For the last two decades and into the present decade, the disagreement concerning the Holy Spirit’s influence has resulted in sinful division within conservative churches of Christ. The dispute has inflicted some horrific damage to the cause of New Testament Christianity. The divergence is not rooted solely in the manner of the indwelling of the Spirit but encompasses how he operates on the Christian. Many brethren have long argued that God strengthens, edifies, sanctifies, grants wisdom and intervenes in the life of the Christian providentially by His indwelling Spirit. This author maintains this doctrine to be correct. Opposing brethren hold the view that the Spirit does none of these things directly but only by means of the teaching of God’s word (we will simply call this the “word only” doctrine). Both sides have feared that the other side has misunderstood the Bible and begun the process of moving away from it and into Deism and Pentecostalism, respectively.
Whereas godly preachers of the past, such as Guy N. Woods, Thomas B. Warren and many others did not escalate these concerns into the category of being a “fellowship issue,” some contemporary preachers have done exactly that. The call for breaking fellowship and labeling brethren with the opposing viewpoint as “heretics” has frequently come from the “word only” camp. Multiple factions of radical preachers are harshly attacking the advocates of direct Holy Spirit work on a regular basis. Nevertheless, this is a fairly new movement for those of the Restoration heritage. Never before has the negativity been so one-sided regarding a doctrinal disagreement. It is only in recent years that these brethren have fallen into the fanatical mindset that anyone who disagrees with them on this matter is apostate and unwelcome in the Lord’s body.
This author aims to demonstrate, in this brief commentary, through godly reasoning and Biblical precept, that such an extreme position must be expelled from the Lord’s church and unity must be pursued through acceptable means. A future of blessings for a generation that knows the Lord is contingent upon whether or not they will observe Jesus’ plea for unity (Jn 17:21) and be willing to let Him work in them to achieve that unity (Eph 2:10; Phil 2:13). Of course, the disagreement comes down to how that work is being done today: through the teaching of the word alone or through the teaching of the word and an internal action of the Spirit?
A “Novel” Doctrine?
Brethren involved in this controversy have repeatedly made the claim that the teaching of the direct help of the Spirit is a “novel” doctrine. They insist that this teaching is the cause of recent division because it is only now being aggressively advocated in the church. Let the record be clear that the teaching of the direct help of the Spirit is not a new heresy being promoted by change agents of a conflicting hermeneutic; nor is it only recently being introduced. At the 1967 Freed-Hardeman Lectureship, bro. Thomas B. Warren stated the following in his dialogue with bro. Guy N. Woods:
“The Holy Spirit is given to strengthen the spirit of the inward man. Paul prayed for that. I told some brethren recently that I’m not going to get too excited about this until they stop practicing what I preach! As I emphasized last evening, when men go into hospitals, where terminal cancer cases are, they pray for those people to be strengthened by his Spirit in the inward man! I’m certain that you do! And I believe the Bible authorizes us to tell a man who says ‘I’m weak; I know what the Bible tells me to do; I can see here is the path down which I should walk; but I need some help from God!’ And Paul prayed for the Ephesian brethren that they might have that help! And the help he talked about was to be strengthened by his Spirit in the inward man. And that was in conjunction with the word of God. And if that be heresy, brethren, make the most of it.”
This quotation demonstrates that Brother Warren had believed and advocated exactly what many contemporary preachers are now advocating today: the direct help of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Christian. Yet, he was not labeled a heretic in those days. The question of who is to blame for the recent division and who is guilty of advocating a strange and new teaching may be concisely answered. The seeds sown by brother Woods and others have sprouted into a chaotic mess of divisiveness and splintered the body of Christ in recent years. Brother Woods had warned that the direct help view was “dangerous” but he stopped short of declaring it a matter of fellowship. However, many preachers believing what he taught have not exercised the same restraint.
These are evidences of recent history but history of the more distant past reveals that the direct help of the Spirit was uniformly accepted by the church until the days of the Restoration movement. As an overreaction to Calvinist dogmas of the denominational churches, some preachers of the Restoration movement began to question whether the Holy Spirit does anything at all except through the word. The result of the controversy is the sinful division which came to fruition in the later portion of the 1900’s and into this century.
The “word only” concern was not debated among Christians of the early church following the cessation of miraculous spiritual gifts (the second, third, and fourth centuries). It was not debated during the height of medieval paganism (fifth through thirteenth centuries). It was not debated during the Reformation movement (fourteenth through seventeenth centuries) nor at any time prior to the Restoration movement (eighteenth through the early part of the nineteenth century). It is only during the last two centuries and into the present century that the Spirit helping the Christian directly (versus only through the word) has even been discussed as a controversy. All “Christendom” had merely taken it for granted that the Spirit personally aids Christians until the development of the “word only” teaching estranged some from this view. Even yet, the discussion has been limited to recent churches of Christ and has not been debated among any single denominational body now or ever.
There is an obvious reason for the distinctiveness of this controversy which has plagued the Lord’s church. The teaching which advocates an indwelling through the word and restricts the work of the Spirit only to the word is truly the novel teaching. It is a teaching invented by man to deny glory to God for what he is doing by the direct operation of his Spirit. It is often employed by Satan to divide the churches and result in souls being lost as they sinfully splinter over and over again. It is wise to refuse to take the bait of the Devil any longer and, instead, strive for unity in the Spirit. It is also wise to leave extremism in doctrine.
Calvin overreacted to the claims of Catholicism by claiming a direct operation on the alien sinner through an “Inner Witness.” Catholicism refused to acknowledge any enlightenment among the laity and reserved Bible interpretation only for the clergy of the Roman Catholic church. Calvin’s answer to this error was to go to the opposite extreme and claim that God arbitrarily foreordains who will receive enlightenment. Thus, the church is robbed of any free will to interpret and explicate truth. Similarly, the pendulum has swung to the extreme of a new flavor in response to Calvinist error. The answer to radical doctrine is not to invent another radical doctrine of the opposite extreme but rather to find and hold to the truth of the word of God. Christians must end the cycle of reactions that Satan is pleased to use for dividing the brethren. We are not ignorant of his schemes. The “word only” doctrine and its grievous consequences testify to the reactionary nature of these schemes.
Finding Common Ground
Regardless of what is believed concerning the Holy Spirit’s role in the body of Christ, all must recognize that God is providentially active in his church. For such is clearly taught in the Scriptures and virtually undisputed (cf. Job 12:23; Matt 5:45; 6:23–33; Rom 8:28). Furthermore, the Bible commands that we have one mind in all things, seeking the things of God while pursuing unity (2 Cor 13:11; Rom 12:16; Phil 1:27; 2:2; 1 Pet 3:8). Obviously, this is a difficult thing to achieve. As the prophet Amos stated, “Can two walk together, unless they are agreed?” (Amos 3:3). Nevertheless, both parties of the Holy Spirit dispute will acknowledge free will (whether supplemented with direct Spirit help or not) and both parties will acknowledge God’s providence (whether enacted by the Holy Spirit directly as the agent or by the Father through an indirect, natural work). Most importantly, the disagreement lies not in what the children of God must do to be and remain saved but in what God does in his children to help them remain saved! To divide over something which we, mere human beings, have no control over is neither reasonable nor Scriptural. Both sides believe in the same plan of salvation, the same acts of worship, the same pattern of authority, and uniformly recognize many other Bible truths that sanctify the soul. What a tragedy to divide over this!
It is this author’s view that “word only” brethren are deceived into believing a doctrine which partially advocates Deism but they are not condemned simply because of this. The sin occurs when one divides the Lord’s church and attacks the brethren with cruel fervor. Proponents of the “word only” theology must let go of a divisive mentality and extend the right hand of fellowship to those who understand the workings of the spiritual realm in a slightly different way. Now, we all realize the need to “speak the same thing” (1 Cor 1:10) and to “endure sound doctrine” (2 Tim 4:3) but to expend of one another so flippantly will result in no one to endure with! We are commanded to pursue patience with one another (1 Tim 6:11). The recent atmosphere among the brethren has not been a pursuit of “patience and longsuffering with joy” (Col 1:11) but an attitude of superiority, exclusivity and negativity toward all who dare to advocate direct Spirit help.
A Defense for Direct Help
It is common that many “word only” enthusiasts will utilize words such as “Pentecostal” and “Calvinist” to bias churches and paint their opponents as outlandish peddlers of error. This is not godly behavior; it is purposefully and recklessly misleading the weary listener. There is nothing Pentecostal about the direct help view or about those who believe in direct help. Things typically associated with the Pentecostal denominations are nowhere to be found among “direct help” preachers who are teaching a conservative hermeneutic. Tongue speaking, prophecies, claims of direct revelations, dancing, health and wealth gospel, snake handling, and the like are not practiced among these direct help advocates. They have never argued on behalf of any modern day miraculous activity of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, the claim that these brethren are “Pentecostal” is mere foolishness and slander.
The attack that these same brethren are “Calvinist” is similarly designed to prejudice the churches against them and inflict damage to reputations. However, those advocating a direct help of the Spirit do not subscribe to any of the “five points of Calvinism” nor to the doctrine of the “Inner Witness” which is the signature Holy Spirit teaching of Calvinism. The “Inner Witness” teaching has a two-fold idea that “direct help” proponents will not acknowledge as Biblical. Firstly, that God will bear witness to some that his word is true by a direct contact with the spirit of man. Secondly, that the Holy Spirit will illuminate the spirit of the alien sinner to understand, believe and accept the teaching of the New Testament. This doctrine involves a false understanding of predestination, makes God an arbitrary respecter of persons, nullifies the free moral agency of man, and surrenders the power of the gospel message to save man. What does this teaching have in common with those of the churches of Christ who believe in the direct operation of the Holy Spirit? Absolutely nothing! Unfairly, some in our number have been slandered by preachers who wish to dishonestly expose brethren they disagree with.
An Answer to the “Sugar Stick” Argument
The “sugar stick” argument of the “word only” advocates consists of a forced understanding of 2 Timothy 3:16-17. This portion of Holy Writ states the following:
“All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.”
The argument is made that God has already supplied everything that is needed for man in the Scriptures, thus, the direct operation of the Holy Spirit is not necessary and for such to exist would undermine the all-sufficiency of the Bible. Because the Bible is obviously all-sufficient, with 2 Timothy 3:16-17 as a proof text, the “word only” enthusiasts assert that the Holy Spirit does nothing at all except working on hearts of both sinners and saints through the word. The conclusion has overlooked some key considerations of the text.
Firstly, if the Bible is truly all-sufficient in an absolute sense, there is not only a uselessness of direct Spirit involvement in the life of the Christian, but general providence also becomes useless. Furthermore, if providence is useless due to the all-sufficiency of the word (as they understand it), there would be no need to petition God in prayer for further blessings. This interpretation of 2 Timothy 3:16-17 is proven fallacious by a simple examination of the Bible’s teaching concerning the efficacy of prayer (Phil 1:19; 4:6, 7, 13).
Secondly, it requires a disregard for the context to understand “complete” to mean “without any further divine aid.” As the previous verses mention, it is important to “continue in the things which you have learned” (v. 14) and are aware of because of “the Holy Scriptures which are able to make you wise for salvation” (v. 15). Verse 16 teaches the areas in which we are “complete.” These include 1) Doctrine, 2) Reproof, 3) Correction, and 4) Instruction in righteousness. It is completeness in teaching and not in blessings, fruit, wisdom, providence, strengthening or other aspects of God’s bestowals upon his people that we are complete. It is completeness for the purpose of being made “wise for salvation” and not for the purpose of gaining every benefit of being in Christ.
One must qualify exactly what “complete” and “thoroughly furnished” means when applying the proper teaching of 2 Timothy 3:17. Then one may properly qualify what is meant by the teaching that the Scriptures are “all-sufficient for the Christian.”
The all-sufficiency of the word is not surrendered or compromised when one recognizes God’s direct activity in the life of the Christian. This is plainly seen in view of the doctrinal stand of so many faithful preachers. As a firm believer in direct Spirit help, this author does not claim that the Holy Spirit teaches anything directly or supplies any new doctrine. However, all faithful preachers should be able to say the following: “He does enlighten my mind to his truths as I exert myself to learn his teaching (Eph 1:18; Psa 119: 18). He does direct me to keep his teaching (Psalm 119:5). He does bring to my mind a ready recollection of what I have studied as I declare his teaching (Eph 6:19). He does strengthen me when I preach, to do so effectively, in a way above that which I can ask or think (Eph 3:16, 20).” God continues to move his people to accomplish his will in them and through them. This guidance is non-informational in nature and, therefore, it does not violate the sacred principles of 2 Timothy 3:16-17.
The fact that no one among the conservative hermeneutic is teaching a direct, Spirit-led instruction should be sufficient to preserve unity among those who disagree. The “sugar stick” argument is false and the line of reasoning used does not follow from its proof text. Therefore, unity must rightfully be preserved.
Clearly, the conflict is about what is scripturally true and false and one must never disregard the purity of Bible teaching for the sake of false unity. However, the response to the gospel message and obedience to the teaching of Christ is identical for brethren of both views. Therefore, the urgency to expel from fellowship one who disagrees on this subject is inappropriate and sinful. The rigid campaign against those who disagree with the “word only” view in churches of Christ must end. History and Biblical precept reveal the foolishness of the recent tirades against modern heralds of righteousness. Let us not forget our heritage in unity and love for the brethren as we continue to study and grow together in the knowledge of this very important Bible teaching. I close this sequence of thoughts with the noble words of Ephesians 4:1–3:
“I, therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you to walk worthy of the calling with which you were called, with all lowliness and gentleness, with longsuffering, bearing with one another in love, endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”