Vol. 1 - No. 4

April, 1982

The Bonner-Johnson Debate

by Jesse Jenkins

 On the nights of February 8, 9, 11, and 12, David Bonner and Burney Johnson met in debate in the meeting house where Johnson preaches, ,just outside of Joplin, Mo. The first two nights the subject of discussion was the number of drinking vessels to be used in the Lord's Sup per. Bible classes and women teachers were the subjects the last two nights. The organization of the church entered the discussion the last two nights.

Bonner's speeches and material were well prepared and presented. Johnson did much work in preparing for the discussion. He had all of his speeches written out before the debate began, including the negative speeches. Of his allotted four hours of speaking time, he used all but about fifteen minutes simply reading what he had written. This made the debate difficult for Bonner. It is difficult to debate a man when he will pay absolutely no attention to what one says. I am confident that Johnson would send anyone a copy of his speeches. If you wish to read them, you can write him. His address is Route 1, Box 243, Diamond, Mo. 64840. His peculiar views on the organization of the church would make the reading worthwhile.

The Drinking Vessel Question

Johnson had the first affirmative on the drinking vessel question. His position is about like others who think only one vessel can be used, except he believes that after the "cup is blessed" it does not matter how the people take it. He said each can have his own straw or his own cup. in which he pours the fruit of the vine and then drink.

He argued that the "cup" is "the drinking vessel containing the fruit of the vine." He showed that Thayer defined "Poterion" as a drinking vessel, or by metonymy that which is in the vessel. Bonner agreed with Thayer's definition, but challenged Johnson to find where Thayer ever said that "Poterion" was "the drinking vessel containing the fruit of the vine." You see, Thayer recognized that the word could be used literally or figuratively. But Johnson was trying to make it both literal and figurative at the same time.

Bonner showed that every time the word is used in reference to the Supper, it is used figuratively, with emphasis upon the fruit of the vine, emblematical of Christ's blood.

Johnson argued that for a liquid to be called "a cup" it had to either be in a cup or just recently poured from a cup. Bonner denied this and showed that, metonymy is a figure of speech where one thing is named, but another thing closely associated with it is meant. He pointed out that when Noah saved his house, no literal house was present or meant. By association the family was meant. He also showed that a drink element can be called a cup though not in a cup, and having never been in a cup. For example, one may bring a pot of coffee in and say: "Would anyone like a cup?" At that point the coffee was not in a cup and had never been in a cup! Yet, it could, by metonymy, be called a cup and everyone would understand because of its close association with a cup.

Johnson argued that where metonymy is used relative to a drink element (or any liquid) the figure required that a literal container be present. Bonner showed that the reason some containment must be present where a liquid is involved is not because the figure of metonymy requires it, but because a liquid has to have some containment.

The Class Question

Bonner had the first affirmative on the classes. His basic argument was that the local church can arrange for teaching both IN the assembly and OUT of the assembly. He showed that Johnson agreed, in that he believes the local church can arrange and pay for a radio program. Bonner then showed that the class teaching of the proposition was simply the local church at work arranging for teaching OUTSIDE of the assembly. Needless to say, Johnson did not answer this argument, for it cannot be answered. Men more capable than Johnson have faced that argument and failed. As long as one recognizes that the local church can arrange for teaching OUTSIDE the assembly, he cannot disprove the classes of the proposition unless he can find where they are statedly forbidden or violates some other passage. And that no man can do.

The Women Teacher Question

Bonner's basic argument to prove that women can teach some of the classes was: "Since the church may have women servants, (Romans 16:1), it may use them in works which are right for both a woman and a church to do.," To illustrate, he showed that (1) Women may relieve widows. (1 Timothy 5:4,16) (2) The church may relieve widows. (1 Tim. (3) Thus, the church may use women in such works. He then made his point on the question at hand. (1) Women may teach women. (Titus 2:3-4) (2) The church may teach women. (1 Corinthians 14) (3) Thus, the church may use women in such works. He pointed out that it is never right for a woman to have dominion over a man; therefore, the church could not use a woman to teach a class of men. And that it is never right for the church to engage in entertainment; therefore, a church could not use a woman to entertain. But if a work is right for both a church and a woman, a church can use the woman in that work.

Johnson's peculiar view on the organization of the church separates him from others who pretty well agree with him on the propositions that were debated. He thinks elders can be over several churches in a locality. He even thinks that one elder can be over a single church, or over several churches in an area. But he thinks that an elder must be present to lead the assembly before a church can assemble. He argued that only elders can evangelize. He argued that evangelizing is preaching to sinners. Yet, Burney and his father, Otis Johnson, who claim to be elders, do virtually all their teaching to the local church. If they are right on this point, then there is virtually no evangelizing being done today.

The debate was not very well attended. Attendance ranged from 25 to 40. Only two preachers who agreed with Johnson's propositions came; Orville Smith and Clovis Cook. Smith came only two nights even though he lives there. Several preachers who agree with Bonner's propositions attended. Paul Earnhart, who preaches in Joplin, attended each night, and was much encouragement to us. Merrle Watson, Norman Fultz, Lindy McDaniel, and Ron Griffin, all from the Kansas City area attended one or more nights.

The church where the Johnsons preach is made up almost, if not exclusively of the Johnson clan. And even some of the Johnsons cannot accept their peculiar views. At one time, Otis Johnson was the only elder in that congregation. Now, he and his son, Burney, are elders. But Otis' wife will not attend there. She attends another congregation close by and Burney has one brother who attends where Paul Earnhart preaches.

While I definitely believe debates do good, it is my judgment that this one was mostly an exercise in futility. If Bonner had known the circumstances before the debate was arranged, I doubt that he would have used his time this way.