Slandering the Brethren?

(This article is a review of David Mathews' article, Slandering the Denominations. Please read David's article first by clicking here.)

David Mathews has written for Watchman before. He had an article in the November 1998 issue of the magazine, Neither Black Nor White which was a fine piece dealing with the sin of racial prejudice. However, since that time correspondence with David concerning material presented by others in Watchman revealed that he takes issue with our approach to the defense of truth. David submitted an article to this editor on February 7, 1999 which clearly expresses his convictions in this regard. In my estimation, his attitude toward controversy is shared by what is a growing number of Christians. He freely admits that this attitude is a change from that he held at an earlier time. While I found disturbing his previous attitude, (expressed in the first paragraph of his article), his present attitude I find alarming as well. Especially in that he is not alone in holding to it. Thus, I consider it appropriate to publish his article together with this review. All readers are encouraged to read both articles, and consider carefully what is written.

Slandering the Brethren?

David titled his article, "Slandering the Denominations." Slander is defined by Webster as, "1) The utterance of false charges or misrepresentations which defame and damage another's reputation; 2) A false and defamatory oral statement about a person." (Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary). Of course, slander is a sin. The apostle Paul was defamed by some in his day, they accused him of encouraging liscentiousness. He spoke of these saying, "And why not say, 'Let us do evil that good may come'? - as we are slanderously reported and as some affirm that we say. Their condemnation is just" (Romans 3:8). Note: "Their condemnation is just." If any Christian is guilty of any slander, no matter what the context, he should repent. It is sin.

Labels are sometimes used to help quantify differences that exist. They can be used pejoratively, and this is wrong. However in their place they are entirely appropriate. David used the terms "conservative" and "liberal" to identify the differences brethren have had over the institutional issues of the recent past. The thrust of his article is to affirm that "conservative" (non-institutional) brethren have slandered (uttered false charges and misrepresentations) both the "liberals" (institutional brethren), and the denominations. While I do not doubt some of this has happened, David indicates that it is systemic. In concluding his article he writes, "By doing all these, (following his suggestions, SC) Christians will progress beyond the present sad state of division and carnality which characterizes our communication with others." Note that he claims this carnality and division to be characteristic of our communication. This representation I categorically deny, and submit that it is part of a detrimental attitude toward the defense of truth. To charge the people of God with a carnal attitude is a serious charge, and if untrue, might be construed as slanderous itself. Note the way David characterizes the attitude of brethren who influenced him as he was a young Christian:

While I do not know David's age, his writing seems to indicate that we are of the same generation. I too sat at the feet of teachers who fought the fight against institutionalism. However, my experience was quite different. And, I believe it is more representative of attitudes brethren have had over the past several decades. The men I learned from were not bitter, nor did they judge motives. They were not arrogant, and I have never met a preacher, writer, editor or Christian who has ever claimed to have perfect knowledge or a perfectly sinless life. Men I have been associated with have recognized the potential of apostasy in each of us, and that is precisely what motivated them in their preaching. The sentiment of J.D. Tant, "Brethren, we are drifting" was often appealed to as a warning to those taught concerning the danger of apostasy. No man ever told me to "Believe it because I said it." But many was the time I was exhorted to "Be like the Bereans" (cf. Acts 17:11). I was encouraged to read magazines such as Guardian of Truth, Expository Review and Searching the Scriptures, not because there was no possibility of error being taught in them (we all recognize the potential of error among fallible men), but because they were products of the study of faithful Christians writers. No apology was made in the defense of truth, and error was exposed both plainly and effectively.

David in his youth had a wrong attitude both toward his brethren and those in error. He trusted in men rather than God. He admits to anger and bitterness toward the "traitors" in the institutional churches. He read from the writings of men indiscriminately, rather than as the Bereans who, "searched the scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so." He believed, "No potential existed that error or apostsy could occur among those which I trusted from my youth." I would totally agree with his assessment that he was naive and had a confidence grounded in ignorance.

My concern with the attitudes expressed in David's article is not from a penitent past, but rather a present attitude which does not seem to conform with principles clearly established in the word of God. That, and what I believe to be slanderous claims (false charges and misrepresentations) made against his brethren. For proof, I will examine his charges, item by item.

Personally, I find such an attitude from one who ostensibly is a conservative (non-institutional) gospel preacher alarming. David seems to think there is more righteousness, knowledge and charity among the denominations than there is among his brethren. David, if such is so why are you with "us" instead of "them"? And by the way, though David expresses distaste at the Us/Them mentality, such is found extensively in scripture. Both regarding those who have never obeyed Christ, (Paul refers to them as those who are "outside", cf. 1 Corinthians 5:12); and regarding those who have become unfaithful in teaching or deed, "They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us; but they went out that they might be made manifest, that none of them were of us."

A few final observations regarding David's attitude toward brethren. He has been critical of perceived arrogance and a lack of charity on part of those who have tried to defend the truth of God against error. I think it a fair statement to say that his article is at least in part a reaction to perceived abuses of this sort in this magazine. Others have mirrored those sentiments, calling for more gentleness in dealing with those with whom we differ. If that is so, then why does the same not apply to David and those who feel the same when they deal with their brethren? In his article, notice the following representations and assess the "gentleness" of his communication:

I do not object to any of these representations if they are indeed true. If I am hateful and angry, then you have the right to tell me. If I am totally ignorant, by all means tell me. However, do not hold others to a higher standard than you hold yourself. When other brethren point out ignorance, self-righteousness, error etc., don't criticize them when you do so yourself. "And why do you look at the speck in your brother's eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye?" (Matthew 7:3).

At Issue: God's Attitude Toward Controversy

In the remainder of his article, David reveals a fundamental aversion to debate and controversy. He speaks in derogatory terms regarding "accusations of error" and a "demand for debate". Brethren in the past and present who engage in such disputations with purveyors of error are characterized in his remarks as "insulting and disparaging", "proud and happy to offend", and guilty of "carnality."

A more accurate description would be of men who have a devout love for truth, and the souls of men. Such devout love has led them to a deep and systematic study not only of the word of God, but also of denominational heresy. Their studies have made them well able to fulfill their duties as elders to "convict those who contradict" (Titus 1:9); as preachers to "Preach the word! Be ready in season and out of season. Convice, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching" (2 Timothy 4:2), as Christians to "always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear" (1 Peter 3:15). Often in their teaching they express themselves with the tenderness and compassion Jesus showed to the woman caught in the act of adultery (cf. John 8), at these times they "make a distinction". At other times it is necessary to "save with fear, pulling them out of the fire, hating even the garment defiled by the flesh" (Jude 23). At times such as these they seek to emulate the examples of Elijah on Mt. Carmel (1 Kings 18); Amos before Israel (Amos); John the Baptist in his dealing with the Jewish leaders (John 3:7-12); Stephen before the council (Acts 7); Paul in his public rebuke of Peter (Galatians 2:11-ff); and even our Lord as he drove out the money changers, termed the religious leaders of the day "whitewashed sepulchres" and generally turned the world on end. Despite the aversion David and others have to this plainness of speech it cannot be denied that we have authority from God to preach in this way. The argument is not with those who speak plainly, the argument is with God.

Steadfastness Does Not Equal a Claim to Perfection

A common thread running throughout David's article is that the assertion, "We hold the truth," is tantamount to claiming perfection. Such is not so. But notice what David says:

I agree that pride is sin, and that there is a danger of self-righteousness on the part of the Christian. However, David is guilty of equating a spirited defense of the truth (cf. Jude 3) with such sin. All Christians concede they are not perfect, it comes with the territory of accepting the grace of God! It is precisely because we recognize the potential for error that we strive to try every spirit, "whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world" (cf. 1 John 4:1). Personally, I often begin my sermons with an invitation to those in the audience to question our beliefs and practices, that we might reason together. I explain that if they divert me and my brethren from error, they will be our friend. While saying this, (and meaning it), I remain convinced that I understand and practice the truth of God, and I will not hesitate to expose error plainly and pointedly.

The final quote in this list is the most disturbing. While I regard no individual, publication or institution as perfect as a defender of truth, to say that none are reliable is absurd. I have always believed that there are Christians who hold to this position, but to see it stated so plainly is quite shocking. Really David, must I consider no Christian as being a reliable defender of truth? Am I wrong to seek the wise counsel of men who have immersed themselves in the study of God's word for many years? Are elders in the local church not to be trusted? As the editor of this magazine, should I refuse to publish articles from others because they can't be trusted to teach the truth? Perhaps David would rather I read from John Calvin's comments on Romans rather than Whiteside? Should I order Bible Class material for my children from a denominational source rather than the Guardian of Truth Bookstore? How about reading information about the Holy Spirit from the Charismatics, or the Kingdom from the Premillinialists? To the contrary, though I recognize that no man is infallible, and that I must examine what all teach by scripture, I depend heavily upon the knowledge, wisdom and study of faithful men. "And the things that you have heard from me among many witnesses, commit these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also" (2 Timothy 2:2).

"The Present Sad State of Division and Carnality"

Truthfully, there is division present today. We are divided from the denominational world. Who is at fault for this? Is it brethren who stand for the truth of God's word, or those who are steeped in that denominational error? We are divided from those who support human institutions. Who is at fault for this? Is it brethren who stand for the truth of God's word, or those who are supporting such man made institutions without authority from God's word? We are presently experiencing troubles among brethren with regard to questions on MDR, Fellowship, Deity/Humanity of Jesus, etc. Who is at fault for this? Is it brethren who stand for the truth of God's word, or those who are voicing sounds of uncertainty and error? The divisions David highlights in his article do not exist because of bad attitudes. Bad attitudes might exacerbate the problem, but the problem is error. It is false doctrine. It is an unwillingness to submit to the authority of God!

I find it interesting that as the call to tolerance, understanding and compromise increases, God's people become ever more splintered by false doctrines and "new things." It seems that today about the only "intolerable" thing is to be intolerant. While some may disagree on doctrine and practice, they will still accept and praise one another so long as they themselves are tolerated. We need less toleration for error, not more. We need militance, not compromise. We need a true love for the souls of men which leads to the condemnation of sin, not sugary sweet tolerance "lest we offend."

In conclusion, note the Apostle Paul's thoughts, recorded in 2 Corinthians 10:12-18. They emphasize our need to compare ourselves soley to God's standard, the gospel of Christ. Truly, "not he who commends himself is approved, but whom the Lord commends."

"For we dare not class ourselves or compare ourselves with those who commend themselves. But they, measuring themselves by themselves, and comparing themselves among themselves, are not wise. We, however, will not boast beyond measure, but within the limits of the sphere which God appointed us; a sphere which especially includes you. For we are not overextending ourselves (as though our authority did not extend to you), for it was to you that we came with the gospel of Christ; not boasting of things beyond measure, that is, in other men's labors, but having hope, that as your faith is increased, we shall be greatly enlarged by you in our sphere, to preach the gospel in the regions beyond you, and not to boast in another man's sphere of accomplishment. But "he who glories, let him glory in the LORD." For not he who commends himself is approved, but whom the Lord commends."

To read David Mathew's article, Slandering the Denominations, click here.

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