Growing up in a very religious home meant interest in following the Bible from early years. As a teenager the interest grew when dating the girl that became my wife almost 46 years ago. She was a devoted member of the churches of Christ and in order to be with her it was necessary to go to church with her often. In the process I heard men like V.P. Black preach the gospel. Even though I had heard many, many preachers, I’d never heard anyone preach like he did. He preached a sermon on rightly dividing the Scriptures that opened my eyes to many things I’d never realized before. Along the way I studied the Bible with Brother Wiley Herren and with Jack May. Eventually Jack baptized me. Three months later I preached the first time with the encouragement of Kenneth Randolph, my wife, Linda’s brother. A year later Linda and I moved to Henderson, Tennessee where I attended Freed-Hardeman College. It was during that time that I first heard and met Brother Gus Nichols and when struggling with some questions that had been raised where I was preaching as a student in McConnell, Tennessee I made an appointment to visit with him and get his help. Through the years after that I had the chance to study with Brother Nichols many times and hear him preach many times. Also, during the years at Freed-Hardeman I took everything I could under Brother H.A. Dixon who was the first person I knew who did an outstanding job of expository preaching. His studies in Romans and Hebrews were some of the best studies I’ve been through with anyone.
It was during those years and during the time after moving to work with the Christian Chapel church of Christ outside of Amory, Mississippi that Brother Nichols began recommending books that I needed to read. His first one was The Gospel Plan of Salvation by T.W. Brents. His recommendation was that I memorize the book. He also recommended anything written by J.W. McGarvey. Along the way he suggested that I read Monroe Hawley’s book In Search of God’s Way and Redigging the Wells.
The thing that had been so appealing about the churches of Christ had been the plea that we went to the Bible for everything. It was moving to hear that the church wasn’t a denomination and that there was no creed or earthly headquarters that one had to report to. Each congregation was completely independent from other congregations. The thought that one could simply study the Bible and preach what it said without regard to whether it fit with a standard line or belief was tremendously appealing.
Through the years I’ve heard and read a great deal of the material written by men like Alexander and Thomas Campbell, Barton W. Stone, Moses E. Lard and J.W. McGarvey. Their constant appeal to go back to the Bible and just be Christians was what I wanted to do from the beginning.
Of course it didn’t take long to learn that the message of the restoration movement worked better in preaching than it did in action. I quickly learned that if you preached something you found in Scripture that didn’t fit what brethren believed there was a problem and you would be rejected in many circles for teaching something that didn’t fit their beliefs. The fact creeds weren’t written on a wall or a creed book or discipline didn’t always mean there wasn’t one. Sometimes the creeds were found in the tract rack near the entrance to the building.
There are so many powerful truths that were presented by those early preachers of restoration in the United States. Truths such as the priesthood of the believers so that every Christian stood on equal ground and every person had the same access to God as any other did. This meant there is no clergy-laity in the church but every disciple was to study the Bible and learn for themselves what was right or wrong and follow it to the best of their ability. This is a powerful concept and is part of what makes the church an nondenominational body.
What has been troubling many times is while we recognize no clergy or laity, we have often seen college professors as the standard of what one should believe and teach. During the early days of the restoration it was preached powerfully that the Bible was written for the common man to be able to study and learn how to be saved and how to live the Christian life. Those better educated could certainly aid others in understanding. But it didn’t mean they knew truth any more than others.
Too often it seems we have drifted from the idea that each person should study the Bible for themselves and follow what they learn from God’s word. Too often people are ready to take what their favorite preacher or teacher says as the standard and not do any research of their own. Claiming a heritage in restoration doesn’t help if the principles of restoration are rejected and we set out on our own course, following our feelings or what someone on TV or radio has said.
Like David we need to pray, “Lord, open my eyes that I might see the wondrous things of your word.” James declared that if we asked God for wisdom he would give it to us generously. Paul prayed that the Ephesian Christians would have the eyes of their understanding enlightened so they would know the hope of his calling, the glorious inheritance the Lord has in the saints and what is the exceeding greatness of his power toward us who believe. For true restoration to be possible there must be room for each person to act as priest and to prayerfully study God’s word for themselves, believing and following what they see in the Word. Will such an attitude and action lead to everyone seeing everything the same way? It is not likely it will. But honest people studying together prayerfully can help each other grow and learn better what God says.
But it is also true that if a disciple studies honestly and prayerfully and arrives as a different understanding they shouldn’t be treated as a heretic because they have seen something differently. Most of the time if honest people approach other honest people to help them understand some truth better it will be received with joy.
Think of how many times disciples of Christ have split and divided over insignificant things that have nothing to do with the salvation of one’s soul. While there are fundamental truths on which one must reach the right answer to be right with God, there are also many things that one can be mistaken about and them not affect their salvation. It is only when our mistaken beliefs lead to our disobedience to God that it leads to our being lost. A sermon published in J.W. McGarvey’s book of sermons and later preached by N.B. Hardeman in the Hardeman Tabernacle sermons called “Believing a Lie” dealt masterfully with this point using the illustration of the young prophet who went to Bethel to preach against the altar set up by Jereboam. An older prophet told him a lie that caused him to disobey God and be killed as a result. Both McGarvey and Hardeman pointed out that there would have been many lies the old prophet could have told him that wouldn’t have led to him being killed. It wasn’t just that he believed a lie but that he believed a lie that led to him disobeying God that caused the problem.