Biblical Principles of Unity and Fellowship
(Part Four 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. Part Three can be read by clicking here. This month's article finishes the series. Combined, these four articles represent a very thorough study of the subject. Enjoy!


Judging Motives vs. Judging Actions

In contrast to making motive assessments in order to determine fellowship, the Bible says we must make objective comparisons of what men teach with the revealed word - the apostolic teaching (cf. 1 Jno. 4:1, 6). Nothing is found in this passage about the teacher’s motives or attitudes. Instead, the teacher’s teaching is put to the test of apostolic doctrine (v. 6). Subjective qualifications and conclusions about determining fellowship are not in harmony with what the objective standard of truth says on the matter. The Bible teaches us to test men’s doctrine and practice - not their motives (their heart) - when determining our fellowship with them (2 John 9-11). This is what the Bereans were commended for doing in Acts 17:11. God will commend us, too, when we follow their worthy example.

Be of the Same Mind Toward One Another (1 Cor. 1:10)

Brethren are advocating ongoing fellowship in spite of doctrinal differences. Our preacher friend who believes that we can “agree to disagree” on at least some issues of the revealed faith summarizes the “qualifications” for determining fellowship and unity:

Human experience and what is “apparently” so determines nothing when it comes to the truth of God and pleasing Him in our lives -- including whether the Scriptures are clear on any given topic. For instance, the Mormon “experience” convinces them that the New Testament is not a clear testimony of Jesus Christ, therefore the Book of Mormon is needed! Will our brethren accept this application of their reasoning? How long before fellowship is extended to Mormons? Why is our experience right (on whether a Bible subject is clear), and the Mormon experience (on whether a Bible subject is clear) is wrong? Be consistent, my dear brethren! Please, I beg you to give up this rationale which is based upon human wisdom and not upon the word of God (1 Cor. 1:20-30).

Brethren who wish to broaden the bounds of fellowship consistently appeal to subjective reasoning to establish their basis for fellowship. The use of subjective reasoning to establish fellowship is not approved by the authority of God’s word (Col. 3:17). The New Testament of Jesus Christ is silent when it comes to the three “basic qualifications” for fellowship which some brethren have adopted and are now advocating among us.

The above use of 1 Corinthians 1:10 is truly amazing! In that passage, Christians are exhorted to “speak the same thing.” Yet, the quotation above shows that some brethren are using it to demand that we allow room for disagreement! So, being of the same mind means agreeing to disagree! Then why didn’t Paul say so in 1 Cor. 1:12-13? If unity in doctrinal diversity is a valid concept, the inspired apostle should have said: “Remove your contentions by agreeing to disagree on who you should call yourself after! Go ahead and say, ‘I am of Paul’ or ‘I am of Apollos’ or ‘I am of Cephas’ or ‘I am of Christ!’ Just be sure you agree to disagree -- then you will be of the same mind!” Incredible! Who can believe it? This is what we are expected to believe 1 Corinthians 1:10 teaches about unity?! This is a perversion of the Scriptures and a different gospel which removes one from the grace of Christ! (2 Pet. 3:16; Gal. 1:6-9) Beware!!

But, trying to defend the indefensible, brethren tell us it is promoting “sinful division” to not have fellowship with sincere brethren who differ over doctrinal matters:

Over what subjects are we being accused of arbitrary contention and division? Divorce and remarriage (Matt. 19:4-9)? The “one covenant” doctrine (Heb. 8:6-13; 9:15-18)? Instrumental music in worship (Eph. 5:19)? Baptism for the remission of sins (Acts 2:38)? Having “no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather even reprov(ing) them” (Eph. 5:11)? Like David of old, we shall continue to say, “Is there not a cause?!” (1 Sam. 17:29)

Do those who advocate unity in doctrinal diversity mean to include issues such as “I am of Paul, I am of Apollos, I am of Cephas, and I am of Christ”? If the Corinthians were not allowed to “agree to disagree” over that part of revealed truth, neither should we “agree to disagree” over the other truth which God has revealed. To arrive at unity requires diligent faith, humility, meekness, long-suffering and forbearance (Eph. 4:1-3). But, it can be achieved and maintained (Jno. 17:20-21; 1 Cor. 1:10).

Indeed, we must abhor the biting and devouring of one another (Gal. 5:15). And, notice Galatians 5:13-14, which warns us not to use our liberty in Christ as an occasion for the flesh. When we are servants of each other we express love for our neighbor as ourselves. Wanting to see and trying to help our brethren live in the truth of God is a part of this love. Therefore, we should try to restore them when they fall into sin, not just continue on as if all is well (Gal. 6:1-2; 1 Cor. 5:1-2, 4-7). This includes the matter of unlawful divorce and remarriage as well as all other false teaching (Jude 3-4; 2 Tim. 2:24-26; 1 Jno. 4:1).

Humility and Fighting False Doctrine

One brother offers a rebuke for such teaching. He says:

How many passages of Scripture does it take to establish the truth on any subject? We should never get into the business of comparing how many times God speaks on one subject versus another, and then upon that basis decide their importance. “The entirety of Your word is truth, And every one of Your righteous judgments endures forever” (Psa. 119:160).

We are not interested in “proving” a position, but in learning, teaching and obeying truth. “My position” or “your position” does not make anything right or wrong. Only when we agree with God’s word are we assured of His blessing. We do not define false teacher as “anyone who disagrees with me on anything.” We define it as the Bible defines it, namely, as one who “goes beyond the doctrine of Christ” which has been revealed through His apostles and prophets (2 Jno. 9; 1 Jno. 4:1, 6; Gal. 1:6-9; 2:5).

The enemy we fight is the father of lies, the devil. He knows how to package his lies so that they look like the truth (2 Cor. 11:13-15). We cannot afford to be ignorant of his devices (2 Cor. 2:11). The weapons of our spiritual warfare are “mighty before God” to the “casting down of arguments and...bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor. 10:3-5). And, let it be noted that God will punish all disobedience (2 Cor. 10:6). This is not the language of divisive partisanship, but “the words of truth and reason” (Acts 26:25).

Fomenting “Another” Denominational Split?

Are we preaching unholy division by advocating unity based upon the truth of the gospel (which we can understand and obey, Eph. 3:3-5; 5:17; 1 Tim. 2:3-4; 2 Pet. 3:16-18)? It has been alleged that

This Christian’s choice of words is enlightening. The implication is left that the division which occurred over sponsoring churches, church support of human organizations and the social gospel was a “denominational split” which resulted in denominational camps! If that is true, then it had nothing to do with applying Bible authority and everything to do with following the will and wishes of men. Is this what happened? Shall we apply the divine pattern in all things (Heb. 8:4; Col. 3:17)? Or, does God grant us the liberty of deciding which matters of “the faith” are worth contending for and which are not (Jude 3)?

Whenever God’s people stand upon revealed truth and others are unwilling to “abide in the doctrine of Christ,” it is not the faithful disciple who is dividing the people of God (Jno. 8:31-32; 2 Jno. 9-11). In the 1950’s and 60’s brethren digressed from scriptural authority regarding the work of the church. Should we characterize those who pleaded with brethren to produce Bible authority for their innovations as the “dividers,” “denominational in thinking and practice,” and guilty of “splintering” the brotherhood? That is what the brethren who abandoned Bible authority for all that they practice said! Now, our brethren can be heard making similar sounds. Please hear the apostle tell us what is really happening in such cases:

“They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us; but they went out that they might be made manifest, that none of them were of us. But you have an anointing from the Holy One, and you know all things. I have not written to you because you do not know the truth, but because you know it, and that no lie is of the truth.” (1 Jno. 2:19-21)

Must We Divide Over Every Disagreement We Have?

The answer to that question is “no.” Romans 14 properly defines the context and limit of unity in spite of differences. In matters of (authorized) liberties, we are to respect the personal scruples of our brethren and not press our own conscience to the disruption of fellowship and unity. At the same time, Romans 16:17 commands us to “note” and “avoid” (not be united in fellowship with) those “who cause divisions and offenses, contrary to the doctrine which you learned....” The doctrine they (and we) learned is the gospel of Christ (cf. Rom. 6:17; 16:25-26). Thus, Scripture makes a distinction between the revealed doctrine of Christ and the personal scruples of men in matters which are “pure” or “clean” in and of themselves (see Jude 3 vs. Rom. 14:1, 5, 14, 18, 20). We dare not compromise the doctrine of Christ, otherwise we forfeit fellowship with the Father and the Son (Jno. 14:23; 2 Jno. 9; Gal. 2:5).

When division occurs by brethren departing from “the faith,” it will become evident who has God’s approval and who does not (1 Cor. 11:19). By comparing doctrine and practice with the scriptures we can reach a proper conclusion as to whether or not God’s approval is present (2 Tim. 4:2-4). Where Bible authority exists, so does God’s approval (Col. 3:17; 2 Tim. 2:15). Where Bible authority does not exist, God’s approval is also absent (Gal. 1:6-10).

The dividers of God’s people are those who do not abide in “the doctrine which you learned” (that is, the gospel, Rom. 16:17). For example, it was the Ephesian elders who began speaking perverse things who caused the division in that church, not the faithful saints who obeyed the apostolic doctrine (Acts 20:29-32)!

God does not want His people to splinter over personal opinions. But we must stand in truth, even when most people go in the opposite direction. Remember Joshua and Caleb? Were they a “splinter” group? Hardly. What about those 12 followers of Jesus? Just another “splinter” group of disaffected Jews? Hardly. Were Amos, Jeremiah, Zephaniah, Ezekiel and the other prophets extreme fanatics for crying out against the sins of Israel and Judah? Hardly. Like Jeremiah, we must be careful to stand in the “old paths” of revealed truth, instead of crying “peace, peace when there is no peace” (Jer. 6:16, 14).

Conclusion

Are we guilty of trying to place man under a law of works and perfectionism when we seek to carefully obey Jesus in all things? No, not at all (Jno. 14:15; Heb. 5:9). By calling Christians to faithful obedience and service, are we guilty of focusing upon man and his own righteousness while taking away from God and His grace? Never (Lk. 17:10; Eph. 2:8-10; Rom. 6:1-14). Is obedience to the gospel of Christ a doctrine of salvation by works of the law which brings Christians back into bondage after they have received freedom in Christ? Not at all (Gal. 5:1-7). Are we calling for division over every issue when we endeavor “to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” by not having fellowship with error (Eph. 4:3; 2 Jno. 10-11)? By no means. Are we guilty of teaching false doctrine and causing division in the Lord’s church for advocating Bible authority for all we believe and practice? No, we are not (Col. 3:17; 2 Tim. 4:2-5).

This series of lessons has been an effort to help all of us examine our beliefs, teachings and practice on the subject of unity and fellowship. It was also presented to set forth the truth that we are able to understand and conform to the revealed word of Christ. Every false teaching, left unattended, endangers the souls of men by seeking to turn them away from God’s truth and grace (cf. error on divorce and remarriage, fellowship and unity - Gal. 2:4-5; 1:6-9; Jno. 1:17; 14:6).

Our focus (in teaching and practice) must always be upon God, for “we are unprofitable servants” only doing our duty (Lk. 17:10). But, if we do not do our duty (obey Jesus in faith), we will perish with the ungodly (remember Noah’s faith and God’s grace, Gen. 6:8-9, 14, 22; Heb. 11:7). We must live pure lives, teach pure doctrine and obey all the truth of God (1 Tim. 4:12, 16; Tit. 2:7-8; Heb. 5:9).

May God bless each of us as we endeavor “to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” so that all believers “may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us” (Jno. 17:21).


e-mail this author at jrprice@telcomplus.net

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