Ed Harrell's 3rd Response to Dudley Ross Spears

by David Edwin Harrell

          I appreciate Dudley’s reviews and his good  attitude. We may have missed one another’s points on occasion, but I have detected no intent to deceive.

          Dudley is determined to center this discussion of fellowship on Romans 14. However, I clearly stated in my articles that my argument was not dependent on that passage: “Within certain limits, God grants to Christians the right to a private conscience in matters of ‘faith.’ I believe that right is discussed in Romans 14. However, whether or not one accepts my exegesis of that passage, honest minds must acknowledge the reality of a past and present Christian world that tolerates contradictory teachings and practices on important moral and doctrinal questions” (Christianity Magazine, May, 1990, page 134).

          In my opinion, Romans 14 gives instructions to two people who conscientiously disagree about what God instructs them to do, and, consequently, the passage speaks to us when we find ourselves in the same predicament (see Christianity Magazine, May, 1989, page 134). Dudley contends that the passage discusses a lower level of faith (really only opinion), as opposed to the faith. That interpretation, it seems to me, makes the passage irrelevant, but that is not the issue between us.

          The question addressed in my articles was: When Christians disagree about biblical teaching (as all do), what principles govern our fellowship together? Were brethren inconsistent when they divided over instrumental music and institutionalism, while at the same time tolerating differences of opinion on questions such as marriage and divorce and women wearing coverings? I surveyed the history of the movement to show that historically brethren allowed considerable freedom of conscience among those who shared a commitment to New Testament authority, but divided when they became convinced that some had abandoned that commitment. I then suggested a series of biblical principles as guidelines for fellowship: (1) factiousness breaks fellowship (Romans 14.l); (2) immorality is intolerable (I Corinthians 5); (3) we must act in good conscience (I Corinthians 1:10; Romans 13:22-23); (4) fellowship is based on the clarity of biblical teaching (I Corinthians 5:1); and (5) we must have a unified mind (Philippians 2:5-8; I Corinthians 1:10). Dudley has not commented on my biblical argument as a whole, nor has he questioned my historical analysis.

          In spite of Dudley’s apprehension about my wide departure from the truth because I described what brethren have always practiced, his own suggestion states one of my major premises — “fellowship cannot exist with one who teaches what is contrary to plainly revealed principles of truth.” I have stated that point repeatedly: “Our assessment about the clarity of a passage becomes the basis for all of our decisions about the bounds of Christian unity. Fellowship is shattered when I judge a brother to be (either knowingly or unknowingly) a false teacher, one who flagrantly perverts the clear teachings of the Scriptures” (Christianity Magazine, May 1990, page 134).

          It is Dudley, not I, who plays fast and loose with this principle. I would not have fellowship with anyone who clearly teaches error; Dudley asserts that he will for some indefinite period. I am flabbergasted by Dudley’s assumption that a person might be “honest and sincere” while violating “plainly revealed principles of truth.” That is absurd. Clarity is the test of honesty and sincerity. I am weary of hearing supposedly conservative brethren fawn over the honesty and sincerity of those who pervert the concept of restoring New Testament Christianity in defense of institutionalism.

          Since it is perfectly obvious that Dudley has fellowship with those who disagree with him, how can he explain his actions? How can he be in fellowship with clear false teachers? He is giving them time, he replies. Why? Should we tolerate clear sin for a while? Just for an indeterminate time, Dudley says. Who has the time clock?

          This unthinkable strategy is necessitated by Dudley’s refusal to grant that he lives in a world where honest differences in biblical interpretation exist. But they do. When those circumstances arise, we are forced to make a judgment about the clarity of biblical instruction, and, by extension, about the attitudes of our brethren.

          Dudley’s position demands that all beliefs based on instruction from the biblical text become tests of fellowship. In his final article he scrambles to escape the consequences of his admission that the covering and pacifism are issues of faith and thus tests of fellowship. While he has no restrictive convictions on those questions, he acknowledges that “if I believed the Bible clearly taught that a woman must have a covering on her head for her worship to be acceptable to God I would have to preach it and eventually withdraw from those who would not abide by it.” Of course, thousands of Christians believe just that. So, on every question of biblical teaching in which I hold a more restrictive view than another brother, I would be compelled to mark him and withdraw from him. That is the consistent and ruinous end of Dudley’s line of reasoning. That principle would divide and redivide every congregation in the nation.

          The alternative is to confess that I exist in a fellowship that tolerates a degree of difference in biblical interpretation. It does not tolerate it easily or without discussion. The amount of disagreement is small when compared to the truths we hold in common. Sometimes my view of a biblical passage is less restrictive than another brother’s — for instance, Sewell Hall tolerates my less restrictive interpretation of woman’s coverings (I Corinthians 11). Sometimes my view is more restrictive — for instance, I tolerate brethren who serve as elders even though one of their children has left the faith (I Timothy 3:4-5).

          Finally, let me restate what I have argued about fellowship and marriage and divorce. I believe that every local church must make its own decisions about what one position (or two or three) on marriage and divorce is acceptable to that fellowship. Each Christian must decide how he or she relates to those who hold contrary views. A local church has every right to restrict its fellowship to those whose marriages conform to the restrictions of Matthew 19:3-12; I have never worshipped in a congregation that did otherwise. I believe that a Christian has the right to mark as a false teacher every person who disagrees with him about marriage and divorce.

          My articles explored the grounds upon which such decisions should be made. Based on the principles I discussed in my articles, the leaders of a congregation may judge that biblical teaching on marriage and divorce is incontrovertibly clear, or, even if they do not collectively make that judgment, they may conclude that the morality of the group would be compromised if questionable couples were accepted, or that the issue would be divisive. On the other hand, at the individual level, I judge whether any difference in conviction is rooted in an honest disagreement between like-minded brethren or in a deliberate perversion of clear teaching by one whose heart is unreceptive to the truth. I stated that it was not my intention to impose my judgments on those question: “Every Christian establishes bounds of Christian unity. Mine reflect my best judgment, and I must take full responsibility for them. But they are not arbitrary boundaries. These bounds of Christian unity must be based in scriptural principles, they must be reasonable, and they must be consistently applied” (Christianity Magazine, February, 1989, page 38).

          Years ago, in Plain Talk, Robert Turner clearly stated the balanced approach that I tried to outline in my articles:

          “Sectarianism chooses certain doctrines and builds a ‘party’ with them as boundary -- refusing to consider anything else as ‘truth.’ I refuse to consider my level of understanding as final, contending only that I must teach and act in keeping with an honest, objective consideration of God’s standard in order to be true to myself and to God. The ’flip-side’ of sectarianism, and equally bad, is the irreverent and faithless conception that each man is accountable only to himself, so that there is NO standard of absolute truth” (“Fellowship with God”).

          Let us eschew a narrowness that demands conformity to creedal statements on every question of faith and a looseness that imagines that good and honest hearts hold conflicting views about God’s elear requirements.

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