Ed Harrell's Response to Dudley Ross Spears

by David Edwin Harrell

          I recently told J.T. Smith that I would be happy to respond in Gospel Truths to a responsible critique of my series on Christian unity, and I am delighted that he has chosen Dudley Ross Spears to write the review. Dudley is an old friend, a good student, and a respected brother.

          Dudley is overly generous in his description of my thoughtfulness as a writer. I aspire to be as accurate as he indicates, but I fear that I, like all writers, sometimes speak ambiguously and without precision. Furthermore, anyone who has written as much as I have has probably changed his mind about a few things. I state these qualifications, however, not to provide an escape route for anything I believe about fellowship.

          Dudley has provided a good starting point by listing two points that “constitute our basic disagreement.” After reacting to those two points, I shall summarize some of the arguments I made in my article that are not reviewed in Dudley’s response.

         First, Dudley objects to my admission that I have fellowship with those who teach what I believe to be wrong on matters of “considerable moral and doctrinal import.” But my statement is a truism, and it is just as true of Dudley as it is of me. To argue that fellowship is based on agreement on every question of biblical interpretation simply distorts our experience.

          Dudley’s strategy is to label every disagreement that he is willing to overlook a matter of opinion; all those that he is unwilling to tolerate are matters of faith. We all agree that opinion is sometimes involved in the application of biblical principles -- how long is a modest dress, may we attend PG movies, what is proper dress for church services. But many disagreements grow out of differing interpretations of biblical text.

          I assert, as a matter of fact, that brethren disagree about issues that are questions of faith to them. The covering question is not a matter of opinion; people on differing sides of that debate are committed to obeying God’s instructions in I Corinthians 11. The issue of whether an elder must have more than one child is not a matter of opinion, it turns on what one believes about I Timothy 3:4.

          A wide variety of positions involving marriage, divorce, and remarriage are matters of faith. A Christian can only marry a Christian, divorce is not permissible under any circumstances under the law of Christ, the innocent party in a divorce can remarry only if the writing of divorcement is for the cause of fornication, an alien is not subject to Matthew 19, the guilty party in a divorce is free to remarry -- each of these is a statement of faith. All are not equally tolerable to me, and I have tried to outline the basis on which I separate them.

          Common sense forces us to acknowledge that we disagree about matters of faith. My articles cited extensive historical evidence indicating that brethren have long done so. If, as Dudley contends, there can be no fellowship where conscientious differences exist, then in each of the matters of faith I noted in my articles he must specify which is the one correct position limiting fellowship. If, as I have argued, such disagreements are a fact of history and life, I must establish the biblical limits of tolerance. That was the point of my series of articles; I shall summarize my guidelines at the close of this article.

          Dudley’s second objection, and the one that he addresses most extensively, is that Romans 14 relates simply to matters of opinion, not to matters of faith. As I said in my articles, if that position is true, we are still left with the practical necessity of deciding when to fellowship those who interpret biblical passages differently from us.

          Briefly, however, I question Dudley’s exposition of the passage. He states: “The issues in Romans 14 were not matters of faith; they were matters of opinion.” The problem is that Paul calls them matters of “faith.” They did not concern “irrelevant matters” to those with “strong convictions;” the Christians in this passage disagreed about what the law of God instructed them to do. Romans 14 tells how to live together with differences of conscience. I shall be happy to address this passage further as space permits.

          In fairness, however, I want to try to quickly react to a couple of other issues raised in Dudley’s article. Perhaps I was not clear about my use of I Corinthians 11:19, because I doubt that we disagree on this point. Sin is the cause of all division in the body of Christ, but it is certainly not sinful for a Christian to separate himself from that which pollutes the church, either by withdrawing from the unruly or coming out from the midst of evil. In such a case, I suppose we agree, division serves the useful purposes of making manifest that which is approved.

          While I have changed my mind about many things since 1966, I am perfectly willing to stand by Dudley’s quotation from my speech before the Disciples of Christ Historical Society. I believe that the scriptures reveal clear truth, that those who disobey that truth are wrong and that they will go to hell. I do not believe that adulterers will go to heaven, nor will rebellious women (those who refuse to wear coverings?), murderous men (those who wage war?), or those who pervert the work of a local church (by hosting social functions such as weddings?). The issue is how certain I am that my biblical interpretation on those topics precludes all others. If total doctrinal agreement is the only basis for fellowship, then a brother who believes that there is no scriptural grounds for divorce would necessarily conclude that Dudley endorses adultery.

          Biblical principles must govern our toleration of differences in faith. My articles do not imply that “our disagreements are limited only to ... a ban on ‘doubtful ‘disputations.’ I compiled a list of scriptural principles (I would be happy to see it improved) that establish the bounds of Christian unity. Briefly summarized, they are: (1) unity can not exist in an environment of dissension (2) I can not tolerate clear immorality (3) I must be convinced that a brother is acting in faith (that he is, in my opinion, trying to honestly live in conformity with all scriptural teaching) (4) I can tolerate no clear violator of biblical instruction.

          In practice, I believe our differences come down to two matters. First, I believe we must not belittle anyone’s deeply held biblical conviction by dismissing it as a matter of opinion. Rather, we must acknowledge that at this point in time we have conscientious disagreements. These disagreements may cause us to divide for conscience sake; or they may cause us to say (sometimes with considerable puzzlement) that scriptural clarity has not resulted in our coming to a common understanding.

          Second, we apparently disagree about whether any honest brother can hold the view that the alien sinner is not subject to the law of Christ in Matthew 19. That is a judgment that Christians and local churches have been struggling with throughout my lifetime. I appreciate the consistency of the negative answer that J.T. Smith has given on this question for many years. I disagree. On that issue, his and Dudley’s bounds of Christian unity may be narrower than mine; on others, I would guess they are broader. My articles did not address this issue, they were intended only to clarify the grounds on which both of us were acting. I would be happy to state my reasons for making that judgment in future articles.

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