Devoted to the Propagation and Defense of New Testament Christianity
September 26, 1957
NUMBER 21, PAGE 8-9a

Great Men Differ

A. M. Plyler, Jasper, Alabama

There has come to my attention in late months what appears to me to be a new doctrine, or at least a new idea on the troubled waters of the church of the living God. I am no pessimist, and I have no desire to get in the way of any rightful progress in the onward march of the wheels of Zion; but I have already lived long enough to know that every inch of the ground occupied by the saints of the Most High is contested to the limit.

This will continue to be the case as long as we tabernacle here in the land of the living.

The new doctrine that I refer to is stated in the words of the great men who are the advocates of the same. We will let them speak for themselves. The first we notice is Brother Guy N. Woods. In the Gospel Advocate, April 18, 1957, he sets forth the new teaching as follows:

"The church is its own missionary society; to establish another is to form an organization in competition with, and which attempts to perform the functions of, the church itself. Were the church a child-care agency, the orphan homes would be equally unnecessary and sinful. But, while the church is its own missionary society, it is not its own child-care agency."

Another supporter of the new doctrine is Brother Gus Nichols. In a tract published by the Gospel Advocate, on pages 12-13, we have this very pointed statement from Brother Nichols:

"The church is its own missionary society, but it is not its own home for children."

Now it is as clear as it can be that these brethren are telling us that the church is its own society to do missionary work, and we do not need another, but it is NOT its own "care-taking" institution. That these men are sincere in this contention is not questioned; and that they are great and able men is not disputed. But in this brief article I will show that other men, not a whit behind Brother Woods and Brother Nichols in any respect, did not agree with this teaching. Consider, for example, these statements from the writings of Alexander Campbell:

"From my spiritual observatory, and by means of the telescope of faith in history, sacred, ecclesiastical, and political; and aided, too, by the accumulating light of experience, observation, and Biblical development, I am so deeply penetrated with the necessity of a more intimate organization, union, and cooperation than at present existing among us, that I feel myself in duty bound again to invite the attention of the brotherhood, especially of those who are in heart and life devoted to the honor, dignity, and influence of Christianity in the world, to a more thorough and profound consideration of the subject than they have ever yet given to it." (Millennial Harbinger, Nov. 1841.)

"We can have no thorough cooperation without a more ample, extensive, and thorough church organization." (Millennial Harbinger, Nov. 1842.)

These statements from Campbell show as clear as the noon-day sun that he did not think that the church was "its own missionary society." There were other great men in Campbell's day who agreed with him; and in time they created that society to supply what they considered the Lord's church lacked. So we have the "great men" of the church (Campbell and his co-laborers on one hand; Woods and Nichol on the other) as opposite to each other as are the poles of the planet. Woods and Nichol contend that the church is its own missionary society; Campbell and his co-workers say it is not so.

But I quote from another great and good man whose writings are in agreement with neither group. He is Tolbert Fanning, founder of the Gospel Advocate. He wrote:

"1. That there is positive scriptural authority for every religious work that is well pleasing to God.

2. That the church of Christ is the only divinely consecrated organization on earth for Christian labor.

3. All other organizations through which men propose to perform spiritual labor tend but to obscure, discredit, and subvert the reign of the Messiah." (Gospel Advocate, Feb. 6, 1866.)

Again he wrote:

"We believe and teach that the Church of Christ is fully competent to most profitably employ all of our powers, physical, intellectual, and spiritual; that she is the only divinely authorized Missionary, Bible, Sunday School, Temperance, and Cooperation society on earth. It is, has been, and we suppose always will be our honest conviction, that the true and genuine service of God can be properly performed only in and through the church. Hence, we have questioned the propriety of the brethren's efforts to work most successfully by means of State, district, and county organizations, Missionary, Publication, and Bible societies, or Bible Unions, Temperance societies, Free-Mason and Odd-Fellowship societies to visit the fatherless and widows in their afflictions, or any other human organization for accomplishing the legitimate labor of the church." (Gospel Advocate, February, 1857.)

We have now presented the three views of these three groups of men. With the same Bible to guide them, why are they so far apart? Why so irreconcilable? Why so opposed to each other? My dear reader, what is your explanation of this three-sided discussion?

With all the humility of heart of which I'm capable, I offer what seems to me to be the reason: Campbell and his group had allowed themselves to become so deeply fascinated with the "missionary" idea that they tried to harmonize Bible teaching with their reasoning. They were thus leaning on their own understanding, and had forgotten the words of Inspiration,

"Trust in the Lord with all thy heart and lean not on thine own understanding."

Brother Nichols and Brother Woods, with their group, have become just as deeply fascinated with the "benevolence" idea. Having that to defend, they are searching frantically to find some way to defend benevolent societies through which the church can do her work.

Tolbert Fanning, along with thousands of faithful Christians in every age, felt no need of any kind of society other than the church of the Lord. No society was organized, defended, or promoted by Fanning and those of like persuasion. They were thus leaning on the everlasting arm of God, and trusted in God's wisdom to so form and fashion his church to make it adequate and sufficient for every thing he wanted it to do. All of which simply shows that we cannot follow men; they may be often wrong. But God is always right.

Now let us hear from some other great and good men on this very point: the divinely inspired Paul wrote, "All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness; That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works." (II Tim. 3:16,17.) In the same vein, Peter testified; "According as his divine power hath given unto us all things that pertain unto life and godliness, through the knowledge of him that hath called us to glory and virtue." (II Pet. 1:3.) Thus we have the declarations of inspired men; if they mean anything at all, they mean that there is no place for a man-made society to do either the missionary or the benevolent work of the church.

And now we would be glad for these good brethren (Nichols and Woods) to tell us this: If the church is NOT its own "care institution," what other means or institution did the church organize in the days of the apostles to do this work? There has probably never been a time since God made the earth when there were more needy people than in the days of the apostles. Famines and wars had left multitudes desolate. Now, if it is impossible for the church to "care" for its needy ones without some human organization, tell us, please, what organization was used in that first century? Yes, tell us, please.

The church of our Lord is in no special way either a missionary society or a benevolent society; but it bears the same relationship to both works alike. There is this difference, however: soul saving is the primary work of the church, and caring for the needy is secondary to that.

If preaching or teaching is to be done, the church does not go as a group to preach or to teach, and the whole company in concert do the job. But with care and understanding and system the work is planned and laid out, the proper parties are selected, appointed, and supported to do the preaching and teaching. The church supports, encourages, and stands behind these men in carrying the gospel to all the world.

The very same is true with reference to benevolence. Of course the church is no "orphan home" itself; but if there are those to be cared for by the church, either the orphaned, the widowed, the aged, or the needy, the one in need has a place to stay, but lacks food or clothing, the church can and should provide the things needed. If the needy one has no shelter, some member may be able to furnish that, but if not, the church may build or buy a shelter; or might put the person in an institution or home prepared for such purposes and pay his keep while there. Where is the man who can not understand that?

Let us be careful, brethren, that we not go beyond the things that are written, lest we bring down upon us the wrath of Almighty God in the final day.