Devoted to the Propagation and Defense of New Testament Christianity
February 23, 1956
NUMBER 41, PAGE 6-9b

The Fourth Alternative

Earl Fly, Medina, Tennessee

In the current discussions of controversial questions confronting the church, there are two definite schools of thought expressed relative to the course that should be followed by those who reject what they believe to be unscriptural plans and practices in the brotherhood. Should we immediately disfellowship all with whom we disagree and seek to split churches whenever possible, or earnestly engage in studies and discussions with a view to promoting unity? Should we seek for a correction of unscriptural practices or a division from those involved in them? Should we fight for division or diversion?

One school of thought, endorsed by this writer and many others on both sides of the questions, is that we should earnestly strive for scriptural unity by honest, sincere, brotherly discussions of the questions involved, without seeking to alienate friends, destroy fellowship and split churches. This idea has been repeatedly stated by Brother Yater Tant and others in the Guardian and other papers.

The opposing school of thought, being advocate by a minority group thus far, is that there should be immediate division without further study or delay, if brethren have definite convictions that unscriptural practices exist, which may parallel in some points with something else which they now disfellowship. This idea is well illustrated by a series of incidents and conversations concerning this writer, which occurred at the Freed-Hardeman lectureship in January, 1956. They are now related in order to call attention to this dangerous idea which could greatly hinder efforts for unity and promote divisions if it is allowed to gain ground.

In the open forum, of which Brother Guy N. Woods was the moderator, when the question of the separate, institutional orphan home was raised and discussed by various brethren who disagreed, Brother Gus Nichols urged patience, understanding, unity and no divisions over this and other controversial questions now confronting us. After the session closed, having been one of the participants, I stated to Brother Woods privately that I certainly had no intention of fighting for a division, but was committed to further studies and discussions with those with whom I disagreed. Brother Woods began to assert that division was inevitable and that a "small Guardian faction" would soon split from the church, unless they deemed it wise to wait for awhile in order to gain more followers, and that I would find myself a part of this faction unless I changed my course. I had contended in the forum that the benevolent society was parallel to the missionary society, in that it was set up as an organized, separate institution for the purpose of doing the work of the churches. Brother Woods, referring to this in our private conversation, said that consequently I had three alternatives from which to choose: (1) disfellowship those with whom I disagree and split churches whenever possible; (2) admit that my convictions were not definite; (3) fellowship the missionary society. He rejected my reply that there was a fourth alternative, namely, a period for study and discussions, and insisted that I was obligated to split churches whenever possible, and that a failure to do so would indicate a lack of courage. Thus he lays down a principle that when we believe something to be unscriptural and parallel in some points with something else which we disfellowship, then we are obligated to immediately and completely withdraw fellowship from those with whom we disagree and seek to split all churches that endorse the practice we oppose. There is no logic, reason or scripture that demands such a course of action, but to the contrary, they all argue that we must be patient, understanding and persistent in our efforts to teach the erring and restore the fallen. He evaded answering the direct question as to whether he would have tried to immediately split all churches that endorsed the missionary society if he had been preaching when it began. This question demanded that he either surrender his doctrine of "three alternatives" or admit that he would have been a "church-splitting," since his convictions are definite and since he disfellowships the missionary society. He later repudiated his doctrine temporarily when he admitted that it would not be proper to withdraw immediately from a sinning brother.

A few of Brother Woods' listening supporters asked, "How long must this period of study be before division?" as if they thought the time factor was the only thing involved. I have never seriously considered this question, for I do not believe that division is inevitable nor unity impossible. A more pertinent question would have been "how long before unity?" I still believe the scriptural doctrine that has been emphasized throughout the years that God's will to man can be understood if we will desire and work to understand. Furthermore, I still have enough faith in my brethren to believe that most of them are honest and accept the Bible as the sole authority in religious matters. Therefore it is certain that if they are given sufficient time and opportunity to study these matters for themselves they will understand God's will. It has been demonstrated already in individuals and entire congregations. It has been my observation that most congregations are not aware of the issues involved, and that all they need is proper study. But is it possible that certain brethren want division? Could it be that they are fearful of the outcome of patient studies and brotherly discussions? Are they trying to nettle those who oppose them into causing division so they can dispense with discussions? Are they anxious to label their opponents as a "little Guardian faction of hobbyists" in order to prejudice minds against what they say? I am not saying that such is the case, I am simply asking questions.

During our conversation, I represented Brother Woods as being opposed to church support of colleges (which he did not deny), and started to apply his three alternatives to his position and relation to those who advocated such support, but Brother Woods quickly interrupted saying, "That is different, they are not splitting churches." If the lack of "church-splitting" on the part of the opposition frees one from Brother Woods' three alternatives, then they did not and do not apply to my position unless the advocates of institutionalism are splitting churches! But Brother Woods does not seriously believe this because he denies that they are splitting churches, yet insist that his three alternatives do apply to my position. So what is the difference between his position and mine? None whatever, except it puts him instead of me in the position of having to choose one of his three alternatives, neither of which he wants! Since Brother Woods opposes church support of colleges as being unscriptural, and since Brother W. L. Totty and the Garfield Heights church debate that it is scriptural, then according to his argument he must do one of three things: (1) admit that his convictions are not definite on this question; (2) immediately disfellowship Brother Totty and seek to split the Garfield church; (3) fellowship the missionary society which he says is also unscriptural. If he affirms that his convictions are definite, and is unwilling to fellowship the missionary society, then according to his own statement it will "manifest a lack of courage" if he fails to disfellowship Brother Totty and split the Garfield Heights church, which he is obligated to do if possible according to his logic. Which alternative will he choose? Or will he surrender his argument and admit that there is a fourth alternative allowing study and discussions for sincere brethren with definite convictions?

The foregoing matters are related because they are representative of a dangerous trend of thought, and to show the fallacy in the doctrine of the "three alternatives," which is evidently designed to force sincere brethren with definite convictions to begin an immediate fight for division. It will not allow earnest and prayerful discussions of the controversial questions for these brethren, which is the only course that will promote unity and avert division. I first heard the doctrine in the Lufkin debate when Brother E. R. Harper insisted in his first speech that Brother Yater Tint and all who agreed with him were obligated to disfellowship him and the Highland church. Then it was weakly stated by Brother J. M. Powell in a recent church bulletin when he said, "May God hasten the day that the hobbyists among us return to the old paths or else take the only alternative course." By "old paths" he evidently means the institutionalism path, and by "alternative course" he evidently means division. The "hobbyists" in his statement are the ones who oppose his hobby of institutionalism. All such statements in widely scattered areas indicate that an insidious movement may be shaping up to press sincere brethren with definite convictions into a division. But brethren who love the church and desire unity will not be deceived by the doctrine of "three alternatives," but will continue to insist that division is not inevitable nor unity impossible, and that the Bible can and will be understood by all who so desire, and that there is a fourth alternative in harmony with God's will that will allow honest and earnest discussions of these controversial questions. They will not be nettled into causing a division which certain brethren seemingly want, but who fear to be charged with promoting it.