When we disagree with someone about doctrine, it’s easy to get caught up in the particulars of the doctrinal debate. But once in while, we need to take a step back and look at the tactics we use. It is very possible, of course, to argue for truth in very untruthful ways.
Let’s take a moment to analyze the tactics being used by the Gospel Advocate. Consider Br. Gregory Alan Tidwell’s articles in this month’s Gospel Advocate. I pick on Tidwell, even though he is one of more thoughtful and articulate spokesmen for his point of view, because the fact that he uses these tactics shows just how deeply engrained these tactics are in the conservative Church of Christ culture.
Attacks on anonymous opponents.
Tidwell begins by attacking “many church leaders” and “colleges affiliated with churches of Christ today,” asserting that his unnamed opponents doubt the “authority of Scripture, and the significance of the Bible for the church.” He names no one and cites to no published work.
The problem with this tactic, of course, is that it makes it impossible for the reader to test his claims. Worse yet, the reader is left to speculate about whom he’s attacking. Most readers would assume he’s attacking Abilene Christian, but he seems to attach all Church-affiliated colleges. Is this happening at Faulkner and Harding and Lubbock Christian?
Vague allegations like these will cause some readers to question the soundness of all Church-affiliated colleges. Others will guess which ones he’s attacking but guess wrong. Even if he’s right as to one or two schools, he’s effectively slandered the innocent.
Worse yet, not only has he tarred the innocent, but the innocent are in no position to defend themselves. Imagine a published author saying, “I know he was speaking about me, but he’s wrong.” Just to say that seems to admit that you fit in the category of those who doubt the Bible! Why defend yourself if you aren’t guilty? Well, because Tidwell has used an unfair, scattershot approach that hurts the reputation of men and schools entirely innocent of the charges.
Principle: When people teach an error that requires a published correction, name the person and the article or book where the error is taught. Quote it. If it’s on the Internet, provide a link. Don’t expect your readers to have faith in you. Rather, humbly encourage them to check your assertions and determine for themselves whether you are right. When our attacks are subject to audit, we may be a bit more careful about what we say.
Confusing disagreement with you and disagreement with the Bible
For generations, preachers in the Churches of Christ have argued that if you disagree with their positions, you deny the authority of the Bible. But there’s a difference between disagreeing with the author and disagreeing with the Bible. It is, in fact, quite possible to believe the Bible and accept its authority while disputing an interpretation taught by the Gospel Advocate.
This is amply evidenced by the fact that the views of the Gospel Advocate have changed over the years. Today, the Advocate insists that the person being baptized must do so intending to receive remission of sins to be saved. 100 years ago, David Lipscomb and other authors vigorously disagreed. Which Gospel Advocate denied inspiration? Well, neither. They simply reasoned to different conclusions despite agreeing on the very same Bible.
Tidwell argues that those who disagree with him regarding the use of instruments or the role of women in worship are doing so because they deny the authority of the Bible. He offers no evidence for this other than accusations to the same effect made by other men–many of whom he disagrees with on other issues!
The problem with this tactic is that it makes a claim that is almost never true. I know many, many people who disagree with Tidwell on these issues and yet fervently believe in the inspiration and authority of the Bible. To say otherwise is–plain and simple–slander.
(1 Pet. 2:1) Therefore, rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind.
I imagine that there’s a handful of men who deny inspiration and also deny that a cappella singing is commanded. But the vast, vast majority of those who disagree with Tidwell do so intending to honor God’s will.
Principle: Do not accuse someone of denying the inspiration of the Bible just because he disagrees with you. If you’re really right, then you can prove it from Scripture. The personal attack adds nothing to the argument and only makes you look bad. Worse yet, if you make a false accusation, you’ve sinned terribly. No matter how important the issue, nothing justifies false attacks against your opponent. The wise course is to completely avoid person attacks and stick to the real issues.
Moreover, such attacks tend to discourage honest dialog about controversial issues. Who wants to raise a question about traditional teaching, knowing that he’ll be accused of denying inspiration just because he’s not so sure we’ve been right? And yet, if we’re wrong, how will our understanding be corrected except by those willing to ask the question?
Demanding doctrinal perfection
The Restoration Movement has had disagreements within its ranks from the very beginning. Barton W. Stone and Alexander Campbell disagreed on many issues, including the Trinity, the nature of the atonement, and the personal indwelling of the Spirit, and yet they united into a single movement. David Lipscomb and Austin McGary disagreed over whether you must intend for your baptism to remit your sins for the baptism to be effective.David Lipscomb taught them women could teach Bible class to adult men. J. W. McGarvey considered those using the instrument in error but saved. Lipscomb considered military service and voting sin. Campbell taught the millennium. Foy Wallace, Jr. considered such teaching damnable.
Repeatedly, authors of conservative periodicals reason: It’s error, therefore it’s sin, and therefore, it damns. Some frankly admit that they believe we must get every single doctrine right to be saved. Others admit that not all doctrines are salvation issues–but I’ve personally asked several of our most prominent conservative writers how they decide which issues are salvation issues, and not a one has even attempted to articulate a standard.
Imagine! Men are teaching that such and such an error damns and can’t even tell you why this error damns and not others! Without a Bible-based standard for how to tell, aren’t we just guessing? And what could be more irresponsible than declaring fellow baptized, penitent believers damned based on a guess?
Principle: Not all error damns. A lack of faith damns (1 John 4:2-3). A failure to be penitent, that is, to let Jesus be Lord of your life, damns (Heb. 10:26-27). Seeking to be saved by works damns (Gal. 5:4).
Just picking a hot button issue and declaring it a salvation issue is irresponsible in the extreme. It teaches that others may do the same. It divides the family of God. It makes salvation subjective. And it leads to a works salvation.
Such teaching ultimately destroys the gospel. After all, if I have to get all doctrine right to go to heaven, or if God has left me to guess, then I can have no confidence in my salvation unless I’m an incredibly arrogant person–believing my doctrinal views to be perfect–or I live in denial, just refusing to think about it.
Doctrinalizing our preferences
In the Churches of Christ we dress up our fights in doctrinal garb, hoping to overwhelm our opponents with the Bible, even when we’re really fighting over something else. Of course, sometimes it really is about the Bible. But often it’s not.
I’m not saying that we do this intentionally, knowing we are teaching error. No, I’m just saying that we have so many ways of “proving” something to be error that when we get mad enough, we find the doctrines we need and declare those who disagree with us damned.
Tidwell tellingly quotes McGarvey (p. 37) as declaring “the reading of printed prayers” just as wrong as instrumental music and for the very same reasons!
Now, just how is it wrong to read a printed prayer? I can’t imagine why this was a controversy, but McGarvey actually reasoned that if it’s wrong to read a printed prayer, then surely it’s wrong to use an instrument, as though it were an obvious truth!
Shortly before this was first written, Daniel Sommer led a division within the Churches of Christ over the authority to hire a located minister. The dispute lasted until the 1950’s, by which time even the churches that had opposed located ministers found the need to hire preachers.
Disputes that seemed central to our Christianity decades ago seem downright silly in retrospect. They weren’t silly to those men, but we see in hindsight that matters of personal preference were often dressed up in doctrinal garbed and then divided over. Isn’t it just possible that we’re doing the same today?
In Tidwell’s final article in this month’s Gospel Advocate, he states a rule for when a church’s support for an institution violates the “New Testament pattern” causing us to be practicing as “different religion”–“when they become parasites, draining resources away from congregations.”
Now, let’s just think about this standard for “the pattern” for a minute. At what point does my congregation’s support for an orphanage or college or ministry become “a parasite”? Must we give only out of our surplus? Mightn’t it be more Christ-like to do without so that we can support missionaries or a clinic for the poor?
If this is the pattern, its boundaries are awfully subjectively defined! I mean, my church might tolerate a hair more financial sacrifice than your church–does that mean we’re outside the pattern and damned?
Is this really a mark of the church: whether we support institutions that demand to much money?
Principle: The true marks of the church are plain enough–
(John 13:34-35) “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. 35 By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
(John 17:20-23) “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 21 that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: 23 I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.
(1 Pet. 2:12-15) Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us. … 15 For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish men.
The “pattern” I read in the New Testament isn’t about which institute is a parasite. It’s about whether we truly love each other, whether we’re as united as Jesus is united with his father, and whether our impact on our communities is such that the lost world sees our good deeds and so glorifies God!
But we insist on taking matters not even mentioned in the Bible–whether to support an institution or read printed prayers–and building our own pattern. God wants his pattern followed and his priorities emphasized.
I may well prefer that we support this institution and not another, that we pray this way and not another, or that we use the church treasury this way or not another, but I have no business defining the “pattern” by such concerns unless God himself does so.
Abuse of authority
About 100 years ago, when we were fighting over instrumental music, the authority argument became central to Church of Christ theology. We argued that it’s sin to do something without authority. If the Bible doesn’t authorize it, then it doesn’t come from “faith” and so is sin, we argued.
The problem with this argument is that there’s no end to what can be “proved” by it. And at some level, we know it. Hence, when we get unhappy about something, we quickly turn to this Swiss-army-knife argument that can prove anything and demand that our opponents yield to our demands or else risk violating the pattern.
Hence, McGarvey “proves” that printed prayers are sin because they are unauthorized. Others have “proven” that it’s sin to–
- Read a sermon from notes (it’s a written creed)
- Take communion any time other than the evening (Acts 20:5-8)
- Have praise teams (not really sure)
- Conduct children’s worship (they learned with their parents in the First Century)
- Teach Bible classes (they studied as one in the First Century)
- Have solos (entertainment has no authority)
- Make announcements after the opening prayers (not one of the five acts of worship)
- Hire located preachers (Paul wasn’t paid)
- Help the non-Christian poor (no authority until we’ve satisfied all needs within the church)
- Support orphans out of the church treasury (no example)
- Support the “Herald of Truth” out of the church treasury (no authority for cooperation)
- Use car washes and fairs to raise money (only New Testament example is a freewill offering)
- Conduct bake sales or book sales in the building (“money changing” in the building, no authority)
- Construct kitchens in the building (no authority)
- Build church gymnasiums (no authority)
And on and on it goes. Some of the “prohibitions” actually contradict direct commands found plainly and repeatedly in the Bible, and yet we feel justified because we can build our case on authority. Sorry, but the authority argument seems to prove just about anything. How valid can it be?
Principle: The New Testament is not written in terms of what is authorized and not authorized. It’s not a constitution or blueprint in that sense. We have authority to obey God’s commands. Unless we violate a command in what we do, if what we do honors a command, it’s authorized.
Hence, we are commanded to teach God’s word. Using a Bible class or a children’s worship hour or a television program violates no command. It’s authorized. Indeed, the very question of authority is foreign to the argument but it adds nothing to the argument.
Our time and energy would be far better spent worrying about how to do good, love, and be united rather than seeking to tease out a pattern for institutional cooperation that’s just not there.
Does this mean that we can do anything? No. We still have to honor God’s commands. But that’s all he expects.