February Wrap Up: What Constitutes Lines of Fellowship?

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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.

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