I suppose there is a need for honesty in discussing religious matters. I have to wonder sometimes how those who hurl charges and set themselves up as “defenders of the faith,” continue in open misrepresentation, or at the very least the construction of straw man argumentation in the realm of discussion and debate. I have read through the years a number of debates on issues that have come up among the churches of Christ, in addition to those that have placed a member of the church in discussion with some denominational preacher on some issue or another. The sad fact is in a number of my readings, I have noted that there was less misrepresentation, ad homonym, red herring and straw man appeal in those discussions that were held with those in the denominations. This should not be so! So many times brethren have resorted to name calling, personal insult, or open misrepresentation. I noticed this in the discussions surrounding the so-called “deity/humanity of Christ” issue, it was present in the discussions over Marriage Divorce and Remarriage, and perhaps the most evident in the discussions of the issues that arose during the 1950’s and 1960’s. It both surprises, and saddens me that such was the case.
I began preaching when the biggest wave of the deity/humanity issue was in some sense drawing to a close. That is not to say that it is over now, but it has fallen out of popularity as a source of discussion in many circles. During the course of these proceedings, there were brethren who said things like “I have more in common with Billy Graham than I do with ______________” ( preacher’s name omitted for obvious reasons). I was chastised by some for simply attending a meeting at a local church because of their supposed involvement in the controversy. And also at one point, I was told that “Brother so and so believed what the Jehovah’s Witnesses do about Christ.” So me, finding it somewhat odd that a member of the church would believe such nonsense, did what I believe we all should do. I asked brother so and so what he believed. Guess what? It was not what the Jehovah’s Witnesses believe at all. And While I don’t agree completely with what brother so and so, explained. I came away convinced that he does not deny Christ’s divinity, and his beliefs aren’t a red-headed step cousin to what the Jehovah’s Witnesses believe on the issue. Sadly, the same guy who told me all of this about brother so and so, also told others that I believe and support the same doctrine that he characterized as the "Jehovah's Witness's position" . Thinking back, I never had a conversation about what I believe on the issue with him, nor have I written extensively on the subject. I have told many, but he was not one. Also, even had he heard through a third-party, I fail to see how he could come to that conclusion. I suppose some brethren, sadly, have no problem with lies and misrepresentation I recall what Solomon said, though “These six things the LORD hates, Yes, seven are an abomination to Him: A proud look, A lying tongue, Hands that shed innocent blood, A heart that devises wicked plans, Feet that are swift in running to evil, A false witness who speaks lies, And one who sows discord among brethren” (Proverbs 6:16-19; emphasis mine KGJ)” What a stern, and so often unheeded, warning.
The sad thing is, this was just the general discussion surrounding the debate. To listen to some of the debates that took place then, you would have to remind yourself at times that the debate was not over personal attributes, but rather over what Christ did, and/or did not do on the earth. Brethren were called “Calvinists,” and “pagans,” and an open effort was included by one to insure that he did not call the other his “brother” but simply referred to him as “opponent.” (Oddly enough, he would then later whine that “he doesn’t even consider me a brother”). Also, this does not even take into account some of the non-important side argument that arose and wasted debate time over nothing. Brethren, our time and talents are deserving of better.
Another example is that surrounding the issues that divided the Lord’s church in the 50’s and 60’s, and brought about other issues that further divided us in the 70’s and 80’s. The issues over institutionalism, the sponsoring church arrangement, general benevolence, church sponsored social activities, and the like. Many of the debates in the 50’s were pretty well issue driven, and remained focused upon the issues with little personal attack (at least in the debates that I have read from the time). Though the writing in brotherhood periodicals and general dialog of the day was anything but civil. Nonsense was thrown about concerning “starving orphans out in the streets", and how some folks would "rather see them go hungry…” Folks who opposed the innovation were referred to as “anti’s” (which was simply a term used to prejudice people’s minds and to hinder open discussion from the scriptures). At one point, in a major paper, brethren were called upon to "put a yellow tag of quarantine on all the anti churches" The list of course goes on.
Along these same lines, when these issues are brought up today people who oppose the innovations of human institutions (such as orphan’s homes or colleges) being supported from the church’s contribution, or who oppose the innovation of the sponsoring church arrangement which undermines the church’s autonomy, or who oppose the church’s provision of recreational and social activities, etc. These are lumped in with those who don’t believe in having a bible classes, or who oppose the church having a located preacher, or insisting on one container for the fruit of the vine during the Lord’s supper. It is an attempt to make folks look foolish and irrational. This seems dishonest to me. Why not simply consider each position biblically, and on its own.
Another issue that gets on my nerves regarding this, is that of straw man argumentation. I recently read a series of lectures that were conducted at the Spring Church of Christ in 2006 on the issue of “anti-ism” (notice the use of the pejorative term). In the lecture book, one of the lectures was dedicated to “Eating in The Building.” The writer spent the balance of his time erecting, and deconstructing a straw man, and then gave the impression that he had solved the matter with the truth. The fact is, the issue is not “eating in the building.” It never has been! I don’t know of anyone who believes that we can’t eat in the building. The issue is, is there authority for the church to plan, provide, oversee and call its member out for activities that are for social, and not spiritual, purposes? I find it hard to believe that these brethren don’t know that. If they don’t they should do a little more research on the matter. If they do, then they are simply dishonest, and have no problem misrepresenting their brethren. It’s both sad and a shame!
In 2008 I had a debate with an Institutional brother on this issue (the issue of church –sponsored social meals and recreation), I was pleased with the outcome. By that I don’t mean my own performance, for there were a lot of things I would change if I could go back. I noticed several mistakes I made. Yet in truth, I was pleased with the outcome because for the most part, Brother Garner and I did not digress into personal attacks and misrepresentation. I say that with one caveat, and it references a mistake I made, however unwittingly.
I have gotten into the habit of referring to all institutional brethren as “liberal.” This actually is a habit I have worked on getting rid of recently. The term “liberal” is used, in a sense, like some use the term “anti” to prejudice the minds of people. The fact is brother Garner is far more conservative in his belief and practice that many “Institutional” brethren, and sadly, even a number of supposed “non-institutional” brethren. During the course of the debate, I referred to him as a “liberal.” In truth, I did not do it intentionally, but rather as sort of a bad habit. Of course this raised his ire (and rightly so), because he has spent a good portion of his time as a preacher in answering the doctrines of those who espouse error on divorce and remarriage, fellowship with denominations, that the church is merely another denomination, etc. The truth is, though even in spite of that, he did refer to me as an “anti” a time or two. The debate itself did not digress into personal attack, or purposeful open misrepresentation. We both sought to stick to the issue, and I respect Brother Garner a great deal for that. It is my hope that he feels the same.
The long and the short of my rant is this, brethren need to be honest, forbearing, and “kindly affectionate to one another" (cf. Romans 12). There is much that can be gained by open debate and discussion. From the white hot fire of debate, the truth stands refined and clearly seen. Solomon encouraged that people “debate thy cause with thy neighbor” (Proverbs 25:9). Yet while this point is true, it also is possible for debate to digress into little more than a playground name-calling match where the truth is further obscured, and brethren come away with sour taste In their mouths.
Let us strive always to focus upon honesty, good intention, and kindness in our discussion of heated topics.