Open Letter: Creed, Council, or Expression of Concern?
by Harry Osborne
August 9, 2000
It is clear that an effort is underway to characterize the Open Letter as a "creed" written by a "council" of preachers who seek to direct churches. Though it is a diversionary matter, a refutation of the charge is in order. Before proceeding to consideration of the charge, however, I would like to make a few preliminary observations.
A good brother recently wrote to me saying such had been "brought to his attention." Several discussion lists have been sent to me where such charges have been made. An anonymous post containing unclean language made the charge to the editor of Watchman Magazine. A co-editor of one paper has made this charge. In his response to the Open Letter, which was never sent to this writer, Shane Scott makes the same charge. Brother Ferrell Jenkins has readily allowed his website to be used in spreading this charge. Yet, my young brother's post is the first time someone has made the charge to me. The fact that Dan King and I wrote the Open Letter is well known, having been pointed out in print several times. Why do the ones charging such not address those charged? Better yet, why not seek to discuss the situation to see if agreement could be reached before making such a charge? Is this an example of the higher ethical standard to which they are calling us? Or are they exempt from the standards they seek to impose on others?
When this writer had differences with Hill Roberts, I attempted to correspond with him directly to resolve the differences. Others were addressed in warning of his error only after he ceased communication. The same is true with Shane Scott. For over a year, I have tried to get Ferrell Jenkins and Colly Caldwell to discuss the issues, but they have not agreed to do so. It is odd to me that the most vocal advocates of this "creed" charge have never addressed the authors with it. If there is truly a desire to seek unity, why not discuss before labeling our written concerns a "creed" while giving no proof of such? I am content to let them and God be the examiners of their hearts. However, their false charges made behind the back are not going to stop me from teaching the truth and exposing error.
Does the Scripture teach that all rebukes for every case of sin and error must be addressed privately to the individual before dealing with the wrong openly? No, but many of those now making the "creed" charge have contended that all rebukes must be handled with Matthew 18:15-17 as the pattern. Despite the fact that the text plainly states this as a pattern "if thy brother sin against thee," not for sins such as the public proclamation of error, our brethren have argued that it is a universal pattern for every kind of sin. Yet, when they are tested to live according to their pattern, what have they done? The words of Romans 2:1-6 sum up the nature of such action.
My statements of concern and rebuttals to error sent privately did not constitute a creed. Surely all would agree with that. Others sent similar statements of concern and likewise sought correction of the error taught. Surely all would agree with that. Now the same statements of concern and rebukes of error are called a "creed" when others are warned about the danger in a public fashion. If our warnings of error constitute a creed, are the plurality of brethren warning about such guilty of a creed against creeds? If these brethren are correct in their principle, dear reader, you are truly in a dilemma. If you agree with them, you have joined a plurality warning of the same problem and you could be guilty of making a creed. However, if you agree with me, we form a plurality warning of a false concept and both of us could be guilty of making a creed. What are we to do?
The following arguments are actual points raised by those claiming the Open Letter is a "creed" and parallel to a denominational "council." Let us examine whether or not they have any merit.
1. A plurality of men who "from several locations" and who are "not directly involved" may not write such a letter, but several men in the same location can express joint concerns.
Where is the basis for this distinction in Scripture? What passage would authorize "several individuals who are directly involved" to rightly raise concerns? One could not use 1 Corinthians because Paul and the house of Chloe were not in the same location when they expressed their joint concerns. Where is the passage limiting the right of a plurality to raise concerns over doctrinal error if and only if they are together in the same location? There is simply no basis for this distinction. If it is right for several brethren to raise concerns in one area, what makes their raising the same concerns wrong when they are separated by distance? Such arbitrary distinctions make no sense to me and no Scripture is given to sustain them.
2. A plurality of men may raise concerns, but circulating it for signatures makes it a creed.
Where is the Scriptural basis for this rule? If such concerns are going to be raised by a plurality in written form, how can they agree to send it before agreeing on its content? Had the Open Letter been sent with the names of others before they read it, this would clearly have been improper. Instead, it was sent to people whom the authors and a few co-signers believed to share in the same sentiments. The letter offering the opportunity to co-sign made clear that no questions would be asked if one chose not to co-sign it nor would such an action be viewed in any negative way. Those who did co-sign merely sought to express concern about the teaching advocated and allowed at Florida College concerning this issue. Their names at the end suggest agreement with the concerns stated, nothing more. Most of the epistles of Paul were written with another's help. Both "signed" it in their own hand. Those epistles also carried the names of several others who joined in the epistle to greet the brethren addressed. If this practice was allowed by the Holy Spirit, those who condemn the same in principle have a problem with God, not the co-signers of the Open Letter.
3. The Open Letter has been termed a "collective action" analogous to a denominational council or a creed which governs churches.
This is, indeed, an interesting and revealing claim. Are we to believe that by raising concerns about 2 human institutions (Florida College and "Lord I Believe" seminars) that a rule over churches has been established? For that to be true, those human institutions would have to be linked to the church. Those advancing such an argument manifested a concept that I believe to be dangerous. They are the ones linking the church to human institutions. (Brethren Caldwell and Jenkins have warned of this mentality at recent lectureships. Did they do so because they realized it was some of their own supporters who confused the college and the church?) What the Open Letter did was to raise concerns from individuals acting as individuals about teaching done by Florida College and the "Lord I Believe" seminars. No governing mandate was imposed on any church as in a creed or council. The co-signers of the Open Letter made no appeal to any inherent authority to make binding rules upon churches (or individuals for that matter) as is done in a creed or council which imposes rules upon churches to govern their actions. The individuals who direct those institutions are responsible for correcting the error allowed or continuing to tolerate such. Furthermore, the co-signers of the Open Letter appealed to the Scripture as the only source of authority while creeds and councils appeal to their own right of rule to define faith and practice. The co-signers of the Open Letter asked for open debate and discussion on the issues raised while creeds and councils impose rules as settled fact, thus shutting off discussion. How are the two analogous?
4. It has been claimed that the Open Letter is parallel to a creed in its nature.
The co-signers acted as individuals in concurrent action because the sentiments expressed in the Open Letter matched the concerns of each. There was no coercion or threat (implicit or explicit) to anyone who declined to sign. Dan King and I authored the letter originally. A few had seen it who said they would like to add their names as well. Dan and I sent the letter to people, whom we had reason to believe, viewed things in a similar way and might like to so state their concerns, mainly to Florida College. No one was pressured to do so. Now, contrast (a) the joint expression of concern which used the sole authority of Scripture to address error taught by 2 human institutions with (b) the coercive power of creeds and councils binding rule upon churches. What would happen if a church failed to submit to the rule of a denominational creed or edict of council? They would not remain in that denomination long, would they? What would happen to a preacher seeking ordination or support from a denominational body while refusing to sign their creed? He would not get it, would he? Hence, there is no just parallel of the two.
5. We have been asked to show the scriptural authority for a plurality of Christians to jointly rebuke error or teach regarding matters of truth.
In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul appeals to the common statement of Peter, the other apostles, 500 brethren, James and himself to establish the truth concerning the resurrection of Christ and to refute error taught concerning the resurrection. Was that a creed?
Paul rebuked the church at Corinth and made clear that his teaching was the same as that of the household of Chloe, Timothy and others. If one says this was only done by an apostle, does that mean Paul delivered a right message by an unauthorized method? Obviously not. Could one today rebuke even a church as Paul did by appealing, not to his own authority, but the authority of the inspired message? Please note that Paul calls for both his message and his "ways" to be imitated by the readers (1 Cor. 4:16-17). Paul did not impose "his will" upon any, church or individual. No apostle did. Why was the instruction of the apostles binding? Because it had already "been bound in heaven" (Matt 16:19; 18:18, NASV). That it was spoken by God through inspiration made the instruction binding. It was not made binding by authority inherent in the person of Paul.
Creeds and councils expressly claim inherent authority to bind faith and practice. Those who make this parallel need to go back and study what makes creeds and councils wrong. Creeds are not merely efforts by a plurality of people from different locations attempting to teach truth or rebuke error appealing to the sole authority of Scripture. Creeds and councils impose faith and practice by their own authority.
When a plurality of men put out a paper to teach the gospel, is their action authorized? If they together stated agreement with some truth or express disagreement with some error, is their action authorized? Magazines like Focus and Christianity are examples of such. On occasion, they have sent out letters concerning some matter of truth or warning of some matter they deemed wrong. Were they guilty of creed-making by this action. To date, I have never heard them accused of such, though the same principle would surely do so if consistently applied.
A few years ago, Melvin Curry retired from the faculty of Florida College. A book was written in tribute to brother Curry containing articles from numerous men: Almon Williams, Homer Hailey, Bob Owen, John Clark, Dee Bowman, Mike Schmidt, Kenny "Tack" Chumbley, Thaxter Dickey, James Hodges, Jason Longstreth, Marty Pickup, David McClister, Phil Roberts, Ferrell Jenkins, Ray Madrigal, Shane Scott, Steve Wolfgang, Dan Petty, Colly Caldwell and Curtis Pope. Did they write a far-reaching creed on the subjects addressed? (Please note, I would not make such a charge towards them and would correct such if it was falsely made of them.)
When two brethren go to a foreign country and preach together, does their joint report of the work constitute an unauthorized action? If they rebuke some error faced and the ones who taught it, does that make it unauthorized? Acts 14:27 says that Paul and Barnabus reported about their first journey to the same assembly. (Remember that journey involved both teaching and rebuke which must have been reported just as Luke records it.) Obviously, that was authorized. Why would it be different if the reporting was in print?
Several tracts and pamphlets through the years have included statements from those other than the author commending and agreeing with the material. Ron Halbrook's booklet on "Trends Pointing Toward A New Apostasy" has statements of commendation from Robert Harkrider, Harold Fite, Robert Turner, Bill Reeves, Connie Adams and others. Does that make it unauthorized? Are we to view all of these men together as conspirators in creed-making?
Suppose a brother reprints an article from another brother from a distant place in a local bulletin along with a commendation of it. Is that unauthorized? There are not many brethren who have ever put out a bulletin who have not done such. But why limit it to written statements and written agreement? Could one orally commend in one place a sermon preached by a brother in another place? If not, upon what basis could Peter commend the teaching of Paul, or Paul the teaching of Timothy, or John the life and teaching of Gaius? What Scripture makes a distinction between such actions then and a statement by a plurality of people today expressing agreement on a Scriptural teaching.
This article is not written with an intent of being harsh, but this writer wishes to emphasize the main point. Viewing a rebuke of individuals and human institutions as analogous with imposing rule upon churches is both baseless and dangerous. Inherent within such a charge is a concept that human institutions are linked to the church. Such a charge betrays a false concept concerning the church and human institutions held by the one making the charge. The co-signers of the Open Letter understand the distinction between the two. We wish our brethren at Florida College well as they seek to correct brother Scott in his false concept. We agree with the danger inherent in this confusion of the college and the church. When brethren begin to view the rebuke of a college as parallel to imposing rule upon the church, they are closer to liberalism than they realize.
Colleges function in the realm of individual action though the individuals involved are acting concurrently to the same ends. Congregations function as a collective in a realm authorized by Scripture and distinguished from individual action. The church in the universal sense is not functional as presented in Scripture, thus, it cannot be activated to any collective action. Blurring the distinctions between those areas brings problems every time.
There is an intense effort underway in some places to divert attention away from a scrutiny of the error being taught. Those who seek to spread and compromise with error have always cast aspersion on the nature or method of work done by those standing for truth in order to divert attention from the error they are endorsing. Do not be side-tracked in this way. Dear reader, if you are not convinced that the Open Letter is the best method, then please show me how I may join with you in pressing the fight in a more effective way. Whether it is this approved method or another, let us maintain the focus and pressure against the error being taught. Efforts like the present ones to present false parallels are nothing more than efforts to blunt the sword of truth by getting into endless and useless semantics over "how" to do what needs to be done. If I saw the present critics acting to oppose this dangerous error and thwart its spread, I might take their quibbles more seriously.
An institutional defense mechanism often sets in with a college to justify its practice at all cost. It was done by Lipscomb in the issue over church support of colleges. It was done by Abilene Christian University in the issue over theistic evolution in their midst. It was even done by Florida College when brother Hailey's error was exposed. At that time, the administration attacked those who exposed brother Hailey's error while saying precious little to fight it. When our critics fail to rebuke the error to the source and warn all others about it, all will know that their real agenda differs from their stated reason.
Click Here to read Tim Haile's article addressing the "creed" accusation.
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