BIBLICAL PRINCIPLES OF UNITY AND FELLOWSHIP
by: Joe R. Price
Basic Qualifications for Agreeing to Disagree
Brethren who advocate the tolerance of doctrinal
diversity know there are many passages in the NT which prohibit fellowship with sin and
false teachers. As they try to uphold unity in spite of doctrinal diversity, they are
constructing a scaffolding of misapplied scriptures which deceive the hearts of the
simple (Rom. 16:18). For instance, one brother wrote to me saying,
Now, how do we apply this is in light of the many passages you appealed to that clearly show we are not to fellowship sin and false teachers? Again, we use the principles outlined in the scriptures, coupled with the necessary humility, forbearance and grace. I believe that fellowship generally boils down to a few basic qualifications.
Please remember, we have no argument with true humility, forbearance and grace. However, one must remember that 2 John 9-11 still stands: Whoever transgresses and does not abide in the doctrine of Christ does not have God. He who abides in the doctrine of Christ has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this doctrine do not receive him into your house nor greet him: for he who greets him shares in his evil deeds.
In order to evade the force of this passage, one must either (1) redefine sin and error, (2) redefine the doctrine of Christ in 2 John 9-10, or (3) redefine whoever (that is, to whom the passage applies). The few basic qualifications of fellowship being offered up to us attempt to redefine all three.
PROPOSED QUALIFICATION #1:
IS IT A COLLECTIVE OR AN INDIVIDUAL MATTER?
Because we do not want to misrepresent anyone, I will
let an advocate of unity in doctrinal diversity set forth his case in his own words:
The first is whether or not it is a collective or individual matter. Romans 14 does not
merely refer to things that are expediencies. The practical conclusion of the book of
Romans is not that we can disagree on the color of the carpet!
Romans 14 is not intended to provide a basis for agreeing to disagree over matters revealed to us in the gospel. To make such an application of Romans 14 contradicts Jude 3 and 2 John 9-11. Instead, the practical conclusion of Romans 14 is to not bind personal scruples (doubts of conscience) upon another brother, thereby disrupting peace and unity. God has received both of the people in Romans 14, along with their specific scruple of conscience (14:3-4, 14, 18, 20, 22). Therefore, brethren who hold opposing scruples of conscience in these received activities must also receive one another (14:1).
If Romans 14 allows us to agree to disagree over matters of the revealed faith, then the question arises, does God receive the adulterer (14:3)? Does the adulterer stand (is he established and secure) in Gods presence (14:4)? Is adultery clean (14:14)? Can one serve Christ while in adultery (14:18)? Is adultery the pursuit of peace (14:19)? Is adultery pure (14:20)? Can one commit adultery with a clean conscience and be approved before God (14:22)? Of course, the answer to all of these questions is no. But, this is the very issue as brethren go to Romans 14 to justify fellowship either with those who live in violation of Matthew 19:9, or with those whose teachings support this violation. Even though adultery is an individual matter, and there are others in a congregation who have not defiled their garments, to extend fellowship to those who have defiled themselves in sin is to violate 2 John 10-11! Otherwise, one has just placed 2 John 9-11 into contradiction with Romans 14.
Determining what subjects are allowable in Romans 14 and which are not can take place by studying Gods word on those subjects as they arise. That is occurring right now over the subject of adultery. The same could be done over the matter of eating meats and observing days. Careful Bible study will help us determine whether Romans 14 ought to be used to address the war question, the covering question, woman working in the workplace, public swimming, Christians marrying non-Christians, matters of modest dress, and many other issues. Using the same approach, we can determine whether Romans 14 should be used to allow fellowship regardless of what is believed and practiced on marriage, divorce and remarriage. The scriptures make it clear that we cannot think of MDR as merely a personal conscience matter and leave it at that. Souls are at stake, and those violating Christs will shall not be saved (Matt. 19:9; 7:21-23).
How are those who use Romans 14 to extend fellowship to those who are living in violation of Matthew 19:9 able to resist those who appeal to Romans 14 to justify unity with homosexual believers? It cannot successfully be done. Please note that the sin of homosexuality is an individual, not collective practice. Both adultery and homosexuality are sins against Gods will regarding marriage and sexual purity (Heb. 13:4). Neither activity belongs in Romans 14.
The response is heard that if brethren applied your position consistently, we would splinter into a million different factions. But, just the opposite is true. A consistent application of both 2 John 9-11 and Romans 14 would prevent us from having fellowship with sin and error, while forbearing with one another in areas which are morally neutral. Then, we would be maintaining the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace for we would be respecting each others scruples and standing united in the doctrine of Christ (Eph. 4:3; 2 Jno. 9). To be sure, this requires diligent effort (Eph. 4:3). But it is entirely possible, since our Lord has commanded that we give ourselves to accomplishing it (1 Cor. 1:10; Eph. 4:3-6; Rom. 15:1-7). Then we would indeed have in matters of faith, unity, in matters of conscience, liberty, in all things, charity.
The following is representative of the effort to convince us that we must agree to disagree since we are to be gracious to each other:
It is that we must show grace to one another. To the one who thought it wrong to eat meats, it was not a matter of expediency, but of faith. Yet how can he refrain from judging his brother on something he considers to be a matter of faith (Paul didnt say, After you realize your error, then you must stop judging your brother who eats)? He can refrain from judging because it was an individual matter. He was not participating in his brothers eating.
Let me use this statement to illustrate the difference between matters of personal conscience and matters of the revealed faith as it applies to Romans 14. Taking these same words, substitute ADULTERY for eat meats, etc. in Romans 14 to see what is being advocated:
It is that we must show grace to one another. To the one who thought it wrong to COMMIT ADULTERY, it was not a matter of expediency, but of faith. Yet how can he refrain from judging his brother on something he considers to be a matter of faith (Paul didnt say, After you realize your error, then you must stop judging your brother who COMMITS ADULTERY)? He can refrain from judging because ADULTERY was an individual matter. He was not participating in his brothers ADULTERY.
Adultery is not a matter of expediency or personal conscience. Yet there are brethren who want to put it and related subjects into Romans 14. It (they) simply will not fit!
It has also been suggested that
...the Bible teaches us that we are not guilty by association with everyone who practices what we believe to be wrong (Rom 14; Rev 2.14; 3.4). Since we are not sharing in the practice, we need not disfellowship over it.
Of course, what makes something wrong is not whether we believe it to be so, but whether Gods word says it is wrong (1 Cor. 4:4; Col. 3:17). This subtle appeal is exposed by the light of truth. Were the Corinthians sharing in the practice of fornication with the man in 1 Corinthians 5:1? No, but they were to put away from yourselves the evil person (5:13). Was every Thessalonian walking disorderly in 2 Thessalonians 3:6, 11-15? No, but those who did walk disorderly were to be withdrawn from, noted and admonished (3:6, 14-15). By withdrawing from him, the sinning Christian could be made ashamed and brought to repentance (3:14). To have ongoing fellowship with brethren who are teaching and practicing error fails to provide them with the discipline they need to help them be ashamed of their sin and repent before their souls are eternally lost!
Congregations are independent and autonomous. That is,
each is to have its own overseers and none is given authority to become a brotherhood
clearing house for the oversight of brotherhood work. However, the same ones
who are urging us to agree to disagree over some doctrinal matters are now appealing to
congregational autonomy for the right to do so. They have concluded that any effort to
warn brethren of sin who are in another congregation is a violation of autonomy. As it has
...this same principle (see previous quotation, jrp) must be applied between congregations. Since congregations do not fellowship as congregations (i.e., they are autonomous),....
In fact, there are some areas in which fellowship between churches can and does occur. In the work of benevolence, one congregation is authorized to have fellowship with another church:
2 Corinthians 8:1-4: The churches of Macedonia implored the apostle that they might be allowed to have fellowship in the ministering to the saints at Jerusalem. Here were
several congregations, each independent of the other, having fellowship with another congregation.
2 Corinthians 9:13: While, through the proof of this ministry, they glorify God for the obedience of your confession to the gospel of Christ, and for your liberal sharing (koinonia) with them, and unto all men. The churches of Macedonia and Achaia shared with (had fellowship with - koinonia) the Jerusalem church.
Romans 15:25-27: But now I go unto Jerusalem to minister unto the saints. For it pleased those from Macedonia and Achaia (churches, 2 Cor. 8:1-2, jrp) to make a certain contribution for the poor among the saints who are in Jerusalem. It pleased them indeed, and they are their debtors. For if the Gentiles have been partakers of their spiritual things, their duty is also to minister to them in material things.
These Gentile congregations had fellowship with the Jerusalem church in the matter of benevolence. Therefore the statement, congregations do not fellowship as congregations (i.e., they are autonomous) is not entirely accurate. Congregational autonomy is not violated when churches today follow these New Testament examples and have the same sort of fellowship in matters of benevolence.
Congregations are not authorized to have fellowship through intercongregational organizations. They must remain autonomous under Christ (Eph. 1:22-23; 4:11). However, speaking out against sin and error among the churches does not build an intercongregational organization. It does not violate local church autonomy in any sense (1 Cor. 4:17; Col. 4:16; see Rev. 2-3).
Warning Against Sin Is Not Being Denominational
As we continue our discussion of congregational autonomy
and agreeing to disagree, listen closely to this defense of unity-in-diversity
by one gospel preacher:
....then just because one (congregation, jrp) does something that another one (congregation) would not do, does not mean they have to call the others false teachers and call for disfellowshipping (something that can only be done in a denomination anyway, that is on a cong. level).
When will brethren begin to see that by agreeing to disagree on at least some doctrinal issues they are calling for denominationalisms approach to unity (while condemning brethren for warning others about their denominational view of fellowship)!
The issue is not simply doing something that another one would not do. Truth is to be consistently taught to every church: ...as I teach everywhere in every church (1 Cor. 4:17). Autonomy is not violated by observing what a church teaches and practices. Surely one is not suggesting we may never say anything to anybody about what a church of which we are not a member teaches and practices! If so, he has missed the mark of truth on this matter. (By the way, we can know what Christs word teaches about this matter!)
The church in Jerusalem heard of the spread of the gospel in Antioch, and sent Barnabas to the church in Antioch (Acts 11:22). Did the Jerusalem church violate the autonomy of the church in Antioch by doing this? No.
When men from Judea came to Antioch preaching a strange doctrine, the church in Antioch decided to send Paul, Barnabas and other brethren to Jerusalem to discuss the matter with the apostles and the elders of the Jerusalem church (Acts 15:1-2). Did Antioch intrude into the affairs of the Jerusalem church by finding out what was being taught there? No. Was autonomy violated? No.
When the whole church at Jerusalem sent out a letter to the Gentile churches about this matter, informing them of the apostolic doctrine and a departure from the same, did they infringe upon congregational autonomy? No. (Acts 15:22-23) Why then, is it contended that a church cannot so communicate with another church today for the purpose of warning against error? This particular appeal to autonomy is without the support of Bible authority.
Please do not misunderstand me. I believe in, teach and apply congregational autonomy (Acts 14:23; 1 Pet. 5:2-3). Congregational autonomy does not prevent the identification and exposure of false teachers and their false doctrines. Such, when practiced after the scriptural pattern, is NOT an exercise in denominationalism (Jude 3; Gal. 2:5, 11-14; 1 Jno. 4:1; etc.). Instead, it is an exercise in sounding forth the word of God, edifying the saints and warning the sinners. I implore brethren to give up this inaccurate appeal to autonomy in their effort to defend unity in doctrinal diversity.