Ed Harrell's Second Response to Dudley Ross Spears

David Edwin Harrell

          Dudley’s second article is unwaveringly honest in addressing the consequences of his argument on fellowship. I expected that of him, but I nonetheless want to commend his candor and directness. I shall try to be equally forthright in my response.

          In some ways, Dudley’s response makes the gulf between us appear wider than I thought; on the other hand, some of his reasoning indicates that our differences are at least partly semantical. I shall first address our most serious differences, and then I shall suggest some places in which we appear to be saying the same thing in different language.

          Dudley challenges me to prove my assertion that it is a truism that I remain in fellowship with people whose belief about certain passages disagree with mine. So the statement must not be a truism. I did, of course, offer evidence on that point -- simply noting that I have long preached in congregations that held differing convictions on the covering and Christians participating in military service. Perhaps I misrepresented Dudley, though I don’t think so.

          To Dudley’s credit, he has not tried to dodge the consequences of his position by dismissing such questions as the covering and pacifism as matters of opinion, or suggesting that they were topics of less serious moral importance. He admits that these are matters of faith, bites the bullet, and asserts that Christians should divide when they disagree about them. If that is true, and I grant that it is a consistent application of the principle that Dudley is arguing, congregations all over the country should divide, and the compilation of our lists of “false teachers” will require a far more careful scrutiny of beliefs than a simple interrogation about marriage and divorce. I am at a loss to understand how anyone who holds such a view could participate in any common spiritual endeavor (for instance, the Florida College lectures or association with a religious paper) where people with varied convictions are involved.

          Let me admit, with equal candor, that Dudley has a point when he says that my position seems to contradict some of the slogans of the restoration movement, such as “in matters of faith unity, in matters of opinion liberty.” I believe that slogan was and is an oversimplification that never correctly stated the practice of the restorers. In fact, the restoration movement has always tolerated a degree of diversity of faith, as it does today. A large part of my sixteen articles in Christianity Magazine documented that point. In short, whatever the slogans the restoration movement may have honestly affirmed, fellowship within the movement has always rested not on an absolute unity in matters of faith but on a shared commitment to following scriptural authority with an honest heart.

          And I made clear in my articles, my assessment of a brother’s honesty is not made simply on the basis of his profession of honesty, but on his conduct. I categorically deny that divisions occurred in the restoration movement when people “honestly disagreed” about issues such as instrumental music and institutionalism -- a platitude that I have heard mouthed repeatedly by some of the strictest of the strict (not Dudley) in recent months. If I judge a brother to be “honest” in spite of our disagreements, then I am in effect making a statement about the lack of clarity of revelation on the point of our disagreement. When I pronounce a scriptural teaching incontrovertibly clear, I make a prima facie judgment about the dishonesty of those who disagree with me.

          For all of his honesty, I don’t believe Dudley lives by his principle of unity. I am convinced that we could find a variety of biblical questions on which he and his friends who write for Gospel Truths disagree — and probably among the brethren when he preaches. They do not label one another false teachers. I think they are acting properly because they have made a fundamental judgment about each other’s commitment to the truth.

          Space allows that I react only briefly to some of Dudley’s other points, before closing on a more optimistic note. He asks: “Is Ed willing to deny that God has clearly revealed His Will on marriage, divorce, and remarriage?” I have deeply held beliefs on those subjects, but I must confess that I respect the honesty of some who disagree with me. Let me ask the question in reverse: Does Dudley believe that God has clearly revealed on these three distinct questions? If so, which of the twenty or so positions is the truth. If it is perfectly clear, then there is only one right position. Does any variation from this prescribed position mark one as a false teacher?

          With regard to Romans 14, Dudley contends that I use the term “faith” erroneously, failing to distinguish it from “The Faith.” I use it precisely as it is used in the text, “Hast thou faith?” The distinction between “faith”and “the faith” is an entirely modern strategy that has no basis in biblical exegesis. For me, “the faith” is that in which I believe as a result of reaching the Scriptures. For that reason, brethren in Romans 14 are instructed to act in “faith” “for whatsoever is not of faith is sin” (verse 23).

          Dudley’s final paragraphs make a number of statements that do not correctly represent my views, though he apparently believes that they are necessitated by my arguments. I don’t think that I have ever said anything that would lead one to conclude that I do not believe that thc Scriptures teach by commands, examples and necessary inference. I have repeatedly stated that I believe that most of what Christians should be doing is perfectly clear and that any variation from God’s instructions is sinful. To say that good people disagree about some things is not to say that we have no basis for agreement about everything.

          I have never said nor do I believe that a matter of faith can be relegated to the realm of opinion. Actually, I thought that Dudley would take that position, but to his credit he has not done so. What I have said is that brethren historically have and scripturally may remain in fellowship when they disagree about matters of faith. I think that there are clear limitations to that tolerance, and I outlined those limits in my series on “The Bounds of Christian Unity.”

          Finally, at times, Dudley comes very close to stating my own views. He says that my position is refuted by “the principle that what is clearly revealed is faith; what is not clearly revealed (but believed nonetheless) is opinion. Except for the semantics, that is my position. We have faith about things that are clearly revealed, and we have faith (“believe”) about things less clearly revealed. It is precisely that second category that is addressed in Romans 14. But neither of those categories is opinion. Opinions have to do with the applications of biblical principles — for instance, what length skirt is modest, when is a woman in subjection, etc.

          Again, Dudley says that judgments on fellowship should be based on “whether God has revealed His Will clearly or not.” While I think that there are several other important scriptural principles that inform our judgments, I believe that Dudley’s statement agrees with what I have written.

           If that is the principle that we both are operation on, then practically speaking, we have simply made different judgments about the clarity of scriptural teaching on some issues, including some positions on marriage, divorce and remarriage, the covering, and Christians and the military. I am always ready to discuss and revise my applications of principles of fellowship; it is clear that different people and different congregations reach their own conclusions about where the precise line should be drawn. I think discussions are proper and could be fruitful — if we agree upon the principles that should govern our decisions. But I am unwilling to abandon without good reason the practice of many years that has allowed freedom of conscience in certain long-debated areas of belief.

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