Devoted to the Propagation and Defense of New Testament Christianity
August 16, 1951

"They Do Nothing, Lest They Do Wrong"

Bill Humble, St. Petersburg, Florida

There are still many who believe that the New Testament is a perfect constitution for the New Testament church in all ages and that its commandments must be obeyed as completely in letter as in spirit. When they refuse to approve or participate in activities which are not authorized by the New Testament, it is sometimes charged that they refuse to do anything rather than do something wrong. Before this charge can be evaluated properly, it must be remembered that when the New Testament commands, it sometimes speaks generically, leaving the means to the discretion of the individual. The Lord demands that Christians go and preach the gospel, but the mode of transportation is not bound by the Lord. But there are other times when the Lord speaks more specifically and binds not only the general commandment but also the details necessary to its observance. In such cases, these details or means must be respected.

Consider the issue of church music. In commanding music in worship, the New Testament states specifically the kind of music to be employed. Vocal music is specified; melody is to be made in the heart. (Eph. 5:19) Members of the churches of Christ are united in insisting that the only acceptable music is vocal. Further, they refuse to worship where instruments are employed. Suppose a preacher for the Christian Church should charge, "You people will refuse to worship with us. You don't worship at all, lest you do it unacceptably." Such a charge would be an unjustified evasion of the whole issue! We do not refuse to worship. Rather we insist that the New Testament pattern of worship is binding and that we must honor that pattern if we are to please God.

A century ago the unity of the restoration movement was destroyed over an issue related to missionary work; for their efforts at cooperation led to the formation of the first missionary society. It was in an effort to overcome opposition to his plans for such a society that the great Alexander Campbell leveled the evasive charge, "They do nothing, lest they do wrong." The first national missionary society was formed in 1849; but for more than a decade previously Campbell had written extensively to encourage his brethren to devise means of cooperating more effectively. It must be admitted that the prolific pen of Campbell played an important role in preparing for the establishment of the missionary societies. Actually the organized society was the direct outgrowth of "cooperation meetings" at which brethren came together, planned work, and made recommendations to the churches represented. However, some brethren viewed these "cooperation meetings" with suspicion, and it was to ridicule such suspicion that Alexander Campbell penned the following lines: "I have found a large class of men, professors, too, who will sit for a year rather than rise up crooked. They are conscientious men; but they do nothing right lest they should do something wrong." (Millennial Harbinger, June, 1838) After the establishment of the society, decades of bitter controversy followed, and it was during these years that friends of the society often hurled the charge, "Enemies of the society do nothing. They refuse to preach the gospel to the world, lest they do it in the wrong way." Was this charge justified? No more than when applied to the opponents of instrumental music. The issue was not whether the gospel should be preached; for everyone admitted that it must. Opponents of the society did not refuse to preach the gospel; rather they refused to do it in an unscriptural way, choosing to regard the New Testament method as binding today.

It seems incredible that this charge should be heard today, and among gospel preachers, but heard it is. Again members of the Lord's church are discussing cooperation in preaching the gospel. Is each congregation responsible for its own work, or did the Lord intend a centralization of authority and funds under the elders of a few large and influential churches? These are the basic questions which confront us today. Throughout the church are many consecrated Christians who view with alarm the trends of the past decade. If one church can spend its money for preaching the gospel abroad through some other congregation, why couldn't all churches spend their funds through the one central congregation? And would such an arrangement be independence, or equality, or autonomy? It is such considerations as these which have led many to insist that such centralization and sponsorship is not the New Testament way of preaching the gospel at home or abroad. In response to such doubts, supporters of the present sponsorship plans have not always attempted a scriptural investigation of the issues involved, but have sometimes reverted to the old charge that we do nothing who oppose their way of doing it. "Dunderheads," they write. "They can't agree; so they do nothing." A prominent preacher recently challenged, "If you don't like the way we're doing it, select your own field and do it your way there." No, this isn't the issue. The question is: what is God's way of evangelizing all fields.

The charge of "doing nothing lest they do wrong" is no more justified today than when applied to the missionary ventures of a century ago. It is an evasion of the true and basic questions. Those who oppose the trends of our day are not anti-missionary; nor do they believe in doing nothing. They are fully aware of our responsibility as the pillar and ground of the truth. But they are also aware that the letter of the New Testament is still binding and that our work of preaching the gospel to the world must be done within the framework of the New Testament plan. Otherwise our wisdom and our plans have overshadowed the revelation of a benevolent Father.