When I first began to preach, nearly 40 years ago, our leading brethren were saying a lot about "rightly dividing the word of truth," or as the Revised Version reads, handling aright the word of truth" (2 Tim. 2.15). This was a favorite theme for sermons. Even though most of them seemed to think its basic application was to separate the Old Testament from the New, it was a good emphasis. It did impress on our minds an awareness that in the handling of scripture the choice of procedure is important, and they also did branch out into such matters as the need to get all passages on the point, consider the context, harmonize scriptures who each others, and to consider in each instance who is speaking and to whom. The art of Biblical analysis came to be called "exegesis." There was a concept generally held among us that this what separated our teachings from denominational "theology. Our doctrines were distinctive in that they were the product of an exegetical integrity that the religious world generally did not practice.
For the first hundred years of the restoration movement this ideal was evidently applied much more purely than it has been since. It was an ideal that quickly attracted favorable response from people of honest minds and right spiritual priorities. Of course everybody wanted the "real thing," the undiluted teachings of the Bible. But by the time I came on the scene the actual practice of this ideal was already fading badly. The flag was still up there, but what was being practiced ms, de the "fort" was such that already we had about 15 divisions among ourselves and another major one was shaping up. However, many of us did not recognize what was happening. We bought into the ideal and began trying to practice it.
We had pretty good success with It and we found that a lot of denominational people were receptive, even some among the preachers and other leaders. In the mid 1960s it was reported in United Press International that churches of Christ were the fastest growing religious body in America. A lot of people signed on with us. But the ideal had evolved into a system that was flawed and soon these flaws began to lead to serious problems. In actual practice real objectivity on Bible subjects was not allowed within the walls of our "fort." Anyone who would come in to be one of us had to accept the total package of what we called "basic, settled doctrines: (1) Instrumental music in worship is sinful: (2) No baptism among the denominations is valid; (3) No name but "The Church of Christ" can be put on the meeting place: (4) All words, phrases, or expressions which are popular in denominational churches must be discarded; and (5) the Lord's Supper on Sunday only and on every Sunday is essential. What was required was, in essence, an unconditional surrender to us, starting with being rebaptized.
Now, please be careful to understand the point here. It is not the embracing of these doctrines that I see as the flaw. It is the cancellation of the right to be objective about them, or any other doctrines, that is the flaw. Personally I love to worship with unaccompanied singing, and baptism and the Lord's Supper are particularly dear to my heart because these are things the Lord Jesus Himself personally commanded. I also agree that using the language of scripture is less likely to convey untrue ideas. But declaring interpretations in these matters beyond what the text of scripture stipulates and then making those declarations tests of fellowship is to do, in essence, the very thing that sectarian leaders were doing in 1800, which was the offense that triggered the restoration movement as a corrective measure. Teaching that baptism is for the remission of sins is not going beyond, because the scripture expressly states it.(Acts 2:38). However, teaching that baptism's effective in remitting sins only when the one being baptized fully understands that purpose, is going beyond what the Bible text justifies. Even so, holding that opinion is still not the thing that destroys the goal of handling the word of truth correctly. Forcing that opinion on others and presuming to declare their baptism invalid" is the kind of thing that destroys this ideal.
Thus it has come to pass that in the place where express statements of scripture once stood as the only absolute authority, so called "inferences" and "deductive conclusions" now stand as tests of fellowship. This means that the scepter of authority has been put into human hands and "handling aright the word of truth" has been made equivalent to "lining up with (men's) decisions." No longer is our teaching distinguished from denominational theology by standing on a "thus saith the Lord." To join us now, one must accept our human creed (though unwritten) which ranges well beyond what is expressly stated in scripture. Instead of our aim being to help people to learn, we now seek to defeat and capture them.
The ideal of exegetical integrity is still universally attractive. Everybody still wants the real thing, except maybe those who are so sure they already have it that they are unable to consider the possibility that they might still need it. The pure word of God, unmixed with human theory, is still the great need and is what most religious people would like very much to have. However, it is not available apart from the right handling of the word of truth, in actual practice, not just in lip service to the ideal.
Do you know what the answer would be if you went to all kinds of churches in your town and asked the question, "What is your standard of religious authority?" In almost all cases they would say, "We go by the Bible here." The claim to doing that is not distinctive or unusual at all. It is the execution of it that is unusual and distinctive. In spite of the fact that everybody claims to go by the Bible, the multitude of contradictory teachings makes it obvious they do not. So how is one to tell the difference?
Paul said that the scriptures are designed to provide "reproof, correction, and instruction in righteousness," along with "doctrine" (2 Tim. 3:16). It is precisely here that the fat gets into the fire. We do not want to be corrected or reproved. It is here that our loyalty to the word is really tested. As long as we are reading scriptures that agree with what we believe, which do not reprove us, it is easy to accept what they say. However, when we encounter passages that say something different to what we believe, now our loyalty to the text is tested. What will we do with these passages?
Usually we will do one of two things. Either we will bend the text to fit what we believe or we will bend what we believe to fit the text. Of course the latter is the honest thing to do. It is also the most beneficial thing to do. Paul stud the scriptures are "profitable" for these corrective purposes. Conversely Peter said that those who wrest the scriptures do so "to their own destruction (2 Pet. 3:16).
In 2 Tim 2:15 the Greek word for "handling aright" means to cut straight and true, as in plowing a furrow or building a road. The idea is honest loyalty to the guidelines. The verse starts with the command to "give diligence," or try your best to do this. We need to get back to this, laying aside the notion that we have the Scriptures mastered and are not subject to error. The process of growing in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour should continue as long as we live (2 Pet. 3:18). This is what God requires. It is an idea that is timeless. It was a key for people of the first century. It was what was needed in the middle centuries. And it is an idea whose time has come ... again. God will surely bless those who can bring their will into complete submission to His.