Devoted to the Propagation and Defense of New Testament Christianity
January 30, 1969
NUMBER 38, PAGE 1-3a

Semantics And Religious Controversy

James W. Adams

Semantics Vs Principles

If the marvelous consistency, purity, and power of the teaching of Jesus have been the glory of the church, the innumerable controversies among her professed constituents have been her shame, and the consequent divisions her desolation. (Matt. 12:25.) Compounding her shame has been the fact that many of the controversies and divisions of her professed constituents have their origin in semantics rather than in principles.

The term, semantics, means: "The phonetics, the science of sounds." (Merriam Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary.) Words are signs or symbols of ideas. A misused or misapprehended word, therefore, results in confusion of thought and expression, hence in a consequent clash of concepts and loss of communication among people.

Due to the abstract character of religious principles, their realm of application has suffered more from semantical warfare than any other. It is tragic indeed that sharp divisions and broken fellowship should obtain among professed New Testament Christians, but more tragic when such exist over mere words. Peter Mark Roget, distinguished author of the Thesaurus which bears his name, once observed, "A misapplied or misapprehended term is sufficient to give rise to fierce and interminable disputes; a misnomer has turned the tide of popular opinion; a verbal sophism has decided a party question; an artful watchword, thrown among combustible materials has kindled the flame of deadly warfare and changed the destiny of an empire."

"To be forewarned is to be forearmed" in this matter. Our current problems among the churches of Christ have been greatly intensified by misunderstanding produced by semantical irresponsibility. Instead of specific, well-defined teaching and practices which involve abused: and violations of divine principles, disputed matters have been identified and opposed on the basis of inaccurate and often prejudicial terminology. Reason and candor suggest that issues which affect the immortal souls of eternity-bound men should be precisely identified, accurately denominated, and definitively and scripturally discussed on the basis of the specific divine principles which they involve.


Brethren have been stigmatized and quarantined by multitudes who know only that they are supposed to be opposed to "cooperation." It so happens that the English word, "cooperation," is not found in the New Testament in any of our standard translations. Therefore, this means that brethren have been stigmatized, quarantined, refused fellowship, and charged with "having quit the church" because they allegedly do not believe in what is described by a word not found in the New Testament.

There are many types of activity in which churches can and do engage which can be correctly styled "cooperation." Many of these by the quarantiners themselves are admittedly grossly antagonistic to divine principles set forth in the Scriptures. Would it not, then, be more compatible with reason, truth, and equity to identify precisely just what is being opposed in the way of cooperation rather than simply to brand brethren as "not believing in cooperation?"


On the other side of the ledger, many of us commonly stigmatize brethren and churches as "liberal" without bothering to define precisely what their alleged "liberality" involves. I suppose the term, liberal, is the antithesis of the word, conservative. To be liberal is supposed to be bad, and to be conservative is supposed to be good. However, I can easily conceive of situations in which it would be good to be liberal and bad to be conservative.

I know some persons who are unusually liberal in giving to worthy causes. I know others who are painfully conservative in such matters. It would appear, then, that it is good or bad to be conservative or liberal depending on that to which one refers, hence these terms are relative, I know brethren who are rigidly conservative relative to sponsored cooperation of churches, church support of human institutions, and church sponsored recreational projects who are at the same time grossly liberal in what they allow and practice in the realm of morals. On the other hand, I know brethren who are wildly liberal relative to sponsored church cooperation, church support of human institutions, and church supported recreational projects who are at the same time radically conservative in the realm of morals.

Every phase of divine service has its liberal and its conservative practitioners. Whether liberalism or conservatism is right in any particular realm is determined by what is the truth concerning man's duty to God in that realm. This being true, I doubt that we increase enlightenment, promote devotion to truth, or measurably contribute to orthodoxy or the unity for which Jesus prayed by stigmatizing one another with such undefined generalizations as "liberal" and "conservative" (or "Anti"). Other terms could be added to this list such as: "digressive, progressive, legalist, institutional, orphan-haters, warmongers, Sommerites, college men, church-splitters, located pastors, etc." Need I say more?

"Bible Chairs And Student Centers"

Not only do we call one another names that are not definitive and grossly inaccurate, but we also oppose practices in the same way. As an example, many brethren in submitting lists of current, unscriptural innovations will list, without any sort of qualification, "Bible Chairs and Student Centers." Yet, it so happens that neither a "Bible Chair" nor a "Student Center" is per se unscriptural. (And I make this statement fully aware that at least one brother has assumed the absurd position that the Bible may not scripturally be taught as an academic subject.) Waiving a discussion at this time of this unusual position, let it be observed that a "Bible Chair" is not a separate organization from the local congregation. In fact, it is not an organization at all.

The term, "Chair," is used in academic circles to mean a professorship, the office of a professor, often an endowed one. A "Bible Chair" is therefore only the office of a professor of Bible, a Bible professorship. If a church has a "Bible Chair," it simply provides for a professor to teach the Bible to students. This we do at the Mound and Starr Streets congregation in Nacogdoches. We support a professor, furnish a classroom, and supply teaching materials for the instruction of college students in Bible. We justify this under the obligation of the church to teach the word of God. (I Tim. 3:14,15; Phil. 4:15,16.)

If some brother be concerned about the relationship sustained to a human institution of secular learning, Stephen F. Austin State College, which recognizes these courses for credit toward a Bachelor's Degree, let him be reminded that Paul taught the word of God in the "school of Tyrannus." (Acts 19:9.) This school was either a Jewish or a Greek school of philosophy. That Tyrannus recognized student participation in Paul's classes as a part of their total educational program would be absurd to deny. It could be correctly said that Paul occupied a Bible Chair in the school of Tyrannus. It is too well known to admit of question that Paul accepted from churches personal support (fellowship) to sustain him while he labored in the gospel. This is all the congregation does which supports a Bible Chair.

But, someone will say, "Yes, but some brethren support this work with a sponsoring church arrangement, and some have church sponsored recreation activities connected with it." This is quite correct, but in such case, let the matter be opposed on the ground that it is a "sponsoring church" and this is wrong and that "church sponsored recreation" is wrong. Let it not be opposed on the ground that a "Bible Chair" is per se wrong.

What about "Student Centers?" Are they per se wrong? I insist they are not. In fact, I know of one such center which I consider completely defensible from a scriptural point of view. This one is the McCarty Student Center at San Marcos, Texas. Brother and Sister McCarty left their estate to a non-profit corporation under a board of directors for the purpose of building and maintaining a student center in San Marcos, Texas for the benefit of students of Southwest Texas State College, particularly those who are Christians. The center was so built and is so operated. It has no relationship to the church in San Marcos. Its board of directors is made up of Christians who permit the church to use the facilities of the center for its teaching program among the students of the college. Southwest Texas State College recognizes the courses for credit toward a Bachelor's Degree. The church supports the teacher, Brother Norman Starling, and provides for whatever other expenses may be incurred in the Bible teaching program. A nonreligious student organization takes care of the building and provides the recreational activities that characterize the center as well as the money involved in such entertainment. It was my privilege recently to lecture to college students for four nights in the McCarty Center building on "The Relevance of the Teaching of Christ in the Twentieth Century." When setting up this arrangement, the brethren who instituted it sought and were given the counsel of Roy E. Cogdill. Therefore, to indict a "Student Center" per se is wrong. If it is operated under a sponsoring church arrangement, attack the arrangement, not the center. If recreation is church supported, attack that, not the center.

Other examples could be given of this matter, but I believe the point is made. May we wage our battles for truth on the basis of the principles involved. Let us not engage in a war of semantics.

— The Preceptor, December, 1968