R. C. Bell: A Lament Over A Theological Shift Among Churches of Christ

R. C. Bell (1877-1964) attended the Nashville Bible School from 1896-1901. James A. Harding took Bell with him as a faculty member at the newly founded Potter Bible College in 1901. Later Bell would teach at several different colleges among Churches of Christ and eventually ended up at Abilene Christian College as a beloved teacher.

In 1959, Bell was asked to give a lecture on “A Lifetime Spent in Christian Education” and he used the opportunity to lament the shift among Churches of Christ that distressed him. In his autobiographical article in the 1951 Firm Foundation he had warned that the church needed a new infusion of the kingdom theology of James A. Harding in order “to save [it] from chaning divine dynamics to human mechanics” (“Honor to Whom Honor is Due,” Firm Foundation 68 [6 November 1951], 6). Now, in his closing years, describes what is lacking among Churches of Christ in 1959.

Below is the whole speech, but I wanted to highlight what I think is the essence of his point with the following selection taken from different parts of the speech:

Especially, [Harding’s] soul-kindling faith in God as a personal Friend matched the wave length of my eager, hungry heart. I caught his contagious enthusiasm for God as a Father who personally identifies himself with each of His own, and for the Holy Spirit as a Comforter who personally resides in and empowers every Christian, slowly enough.  However, [his] conception of Christianity as “a divine-human encounter,” in which immediate spiritual communion between God and man is established and perpetually maintained, gradually, became also my conception of Christianity.

I also knew that in such vital matters as Christians being crucified to the world and the world’s being crucified to Christians (Gal. 6:14), and as Christians really believing with all their hearts that the Holy Spirit was working personally in them to help their infirmity, to pray unutterable prayers for them, and to make all things work together for their good (Rom. 8:26-28) so that they, ever mindful of the Lord’s presence, might be anxious about nothing, praying in everything, thankful in anything, and possess “the peace of God, which passeth all understanding” (Phil. 4:5-7), the primitive church was not being fully restored. In short, I knew that church of which I was a member was not identical in all things with the church of the New Testament.

With more and more lived faith, as the years passed and I myself increased in spiritual stature, I taught, first, that the personal presence and conjoint working of the “Three-personal God” (Father and Son and Spirit) in and through cooperating Christians is at the very heart of Christianity; and second that Christianity, primarily, consists, not in what Christians do for Christ, but in what Christ does for Christians.

When Christians fail to make use of the sanctifying portion of Christianity, as though it were an optional adjunct instead of the built-in essential which it is, they harden into harsh, unloving, unloved, self-sanctifying, unlawful legalists and defeated Pharisees, biting and devouring one another as the Galatians were doing (Gal. 5:13-15). A man’s unchristian self-effort to justify himself no more certainly leads to arrogant self-righteousness than does the same kind of effort to sanctify himself.

His emphasis on a personal (relational) dynamic is at the heart of what Bobby Valentine and I have called the “Tennessee Tradition.” He stresses what God does for us rather than what we do for God. He emphasizes a sanctification of life that is rooted in a divine-human encounter rather than located in a correct form. He hopes for a sanctified Christianity rather than an unloving legalism.

I believe Bell laments the shift among Churches of Christ from the Tennessee themes of his young adulthood to the Texas themes of his old age. Something, he feels, was lost. It was present in his mentor Harding and in the early institutions of the century (Nashville Bible School and Potter Bible College). He fears, however, it might be lost now. or at least marginalized.

Read his speech and feel his pain but also recognize his deep relationship with God and fervent faith in the God who can work redemption in our hearts and in/through our churches.

The following text was scanned and edited by Bobby Valentine, my good friend and co-author. I thank him for sharing it with me and now with you. The text is from Things that Endure: Third Annual Lectureship, Lubbock Christian College (Jackson, TN: Nichols Brothers, 1960).

A LIFETIME SPENT IN CHRISTIAN EDUCATION

 R. C. BELL

 At the age of eighteen years, three years after becoming a Christian, I enrolled as a student in the Nashville Bible School, Nashville, Tennessee, in 1896. That School grew directly into David Lipscomb College, and less directly into a score of other colleges, several of which, though now dead as colleges, yet speak.

 As an example of this deathless life of Christian education, the Shorts, the Scotts, the Merritts, the Reeses, and the Lawyers, most of whom have become two-generation families of missionaries in Africa, received the inspiration for their life-work in Western Bible and Literary College, Odessa, Missouri, and in Cordell Christian College, Cordell, Oklahoma, two schools that ceased to function as schools years ago. Then, think of the good in the world today that has its roots in Thorp Spring Christian College of our own state before her doors were closed.

 Under the teaching and daily influence of such men as David Lipscomb, James A. Harding and J. N. Armstrong, dedicated men serving God as school teachers, I soon began to see that Paul’s characterization of some who would hold a form of godliness, but deny the power thereof described me. Especially, Brother Harding’s soul-kindling faith in God as a personal Friend matched the wave length of my eager, hungry heart. I caught his contagious enthusiasm for God as a Father who personally identifies himself with each of His own, and for the Holy Spirit as a Comforter who personally resides in and empowers every Christian, slowly enough.  However, Brother Harding’s conception of Christianity as “A divine-human encounter,” in which immediate spiritual communion between God and man is established and [p. 105] perpetually maintained, gradually, became also my conception of Christianity. I shall ever be thankful unto the Sovereign Master of the mysterious sea of life for launching my life before the earthly voyage of this Man of God was over.

 This fuller understanding of Christianity changed the axis of my life and turned my world upside down. The revolution in my life with its new scale of values was similar, except that I had nothing to lose, to the revolution that Paul’s becoming a Christian made in his life. After naming seven fleshly things of which Jews were exceedingly proud, Paul declares that he no longer has “Confidence in the flesh,” but considers the things which were once all-important to him to be gainfully exchanged for Christ, for whom he suffers the loss of all things and counts them but refuse (Phil. 3:5-8). That Paul’s and Harding’s interpretation of Christianity, which I have up to my measure labored over a lifetime to impart to students, would have ever been mine, had I not attended the Nashville Bible School, is doubtful.  In any event that is where my revolution occurred.

 That the Gospel which Paul and Harding preached and practiced does so revolutionize lives was demonstrated in a family I knew sixty years ago. When the time came for the third son in that family, whose two older brothers had attended the Nashville Bible School, to go to college, his father, an “elder” in his congregation, said that, since Brother Harding had already ruined two of his boys, he wanted the third boy to go to another college.

 While I was at the Nashville school, the idea of teaching the Bible in such a school, in the Providence of God, as a life work grew steadily upon me. As I did not know, then, so well as I know, that I was better fitted by nature for this type of work than for exclusively preaching, the final decision did not come easily. All the while, I was praying God to guide my thinking, feeling and deciding, and I have never doubted that He did so. Consequently, when Brother Harding started another college at Bowling Green, Kentucky, named Potter Bible College, and asked me to become a member of [p.106] his faculty, I took his invitation as God’s opening a door for me. Religiously and gratefully therefore, I began in this manner a lifetime spent in Christian education in 1901 to continue until my retirement from the faculty of Abilene Christian College in 1951 – an even half century.

 I entered upon this work with the twofold conviction that the movement to restore Primitive Christianity was not fully materializing: first, because Christ was not being exalted to the position of solitary pre-eminence and dominant centrality as life-giving, all-pervading personal Savior that He occupied in His church when it was first inaugurated; and, second, His church, inasmuch as the Flesh and the Spirit “Are contrary the one to the other,” needed less Flesh and more Spirit – that is, less man and more God. May I add candidly and modestly that I began this work in the hope of helping to make the church of the twentieth century more like the church of the first century.

 Of course I knew that in such essential matters as there being but one church, as baptism being for the remission of sins, and as singing being the only music, the primitive church was being restored. But I also knew that in such vital matters as Christians being crucified to the world and the world’s being crucified to Christians (Gal. 6:14), and as Christians’ really believing with all their hearts that the Holy Spirit was working personally in them to help their infirmity, to pray unutterable prayers for them, and to make all things work together for their good (Rom. 8:26-28) so that they, ever mindful of the Lord’s presence, might be anxious about nothing, praying in everything, thankful in anything, and possess “The peace of God, which passeth all understanding” (Phil. 4:5-7), the primitive church was not being fully restored. In short, I knew that church of which I was a member was not identical in all things with the church of the New Testament.

 With more and more live faith, as the years passed and I myself increased in spiritual stature, I taught, first, that the personal presence and conjoint working of the “Three-personal God” (Father and Son and Spirit) in and through cooperat- [p.107] ing Christians is at the very heart of Christianity; and second that Christianity, primarily, consists, not in what Christians do for Christ, but in what Christ does for Christians. What Christ with divine insight and foresight, and with anxious heart, said to correct the misplaced joy of the Seventy when they returned to Him rejoicing that the demons were subject unto them, namely, “Rejoice not that the spirits are subject unto you; but rejoice that your names are written in heaven” (Luke 10:20), continually became deeper and richer in meaning to me. Without this cardinal Christian truth which Christ impressed upon the Seventy, Christianity cannot properly function and fulfill itself. Christians, know that only Christ can write their names in heaven and that they can do nothing apart from Him so as to deserve credit for themselves, choose to let Him live in them to express Himself by doing Christian things in and through their surrendered personalities and bodies (Gal. 2:20).

 Across the years of my teaching in our Christian colleges, thousands of young people of the onrushing, swelling stream of humanity, often from two, sometimes from three, generations of the same family, still in the susceptible time of life, passed through my classes. As a teacher can never tell in which students the seed he scatters will “Spring up and grow, he knoweth not how,” I considered everyone one of these students, without respect of persons, a seedbed entrusted by parents and God to my sowing. A Christian teacher sows the word of God in hope, wherever, he may, both morning and evening, for he knoweth not “Whether this or that, or whether they both shall be alike good.”

Of course some of the seed I sowed fell by the wayside, some on rocky ground, some among thorns, some upon “Good ground, and yielded fruit, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.” These good-ground hearers, a goodly number as pioneers in remote lands among strange peoples, many more, very many more, as evangelists, located preachers, elders, deacons, teachers of classes, business men, professional men, and all the rest, certainly including the self-effacing, godly women [p. 108] – unmarried, wives, mothers—are all, according to their respective personalities, talents, circumstances, and fidelity, wells of living “Water springing up unto eternal life.” Probably, this host of Christian men and women now scattered over the face of the earth, during our close associations as students and teacher, helped me more than I helped them. With what ecstasy, we shall at last bring in our ever increasing harvest of souls to become a part of the “Great multitude, which no man can number, out of every nation and of all tribes, peoples and tongues!”

 If students seemed but little interested sometimes in what I was trying to teach them, and apparently were not getting much into the heart of things, I was encouraged and strengthened to continue the teaching, kindly, patiently, hopefully, when I recalled that I subconsciously received good seed into my soul in Nashville that brought forth Christian fruit in future years. Yea, that seed is even now “Living and active … and quick to discern the thoughts and intents of the heart.” Many times have I with joy seen this experience of mine repeated in my students, a fact to which they freely testify.

 For just about half of the time I have spent in our colleges, I received no regular salary. Throughout the first eighteen years, and during some years since, my income was meager—even insufficient to meet the necessary expenses of my family. But this income, supplemented by what I received for preaching appointments on Sundays and evangelistic meetings during summer vacations, was ever a competency. We could have scarcely known this competency, however, had not my wife been a frugal, self-sacrificing homemaker and help meet in all things. She and I were happy classmates under Brother Harding his last year at Nashville, and, knowing the economic situation involved, planned our lifework together that year. Never has a husband and father had more unselfish help and encouragement from his wife and children to give himself wholly to his work than I have had. Mrs. Bell and I together share the esteem of former students and other friends, and together we hope to share Christ’s reward through all eternity.

 [p.109] As the subject the committee assigned me, “A Lifetime Spent in Christian Education,” does not exclude the years of my retirement, I wish to say, a few words about this period.  God, I believe, closed my classroom door eight years ago, and as He is not to be limited to miracles in religion any more than He is in nature, opened, superhumanly but without miracle, another door to me. I beg you, brethren, to feel brotherly toward me when I tell you that I have wondered whether there is not another analogy between God’s giving retirement to Paul in prison that he might write his elevated “Prison Epistles” and His giving me retirement that I might try to teach these same four Epistles through the Press.  Men who know God expect Him to do such things. Asked Mordecai of Esther, who had become queen of Persia by “good luck” as men say, in a national crises when only her perilous, dauntless deed could save the Jews from destruction, “Who knoweth whether thou art not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” (Est. 4:14).

When the late, beloved G.H.P. Showalter, Editor of the Firm Foundation, whom I had written that I had time and disposition to write some for his paper, kindly encouraged my writing, I began “Studies” in some of the Books of the New Testament, which I had been teaching for many years in college. After Brother Lemmons became Editor of the magazine, he graciously continued to publish my “Studies,” and continues to do so even until now. These “Studies,” since being printed in the Firm Foundation as separate articles, have been collected and published by the Firm Foundation Publishing House as booklets, or in the case of Romans as a book. I am truly grateful to these two good men for enabling me to continue my lifetime business of teaching God’s word. With this writing, two weekly Bible classes which I have continued to teach in the College Church, and other duties, I have been busy and happy.

 “Let one more attest

I have lived, seen God’s hand through a lifetime,

And all was for best.”

 Now, may a veteran make some suggestions for Christians [p. 110] in general by calling attention to some constitutionally Christian truths. When God purposed and wrought to redeem the sin-unk world, He was too wise and too good an Economist to include anything the vast Enterprise did not need. His work is never either deficient or redundant. It takes all of Christianity as God made it, therefore to justify, to sanctify, to spiritualize and to glorify Satanically deluded and deflowered humanity. As it takes the blood of God’s Son to justify men by washing away their sins, even so it takes the power of God’s Spirit to continue the redemptive work by sanctifying those who have been justified so that they may not continue to sin. To break the stranglehold of sin from Adam onward (Rom. 7:17-24), to lead upward out of the power and practice of sin unto the lofty “Sanctification of the Spirit” (2 Thes. 2:13), “Without which no man shall see the Lord” (Heb 2:14) as far transcends the utmost human reach as does to justify alien sinners by remitting the guilt and the penalty of their sins to begin with. Sanctification and holiness are by grace in the same way that justification and pardon are by grace. It matters not where men start in to save themselves by law, they “Make void the grace of God.” Indeed, Christianity all the way, from its beginning on earth unto heaven is all by grace. To add the principle of law with its inevitable meritorious works anywhere along the way implies that, inasmuch as men can save themselves, “Christ died for nought” (Gal. 2:21).

 When Christians fail to make use of the sanctifying portion of Christianity, as though it were an optional adjunct instead of the built-in essential which it is, they harden into harsh, unloving, unloved, self-sanctifying, unlawful legalists and defeated Pharisees, biting and devouring one another as the Galatians were doing (Gal. 5:13-15). A man’s unchristian self-effort to justify himself no more certainly leads to arrogant self-righteousness than does the same kind of effort to sanctify himself.

 But when Christians repent deeply enough to lose all “Confidence in the flesh,” to renounce all unchristian self- [p. 111] help, and in profound contrition to make use of all of Christianity, they grow into loving, compassionate, lawful, gracious, spiritual, Christian men and women. Because “Love is the fulfilling of the law” (Rom. 13:10), Christianity is God’s perfect way of making mature, lawful men. Behold, God as amazingly proficient Philosopher, Metaphysician, Psychologist and Psychiatrist!

 Does not Christ teach in His story of the “Good Samaritan” that zealots of law have no “compassion”? Can men without compassion have the mind of Christ, or of Paul? The best demonstration of how these respective religions of Law and of Grace work out in life is the hard, touch, cruel, cold-blooded Saul under law becoming the compassionate, gracious, gentle, warmhearted Paul under grace—the last bit of legal ice melted into tears, and as emotionally saturated and tender as a  good woman.

 Finally, my brethren, to give disproportionate importance to what we are doing for Christ as compared to what He is doing for us, thereby upsetting the inherent relationship between the divine and the human elements of Christianity, is, I fear, a more common and deadly perversion of the Gospel than we realize. There was the perversion that Christ corrected in the Seventy, and that Paul, knowing that in effect it made Christianity just another legal religion in which Christians try to earn merit and security before God by directly obeying law in their own natural strength, wrote the book of Galatians, with its stern warning against falling “Away from grace” (Gal. 5:4) to crush. This basic distortion of God’s Christianity, with its powerful, bewitching appeal to human pride and self-sufficiency, was departure enough from the Christian religion of grace and life toward the obsolete Mosaic religion of law and death to alarm Paul to his depths. And this enticing heresy, in modern dress, can just as subtly and effectually corrupt the only Christ-centered religion on earth today, with the power to forgiven sins and make men holy, into another of the countless, man-centered religions too “weak and beggarly” to take away sins, as it effected this corruption in its ancient [p. 112] Galatian dress. Here lurks an exceedingly insidious danger for any Christian, anywhere, anytime.

 Not until we cease trying to sanctify ourselves by misguided self-help, can we ever attain unto the “Sanctification of the Spirit.” Paul says that he had to die to law as a means of salvation before God could save him by grace (Gal. 2:19). Sanctification by legally meritorious works and moral character, and sanctification by Gospel grace and forgiveness are mutually exclusive—they simply will not mix. We must make our choice between the two, but the choice of either annuls the other. “But if it is by grace, it is no more of works: otherwise it is no more of grace” (Rom. 11:6). God made Christianity to work in this way, and it will not work in any other way. 

 Only God knows how much of the fleshliness, lukewarmness [sic], and lack of “Righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 14:17), with their accompanying discouragement, fear of missing heaven at last, backsliding and despair among us today comes from our vain striving to do that which God never intended we should attempt to do in our own sin-corroded, disabled nature. Our very nature is against us; we must be born again of the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his” (Rom. 8:8,9).  When we, believing that “The things which are impossible with men are possible with God,” cooperate with God by freely using His freely given superhuman love, wisdom, and power, we shall be contributing to the restoration of Primitive Christianity.”



6 Responses to “R. C. Bell: A Lament Over A Theological Shift Among Churches of Christ”

  1. Profile photo of K Rex Butts  K. Rex Butts Says:

    “…from divine dynamics to human mechanics.” Wow…that was very prophetic.

  2.   Rusty Says:

    I really enjoy your thoughts on the restoration movement. It is amazing to see what people were saying and teaching years ago that have been forgotten today.

  3.   rich constant Says:

    ? How does God bring order from chaos.
    acts…
    16:7 When they came to Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them to do this, 16:8 so

    the ramifications of this one verse(along with the inherent dynamic) has bothered me for years.
    i really don’t have a problem much with this now.
    understanding as I do that god is the creator, and works inside this creation so as not disturbing the dinamic of Heb 11:1 [below]
    one day through the “narrative”(John Mark) we will all come to love and trust god, his son,and the SPIRIT WORKING MIGHTILY IN US
    as R.C.Bell…

    “faith working through love”
    “for all that call on his name”
    even through our honest endeavors to not make “love”
    a leagle term and form of exclusivity.
    so allowing the body to work as he(CHRIST) would have the body work.
    “the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace”

    11:1 Now faith is being sure of what we hope for, being convinced of what we do not see…
    …11:40 For God had provided something better for us, so that they would be made perfect together with us.

  4.   Gardner Says:

    Thanks for uncovering (with the help of Bobby V.) and republishing such jewels.

  5. Profile photo of Bobby Valentine  Bobby Valentine Says:

    Great speech … especially given the context.

  6. Profile photo of Keith Brown  agapepoint Says:

    Thank you for bringing to our remembrance the story of where we have been, but where we should be heading.

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