Lord” either in express terms or by approved precedent.”`
(Note: While slogans and statements are inspiring, they are, nonetheless, the products of human effort and study and are not to be equated with Scripture.)
These slogans, statements and hermeneutics began to generate controversy in the Restoration Movement over the authority of examples. For example, those who oppose located preachers believe that there is no authority for such because there is no example in the New Testament of a preacher located with a church that had elders being supported for his work. Those who oppose Sunday Bible classes say that there is no example of a church with apostolic sanction that con-ducted Sunday Bible study and used women as teachers.
On the other hand, since there is no command, example or inference which would prohibit these (and many other) practices, some have concluded that these are not violations of Scripture and, as a result, are not prohibited by the Scriptures.
Firm Foundation Publishing Company publishes a directory of the non-instrumental churches of Christ in America. This directory lists over 20 different codes for identifying “particular characteristics” of the churches of Christ listed in it.’ A cursory reading of various “brotherhood” publications indicates that there is little or no fellowship between many of these groups. Sweeping charges that this or that group is either “liberal,0 0progressive,” “digressive,” or “institutional,” etc. are thrown about almost at will.
The sad part is that all of these 20 or so groups claim to be a part of the Restoration Movement and, in fact, each claims to use the very same hermeneutic. Each of them demands a command, an example, or a necessary inference as Bible authority for matters of faith and practice.
With all of this division, one might suggest that the hermeneutic being used is faulty. But there is nothing wrong with it. It is a pretty good one. What is wrong is the judgmentalism and sectarian spirit it produces!
Mindless cloning is out of the question. It is ludicrous to suggest that in order to have unity everyone must give up those things where there is disagreement in order to please the most legalistic church or person in each of our brotherhoods. This is not the unity for which Christ prayed in John 17. Having differences with someone else does not mean division is required or appropriate.
The solution to this and other similar difficulties is to simply recognize that others in the Restoration Movement may have as great a desire to be New Testament Christians as we do and that they adhere to a hermeneutic as valid as ours. The simple fact is that they have reached different conclusions about non-essentials than we have. The reality is that promoting unity while allowing “diversity” is the most reasonable, rational and Scriptural response. In acknowledging this, however, it must be understood that it need not result in a compromise of the truth of God because it is not the truth that is under attack. Truth has not caused our divisions. Insisting that everyone agree with us on every opinion and issue is the great divider!
‘Thomas Campbell, Declaration and Address (Brown and Sample, 1809 [reprint]), p. 41.
‘Where the Saints Meet, Firm Foundation Publishing Company, Mack Lynn, editor.
Guardian of Truth XXXVII: No 19, p. 16-17
October 7, 1993