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Our Danger

By J.J. Haley

      The "sound" men, with whose vigorous denunciations of "departures" and "innovations" we have become familiar, and whose trenchant philippics against "progressionism" have won for them this honorable title, are, I have begun to fear, the very men who are in the greatest danger of drifting unconsciously into a narrow creedism, a Pharisaic rigidity of routine in church order, abhorrent to their own feelings if they were only apprised of what they are doing. Dogmatism in matters of inference, expediency, or interpretation, is the capital offence of sectarianism, against which we, as a people, have waged an uncompromising warfare for more than fifty years. To exalt individual crotchets or church usages into questions of fundamental importance, and tests of soundness in the faith; to confound our deductions from Scripture with Scripture itself; to thrust our opinions concerning details and methods in church organization upon other people, which at best are but matters of opinion, is to wholly misconceive and to completely misrepresent the great principle involved in the plea for the restoration of primitive Christianity, and is a distinct violation of both the letter and spirit of New Testament teaching. Ecclesiastical history furnishes an unbroken illustration of the tendency in human nature--especially religious human nature--to invest mere usages, traditions, and customs, with all the sanctity and solemnity of divine institutions, merely because they are established by inheritance from the past. It is just possible in denouncing sectarianism to do it in the spirit of a sectarian. It is possible to advocate union in the spirit of disunion. We may fancy ourselves zealous champions for the restoration of primitive Christianity, when all the while our championship is decidedly more effective in the restoration of primitive Pharisaism We may contend earnestly for the faith once delivered to the saints, while living in the spirit of the faith once delivered to sinners. In waging warfare against human creeds, constant vigilance is necessary lest we should formulate a creed as human as the rest, though it be an unwritten one.

      I do not esteem a brother less in whose opinion the "open platform" system is the sine qua non for the ills of the ecclesiastical world. I lodge no complaint against the brother who believes that the "closed platform" better conserves the interests of the cause and the edification of the church. The "one man system" is doubtless a tremendous evil, and fraught with incalculable mischief, whether the one man be a priest or a deacon. It is, perhaps, the solemn duty of the church to resolve itself into a committee of the whole to defend the Lord's Table against the encroachments of "the pious unimmersed." To maintain the sanctity of the fellowship inviolate by refusing to take money from the world, is, no doubt, a sacred obligation, and should be jealously guarded by those who are determined "to stand by the Bible."

      All of these questions are probably entitled to a certain amount of consideration; they have their importance, certainly, but when you elevate them into the strictness and rigidity of articles of faith; when you dignify them with the authority inhering only in a positive divine enactment, and urge them strenuously as of vital importance upon the churches, as tests of fellowship and standards of soundness, you sectarianize, and therefore strip of its peculiar grandeur the great plea for the restoration of a pure faith, and add another sect and another creed to the host of both, which have scandalized and frittered away the strength of the religious world by divisions about trifles. To expect uniformity of opinion on these and all similar questions is to expect a moral impossibility. Our plea for union is a failure if this is to be its basis. The attempt to enforce a uniform stereotyped system of church usage and polity in all parts of the world without regard to the expansive genius of Christianity in matters of external arrangement, and in forgetfulness of the varying manners and customs of the people, is really too great an absurdity to foist upon divine wisdom. The Scriptures are neither authoritative nor definite on questions of church usage. The charity of the Gospel, and the conservation of Christian liberty are best attained by allowing to others the same freedom of judgment that we claim for ourselves; and though it is exceedingly difficult for dogmatists to make this concession, it should be remembered, as at least a possibility, that those of our brethren who differ from us in these matters are just as honest, as intelligent, and as safe interpreters of the Bible as we are. The central proposition of the faith is the Divinity and Messiahship of the Christ. The fundamental corollary from this is an unqualified subjection to His will, and obedience to His commandments. Never till a man renounces his allegiance to the Lord that bought him, or persists in open rebellion to His authority, can his fellowship be disturbed, or his soundness called in question, whatever his opinions may be on other matters. Let us be careful that we do not divert attention from these great principles, in which the strength of our plea consists, by an undue emphasis of minor considerations. Above all things let it never be forgotten, that of all heresy the want of love is the worst.

      "Our Danger." No Other Foundation: A Documentary History of Churches of Christ in Australia: 1846-1990, ed. Graeme Chapman. [Mulgrave, Victoria: Privately published, 1993]. Pp. 413-414. Reprinted from Australian Christian Pioneer, 1879-1880, pp. 33-35.

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