BIBLICAL PRINCIPLES OF UNITY AND FELLOWSHIP
by: Joe R. Price
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 Christs 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, longsuffering 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 brethrens mouths? (The answer is obvious.)
The Bible teaches that Gods 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,
First, there is the principle of humility (Prov 11.2; 12.15; Mic 6.8; Lk 18.13-14; Rom 12.3,16; 1 Cor 10.12; 13.4; 2 Cor 11.30; Gal 5.26; Eph 4.2; Jas 4.6; 1 Pet 5.5-6). Humility demands that we not be so arrogant as to think that we are perfect in our knowledge and that every position we hold is Gods position and every position that someone else holds that differs from ours is wrong.
Of course, we have no disagreement with any of the scriptures this brother cites. If one had said what is herein attribute 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 Gods 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 Gods 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 Gods 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 Gods 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, ones 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 Daniels 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 Gods prediction of Jerusalems 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 mans 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 Gods judgment of a wicked nation (Jerusalem) in Matthew 24? If so, then be willing to apply the same principle to the doctrine of Gods 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 Christs revealed word, we are practicing humility. The one who will not do so is
conducting himself in arrogance.
But, to submit oneself to Christs 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 Christs word on the plan of salvation. Can we not also understand and obey Christs 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,
Unless we believe that we are inspired, we must be humble enough to give some lee-way in those areas that are hard to understand (2 Pet. 3.16). If we had the apostles present to always tell us which positions are correct and which are not, then we could always have absolute certainty. But since we do not have them with us, we must rely on our own personal interpretations,....
If I didnt know better, Id 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 Gods truth on any subject which bears upon mans salvation from sin and fellowship with God.