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03 June 2010

BR: "We Have A Right: Studies in Religious Collectivities," by Dan King, Sr. and Mike Willis

Throughout the history of churches of Christ in America there have been some who have spoken out strongly against any form of religious collectivity save the local church. Many have heard of figures such as Daniel Sommer, Carl Ketcherside, and Leroy Garrett, as having advocated such in days gone by, and others like Gene Frost and others who do so today. We Have a Right: Studies in Religious Collectivities represents Dan King and Mike Willis' most recent rebuttal to this position.

We Have a Right consists of an introduction by Steve Wolfgang, two chapters of material, one each from Dan King and Mike Willis, and a compendium of articles from various sources over the years relating to the issue.

The title, We Have a Right, is associated with Paul's establishment of his right to take a wife and to receive monetary compensation for preaching the Gospel in 1 Corinthians 9. No direct link between the context of this passage and what Dan King and Mike Willis strive to prove regarding a foundation is made, nor would either author desire for any such link to be made. Regardless, it is refreshing to see that Steve Wolfgang, Dan King, and Mike Willis all stress repeatedly that they do not consider this issue to be an issue of fellowship and do not in any way despise or look down upon any who conscientiously cannot support their work with the Guardian of Truth. All three recognize that in this matter, we are at liberty, at that is the essential message of the book. We Have a Right is written to prove that Christians are at liberty to come together to create a business that publishes and sells religious material that is not associated with any local congregation or any collectivity of local congregations.

Both Dan King and Mike Willis make clear what the issue is not: the issue is not about church cooperation, missionary societies, or other church institutions for which we all agree there is no authority in the Scriptures. The issue is about the objections raised by Gene Frost and other persons against the existence of Guardian of Truth and other such foundations.

In their respective material, Dan King and Mike Willis make many similar arguments regarding their opponent and the issue. While there are strong words about their opponents, Dan King and Mike Willis are not as acrid or sharp as many in the past have been, and in general a good spirit of brotherhood is present in their material. They have no desire to alienate brethren.

Regarding the issue, both men make two sets of arguments: one set is designed to demonstrate the difficulties with the arguments presented by Frost et al, and the other is designed to show the liberty present that Guardian of Truth and other collectivities have in regards to their work.

The first line of argument is rather effective: both Dan King and Mike Willis do well at showing the difficulties with the arguments made. They demonstrate clearly that the church is not the only authorized collectivity in the New Testament: the family certainly is another, and Mike Willis' example of collective work in Luke 8:1-3 and Dan King's example of Gaius and John in 3 John engaging in a collective work do well at showing the flaws of this argument. Both men also focus heavily on the inconsistency of Gene Frost et al in condemning Guardian of Truth and its efforts while themselves participating in a non-ecclesiastical religious collectivity (Gospel Anchor, Gospel Truths, etc.), or how many of those who would condemn Guardian of Truth find an exception somehow to Florida College, despite the similarities in terms of the argument. Both Dan King and Mike Willis are accurate when they point out that most everyone else understands the inconsistency even if the advocates of these positions do not. Other arguments regarding the idea that the local church is the only collective that can assemble to "worship" or to teach or to edify are also handily refuted, and many other arguments are shown to be red herrings, non sequiturs, and relying heavily upon "slippery slope" prophesies that are no more or less true of any religious person or work, including the ones who make the arguments themselves.

The second line of argument, in many places, is Biblically sound, but many other parts of that argument make some stretches. Both Mike Willis and Dan King point to the synagogue of the old covenant as an example of a collectivity not specifically authorized yet manifestly allowed, and Dan King goes further and speaks of the Septuagint translators also. While no one doubts the truth regarding these two circumstances, their relevance is not a little suspect. Both authors do well, however, when establishing that God has not specified precisely how the individual is to carry out his God-given obligations of evangelism and edification above and beyond that which the local congregation assents to doing. Both authors attempt to establish that since the Bible authorizes men to engage in legitimate business ventures, that therefore they have a right to engage in a legitimate business venture of publishing and selling religious material.

We Have a Right seems to be a work of exasperation by two men who know the past and see it within the present and who feel compelled to make a stand for their liberty. They connect the current events well to the past, and despair how this issue keeps being forced upon the brethren. While much of their argumentation is good, I would like to have seen some of the less emphasized points-- the church is not the only collectivity, very little of the "work of the church" is exclusive to the church but is also the obligation of the individual-- emphasized more, and less made of inconsistencies and other such things that do not advance any argument that far. I wish that a deeper analysis were present of one of the fundamental difficulties of the no-collectivity position-- the demand for specificity in generic authority. If, as they say, there is no authority for a religious collectivity because there is no example of such a foundation in the Scriptures, then what they essentially say is that all generic authority must be tied to some specific authority within the Scriptures. Such a position is untenable, considering how all such persons assemble with a congregation in a church building and themselves have some form of religious collectivity. If all generic authority must be tied to some specific authority within the Scriptures, then we must all get rid of church buildings, because there is no evidence that any local congregation owned real estate in the New Testament. Either generic authority is truly generic and allows individuals to act with liberty, not violating any Biblical principle, or we must get rid of all sorts of things that we currently practice.

Another part of the matter that I believe merits exploration, although admittedly beyond the scope of We Have a Right, is to look deeply within the Scriptures regarding the nature of the church in the New Testament and to see how it compares to the type of church advocated by Frost et al. I believe that part of their error comes from misunderstandings of the nature of the church in the New Testament and particularly in the relation between the individual and the church. This issue may be explored deeper at a later time.

We Have a Right can assist us in understanding the issue of religious collectivities and how the current disputation fits into the overall history of churches of Christ in America. I believe the book and its arguments merit serious consideration by honest brethren seeking the truth, and that prejudice and slanted arguments must not rule the day. We must recognize that in these matters, liberty is to prevail. While we may have discussions of the profitability of the means by which we engage in such matters, and such discussions surely should occur, we must not an issue of sin vs. righteousness, but whether a given liberty is profitable to practice or not, and if it can be made more profitable, how. Life or death arguments only distract from this discussion, and should not rule the day.

Ethan R. Longhenry
October 2006

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