Biblical Principles of Unity and Fellowship
(Part One of Four)

Joe R. Price

Editors Note: Watchman Magazine will run the following series of articles in the July, August, September and October issues of the Magazine. Combined, they represent a very thorough study of the subject. Enjoy!

With this series of articles, we intend to study the tendency to broaden fellowship beyond that which Christ has endorsed in His gospel (2 Jno. 9-11; Eph. 5:7-11). We must carefully study the teaching of Christ’s gospel which bears upon the topic of unity and fellowship among brethren, and then carefully obey it to be approved by God (2 Tim. 2:15).

Unity Is Based Upon Revealed Truth

The gospel calls us to a unity which is based upon the revealed truth of God (Eph. 4:1-6; 1 Cor. 1:10). The only credible standard of authority to which we may rightly appeal to establish unity is the revealed word of Christ, the New Testament (Jno. 17:20-21; Col. 3:17). It is His word that establishes faith and enables unity. The inspired teachings of His apostles make it possible for us to have fellowship with them and with God (1 Jno. 1:1-4, 5-7). When we go beyond the teaching of Christ - His New Testament - we forfeit our fellowship with the Father and the Son (2 Jno. 9). While yet on earth Jesus affirmed this truth when He said, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word; and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him” (Jno. 14:23). Loving Christ is tantamount to keeping His word. Therefore, when one speaks of keeping or obeying the word of Christ in all things, he is speaking of loving the Son of God.

Please understand that to do this does not exalt oneself. When one speaks of understanding and conforming to truth, he is urging humility, not arrogance. Jesus necessarily implies that we can understand His word when He commands us to keep His word. If one denies that we can understand the word of Christ, his argument is with the Son of God, not with Joe Price or any other man. And, when one depicts such a conviction as arrogant, such a characterization is ultimately against the Son of God, not those who are obeying Him (Jno. 8:31-32; cf. Acts 9:1, 5).

It is interesting and ironic that a brother will charge his fellow Christians with lacking humility, long-suffering and forbearance, while putting into their mouths words which they never said. This does not promote unity. For instance, where have brethren who affirm we can understand truth and unite upon it ever said or implied that they are “perfect in knowledge” and that “every position that someone else holds that differs from (them) is wrong”? Yet, that is the charge which is being made these days. Are those who make such an indictment of fellow Christians displaying humility when they put words into their brethren’s mouths? (The answer is obvious.)

The Bible teaches that God’s word is right and that we can attain to the proper knowledge of His word. We can be right with God and lovingly and humbly obey Him in all things (Col. 3:17; 1 Tim. 2:3-4; 2 Tim. 3:16-17). For this, some are castigated as “extreme” or as demanding “agreement with them” to be regarded as faithful. Such unjust judgments will surely be judged (Matt. 7:1-2; Jas. 4:11).

Humility And Unity

Humility is being offered by some as one of the planks in the platform for unity among brethren. As an example, one Christian recently said,

Of course, we have no disagreement with any of the scriptures this brother cites. If one had said what is herein attributed to him, that would indeed display arrogance. But, as noted earlier, nobody has said such a thing. (Can anyone provide the documentation which proves a fellow-Christian has so characterized himself on the subject of unity and fellowship? If so, that person would certainly need to be rebuked for his arrogance!)

Brethren used to teach that if we can understand the Bible at all, we can understand it alike. But now, more and more Christians are concluding that such a view is an arrogant approach to the Scriptures. Should we believe and teach that a full understanding of and compliance to truth is within our grasp? Yes, we should and we must! (Col. 1:9-10; 2:2-3) It is not arrogant to teach that we can understand revealed truth and live in that knowledge so as to please God. It is not arrogant to study, learn, understand, obey and teach the truth of God’s word (Jno. 8:31-32; Rom. 10:17; 2 Tim. 2:15; Eph. 3:3-5; 1 Tim. 2:3-4). In fact, it takes humility to submit to the truth of the gospel instead of the wisdom and wants of men. (Gal. 1:10-12)

This principle of knowing truth also holds true on moral issues such as adultery. God has said that when one lives in contradiction to His revealed truth, that person is lost and not in fellowship with God (Eph. 3:2-4; 5:17; Matt. 7:21-23; 2 Jno. 9). But, praise God, we can know and obey God’s revealed truth (thereby making correction of our sin, read 2 Tim. 3:16-17). And, we can teach that truth to others so that they may also share in the blessing of eternal salvation (2 Tim. 2:2, 15).

Was Paul calling us to arrogance when he said, “by which, when you read, you may understand my knowledge in the mystery of Christ” (Eph. 3:4)? No. Was Paul advocating arrogance when he commanded, “Therefore do not be unwise, but understand what the will of the Lord is” (Eph. 5:17)? No.

Was Jesus teaching us that arrogance is a part of conversion when He said, “For the hearts of this people have grown dull. Their ears are hard of hearing, And their eyes they have closed. Lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears, Lest they should understand with their hearts and turn, So that I should heal them” (Matt. 13:15)? Certainly not. Yet, He said they could understand with their hearts. Therefore, to advocate understanding God’s truth is not arrogant - it is essential to the conversion of the soul.

Did Jesus teach that the honest and good heart is arrogant (in as much as it is he who understands the word of God): “But he who received seed on the good ground is he who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and produces: some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty” (Matt. 13:23)? No, Jesus did not advocate arrogance. Yet, Jesus said it is possible to understand the word of God. Therefore, it is not arrogant to advocate understanding God’s word today.

When Jesus “called the multitude to Himself, He said to them, Hear, and understand” (Matt. 15:10). Was Jesus calling them to arrogance? Never. But He did call upon them to understand His teachings. Like Jesus, may we always call upon ourselves and others to “hear and understand” the word of God. We must humbly approach the word of God as the only adequate standard for obtaining and maintaining unity in the Lord, and therefore obey it in all things (Eph. 4:3-6; Col. 3:17).

Understanding The Scriptures

Is it arrogant to teach that we can and should come to a knowledge of the truth -- that we can and must understand the scriptures? Jesus taught that when we read the scriptures we can understand them. By reading the scriptures and understanding them, one's conduct can and should be affected: “So when you see the abomination of desolation, spoken of by Daniel the prophet, standing where it ought not (let the reader understand), then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains” (Mk. 13:14; cf. Matt. 24:15).

If brethren are willing to apply the principle of reading and understanding the scriptures to Daniel’s prophecy about the destruction of Jerusalem, why not also be willing to apply the same principle to what the scriptures teach about the immorality of unauthorized divorces and remarriages? (Matt. 5:31-32; 19:6, 9; Mk. 6:17-18; Rom. 7:2-3; 1 Cor. 7:10-11; Heb. 13:4)

You see, people were expected to read the scriptures and thereby understand God’s prediction of Jerusalem’s fall. They could identify when that destruction was imminent, and they could flee for safety. This was not arrogance on their part. Likewise, through reading the scriptures we can understand what constitutes adultery when a remarriage occurs. We can identify the sin and man’s need to flee fornication (Matt. 19:9; Rom. 7:2-3; 1 Cor. 6:18). This is not being arrogant. If we can understand the one, we can also understand the other.

Are you willing to apply the principle of understanding the scriptures to the doctrine of God’s judgment of a wicked nation (Jerusalem) in Matthew 24? If so, then be willing to apply the same principle to the doctrine of God’s judgment against fornicators and adulterers as taught in Matthew 19:9; Romans 7:2-3; Hebrews 13:4 and Ephesians 5:3-11. If we can understand the one, we can also understand the other.

There are other appeals issued by Christ and His apostles which require people to understand the scriptures (cf. Lk. 24:45; Jno. 3:10; Acts 8:30-35; 28:26-27; Rom. 15:21; Col. 1:9; 2:2; 1 Jno. 5:20; Rev. 13:18). When Christ calls us to understand truth, He is not calling us to arrogance, but to humility. When we issue the gospel call to understand the truth we are not being arrogant, either. It is purely a matter of walking in the footsteps of Jesus (1 Jno. 2:5-6).

Consenting To Sound Words

The Bible teaches that the humble person consents to the sound words of Jesus Christ. “If anyone teaches otherwise and does not consent to wholesome words, even the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to the doctrine which accords with godliness, he is proud, knowing nothing.....” (1 Tim. 6:3-4). It is not arrogant to believe and teach there is a “sound doctrine” to which we must adhere. Instead, it is genuine humility, for such a person humbles himself before Christ and the authority of His word (this is the principle which is stated in Mic. 6:8 and Jas. 4:7-10). The humble person consents to the words of Jesus Christ while the arrogant person does not. This is what the Holy Spirit says about it. Therefore, when we submit ourselves to Christ’s revealed word, we are practicing humility. The one who will not do so is conducting himself in arrogance.

But, to submit oneself to Christ’s word necessarily implies one can understand His word. One cannot obey that which he does not understand. Hence, the need to “preach the gospel to the whole creation” (Mk. 16:15). We can understand and obey Christ’s word on the plan of salvation. Can we not also understand and obey Christ’s word on the subject of divorce and remarriage, adultery and fellowship? If not, why not? Truly, we can and must consent to the words of Jesus Christ on every subject which affects life and godliness (2 Pet. 1:3-4).

Inspiration And Understanding The Scriptures

Some are now appealing to the need for modern-day inspiration in order to assure a proper understanding of the word of God. A fellow Christian recently said,

If I didn’t know better, I’d say some are making the Mormon case for a living prophet today! No, the apostles are not alive today, but we have the living word they left behind (Heb. 4:12; 1 Thess. 2:13). I am astonished that Christians are actually advocating the need for a living apostle before we can with certainty know the truth of God! Our faith is not produced by the earthen vessel in whom the word of God was placed, but by the word they (the apostles) proclaimed (2 Cor. 4:7; Rom. 10:17). If we cannot be sure of what the apostles taught on one subject (e.g., marriage, divorce and remarriage), how can we be sure of what they taught on any subject?

Hebrews 1:1-2 assures us that God speaks to us in His Son. Can we understand what God is saying to us by reading and studying the inspired words of the apostles? Yes, we can. Why then take an approach which flies in the face of this simple passage of scripture (cf. Heb. 2:1-4; Jno. 13:20)?

2 Timothy 3:16-17 teaches us that inspired scriptures complete us and thoroughly equip us for every good work. The suggestion that man is not able to properly understand the scriptures undercuts the divine power of the scriptures to teach, reprove, correct and instruct in righteousness (v. 16; Isa. 55:11).

Understanding truth does not make one wise in his own estimation (cf. Rom. 12:16). It makes one wise in the power of God (2 Cor. 4:7; 1 Cor. 1:18-24). It is a false charge to cry “arrogance” against those who teach we can know God’s truth on any subject which bears upon man’s salvation from sin and fellowship with God.

Perfect Knowledge and Spiritual Growth

If we are to arrive at and maintain the "unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace" we will have to "come to the knowledge of the truth" (1 Tim. 2:4; Eph. 4:3-6). Does this mean we must have "perfect knowledge" in order to be right with God?

In the next few paragraphs we will see that God's word teaches there is a growth process in our service to God, but sinning is not a part of growing. God requires some things which are absolute in nature and some which involve relative growth. The necessity of baptism to enter the kingdom is absolute (Jno. 3:5). A person either is scripturally baptized or he is not. He cannot partially enter the kingdom. We are to eat the Lord's Supper on the Lord's Day--not another day--and that is an absolute (Acts 20:7). We are forbidden to lie, murder, or commit adultery--those are absolutes. When we violate such teaching, we sin without question and must repent, confess it, and pray for forgiveness (Acts 8:22; 1 Jno. 1:7-10). We cannot embrace and excuse the sin by saying, "Oh well, we are all growing." Sinning is not a part of growing.

But, relative growth in developing and using certain abilities, which leads to increased responsibility, is pictured in Hebrews 5:12-14. We are to strive toward increased development of our abilities, but perfection is not required in the use of abilities. Also, relative growth is pictured in 2 Peter 1:5-11, where the character qualities discussed may continue to grow no matter how long we live. In this process, sin occurs only when we fail to "give all diligence" to grow in such qualities, but it is not sinful to be at one stage of growth rather than at the one toward which we are progressing. Diligence rather than perfection is required.

The Christian's Growth

Next, let us consider several passages which discuss various aspects of the Christian's growth.

Please read Colossians 1:9-11:

"For this reason we also, since the day we heard it, do not cease to pray for you, and to ask that you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding; that you may walk worthily of the Lord, fully pleasing Him, being fruitful in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God; strengthened with all might, according to His glorious power, for all patience and longsuffering with joy....."

Paul's prayer for the saints was that they be "filled" with the knowledge of God's will in "all" wisdom and spiritual "understanding" so that they would walk worthy of the Lord, "fully pleasing Him" (1:10). Now, a simple question: Were the Colossians, at that point in their spiritual development, pleasing to God? Yes, for Paul regards them as "faithful brethren" and gives thanks to God for their faith, love and hope (1:2-5). Yet, there was room for their growth in knowledge and spiritual understanding (1:9). With their growth in knowledge they would be expected to live in harmony with that increased knowledge (for instance, a worthy walk, fully pleasing the Lord and bearing fruit in every good work, 1:10). And, while Paul prayed that they be "filled" with a knowledge of God's will in "all" understanding, he also says that the result of this full knowledge would be an increase in the knowledge of God (1:10). As a result of this increase, they would be strengthened with all power to be patient in trials and to be long-suffering toward others (1:11).

So, the passage teaches us that the Colossians were well-pleasing to the Lord as new babes in Christ. They were well-pleasing to Him as they were being filled with (growing in) a knowledge of His will. And, they would continue to please Him as they continued to increase in the knowledge of God (cf. 2 Pet. 3:16-18).

Each step of the way in one's spiritual growth, as he lives by faith, he pleases God. As he increases in his knowledge of God's will, so too does he increase in his responsibility toward God. With increased knowledge comes increased responsibility. This principle was taught by Jesus in Luke 12:48 when He said that to whom much is given, much will be required (cf. Jas. 3:1). Such concerns as ability, knowledge level, intelligence, background, prejudice, preconceived ideas, bias, etc. affecting one's knowledge and understanding of God's word are addressed and satisfied within this context.

God expects us to learn, obey, live in, grow and mature in knowledge (1 Tim. 2:3-4; Jno. 8:31-32; Heb. 6:1-3; Col. 1:9-11). The apostle said that we can attain "to all riches of the full assurance of understanding, to the knowledge of the mystery of God, both of the Father and of Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge" (Col. 2:2-3). Is it possible for us to be "absolutely certain" about the truth of Christ, and also maintain humility? If it is not, then Paul is advocating arrogance and conceit in Colossians 1:9-10 and 2:2-3!

Grow In Righteousness, Not Sin

We should also note that we can grow in such things as knowledge, wisdom, understanding, love and faith. But, there are some things in which we must not grow. For instance, God does not expect us to grow in sin. An example: We are not to grow in idolatry, we are to put it to death (Col. 3:5). Therefore, we cannot consider ourselves spiritually mature on the subject of idolatry by convincing ourselves that it is a difficult subject to understand, or that since idolatry is open to a variety of studied and sincere opinions and conclusions, we cannot be certain what God's will and word is. We would be wrong to suggest that the truly mature Christian correctly approaches the subject of idolatry by agreeing to disagree. I am confident every Christian can unite in opposing such thinking.

But, we are not to grow in sexual immorality (such as adultery, Col. 3:5), either. We cannot consider ourselves spiritually mature on the subject of marriage, divorce, remarriage and adultery by convincing ourselves that it is a difficult subject to understand, or that since adultery is open to a variety of studied and sincere opinions and conclusions, we cannot be certain what God's will and word is. We are equally wrong to suggest that the truly mature Christian correctly approaches the subject of adultery by agreeing to disagree. We must not think that we have arrived at a mature understanding of the Lord's will by convincing ourselves that knowing the definition of adultery and the truth regarding divorce and remarriage is beyond our reach since there are a variety of different studied and sincere opinions and conclusions about it. We must not support such a view. Why not be consistent and oppose this innovation, too?

Long-suffering and Forbearance

Some have properly raised the question, “At what point do we decide that a person is no longer honestly trying to serve God and teach his word to the best of his ability?” If honesty were the basis of determining one’s standing with God and therefore our fellowship in Him, one could make a case for saying “never.” But since honesty and sincerity do not establish truth or a right relationship with God, we cannot rely upon them to determine the boundaries of Biblical long-suffering. In the scriptures we will find a balance between long-suffering and truth. They are not antagonistic but complimentary. And, they are both to be present as we attempt to save lost souls and encourage weak ones.

Forbearance and long-suffering are needful to achieve and maintain proper fellowship and unity in Christ (Eph. 4:1-3). In this quotation, their necessity and benefit are duly noted:

God has not called upon us to decide upon a person’s honesty or sincerity when determining fellowship. Instead, He calls upon us to discern what one is teaching or practicing to see if it conforms to the divine revelation of truth (cf. Gal. 1:8-9; Acts 23:1; 1 Jno. 4:1-6). We cannot argue for ongoing fellowship with brethren who are in doctrinal or moral error upon the basis of their sincerity to the neglect of the presence of sin and error (2 Jno. 9; Jas. 5:19-20).

Honesty And Fellowship

What passage of scripture teaches us that, on the basis of honesty and sincerity (for instance, one is “honestly trying to serve God and teach His word to the best of his ability”), we may extend fellowship to others? I left the Methodist Church because I discovered, through coming to an understanding of the scriptures, that I was violating God’s will -- my honesty and sincerity as a Methodist notwithstanding! Now, brethren tell me that if honesty and sincerity exist we should accept doctrinal and moral differences! If I could not be right with God applying the “honesty and sincerity” test as a member of the Methodist Church, how can I be right with God applying that same test as a member of the church of Christ? (Some will likely say, “because of grace.” But, grace teaches us to deny sin and error, not accommodate it, Titus 2:11-12. More on this in a future installment.)

Time For Forbearance

Is there time for forbearance when addressing the matter of fellowship and unity? Yes, indeed. There is time and opportunity for long-suffering and forbearance while abiding in the truth of the gospel (including the specific subject of divorce and remarriage).

1 Thessalonians 5:14 teaches us to “admonish the disorderly” and to be “long-suffering toward all” (ASV). With an understanding of the chronology of Paul’s epistles (obtained from the book of Acts, cf. 18:5-11), about six months to one year later, Paul would again write to the Thessalonians saying, “But we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you withdraw from every brother who walks disorderly and not according to the tradition which he received from us” (2 Thess. 3:6). The period of warning had been accomplished. The admonitions had been given. Now, further action was needed to try to save the sinner.

Here then is the real difference which appears to be developing between brethren as it relates to long-suffering. One approach defines and applies long-suffering to mean “infinite-suffering” -- that is, the existence of ongoing fellowship regardless of doctrine (as long as one is honest and sincere in it, and other “qualifications” are in place). On the other hand, the Scriptures teach that long-suffering is just that: long, but possessing an end. There is a difference between a short-temper and a long-temper, but both have a point where indignation or wrath occurs. (God was long-suffering with Israel, but His long-suffering did not prevent Him from seeing and eventually punishing Israel’s sin, Exo. 34:6-7.) There is no disagreement over the fact that judgment must be used in determining the length of warning and admonition of the erring. (The period of long-suffering each specific situation requires must be judged separately in this respect.) The real issue becomes whether we can determine if one is erring (in sin), and whether we should “infinitely-suffer” with him in his error.

Division Or Unity?

Although some would protest, this is by no means a call for division. Neither am I urging a lack of forbearance and long-suffering. It is a call for unity based upon revealed truth instead of the unity in spite of doctrinal and moral division which is being promoted by more and more brethren.

Was the apostle Paul arbitrarily calling for division when he said, “Note those who cause division and offenses, contrary to the doctrine which you learned, and avoid them” (Rom. 16:17)? No.

Was John arbitrarily deciding the most important issues of the gospel, thereby promoting division, when he said, “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” (2 Jno. 9)? No.

Was Paul to be rebuked for causing division when he said, “Have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather expose them” (Eph. 5:11)? Or maybe when he withstood Peter to the face “because he was to be blamed” for not being “straightforward about the truth of the gospel” (Gal. 2:11, 14)? We would never so charge Paul. But, according to some, when a fellow Christian, with God’s word in hand, warns brethren about the sin of adultery and of having fellowship with sin, he is “calling for division”! Of course, his honest endeavor in the word and sincerity of heart never seems to be considered by those making such a charge. If a person is genuinely going to apply honesty and sincerity as his standard for forbearance and long-suffering, then please do not rebuke those who issue warnings against sin and error unless you can prove they are dishonest and insincere of heart! Better yet, why not give up these arbitrary guidelines of long-suffering and forbearance and return to the teaching of God’s word on the matter (Eph. 4:1-6; 2 Tim. 2:24-26; 1 Thess. 5:14-15)?

Long-suffering And Fellowship With Sin

The attributes of honesty and sincerity could be applied to many denominationalists as easily as anyone else. I have a Mormon friend in Salt Lake City who has great ability and a wonderful attitude. It is his doctrine which is erroneous and which I oppose, not his attitude or his abilities. So it is with brethren on the subject of divorce and remarriage. The issue is not over honesty, sincerity and attitude. It is over understanding and obeying revealed truth. Human reasoning may often seem right, but it is without the strength and authority of inspired Scripture (Prov. 14:12; Jer. 10:23). Therefore, it must be laid aside in favor of the word of God (Psa. 119:97-105).

It is not the moral high ground to continue to fellowship those who are in doctrinal or moral error (sin). Attempts to characterize it as such do not harmonize with the Scriptures (2 Cor. 6:14 - 7:1). Were such a view correct, if a congregation were to extend fellowship to a practicing homosexual (remember, there are some in churches of Christ who do just that), then I suppose we would conclude them to be REALLY humble and promoting unity and peace!

Let 1 Thessalonians 5:14 and 2 Thessalonians 3:6 help us answer this matter. Let us apply the “infinite-suffering” position to the use of instrumental music in worship. Does long-suffering have an end? Should one have fellowship with those who engage in this practice? If not, why not? If one may have continuing fellowship with those who practice such, what is the Bible authority for doing so? When the instrument was introduced into churches of Christ last century, did opponents to the innovation sin in their stand against it? Should they have continued in fellowship with their honest and sincere brethren who believed its use to be justified? Should brethren have finally divided over this issue? How are we to be forbearing, long-suffering and humble toward those who introduced the instrument into worship? Does long-suffering have an end? Yes, of course it does (cf. Gen. 15:16; Matt. 23:38).

What about local church support of human organizations (such as orphan homes), the sponsoring church arrangement and church-provided recreation? Does long-suffering have an end regarding such matters? Should we have fellowship with those who engage in these practices? If not, why not? If so, what is the Bible authority for it? Are brethren sinning when they oppose these practices and when they refuse to be members of churches which practice such things? Surely there are many honest and sincere people within the churches which practice these unauthorized activities. Should brethren have finally divided over these issues? How are we to be forbearing, long-suffering and humble toward these folks -- by having ongoing fellowship with their error? Does long-suffering have an end? Yes, of course it does (cf. Gen. 15:16; Matt. 23:38).

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