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Sounding out soundness

Though I’m sure I heard the word used this way before this time, the first time I remember really taking note of the word “sound” as a term meaning something other than noise was in preaching school. I know the term was properly defined and explained by my teachers, so I don’t fault them for the fact that I think I took the term onboard without really understanding what it meant. The word at that time seemed to me to refer basically only to two things: preachers and congregations. Further, it focused on describing them in basically one area—their faithfulness in teaching. To be sound in my earliest understanding of the term was to teach faithfully, and to extend fellowship only to those who also taught faithfully. My idea at the time was not incorrect, but it was incomplete. Over time, my concept of “soundness” has grown.

I can point to two definitive moments where my understanding of soundness expanded. The first indirectly involved a brotherhood controversy some years ago. I’ll not go into details on the controversy other than to say that it resulted in a small cluster of preachers effectively marking and withdrawing from several brotherhood works, including the preaching school I attended. I had nothing to do with the controversy at all. However, I sometimes visited a congregation where one of the preachers in the cluster I mentioned attended. Prior to the problems, I had always been asked to speak when I visited. However, when I visited after the controversy, I was not only not asked to speak (to the surprise of the members), but I was treated in a noticeably “cold” manner by the two preachers there who had formerly been quite friendly to me. No questions were asked about where I stood and nothing was said, but it felt as though in their eyes I had become “unsound.” This taught me the danger of prejudice and the need to be fair when examining the soundness of others. Jesus has called us to be fruit inspectors, exercising a righteous judgment which involves a deeper level of examination than simply considering the way things appear (Matthew 7:14-20; John 7:24)

The second moment was when I was travelling in the western United States. In my first local work, our congregation received an unsolicited newsletter from a congregation out west. It had all the hallmarks of soundness as I understood it at the time—it defended the concept of restoration, discussed the dangers of false teaching, and spoke faithfully on any subject it covered. I determined while visiting out west to stop at this congregation based on what I had seen in the newsletter, even though I didn’t know them and they didn’t know me. I have to say, it was one of the best visits that I have ever had! I was greeted warmly by the brethren in the morning and was taken out to lunch after services. After getting to know me, they asked me to preach that evening for their PM service. I was provided dinner that evening and even given a place to stay for the night with one of the families there.

The following Wednesday night, I visited another congregation in a neighboring state. I was not greeted warmly—in fact, I was approached by no one before Bible class. I said hello to a few and was treated to a few gruff “hello’s” in response. After Bible class, I initiated a conversation with the preacher who possibly would have never said anything to me had I not bothered. I told him that I was visiting some of the sights out west, and in describing my travels I mentioned the church I had visited the Sunday before. At that point, to put it biblically, his countenance fell. “You know about the preacher there, right?” the man said in a very serious tone. I said no, and I was told that the preacher there had been divorced and was now living in an unscriptural marriage. I was shocked, and said, “You must have him confused with another person.” The preacher denied that, and I told him I would look into it.

As we parted ways, he said, “Where are you staying tonight?” I told him I was staying in the backseat of my car (something I did on several occasions as a bachelor). He said, “Well, I’ve done that plenty of times!” He shook my hand, but I can still remember how he shoved my hand away as the handshake ended. I can’t remember anyone else talking to me. On the whole, I can’t say that I have had a more cold or unfriendly response as a visitor to a congregation.

I did in fact contact the preacher regarding his marriage situation and found out that the rumors were true. This of course brought my understanding of “soundness” to a crossroad. On the one hand, the congregation that had practiced Biblical hospitality and brotherly love obviously believed and perhaps taught falsely on Matthew 19:9 (the preacher with the marriage issue said the congregation knew his situation and had accepted him). On the other hand, the congregation that believed the truth on Matthew 19:9 had not practiced hospitality nor shown brotherly love. Actually, they had also not shown evangelistic zeal—no one even bothered to ask if I, a visitor, was a Christian. In my old understanding, the first congregation would have been unsound and the second congregation would have been sound. Could that really be right?

In their own way, both congregations helped me see something more about soundness. The first congregation helped me to see that soundness has to be total in order for it true. Via their newsletter, they taught the truth on so many issues. Further, I have never experienced better hospitality from brethren. However, they fell short when it came to their teaching and practice concerning marriage. The second congregation though was not truly sound either. Hospitality and brotherly love are as much a part of the doctrine of Christ as Matthew 19:9 is. They taught me that soundness of practice is just as important of soundness of teaching.

The simple definition of “sound” is healthy. I’m sure I was given that definition in preaching school, but it just didn’t sink in until I’d had a few experiences. Yes, the word sound is often used to describe doctrine, a word which means teaching. It therefore demands that we teach the truth and stand against those who don’t but of course doesn’t demand that we make those stands prejudicially. However, the word sound means more; it is used to describe our stance in the faith (Titus 1:13; 2:2), our mind (2 Timothy 1:7), and our speech (Titus 2:8). Sound doctrine (teaching) incorporates our behavior (1 Timothy 1:9-11). Not surprisingly, the two words translated as “sound” in KJV in this sense are also translated as “whole”—complete, without fault, defect, or illness.

May we strive to cultivate a Christianity that is sound holistically—healthy in teaching, in fellowship, in belief, and in practice—and to use the term properly.

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