Honor in Controversy: Revisited
In August of 2000, in the midst of the controversy stirred by the publication of the "Open Letter" on the Creation "Days" controversy, I penned an editorial entitled Honor in Controversy. In the article I pointed out the carnal tactics to which some resorted at that time. I sought to point out the need for brethren to behave righteously during times of controversy as we discuss differences which exist. It is a lesson that needs repeating time and again.
It is inappropriate for any child of God to behave in less than a righteous manner. Peter wrote, "Beloved, I beg you as sojourners and pilgrims, abstain from fleshly lusts which war against the soul, having your conduct honorable among the Gentiles, that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may, by your good works which they observe, glorify God in the day of visitation" (1 Peter 2:11-12). The term "honorable" in the passage (translated honest in the KJV) is defined by Vines, "good, admirable, becoming, has also the ethical meaning of what is fair, right, honourable, of such conduct as deserves esteem" (Vines, Vol. II, pge. 229).
It is important for Christians to be "fair" and "right" in their dealing with others, especially brethren. This is what God expects of us. Further reading in 1 Peter 2 reveals this, "For this is the will of God, that by doing good you may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men; as free, yet not using liberty as a cloak for vice, but as bondservants of God. Honor all people. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the king" (vss. 15-17).
A Deplorable Lack of Fairness
Frequent readers of Watchman are aware of last month's debate between brothers Terence Sheridan and Harry Osborne on the subject of "Biblical Putting Away." The debate stands on its own merits as a fair discussion of the differences between brother Osborne and brother Sheridan on this important subject. The purpose of this article is not to examine the argumentation used in the debate, nor the behavior of the participants. The debate was held on a high plane, and I appreciate greatly the demeanor and efforts of both men. However, the treatment of both brother Sheridan and brother Osborne by some in the weeks following the publishing of the debate is deplorable, and should be publicly exposed.
A History Lesson
In order to understand the depths of this injustice, a bit of history is needed. Brothers Jeff Belknap, Terence Sheridan, David McKee and others have gone on record complaining that the position they take regarding the nature of "Biblical Putting Away" was not being heard in the various papers. As such Belknap has established a web site which he uses to espouse his peculiar view on the subject. In a public email posted on July 2, 2001, he wrote:
"Because existing conservative brotherhood publications have restricted the opportunity for thorough examination of this topic, this site was established."
Further, on the front page of his web site, Belknap has the following statement:
"It truly saddens me that those desiring a scriptural examination of this topic have run into such roadblocks in getting the word out. Because scripture teaches that it is the responsibility of all Christians to sound the alarm when danger threatens, this web page has been established, so that others can be accurately informed and forewarned (Prov. 17:15; 18:5; 28:4). - Jeff Belknap"
In the September 2001 issue of Watchman Magazine, Harry Osborne wrote an article entitled Pleading the Spiritual 5th Amendment. In the article he noted that too many religious people today are unwilling to address error and controversy forthrightly. In a public post to Marslist, September 3, 2001, Terence Sheridan answered brother Osborne. (He used this forum even though brother Osborne was not a participant on the list).
TS: Yes, I have noticed it, Harry. I notice it when I take certain people to task on issues - they shut off dialogue, refuse to answer my writings, and accuse me of being too "caustic." I notice it when I bring up serious questions about the kind of MDR doctrine Halbrook and others are espousing - questions that go unanswered. I notice it in the editor of Truth Magazine, who told David McKee that certain issues will not be discussed, such as Ron's MDR views (would that be like "quarantining the antis"?). What about Watchman Magazine? Surely, they know what's brewing among preachers, but they seem to twiddle their thumbs while Rome burns. Where are the watchers who are so concerned about the brotherhood, now? Then again, maybe Watchman Magazine hasn't had time to consider the issues that Jeff Belknap is raising. I'll let those who write for that magazine and who are on ML answer that - or maybe they'll plead the 5th.
Yes, we've heard oh- so much talk about how everyone should stand up, get off the fence, stop being silent, etc. But these days some brethen are getting strangely silent.
There are several problems with the above posts. First, Harry Osborne has offered to debate Jeff Belknap, either in an oral or written format. Belknap has declined. Second, Sheridan's post was to Marslist. No editor or feature writer for Watchman has been an active participant on that list for a number of years. Sheridan's intimation that a lack of participation on the list consitutes "pleading the 5th" was misleading to list participants. Third, neither Jeff Belknap, Terence Sheridan, David McKee or any other individual had ever submitted an article or made inquiry to Watchman Magazine concerning a public discussion of the issue.
Brother Joe Price, who is not associated with Watchman, had been monitoring Marslist, and forwarded Sheridan's message to both myself and brother Osborne. In response, Harry quickly responded on September 4, 2001:
It is not my place to defend other papers, and their treatment of these brethren. Suffice to say that objections have been made regarding the same types of tactics which are being documented in this article. In the past month I have come to see why brothers Willis, Haile, Osborne and Halbrook, among others, would rather not deal with men who are willing to act in such an unfair and unethical fashion. However, it should be noted here that the characterization of Watchman by brother Sheridan was unfounded, and has been shown to be false by our publication of the debate.
Through responses to brother Sheridan by both myself and brother Osborne, the debate eventually came about.
On September 26, 2001, brother Osborne sent a post to brother Sheridan suggesting a possible proposition which would fairly and simply represent their differences. Two days later he left for two weeks in meeting work.
The evening of September 27, 2001 brother Sheridan sent a post to brother Osborne, with certain requests regarding the debate:
For the sake of ensuring fairness, I want to submit these requests for the debate:
2. The [sic] it be understood that I have a right to publish the debate in a venue of my own choosing as well as it appearing in Watchman Magazine (such as on my own website or in a website, publication, etc of a colleague).
3. That both of us reserve the right to word our own affirmatives. I cannot accept an affirmative worded for me.
Let me know what you feel about things as soon as you can.
Brother Osborne, on the morning of September 29, 2001 replied to Sheridan's post. Note the following excerpt from that post:
(3) In your follow-up post, you said that you wanted to be able to
publish the debate as well. That would be fine with me as long as I
have the opportunity to check that it before publication, it is
published unaltered and it is published without editorial comment. In
other words, giving me the same courtesy you would be afforded in
You may note that fairness, as indicated by brother Osborne, would dictate that the debate be allowed to stand on its own merit in any publication. As brethren we have the responsibility to be honorable toward one another.
On Saturday, September 29, 2001 I sent the following post to Terence Sheridan:
Up to this point, the only thing approaching an affirmative that brother Sheridan had penned was the following:
Whatever steps a person takes that result in his spouse being unscripturally put away have that result, regardless of whether or not he fornicated before taking those steps. Moreover, if an unscripturally put away person is not scripturally allowed to remarry even if his spouse has fornicated after the divorce, then an unscripturally put away person is not scripturally allowed to remarry even if his spouse fornicated before the divorce.
Brother Osborne mentioned a problem following the line of thought in the paragraph above. I must confess the same. It surely is an unworkable proposition for a written debate. However, brother Sheridan declined to formulate his own affirmative, choosing rather to slightly modify the affirmative brother Osborne had initially suggested. You may note that charges have later been made that as editor of Watchman I orchestrated the debate to put brother Sheridan at a disadvantage. In an email to me, dated January 19, 2002, Belknap wrote:
You set up the table of debate under conditions that were to your advantage (only one proposition under examination - Terrences, which Harry worded for him, your ensuring of the last word to Harry by that arrangement, thereby negating the need for "editorial comment" on your side, etc. outlined in green quotes above.) Again, that is your prerogative where your own publication is concerned. But it is the height of presumptuousness and audacity to insist that someone else agree to the same, and to accuse them of "ungodliness," and "shameful(ness)" because they will not.
The reader will have to ascertain for himself whether brother Belknap has treated brother Osborne fairly. However, the email I sent to brother Sheridan, related above shows that brother Belknap's charge I "set up the table of debate under conditions" that were to my "advantage" to be completely untrue..
The next time either brother Osborne or myself heard from brother Sheridan was on November 3, 2001. He wrote to brother Osborne:
The reader may note that it was brother Sheridan's choice to "expedite the process", and his decision to accept the affirmative worded by brother Osborne, with his own phrase "in one's respective society" modifying the original proposition. The final form of the debate had more to do with brother Sheridan's desire to get it started quickly than on any "orchestration" on either my part or that of brother Osborne.
After this post, brother Osborne wrote brother Sheridan, agreeing to the proposition, and suggesting a schedule for the completion of the debate. Among his comments, Osborne wrote:
...The editor would agree to run the entire debate in the same issue
of Watchman Magazine without editorial comment. Rules for appropriate
behavior would, of course, be expected from both writers
understanding that each is a Christian and must conduct himself in a
manner consistent with being a child of God. The editor would have
the right to review the debate before publishing and require that any
inappropriate language, misrepresentations of fact or other such
things be changed by the writers. The editor would agree not to make
any changes to articles by either party without consent of that
writer. If either writer will not consent to change the material
deemed inappropriate by the editor, the editor will reserve the right
not to publish the material.
In response, Sheridan wrote on November 18:
Concerning the publication of the debate on his web site, Jeff Belknap responded on November 18:
One note before continuing. Brother Belknap's statement that he had the right to review the debate before deciding to publish it is indeed true. That is his right. In fact, he has the right to publish or not publish anything he wishes. The site is, after all, his. No one has denied that "right." However, he also has a responsibility to fairness, and in this he has failed miserably. You may note I had already agreed to publish the debate. As indicated by the entire quote below, from brother Osborne, my review would be only to ensure that the debate conformed to standards of fairness appropriateness.
"The editor would have the right to review the debate before publishing and require that any inappropriate language, misrepresentations of fact or other such things be changed by the writers."
Each disputant sent their articles in a timely manner, the deportment of each disputant was exemplary, the debate was completed, and was posted to Watchman. Before making the posting public, I sent the URLs to brothers Osborne and Sheridan for review. A preliminary draft of the first affirmative elicited the following response from brother Sheridan, on December 14, 2001:
(Note: The two typographical errors noted in the above post were corrected.)
The debate, in its final form, elicited the following from Sheridan, on December 29, 2001:
The debate was made public in the January 2002 issue of the magazine on December 31, 2001.
I apologize to the reader for what must be construed as a rather tedious recounting of the events leading to the publishing of the debate on Watchman. The necessity of such a full recounting will become apparent momentarily.
On December 29, 2001 I sent a post to Jeff Belknap:
Brother Belknap replied on December 31, 2001. A portion of his lengthy post stated:
Thus, brother Belknap exercised his right to refuse publication of the debate. However, the reader may note the following from the correspondence already related:
In light of the above, it was somewhat surprising that brother Belknap would decline to publish the debate. Both brother Osborne and I were eager to see the debate available at brother Belknap's site, as it was a fair and reasonable exchange we believed would benefit Belknap's readers as it has the readers of Watchman. So, we were naturally disappointed. However, as that was his prerogative I declined to pursue it further.
In light of brother Belknap's expressed desire not to let the issues discussed in the debate detract from the focus of his site, the following public posting I received from him only 4 days later was, to say the least, shocking!
January 4, 2002
It is disingenuous (the word disingenuous means simply, lacking in candor, an accurate term for this action, and the kindest one I could possibly find) to refuse to publish the debate because it doesn't fit the focus of the site, and then turn around and publish a review of the debate.
It is unfair (again, the most accurate and kind term I can supply) to both disputants to treat the exchange in such a way. It also leaves the perception to those aware of the circumstance that brother Belknap was less than pleased with the efforts of brother Sheridan to answer brother Osborne's arguments.
I wrote brother Belknap several posts in an attempt to admonish him for his dishonorable treatment of both brother Osborne and brother Sheridan. In response, he accused me of orchestrating the debate to put Sheridan at a disadvantage (as noted earlier in this article), and steadfastly refused to acknowledge his unfair handling of the matter. Brother Belknap certainly has a peculiar view of what constitutes fairness. Note the following quotes from his email responses on January 4 & 19, with my comments following each quote:
What surprises me the most, is that while you have the power of the press with a well established magazine, sporting a number of influential writers, you seem to think that, with my little web site, I have taken some kind of advantage of you and your associates. (1/4/02)
As I informed brother Belknap, a perceived lack of power or influence does not excuse unethical behavior. It is my prayer that brother Belknap will not gain much influence through his ungodliness, and I trust that as his "true colors" are shown plainly that those who have been supporting his efforts will rethink both their assocation with him and the doctrinal stances he takes. It is difficult to imagine how one who has complained so incessantly of how he has been treated unfairly in papers such as Truth Magazine and Gospel Anchor could turn around and treat another brother in the shabby way brother Belknap has treated both brothers Sheridan and Osborne. The extent of this mistreatment will be seen in a moment.
When the apostles dealt with error, they did not consider what the errorists felt about fairness. One opposed to your point of view could also say that the "policy of your site is to be unfair" because you will not allow those you oppose to have the last word. Would that make their claim right? I try to act in such a way to ensure fairness to truth, whether those who oppose me deem that as fair or not. I believe you do the same, by your policy which ensures the last word to those who you believe hold the truth on a particular subject. (1/19/02)
Brother Belknap here seeks to establish a parallel that is not parallel at all. There is a difference between Watchman's editorial policy regarding answering articles which we believe to teach error, and a religious debate. The debate itself is the answer to error. If, as brother Belknap claims, he is comfortable with brother Sheridan's arguments in the debate, then the alleged error of brother Osborne has been answered! "Fairness to truth" has been exhibited! This is apparent to all.
I can almost imagine brother Belknap negotiating a debate with a Baptist preacher. "Since you are the one teaching error, I only get to speak to 'your people', you don't get to speak to 'my people.' I must always have the last word. I get to complain about 'your people' not hearing me enough, but I don't have to let 'my people' hear you. Not only do I get my own speeches, but I also get to interrupt all of your speeches, a paragraph at a time, to dispute your arguments. After all, I am not concerned about being fair to you, I only am concerned about being fair to truth." It sounds ridiculous, but this is exactly what Belknap argues in his posts.
I find it incredulous that after explaining the circumstances behind (and purpose of) the starting of my web site, that you still cannot understand why I would not want to publish an unanswered last word which advocates what I consider to be blatant error on the very site I set up to expose it. (1/19/02)
Here we have the crux of the matter. He believes Harry Osborne's arguments to be unanswered. He does not believe that brother Sheridan was successful in his efforts to "expose" brother Osborne's error. It is common when a position is defeated in debate for advocates of that position to want to "redebate" the issue. In politics it is called "spin-doctoring". It is no less in religious debate. The debate was fair!
The song of Moses, recorded in Deuteronomy 32:3-4, states:
"For I proclaim the name of the LORD: Ascribe greatness to our God. He is the Rock, His work is perfect; For all His ways are justice, A God of truth and without injustice; Righteous and upright is He."
God is just, and he demands that his people be just, too:
"He has shown you, O man, what is good; And what does the LORD require of you But to do justly, To love mercy, And to walk humbly with your God?" (Micah 6:8).
In this Jeff Belknap has failed miserably.
When I objected that brother Sheridan at no time indicated any displeasure at the way he was treated in the debate process, brother Sheridan answered with the following post:
While his clarification is duly noted, it must be stated that brother Sheridan did not express his reluctance when he agreed to the terms of the debate. He stated he did so to expedite the matter. He was the one who closed negotiations, declaring his satisfaction with the arrangements. He modified, then accepted the proposition. He declined to write a cogent affirmative, even though I expressly asked him to in the course of negotiations. It seems that if he considered the treatment unfair, he would have at least used the entirety of his allotted space. Though the agreement was for two articles of 3,000 words each, brother Sheridan did not nearly approach that limit for either of his two affirmatives. It again is rather disingenuous to claim that the treatment of a brother is unfair when the brother has agreed to the conditions and arrangements made in the debate.
This narrative would not be complete without relating a final egregious act by brother Belknap. In fact, it is this final desecration of honor that finalized my decision to share with our readers the events which have transpired in the last few months. On January 28th I became aware of another review of the debate had been posted to Jeff Belknap's site. Upon visiting the site I read the review, written by David Lytle which contains, get this, the entire text of the debate! Further, upon visiting the site today, January 31st, I find that another article, Questions I Have About the Sheridan-Osborne Debate, written by Fred Seavers, has been posted. These postings reveal the following about brother Belknap:
Brother Belknap's unethical behavior has forced me to reassess the editorial policy of Watchman Magazine. When the magazine was started in November of 1997 (the Prospectus Issue), the editorial policy said nothing of a copyright. As I understand it, such is not necessary, as any material produced in such a forum is automatically copyrighted, regardless of any notice given. As such, brother Lytle's and brother Belknap's alteration of the debate constitute a violation of copyright law. The use of the material, however, does not constitute a violation of said law because in my editorial in that prospectus issue I gave explicit permission for Watchman material to be reprinted. I wrote:
You are encouraged to save the material, or print it up and give
it to others. If you reprint the articles we only ask that you give
appropriate credit to the author and this magazine.
For over 4 years now I have cheerfully repeated this policy, and many have taken advantage of the policy by printing, reprinting and sharing articles from Watchman Magazine freely.
Because of brother Belknap's actions, I am amending the editorial policy of the magazine. The following appendant has been added to the Watchman site:
Posted February 1, 2002 (from this date forward the following notice
is in effect):
In my final post to brother Belknap, I indicated it would be my final attempt to reason with him concerning his unethical behavior. He answered me at that time:
Stan, I hope that you will honor your words that you have offered your "final attempt to reason with" me. I regret to say that this is my "final attempt to reason with you," (Tit. 3:10). One must first be reasonable before anyone can hope to reason with them (II Thess. 3:2).
It is apparent to any honest reader that brother Belknap is, to quote Shakespeare, "Hoist with his own petard" [Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 4]. The unreasonableness of brother Belknap's actions in this matter leave me with the same sour taste as that experienced by so many others who have had to deal with his tactics.
"For this is the will of God, that by doing good you may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men; as free, yet not using liberty as a cloak for vice, but as bondservants of God. Honor all people. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the king" (1 Peter 2:15-17).