Devoted to the Propagation and Defense of New Testament Christianity
October 25, 1982
NUMBER 25, PAGE 1,12b-13


Ben M. Shropshire

Middle-Of-The-Road Preachers

In every religious controversy there has always been and, I suppose, there always will be those who espouse a "middle-of-the-road" position. An example of this 13 easily found in the instrumental music-missionary society controversy in the church about one-hundred years ago. On the liberal side favoring the society and the organ were such men as Isaac Errett, C. L. Loos, and W. K. Pendleton while on the conservative side there were David Liscomb, Tolbert Fanning, W. W. Otey and others like them. Then there were those who were unwilling for one reason or another to clearly occupy either position and tried therefore to stand in the middle-of-the-road. Such men as J. W. McGarvey and Moses E. Lard fall in this latter group.

In the premillennial discussion of a few years ago there were those who tried to straddle the fence and who thus refused to "disturb" the churches over the problem. Concerning this, in the Gospel Advocate of May 5, 1938, page 409, brother Price Billingsley said: "And far worse yet, we had many influential men with us who cried that the innovators were brethren, and hence were not to be marked and avoided. These straddling apologists rendered far more effective service in betraying us to the digressives than any wolves sent into our flock from the avowed enemies! So today this new sect grows and fastens its tentacles upon unsuspecting brethren. Who is chiefly to blame for this? Not Boll, but our smooth-talking go-betweens, who for selfish reasons blow both cold and hot, the goody-goody boys, whose pulpit tones are dulcet and whose mouths are sugared, who counsel tolerance and compromise. These therefore, more than Boll and his main lieutenants, fix this blighting and divisive speculation upon the churches of Christ." (My emphasis, BS)

There is, therefore, good precedent in history (but none in the Scriptures) for those who are today trying to occupy the middle-of-the-road position In the controversy within the church over the problem of institutionalism. More and more often do we hear of preachers espousing the "Reuel Lemmons-Firm Foundation" position (whatever that is) on the issues. They will sound as if they are on the "anti" side for awhile and then on the other hand they will mouth the liberal position. Generally speaking, such "preachers" are unwilling to take either position publicly, but privately, depending on their audience, will talk one way or the other.

Frequently, these middle-of-the-roaders, in attempting to justify their position and their refusal to take any stand at all, will say: 'We are not bothered with the institutional problem here and so we just don't discuss it." Usually, in such a case there is already a division, at least in the thinking of the brethren, in the congregation over the problem and so, rather than stir things up by discussing the matter, an attempt is made just to keep everything and everybody quiet, and to travel the middle - of - the - road. The preacher, if he Is a "hireling," is caught in the middle and must therefore try to please both sides. It is to his best interests therefore to publicly keep quiet and not "disturb" the church so they will not be "bothered" about it.

On the surface, this "let's not disturb the church over these issues" sounds high and noble. It, however, is a result of a very denominational concept of the Lord's church and, actually, is an admission that dishonesty, prejudice and perhaps malice exist within the congregation under the surface. The denominations want unity — a union, that is, of the various bodies in which they can retain their different faiths and practices. They do not want unity in faith and thus are not interested in an investigation of their beliefs in the light of the New Testament. They can have their "union" without being "bothered" with such differences and thus do not want to discuss them. We have long preached that their unwillingness to discuss their differences in an honest investigation of the truth is an evidence that they do not want real Christian unity or else of their dishonesty. If they wanted unity in faith, they would then be willing to discuss such differences with the purpose in mind of resolving them. But if they claim to want unity and yet are unwilling to discuss the differences they are admitting their insincerity and lack of courage.

Is not the same thing true today in a church of Christ where issues are not discussed in order to preserve the "peace" and "unity" of the church? When there is a division in faith (belief) in a congregation over an issue, is not the peace they have simply denominational union and nothing more? They certainly do not have Christian unity as described by Paul: "Now I beseech you, brethren, through the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you; but that ye be perfected together in the same mind and in the same judgment." (1 Cor. 1:10) If dishonesty, prejudice and malice did not exist within the church, why in the world would an investigation and discussion of what the Bible teaches on any subject cause division? Are we ready to admit that God is the author of confusion and that Bible teaching does cause division? To do so would be to admit something the Bible does not teach: "If any man teacheth a different doctrine, and consenteth not to sound words, even the words of Jesus Christ, and to the doctrine which is according to godliness; he Is puffed up, knowing nothing, but doting about questionings and disputes of words, whereof cometh strife... wranglings of men corrupted in mind and bereft of the truth...." (1 Tim. 6:3-5) This passage teaches that the "different doctrine" and the "consenting not to sound words" causes the strife and wrangling. Why? Because the men were corrupted in mind and bereft (without) the truth.

Any congregation of people who have an honest and sincere desire to know and obey the truth and who are free from prejudice, envy and malice ought to be able to stand an investigation of Bible teaching on any subject without disrupting the peace of the church. The truth of the matter is that real and lasting peace and unity will be the result of such an investigation. A refusal to investigate or study an issue is but to admit that a sectarian party-spirit prevails in the congregation. The "let's not discuss it here" attitude cannot be justified from the Scriptures inasmuch as it encourages the party-spirit and sustains a denominational form of union rather than real peace and unity.

Middle-of-the-road preachers need to learn an important lesson from history, and for that matter, from many present-day situations. Because of their refusal to openly speak out against all innovations and humanly devised institutions, the influence of those who try to stay in the middle of the road goes with the digression. This is true now and was true in the last digression. Even though J. W. McGarvey was actually opposed to the use of instrumental music in Christian worship, his advocacy of the society caused his influence to be with the liberal digressives. Earl West says of him: " his major influence went with the advocates of the instrument, but it is doubtlessly true he never felt fully at ease with his company." (Search For The Ancient Order, Vol. 2, p. 235) Brother McGarvey was kept moving from one congregation to another as each one adopted, while he was a member of it, the use of the organ in the worship.

I expect that there are a good many "J. W. McGarveys" today who realize that institutionalism is wrong but who, for one reason or another, are unwilling to take a forthright stand for what they know to be the truth and their influence, therefore, is with the institutional elements. It is doubtlessly true of them, too, that they are not fully at ease with their company. These must realize, as history proves, that because of their refusal to teach and preach the truth against the institutional trend and their espousal of the middle-of-the-road position, the congregation with which they are working will eventually become institutional. How can they expect a congregation to do otherwise? When the issues are not discussed and perhaps a majority of the brethren are ignorant of the problem, the church is ripe for those promoting human institutions to take over. This has happened in one congregation after another across the land.

To show the ultimate consequences of "middle-of-the-roadism" we quote from an article by bro. F. B. Srygley in the Gospel Advocate of Oct. 27, 1938, page 1005: "The brother is mistaken about who will help him perpetuate his foolish doctrine. It is not the fair-minded ones that are helping him most, but it is the unfair-minded ones who are saying: "While I do not believe it, yet it is a harmless guess, and it will die out of itself.' It is these goody-goody ones who discourage everyone they can who oppose the doctrine in a straightforward, manly way. Fifty years ago when instrumental music was being put into the churches, it was the soft-soaper that did more to introduce it than those who were out and out for it. He claimed he did not believe in instrumental music but rather than cause trouble in the church we should go on and let them use it. It will not hurt us to disregard it, he said. Error cannot be disregarded. It does not die out under the silent treatment. The truth should be preached and error exposed." (Emphasis mine, BMS)

Why The Middle Of The Road

There are many reasons why some men adopt the middle-of-the-road position — but none of them will justify their doing so. Some preachers are nothing more than "hirelings" and will preach anything that it is convenient for them to preach. Their jobs and paychecks are their primary concern. I have known of such men to say, trying to justify a fence straddling position, "I've got me and my family to think about.... we've got to eat." A man who has this attitude toward the great work of preaching the gospel is a servant of man and not of God.

Some preachers just cannot stand the pressures applied to them by institutional brethren and therefore assume the middle-of-the-road position. When there is a possibility of his losing his job, or of having some meetings cancelled, or of being called an "anti," or of having someone think he is a "Guardianite," or of losing some old friends, or of not being able to preach in some churches, the middle-of-the-roader is willing enough to agree "not to discuss the issues because we aren't bothered with them here. "

Popularity is another consideration. It is never popular to be a critic of brotherhood practices. The institutional churches are big and influential, they pay a lot for meetings and they are in the majority. If a man wants to be popular he had best stay on the institutional side or, at least, not get on the "anti" side. A young preacher, with strong desire for preeminence, is especially susceptible to this consideration. The middle-of-the-road position seems to be a good way of staying popular with both sides. Actually, in the long run, it is a sure way to lose one's influence with both sides and one's acceptability with God.

Some preachers do not want to be associated with some of the brethren on the "anti" side and yet they are unwilling to accept the "package deal" of institutionalism, so they straddle the fence. Let these remember, however, that their influence is with the institutional position and that's what "those that hear them" will ultimately become.

Therefore when it can be seen that there are no reasons to justify a gospel preacher assuming a "middle-of-the-road" position and when we view the ultimate consequences of such, it is extremely difficult to see how any man, considering himself a gospel preacher, can "straddle the fence" when such vital issues as the organization and work of the church are at stake.

— 2101 South Shelby Street, Louisville, Kentucky