February Wrap Up: What Constitutes Lines of Fellowship?

unity of the SpiritAs we wrap up the February issue I want to spend a few moments considering what the New Testament teaches us about who is in and who is out and how tightly we draw our lines.

The Bible teaches us many things and it is quite important that we pay close attention to what we find in scripture. One of the things that it teaches us is that there are two distinct groups of people in the world, those who are of the family of God (the spiritual children of Abraham) and those who are of the world and how God is trying to reconcile those two groups together into one family. I believe there are people who are lost and people who are saved because I believe the scriptures teach us as much.

There has been a lot said about who is in and who is out and how we can tell who the true Christians are apart from those who say they are Christians but we really know better. My response to that is that if we are going to make lines of distinctions between professing, baptized believers in Christ then we better do it carefully and by that I mean we better make sure we have scripture to back up the drawing of the lines in the places we draw them.

Notice what I did not say. I did not say we better have scriptures to tell us whether or not they are right on every conceivable issue to constitute them being “true Christians”. There is an idea out there that if you get it wrong on a doctrine then you aren’t really “in”. That idea is not scriptural because we see in scripture people who hold differing views, even a view that is in error on an issue but is still considered to be “in” or really a Christian. Paul may correct them but doesn’t say they are out until further notice and repentance. The example of scripture is not that error on any point of doctrine means you are “out” but that it is entirely possible to be wrong on something (not everything…some things) and still be “in”.

That doesn’t mean you can be wrong on every conceivable issue as much as it doesn’t mean you have to be right on every conceivable issue.

Are you following me so far? Hang in there! Let’s look at a few examples:

  1. Every one of Paul’s letters identifies his intended audience as Christians. Then Paul goes on to teach and correct them on things. Notice that Paul didn’t start off by saying you are not Christians until you get all of this stuff in this letter right and change your view to the right view in all the areas Paul corrects on. They are the church, in error on some issues, and yet still the church. They are wrong on some things and need to fix some things and yet are still very much Christians. Some today would have you believe that if you aren’t precisely obedient on all points of doctrine that you are lost. That is a travesty and a twisting of the repeated examples of Paul and others in scripture who viewed his brothers and sisters who were in error as still being brothers and sisters.
  2. Now, Paul did point out that in the community of faith there were things you could do that would clearly demarcate you as being “out” of the faith. Oddly enough the list is rarely doctrinal and almost always moral. For instance, 1 Cor 6:9-11 says that you will not inherit the kingdom of God if you are doing certain sins. We should teach the same and yet I rarely to ever hear that taught as much I hear taught you are “out” if you are wrong on instrumental music or women’s roles. If you believe you are out if you have it wrong on women’s roles then, regardless of your view on women’s roles, you should say Paul was wrong to call the church in Corinth a church because he corrected and instructed them in this area later in the letter. Yet I hear today if you are wrong on this you are apostate and no longer a Christian. I hope you can see that is clearly wrong by Paul’s example and teaching. We must teach as Paul taught…that one can be a Christian and still need corrected on some things and that they aren’t out just because they haven’t yet made the adjustment. Please, let’s be biblical here! How is this ignored?
  3. The antichrist(s) of 1 John 2:18-23 – Here John teaches us that anyone who denies Jesus is the Messiah is antichrist. This is not about one apocalyptic future leader who will war against God. This is about those who infiltrate the church, not to lead her astray on worship styles, but to blatantly teach against the Messiahship of Jesus. If you do that, believe and teach Jesus is not the Christ, then you are “out”.
  4. The weak and the strong of Romans 14 – The point here is these two groups of people (one group with tighter scruples than the other – as Ben Witherington would say) are still Christians with VASTLY different views on some issues that must learn how to interact with each other still as Christians. Being weak doesn’t mean you are out and being strong doesn’t mean you are out…even though they have exactly opposite beliefs on these matters. Yet, they are still both Christians even in their disagreement. Paul doesn’t make the weak and strong argument about who is in and who is out but that even in their diversity of beliefs that Paul’s teaching is about how to get along and fellowship someone who has an exactly opposite view than you on some issues. We need to hear that today. Again, that doesn’t means we can have exactly opposite views on ALL issues, see point 3 about the belief of Jesus as Messiah. It does mean that disagreement doesn’t damn.
  5. Preaching another Gospel in Galatians 1 – In Galatians 1:6-10 Paul flat out says that anyone who teaches another Gospel than the Gospel of Jesus Christ is under God’s curse. This is a very important point. This doesn’t mean if we don’t perfectly understand the Gospel that we are lost, although there is a baseline understanding one should have of the Gospel to be a Christian (the Gospel isn’t just anything we want it to be – more on that in a moment). It does mean that if we pervert the Gospel and replace it with something else that we are in danger of God’s condemnation and judgment. I am concerned about that because I believe some of what I see taught today in regard to its legalism is bordering on another Gospel. I cannot judge another person’s heart but I can evaluate their teaching and know whether or not it lines up with scripture.
  6. 2 Timothy 3:16 is an often quoted verse in our fellowship. It says, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” That verse says that one can be a servant of God and still need correcting and rebuking. Why would one need that if they were right on every point of doctrine? The point is, we are all learning and growing. We are all being conformed and transformed. That means we are all changing and our views on things change as we mature, which, by the way, is another thing we are called to do is to mature in our faith and in our understanding of things.

All of this hinges on our understanding of the Gospel. In point 5 I pointed out that there are things we need to understand about the Gospel because the gospel isn’t just anything we want it to be. Oddly enough that cuts both ways. Conservatives want to bind up into Gospel several dozen other issues which is just as much making the Gospel something that the NT never defines it as, just as a liberal theologians might say the Gospel is anything you want it to be (which is more of a straw man argument against liberalism than it is something you will ever hear taught in Churches of Christ). If you think Gospel means every possible doctrine and therefore to be wrong on one point is to teach another Gospel, your definition of Gospel is not in line with Paul’s by any stretch. We must define the Gospel as scripture defines it and it not an umbrella term for all things doctrinal. I wish more people would consider that.

Paul never drew up lines of fellowship against those who were wrong on a long list of details. Instead, he treated them as brothers and sisters and worked to teach them the more excellent way. He didn’t assume they were “out” until they got it right. Neither should we. Instead, we should fellowship and count as our brothers and sisters those who have faith in Christ, who have been baptized into Christ and, although they might be wrong on a few matters…that God’s grace is sufficient even for doctrinal error! The blasphemy of the Holy Spirit, the unforgivable sin, was never defined as the sin of doctrinal error on one’s pet issue(s).

Let us never forget the words of Jesus, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” (Matt 7:1-2). We are all going to make judgements on these matters and we should. Paul expected those in the congregations he wrote to that they would be discerning on matters of fellowship and salvation. But let us always remember that if we demand perfection from others it will be demanded of us. If we expect people to fellowship us even though we sin, we should extend that same grace to others even though they don’t agree with us on every single issue.

Is it asking too much to use the Bible as our standard for where to draw lines? If I am going to say you are lost because of your view on women’s roles then what do I do when I find Paul correcting aspects of that with people he calls Christians? Correcting implies they are doing it wrong in the first place! Paul corrects on the Lord’s supper in 11 and yet I hear people say that you are lost if you do the supper wrong. Let us make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace, following the example of Paul to include people who disagree with us…not on the CORE issues of faith but on matters of doctrine that would in some cases still constitute error but not eternally lost, non-forgivable error. God’s grace is sufficient, even for my error…and I am willing to bet I don’t have it all down perfect but I am trying to please God. I hope you are too.

The Gospel Advocate on Unity of the Spirit

[JFG: I apologize for the length of the article, but it seemed best to present this information in a single setting, as it all ties together so closely. A draft of this article was sent to the authors of the articles mentioned prior to publication with an offer of an opportunity to respond here and a request for correction if I’ve misrepresented their views.]

the-unity-of-the-spiritLike the February issue of Wineskins, the February issue of the Gospel Advocate is dedicated to unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. I can think of no better topic. I thought it would be good to review the teachings of the writers of the GA. My own reactions are placed in [brackets].

Essential Ingredients for Maintaining Unity

Tim Lewis, who preaches for a Church of Christ congregation in Oklahoma City, leads off a series of five articles on the magazine’s theme. He takes his lesson from Eph 4:1-3, arguing, “Unity is possible for this generation of believers, but certain indispensable components must be in place if we are going to be one in Christ.”

(Eph. 4:1-3 ESV) I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, 2 with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, 3 eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.

He then reflects on humility, gentleness, patience, and love. He concludes,

If God’s people do not work harder to join together in unity, the same tragic cry might ring out on the day Christ comes again, “Would to God we had joined hands sooner!”

[Amen.] Continue reading

Alexander Campbell and the Pharisaic Unity Plan

ACIt seems as if the heritage of the Stone-Campbell is forever in the throes of division. It is an odd and terrible truth to admit. You might think that for a tradition that claims to be a “people of the Book” that the very mention of division would be tantamount to heresy. The Gospel message itself is, after all, a proclamation of reconciliation. Unity is a divine indicative. It is a creation of God the Father through the costly death of his Son for the brokenness of the world, creating a single unified human family by his own Holy Spirit. As Robert Richardson noted “Men have it, hence, in their power to preserve or to destroy unity, but not to impart it.” Division is always the result of some act of rebellion against God. Why do we have these divisions then? Perhaps one reason for this is we usually have a “Pharisaic Unity Plan.” A Pharisaic Unity Plan is one where I agree to let you and I have fellowship if you are as doctrinally sound as I have deceived myself into believing I am.

Alexander Campbell’s Inconsistency

In February 1826, Alexander Campbell had been in full reformation mode for fifteen years. He had delivered his famous Sermon on the Law, engaged in public debates on baptism, and had taken up the editorial pen in The Christian Baptist. Campbell even attacked what he believed to be error especially in controlling clergy. But he remained in “full communion” with the Baptists. A correspondent wrote a long letter that Campbell dutifully published in the CB, chastising Campbell’s course of action as “inconsistent.” Campbell needed to withdraw from them because of the errors they hold. The correspondent signed “An Independent Baptist.”

The Bond of Union

Alexander Campbell’s reply to “An Independent Baptist” is six pages long. Some modern reader might disparage Campbell for his verbiage but for the editor there was serious error on the part of the Independent Baptist in understanding what the doctrine of unity looks like.

The Independent Baptist completely misunderstood “the principles of union and communion advocated” by Campbell. Campbell states unambiguously, and always does, the bond of union.

And what is it but a sincere and hearty conviction expressed or confessed by the lips, THAT JESUS IS THE CHRIST; and this belief, exhibited by an overt act of obedience which implies that the subject has put on Christ, prepares him, or qualifies him, if you please, to be saluted as a brother. So long as he confesses with his lips that he believes in his heart this truth, and lives conformably to it and supports an unblemished moral character, so long he is a worthy brother.

Faith that Jesus is the Christ and simple baptism as the “overt act of obedience” is the only bond of union. The faith and act of obedience is evidenced by a life that conforms to the claim we make about Jesus.

Campbell charges the Independent Baptist with “artfully” keeping out of view all that we have in common in the “one Lord, the one faith, the one hope.” But unity is not unity of opinion on various biblical matters but on the facts that Jesus is the Christ and the fact that we have confessed him as Lord in baptism and the fact that our lives show we mean what we say.

Paul Could Never Have Fellowshipped New Testament Churches

Campbell’s critic noted that he and the Baptists disagreed on various matters. Fellowship could only be based upon conformity to “the New Testament law, as respects doctrine, worship, and order, exhibiting the MODEL of Christ’s house.” Thus unity is impossible without complete conformity to the New Testament pattern, as understood by the Independent Baptist.

Campbell’s reply reveals a man that has wrestled with this matter deeply, prayerfully and in light of God’s word. The position would forbid fellowship with the churches in the New Testament itself!

I question very much whether Paul the Apostle could have broken bread with the congregation in Rome, in Corinth, in Thessalonica, or with the congregations in Galatia, and others, at the time he wrote his letters to them. Nay, I do not think that the Saviour himself could have instituted the supper amongst the twelve, or they could have had full communion on your principles … For none of these congregations at the times alluded to were exhibiting the model of Christ’s house, ‘were conformed to the New Testament, as respects DOCTRINE, WORSHIP, AND ORDER [sic, i.e. NT churches did not measure up to the NT pattern, BV], …”

The Pharisaic Unity Plan

Alexander Campbell directs some of his most powerful words at the real issue behind the Independent Baptist’s false reading of the New Testament. The problem is rather the cancer, “sectarianism,” which is “the offspring of hell.” A failure to see the example of Jesus, Paul and an awareness of our own self-righteousness blinds the sectarian. Campbell frankly admits that in his younger days he too followed the Pharisaic Unity Plan, which is simply a plan to isolated and congratulate ourselves on our supposed superiority. Power flows from these words …

I have tried the pharisaic plan, the monastic. I was once so straight, that like the Indian’s tree, I leaned a little the other way. And however much I may be slandered now as seeking ‘popularity’ or popular course, I have to rejoice that TO MY OWN SATISFACTION, as well as to others, I proved that truth, and not popularity was my object; for I was once so strict a Separatist that I would neither pray nor sing praises with anyone who was not as perfect as I supposed myself. In this most unpopular course I persisted until I discovered the mistake, and saw that on the principle embraced in my conduct, there could never be a congregation or church upon the earth.”

The Pharisaic Unity Plan is nothing but sublimated pharisaism gone to seed, a mockery of God, the Bible and the church.

Dear sir, this plan of making our own nest, and fluttering over our own brood; of building our own tent, and of confining all goodness and grace to our noble selves and the ‘elect few’ who are like us, is the quintessence of sublimated pharisaism. The old Pharisees were but babes in comparison to the modern: and the longer I live, and the more I reflect upon God and man—heaven and earth—the Bible and the world—Redeemer and his church—the more I am assured that all sectarianism is the offspring of hell … To lock ourselves up in the band box of our own little circle; to associate with a few units, tens, or hundreds, as the pure church, as the elect, is real Protestant monkery, it is evangelical nunnery.”

I Will Do as Paul Did for the Corinthians

Campbell declared that he intends to be true to his understanding of the biblical basis of unity. He will follow Paul’s example with the Corinthians as his model. He will praise God for the things held dearly and exercise his right to say where he disagrees. But the disagreement is not the bond of unity. In the meantime he will join in worship of the Creator God and his beloved Son in the power of the Spirit with anyone that confesses Christ.

I will unite with any Baptist society in the United States, in any act of social worship; such as prayer, praise, or breaking bread in commemoration of the Lord’s death, if they confess the one Lord, the one faith, the one hope, and the one baptism: provided always, that, as far as I can judge, they piously and morally conform to their profession.”

The Path of Love

Alexander Campbell cannot embrace the policy of the Independent Baptist. Eva Jean Wrather declared Alexander Campbell’s six page response “To An Independent Baptist” his “declaration of toleration.” Campbell will gladly join even him in worship of our dear Lord but he cannot embrace the Pharisaic Unity Plan for it is nothing but sectarian illusion on multiple grounds. Instead he exhorts his readers to love lavishly. I close with Campbell’s words.

It is lame charity which requires all its objects to be as rich, as wise, and as strong as ourselves.”

Disunity of the Flesh

white-dove-hd-720p-animalIf the Spirit brings unity then it only follows that the flesh brings disunity because the two are antithetical to each other. In Greek the word flesh is sarx (you get that in the word sarcophagus = flesh + eater). In its most basic sense the word sarx means our physical flesh, the part of us that covers our bones (BDAG). But flesh can mean more than that. Here is the thing about the nature of flesh. Flesh is corruptible. It is decayable. That is what it does because of what sin and death have done to our bodies. The fleshly component of our physical bodies is also part of what gets redeemed and restored in the resurrection which is why Paul says in 1 Cor 15 that death is an enemy to be defeated and that in the resurrection we truly will have bodies but not bodies of sarx in all its decayable properties but bodies of a spiritual nature, which are still very much bodies. That’s another point for another article but it is still one more piece of the puzzle that spirit and flesh stand in opposition to each other. I am not talking about Platonic dualism where material things are bad and spiritual things are good. I am talking about a particular characteristic of our earthly bodies, not material things in general.

Paul contrasts life led by the Holy Spirit vs life led by the fleshly desires in Romans 8. Here is what he wrote,

Romans 8:1-4:
“Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,
because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.”

The “therefore” reminds us that what he is about to teach us is directly connected to what he said about life under the Law in Romans 7 and the connection between Law and sin and the result of our “body that is subject to death” (7:24). Paul ends that chapter in the very next verse, 7:25 where he says that the solution to that is deliverance that comes through Jesus Christ.

Paul just got things set up for a discussion on the difference between life lived in line with the desires of the Holy Spirit and life lived in line with the desires of corruptible flesh. You see this same distinction made in Galatians 5:16-25 where we find the “fruit of the spirit” contrasted with the life of the flesh,

16 So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17 For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.

19 The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; 20 idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions 21 and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.

22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. 24 Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. 26 Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.

There are two ways to live in this world – the way that satisfies the desires of corruptible flesh or the way of new life by the Holy Spirit. When you examine the results of each you find they are diametrically opposed to each other…standing in direct opposition to each other. They are mutually exclusive in any given part of life. So when we live by the Spirit we are not living by the flesh and vice-versa.  The Spirit brings life, the flesh death. The Spirit is new creation, the flesh the old man of sin. The Spirit brings light. The flesh brings darkness. The Spirit makes us united. The flesh provokes division.

If you look at divisive moments and decisions in the life of the church, you will often see the desires of the flesh at work in what is happening because that is the nature of the flesh. People seeking to find unity in the Spirit are not people who promote division. The Spirit unites but the flesh divides. The Spirit unites because it leads us in a unified direction as a unified people, sealed with and indwelled by the same Spirit. Flesh gives birth to division because the way of the flesh is the way of discord, bitterness, envy, strife, etc which is what results when we seek to fulfill our most base and carnal desires to please ourselves at the expense of others.

It is impossible to find unity while trying to gratify the desires of the flesh. It is important that we constantly test our desires to make sure that they are truly in line with the Holy Spirit and not our own selfish, sinful, fleshly desires masquerading as Spirit-led living. Even scripture itself can be used in ways that propagate fleshly desires. The devil did this in Matthew 4 and many Christians have followed suit over the years in using scripture to justify all manner of carnal things.

You can always tell what kind of tree it is by the fruit that is produced, which is why I say if you find division you can almost always track it back to fleshly desires. Peter told us that in 1 Peter 2:11, “Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul.” “Sinful desires” is literally “desires of the flesh.” These desires, by their very nature bring war not peace and discord instead of unity.

Here is the rest of what Paul wrote in Romans 8:5-13
Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace. The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. Those who are in the realm of the flesh cannot please God.

You, however, are not in the realm of the flesh but are in the realm of the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, they do not belong to Christ. 10 But if Christ is in you, then even though your body is subject to death because of sin, the Spirit gives life because of righteousness. 11 And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you.

12 Therefore, brothers and sisters, we have an obligation—but it is not to the flesh, to live according to it. 13 For if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live.

The other side of the unity of the Spirit is the disunity of the flesh. It is important that we are tune with the antithetical nature of flesh to Spirit so that we can better discern where our desires are truly coming from and be aware of the consequences. If we ever want to achieve unity in Christianity, we are going to have to address our fleshly desires that make unity impossible to achieve.

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