Jesus calls us to win and discuss and instruct,
NOT to quarrel and controvert.
|Looking BACK To See Ahead
Do Debates Lead to Unity in Christ?
from the Restoration Herald BY ROLLAND STEEVER of South Bend, Indiana. Part 1 followed by Part 2. Martin Luther debated John Eck and argued with Zwingli. Debates of Alexander Campbell with John Walker, William McCalla, Robert Owen, and John Purcell are mentioned, as is the Baptist Redstone Association, and the purpose of Christian baptism. Ray Downen's remarks follow.Alexander Campbell was a debater. There are fine lines of distinction to be drawn among the words argument, discussion, and debate. It’s important to understand the context of circumstances that motivate the use of any one of these words. When definitive aims in teaching are being developed, it’s equally necessary to have a specific purpose and goal in the use of each. We don’t want to debate when a discussion will accomplish more!
Paul, the apostle to us Gentiles, seemed to be especially gifted with the ability to go into an unfamiliar situation and quickly develop a discussion with thoughtful persons -– a discussion that would enable him to talk about Jesus.
He was not, apparently, content to simply stir up some kind of an argument. His purpose seems to have been to open the Old Covenant Scriptures to show passages that pointed to a coming Messiah. These prophecies, he then could point out, were fulfilled, in extensive detail, in the person and ministry of one Jesus of Nazareth. Especially was this manner of approach effective when he addressed Jews in their synagogues.
When he worked with Gentiles, it often led to debate when he needed to present propositions that ran counter to such religious beliefs as were rooted in idolatry, myth, and superstition. In each case, it was his one goal and desire to let them hear about the Son of God.
In writing to Corinthian Christians, he phrased his objective this way, “For I determined to know nothing among you save Jesus Christ, and Him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2 NASB). Only in Jesus Christ was there hope and salvation, Paul affirmed. The gospel good news was the message from the Living God which enables mankind to escape the penalty attached to sin. And this fact is no less true today than when it was being so well preached by Paul!
By the 16th century and the Protestant Reformation, the words discussion and debate had pretty well narrowed to the kind of argument that sought to destroy the opponent. When Martin Luther met John Eck to debate the issue over the sale of indulgences, it was clear that the two men were hostile in their attitudes toward one another. Their goal was not merely polemical, for their choice of language indicated the interest of each was to “destroy” the (influence of the) other.
Luther hotly contested the position concerning the Lord’s Supper taken by the Swiss reformer, Ulrich Zwingli. After a long written and verbal argument over the issue, they simply refused to recognize the value of each other’s work.
Both these men had little use for or sympathy for the Anabaptists with their insistence on the validity of only adult baptism (ones who could hear and believe the gospel so as to repent of their sin prior to the baptism). Disagreements continued among the Protestant reform groups until they were at enmity among themselves and polarized into distinct sectarian and denominational groups. Protestant divisions were accompanied by rancorous debate and strong arguments.
Luther’s later weak position relative to the relationship between church and state (he felt the need of protection from powerful political friends to avoid fatal consequences resulting from his disagreements with the Roman authorities) overshadowed the courage and resolution which he had displayed at Worms in 1521.
At Worms, on trial for alleged heresy, he dared Charles V, emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, and other notable rulers of the day, challenging them to prove from the scriptures any errors in his teaching. That incident in history was destined to profoundly affect the later course of all western civilization.
In England and Scotland the church became so politicized that the governments were as much occupied with religious matters as they were with civil law. It was these religious irregularities (with resulting wars and persecutions) that caused droves of people to leave Great Britain and parts of Europe in hope of finding freedom and peace in colonial America. Caught up in that migration were the family of Thomas Campbell and his son Alexander.
Not all religious argumentation had been left behind when the English, Scotch, and other Europeans came to the new country. By no means!
A neighbor of Alexander Campbell named John Walker -– a Presbyterian preacher in the village of Mt. Pleasant, Ohio loudly protested the position proclaimed by Campbell across the Ohio River in Virginia.
Walker thought it was appropriate and necessary to baptize infants. Campbell had learned through Bible study that it was neither -- that baptism was to follow faith and repentance rather than precede them. This discussion was based on the distinction between law and grace, which was no less critical to Christianity then than now.
Friends of young Alexander Campbell urged him to accept the challenge to formal debate issued by Walker. Campbell replied that he was reluctant to enter into public debate over matters pertaining to the gospel. He believed that the gospel was to be preached and taught rather than debated.
The earlier birth of Margaret and Alexander’s first child had led to a question about infant baptism. The question was settled by their decision not to submit little Jane to an unscriptural practice. Their study also revealed that baptism was properly performed by immersing a believing, repentant person of sufficient age to hear and understand the gospel. It was to be done in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Understanding led to action on the part of the entire Campbell family, for soon after their study, they persuaded Mathias Luce, a nearby Baptist preacher, to immerse them upon their profession of faith. This elated the Baptists, and enraged the Presbyterians! Thus, eight years later, the Rev. John Walker was challenging young, very scholarly, Alexander Campbell ...
Soon after this debate, Campbell declared, “We are fully persuaded that a week’s debating is worth a year of preaching such as we generally have, for the purpose of disseminating truth and putting error out of countenance.” . . .
Scholars who have undertaken to study the life of Alexander Campbell point to what they believe was perhaps an undesirable quality in some of his writings and speaking. He is charged with being very caustic and unfeeling in his views. Some go so far as to say that in his early years of teaching and writing he was blatantly militant.
PART TWO — The publication of his debate with John Walker did much to raise Campbell in the esteem of his surrounding religious neighbors. He in turn seemed to enjoy being buoyed up on the crest of a wave of popularity which resulted in more invitations to speak before an increasing number of congregations in a wider radius of locations.
He had been submitting a number of articles in the local newspaper under a pen name. By 1823 he had determined to begin publication of a monthly magazine where he enjoyed writing upon such topics as “the ordination of the clergy,” “creeds,” “the sects,” and “the proper translation of the Bible.”
His love of writing led to the publication of a small magazine entitled, THE CHRISTIAN BAPTIST, first issued from Buffaloe, Virginia July 4, 1823.
That same year he traveled to Mason County, Kentucky to meet another Presbyterian preacher William McCalla, to discuss the particulars concerning infant baptism. It was in the course of this discussion that Campbell began to introduce the fact that adult baptism, as taught in Acts 2:38, included the matter of the remission of sins.
After that debate, he traveled on to Lexington, Kentucky, where for the first time he became acquainted with leading preachers in the Baptist church who were already preaching a reform message, as taught by Barton W. Stone and those influenced by his work.
It was at this time that he showed them his new magazine. He had purposely not mailed copies into that area ahead of his visit. He was then very frank to point out matters concerning the Baptist clergy and their message to which he took exception. His powerful presentations, even in ordinary conversation, quite captivated those who heard him speak in a variety of situations.
While his brilliant insights were well accepted by many thoughtful leaders in this Athens of the West, it was only a short time before his views led to a separation of his congregation from the Baptist Redstone Association back home. Diverse views and debate do at times lead to separation and division.
The question or issue to be determined is whether or not one is defending a non-biblical issue, or an issue that rests upon solid biblical teaching. Devastating tragedy strikes when the people of God argue and divide over matters that rest upon mere human speculation.
ROBERT OWEN of Lamark, Scotland, came to the U.S. in the latter part of the 1800s to establish a settlement which would practice what he believed to be a social system so perfect that it would render obsolete and useless any other system of human endeavor, including the system and teachings of Christianity.
He challenged any enlightened person in the nation, including the clergy, to meet with him publicly to discuss their system versus his. At a time when a large meeting of Presbyterian clergy was in session in New Orleans, his challenge was advertised. None of the clergy present from all over the U.S., nor any clergy or like opponent, chose to accept the challenge of Robert Owen.
Alexander Campbell wrote to him, agreeing to debate the issue. They met at Bethany and worked out the terms for their discussion, settling on the city of Cincinnati, Ohio as a suitable location, to begin on April 13, 1829.
In that period of U.S. history, there were a number of socialistic schemes being proposed. Each had distinctive characteristics, but were essentially some form of communism — joint ownership rather than private ownership of property.
J. J. Haley, in describing the affair in a later report, says — “Over against this atheistic wangdoodleism the gospel of Jesus Christ honestly and bravely faces the fact of sin and all the depravities of moral evil and the animal nature; faces the problem with the only solution, redemption through Christ.” (J. J. Haley — Debates That Made History, Reprint, College Press, Joplin, MO, pages 248,249.)
Many Protestant church leaders were grateful to Campbell for his successful meeting against Robert Owen. In this case a very positive outcome followed the effort to face up to and destroy this “atheistic wangdoodleism.” The failure of Owen to successfully defend his social system turned the attention of the public away from his teachings, and away from the community he had established at New Harmony, Indiana. It was not long before he returned to Scotland.
In the mid-nineteenth century, the U.S. Protestant church was becoming greatly alarmed at what was felt to be a strong effort on the part of the Roman Catholic church to dominate U.S. public life. Some felt the Roman Catholics sought to make a key eastern city in the U.S. the world capitol for Roman Catholicism.
It was in the midst of such a context that Alexander Campbell and Bishop John Baptiste Purcell of Cincinnati, Ohio debated the issue of Roman Catholicism. Their debate began on January 13, 1837 in the city of Cincinnati. People of all classes from great distances were attracted to this declamatory contest. To underscore a claim for victory, Purcell was soon elevated to the rank of Archbishop. His only known portrait now hangs in a picture gallery in The Atheneum, a large teaching institution located in Anderson Township in the southeast corner of the city of Cincinnati, Ohio.
A number of years later Indiana’s former governor, Ira Joy Chase (a Christian Church evangelist) was in a meeting with the Archbishop when the subject of their conversation turned to the debate between himself and Campbell.
A great number of things were discussed. Purcell is reported to have said, “I will gladly talk to you about my worthy friend Mr. Campbell. From the very first day of our acquaintance until the day of his death, I always entertained the kindest feelings for that gentleman. ... He was decidedly the very fairest man to debate I ever saw, as fair as you can possibly conceive. He never fought for victory. He fought for truth, or what he believed to be the truth. He never misrepresented his case nor that of his opponent ... never tried to hide a weak point, never quibbled. Now as for Mr. Campbell’s standing in future ages, I think it is quite within the bounds of truth to say that not ecclesiastical history alone, but profane history as well will place him on the same pedestal with Luther, Calvin, and Wesley — the peer of any of them.”
In later years, and into the 20th century, there were many debates over issues that were really matters of opinion and had nothing to do with God’s redemptive plan. Strong differences of opinion, and refusal to accept differing views resulted in tragic divisions within the ranks of the growing Stone-Campbell Movement. A UNITY Movement had forsaken its goal of uniting all Christians.
Carl Ketcherside summed up the matter of debates very well when he wrote (in his autobiography, Pilgrimage of Joy, College Press, Joplin MO, page 210) — “I resolved that I would never again debate publicly with any brother. I would never again represent any party, sect, or schism. I would never again allow myself to be selected and thrust forward by the partisans of any school of thought to defend their opinions and deductions.
“I have become increasingly convinced of the folly of attempting to arrive at truth or alleviate division by such a ridiculous procedure.
“If a community is not divided before a debate, it will always be divided after one has been held. The very psychology of our modern debating is divisive.” -- Rolland Steever
Ray Downen remarks -- Our goal in any study and discussion together should be to grow together in Christ so that each participant is afterward more like Jesus. Let us aim as we study together to prove the Word of God correct and fully understood as a result of our study and discussion.
But when error is put forward as truth, it is our duty to oppose the error and teach the truth. That’s regardless of the esteem in which we all may hold the one whose teaching is false. Teaching which contradicts Bible truth is wrong, and must be identified as such by all who love the God of truth.
Whether in formal or informal debate, we must love truth supremely. The TRUTH will set us free. We must identify what is true and what is NOT true, and never compromise with error, but always seek compromise with any brother who loves and seeks truth.
Some do not yet know the full truth. Such ones are not guilty of being false teachers. Even when their doctrine is not fully true, those who love God and seek to teach His Way truly are not deliberately teaching falsely.
We should recognize and commend those who love truth and seek truth. If necessary that we point out honest truth when wrong teaching is heard, we need to do it with love and humility.
You may contact the journal in which the article above was published at
The Restoration Herald
Christian Restoration Assoc.
5664 Cheviot Rd
Cincinnati OH 45247
PART ONE of this study is available as Viewpoint Tract BFL10-97 (3/$1). Printed copies of this booklet are available at $1 per copy.
Viewpoint Brief Bible Study #6 from Ray Downen.