15 Mar 2008

Unity, Freedom of Inquiry, and Humility: Gnats and Camel Swallowing, A Look in the Rear View Mirror for Today’s Church

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Bible, Bobby's World, Church, Church History, Discipleship, Ministry, Preaching, Restoration History, Unity

Quotable Quotes

There is a great need to stress the importance of maintaining freedom of speech in the kingdom of God. Intolerance is dangerous to the future growth of the church . . . All progress of truth – scientific truth, political truth, or religious truth – all truth – has always depended on free speech and progressive teachers who were not afraid to teach their honest convictions.” (J. N. Armstrong, For Freedom)

The fatal error of all reformers, has been that they have too hastily concluded that they knew the whole truth, and have settled back upon the same principles of proscription, intolerance and persecution, against which they so strongly remonstrated.” (John Rogers, Christian Messenger, 1830)

Stoned-Campbell Thoughts in the Rear View Mirror

It seems certain to me that one of the biggest hindrances to shalom in God’s church is the notion that we have arrived at an infallible understanding of truth … even “revealed” truth. Comments on my recent blog post, Of Popes in the Belly point to a considerable rift in attitudes toward each other and the text and thus serves as the inspiration for this particular post.
I argued in my book with John Mark Hicks, Kingdom Come: Embracing the Spiritual Legacy of David Lipscomb and James Harding that freedom is a gift from God to his children and it flows in our veins and DNA through the Stone-Campbell tradition … especially the Nashville Bible School Tradition. Spiritual arrogance breeds war, disunity and kills the desire to learn. This plea surfaces a number of times from various writers within the sphere of the NBST. I thought I would share, briefly, three more this morning.
The first comes again from the pen of J. N. Armstrong. On July 9, 1914 in the Gospel Herald (pp. 3-4). Armstrong penned a piece called “Gnat-Strainers and Camel Swallowers.” The opening paragraph is a “mouthful” to say the least:
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

A man may be very correct in his doctrine, may teach a perfect gospel, may dot every ‘i’ and cross every ‘t’ in his faithfulness in teaching what is written: he may be a good man and be able to say as the rich young ruler: ‘All these I have kept from my youth up,’ and still not be the Lord’s servant.”

How could this be? Well Armstrong argued that biblical Christianity is not simply about getting forms correct and technical observance of ordinances. There is a “spirit that must permeate and saturate the lives of those keeping the forms, lest the keeping be an abomination in our Master’s sight.
With a lengthy review of the history of Israel, with emphasis given to such passages as Isaiah 1.11-15 and 29.13,24 and Hosea 6.6 and finally Mt 23.23 (Read them), Armstrong believes we need to heed the warning. He says
I wonder if we are not repeating the sins of Israel. Are we neglecting the ‘weightier matters.’ Have we gone and learned what God meant when he said: ‘I desire goodness and not sacrifice?’ (Hosea 6:6). How many of us are straining out the gnat and swallowing the camel? How many of us have been guilty of gagging over a gnat until we have destroyed the comfort and peace of the whole congregation, while at the same time we were gulping down camels? Let us not forget that there are small and large, lighter and weightier matters of the law.
Another voice is that of Samuel Parker Pittman. Pittman was first a student at the NBS and then, like Boll, became an instructor. Indeed Harding baptized Pittman in 1886. S.P.P became a quiet channel for the NBST as the 20th century progressed. Pittman rarely crossed swords but in 1919 he did register a protest about the way some things were going in the Churches of Christ. He wrote a piece called “What’s the Matter?” for the May 22 GA. He begins the essay with a review of the degeneration of the church into centralization of power in the Roman papacy. He praises Luther for his courage in speaking up. He thanks the “learned” John Calvin and the dissenters in the English Reformation. He then states:
Samuel Parker Pittman long time irenic professor at David Lipscomb College.

Samuel Parker Pittman long time irenic professor at David Lipscomb College.

The caption of this article is, ‘What’s the Matter?’ What is the matter with what? With the movement started so auspiciously by the Campbells and others? Why, the trouble is not in the movement, nor in the men who inaugurated it. The trouble has been with us, who have espoused the movement, while refusing to wear the name of this great reformer and while denying that we are his followers (it would be better if some did follow him more scrupulously than they do).

So what is wrong with the generation Pittman is addressing? He explains:
In our belief that ‘we are right,’ that we occupy ‘infallibly safe grounds,’ we are prone to become (have become) narrow, bigoted, intolerant. It is not the novice alone who is this; it is the more experienced brother, whose life and influence should be a benediction. I deplore the attitude of our older brethren who feel that they are the arbiters of the faith of the younger, who feel called upon to condemn in bitter terms the mistakes they may make, and who are ready to ostracize those who cry for a deeper spirituality, because they are guilty of some doctrinal irregularity.
Since my post has grown considerably I will perhaps add the letter from a “Young Preacher” later. It is a fascinating letter though.
Bobby Valentine

23 Responses to “Unity, Freedom of Inquiry, and Humility: Gnats and Camel Swallowing, A Look in the Rear View Mirror for Today’s Church”

  1. Alan Says:

    Well put Bobby. Another insightful post. I read every one although I may not comment. Your blog is in my Google Reader so everytime you update it pops up there. It is a handy little tool if you read a lot of blogs.

  2. preacherman Says:

    Excellent post Bobby.
    Keep up the great blogging.
    I appreciate your thoughts, ideas, on this subject.
    Kinney Mabry

  3. Lynn Trapp Says:

    Well said, Bobby. You have an insight that I wish a lot more brethren shared.

  4. coldfire Says:

    I have a problem mostly with the first line of your post…

    “There is a great need to stress the importance of maintaining freedom of speech in the kingdom of God.”

    If Armstrong mean “within” the kingdom of God, then I agree, but freedom of speech has never been central to the church really until America came around. We still do need to realize the authority of our church (even if it is only the small amount of authority that protestant churches hold).

  5. kingdomseeking Says:


    Great post! I always enjoy the quotes from history. We have so much to learn from our history and until we do, we will continue to repeat the same mistakes our historical ancesstors in the faith were trying to correct.

    Ithaca Church of Christ
    Ithaca, NY

  6. Steve Puckett Says:

    I understand, but am deeply saddened by any effort to suppress the freedom in Christ of all believers. No brother or sister, no matter how intelligent or informed has any right to stand in judgment of other believers. I applaud your efforts to accept and affirm those of all “tribes” who seek to follow and honor the risen Christ.


  7. Niki Says:

    Well said Bobby. I understood what you were saying in the last post and was a little surprised at the explosion in the comments section. I can’t help but think that the division caused by the word “unity” is one of the great problems in the c of c. There is no unity when believers refuse to be unified with other believers who don’t tow the “correct” doctrinal line. Freedom to explore the scriptures and ask God to reveal His truth to individuals leaves too much room for error and coming to different conclusions than those our forefathers may have taught us. It’s dangerous. (Those last two line were sarcasm.)

    I am incredibly grateful for the way you handle conflicting views and for your offering of grace to all who read and comment here.

    Thank you for your encouragement Bobby. I love stopping by here and you stopping by My Journey.

  8. Zack Says:

    Good stuff Bobby! God bless us all to “seek shalom” in our own lives and world. Thank you for your thought provoking words again. God bless!

  9. Zack Says:

    Thank you Bobby for your encouragement all so. A Gathered People was very encouraging and thought provoking as well. I look forward to reading future blog posts on the subject you addressed here. God bless!

  10. Gardner Hall Says:

    J.N. Armstrong and S.P. Pittman have deservedly good reputations as is seen from the articles you quote. I’ve enjoyed talking with people that knew and admired them. I agree with the general thrust of this article, but can’t help but be concerned about unhealthy applications that some may draw from it.

    At the risk of sounding creedal, I’ll just make a few lists from the top of my head and then refer back to them.
    a. Jesus Christ is the son of God. He is divine!
    b. He died on the cross to save me from my sins!
    c. He rose from the dead!
    d. He is merciful towards those who are growing him.
    e. He emphasizes the weightier principles of justice, mercy and faith.

    We can know these as inspired truths and proclaim them without having “popes in the belly.” There are other principles we can know that may not be as “weighty” as the above list, but still come to us through Christ’s inspired apostles.

    f. God asks those who want to come to him to repent and be baptized for the remission of sins.
    g. Early believers continued in the apostles teaching, fellowship, breaking of bread and prayers.
    h. Early disciples met on the first day of the week to worship God with fervor but simplicity.
    i. Early disciples organized themselves simply in autonomous congregations

    You are absolutely right that many in the Stone-Campbell movement have distorted priorities in their teaching, emphasizing issues like f-i more than “weightier” matters, “a-e.” However, that’s not to say that striving to imitate early Christians in points like f-i is unimportant! To quote Jesus, “these ought ye to have done without leaving the other undone.” To press for imitation of early Christians on issues such as f-i, while acknowledging that they are not “weightier, is not necessarily having a pope in the belly or believing ourselves to be infallible. Sometimes our attitudes towards such issues can reveal how much we really believe in God. Remember as well, that the emergence of the diocesan bishop, a seemingly insignificant development, was one of the first steps on the road to Catholicism. We wouldn’t categorize a plurality of bishops in a local congregation as a “weightier matter,” yet disregard for that principle proved very harmful in the long run.

    So, “amen” to the importance of emphasizing weightier matters such as God’s grace. But let’s be careful not to react to the Pharisees among us by throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

  11. Falantedios Says:

    Dear Gardner,

    I think that my favorite quote from Br. David Lipscomb directly addresses your concerns.

    “So long as a man really desires to do right, to serve the Lord, to obey His commands, we cannot withdraw from him. We are willing to accept him as a brother, no matter how ignorant he may be, or how far short of the perfect standard his life may fall from his ignorance…We will maintain the truth, press the truth upon him, compromise not one word or iota of that truth, yet forbear with the ignorance, the weakness of our brother who is anxious, but not yet able to see the truth …Why should I not, when I fall so far short of perfect knowledge myself? How do I know that the line beyond which ignorance damns, is behind me, not before me? If I have no forbearance with his ignorance, how can I expect God to forbear with mine? …So long then as a man exhibits a teachable disposition, is willing to hear, to learn and obey the truth of God, I care not how far he may be, how ignorant he is, I am willing to recognize him as a brother.” (David Lipscomb, Gospel Advocate, April 22, 1875).

    The Pope in the Belly is not holding an opinion, nor is it putting forth an opinion, or even paassionately defending an opinion. I think it is the “log in our eye” of condemning others on the basis of our opinions on lesser matters.

    in HIS love,

  12. Falantedios Says:

    On diocesan bishops, Viola and Barna suggest:

    “Church leadership began to formalize at about the time of the death of the itinerant apostolic workers. In the late first and early second centuries, local presbyters began to emergy as the resident “successors” to the unique leadership role played by the apostolic workers. This gave rise to a single leading figure in each church (Ferguson, Early Christians Speak, 172)… Ignatius of Antioch (35-107) was instrumental in this shift. He was the first figure in church history to take a step down the slippery slope toward a single leader in the church. We can trace the origin of the contemporrary pastor and church hierarchy to him. Ignatius elevated one of the elders in each church above all the others. The elevated elder was now called the bishop. All the responsibilities that belonged to the college of elders were exercised by the bishop (Ferguson, Early Christians Speak, 173). In AD 107, Ignatius wrote a series of letters when on his way to be martyred in Rome. Six out of seven of these letters strike the same chord. They exalt the authority and importance of the bishop’s office.”

    Gardner, I both agree and disagree with your suggestion. The loss of the plurality of bishops strikes at the very heart of the priesthood of all believers, which I do not believe is a lesser matter. How I wish someone had responded to Ignatius with conviction and passion. I don’t agree with the polemical style of the book “Pagan Christianity” by Viola and Barna (from which the above quotes come), but on this I think they are dead on.

    in HIS love,

  13. Stoned-Campbell Disciple Says:

    Ok. It is true that Ignatius spoke of the importance of the bishop. Yet perhaps Ignatius gets shafted slightly by Viola and Barna.

    Pagan Christianity is an ok book as far as it goes but I had and continue to have “issues” with their presentation of church history and the like. A couple of facts to consider with Ignatius:

    1) It is certain that a good portion of what we call the “New Testament” Ignatius did not have or knew. He quotes the Greek version of the Hebrew Scriptures (including the Apocrypha) but never explicitly quotes the NT. He is, apparently, familiar with the Gospel of Matthew and speaks of the “Gospel of Jesus Christ” but it is clear that he knows the ORAL teachings quite well (probably stuff we only wish we had). And he seems to know some of the epistles but he shows no awareness of the Pastorals and numerous other texts.

    2) The canon of the NT was hardly or even remotely a fixed entity in Ignatius day. What Pattern did he depart from? Indeed in the early church many in the second century thought Ignatius’ own writings were inspired and canonical.

    3) Ignatius opens all seven of his letters with the Greek word “theophorus” which means “God inspired man.” Ignatius claims to have had the gift of prophecy and no one to my knowledge in the early church ever challenged that claim. So, if I choose to play devil’s advocate here, the question would be was Ignatius exercising his prophetic gift when he wrote to the churches?? Was such gift limited to apostles? Clearly not if we accept the traditional authorship of Luke/Acts and the Preacher of Hebrews.

    In “To the Trallians”(5.1) Ignatius writes “I am able to write to you of heavenly things, but I fear lest I should cause you harm being but babes …” (my translation). Much like Paul describing the vision of a “man” … but Ignatius chooses not to share because they were not ready for it.

    4) Ignatius’ emphasis on the bishop is pastoral in nature. He is reacting to the incredible and destructive rise of docetic Gnosticism that so hurt the church in the second century. Since there was NO canon then how would one contain such false teaching. Through one who had been immersed in the teaching/tradition of the church. That person was in fact, historically, the bishop.

    I am not so hard on Ignatius (He did die for the Lord after all!). He did what needed to be done. The abuses that came out of the monarchical bishop can no more be laid on him than the rather pathetic abuses that have been committed by a group who views themselves as demigods over the Lord’s flock can be blamed on Paul.

    I also am not so sure that the phrase “kingdom priests” means what Americans often take it to mean nor do I think Ignatius undermined it.
    For Ignatius it was a safe guard.

    Seeking Shalom,
    Bobby Valentine

  14. Gardner Hall Says:

    Nick and Bobby,
    This is now an “old post” but I’ll respond briefly to thank you for your remarks.

    Nick, I don’t see anything you say that I really disagree with and like the quotes you used. We might go in slightly different directions with them but I generally agree. You’re probably right that diocesan bishops would be a little “weightier” than I indicated in my list.

    Bobby, let me make a few points about what you said:

    (1) You make the point again (as you’ve made in earlier posts) that the completed written canon didn’t exist at the time of Ignatius, but I think that’s beside the point. The question is not whether complete apostolic traditions had been left in written form by his time (surely not) but whether apostolic precedence had been established in written OR VERBAL form. If such had been established whether by “word or letter” then neither Ignatius nor any one else had the right to change it.

    (2) You’re probably right that Ignatius felt he was inspired. I doubt he was. I doubt also that you think we should add his letters to the canon. And yes, he was admirable in some ways.

    (3) Without focusing too much on Ignatius, I think we all agree that at some point the departure that resulted in Romanism had it’s embryonic beginning, whether with Ignatius’ single bishop rule, the diocesan bishops that came later, the church councils or whatever.
    My only point is that similar dangers exist today. While it is right to focus our teaching primarily on weightier matters (Christ’s death, resurrection, love, mercy, grace, etc.) it can still be dangerous to disregard matters such as congregational independence and autonomy even as we emphasize grace and mercy regarding differences on such matters.

  15. kingdomseeking Says:

    There was a fixed Apostolic teaching in verbal form and the early church fathers certainly appeal to this apostolic teaching in their appeal to tradition, rule(s) of faith, etc… But I have not read anywhere where ecclesiological form was part of this teaching (though I am by far from the most read on early, post-apostolic Church history).

    I think we are making a large assumption when we say that there was a fixed teaching on the form of church government. First, in the NT itself the pattern of church leadership is one of continued evolution. Second, most people’s assumption of a fixed apostolic form is depented on the doctrine of ‘sola scriptura’ which may or may not be a good doctrine (but that is for another discussion).

    The office of Bishop (singular) was an attempt to address a leadership dilema as the church continued to grow larger. Whether that was the best response or not is certainly a good question. However, that office was created to be a servant of the church (as all leadership offices should be). Just as with any bad church leadership, it is unforunate that at some point in history that office became ceased to be a self-sacrificial servant of the church and instead digressed into a self-exalting, power-tripped, master of the church.

    While the New Testament certainly does not depict a highly organized leadership that is present in some contemporary church fellowships today, the New Testament surely does not promote the picture of local church autonomy that has come to define our own Restoration Fellowship as well as some other church fellowships.


  16. Gardner Hall Says:

    Thanks Rex, You’re always thought provoking. We agree that leadership in both Romanism and “some contemporary church fellowships” can become “self-exalting, power-tripped,” masters. At what point in the evolution towards that type of hierarchy or leadership, should humble disciples lovingly make their objections heard?

  17. Keith Says:

    I tend to agree with you on first century church autonomy. We are much more independent now then those churches were. Paul’s visits and letter (many which were designed to be shared) gave these churches a much stronger linkage than many in our movement have today.

    I also like your comment on early church leadership evolving as it went. I’m going to give that idea more thought…very interesting.

    I’ve always felt that the early churches mimicking of Synagogue practices made a lot of sense for the early Jewish Christians, but might not be an established precedent as much as expedient means to share the gospel in that time and place.
    Thanks for the good discussion all.

  18. kingdomseeking Says:

    Gardner-hall asks, “At what point in the evolution towards that type of hierarchy or leadership, should humble disciples lovingly make their objections heard?”

    This is a great question and one that needs to be addressed if the church is to prevent/correct bad leadership. Without any specifics it is hard to say exactly at what point. However, I believe that bad leadership will eventually expose themselves for what they are and when this happens the church should respond accordingly.

    Having said that, the problem with bad leadership is not the position but those who occupy the position. If it is appropriate to have a Bishop, having a bad Bishop does not necessitate the disolving of that office to correct the problem of a bad Bishop. I say that because I also know a couple of Restoration churches that have completely abandoned the ideal of having a recognized evangelist(s) and/or elders simply because either or both of these offices of leadership (for lack of better term) were occupied by bad leaders. In the instances I am aware of, the leadership that has emerged is based more upon secular business models than informed theology. I believe there is a better solution to leadership problems than a complete disbanding of church leadership grounded in good theology in favor of secular improv.


  19. kingdomseeking Says:


    It is difficult for us to read the NT in a 3-dimensial manner and keep in mind that a book like Acts records history within historical time that spans several decades. We start out with apostolic leadership only and progress to appointing seven for deacon services. As we continue to read on, we encounter a much more sophisticated yet very organic leadership at the Jerusalem Counsul that includes non-apostolic leadership having just as much say as the apostles. Then we eventually have Paul writing Timothy and Titus from prison encouraging their own leadership while also encouraging the appointing of elders and deacons (or shepherds, elders, and deacons, though I believe elders and shepherds are just different terms for the same office).

    The million dollar question is whether this last form was meant to be THE form for all time? And let’s not forget Ephesians 4 which assumes a five-fold leadership of apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers.


    Any ways, this is a great conversation and I believe this entire post and comments to follow have demonstrated how fellow Christians can discuss, raise questions, and even disagree at points but do so all in a learning, loving, and unifying manner.


  20. Royce Ogle Says:

    I am not the student of Restoration history, or church history that some of you are. I have learned none the less that there are those among us who are self appointed rulers of the churches of Christ. Mack Lyon for instance wasted people’s money spent on TV time to condemn a church in OK because they broke the tradition of acapella only worship. And, Dr. Dave Miller wrote a book condemning the Richland Hills church for the same violation. What a vey sad joke.

    There are among our ranks those zealots who want to see how many they can exclude from the grace and mercy of God. I on the other hand want to explore ways to get more folks into the kingdom. I’ll be content to let God dicipline his children.

    There are errors that must be addressed by compassionate brothers in a spirit of love with a view of correcting and restoring. Raisng hands in praise, multiple song leaders vs one, or musical preference are not among those weighty matters that should be addressed by our self appointed bishops.

    Those who use the media with the pretense of “correcting error” instead of a personal communication with the supposed offenders is cowardly and clearly shows who is really in error.

    We have but one Lord, not many.

    His peace,
    Royce Ogle

  21. Anonymous Says:

    Royce, you are not the Savior of the body. You don’t get people into the kingdom. Neither does Mac Lyon exclude people.

    This is the work of Jesus, the Christ. And it will be done according to His will, Not yours.

  22. Keith Says:

    Amen. Specifically, you said “I on the other hand want to explore ways to get more folks into the kingdom.” That is a Christ-like attitude we should all strive for. How we treat one another says so much more about our character and theology than any speech or book.

    My dad told me growing up:
    “It doesn’t matter if your wrong or right as much as how you handle the situation.”
    That’s advice I’ll never forget.

  23. TREY MORGAN Says:

    Excellent post, Bobby and the comments were rich too.

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