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

Joe R. Price


Editors Note: Watchman Magazine is running the following series of articles in the July, August, September and October issues of the Magazine. If you have not yet read Part One of the study, which appeared in the July issue, please do so by clicking here. Part Two can be read by clicking here. Combined, these four articles represent a very thorough study of the subject. Enjoy!


“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,

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?

Romans 14

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:

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 God’s 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 God’s 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 Christ’s 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 God’s 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:

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:

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

Of course, what makes something wrong is not whether we believe it to be so, but whether God’s 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!

Congregational Autonomy

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 been said,

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 a gospel preacher:

When will brethren begin to see that by “agreeing to disagree” on at least some doctrinal issues they are calling for denominationalism’s 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 Christ’s 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.

Proposed Qualification #2
Clarity

Now, for another reason being offered to justify this unscriptural view of fellowship:

Everything which pertains to “life and godliness” is available to us and to all “through the knowledge of Him who called us” (2 Pet. 1:3). Therefore, sufficient clarity exists in God’s word for us to understand everything that pertains to life and godliness, believe it and obey it in our lives. This is what we have consistently believed and taught in regard to the clarity of the word of God (Eph. 3:3-4; 5:17; 2 Tim. 3:16-17; 1 Pet. 1:22-25).

Yes, some parts of God’s word are “hard to understand” (2 Pet. 3:16). They challenge our faith as we study, learn and grow in our knowledge of God’s word (2 Tim. 2:15; Heb. 5:11-6:3).

The brethren who are calling for this “clear” and “not so clear” qualification are obligated to show us how we should determine this matter of clarity. What I mean is this: What about the use of instrumental music in worship? Is this subject clear or not so clear? How does one decide: Common sense? Individual versus collective action? Can we agree to disagree over it? If so, where does the Bible teach us that we can? And if not, why not?

What about the work of the local church? Is this subject clear or not so clear? How does one decide: Common sense? Individual versus collective action? Can we agree to disagree over it? If so, where does the Bible teach us that we can? And if not, why not?

What about polygamy? Is this subject clear or not so clear? How does one decide: Common sense? Individual versus collective action? Can we agree to disagree over it? If so, where does the Bible teach us that we can? And if not, why not?

For every subject someone declares to be “clear” it can be demonstrated that someone, somewhere thinks it is “not so clear.” Are the brethren calling for us to apply this qualification to be charged with arrogance and a lack of humility because they deem some parts of the Scriptures to be “clear?” Their appeal lacks consistency, not to mention the authoritative approval of a “thus saith the Lord.”

Religious and Moral Relativism

This sort of reasoning is the basis of religious and moral relativism. It is values clarification in a Biblical context. You decide for yourself what is “clear” and what is “not so clear.” You decide if a person is honest, very knowledgeable and sincere. And by all means, remember humility. Never, ever have a faith that comes to absolute certainty. That is the most arrogant stance of all - to actually think a person can know, with certainty, the truth of God! (contrast Jesus, Jno. 8:31-32 and Paul, Eph. 5:17; 1 Tim. 2:3-4)

“Oh how I love Your law! It is my meditation all the day. You, through Your commandments, make me wiser than my enemies; For they are ever with me. I have more understanding than all my teachers, For Your testimonies are my meditation. I understand more than the ancients, Because I keep Your precepts. I have restrained my feet from every evil way, That I may keep Your word. I have not departed from Your judgments, For You Yourself have taught me. How sweet are Your words to my taste. Sweeter than honey to my mouth! Through Your precepts I get understanding, Therefore I hate every false way.” (Psa. 119:97-104)

What an arrogant fellow! He had to audacity to think he actually knew the commandments of God and that he was not wrong, because it was God’s word He knew and relied upon! What a sad, sad man.

Such sarcasm exposes the attitude of the religious relativist toward those who rely solely upon the revealed word of God. Shall this be the way those who promote unity in doctrinal diversity perceive their brethren who appeal for unity based upon the common standard of understandable, unchanging, definitive truth? What is their reaction to what the psalmist said in Psalms 119:97-104?

But, the reply is offered,

Please brethren, produce even one quotation by a gospel preacher (who disavows unity in doctrinal diversity) which states that we are saved by perfect knowledge. Otherwise, please give up this repeated misrepresentation. It reminds me of the Baptist who, even after being told over and over that we are not “water salvationists,” continues to charge us with such. Grace and Bible understanding are not opponents. (Titus 2:11-15)

Does Christ’s Teaching on Marriage, Divorce and Remarriage Lack Clarity?

Brethren are becoming convinced that some Bible topics lack the clarity to allow us to form definitive conclusions based upon Bible study (compare such thinking with 2 Timothy 2:15 and 4:2). The case is set forth in this manner:

If one is unsure about what constitutes adultery, it is not the word of God that is the culprit. This much we know: We can understand God’s word on the subject of marriage, divorce and remarriage, and that includes the definition of adultery. “...unless you utter by the tongue words easy to understand, how will it be known what is spoken? For you will be speaking into the air.” (1 Cor. 14:9) Did the Holy Spirit, who put these words into the mouth of the apostle, follow His own instruction? Or did the Spirit of God guide the apostles into “not always clear” truth when it came to divorce and remarriage? This matter drives to the heart of how one views the understandable nature of the word of God. (cf. Jno. 16:13; Eph. 3:3-5; 5:17; 1 Tim. 2:3-4; 2 Tim. 2:15; 2 Pet. 3:16-18; 2 John 9)

Some of the “arguments” set forth regarding marriage, divorce and remarriage (cf. 1 Cor. 7:15) are wrong. They cannot all be right (regardless of the honesty, knowledge and quality of minds involved in their development and presentation). Can we preach the word of God on the subject of divorce and remarriage with clarity, certainty and conviction? Yes, we can and we must (2 Tim. 4:2).

Living Apostles, or a Living Word?

Are the apostles able to teach us God’s will on divorce and remarriage today?

Some do not really believe that the apostles can teach us today through their written words. Please study 1 Corinthians 14:37 again: “If anyone thinks himself to be a prophet or spiritual, let him acknowledge that the things which I write to you are the commandments of the Lord.” Could the apostles’ teaching only be understood when they were personally present? In light of 1 Corinthians 14:37, the above statement casts doubt upon our ability to know “the commandments of the Lord” (since what Paul wrote is just that). Do brethren really mean to be teaching such a thing?

“Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle.” (2 Thess. 2:15) We can stand fast in the written word of the apostles. But, if we cannot adequately understand the written word, we cannot obey this commandment.

“For the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.” (Heb. 4:12) The doctrine of “unclear revelation” which leaves “room for being wrong” about divine truth (which affects our salvation and fellowship with God) offers man a butter knife instead of a sharpened sword. A butter knife will not extract sin from one’s heart and life! God’s word is able to eradicate sin and replace it with righteousness, even though the inspired men who first proclaimed it are now dead (2 Tim. 3:16-17; 1 Pet. 1:22-25). It is their inspired word which lives and is powerful. This “clarity doctrine” makes God’s word unsuitable for correcting sin and serving righteousness (Rom. 6:17-18).

An emotionally-charged appeal is made to accept this line of human reasoning: “That is, I must be humble enough to admit that I may be wrong and others may be right.”

Yes, I may be wrong and others may be right. That has certainly been true in the past. But of one thing I am absolutely certain: The word of God is always right (Psa. 119:128). And, since God’s word says we can and must “understand what the will of the Lord is,” our faith rests in a word from God which we can know and trust in everything that pertains to our soul’s salvation (Eph. 5:17; 2 Pet. 1:3-4). Remember, humility causes us to consent to the sound words of Christ (1 Tim. 6:3-4). It is not arrogant to trust in the living word of God (Heb. 4:12; 1 Pet. 1:22-25).

Proposed Qualification #3
Determine Whether One Is Living by Faith

We should first remember that none of these three “qualifications” are given in the New Testament as ways to establish and maintain unity in doctrinal diversity. They have grown out of and are fostered by the wisdom of man. We must “speak as the oracles of God” and resolve not to go beyond God’s revealed word on this and every matter (1 Pet. 4:11; Col. 3:17).

A common appeal to help defend unity in doctrinal diversity calls upon us to judge the life of another person. See how this is the case as set forth by one who supports this approach to unity:

Living by Faith

This type of unity makes our subjective decision of another person’s faith the basis of fellowship and unity! If I determine you are living by faith (whether in fact the Bible says so or not), then I can have fellowship with you. If I determine you are insincere (which forces me to judge another person’s heart, cf. 1 Cor. 2:11), then I may withhold my fellowship. This is not the teaching, terminology or treatment of unity in Christ which is taught in the Bible.

Since “faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God,” how can a person be living by faith when his life is not in harmony with the word of God (Rom. 10:17)? It is impossible to do so. He may think he is “living by faith,” he may appear to be “living by faith,” he may sincerely believe he is “living by faith,” but because he is not “obeying the will of the Father,” he is in fact not “living by faith” (Matt. 7:21-23; cf. Acts 23:1; 2 Cor. 5:7; 13:5).

Let us make an application to the subject of divorce and remarriage. How do I determine whether one is living by faith? By observing one’s life and/or teaching, and comparing it (them) to the objective standard of truth. In this way we can know whether a person is right with Christ’s marriage law or in violation of it (cf. Jno. 7:24; Cf. 2 Corinthians 13:5; 1 Jno. 4:1-6).

This false doctrine calls upon us to judge the motives of others. Consider Apollos and this so-called qualification for unity in doctrinal diversity:

  1. “Does he hold his position out of rebellion and self will?” Did Apollos exhibit rebellion and self-will when Aquila and Priscilla heard him preaching? No. But, they “explained to him the way of God more accurately” (Acts 18:24-26). If this doctrine is correct, they should have left him alone -- not teach him!

  2. “Did he come to his position based on Bible study or on convenience?” Apollos was “mighty in the scriptures,” yet deficient in accurately preaching the way of God. No fellowship was extended until he was taught and he accepted God’s accurate way! (Acts 18:27-28)

  3. “Does he care what the Bible teaches on it?” Nobody would even suggest that Apollos did not care about what the scriptures taught. However, although he was “mighty in the scriptures,” his deficiency required correction before there could be unity with the brethren in Ephesus. (Acts 18:24-25)

  4. “Does his position have merit so that a reasonable person could come to that position?” No doubt, many reasonable Jews accepted the teaching of Apollos before his conversion. Although an eloquent man who masterfully reasoned with his audience, unity could not exist between him and the disciples at Ephesus until he learned and accepted the accurate way of God. (Acts 18:24)

  5. “How does he deal with other issues?” Apollos dealt powerfully and eloquently with topics from the Scriptures. Nevertheless, Aquila and Priscilla did not unite with him until his deficient teaching was corrected. (Acts 18:24, 26)

  6. “Do I find myself disagreeing with him on many other things?” No doubt, Aquila and Priscilla could find many things over which they and Apollos were in agreement (“he spoke and taught accurately the things of the Lord, though he knew only the baptism of John”). But, unity did not exist between them because of that. (Acts 18:25)

  7. “Do we have similar attitudes toward the inerrancy of the scriptures, subjection to God, Bible authority, etc.?” Aquila and Priscilla could answer “yes” to each of these items and more, but they did not use their areas of agreement as a basis upon which to have fellowship. (Acts 18:26-28)

  8. “Does his life show he submits to God in everything that he conscientiously believes?” The bold preaching of Apollos in the Ephesian synagogue shows his conscientious belief and effort to submit to God. (Acts 18:25) But, he was not in fellowship with Christ or His disciples until he learned and believed the more accurate way of God!

At every turn, the doctrine of unity in diversity, which allows ongoing fellowship in spite of doctrinal disagreement, is unsupported by the word of God. It must be rejected as a doctrine of man (Gal. 1:8-10).


e-mail this author at jrprice@telcomplus.net

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