Unity Meetings In California

By Olen Holderby

It was my privilege to attend two “unity meetings” held in Dublin, California on January 15, 1985, and on May 14, 1985. I had intended to say something about the first of these two meetings. However, after learning that there was to be a second such meeting, and having no desire to adversely affect that second effort, I waited until after the second meeting. These two meetings involved “conservative” and “liberal” brethren, with speakers from both sides. Past experience caused me to attend these meetings with certain reservations. My desire for unity among God’s people, I believe, is as strong as anyone’s; and I willingly participate in any scriptural and reasonable effort to achieve that unity.

My good friend and fellow gospel preacher, Bobby Witherington, has also written concerning these two meetings; his article will appear in Gospel Anchor. The reader’s attention is called to brother Witherington’s article because he touches on some things about which I say little or nothing. It is a good article. There may be some others who plan to write about these meetings; their impressions may differ from mine. However, I give you my honest impressions as well as sincere thoughts, allowing that I may be mistaken at least in a few of them.

The Meeting On Janum7 15, 1985

This meeting dealt with these topics: What Do We Have In Common?, Unity Of The Body, Unity Of Faith, Unity Of Spirit, Unity Of Doctrine, and Where Do We Go From Here? A question period followed each topic except the last. Although attitudes are difficult to assess, it seemed to me, that good attitudes prevailed throughout the day. Most of what was said needed to be said, and heeded. The beginning topic, “What Do We Have In Common?” was well handled, with force and clarity; though, it seemed to me to be ignored by the speakers that followed.

Enthusiasm was high “on both sides the fence” and, as it seemed to me, this enthusiasm produced, to say the least, some inaccurate statements. Several times throughout the day I heard statements about what “great good” had been accomplished just by that one meeting. I did not then, nor do I now, share that conclusion. This is not to say that no good at all was accomplished by this effort. The very fact that the two sides did get together and talk was a step in the right direction. The opportunity to get better acquainted with brethren in general surely could be an asset. Brethren, throughout this first meeting, seemed to think that changes had occurred that would permit unity today. Perhaps so, but I ask, “What is it that has changed? And, who was changed? Is the change the right kind of change?”

My general impression of this first meeting was this: I saw two sides speaking and acting very cautiously, seemingly trying to “set up” the other for some future effort. The restraint was obvious; and, perhaps, this meeting did lay a foundation for the second one.

The Meeting On May 14, 1985

This meeting dealt with the topics: Presuppositions Alter Your Conclusions, Autonomy (two speakers), Parameters Of Fellowship, and Romans 14-Fellowship. A question period also followed each of these topics.

Like brother Witherington, I heard more “uncertain” sounds in this meeting than in the former. There was not the same measure of restraint in this meeting as in the former; speakers did, for the most part, address their topics more pointedly and plainly. This fact was very revealing. It revealed that there was absolutely no change in the attitude of our “liberal” brethren. They still use the same old arguments, have the same attitudes toward the truth, and demonstrate no willingness to change.

The fifty-minute speech by brother Don White on “Presuppositions” may be summed up in one simple statement: There is no binding pattern or standard and the only unity that is possible is “unity in diversity.” There were no scriptural arguments presented in this lesson; perhaps none were intended. This lesson would lead one to believe that Christ can be separated from His Word, as the “doctrine of God” was played down and the person of Christ was uplifted. Brother White argued that there is no “explicit scriptural basis for a restoration principle” and that “Doctrine is a framework, not a reality.” During a break following this lesson, one of brother White’s fellow preachers passed by my table and remarked, “He didn’t learn that in the Bay Area School of Preaching.” I might add, he didn’t learn it from the Bible either.

Brother Clyde Wilson did an excellent job on the subject of “Autonomy,” setting forth in plain and forceful terms, the need for authority and respect for the God-given pattern. Anyone missing his points must have had a desire to miss them. Brother Ken Sterling did a fine job in presenting his lesson on Romans 14, clearly showing that Romans 14 did not allow nor did it teach “unity in diversity.”

In the speech on “Parameters of Fellowship,” I heard very little that was in harmony with Scripture, though many passages were introduced. However, the speaker on this subject made his points plainly; you may disagree but could not easily misunderstand. He ended his lesson with a plea for us to accept even those whom we consider to be in error.

Obviously, I have not said all that might be said about the presentations and the reader may notice that I have said nothing about the questions and answers following the lessons.

Perhaps it would be of some value to give some remarks made during those question periods. Brother Don White asked, “Does a return to the New Testament pattern mean a return to specific forms of worship?” He did not think so! Further he said, the “church was born into a Jewish cradle,” and he referred to some acts of worship as Jewish in origin. Brother Jim Ferguson said, “Under some circumstances I would not object to one congregation placing itself under the eldership of another congregation.” In answer to a question about worshiping with a congregation that uses mechanical instruments of music, brother Hal Hougey replied, “Do we love each other?” Earlier brother Hougey had told of him and his wife leaving a congregation because the instrument had been introduced. Yet, he would continue his plea for “unity in diversity.” In a reply to a question about where to worship, brother Hougey’s solution was, “Go where he feels most harmonious.” All these fellows, at the same time, were arguing that “unity should not be compromised.”

The above is typical of replies heard throughout the question periods. However, these were not the only questions and answers that proved to be disturbing. One questioner used the expression, “intercongregational fellowship.” I wonder if the questioner believes in one congregation withdrawing from another congregation. If such fellowship can be established, can it not be broken? If not, why not?

Some answers given in these question periods left a lot to be desired; others being downright disturbing. Maybe the circumstances were more the determining factor than it should have been. In any case, it seemed to me that one truth was being made less important than others, in some instances. This may not have been the intent, but the impression was there. Brother Don White had (mis)used Matthew 23:23 in an effort to support his idea that, “We have assumed that all truth in the New Testament is on the same level of importance.” Are we falling victim to this same fallacy?

All of this, perhaps, illustrates the complex nature of such meetings, and the frustrations that can result, at least to all who sincerely desire the unity for which Jesus prayed.


Following the meeting of January 15, I wrote thusly, “I sincerely trust there shall be further such meetings and that they can soon Ie9d into the practical applications that need so badly to be made. ” I would still hope for such an effort, but I am not so naive as to expect it, especially on the part of our “liberal” brethren. Those wearing the “battle scars” of the past do not get too excited about this hope, even though they would share that hope with those less scarred.

I do not see such meetings as accomplishing the unity as taught in the Scriptures – At best they might possibly change the thinking of some in attendance, so as to help begin a trend in the right direction. Even if unity among all the preachers attending such meetings could be achieved, what of the congregations from which they came? I understand unity, based on Scripture, to focus on the local congregation, as given in such passages as 1 Corinthians 1:10. The basis for this unity is given by God (Eph. 4:1-14). We could, in fact, say that the unity is already there; it is up to us to respect and to maintain that unity as given by God. Since the local congregation is the only unit of “church function,” how can unity be otherwise than local? When each local church respects the unity given by the Lord, there will be no difficulty between churches. Yes, there is a standard and a pattern (2 Tim. 3:16-17). All that God said on any subject is the pattern for that thingl To say that we cannot understand that pattern is to question both the wisdom and justice of God. May God hasten the day when such practice will be erased from the hearts and lips of every one of us.

John 17:20-2 1; 1 Corinthians 1: 10- 13; Ephesians 4:1-14; 5:11; Philippians 3:16; 1 John 1:3-7; and 2 John 9:11 are all still there, and they shall stand as a rebuke to those who would force “unity in diversity” upon God’s people anywhere. Brother Jim Ferguson said, “If we are ever going to find unity we will have to find it because we love each other in Jesus Christ.” The idea is to love each other enough to overlook anything that we consider error-an idea that even its perpetrators will not follow to its logical end!

I am not sure that such meetings make the right impression on younger preachers, those who are not old enough to have experienced any of the “liberal” opposition of the 1950s. I fear for the tolerant attitudes that seem to have taken hold on some. I know of one young preacher who now takes the position that it would not be wrong for one who believes it to be right to worship with the instrument to go among the members of a local church and teach his views, providing he did not force it on others. Now it ought to be obvious that if he was not doing anything wrong, the elders (or anyone else) would not have a right to rebuke, stop, or othewise prevent his activity. Are the burdens of division, immorality, permissiveness, and rebellion against God weighing so heavily that we are willing to compromise our stand for truth and right? God forbid?

I have no information regarding any future meetings, but it shall be interesting to watch for the outcome of any such meetings. May all our efforts redound to His Glory!

Guardian of Truth XXIX: 16, pp. 490-491
August 15, 1985