Volume XVII, NUMBER 11 (November, 2006)
“Conservative” and “Sound” Are Not the Same
By Ron Daly
Some people think that if a congregation is “conservative” in theology, that it is necessarily “sound” in the faith. When I began preaching the word a few decades ago, I learned that “conservative” and “sound” are not synonymous. Some denominational churches are conservative in theology, but they are by no means sound in the faith. They are not even in the faith. They often teach part of the truth, and the part they teach is sometimes distorted. They have the tendency to mix and mingle the commandments of men with the word of God. The mixture is a lethal combination of truth and error and the result is terror! It will lead to the destruction of the soul. (Matthew 15:8-9; Colossians 2:8)
Many people think a congregation is sound, if it does not donate funds from its treasury to human societies such as colleges and orphan homes; and if it does not participate in the social gospel by building and maintaining recreation centers and fellowship halls. A congregation may be conservative by those standards, and yet be unsound because it tolerates preachers, elders, and others who teach doctrines that are diametrically opposed to new testament truth.
Conservative is defined as “tending to oppose change; favoring traditional views and values.” (The American Heritage Dictionary, page 312) Conservatism is based on strict interpretation. Sound is defined as “...free from error, be correct.” (A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, Walter Bauer, Frederick W. Danker, W.F. Arndt, and F. Wilbur Gingrich, Third Edition 2000, page 1023) Just because a congregation or individual is conservative does not mean that they are correct in what they believe and practice. Let us cite a few examples to illustrate the point.
There are numerous preachers, elders, and congregations that are noted for being “conservative,” who teach that a man or woman may divorce each other without sexual immorality being the ground for the divorce. They may agree that neither party has the authority to remarry, unless or until one of the divorced parties commits sexual immorality, nevertheless they say that they may divorce each other as long as there is no remarriage. Not only are they putting the cart before the horse; they are saying “gitty-up” to a horseless cart! Though some “conservatives” are teaching this, their reasoning is not sound. No new testament writer teaches implicitly or explicitly what these men are teaching. The only ground that our heavenly Father, through the Holy Spirit, by the pens of the men who wrote the new testament gives for divorce, whether remarriage follows or not is sexual immorality! Furthermore, if sexual immorality is the ground or basis of the divorce it must be antecedent the divorce and not posterior to it, otherwise the phrase “except for sexual immorality” (me epi porneia) means nothing. The Greek phrase is correctly rendered into English as “not based on sexual immorality.” (Matthew 19:9) A man or woman may have to temporarily flee the house for the purpose of maintaining personal safety, but the new testament does not give the fear for one’s personal safety as a ground for divorce!
Jesus and Paul are clear. Jesus said, “...I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, not based on sexual immorality, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” (Matthew 5:32) Paul said, “To the married I give this command, not I but the Lord, a wife is not to be divorced (choristhenai) from her husband: but if she is divorced (choristhe), let her remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband, and a husband is not to divorce (aphienai) his wife.” (1 Corinthians 7:10-11) Emotional arguments and “what if” situations do not alter the teaching of Jesus and Paul. We should appeal to the sacred writings and not to the unsound logic of “conservative” preachers, elders, and editors.
Other preachers, elders, and congregations espouse the view that people who have been married and divorced multiple times prior to obeying the gospel, without sexual immorality having been committed by the mates whom they divorced, may keep the most recent mate. They seem to believe the error that immersion in order to the remission sins, is also in order to the releasing of unauthorized marriages. God, by the application of the blood of Christ, forgives all sins when a person repents and is immersed. (Acts 2:38) Nowhere does the new testament teach that the blood of Christ washes away an unauthorized husband or wife. They must be put away. It is also right to ask, has a person repented who remains in an unauthorized marriage?
Others believe that if a person divorces his mate, and no sexual immorality has been committed by either party, but if the one who initiated the divorce proceedings later commits sexual immorality, the one who was unjustly divorced may then divorce the “guilty” spouse. He can’t do it “legally” since the first/unjust divorce was the “legal” one, thus the innocent spouse may now “mentally” divorce the guilty mate. We must ask, where is a “mental” divorce taught in the scriptures? Where is a “divorce” after one has been “divorced” taught in the scriptures? A preacher, elder, or congregation may believe and teach the foregoing things about marriage, divorce, and remarriage and be “conservative,” but they are not sound. (Matthew 5:31-32; 19:9; Mark 10:11-12)
If a person is not willing to yield to the teaching of the scriptures on this important subject, he should be a “eunuch,” that is, resolve not to enter the marriage relationship. (Matthew 19:10-12) There are people who have no scruples and who divorce their mate without sexual immorality having been committed, and thereby put themselves and their mate in very difficult circumstances. We can certainly sympathize with innocent people who are mistreated in such a way, but we must not take the liberty of changing God’s will in order to excuse parents, children, or anyone else when they sin against God. It is truly amazing how many people will change God’s law or their attitude about God’s law when their child makes wrong choices or sins. They will doggedly defend their child at all costs, yet when one they perceive to be an enemy makes the same wrong or immoral choice, they will kick into high gear and go into the search and destroy mode. They will protect a child who is in sin with the ferocity of a sow grizzly protecting her cubs, but destroy others who do like their child has done. It’s not right to commit overt acts of sexual immorality, but it’s okay if I teach a doctrine that endorses sexual immorality or leads to marriages that are adulterous, especially if my child is the violator. (cf. Romans 2:17-24)
Other “conservatives” say they believe in the all-sufficiency of the local congregation, yet they believe that human societies, organizations, and foundations may do and/or oversee the very thing(s) that the perfectly wise God designed the local congregation to do. This remains an enigma to me. How can a person believe in the all-sufficiency of the local congregation, and at the same time give credence to other organizations to do the work of the local congregation? It seems that some may have been parroting what their peers have said in the past about all-sufficiency without knowing what it means. What does all-sufficiency mean in the context of the local congregation and its work? We mean that God gave the local congregation everything she needs to function and do her work, and that she is the only religious organization that God has authorized to exist and do spiritual work.
God has given the local congregation a perfect work: upholding and defending the gospel (1 Timothy 3:15); providing benevolence for needy believers (Acts 6:1-6); and worship and edification. (Acts 20:7, 32) He has given her perfect organization: overseers and deacons (Acts 20:28; Philippians 1:1). He has given her perfect structure: members who are joined together by voluntary association. (Acts 9:26) He has given her a perfect means to support her work; a common treasury funded by the voluntary giving of each member. (1 Corinthians 16:1-2; 2 Corinthians 9:6-8) Nothing is lacking. When people or congregations build other organizations to do the religious or spiritual work that God designed the local congregation to do, not only do they impeach God’s wisdom, but they also imply that they do not believe in the all-sufficiency of the local congregation regardless of what their lips say. It’s like the preacher who said, “I am not prejudiced against blacks. We have a black man who is a member where I preach.” Yet, the preacher never does any work in the black community. He doesn’t tell folks that the one black man who is a member where he preaches was there before he was asked to move there. Nor does he tell people that he said, “The only use I have for blacks folks is to let them tell me the bad things I want to know about other black people.” No matter what his lips say about not being prejudiced, his words and actions say something different! The same thing holds true with the “conservative” men who say believe in the all-sufficiency of the local congregation. In one breath they make the claim of believing in the local congregation’s all-sufficiency, and in the next breath they are making plans for a human society or foundation to do her work. At best they believe in part-sufficiency.
The ultimate goal in the life of the individual and the work of the local congregation is to glorify God on earth in preparation for eternity. Jesus said, “...let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16) God is glorified when individuals are an example of righteousness in word and in conduct. Why? Because God designed the things that individuals are to teach and practice in religion. He is the Master Architect of his plan. It reflects his wisdom, not the wisdom of men! Therefore, when individuals teach and live the gospel, the message of salvation, God, the author of the message is glorified. When the local congregation worships God, proclaims the gospel, provides benevolence for indigent believers, and edifies herself through the service she renders to God, it is God who is glorified. God is the author of the plan the congregation is following. Every authorized act the local congregation engages in is designed to ultimately glorify the great God of heaven. When the congregation eats the Lord’s Supper, Christ is remembered and the God who sent him is glorified. (1 Corinthians 11:26; Romans 3:23-24) God is glorified when the congregation sings “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.” (Colossians 3:16) God is glorified when the congregation “prays fervently to God.” (Acts 12:5) God is glorified when the congregation assists indigent members. (2 Corinthians 9:13) God is glorified when the congregation provides for the propagation and defence of the gospel. Why? Because that is what God designed her to do. (1 Timothy 3:15)
Is God glorified when any human organization usurps God’s plan, and takes on the role of “administering” or providing for the partaking of the Lord’s Supper? Most informed people would answer “No.” That would be the correct answer. Why? Because the new covenant provides no authority, via. direct statement, approved apostolic example, or implication for human organizations “administering” or providing for the partaking of the Lord’s Supper. This is something God designed to be eaten in and by the local congregation. (Acts 20:7; 1 Corinthians 11:17-34) We likewise ask, is God glorified when human organizations that are designed for secular business purposes, usurp God’s plan and take on the role of “administering” or providing for the preaching of the gospel? The new testament teaches that God designed the local congregation to provide for the propagation of the gospel. (Philippians 1:1, 5; 4:15-17; 1 Thessalonians 1:7-8; 1 Timothy 3:15) Local congregations of Christ are not human organizations, and human organizations such as colleges, foundations, and publishing companies are not local congregations of Christ. Therefore, though these human organizations have the right to exist and perform secular and civic works, they have no biblical right to function as spiritual or religious societies. They cross a divinely established boundary when they do so. What gives them the right to perform one work of the local congregation, without giving them the right to perform every work that God assigned to the local congregation? In the new testament we read of an individual (Acts 8:5), a group of individuals (Acts 13:1-5), and congregations (1 Thessalonians 1:7-8; 2 Corinthians 11:8) proclaiming the message, but not one text teaches explicitly or implicitly that the individuals or congregations built human organizations by or through which the word of God was preached. The only organization that was established to proclaim the message of salvation was divine, not human, and it was the local congregation! It seems so strange that “conservative” men who fought institutionalism in the 40’s, 50’s, 60’s and 70’s are now promoting and defending their own brand of institutionalism. They seem oblivious to the fact that the very same arguments by which they fought institutionalism then, now apply to them, and the same arguments the liberal-minded institutional brothers made then, are being made by so-called conservatives now. It is most assuredly true that “conservative” and “sound” are not the same.