The Danger of Congregational Drift into Unity in Diversity
The gospel calls us to unity based on God’s revealed truth (Eph. 4:1-6). The only credible standard of authority to which we may rightly appeal to establish unity is the revealed word of Christ, the New Testament (John 17:20-21; Col. 3:17). The inspired Scriptures, when believed and obeyed, enable fellowship with God and His faithful ones (1 John 1:1-4, 5-7; 2:3-6). But, when we go beyond the New Testament of Christ we forfeit our fellowship with the Father and the Son (2 John 9). While yet on earth Jesus affirmed this truth, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word; and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him” (John 14:23). Loving Christ is tantamount to keeping His word. Proper fellowship ensues from faithful obedience to the word of Christ.
The New Testament defines the bounds of unity and fellowship of God’s people. Appeals to the historical experiences and traditions of churches of Christ, human wisdom, colleges, magazines, academic credentials or any other assumed sources of credibility are woefully insufficient to empower Christians to “endeavor to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3). Only the gospel of Christ assures our fellowship and unity in Christ (John 17:20-21; Eph. 4:1-6; 2 John 10-11).
The fellowship of Christians results from our shared fellowship with God. (See 2 Cor. 6:14-16, 1 John 1 and 2 John 9-11 for a full study of fellowship and its application.) Each Christian who practices the truth (walks in the light) has fellowship with God (1 John 1:6-7). Unless we are in fellowship in God, any unity and fellowship among Christians is counterfeit. We are warned to “have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather expose them” (Eph. 5:11). Neither the passage of time nor the reputation of those in error diminishes the force of God’s commanded expectation. We must not have fellowship with sin in any of its forms or we forfeit fellowship with God (2 John 9-11).
Unity and Fellowship of the Local Church
One area of fellowship among Christians is the local church. Among the reasons God arranged local churches is to provide for the spiritual care, development, productivity and protection of His people (Acts 2:42; 11:20-26; 20:28; 1 Cor. 14:26; Heb. 10:24-25; 13:17; 1 Pet. 5:2-3). The Lord commands unity in the local church, not a brand of unity in moral and doctrinal diversity that is defining more and more churches of Christ in our time.
“Now I plead with you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment” (1 Cor. 1:10). Such unity and fellowship is achievable and a great blessing from the Lord. Every teaching and practice of fellowship that alters His plan for the unity of the local church constitutes drifting from “the things we have heard” (Heb. 2:1).
Warning Signs of Drifting into Unity in Moral and Doctrinal Diversity
The Scriptures warn congregations of drifting into unscriptural fellowship. The church at Corinth was rebuked for failing to discipline open sin in its midst (“among you”, 1 Cor. 5:1-5). Ongoing fellowship with one practicing sin is itself a sin against God. The local church where Diotrephes held sway had certainly drifted from the pattern of truth on fellowship when it allowed this evil man to put people “out of the church” (3 John 9-10). The church at Pergamos was told to repent of its compromise with doctrinal error and immorality (Rev. 2:14-16). Such fellowship could not continue without forfeiting the Lord’s fellowship. We note that the Lord Himself removed the liars Ananias and Sapphira from the Jerusalem church. Left alone, their sinful influence would spread (Acts 5:1-11; 1 Cor. 5:6).
Congregations must be perceptive of the dangers of false doctrine and immorality. Each church must be vigilant for holiness and “test all things” to prevent drifting into moral and doctrinal diversity (1 Thess. 5:21; John 8:31-32). Consider these warning signs that drifting is taking place.
1) Be warned when a church accepts new members without investigating their faithfulness to the Lord and without repentance of previous sin. Simply because a Christian wants to identify as a member of a local church does not mean that church must automatically receive him or her. The brethren in Ephesus wrote a commendation of Apollos to the church in Corinth to receive him (Acts 18: 27). The epistle of Paul to the Romans commended the faithfulness of Phoebe to that church (Rom. 16:1-2). Only when Barnabas explained Paul’s conversion and faith did the Jerusalem church accept him into its fellowship (Acts 9:26-28). A church that is unwilling to ask specific questions about a person’s faithfulness to the Lord not only shows a lack of concern for that person’s spiritual condition, it also displays apathy toward the potential influence of error on that church (Jude 3-4).
2) Be warned when a church appeals to congregational autonomy to resist and ignore the exposure and rebuke of error in its midst. Congregational autonomy is not immunity from Scriptural examination, rebuke and calls to repent. The apostle Paul did not violate Corinth’s autonomy when he exposed their sins and called them to repentance in 1 Corinthians. Because Paul was an apostle, some try to eliminate the binding nature of his example here. But we are commanded to follow his examples (1 Cor. 4:16-17; 11:1; Phil. 3:17; 4:9). When error and immorality surface in a church and it maintains fellowship with sinners in their sin, God’s rebuke and call to repentance must be heard. Autonomy does not prevent sounding God’s warning. Does the church of which you are a member genuinely welcome the open investigation of its teachings and practices from the Scriptures? Or, does it disparage brethren and congregations willing to do so as “watchman churches” to be avoided?
3) Be warned when a church uses and endorses those who do not teach the whole counsel of God. We are to receive faithful brethren “that we may become fellow workers for the truth”, but we must not receive those who go beyond the doctrine of Christ (3 John 3:5-8; 2 John 10-11). Using a man to occupy the pulpit and influence a local church when he believes, teaches or endorses error is like letting the fox into the hen house! (The same can be said of those who speak on any preaching program. Credence and credibility ought not be given to those whose influence hinders rather than advances the truth.) Brethren feel vindicated by getting this man to agree not to speak on the particular error he holds. Is this the Scriptural approach? Can you imagine Paul telling Timothy to go ahead and invite Hymenaeus and Philetus to preach a gospel meeting to help advance good will and unity – just first be sure they agree not to speak on the resurrection (2 Tim. 2:17-18)? Yet, that approach is being used by brethren and churches toward men who teach error on any number of topics, including divorce and remarriage, social drinking and dancing, and the ability to have ongoing fellowship in spite of moral and doctrinal error.
4) Be warned when a church tells brethren to keep their error private so fellowship can continue. Brethren are teaching it is Scriptural to maintain fellowship when a Christian holds “private error that is not publicly taught”. (How did that work out for Ananias and Sapphira, who privately believed the error that they could lie to God without consequence?) Furthermore, we would ask that if one’s error is truly private, how is it known in the first place? And, since it is known, then it is not strictly private, is it? Yes, brethren who believe error need to be taught the truth with love and patience (Eph. 4:15-16; 2 Tim. 2:24-26). But they should not be told to just keep their false views private and as long as they do it will not affect fellowship in the local church. What Scripture teaches that? And, what about the Lord?
Does it matter to Him that His disciple believes error (a lie of the devil)? Of course it does. This false approach to fellowship minimizes the danger of error and the value of truth.
5) Be warned when brethren are told that Romans 14 allows ongoing fellowship in spite of error. Romans 14 does not provide for fellowship in spite of error over “the faith once for all delivered” (Jude 3). It teaches us how to receive one another when our consciences differ over issues of personal liberty. Both actions of conscience are approved by God in Romans 14 (since liberties are, by definition, allowed but not bound, Rom. 14:3-4). Yet, brethren continue to assign “matters of consideration moral and doctrinal import” to Romans 14 (Ed Harrell, “The Bounds of Christian Unity, 4”, Christianity Magazine, May 1989, p. 6). This error continues to convince brethren to unite and have ongoing fellowship with brethren whose teachings and practices violate the inspired Scriptures. Error on divorce and remarriage, social drinking, immodest clothing and more are no longer viewed as disrupting fellowship among brethren. Congregations have corrupted their unity in Christ by having fellowship with sin. This false view of Romans 14 has contributed to brethren and churches drifting away from fellowship based only on revealed truth (1 John 1:3-4).
Few brethren want to study and discuss fellowship. That will not make this Bible subject go away. Silence on the subject insures that more churches of Christ will drift away from Bible patterns as they become more and more tolerant of more and more sin.
The false teaching that Christians ought to maintain unity in spite of moral and doctrinal differences has caused Christians to fall from the faith. Its contrary winds have driven entire congregations against the destructive rocks of tolerance and diversity. Only divine truth has the power to calm the gale of compromise and secure for Christians the safe haven of unity and fellowship with God and His people.