The Incoherence of the Conservative Position, Part 1

by Jay Guin and Todd Deaver

It appears to us that the position of our conservative friends is logically incoherent — so much so that it can’t even be plainly stated.

By referring to the conservative position as “incoherent,” we mean that it doesn’t cohere — it doesn’t hold together. Rather, the conservative advocates find themselves constantly changing their position on a purely ad hoc basis. Nor can they agree among themselves.

We began this conversation months ago asking the conservative side to succinctly state their position. After numerous posts, we were obliged to attempt to do that for them, which we did in the “Where We Stand” post. That statement is –

  1. Not all doctrinal error damns.
  2. Error due to a Christian’s status as a novice is tolerated by God until the Christian has had the opportunity to be instructed on that matter.
  3. Even the mature Christian isn’t immediately damned for his error, as God will be patient for a while in hopes the Christian will repent.
  4. The error that leads to damnation is error that leads to sinful conduct. Thus, merely having the wrong position on instrumental music in worship, held privately, would not damn — until the Christian either teaches the error or worships in error (subject to points 2 and 3).
  5. Once a Christian is lost for doctrinal error, he cannot be restored until he repents by no longer teaching the error, believing the error, or practicing the sin that error has led to.
  6. The standard for doctrinal error is the same as for moral error. Both damn (subject to points 2 and 3) until repented of by the Christian who, consequently, ceases to commit that sin.
  7. Examples of doctrinal errors that damn (subject to points 2 and 3) include —
  8. Erroneous teaching or practice regarding the worship of God.
  • Erroneous teaching or practice as to the Way of Salvation.
  • Erroneous teaching with respect to the inerrancy of the scriptures.
  • Erroneous teaching or practice with respect to the role of women in the church.

Mac agreed with our summary of their position, and Phil did as well, but with one reservation — Phil asserts that item 1 should state that all doctrinal error damns.

But just as soon as this statement was agreed to, Mac repeatedly contradicted it. Now, Mac and Phil are welcome to state their position anyway they please — it’s their position to state. But we believe that the fact they can’t consistently state and defend it demonstrates its incoherence.

What are Phil’s answers?

In our earlier post, we asked,

As to each of the following questions, we wish to hear from both Mac and Phil. We don’t need separate posts. It would be sufficient to say that you all have communicated and that you both agree or, if you disagree, to state the two answers.

Mac has been kind enough to answer our questions, but there’s no indication whether Phil agrees with Mac’s answers to any of the questions other than the first question.

  • Phil, we would very much appreciate your responding to the same questions that Mac has answered. If you agree with each of Mac’s answers, it’s enough to say so. We aren’t asking you to repeat the work that Mac has done.

Does teaching error that does not lead to sinful practice damn?

When Mac responded to a series of questions we asked about whether certain errors damn, Mac seems to apply a standard entirely different from the agreed position statement. For example, our fifth question is —

A person, otherwise a well-instructed, mature Christian, believes that a Christian woman who is divorced by her non-Christian husband due to her conversion to Christ may remarry in the church without sin, without regard to whether fornication was involved in the divorce, and so teaches from the pulpit as the minister of a congregation. Is he damned (not considering such time as God may allow for repentance)?

Mac responds,

5. Not necessarily. I do not know. If he becomes factious he is lost (Tit.3:10, 11). It is possible that a teacher can teach something wrong and he himself not be guilty of the thing of which he theoretically approves. If the teacher never becomes an adulterer, it is conceivable to me that though he is wrong in his concept, he is not wrong in his personal practice, if he does not commit adultery himself. It is possible that a preacher could be wrong on some aspect of marriage and divorce and yet no one in his congregation ever commit adultery. The preacher certainly bears responsibility for teaching a doctrine that if followed causes sin. However, every brother and sister finally and ultimately bears individual responsibility for whether or not they accept what is taught as actual truth. We are all to search the Scriptures (Acts 17:11). How far God will go in extending grace to teachers regarding complex issues when the teachers themselves make a logical mistake but do not commit actual sin sanctioned by the theoretical mistake, I do not know though allowance for mistake that, in effect, sanctions sin seems slight (Jas.3:1). (emphasis added)

This and others of Mac’s answers suggest that mere false teaching of doctrine by an otherwise saved person does not damn — unless the false teaching leads someone to sin. And yet the agreed position statement states that either the teaching or the practice of the error damns. (We didn’t include the reference to teaching error in the statement as a trap but because in earlier posts Greg and Phil seemed to clearly indicate that teaching error is damnable. For example, Greg was clear that teaching contrary to the doctrine of inerrancy damns.) But Mac seems to say that the false teaching does not become damnable until it leads to sinful practice.

  • Mac, is it your position that teaching error that has not led to the practice of error (other than the teaching itself, of course) is covered by grace?
  • Phil, do you agree with Mac’s answer?

Sincerity

In question 15 we pointed out that Alexander Campbell was the only elder of his congregation. We asked whether this fact damns him? Mac responds, “Not necessarily.” And yet he later writes,

According to Jay and Todd one can practice pure religion…with an imperfect understanding of “church polity, worship, and the Millennium.” According to Jay and Todd no false doctrine on church polity, or worship, or the millennium would necessarily entail one’s having given up pure doctrine. So, the apostasy that developed in the second century over church organization which eventuated into the Roman Catholic Church did not, in itself, involved damning doctrinal heresy!

The Second Century error to which Mac alludes is the creation of a bishop over the elders. We have trouble seeing how Campbell is forgiven for being a single elder and the Second Century church is damned for having a single bishop. Mac explains his “not necessarily” by saying,

If the practice of pure Christianity depends upon our knowing the eventual eternal destiny of everyone or even of many with whom we have to spiritually do on this earth, we cannot practice Christianity. We are not God in whose hands ultimate judgment rests. God knows the hearts in a way that we cannot (Acts 1:24).

And so, Mac has taken us to task for saying that God gives grace based on the state of the Christian’s heart — the saint’s sincerity — and yet Mac takes the same position!

Just so, in response to several questions, Mac judges a hypothetical Christian damned for being factious. But when we asked about the eternal fate of Daniel Sommer, where we said,

Daniel Sommer refused to fellowship with churches that had located preachers.

— Mac refuses to render judgment. Rather, Sommer’s salvation is unknowable and he may be in heaven today depending on God’s knowledge of his heart! And yet, Sommer taught error (that it’s sin to have a located preacher), his teaching led to sin (split churches, division within the Lord’s body), he had thousands of followers who repeated his error by further dividing the Lord’s body, and he was factious.

Mac’s answer is “Not necessarily” — depending on the state of Sommer’s heart! Is Mac saying that Sommer would be saved despite his factionalism if he was sincere?

We asked about the pre-millennialism controversy that divided the Churches of Christ in the first half of the 20th Century.

4. A person, otherwise a well-instructed, mature Christian, believes that Jesus will reign on earth for 1,000 years before the Second Coming. He does not believe in the doctrine of the second chance. Is he damned (not considering such time as God may allow for repentance)?

5. A person, otherwise a well-instructed, mature Christian, believes that Jesus will reign on earth for 1,000 years before the Second Coming and so teaches from the pulpit as the minister of a congregation. He does not believe in the doctrine of the second chance. Is he damned (not considering such time as God may allow for repentance)?

Mac answered 4 “Not necessarily” and 5 “Not necessarily. I do not know. If he becomes factious he is lost.”

We then asked about Foy Wallace, Jr.’s position —

Foy Wallace, Jr. considered pre-millennialism damning and refused to fellowship those of that view.

Mac’s answer is the same that he gave for Campbell and Sommer: it depends on the state of his heart! But Wallace routinely and belligerently damned those who disagreed with him on pre-millennialism, based entirely on what they taught, even if their teaching did not lead to sin. He had countless followers and split many churches — over a doctrine that Mac says that doesn’t damn — unless the teacher is factious!

But Wallace was surely a factious man! He ran many congregations entirely out of the Churches of Christ over this doctrine — a doctrine that had been held by Alexander Campbell (who published a periodical named The Millennial Harbinger!), James A. Harding, and David Lipscomb.

But, of course, the memory of Wallace is revered by many. Indeed, his confrontational, take-no-prisoners approach to Christian discourse has become the norm in many circles.

Why are some men damned for being factious, as Mac stated in response to questions 3 and 5 — but Wallace and Sommer are exempt from this rule?

  • Mac, how do you reconcile your response to question 15 with your responses to the earlier questions?
  • Phil, do you agree with Mac’s answer?

Does God expect a novice Christian to be free from error?

The position statement stipulated to by both Mac and Phil, quoted above, says,

2. Error due to a Christian’s status as a novice is tolerated by God until the Christian has had the opportunity to be instructed on that matter.

And yet when we gave an example of an unmarried couple, newly converted to Christianity, sleeping together unaware that this is sin, Mac concluded that the couple stood lost in their sins until they were better instructed and repented. Mac writes,

My response: what a confused mess! The couple had “hearts for God” while practicing fornication. How could they be “surely in grace” at the same time that they were living in fornication? Grace so defined is not grace at all. The exaggeration of grace becomes a sanction of sin. People living in fornication, because of the nature of moral law, know that it is wrong. We do not always admit what we know is wrong (Rom.1:32; 11 Sam.12:1-7). People who do not know that their fornication is sinful could not know the moral distinction that obtains between fornication and marriage. And fornicators who are baptized while continuing to live in fornication are not now Christians. Read carefully 1 Corinthians 6:9-11!

However, if the couple had been gambling rather than fornicating, they could be saved. Mac writes,

I would not say that a person who obeyed the gospel without knowing that buying a lottery ticket was wrong should necessarily be baptized again. I’ll leave that up to the person involved. If, however, in monitoring his life, that person later reaches the conclusion that he did not at baptism know all that he needed to know, he should not risk damnation over the pride of refusing to admit the earlier mistake.

And yet, while Mac admits the gambling new convert could have truly repented and yet continue to gamble, he nonetheless suggests that, well, maybe such a person should be re-baptized!

And so, which is it? Does God overlook error committed due to being a novice? Or does God require us at conversion to fully understand his will regarding moral and doctrinal error so we can truly repent of every individual sin? It can’t be both!

One may wish to argue that the distinction between the two cases is found in 1 Cor 6:9-11, as Paul says categorically that fornicators will not go to heaven —

(1 Cor 6:9-10) Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders 10 nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.

But he says the same thing regarding the “greedy” — and the classic argument against gambling is that it’s a form of greed. See, for example, this article in the Christian Courier. Many Church of Christ ministers have posted articles on the internet making the identical argument. Furthermore, would Mac deny that gambling is a work of the flesh that’s included in the “and such like” of Galatians 5:21, of which Paul says that those who do these things will not inherit the kingdom?

  • Mac, does God overlook doctrinal or moral error committed due to being a novice? Or does God overlook no errors at all committed by a novice? Or does God only overlook certain errors committed by a novice? and if so, which ones?
  • Mac, must someone be re-baptized if they later learn that they were in error on a point of doctrine at the time of their original immersion? What if that error led them to sin on a point because they didn’t know they were guilty of error?
  • Phil, do you agree with Mac’s answers?

(Again, we hasten to say that we didn’t insert line 2 in the position statement intending to set a trap. Rather, in several places in earlier posts by Phil, Greg, and Mac, we read that God allows a new convert time to learn his will before condemning him for error.)

We’ve been severely criticized for suggesting that the fornicating couple we mentioned is saved due to being novices unaware that they were engaged in sin, and yet our position is precisely approved by the conservative position statement! The conservatives need to either revise their position or else agree with ours.

Must one agree with Mac to be saved?

Mac’s answer to our question 11 is very revealing. We asked,

An otherwise well-instructed, mature preacher teaches from the pulpit and in print that it is sinful for women to attend the public worship assembly without a head covering. However, he continually fellowships those who teach differently, thereby rejecting the view that any doctrine that leads to sin is a fatal false doctrine. Since he persistently continues to fellowship those women who actually worship without a head covering, he also thereby rejects the view that all who continue the practice of sin are damned. Is this preacher damned (not considering such time as God may allow for repentance)?

Mac replies,

Not necessarily. Fellowship, as far as the concept of “participation” is concerned is basically a congregational matter. There are things that we continually do as regular practice that we have no control over in other congregations and from which we would, perhaps, abstain. Our “fellowshipping” others in other congregations as brothers does not mean that we necessarily endorse what they do in constant, regular, weekly, worship or that we would necessarily participate with them in all that they do.

Now notice: according to Mac’s answer –

  • It’s possible that a mature preacher can be saved in spite of his making a law that God hasn’t made and persistently, publicly teaching that the violation of his man-made law is sin. (Does Phil agree with this?)
  • It’s possible that a mature preacher can be saved even if he believes and teaches that Christians may continually worship in unauthorized ways (at least in some ways) and not lose their salvation. (In our example, the preacher believes those women worshiping uncovered are worshiping wrongly, but he does not regard them as lost.)
  • It’s possible that a mature preacher can be saved in spite of his rejection of Mac’s view that all who continue the practice of sin are damned. (The preacher in our scenario believes those women who continually worship uncovered are continually sinning, but he believes they are still saved.) That means that according to Mac, Mac’s view of apostasy is not a salvation issue. In other words, you can believe and teach a different view of apostasy and still be saved! More specifically, you can believe and teach that the continual practice of at least some sins, committed in ignorance, will not jeopardize one’s soul.

Yet, when we argued for this very idea, Mac replied that

This is not an extension of grace; it is a corruption of the church. It eliminates the possibility of conversion. It turns the church back into the world.

Mac has further said that our view of grace is a perversion of the gospel (citing Gal. 1:6-10). This certainly sounds like an issue of salvation. So again we have to ask, which is it? Is this teaching (that sins committed in ignorance by Christians will be forgiven) a salvation issue or not? Or does it depend on which sins are in view?

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12 Comments on “The Incoherence of the Conservative Position, Part 1”

  1. Royce Says:

    Jay,

    In the first part of this post you refreshed our memories as to the “Where we stand” position you and Todd had summerized for Mac and Phil.

    Of those 7 points may I ask about #5? It says “Once a Christian is lost for doctrinal error, he cannot be restored until he repents by no longer teaching the error, believing the error, or practicing the sin that error has led to.”

    This should be explored a bit in my view. I ask both sides, what do you mean by “lost”? Do you mean “lost” in the sense that the offender is dead in his sins and needs to be saved again? Or, is there some church of Christ pergatory that I am not aware of where such offenders are “sort of lost” and all that is needed is a tearful “I’m sorry” in front of a congregation, implied repentance, and he goes from “lost” back to “saved”?

    IF he is “LOST” in the classic biblical sense, he does not be “restored” he rather needs to be “regenerated” or “redeemed”. If this man is really “lost” how then can he be saved once more in the light of Hebrews 10:26-31 and Hebrews 6:4-6? These two passages are favorite proof texts that a person can be saved and then lost, so explain it to me.

    Here is one place I see a gaping hole in our coC theology of salvaition. If one who is saved is then damned, is he in the same condition and same standing with God as before he was saved at the first? Or, is he damned, but somehow less so than before his salvation? That seems to be the way it plays out practically whether we admit it or not.

    Last, if this man was saved, then damned so that he lost his soul (“is lost”), when he comes “back to the Lord” why does he not have to be immersed again? He would only need to do so if he was really “lost”, right? I have concluded that since we never rebapsise those who are “lost” when they “come back to the Lord” we don’t really believe they were really lost.

    Please, help me (and I am sure some others) make sense of this church of Christ doctrine.

    For truth,
    Royce

  2. Jeff B. Says:

    Interesting questions, Royce! I hope you get a response.

  3. Dan Smith Says:

    Royce,
    One becomes a child of God thru “rebirth.” He is now a child of God. Just as nothing my daughter can do that will sever our relationship, neither can a child of God NOT be a child of God. The Hebrew preacher (10:26,27), clearly showing that one who sins willfully faces “a certain fearful expectation of judgment (condemnation) and a fierceness of fire which will devour the adversaries,” does NOT deny the rebirth, rather recognizes it when he speaks of we “who have received the knowledge of the truth.”

    Another rebirth is not possible, only a re-reconciliation thru repentance.

  4. Jay Guin Says:

    Royce,

    Those are very insightful questions. I offered my answers to them in my book The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace, beginning at page 69. http://jayguin.files.wordpress.com/2007/02/the-holy-spirit-and-revolutionary-grace.pdf

    Although the questions are very pertinent to the conversation here, it’s not time to answer them here yet.

    But the short answer is I pretty much agree with you — but that has to be understood in the larger context, that being how very broad God’s grace is.

    I took up the same questions from a different angle at these posts:

    Once Saved, Always Saved, Part 1

    Once Saved, Always Saved, Part 2

    Once Saved, Always Saved, Part 3

  5. Royce Says:

    Thanks Jay for your rapid fire response!

    I will read the linked material a.s.a.p., likely tomorrow a.m. I have a house full of grand sons right now.

    Love and respect,
    Royce

  6. Royce Says:

    Dan,

    I think you might want to read again what I said and asked. Thanks for your comments though.

    Royce

  7. laymond Says:

    Royce, did you not read Luke 15, about the lost sheep,or coin, better yet the wayward son.

    Lk:15:18: I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee,

    The sheep and the coin had to be searched for and brought back, the wayward child had to find his way back, but he was welcomed by a loving father just as a wayward Christian who would surly be lost if they did nor repent, and come home. I don’t see any rebirth here, just realizing you want to come home.
    Whether you believe it or not, there are times when you have to put forth some effort, some showing that you want the inheritances offered by your father. It will nor be forced upon you.

  8. randall Says:

    In the post it there is a suggestion that Alexancer Campbell was a pre-millenial: “But Wallace was surely a factious man! He ran many congregations entirely out of the Churches of Christ over this doctrine — a doctrine that had been held by Alexander Campbell (who published a periodical named The Millennial Harbinger!), James A. Harding, and David Lipscomb.”

    I believe Alexander Campbell was a post-millenialist and that Lipscomb and Harding may have been pre-mils. The distintion is of some importatnce though Wallace may have been put out just as much with either of the positions.

    Apparently Alex. Campbell believed his work/movement was actually the harbinger of the millenium or the golden age of the church during which the church would rule on earth (while Jesus was in heaven) for a long time, though not necessarily a literal 1,000 years. In the pre-mil view Jesus reigns on earth for 1,000 years followed by the final rebellion and then the eternal abode. I wonder what A. Campbell would think of how the movement has shattered?

    Of note, I have heard Foy Wallace Jr. had been a pre-mil earlier in his life and then changed his mind and attacked the pre-mils in a rather mean spirited manner.

  9. D'Angelo Joyce Says:

    Hello again all,

    Questions:

    How long had Nadab and Abihu been priests before they were killed in service (Leviticus 10:1-2)?

    How long had Ananias and Sapphira been Christian’s before they were killed by God (Acts 5)

    How long was Simon a Christian before he was rebuked by Peter?

    What does it mean that “your money perish with you” can one perish and be saved?

    What does “your heart is not right before God”–can our hearts be wrong with God and we still be in his love?

    What does “therefore repent of this wickedness of yours mean– was he saved in his wickedness?”

    Why was Simon told to “pray to the Lord that he may perhaps forgive you for the intent of your heart.–he only had an incorrect intent; does this mean incorrect intentions (such as this one) can cause one to be lost?

    Is one who is “in bondage to sin” under condemnation? (consider carefully Romans 6-8, those who walk after the Spirit have no condemnation but those who walk after the flesh do 8:1-4)

    Was Simon walking after the flesh or after the Spirit?

    Simon immediately asked for prayer (he showed penitence) does that mean he was not in a condemned state because he quickly repented?

    What is the difference between Simon sliding back into sin shortly after his conversion and the two who were in sexual immorality and immediately repented?

  10. D'Angelo Joyce Says:

    Please try and answer each question with an answer and not dodge and pose other questions, that does very little to my understand of the truth. Thanks.

  11. D'Angelo Joyce Says:

    Also, I am not here claiming that I understand totally the long-suffering of God or every facet of his grace and mercy. Nor do I have a comprehensive list of sins (for as Mac noted earlier the NT does not give such). However, I do know that there are some things which God condemn a man over (Gal 5:19-21; 1 Cor 6:9-11). It is not possible to get around the import of what Paul said in those verses. Nor, do I intend to defend the “conservative position” but the bible. There are some things and people from which we are to withdraw ourselves, therefore the must be some way in determining whether a given thing is damnable or not; otherwise those verses have absolutely no meaning for any intelligent reader.

    I look forward to some of the responses, as fellowship, has always interested me.

  12. D'Angelo Joyce Says:

    Another question:

    What does it mean “whoremongers and adulterers God will judge?”


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