Allowing History to Teach Us

(The Herald of Truth)


     We learn from history and even present events that it appears man will forever arrogate to himself authority in his mortal thinking that belongs only to God (cp. Isa. 55: 8, 9). Alas, man also appears to be oblivious to history, often repeating the mistakes of the past, notwithstanding a declared desire to do better. It was the Spanish author and Philosopher George Santayana who said, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it" (ca. 1902, cp. Eccl. 1: 9ff.). In addition to our short memory, we also seem bound to make our thinking indecisive and unclear by mixing and mingling incongruous thoughts, ideas, and concepts, thus arriving at wrong conclusions and unscriptural practices.

     The January 2010 issue of the Spiritual Sword publication, a production of the Getwell church of Christ, Memphis, Tennessee, addressed the theme of “How a Church Changes.” David Pharr wrote on, “Changes in Leadership” and made some good, biblical points on how a church changes due to a change in its leadership or eldership (pgs. 19-23). Author Pharr made an interesting statement in his article. Before I consider the statement by Pharr, I might point out that one design of the Spiritual Sword from its inception has been to defeat those who simply believe that the local church is to do its own work in preaching the gospel and edifying the saved (as we read in the New Testament) without the group organizing of local churches, attempting to provide joint effort and centralized oversight, and the support of human institutions such as orphan homes and colleges. Pharr wrote thus of the Herald of Truth:

     "We believe in the scripturalness of congregational cooperation and the right of churches to financially support and endorse programs which are under the auspices of other congregations. Without such cooperation there are opportunities for good works that otherwise might be left undone. Still, the biblical polity is for autonomous congregations. Cooperation does not mean surrendering responsibility. One of the benefits of autonomy is that no single congregation need be swept up in any general brotherhood apostasy. The fundamental error of the missionary society in the eighteen hundreds was not that churches wanted to cooperate in evangelism but that an organization was formed which presumed to speak for the brotherhood. We have seen in our own times how cooperative efforts have gone afoul, as for example Herald of Truth, as well as in the case of certain schools. Leadership vigilance is not transferable. Every cooperative project needs to know that supporting churches are paying attention."

     While we are encouraged at Pharr’s statement, “…We have seen in our own times how cooperative efforts have gone afoul, as for example Herald of Truth, as well as in the case of certain schools,” we continue to be dismayed at efforts to justify other unscriptural efforts and the pooling of resources. Pharr seems to only condemn the abuses of the Herald of Truth and not its parasitic existence. Allow me to return, now, to exploring the Herald of Truth, as such.

     During the latter 1940's, James Williford and James Walter Nichols began to think of ways that they could improve on the simple New Testament pattern of churches preaching the gospel. In 1947, Williford and Nichols set up a five-radio station network in Iowa and Wisconsin using the name Herald of
. Little did they know that their brainstorm would become famous and a major source of division among churches of Christ. The embryonic concept of the Herald of Truth was presented on a cold, windy February 3, in 1952 to the Highland Church of Christ in Abilene, Texas where two thousand had assembled to consider and effect the production of the first nation-wide broadcast of the Herald of Truth. The Herald of Truth sought to provide "another" way of cooperatively preaching the gospel without the missionary societies. However, the Herald of Truth constituted an unscriptural cooperation of local churches and an eldership (Abilene) that sought to oversee the work of thousands of local churches of Christ. Two things happened as a result of the formation of the Herald of Truth, local churches lost portions of their autonomy (cp. Acts 14: 23), and through the Herald of Truth organization and influence, a number of local churches were adversely affected, both doctrinally and morally. The Herald of Truth constitutes an aberrant missionary society, the essential difference being it has a board of local elders overseeing their work instead of a board of simple directors, etc.

     A number of so called "conservative" ("non-institutional") brethren, those associated with the Guardian of Truth Foundation, have also sought, I might mention, to ignore history and have a human organization that is attempting to function as a local church in preaching the gospel. In this case, they provide their human board of directors, president, treasury, etc.

     We believe in the scripturalness of congregational cooperation, allowing the New Testament to define, modify, and limit such “cooperation.” It is not only simplistic for the promoters of the sponsoring church arrangement, foreign church cooperation to preach the gospel, and human entities functioning as local churches to charge, “anti cooperation,” it is highly prejudicial! Pharr and some others seem to realize, at lease to some extent, the lesson of history.

     During New Testament times, churches (collective action) were involved in preaching the gospel. In fact, the local church is, "…the pillar and ground of the truth" (I Tim. 3: 15). The church in Antioch "sent forth" Barnabas and Saul on their first preaching trip (Acts 13: 2ff.). The church at Philippi "sent once and again" unto Paul's necessities while he preached in Thessalonica (Phili. 4: 15, 16). While Paul preached in Corinth, he was supported by multiple local churches (2 Cor. 11: 8). The fact and way in which churches supported preachers is clearly established and is obviously meant to be a pattern for the Lord's church today. Notice, a church or churches sent directly to the preacher, not another church or a separate organization. Also notice not only the total absence of any separate organization such as a missionary society or a totally human institution serving as a local church, but also the fact that not one time do we read of a local church serving as a receiving or sponsoring church in the matter of preaching the gospel (see addendum 1).

     The biblical truth of the matter is, the eldership only has oversight where they serve, not over another church or churches (I Pet. 5: 2). If ever a local church had been a sponsoring church, it would have been the church in Jerusalem, where the gospel began (Acts 2ff.). Yet, that local church with its elders never functioned as a sponsoring church in the effort of proclaiming the gospel. Each local church with its overseeing eldership did its own work and acted independently (Acts 14: 23, I Pet. 5: 1,2, see addendum 2).

     In closing, I ask the question, "Why cannot we learn from history?" As to the nature of the work and functionality of local churches of Christ, why does it appear so difficult for some brethren to practice the autonomy of the local church as seen in the New Testament and why does the thinking of some become so convoluted and mixed up when it comes time for the application of autonomy to local churches, using as rationale, "Look how much more we can accomplish by consolidating our efforts"? Alas, while David Pharr in his article in the Spiritual Sword expressed justified concern about such brotherhood efforts as the Herald of Truth, it does not go far enough in showing how the Lord’s church of the First Century preached the gospel without the modern combining of resources and the assignment of "brotherhood oversight" to one centralized eldership (a practice subsequent to apostolic times that would become a main feature of Catholicism and then, later, denominationalism).  (Be sure to read, "The Herald of Truth")

     Addendum 1: It is contended that the benevolence of Acts 11: 27-30 serves as an example and authority for a local church or churches sending to one church and the elders of the receiving church thus acting on behalf, if you will, of the contributing churches. However, there are some serious flaws in such an attempted model and analogy. First, without attempting to notice all the dissimilarities, Acts 11 involves benevolence for needy saints that was too great for the churches in Judaea to individually meet and not the work of preaching. The decided difference between benevolence and preaching is that benevolence is more of a one time act, time limited to the existence of the need (cp. I Cor. 16: 1, 2). Whereas, preaching is assiduous or ongoing, thus providing more opportunity for power struggles and abuses.

     Addendum 2: The autonomy, self-governing and functioning, of the local church is one of the many clear characteristics of the early local church as established by Jesus and the apostles. Historian Lyman Coleman wrote: "These churches, whenever formed, became separate and independent bodies, competent to appoint their own officers, and to administer their own government without reference to subordination to any central authority or foreign power. No fact connected with the history of these primitive churches is more fully established or more generally conceded, so that the discussion of it need not be renewed at this place" (Ancient Christianity Exemplified, pg. 95).