Devoted to the Propagation and Defense of New Testament Christianity
September 5, 1968
NUMBER 18, PAGE 1-3,6b

Some Practical Observations On The Middle-Of-The-Road

David Edwin Harrell, Jr.

The shock of learning just how deeply Biblical liberalism has penetrated the Churches of Christ has recently caused some brethren to look with friendlier disposition on the long present "middle -of-the-road." In fact, the reaction has the appearance of a new discovery that the middle-of-the-road is there. Many conservative brethren are taking a second hopeful look at these institutional brethren who have retained their conservative approach to the Scriptures. Without question, it is refreshing to remember that many of those who followed the path to digression have never been committed to the principles underlying innovation. Indeed, it was a distorted love of "unity" and "success" which motivated them to compromise with false teachers and which blinded them to the logical necessities of the restoration plea. I can still sense the deep common heritage that we share when we speak of the generalities of the love of God and the necessity for maintaining scriptural authority. I clearly recognize them as my kinsmen of the recent past.

Of course, the middle-of-the-road is not a new position; surely no one has recently discovered that it was there. The middle has been with us for a long time and it will be here for a long time to come. And yet, we have persistently ignored the middle in our studies of ourselves. Most Christians still think of the nineteenth century division as a two-way schism — which it clearly was not. Out of the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century troubles in the restoration movement came three churches, not two. The middle-of-the-road in the last division of the church, represented today in the North American Convention of Christian Churches, is roughly equal in size to the bodies which grew out of the liberal and conservative extremes of the movement.

These middle-of-the-road brethren of the late nineteenth century are the precise counterparts of the present day moderate. Theologically conservative, they tried to maintain communication with both of the estranged extremes in the church. The best of this movement was represented in such men as J. W. McGarvey, Moses Lard and Isaac Errett. Although they accepted the innovations which were dividing the movement (or some part of the innovations), these men were deeply committed to the restoration principle. They were Bible-believing, Bible-preaching men; but for a whole complex of reasons they also were supporters of error. They continued to preach conservative principles, and many of their descendants still do. There was much and is much that is admirable about the conservative Christian church movement.

J. W. McGarvey and Isaac Errett loved David Lipscomb. Although Lipscomb sometimes exasperated them, I think they often wished they were fighting by his side. I know that they both would have like to have maintained open communications with him. McGarvey hated the insidious liberalism which he saw eating the heart out of the church of the late nineteenth century. In some ways the middle has more historical kinship with the conservatives than with the liberals in the church.

But when one raises the historical question of where the influence of these men belongs, the answer is painfully apparent. The middle-of-the-road has always been a path for liberals to walk, not conservatives. The weight of the lives of Errett, McGarvey, Lard and others like them was solidly behind institutions and churches which turned on every conservative principle they believed in. They accepted innovations which undermined the logic of their conservatism; they acceded to compromises which strangled the church they loved; they promoted and pushed "bright young men" who stabbed them in the back and ripped the foundation from under all that they had built; they established institutions which today both silently and openly mock their memory. The middle-of-the-road was the bridge across which the liberals walked to take control of the church of the Lord. The middle-of-the-roader is no friend to the Lord, or to those who insist on the absolute adherence to His Word.

An historian can only judge the great nineteenth century middle-of-the-roaders as tragic figures. They sired a monster; in good will, with good motives, and in the name of success. In time the monster turned on them. They lacked the foresight, or candor, or courage to stop liberalism at the only place that it could be stopped — in the beginning. By the time the middle-of-the-roaders of the nineteenth century realized that their futile compromises could not save the church, they had lost the war. Gone was virtually everything they had built. They were left with the shambles of a wrecked church and a compromised faith. It takes no prophet to predict that the next few decades will witness a precise reenactment of the nineteenth-century story. The hold of true liberals on the institutions of the institutional Church of Christ will soon be revealed. I predict that the day will come when the institutions that the middle-of-the-roaders have done so much to build will disown them and ridicule them. The day will come when the name Reuel Lemmons will be synonymous with "country bumpkin" on the campus of Abilene Christian College and when the editorial era of B. C. Goodpasture and the Gospel Advocate will evoke only embarrassed apologies from the sophisticated leaders of the Churches of Christ.

But the foremost tragedy of the middle-of-the-road is that it remains after all the dreadful futility of its hopes becomes clear. The middle-of-the-road is a position; it is a place to stand. Inconsistent, frustrating and tragic as it is; by the time disaster occurs, the middle-of-the-road has built up a well-organized body of doctrine and complex of institutional loyalties which give it an irreversible air of permanence. If a moderate's craw finally becomes so full that he cannot go on, he has said so much that he cannot go back.

It would be a dangerous delusion not to face this fact — the middle-of-the-road is not a state of flux, it is a place. It is a sterile compromise which will not maintain unity within the institutional church but neither will it renounce the innovations which separates it from conservative brethren. Individuals may change, but the fact is the "conservative institutional Church of Christ" is here to stay.

The sweet illusion of peace can obscure the depth of the tragic gulf between essentially conservative brethren within the church. It is hard to understand that brethren who are honest and, at least seemingly, equally committed to scriptural authority, cannot resolve their differences. But the hard fact is that that is how it is. Unrealistic hopefulness can lead us down some pretty dangerous paths.

Can any practical man really envision the return of unity between conservatives and middle-of-the-roaders? If unity is to come, it must be accomplished in one of two ways. Either the middle-of-the-roaders must renounce the practices which have divided us and abandon the institutions which have been established; or the conservatives must stop the frank and fervent protest they have raised against these practices. Every thoughtful religious person knows that these are the two avenues to religious union.

I cannot believe that anyone really believes that the divergent elements in the church today will go far down either road. Of course, many individuals have changed and I have no doubt that many more will change. But does anyone seriously believe that the middle-of-the-roaders are, en masse, going to abandon the institutions and promotions that divide the church? Will the colleges relinquish their growing control over the pulpits and purses of churches; will they fire the false teachers that infest their faculties; will the thousands of unscriptural promotions dreamed up in the minds of sincere middle-of-the-roaders be abandoned forever; will institutional benevolence suddenly, or slowly, begin to disappear? Of course not. No man could bring it off; no twenty; or fifty; or two hundred men could bring it off. And not only could they not, they will not bring it about. On the other hand, will conservative brethren stop their public condemnation of these practices? Certainly not. Convictions run too deep and courage too unsubdued to close the mouths of those who have committed themselves to the defense of the principles of consistent scriptural effort to restore the first century church. Surely we have long ago recognized that we can have peace with anyone if we will stop attacking the religious error which they teach. It is far too late now to try to squelch the conviction that the mission of the gospel preacher is not only to teach the truth but also to attack error — no matter whence its source.

Some recent articles make me wonder whether we all share the same convictions about the nature of the division in the church. My protesting, I pray, has never been a personal crusade against anyone. I have not taken my stand because of personal differences with anyone and, consequently, personal friendship cannot solve the problems. Whether or not I like a liberal preacher has nothing to do with my attacks on his practices. Name-calling is not the cause of the division and it is foolish to imply that we can solve the rupture by simply changing our vocabularies. The terminology which has been adopted is not necessarily derogatory to anyone and is essentially accurate and useful. Nor is the division rooted in the arrogance of preachers, the meanness of Christians, or a breakdown in communications. It may be that in some cases all of these things have hindered the search for the truth; it may be that many have misbehaved themselves in the clashes between the two groups; it may be that some of my brethren may go to hell in spite of the fact that they teach the truth. But all of this is really irrelevant to the nature of the schism in the church. This is not what separates me from the middle-of-the-roader. The division is doctrinal; we practice being a Christian in different ways. The solution demands basic changes in attitudes, the renunciation of hundreds of false arguments, the breaking of thousands of personal ties, the abandonment of scores of institutions — turning the clock back twenty-five years.. Who believes it will be done?

The recent interest in meeting with middle-of-the-road brethren is in some ways encouraging and is a phase familiar to the students of the division of the nineteenth century. Beyond question such meetings are defensible when properly defined. We can meet with anyone, anytime, to discuss the will of the Lord. In fact, we should be anxious to do just that. I have always been interested in talking with liberal preachers, although I share the experience expressed in recent weeks by so many of my brethren of having difficulty finding any who want to talk to me. If we have entered a period of genuine interest in the study of the Bible among all elements in the church, I shall be gratified and surprised, but I am going to wait before I become ecstatic.

While no one can fault the desire of faithful brethren to talk with institutional moderates, I strongly resent one facet of recent developments — the encouragement of the naive and destructive idea that a broad union between conservative and middle-of-the-road brethren is probable, or even possible. This idea has been explicitly expressed by some of my brethren and has been implicit in what was said by others.

In the first place, I believe that the notion is a complete delusion from a practical point of view. It is rooted in a lack of historical insight and an understandable, but totally unrealistic, view of the present. The writing on the theme has revealed a good deal more wistful hope and sentimental nostalgia than hard scriptural logic. The idea of a massive union between conservatives and middle-of-the-roaders may thrive in such a literary atmosphere but when my brethren start talking in the hard realities of Biblical authority and the abandonment of unscriptural practices its impracticality will become clear enough.

What concerns me most is the destructive impact of much of what has been honestly said by conservative brethren in recent months. Shall the fighting stop while we all sit down to a restful interlude of negotiation? I understand that there are localities where the battle has passed its peak, where the two sides may be ready to calmly evaluate their accomplishments and seek cooler discussion. But the battle to save people from the sterile, compromised position of the middle-of-the-road is still deadly in many places. Every man must use his own judgment about the tactics he will use in the battle with error, but no man who claims to be my comrade has the right to prejudice the cause where I am working.

I am convinced that the man who sees peace around the corner is deluded; I know that he is deluded about many local situations. Where I live the battle is beginning. Liberalism has never been challenged. I have carefully and prayerfully tried to consider the best way to reach the most people. Much to my chagrin in recent weeks my most difficult problem has been explaining my brethren's writings.

Of course, the most effective argument any defender of false teaching has is to belittle the importance of the truth. Convince people they do not need to be concerned. The tactic of the middle-of-the-road leader in my area has simply been to announce that there was no need to worry about the "anti" issue because it was about to be settled. We all know how hard it is to get a man concerned enough about the innovations in the church to honestly study. We do not need the additional burden of brethren announcing that the differences are so slight that they will soon be settled. It is not so. Those who have fostered the idea, explicitly or implicitly, that the middle-of-the-road is not really such a bad place have prejudiced the cause of the Lord. It is a position of error and it is a position that is here to stay. With the love of all men in our heart, we must fight all error today in the same way and with the same fervor that we have in the past.

I urge my brethren everywhere to put on the whole armor of God and stand. Peace will come in proportion to our measure of success in His service. I wish that all of my brethren in error would join with me, and I pray that I shall behave myself in such a way as to encourage them to do so. But I am not so naive as to believe that it will soon be so; I shall not be still until it is so. If my brethren want to find me, they know where I stand.

— University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia