University Avenue Bible Chair and Madalyn Murray O’Hair, or, Activating the Church Universal

By Karl Diestelkamp

Churches throughout the land have received a 17 x 22 inch letter-brochure from the University Avenue church of Christ, Austin, Texas, detailing an expected conflict between it and atheist Mrs. Madalyn Murray O’Hair. Mrs. O’Hair is seeking permission to “teach the Bible at the University from an atheistic point of view or to close down the Bible Chairs at the Austin campus.” This has the University Avenue brethren excited because they sponsor “the church of Christ Bible Chair.” Their letter states:

” . . . in a real sense her success will depend on you . . . The biggest obstacle standing in her way is the University requirement that a Bible Chair must be the agent for a national religious organization. This rule that now disqualifies her would technically disqualify the church of Christ Bible Chair. Because of the biblical principle of congregational autonomy, we have no national convention nor synod, being rather under the direct oversight of the elders of the University Avenue Church of Christ. The church’s Bible Chair, then, may well become the leverage Mrs. O’Hair uses to win her goal.

“To prepare for what might become her point of attack, we are appealing to every congregation of the Lord’s church to participate in the Bible Chair by contributing the funds to teach one student for one semester, which Is $32.50. With this financial participation of churches of Christ we will be able to demonstrate that the Bible Chair is a nationwide project of the Lord’s people” (all emphasis by K. D.).

There you have it, brethren! The success of an atheist depends upon us! We are supposed to feel guilty if we do not help demonstrate that this Bible Chair is a “nation-wide project” of the churches of Christ. They have the audacity to refer to “the biblical principle of congregational autonomy” in one paragraph and then in the next to try to activate the church universal under their sponsorship. Would this make University Avenue church “The Mother Church,” or Headquarters,” to the minds of those who must decide who may and may not operate Bible Chairs on the Austin campus? Do these brethren really believe that Mrs. O’Hair, as blasphemous and obnoxious as she is, is also so stupid as not see through this obvious subterfuge?

Did another alternative not occur to them? What about the possibility of admitting that they violate “the University requirement” and withdraw from the scene? Why give Mrs. O’Hair any opportunity to charge that the University Avenue church violates rules? Some need to be taught again the principles of honest behavior found in 1 Thess. 4:12; Rom. 12:17 and 2 Cor. 8:21.

Over twenty years ago, in the Harper-Tant Debate over the “sponsoring church” arrangement for the Herald of Truth, Brother Tant stated: “Herald of Truth is wrong because it provides an arrangement by which the ‘church universal’ may function through a single agency-the elders of Highland Church.” Defenders of the “sponsoring church” have been reluctant to openly admit that if one church can function partially through a sponsoring church, then all the churches in the world could do so. And, if one church can partially so function, then why not completely, and then the next step would be all of the churches in the world functioning completely under the oversight of one sponsoring eldership. Logic and common sense require that possibility-if the sponsoring church concept is valid to begin with.

Today we have this Austin church making an appeal “to every congregation of the Lord’s church.” Perhaps that phrase betrays some of their problem. That is equivalent to saying, “to every church of the Lord’s church.” It may be that they think the church universal is made tip of autonomous congregations, when, in fact, it is made up of all the saved individuals in the world (Matt. 16:18; Acts 2:41,47; 1 Tim. 3:15).

These Texas brethren are not alone in their mistaken ideas about the nature of the body of Christ. In a paper titled: “Position Paper Concerning The Scriptural Authority For The Campaigns For Christ Being Conducted In The Cincinnati Area,” Oct. 21, 1975, Gaston D. Cogdell writes:

“The model church-that in Jerusalem, which was made up of perhaps 10,000 people (5,000 men alone-Acts 4:4), which it seems reasonable to suppose, was made up of many groups or congregations, even had a common treasury. (Acts 2:44-45; 4:32-37) . . . It would, theeefore, seem to be a necessary inference that the 10,000 or so members of the Jerusalem Chruch met in many groups . . . This would not be different from the situation in Cincinnati, or in most other places, where the Church is comprised of many congregations . . . There is only one true Chruch of Christ in the Cincinnati area . . . many congregations, but only one Chruch. This Church is charged with the solemn responsibility of preaching the Gospel of Christ . . . The Church is the Body of Christ and the various congregations tire integral parts of that universal body, and are obligated to function together as parts of that body (emphasis by K. D.).

Our brother is confused. First he “supposes,” though not giving proof, that the Jerusalem church was made up of many congregations. Then, on the basis of his supposition he concludes that a plurality of local churches had a common treasury. Neither does he understand what constitutes a “necessary inference.” Nothing necessarily infers that even 10,000 people (a man-made estimate) could not have met together in one assembly. I suggest that those interested in crowd size possibilities read McGarvey’s comment on Acts 3:11 when considering Acts 4:4.

If Gaston Cogdell’s thinking is followed to the logical conclusion we could easily have one sponsoring church in the world to oversee all of the contributed funds of all of the churches in the world. Would he deny that every church in the world could send some, or all, of its funds to the same sponsoring church? In describing the “Campaign Committee” composed of “representatives of several congregations to assist in a joint evangelistic endeavor,” this can-of-worms-argument gets even worse when he says, “The elders of the sponsoring church have sole final authority in all matters, and the decisions of the Campaign Committee are all subject to the approval of the over-seeing Eldership, but the Committee itself is not under the authority of the over-seeing Eldership, but the members of the Committee are under the authority of the Elders of the various congregations they represent” (emphasis by K. D.). When the Committee is functioning, who has the oversight? We can only conclude that all of the participating elderships must have the oversight, jointly, of the functioning committee. Here is a plan for activating the church universal-have one church assume the oversight of any, or all, work that is the equal responsibility of local churches and let all other churches become supporting churches sending locally overseen “representatives,” who have no authority, to an advisory committee that has no authority. In this Cincinnati case all of the supporting churches must, admittedly, submit to the “sole final authority” of the sponsoring eldership, in so far as decisions regarding the use of their contributed funds.

The Austin and Cincinnati brethren suffer from the same problem. They do not know what constitutes an autonomous church. They fail to understand that the universal church is composed of all of the saved in the world and has no collective work and no machinery for work and function. Their’s is a denominational concept that has no scriptural support and the words, “it seems reasonable to suppose” and “It would, therefore, seem” are not the same as “thus saith the Lord.” Will the Austin brethren give up their unauthorized project or choose to share the “Bible Chair” arrangement with an atheist? We shall see! In the mean time they will try to portray to the world that this is a “nationwide project” of the churches of Christ and as a by-product get as many contributions of $32.50 as possible from uninformed and gullible brethren. In a “P.S.” on their letter they list among the “important facts” about their Bible Chair that “It is the oldest Bible Chair in our brotherhood.” What does that prove? Being in error as a sponsoring church longer than anyone else is not a virtue. The entire letter contained not one verse of scripture in defense of this project. But, then, of course, there isn’t any – just the desire to continue, regardless!

Truth Magazine XX: 31, pp. 487-488
August 5, 1976