17 April, 2024

Guardians of Truth

by | 1 March, 2024 | 0 comments

By Gary Johnson 

I was a teenager in the late 1960s when my home church, a Disciples of Christ congregation, plunged into a debate about the Disciples’ liberal doctrinal positions, Restructure (approved in 1968), church property ownership, and other concerns.  

My seemingly peaceful home church soon became a verbal battleground as the debate ensued over whether we should withdraw and become “Independent” or remain with the Disciples of Christ. I heard the arguments both for and against and learned things I had not understood before. I witnessed strong opinions from folks who I didn’t know had opinions. I saw consternation in faces where I had only seen smiles. I sensed fear in a place that had only known peace in the past. The elders were leading by being guardians of the truth. 

The congregation was not liberal in its practices or biblical understanding. Consequently, when the decision was made to unaffiliate with the Disciples, not much changed outwardly. Thankfully, the church didn’t divide and to my knowledge, not one person left. I remember thinking at the time, How could something like this have happened so suddenly? 

DECADES IN THE MAKING 

There was nothing sudden about it; that debate had been decades in the making. At the onset of the 20th century, discord was growing within the Disciples of Christ. The newly formed Disciples Congresses (started in 1899) became a platform to promote a growing liberalism. Baptism by immersion quickly became a point of contention. To the consternation of conservatives, many Disciples leaders promoted and practiced “open membership” (the acceptance of believers who had experienced an alternative baptism but not immersion).    

Though Alexander Campbell had opposed such, the American Christian Missionary Society was created. Other missionary societies subsequently sprang up and in 1920, all merged to form the United Christian Missionary Society. This, too, became a major point of contention as the UCMS controlled the distribution of money to both home and foreign missions.  

Whereas the Restoration Movement’s plea had emphasized unity on the basis of biblical authority, that authority was now being questioned. Many in the Disciples’ camp professed doubt about biblical inspiration, inerrancy, and consequently, scriptural authority. Biblical truth was deemphasized. These concerns eventually became irreconcilable.  

A CHANGING OF THE GUARD 

The death of J.W. McGarvey, a leading conservative, in 1911 coupled with the Disciples Congresses almost exclusively favoring liberal speakers, brought matters to a head. In 1924, as a conservative alternative, the newly formed Cincinnati (Ohio) Bible Institute merged with McGarvey Bible College (Louisville, Kentucky) to form Cincinnati Bible Seminary. And in 1927 the first North American Christian Convention, a conservative preaching/teaching conference, gathered in Indianapolis, Indiana.  

Efforts seeking unity among the two factions continued, but the chasm was too great. By 1968, with the Disciples Restructure, the division which had been brewing for seven decades was officially recognized. And by 1971 the Independent Christian Churches had their own listing in the Yearbook of American Churches

More than 55 years have passed since the elders at my home church led through that tough decision process. My teenage years are long gone, but what I’m seeing in the church’s response to current American culture in some ways mimics the past. The divide seems to be widening among America’s evangelical churches on how to address today’s potentially divisive issues: women’s role in ministry, same-sex marriage, abortion, the LGBTQ+ movement, and scriptural authority, to name a few. The truth is being stretched and strained in an effort not to broaden the chasm between culture and Christianity. Sadly, I even see a growing divide in our branch of the Stone-Campbell heritage.  

GUARDING WISELY AND GRACIOUSLY 

Among their many leadership duties, elders must be the guardians of truth. Yes, like Jesus, we need to be “full of grace and truth.” Yes, as Paul admonished, we must “speak the truth in love.” But the desire for unity or conformity must always be tempered by truth. I suggest these strategies for today’s elders: 

Know the Scriptures. Distractions abound that keep us from spending time in God’s Word. Know why you believe what you believe. We never reach a point in life where we know enough, so keep studying. The truth matters. How will you know what’s true if you don’t know the Truth? 

Know what’s happening in our culture and how it impacts the church. The church is not a remote island protected from the forces of darkness. The church is to be a beacon of hope in the midst of the darkness. We can certainly compromise methods to be more relevant in reaching our culture, but we must never compromise truth to make the gospel more palatable to our culture. 

Know your role. Don’t major in the minors. Many opportunities exist to serve, but you must focus your energy on guarding the truth in your congregation. No one else in the church is tasked with that responsibility. Guard it well!  

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