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The Banowsky Speech at ACU

By Alan Highers

religion, articles, christianity

Read the following slowly, carefully and taste every word ­ it is most important ­ editor.

On February 21, 1996, William S. Banowsky, former president of Pepperdine University, spoke on the lectureship at ACU on the topic, "The Christ­Centered Church." He divided his topic into three parts: the mystery of Christ, the universality of Christ, and the indwelling of Christ. Banowsky promised that he would quote from only two sources: the Bible and former speakers on the Abilene lectures. Presumably he quoted from the Bible as his authority, and he quoted from former speakers at Abilene to prove that they supported his contentions. Unfortunately, he misrepresented both.

The main thrust of Banowsky's speech was advocacy of fellowship with denominationalism. He indicated that he had outgrown the idea of "an identifiably exclusive church" for a "universally inclusive church." He decried the attitude that we have "all truth in perfectly restoring Christ's church" and stated that we should confess "our self­righteousness to our neighbors." He charged that we have deified the letter of the Bible and "placed paper and ink between us and God." He contended that we should accept "other believers" and "other sheep" who are being enlightened by Christ. He embraced subjectivity, stating that faith is more "intuition and feeling" than "logic and reason." He magnified his "experience" and argued that he knew Christ lives because he lives "within my heart."

In the course of his presentation, Banowsky quoted numerous prior speakers at Abilene, including G. C. Brewer, C. M. Stubblefield, and Jesse P. Sewell. The clear import of his affirmation was that he was saying the same thing that these earlier brethren proclaimed. Applause from the audience rang out at various intervals during the speech. It is more than astonishing to suppose that brethren who knew Brewer, Sewell, and others could believe that they taught the same thing that Banowsky was advocating. In fact, the very thought that he could quote these brethren in support of fellowship and acceptance of denominationalism is preposterous on its face.

Background Information

I first heard G. C. Brewer when I was about 16 years of age. He had a deep, resonant voice, a dignified appearance, a ready knowledge of the scriptures, and was, all in all, the most powerful preacher I ever had heard. On one occasion I was invited to ride with him from Searcy to Morrilton, Arkansas, where he was to preach one evening. He spoke for an hour and 20 minutes on the subject, "Reformation and Restoration." I sat mesmerized on the front row throughout the entire presentation. He spoke without notes and had complete command of his subject. His son­in­law, Perry Mason, was my high school principal. I have a copy of Brewer's autobiography, Forty Years on the Firing Line, which was personally autographed by brother Brewer, his wife, daughter, and son­in­law. When I learned of G.C. Brewer's last illness, I went to his hospital bed at Searcy. I recall sitting at his bedside as he tightly gripped me by the hand. I never saw brother Brewer again; he died a few days later on June 9, 1956. On August 2, 1956, I went to the Brewer home at 1925 Jackson Avenue in Memphis to visit sister Brewer. Knowing of my sincere admiration for him, she invited me to go upstairs to his study and to select any book of my choosing from his library. After spending a long reflective period in the study of this great man, respectfully sitting in his chair, placing my feet gently under his desk, opening and perusing his books, I finally ventured downstairs and told sister Brewer that I simply could not find one book, but I had found two and she could choose which one I might have. In a warm spirit of generosity toward a young preacher not yet twenty, she insisted, "You shall have both of them." Now, some forty years later, these books are still treasured as part of my collection.

Jesse P. Sewell, one-time president at Abilene, is credited with being the preserver of the school and "chief architect" of the lectures. Born at McMinnville, Tenn., Sewell studied at Nashville Bible School under such men as David Lipscomb and James Harding. In the 1950s he taught Bible at Harding and lived in an apartment on campus-good fortune for me since I attended my last two years of high school at Harding. Brother Sewell was approximately eighty years of age at the time, but I had the opportunity to hear him speak. He was a gentle man, wise, deliberate in speech, and from one of the most prominent families in restoration history. Although I was only a high school student, I asked for an appointment to visit brother Sewell at his apartment. To this day, I remember his graciousness, his knowledge, and his profound grasp of restoration history and principles.

May I say, therefore, that I have a special interest in knowing that the teaching of these men, and others like them, is not perverted, corrupted, or misappropriated to promote positions which they never held, never advocated, and never believed.

Wresting the Word of the Pioneers

1. Banowsky argues for a form of spiritual agnosticism. "Nothing is more compelling," he says, Than the honest humility that often admits, 'I just don't know.'" In this context, he quotes from Jesse P. Sewell in the 1920 lectures:

Ours is a plea for progress. The importance of our plea does not consist in the particular truth we now practice, but rather in our attitude toward all truth. If we ever allow ourselves to become satisfied, our usefulness will be ended. Our minds must ever be kept open.

Notice that brother Sewell does not reject the "particular truth we now practice," but he says we must ever be open "toward all truth in Christ." (For some reason, brother Banowsky omitted the expression "in Christ," but it appears in the original speech by Sewell). Further, in summarizing the plea of churches of Christ, Sewell went on to say:

It is a plea for Christian union, that is, for such union with Christ and such conformity to his teaching as will bring all believers into fellowship and cooperation. It is not a plea for the union of denominations or the establishment of an ecclesiastical trust or combine.

In the same speech, brother Sewell spoke of "the sin of denominational division." He said: "Our plea is a plea for the restoration of the original doctrine, faith, spirit and practice of the New Testament church." Brother Sewell apparently believed in an identifiably exclusive church. He made it clear "we are not a denomination." "Christian liberty," he declared, "is not license to do as one pleases or to follow the authority of men."

2. Referring to the 1926 lectureship, Banowsky says that C. M. Stubblefield supported Sewell's openness by citing the slogan: "We claim to be Christians only, but we do not claim to be the only Christians. " This expression, used by several of the pioneer preachers, is wrested from its context. By saying we are not the "only Christians," these pioneers were not advocating recognition of denominationalism. Rather, they were arguing the very thing Banowsky and others deny; namely, that any Christians in denominations should get out of them and be "Christians only." Stubblefield said:

While we believe that many identified with the denominations have become Christians, they have taken on much that is neither Christianity nor anything akin to it.... We strive to induce such people to cease being more than Christians, and to be Christians only.

Stubblefield went further, saying: "A chief item in our plea, then is for a complete destruction of denominationalism from the earth." Brother Banowsky does not mention this fact in his claim for "openness." Yet he knew that both Sewell and Stubblefield contended against denominationalism because he wrote a book in 1965 about the history of the Abilene lectures in which he conceded that Stubble­ field stated, "The arms of fellowship could not be openly extended to denominational believers" (The Mirror of a Movement, p. 209). One wonders why he did not share this information in his Abilene speech in 1996.

3. In his discussion of "how we should treat other believers," Banowsky quotes from Ernest Beam in the 1935 lectures to this effect: "Whether we like it or not, whoever accepts Christ as Lord and gives evidence he is anxious to obey him is your brother in Christ." Unfortunately for brother Banowsky's point, however, Beam was not discussing treatment of "other believers." He was talking about differences among those who are members of churches of Christ (as he makes plain in the very first sentence of the preceding paragraph). Furthermore, in the same speech, brother Beam stated:

Certain it is the same Paul who forbade them to be Pauline­Christians and Appollosian­Christians and Cephasite­Christians would likewise forbid that there be Baptist­Christians, Methodist­Christians, and Presbyterian­Christians.

But that is the very thing Banowsky was defending in his speech at ACU. Beam certainly did not support it. He further said: "Sin and division is frightfully hurtful. It is terrible. It is infidel made and infidel making." Why did brother Banowsky not share these insights with his audience in 1996?

4. Brother Banowsky is not always careful in quoting the pioneers. Sometimes he paraphrases, yet attributes his paraphrase to the original source! For example, in his Abilene speech, he quotes M. C. Kurfees as follows:

We use the name [church of Christ] nowadays to mean only those Christians who believe and worship exactly as we do. We should not exclude other children of God who may make some mistakes in worshipping or working.

Was Kurfees speaking about denominations? One certainly might think so, given Banowsky's usage of his words. But here is what Kurfees actually said in 1920:

In the present divided state of the church and under the influence of parlance growing out of a denominational environment, it is difficult to avoid being sectarian or denominational in our speech; and hence there is a growing tendency today to sectarianize even the term 'church of Christ.' This is invariably the case when it is used, as it frequently is nowadays, to mean merely those people of God who do not work through missionary societies and do not use instrumental music in the worship, and to exclude other children of God who make the mistake of working and worshiping in the said ways.

What have we here? Kurfees was speaking of members of the church who had gone into error. It is quite revealing to read what Banowsky said Kurfees said, then to read what Kurfees actually said.

Banowsky next referred to E. W. McMillan, saying, he "constantly urged us not to exclude others." He quoted from a 1934 speech in which brother McMillan said, according to Banowsky: "Let us know that we, too, are susceptible to all of the errors religious thinkers have ever made." McMillan actually said, "Let us know that we are susceptible to all the errors religious thinkers have made from the death of John the apostle to the close of the Reformation period." Of course, he is right; we are not infallible, and therefore can fall into the same errors that others have taught unless we heed the scriptures. But where does this urge us "not to exclude others"? In the same speech, brother McMillan said, "Doctrinally, baptism. is a burial in water, without which no responsible alien has promise of pardon." Was this exclusive of those who were not buried in water? McMillan also warned of the "ultra­liberal extreme" which "extends its arms beyond the limits of truth and sacrifices eternal principles." Could he have described more accurately what Banowsky and others are attempting to promote within the church?

5. Of G. C. Brewer, Banowsky speaks in the highest terms. He was "the quintessential preacher's preacher" who could "quote virtually the entire New Testament from memory." He quotes several statements from Brewer in which he condemned a sectarian spirit within the church. It was a lifelong pursuit of brother Brewer to purge denominational concepts and sectarian attitudes from the thinking of members of the church. But let no one suppose that this weakened his resolve or diluted his devotion to the idea of undenominational Christianity. Brewer was no compromiser. He was committed to the restoration plea. Regarding those in the church who introduced missionary societies and instrumental music, Brewer stated in his 1934 Abilene lecture:

We unhesitatingly charge that our brethren who call themselves Progressives have surrendered our plea, departed from our motto and brought reproach upon the cause of our Master. They have introduced things into the worship for which there is no Scriptural sanction and have formed organizations to usurp the functions of the church.

He said to "use the instrument is a clear surrender of our plea; a departure; a digression." He charged that "the advocates of the instrument have resorted to every possible artifice and exhausted the whole catalogue of fallacies in an effort to justify their course." After discussing the conventions, creeds, and human authorities of digression and denominationalism, Brewer concluded by saying that "as much as we deplore division we are forced to work apart from all who will not abide within the doctrine of Christ." Now, that was Brewer!

It comes as a surprise, therefore, at the end of Banowsky's Abilene speech, to hear him say: "I come tonight, in the spirit of G. C. Brewer, to affirm the Church of Christ. " I knew G. C. Brewer; and, brother Banowsky, I can tell you, you are no G. C. Brewer.

Summary and Conclusion

It is disappointing to see the words of the pioneer preachers wrested from their context, misappropriated by modern thinkers, and twisted to teach things they never taught and never believed. That such could be accomplished from the platform at ACU is doubly disappointing.

The men quoted by Banowsky at Abilene did not teach what he taught from the lectureship podium. Some of them (e.g., Ernest Beam and E. W. McMillan) may have relaxed their convictions in later years, but even their speeches at Abilene do not support the Banowsky agenda. Far from teaching denominational recognition and fellowship, the pioneer preachers called people to come out of denominationalism and to be Christians only. They spoke of the sin of denominational division and sectarian names. No amount of gloss can make them say otherwise.

(Editor's comment: We owe a debt of gratitude to brother Highers for his research and for his brilliant essay, which will set the record straight. The Banowsky misrepresentations in the Abilene Christian University lecture hall needed to be examined and corrected, and there is no more capable scholar to do this than the honorable Alan Highers. We take our hats off to him. It is, on the other hand, alarming that a great university would allow the Banowsky speech to be applauded and uncorrected. William E. Young must repudiate both the Banowsky and Henderson speeches at the 1996 ACU lectureship, or be hung with endorsing them-Dobbs.)

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Published November 1996