Must you and I see each and every Bible passage exactly alike for us to fellowship one another? It has been my experience, that some are ready to contend over the smallest, most trivial of things. They are ready to draw lines of fellowship over anything that anyone differs with them over.
I have been disturbed over two extremes among us. One extreme is the congregation or brother that will not recognize what God says, and will fellowship those who by God’s standard we should not. This is a most common problem in the church today. The other extreme is the congregation or brother who is ready to draw lines very quickly and sharply over things God hasn’t.
Let us examine some commonly used, but faulty standards of judgment, and find some general guidelines, from the Bible itself to help us determine when to draw lines of fellowship. Also, let us consider some things that both the Bible, and common sense tells us that we can differ over without division.
Public Opinion: We hear much said today about public opinion polls in politics. We live in a Constitutional Republic that some therefore, seem to think, that whatever the majority wants is what should happen. But, let me remind you that approximately 1,970 years ago, the public opinion poll called for the release of Barabas and the execution of Jesus (Luke 23:18). Now, who could possibly say that public opinion is an adequate standard of judgment?
Feelings: For some, the answer to right or wrong, or to which course of action to take is solely dependent upon their feelings. Need we be reminded, that Saul “thought… that (he-B.H.) ought to do many things contrary to the name of Jesus of Nazareth” (Acts 26:9). Clearly, such is an inadequate standard to determine fellowship.
Traditions: Read Matthew 12:1-2. Brethren understand that in essence what they were calling Jesus and His disciples was a “liberal.” The accused His disciples of violating the law. But, they did no such thing. They were not in violation of the Sabbath law (Exodus 12:16). Nor, were they in violation of the owner’s property (Leviticus 19:9-10; 23:22; Deuteronomy 23:34; 24:19-21). They had not violated God’s law. The had only violated these Pharisee’s tradition, which they had added to God’s law. Let us be careful to make sure that we only bind what God has already bound.
Hearsay: Some draw lines of fellowship over the most flimsy of evidence. In private matters, they rely upon “he said, she said.” How easy it is for accusations to be hurled at those in leadership capacities in the Lord’s church. Often these accusations are accepted as “Gospel truth” without any substantial proof. The Bible demands more. We are instructed to “Prove all things; hold fast to that which is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21). In private matters there must be more than one witness to the facts before it becomes a church fellowship matter (Matthew 18:15-17). Knowing that leaders are such an easy target, and knowing that there are always some seeking to discredit them, the Holy Spirit warned, “Against an elder receive not an accusation, but before two or three witnesses… lay hands suddenly on no man, neither be partaker of other men’s sins” (2 Timothy 5:19, 21).
Association: I understand that one can tell a lot about a man by looking to see whom his close friends are. I also understand that who we keep friends with can influence our behavior (Proverbs 22:24-25; 27:17; 1 Corinthians 15:33, etc.). Moreover, I understand that we should not be fellowshipping those whom God doesn’t (1 Corinthians 5:11; Romans 16:17; Titus 3:10; 2 John 9-11). However, there are some that are ready to write another off as apostate just because he was seen with someone of questionable (or worse) character. Read Luke 15:1-7 and Matthew 9:9-12. Now, it should be understood that Jesus wasn’t here fellowshipping error, or encouraging, or following after sin, nor was He supporting false teaching (Ephesians 5:11). He was with them to teach them. We must be very careful with this “guilt by association” attitude. Let us be sure we know what is going on before we condemn by association.
Imputing Motives: The truth is, though we may suspect, it is most difficult – if not impossible, to truly know motives, sincerity, and the intent of another’s heart (1 Corinthians 2:11). Could those at Corinth really judge Paul’s motives (1 Corinthians 9:16-18)? Of course not. But, Paul did say the Lord “will make manifest the counsels of the heart…” When the Day of Judgment comes (1 Corinthians 4:5). When dealing with others, let us stay with the facts of action; let us not assign wrongful motives, or a lack of sincerity, unless they choose to tell us directly of their motives, intent or sincerity.
The Party Spirit: I’ve met folks over time who when asked about a doctrinal issue say: “What does brother so-and-so say?” and then they say, after you’ve told them brother so-and-so’s position, “Well, if he holds that position, I guess I do as well.” Brethren, any of us can err! Even Peter did, and led away others with him (Galatians 2:11-14). Let us remember, “when truth is in question, respect of persons is inadmissible.” Let us, as those noble Bereans, determine right from wrong by “searching the Scriptures” (Acts 17:11).
General Rule #1: When one puts into practice that which is contrary to doctrinal truth it becomes a fellowship matter. Brethren, there are a lot of things that a person might privately hold and not practice. For instance, a person might hold that it is theoretically permissible to drink beer, smoke pot, have an abortion, and worship with mechanical instruments and a host of other things, that, of course, the Bible condemns. Should his personal, privately held views (which he does not practice, or teach to others) divide us? I do not, in the Scriptures, find fellowship being severed for personal private belief. But, I do find it being severed over sinful, unrepented of, practices.
2 Thessalonians 3:6 commands that fellowship be severed from “every brother that walketh disorderly…” The term “walketh” signifies not personal views, but wrongful actions in practice. 2 Thessalonians 3:14 says, “If any man obey not our word by this epistle, note that man, and have no company with him.” Again, the words “obey not” clearly signifies that it is the wrongful practice that here-in breaks precious fellowship. This is not to say that thoughts are not important, for they are. But, as a general rule something becomes a fellowship matter when put into practice. Note: Different types of sins are to be handled with different steps, e.g. private matters between brethren(Mt 18), public egregious sins(1 Cor 5), general disorderliness(1,2 Thes), heretics(Tit 3), false teachers(Rom 16; 2 Jn). These things we will deal with in a separate writing.
However, there are exceptions. There are some things, which simply must be believed for us to be one, and for fellowship to be maintained. Concerning God, we are told that we, “must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of them that diligently seek Him” (Hebrews 11:6). Without such faith, “it is impossible to please Him” (Hebrews 11:6). Jesus said in John 8:24, “If ye believe not that I am He, ye shall die in your sins.” Yes, it matters what we believe about some things. In fact, Jesus built His church upon certain truths that must be accepted (Matthew. 16:15-18; cf. Romans 10:10; Acts 8:37). If one privately and quietly believed not and such came to my attention, yes, such would become a fellowship matter.
But my point is this: though there are exceptions pointed out by the Bible itself, as a general rule a belief becomes fellowship issue when put into action.
General Rule #2: When one begins to teach that which is contrary to sound doctrine, that is, when one begins to teach (publicly or privately) that which could cost another his soul, it becomes a matter of fellowship. The Bible instructs that we are to “speak” the things which become sound doctrine (Titus 2:1; cf. 1 Timothy 1:10; 2 Timothy 1:13-14). Paul called the names of men who preached contrary things (2 Timothy 2:16-18). Romans 16:17 says, “mark them, which causes divisions and offenses contrary to the doctrine, which ye have learned; and avoid them.” Galatians 1:9 says, “if any man preach any other gospel unto you… let him be accursed.” 2 John 10-11 reads, “If there come any unto you, and bring not this doctrine, receive him not into your house, neither bid him God speed: for he that biddeth God speed is partaker of his evil deeds.” From these passages, understand that though it may be possible to quietly and privately hold certain beliefs, when one starts teaching or proclaiming those beliefs which are contrary to sound doctrine, then such does become a fellowship matter.
James 3:1 warns in the NKJV: “Let not many of you become teachers knowing that we shall receive a stricter judgment.” These word are set forth to warn us of the seriousness of the role of a Bible teacher. A teacher’s word can subvert whole houses (Titus 1:9-11). Moreover, Matthew 18:6 (NKJV) warns, “whoever causes one of these little ones who believes in Me to sin, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were drowned in the depths of the sea.” Bible class teachers, before we present something as serious as God’s truth, we had better make sure that it is His truth and not our opinion. This is serious, serious business. Souls are at stake, including our own.
Generic Commands & Expedience
Brother Perry Cotham has well said, “under generic commands man has liberty and there may be diversity in practice.” What is a generic command? A generic command would be, for instance, Mark 16:15. Jesus said, “Go ye into all the world…” Watch the fact that he did not tell man how to go. He left the mode of travel up to man. For this reason, Paul did not do anything wrong when he went by ship upon the water (Acts 16:11-12; 20:1-3). Nor did he sin by walking (Acts 20:13). Neither did Philip sin when he rode in the chariot (Acts 8). They were well within their rights in these matters. Another example is where God commands that a collection be taken up each “first day of the week” (1 Corinthians 16:1-2). Notice that He has given us liberty as to what to put the collection in. If, therefore, congregation “A” decides to use a silver tray, and congregation “B” chooses to use a brown paper bag, both are still obedient to God and able to maintain fellowship. When God has not specified “how” or “when” something is to be done, there is room for opinion.
We may disagree as to what is the most expedient course. We may have a very strong opinion as to what would be best, but these are not what should divide us. By the way, if your opinion in these areas of expediency differs with your overseers – yield yourself to their decisions.
Differing over the Exact Meaning of a Passage
What if you and I don’t see eye to eye on a certain passage of Scripture? For example, in 1 Thessalonians 4:4 the term “vessel” is used. Some teach that this word “vessel” is being used to refer to a wife. That is, much like 1 Corinthians 7:2 where it is said that Paul is saying that in order to avoid fornication each should have his own wife. I disagree with this interpretation. I believe for reasons I’ll not go into at this time, that what Paul is saying is that we each should maintain control over our own body (cf. 1 Corinthians 7:9). I believe that the term “vessel” is being used for one’s own physical body. But, the question remains – would I withdraw myself from a brother who taught differently? Would I brand him a false teacher because he said the term “vessel” referred to the wife and not to one’s own body? The answer is – I would not.
Remember the general rules? Though I may reason with the teacher, and though I may reject his view, I would not withdraw myself, because what he teaches is taught elsewhere in Scripture. Furthermore, one would not be practicing anything wrong, or failing to practice what he should, by following his teaching. Another example of varying opinions is: what does the term “body” signify in 1 Corinthians 6:18? Brethren, we can and should press our points in Bible study. But unless someone is teaching something, if followed, would jeopardize the soul, then let us not divide.
Akin to the above are those items which actually do not apply to us today. I have heard of brethren nearly dividing over whether those under John’s baptism had to be rebaptized. I have a definitive view on this, however, which of us ever lived under John’s baptism? Why then should this divide us? I have heard of brethren dividing over what law people were under between Christ’s death and Pentecost. Again, which of us lived during this period of time? Why then should we divide over it?
This article is simply intended to calmly consider the fact that every difference is NOT a fellowship issue. It is intended to caution us not to be too hasty in jumping the gun without closely examining some basic Bible teaching in the area of fellowship first.