H. Leo Boles was perhaps the most influential of the 20th Century Gospel Advocate editors. A disciple of David Lipscomb, Boles wrote for or edited the Advocate for 40 years, until his death in 1946. However, Boles is most famous for his influence on the unity movement.
After the separation of the instrumental and non-instrumental churches was recognized, many in both groups tried to find a way to re-unite the Movement. A series of unity meetings were held at which each side spoke and positions were defined and considered. Ultimately, at a “unity meeting” in Indianapolis, May 3, 1939, Boles was asked to speak for the non-instrumental position. There he delivered his famous “The Way of UNITY Between ‘CHRISTIAN CHURCH’ AND CHURCHES OF CHRIST” talk.
The speech was printed in the journals of both parts of the Movement and came to define the attitude of the non-instrumental Churches of Christ toward the instrumental churches. Boles’ use of quotation marks around “Christian Church” anticipates the tone of his talk.
Boles begins by quoting from the words of his grandfather, “Raccoon” John Smith, spoken with regard to the unity meeting between the Stone and Campbell movements in Lexington–
I have the more cheerfully resolved on this course, because the gospel is a system of facts, commands, and promises, and no deduction or inference from them, however logical or true, forms any part of the gospel of Jesus Christ. No heaven is promised to those who hold them, and no hell is threatened to those who deny them. They do not constitute, singly or together, an item of the ancient and apostolic gospel. While there is but one faith, there may be ten thousand opinions; and, hence, if Christians are ever to be one, they must be one in faith, and not in opinion. When certain subjects arise, even in conversation or social discussion, about which there is a contrariety of opinion and sensitiveness of feeling, speak of them in the words of the Scripture, and no offense will be given and no pride of doctrine will be encouraged. We may even come, in the end, by thus speaking the same things, to think the same things.
Now these words are largely quotations from Alexander Campbell. Fairly interpreted, they say that we must unite on faith, not opinions. “Faith” in Campbell’s vocabulary is the same as faith in the New Testament vocabulary: faith in Jesus. All else is “opinion” as Campbell and Smith used the term.
By denying that any opinions form a part of the gospel, Smith was saying that we should not divide over anything other than the gospel, that is, faith in Jesus. Boles, however, takes a very different interpretation.
It is the duty of every Christian to stand firmly and loyally for the New Testament scriptures, and to wage a “stern, relentless, merciless, exterminating” warfare on anything and anybody that opposes the teachings of the New Testament on the purity of worship. …
This settles it as to how faith comes; it comes by hearing the word of God. Where God has not spoken, there can be no faith, for “faith cometh by hearing the word of God,” and Christians, when they are loyal to God, “walk by faith, not by sight.” (II Cor. 5:7.) Opinion is an expression based on human judgment, without clear and satisfactory testimony; the word “opinion” signifies “what one thinks,” and in matters of religion it means what men think concerning matters on which the Bible is silent. The distinction between “faith” and “opinion” should be kept clear, for “whatsoever is not of faith is sin.” (Rom. 14: 23.) “Whatsoever is not of faith is sin” means when we do anything as service to God not clearly required in his word, we sin. To bring things into the service of God which are based only on opinion is to substitute opinion for faith. This substitution separates man from God and causes division among men. To substitute opinion for faith is to rebel against God; it is to put the judgments of men as our guide, and thus reject the counsel of God. Christians cannot work together in harmony with two different rules of action.
Boles reinterprets Campbell and Smith to argue that “faith” is any teaching found in the scripture, whether expressly or by inference–and opinion is all else. As instrumental music is not found in the New Testament, it is not “of faith” and hence is sin.
But this is a gross misreading of the New Testament, which defines “faith” as faith in Jesus. This is what we confess and believe and on which we are baptized. Boles, however, argues that only by following the Bible can we be united, meaning, of course, his interpretation of the Bible–
There is but one pathway to unity among God’s people; there is but one rule that can make us one in Christ Jesus; only one way that can bring salvation to the world. All must exalt the supremacy of the word of God and keep opinions private; no one should propagate his opinions in “the areas of silence,” but acknowledge the leadership of Christ and love each other as brethren in order to enjoy Christian unity. So let each one lay aside all opinions, ways, inventions, devices, practices, organizations, creeds, confessions, names, manner of work, except those plainly presented and clearly required in the New Testament. Let all determine to do nothing in religion, save that plainly taught in the scripture and ask his brother to accept nothing that God has not required. Let all do faithfully just what God has required, and let all do this in the way approved by God, and unity is the inevitable result and no “conference” or “unity meeting” is needed.
Now, Boles saw his views on instrumental music as matters of faith. Those of his opponents, he saw as opinion. His views on located preachers are faith. His opponents preach opinion. And on it goes. One is to distinguish faith from opinion by being right rather than wrong. And so the solution for unity is for everyone to be right!
But, of course, we’ve tried that, and it doesn’t work. Rather, the history of the 20th Century Churches of Christ is a long, awful series of disputes in which each side claims “faith” for its view and “opinion” for its opponents’. In fact, the issues we divided over only became more peculiar and picayune over time, with divisions over located preachers, soloists and choirs, the use of preacher notes, the use of Bible class literature, the use of one or multiple cups, the Sunday school, cooperation in the support of missions and orphans homes, cooperation in the support of “The Herald of Truth” television broadcast, use of church money to support Christian colleges, whether campus ministries must be overseen by elders or by a nonprofit board, whether a church may build a fellowship hall, whether a kitchen may be part of a church building, the children’s church, youth ministers, the use of the NIV, and on it goes and goes and goes.
One side claims “faith” or “expedience” or “aid” for his side and damns the other side for teaching “opinion” or “digression” or “innovation.” But the whole effort to find unity in doctrinal perfection is doomed to failure.
The mistake we made in all this was to fail to distinguish the gospel from all other doctrine. We felt the need to insist on faith, repentance, and baptism as absolutely essential, but couldn’t see how we could insist on these without also insisting on weekly communion and non-instrumental music as equally essential. It didn’t occur to us that the gospel is radically different from what the rest of what the Bible teaches.
Finally, it’s worth noting that Boles wrote an influential book on the Holy Spirit, still widely taught, that rejected Campbell’s “word only” view and taught that all Christians receive an “ordinary” measure of the Spirit at baptism. Boles was unclear as to the significance of this indwelling but considered it plainly taught. Ever since then, the Churches of Christ have considered the indwelling a “disputable matter,” that is, neither faith or opinion, as two great leaders in the Movement have taken opposite views.
It has always astonished me that we can tolerate disagreement on this topic, so vital to the New Testament writers, but we’re unable to tolerate disagreement on matters as to which the Bible hardly speaks.