4 Oct 2006

Who Is Sound? A Memory of Nashville Bible School, A Thought from 1916

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Church, Church History, Grace, J.N. Armstrong, Kingdom Come, R. H. Boll, Restoration History, Sectarianism, Unity

Who Is Sound? A Thought from 1916

In 1916, John Nelson Armstrong was, among other things, editor of the Gospel Herald. Armstrong had consciously decided to follow the example he had witnessed in both David Lipscomb and James A. Harding of allowing open and free discussions in a brotherly manner. From time to time he felt the need to call the brotherhood back to these principles of non-sectarian Christianity.

In 1916 he asked a question as the title to an article: “Who is Sound?” Even in 1916 the term “sound” was a loaded, as well as a coded, word. To be labeled as “unsound” was a practical death sentence on a preacher. Armstrong though believed the way that term was understood was, perhaps, off. One can be faithful he argues while still having differences.

If Christians are allowed to keep their individualities [sic] and permitted to make individual effort and progress in Christian growth, there must be, there will always be, differences among growing and developing children of God.”

Looking back to his younger years, he notes that some sort of change in the atmosphere was taking place.

When I was a boy, the disciples were not alarmed by it [i.e. differences]. Bro. Jones does not agree with Bro. Smith, but nobody was alarmed by it. When I entered the Nashville Bible School at Nashville, it was well understood that that Bro. Sewell and Dr. Brents differed on the appointment of elders, on the millennium, and on other questions like them. So it was understood respecting Brethren Lipscomb and Harding, Taylor and Lipscomb and so forth. Each freely discussed his side, or phase, of the controverted point. That anybody would consider one ‘unsound,’ ‘disloyal,’ or unworthy of the most hearty fellowship never entered one’s mind.”

With that memory of the freedom and fellowship of the NBS, Armstrong issues this plea

May I entreat you and your goodness of soul not to think of one of your faithful brethren being ‘unsound’ because of his position on any of the differences now among us. The very thought is wicked. Let these differences be discussed fully, freely, and brotherly among us.”

J. N. Armstrong, gradate of Nashville Bible School, son in law of James A. Harding, founder and President of many colleges like Cordell Christian College and Harding University

J. N. Armstrong, gradate of Nashville Bible School, son in law of James A. Harding, founder and President of many colleges like Cordell Christian College and Harding University

Armstrong continues on with a warning that those who refused to follow such a course of action are “factious men.” Indeed, Armstrong senses that the real culprit might just be the rise of sectarian spirit within the church.

I want to beg the readers of this paper to stand for this better ground. Don’t tolerate and allow to grow around you the sentiment that would measure soundness by this intolerant, sectarian spirit. The progress of our beloved people and of that brotherly spirit so necessary to the peace of this people will not allow that divisive spirit . . . Let him not be afraid to make known his convictions lest he be called unsound; let us be real brethren, faithful brethren, loyal to one another, in spite of these differences.”

Robert Henry Boll thought enough of this article from Gospel Herald to reprint it in full in Word and Work 10 (August 1916), 344.

The gracious, biblical, non-sectarian spirit revealed in this article is the kind I pray and long for in our fellowship today. This vision is what John Mark Hicks and I attempted to communicate in ch. 10 of Kingdom Come. It was likely a minority view in 1916 but it is my prayer that it will be the majority in 2006.

Ut omnes unum sint (John 17.21, Vulgate) … “that they may all be one.” Live the Prayer!!!

Bobby Valentine

21 Responses to “Who Is Sound? A Memory of Nashville Bible School, A Thought from 1916”

  1. David Cook Says:


    Good thoughts that are well reflective of your heart and ambition. This sectarian spirit is somthing that will continue to plague our movement. It seems the voices of the new generation are less interested in spliting hairs and being divisive and our more interested in impacting the world with Christ with a unified Christian movement. What does it look like? When the question was asked at Harding the answer was simply— One side needs to give up the instruments. Well since that is not going to happen we need to search out opportunities to join arms with one another and start thinking about who the true enemy is…. (I Pet 5.8)


  2. Danny Says:

    Thanks for the post Bobby.

    I have never understood how in stands for “sound doctrine” brothers have abandoned godly treatment of each other- especially when Paul practically defines “sound doctrine” as godly behavior in Titus 2.

  3. Stoogelover Says:

    That attitude is so needed in our felloship today! Agree, too, with David Cook’s comment regarding the true enemy … it ain’t us!

  4. Jim Frost Says:


    This cuts to the heart of what ‘seekers’ see when they visit our services. I wish I had read this a few weeks ago, we just finished a study led by Justin Worley at Elkhorn, WI on Romans and the call for people to get over the ‘disputable’ issues.

    Remember: ‘The most bitter disputes are between people that agree on the fundamentals’.

    Can we get past this?

    bro Jim Frost

  5. MommyHAM Says:

    Amen, Danny.

    Coincidentally, our church’s recent family meeting talked about this very thing; unfortunately, we have a growing number who can be construed as “factious [wo]men.”

    Please be praying….

  6. preacherman Says:

    I would like to ask, is it up to us to label who is and who isn’t sound? Are we to judge? I believe that we mis-understand that term sound. We think that conservative is sound. Traditional is sound in some of our brothers eyes. Many believe that a preacher that thinks or agrees with what I think and believe then he is sound. Others are labeled as “unsound”. Is it really up to us? Does the label do any good for anyone? Does the label sound really bring unity to the church?

    Bobby, thank you for your post and making me think. God bless you brother. Oh, I am glad to see you posting again. I missed it.

  7. Falantedios Says:

    Isaiah, Jesus, Paul, and John all upbraided certain teachers of heir day for being unsound. Paul went so far as to assign them to be marked and avoided.

    HOWEVER, just because they did it for certain reasons does not guarantee that WE are right to do it, unless we are doing it for the same reasons. Divisiveness is a MAJOR reason in 1st century Christianity. It seems to have lost its cache’ in 2006, huh?

    Doctrine – body of teaching

    Can we truly love the lost if we have no responsibility to discern whether we and those around us are passing along information that is Biblical?

    “What you heard from me through many witnesses entrust to faithful people who will be able to teach others as well.”

    The brotherhood’s concern for soundness is good and necessary.

    The brotherhood’s definition of soundness needs serious help.

    in HIS love,

  8. cwinwc Says:

    Perhaps before we can return to the 1st century we need to make a pit stop at the late 19th/early 20th centuries to re-adopt this attitude of unity among believers who hold to varying opinions.

  9. Tim Archer Says:


    You know I’ve questioned on certain forums the definition of a “sound congregation.” I’ll admit that phrase bothers me to no end. By what standard do we determine who is sound and who isn’t? Simple: do they agree with me or don’t they.

    Thanks for these words from the past.

  10. Velcro Says:

    Great Post Bobby.

    I recently had to explain these things to a guy who disagreed with my post yesterday. I don’t mind or care really when people disagree with me, but no one likes being told that they’re wrong.

    I appreciate your posts.

  11. Frank Bellizzi Says:

    Not to put words in anyone else’s mouth, but rather for the sake of clarity . . .

    Regarding the word “mark,” several years ago Jack Lewis wrote to the effect that this word should be understood in the sense of “take note of” and not in the sense of the verb “brand.”

    Apparently, for some, the Bible word “mark” had served as a license for badmouthing good folks who were not considered “sound.”

    Are there people in the world who deserve the rhetoric of, say, Jude? Sure. Just not as many as some of our people have imagined; like the editor of “The Heretic Detector.” And yes, Virginia, there was such a journal among the early Campbellites.

  12. Stoned-Campbell Disciple Says:

    Frank it seems that we have often used a biblical term in ways far beyond what the writers did. For example is the phrase “sound doctrine” itself. That phrase is almost always understood in terms of propositional dogma (i.e. doctrine of LS, church structure, IM, etc). Yet Abraham J. Malherbe has demonstrated, conclusively in my opinion, that the phrase better translated as “healthy teaching” has nothing to do with structure and the like in the place it occurs in the NT … the Pastorals. His article on “Medical Imagery in the Pastorals” should be required reading in every “Church of Christ” school. Perhaps several times!

    The editor and publisher of the Heretic Detector was Arthur Crihfield. Several years ago I read through the entire journal for some research. I think IT was made me become a STONED Campbell disciple, 🙂 The journal was short lived (only 4 or 5 yrs as I recall), beginning in 1837.
    Yet it has cast a long shadow and its sectarian spirit has proved hard to kill with the antibiotics we have used in the past.

    Bobby Valentine

  13. Bill Says:


    This is excellent! Your final comment is, in my estimation, spot on. I was, in fact, going to write something along this line in my comment. This is one of those cases in which the marginal notes in the ASV have served us well. If memory serves me correctly the ASV supplies an alternate reading in Titus 2:1 for “sound doctrine” of “healthful teaching”.

    BTW, can you give us a lead on how to acquire Malherbe’s article?


  14. John Roberts Says:

    It is interesting to me that the phrase in the NT translated “sound doctrine” always appears in contexts in which right living are being discussed, not right thinking. If sound doctrine doesn’t cause us to live better, holier, more generous lives it isn’t “sound.”

  15. Niki Says:

    Loved John’s comment. Amen brother!

    The sectarian spirit of many of the churches of Christ has gained them a bad reputation – one they’re actually proud of. The “WE know we’re right and everyone else is wrong so we can take the heat for being the most Christlike and Biblical”. We have experienced the hurtful words of a brother who disagreed with my husband on an issue and told others that my husband bordered on apostacy. Ouch! There was no debate about “soundness”. It went straight to “since I’m uncomfortable with your position on this subject, you must be in error and therefore EVERYTHING you say must be error so you should be silenced now for the good of our youth”. Or something like that.

    Excellent post Bobby. Keep discussing the challenging stuff. I wonder if we will ever grow past this sad attitude or if we’ll always fight for our own understanding and agenda and call it sound truth.

  16. Royce Ogle Says:

    In almost every case, when one brother refers to another as “sound”, it only means he agrees with him, not necessarily that he is “sound” according to the Bible.

    Until there is broad agreement in our brotherhood on the essential, foundational doctrines of the historic Christian faith, these labels will continue to be used and anyone who does not agree with my particular quirk will be “marked”.

    Anyone who doubts that there is disagreement on the most basic tenents of the faith only needs to read the letters to the editor of the Christian Chronicle, the articles in the Christian Courier, and coC blogs.

    I sometimes think we are making progress and then I wonder…

    Grace and Peace,
    Royce Ogle

  17. Alan Says:

    Hello Bobby,

    Thanks for coming by my blog and letting me know about yours. We are indeed thinking alike on this topic.

    I’m a little late to the party on this topic (“Who is sound?”) but it strikes a chord with me. John Roberts’ comment sums up the issue in my view: soundness is about how you live, not what you think.

    I need to read up some more about J. N. Armstrong. Sounds like a great brother.


  18. Candle (C & L) Says:

    To put a slightly different spin on this — The “opposite” to sound has often been the phrase “false teachers who don’t teach the whole gospel” — and it has been applied to vitually any item that one person or group has come to believe about scripture by any other person or group who understands it differently.

    I have often thought (but haven’t yet done so)that a complete thorough study of all the situations in the NT (Matt-Rev) that dealt with “false teaching” and “apostasy” would be instructive. At the surface it always seems to be directed at people who deny that Jesus was who he claimed to be. people who want to replace righteousness by grace with righteousness through law-keeping, or people who want to believe they can have the benefit of grace without giving over their lives to “being transformed into the likeness of Jesus”
    – denial of God’s love, self-righteous earning of God’s mercy, or selfish pursuit of what I want to do — is there any other category of teacher (or practicioner) who claimed to be in covenant with God who was attacked as a “servant of Satan”

  19. Bradford L. Stevens Says:

    There have always been those throughout the ages that see the body of Christ as it exists from God’s point of view. We are Christians only; but, not the “only” Christians. Even when the prophet Elijah felt he was the only one left the Lord declares to him that He had 7,000 in Israel who had not yet bowed their knees to Baal. Where ever God has a child we have a brother or sister. There are things going on in places like China today of which we do not know that give me great hope that the gospel cannot be contained by those who want to control it for their sectarian purposes. Even today within the Catholic church there are winds of reformation that are blowing renewal into the hearts of believers. In the end the Lord decides whom belongs to him. I think that Jesus’s words to the Pharisees that the harlots and tax collectors will be going into the kingdom before they should make us pause and realize that judgment belongs to the Lord. Great article!

  20. Gardner Hall Says:

    Hey Bobby, Here’s a comment for you from five years later!

    The points that you, Armstrong and others so eloquently make illustrate the excesses of those who have no concept of mercy and clemency. Historically, however, known disciples have tended to vacillate between extremes and we need to be careful to avoid the other one.

    We can’t forget that the prophets and epistles are full of warnings about apostasy. Yes, there is such a thing! Though it is right that a brother is probably not hell bound just because he disagrees with me on the need for a plurality of bishops, having just one in a congregation, then metropolitan bishops, diocesan bishops, etc. were evidently first steps towards the Roman hierarchy. “Church of Christ” hierarchies are being established in many third world countries where denominational machinery controls many, often by lining their pockets. We can lovingly oppose such without judging the destinies of those who promote it. May God help us avoid prideful spiritual paranoia on one hand and being spiritual enablers on the other.

  21. Stoned-Campbell Disciple Says:


    I am always honored to have you read and comment.

    Just one or two minor comments in reply. Indeed the prophets and the apostles speak of “apostasy.” But do we take seriously the kinds of things they speak to regarding apostasy. The problem is that most of our apostasies have nothing at all to do with what the scriptures speak of regarding apostasy.

    I know of no place where one is condemned for being too merciful.

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