BIBLICAL PRINCIPLES OF UNITY AND FELLOWSHIP
by: Joe R. Price
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 teachers motives or attitudes. Instead, the teachers
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 mens 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:
If it is an individual matter and one which experience has shown is not so clear and those folks in question are apparently living by faith, then we should be able to continue in fellowship indefinitely (agree to disagree). Humility, forbearance, and the doctrine of salvation by grace demands that we allow room for disagreement over various issues. This is part of what 1 Cor 1.10 is talking about when it says we are to be of the same mind toward one another.
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 Gods 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 didnt 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:
However, arrogance, impatience and the doctrine of salvation by works causes brethren to be contentious and divide up over arbitrarily chosen issues. But if you bite and devour one another, take care lest you be consumed by one another (Gal 5.15).
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:
...if you focus all of your attention on the passages that teach us to fight false doctrine and withdraw from false teachers, while ignoring the many hundreds of passages that teach us to cloth ourselves with humility toward one another and which teach us that we are saved by grace, etc., then it is easy to prove your position. The problem is, by ignoring most of the NT, one can then define false teacher as anyone who disagrees with me on anything, and then go to battle against everyone. Then you will find yourself fighting the wrong enemy.
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 Gods 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
Certain brethren are fomenting another denominational split that is going to result in another denominational camp. Now you will have the various MDR camps within the institutional and non-inst. camps. Then once those lines are well drawn, brethren will find some other issue to fight about and cause further splintering.
This Christians 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 Gods 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 1950s and 60s 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 Gods 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 Gods approval is present (2 Tim. 4:2-4). Where Bible authority exists, so does Gods approval (Col. 3:17; 2 Tim. 2:15). Where Bible authority does not exist, Gods approval is also absent (Gal. 1:6-10).
The dividers of Gods 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).
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 Lords church for
advocating Bible authority for all we believe and practice? No, we are not (Col. 3:17; 2
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 Gods 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 Noahs faith and Gods 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).