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“Phantom Truth”: Does It Exist?

Category Articles
Date July 19, 2004

In the “Protestant Truth” magazine for July-August 2004 ( Peter Kinley of East Anglia writes a report of his visit to the FIEC Family Conference in Pwllheli a couple of months ago. After reporting the quiet time they had had at the Protestant Truth Society exhibition he wrote about the meetings as follows:

I only attended three meetings this year; the morning sessions before the exhibitions opened. Rev. Brian Edwards preached at these meetings from the Saviour’s words in Matthew 16, "You are Peter, and on this
rock I will build my church." (Tuesday). On Wednesday his theme was, "And the gates of hell shall not prevail against it." On the final day, he spoke about the keys of the kingdom.

This ministry was excellent, as one would expect from Mr. Edwards, and it would be worth getting the tapes if you weren’t able to be there. Having said that, I admit that my heart sank towards the conclusion of the Wednesday sermon when the preacher took up the theme of unity within the local church. He put forward a theory of three levels of truth, the first being "essential truth", by which he meant such things as are essential for salvation. Then there was "significant truth" which covers things like church government and the mode of baptism. His final category was "phantom truth" which was undefined, but we were left to assume it included things like styles of worship, hymnody, and perhaps Bible versions.

It seems to me that "phantom truth" is a contradiction in terms. If something is a phantom, it is unreal, not true. However, I think this was probably Mr. Edwards’ point. In his view, people were separating from churches, not over issues of real truth, but over what he described as cultural issues or matters of personal preference; i.e. "phantom truth".
The overall impression I gained was that if I am not happy in my church about things that come into the category of "phantom truth", I should sit down and keep quiet. I was made to feel guilty about disapproving of some aspects of church life. It seems to me that this approach to dissent has the potential to be pastorally disastrous. If church members have problems, even if their complaints are unjustified, they need to be dealt with, not swept under the carpet. Apart from anything else, the result is not unity anyway. A church where people keep quiet about their dissatisfaction may be quiet, but it doesn’t have unity; the divisions are still there, but hidden beneath the surface.

Another aspect to this is the apparent assumption that just because a practice does not threaten the major doctrines of salvation it can be safely relegated to the realm of "phantom truth" – a matter of little or no consequence. For example, if a Christian believes that God is not honoured by the way worship is conducted in his church, that is not a matter of small consequence.

I respect Mr. Edwards as a preacher and writer. He towers above me and I wonder if I have completely misrepresented him. I hope not, and have tried to make an honest assessment. I readily concede that divisiveness in the contemporary church is a tragedy, but I really do question the appropriateness of a response that seeks to quell dissent by the application of moral pressure on people to “grin and bear it" for the sake of "unity". Would it not be better for us to face our differences honestly, and then work out the consequences in practice? I venture to suggest that two churches co-operating with each other where they can without compromising their own convictions would have the potential to contribute more to the work of the kingdom than one church that is harbouring latent dissent.

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