BIBLICAL PRINCIPLES OF UNITY AND FELLOWSHIP
by: Joe R. Price
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 longsuffering 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
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?
Longsuffering 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 ones
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
longsuffering. In the scriptures we will find a balance between longsuffering 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 longsuffering 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:
"The Bible clearly teaches a long-suffering and forbearing attitude as essential for unity (Eph. 4:1-3). God says that we are to "admonish the disorderly, encourage the fainthearted, support the weak, be long-suffering toward all" (1 Thess. 5:14 - emphasis mine, HRO). Paul's exhortation on restoring in a spirit of gentleness one who is overtaken in a trespass is a principle we must teach and practice. In the case of a brother sinning against us personally, Jesus shows that we must exhaust every effort to solve the matter before counting him as "the Gentile and publican" (Matt. 18:15-17). Even the factious man is to receive the first and second admonition before we refuse him (Tit. 3:10). We can never be justified in severing the bonds of fellowship at the drop of a hat. We have responsibility enjoined of God to be longsuffering in our search for the resolution of every difference between brethren." (Harry Osborne, First article, second paragraph of a written discussion with Marshall Patton on Romans 14).
God has not called upon us to decide upon a persons 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 Gods 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
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 longsuffering toward all (ASV). With an understanding of the chronology of Pauls 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 longsuffering. One approach defines and applies longsuffering 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 longsuffering 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 longsuffering with Israel, but His longsuffering did not prevent Him from seeing and eventually punishing Israels 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 longsuffering 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 longsuffering. 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 Gods 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 longsuffering, 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 longsuffering and forbearance and return to the teaching of Gods word on the matter (Eph. 4:1-6; 2 Tim. 2:24-26; 1 Thess. 5:14-15)?
Longsuffering 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 longsuffering 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, longsuffering and humble toward those who introduced the instrument into worship? Does longsuffering 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 longsuffering 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, longsuffering and humble toward these folks -- by having ongoing fellowship with their error? Does longsuffering have an end? Yes, of course it does (cf. Gen. 15:16; Matt. 23:38).