"---contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints." Jude 3
This being the case, why don’t we solve all of our problems and dissolve all of our divisiveness by simply applying the noble slogan noted above? Why don’t we grant liberty to one another “in matters of opinion,” never making such a test of fellowship or a measure of one’s loyalty to Christ? And why don’t we insist upon unity only “in matters of faith”? I have heard this slogan cited as long as I can remember. It has been repeatedly mentioned both in the pulpit and upon the printed page over the years, so surely it can be said that we as a brotherhood are very familiar with its sentiment. And in all the references to this great appeal of our spiritual forefathers, I have never heard its wisdom even questioned, let alone repudiated! So again I ask, why haven’t we appropriated it in our confrontation with the problems of our day?
Our failure in this regard surely cannot be attributed to an indifference toward unity. We are a people unity oriented in theory, if not in practice. We have fervently preached religious unity for generations. The New Testament doctrine of unity is one of the chief bases of our condemnation of denominational religion. I believe we earnestly desire unity, but somehow we always find it elusive and unachievable. In fact, it would often appear that the harder we seek to attain it, the greater our failure to realize it. Why is this?
This brings me back to the Restoration slogan and especially to the terms faith and opinion. What is faith? What is opinion? Unless we understand the significance of each and the distinction between the two, we can never hope to achieve the unity that characterized the early and mid-times of the Restoration Movement. Is faith the equivalent of truth and opinion the equivalent of error? Well, surely faith is equal to truth, but opinion may also be true or correct. Then, is faith what I believe and opinion what the one with whom I differ believes? It seems some so think. Or is faith that which is a matter of conscience with me–something about which I hold strong convictions and opinion that which is a matter of indifference to me–something about which I do not hold strong or settled convictions or which concerns a matter I have personally decided is not of vital importance? These questions are raised to impress us with the importance of understanding these key words and to make us aware of the confusion that surrounds them. When those men of the last century spoke of faith and opinion they knew what they meant and they applied the slogan intelligently and effectively! Today, for the most part, it is my considered view that we don’t know what they mean and that this accounts for our abysmal failure in seeking to apply the sentiment of the slogan.
I think it might be helpful for us to notice what those early restorationists meant by these terms and to this end I want to introduce some quotations from that period. From Thomas Campbell’s marvelous “Declaration and Address” in Article 3 we have the following: That in order to this (unity-FV), nothing ought to be inculcated upon Christians as articles of faith, not required of them as terms of communion, but that is expressly taught and enjoined upon them in the Word of God. (emp. mine-FV) Not ought anything to be admitted as of divine obligation—-but what is expressly enjoined by the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ (emp. mine) and his apostles upon the New Testament Church.”
In Article 6 of the same document he further enlarges upon this theme by observing: “That although inferences and deductions (emp. mine) from Scripture premises, when fairly inferred, may be truly called the doctrine of God’s Holy Word, yet are they not formally binding upon the consciences of Christians further than they perceive the connection, and evidently see they are so, for their faith must not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power and veracity of God. Therefore no such deductions can be made terms of communion (emp. mine), but do properly belong to the after and progressive edification of the Church. Hence it its evident that no such deductions or infernal truths (emp. mine) ought to have any place in the Church’s Confession.”
I call your attention to the fact that Thomas Campbell viewed only those things that are “expressly taught and enjoined–in the Word of God” and “expressly enjoined by the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ” as constituting “matters of faith.” On the other hand, he considered “inferences and deductions” or all “inferential truths” as constituting “matters of opinion” and insisted that such matters not be made “terms of communion.” This was his distinction between “essentials” and “non-essentials” and there must be unity on the former, but liberty in the latter.
Alexander Campbell held this same view and made this same distinction as is seen in the following statement: “that all men err, and, consequently, you and I, is, as you say, a self-evident position, and it is one reason why I never dare impose my inferences or reasonings and conclusions upon others as terms of Christian communion. Whatever is matter of fact, plain and incontrovertible testimony, is that, and that alone, in which we cannot err–and that only should be made a term of communion (emp. mine). (Millennial Harbinger, Vol. 1, p. 122)
He was once asked to distinguish between faith, opinion and knowledge. His answer was: “Faith is the belief of facts testified, or of testimony; knowledge is the assurance derived from actual and sensible perception, by the exercise of our own senses; matters not certified to us by testimony or our own experience. Thus Newton knew that bodies specifically lighter than water would swim in it; he believed that king Henry VIII seceded from the Roman Catholic institution; and he was of the opinion that the planet Saturn was inhabited.” (Millennial Harbinger, Vol. 1, p. 355)
Now let us return to that rallying cry of yore and consider it afresh. “In matters of faith, unity.” What is “faith” as used here? It is not simply what one believes. It has no reference necessarily to what one holds as a matter of conscience. Deep conviction doesn’t make something a “matter of faith.” Rather the term is used objectively as in Jude 3 when we are exhorted to “contend earnestly for the faith.” A matter of faith is a “matter of fact” which rests upon “plain and incontrovertible testimony” and is “that alone in which we cannot err.” It is the plain, clear teaching of the Word which is obvious to every Bible believer. There must be unity here regardless of whether the teaching is individual or collective in its application, regardless of whether it comes under the heading of “gospel” or “doctrine” as some are wont to distinguish them, regardless of whether it is moral or doctrinal in nature. I don’t care how insignificant it may appear to the human mind, if it is a “matter of faith,” something plainly set forth in God’s word, there must be unity or you have rebellion and there can be no fellowship!
A “matter of opinion” is something else. Opinion may be right or it may be wrong. The fact that it is opinion doesn’t mean that it is erroneous. Neither does it mean that it isn’t a matter of deep conviction personally ignored by such a one. In fact, Paul taught in Romans 14 that one must conform his practice to his opinion, even when it’s wrong, or else he will violate his conscience and thereby sin. The point is that an opinion must not be bound upon another or made a test of another’s loyalty to Christ because it rests not upon human inference, deduction and reasoning and one just may be wrong in his conclusions!
We would all do well to “examine ourselves” with honesty and candor to determine which of our manifold views are truly matters of faith and which are matters of opinion. Most likely this will prove to be a somewhat painful undertaking. However, if we will objectively undertake it, I think we will be surprised at how many of our most long-held and cherished convictions are in fact “matters of opinion”! And remember that concerning these I must be tolerant, generous and willing to grant liberty for another to differ with me and still be regarded by me as a faithful brother!
Historically it is my view that the Restoration Movement in large part lost its effectiveness when it unconsciously allowed itself to crystallize into another sect with its own peculiar creed (largely unwritten) made up indiscriminately of matters of faith and matters of opinion. When such occurred things had gone full circle, for this was the very condition it sought to relieve and correct when first it began to courageously and nobly appeal to its sectarian neighbors to lay aside all human creeds, to no longer measure and judge other men by human opinion, but to accept the Bible and the Bible alone, so that there might be “in matters of faith, unity; in matters of opinion, liberty; and in all things, charity.” And this is the reason why we who theoretically call all to unity are in practice so skilled at division. Most of the controversy, strife and division which has characterized us as a brotherhood, and continues to do so, has occurred and does occur in the realm of opinion. If the sectarian mentality which characterizes so many of us had held sway among the Campbells, Stone, Lard, etc. the movement would have devoured one another posthaste!
I want to close with a final quotation form the pen of Alexander Campbell which reflects his exceptional erudition. He said: “Reason and experience unite their testimony in assuring us that, in the same proportion as individuals labor to be of one opinion, they disagree. The greater the emphasis laid upon opinions, the more rapidly they generate. The nearest approaches to unity of opinion which I have ever witnessed, have appeared in those societies in which no effort was made to be of one opinion; in which they allowed the greatest liberty of opinion, and in which they talked more and boasted more of the glory and majesty of the great facts, the wonderful works of God’s loving kindness to the children of men, than of themselves, their views and attainments.—If I wished to produce the greatest discrepancies in opinion, I would call some damnably dangerous and would eulogize the sound.” (Millennial Harbinger, Vol. 1, pp. 149, 150)
By Foy Vinson