In early March, after our return from the ACU lectures, we went to Chattanoga, TN to be with our friend Charles Holt and other friends, and to attend the debate between Charles and J.T. Smith. I went there a bit unclear on the issues involved and what my friend was affirming. These two had already had a debate on the same subject at Lake Jackson, Texas a few months earlier, after which word had gone out that Holt does not believe in elders, that he does not believe in the local church, that he does not believe in preachers being supported, and other assorted allegations. I had read the first issue of his new paper The Examiner, and saw that much of what was said there was very good. But, like many of you, I wasn't sure what to make of some of it. I remember when I first spoke out on the divorce-remarriage subject, word was circulated that I approve divorce for any cause and actually encouraged it, that I endorse adultery, and many such foolish ideas. It took the better part of a decade to get that clarified and a few brethren still say that about me. I learned a good while ago that one cannot correctly evaluate a position by how brethren react to it. Neither can you know what is actually being said by what "they say" is being said. Strange as it may seem, we have reached the point in the brotherhood that if a brother begins to call attention to some original NT concept, and to emphasize something that may appear in scripture but has not been accepted generally among us, he is likely to be seen as a wild-eyed heretic and no telling what is likely to be reported as what he said. These days we don't ask, "What did the brother say and does he support it with scripture?" as we used to do. Instead the question now is, "Which segment does he belong to?" and perhaps "are you lining up with that group?"
Ironically, this is exactly what the efforts emanating from Chattanooga are all about. They are saying that from the Bible standpoint there should not be such a thing as a church consisting of all the factions and groups, from which the Christian must choose which to "join." Oh yes, they say there is a church alright. But they say it consists of the PEOPLE and that when one is in Christ he is in it and is not required to join anything else. If this sounds familiar it may be that, like me, you are recalling that this was our basic message a few years ago in the restoration movement.
I was a little surprised when in the debate Brother Smith affirmed that obeying the Gospel does not constitute one a member of all that one is required to be a member of, but that there is another entity, a local corporate body which one must (not may, must) join, that it has governing officials called "elders" to which one must submit so completely that to disobey them is to disobey God, and that their decisions are final in all matters, both of faith and of judgement. But then when he was asked what can be done if they decide on a course which Brother Smith sees as unscriptural, he said, "They were put in, they can be put out." If you have a copy of the first issue of The Examiner, read the propositions again, slowly and carefully.
Several times in recent months we have mentioned the wall of division between so-called "Antis" and "Liberals" (misnomers) which went up about 30 years ago, and that the problems are basically the same in both camps, revolving around an imperial concept of church organization. On both sides of the fence men have built their religious empires and power structures. The quality of spiritual life has deteriorated under a reign of negativism, authoritarianism, and judgmentalism and what we're seeing now "over there" as well as "over here," is reaction against these modern forms of Romanism. Godly men from both camps have desired to understand the situation well enough to deal with it in a healing way. To this end they have studied and searched and prayed, even as we also have. The uprisings may take different forms and shapes and in each case "the issue" raised may look different, but the underlying desire is the same, to "hold fast to the liberty wherewith Christ has made us free" and be not entangled in yokes of human bondage.
The question of the authority of elders is an intricate part of this imperial system. Take for example the Spiritual Sword empire. Of course, it is all very unofficial but also very real. Their teaching is that the authority of elders is absolute and they push that strongly. But the elders get their orders from the Spiritual Sword editors and preachers. In their magazine as well as in their regular lecture programs etc., they constantly drum out what The Position of the Church is on every point of doctrine and practice. These rulings are in no sense optional for these men see their conclusions and deductions as part of the word of God. Elders (or preachers) who may not see something their way, are immediately seen as opposing GOD. These are given the option "Recant immediately and without question or face our wrath!" That was the option I was given when I spoke out on divorce and remarriage. I chose the latter and the whole brotherhood knows what followed. So actually the authority of elders is "absolute" ONLY so long as they remain on the course these men chart for them. When the elders of the local church where I preached at the time stood up with me they were seen then as having absolutely no authority at all and letters were sent out calling on the brotherhood to disown all of us. Had the elders lined up with these men they would then have told the people that they must submit to these elders for they are made elders by the Holy Spirit, they watch for your souls, and to resist them is to resist God! So these men want the elders to have absolute authority at the local level. This is the first tier of their empire. But then their authority over the elders is such that any who fail to line up with the decrees "can be put out the same way they were put in." This is the ecclesiastical imperial system. It is practiced by publishing organizations such as the Spiritual Sword, the Guardian of Truth, etc., by some preaching schools such as E. TN School of Preaching, Memphis; Brown Trail at Hurst Texas and a few others, and even a few colleges. Each organization usually has one or two men who function as the real emperors of the group. The other leaders hold tightly to the coattails of these, always trying to "move up" in the hierarchical ranks. (It's all unofficial, of course!)
Christians in all segments of the church are getting sick of being victimized and manipulated. More and more are realizing that all of us who want a return to non-sectarian New Testament Christianity have allies in those of other groups who want the same thing. It is not the aim of any of us to do away with the church. It is our aim to bring it back to the one Lord, to recognize that "all authority" was given to Jesus, in heaven and on earth. Jesus cited the Gentile emperial systems and said, "But it shall NOT be so among you." (Matt. 20:25-26). We need to get back to the concept that "there is ONE BODY" and when one obeys the Gospel the Lord adds him to it. We need to return to the truth that "everyone of us shall give an account of himself to God" for his workmanship, not to the chieftans of our party. And most of all we need to return to the assignment of the Great Commission, which is to go out and "make disciples," not "go out and make religious empires."
I wound up moderating for Brother Holt for the final two nights because I saw what it is he is fighting for. We spent a week down there and discussed at length with several brethren, and it was a refreshing experience. We know that these reform efforts will be met with vicious hostility, even as our own efforts have encountered "over here." False issues will be raised and false accusations made, of course. But Charles Holt and others who are working with him are simply recognizing, along with people at the "grass roots" level on both sides of the fence, and with many preachers, including this writer, that the image of the church today has come to be patterned far too much after Romish concepts and far too little after Bible concepts. We are all imperfect at expressing ourselves and it is easy to cast misimpressions. But basically we see the great needs among us today as these:
1. To develop attitudes of peace and mutual forbearance.
2. To restore communication and openness of mind.
3. To recognize no authority standard but the Bible and to exercise freedom to study it honestly.
4. To hold membership only in CHRIST, not in any sect.
5. To have elders in the scriptural sense, not in the sense of "Lords."
6. To provide room for growing spiritually.
As Christians we must cease to submit to men who are so blinded by party loyalty and the craving for power that they do not even see the tragedy of carving up the spiritual body of Christ. Let's unite and return to the NT. -- Taken from News and Notes , Olan Hicks, Editor.