May 30, 2017

A Review of F. LaGard Smith’s “Five Levels of Fellowship”

By Johnny Stringer

In the epilogue of his book, Who Is My Brother?, F. LaGard Smith publishes his letter to Max Lucado containing his replies to Lucado’s book, In the Grip of Grace. Following the letter, brother Smith writes: “Having now myself gone public through the pages of this book, and having written my own letter of reply to Max, I invite similar responses from any who might wish to continue the dialogue. The crucial issues raised in this book need all the collective attention we can give them. Nothing but good can come from an honest, open searching of the Scriptures on the nature and boundaries of Christian fellowship” (254).

I applaud the spirit these words express. It is good for brethren to discuss ideas and argue their differences in an honorable and brotherly way. Accepting brother Smith’s invitation, I offer this article in response to his discussion of five levels of fellowship. He affirms that there are five categories of fellowship, which he discusses in chapters 5-9.

Universal Fellowship: The Family of Man

The first level of fellowship, discussed in chapter 6, is that which exists among all humans. We all are descendants of Adam and are brothers and sisters in the family of man. We share the human experience, render aid to one another, and participate with fellow humans in various endeavors of common interest (e.g., PTA). As Christians, we are concerned for the spiritual well-being of our fellow humans, and we seek to lead them to Christ.

There is little with which I would take issue in the discussion of universal fellowship. Certainly there is a bond and a relationship that all humans share. This relationship is a kind of fellowship, but it is not the kind that is described in the Scriptures. The term is used in the Scriptures to describe the relationship of those who adhere to the declarations of the apostles (1 John 1:3).

Faith Fellowship: Like Family

Chapter 7 discusses a level of fellowship that the author describes as “faith fellowship.” This is fellowship with those who believe in Christ but have not been biblically baptized. This level of fellowship is higher than “universal fellowship,” but it falls short of “in Christ” fellowship (to be discussed later).

Brother Smith says that these unbaptized believers are not “family,” but  they are “like family.” The description, “like family,” is not identical to Ketcherside’s “brothers in prospect,” but it does have a similar ring to it. Explaining this description, he writes, “In virtually every way they think and act as those in the family would think and act” (106). Really? Do they think and act as those in the family? Their thinking utterly rejects what Jesus said to do to be saved as well as the need for scriptural authority in religion, and their actions in worship and service to God are not governed by his word. Such thinking and acting is certainly not appropriate for the family of God.

I was surprised to find that our brother uses the incident recorded in Mark 9:38-41 to provide a scriptural basis for “faith fellowship.” John reported that he and the other apostles had seen a man casting out demons. They had forbidden him to do so “because he followeth not us.” Jesus corrected John’s error. The fact that the man was not among those traveling in Jesus’ immediate company was no reason to forbid him to perform miracles in the name of Jesus. This man was not comparable to those who are involved in unscriptural religious systems. There is no hint that he rejected any portion of divine truth or was involved in any false religious activities.

Brother Smith believes that we should appreciate and value unbaptized believers. Indeed, we may benefit from some of the accomplishments of those in religious error, but our brother makes some comments that both astound and appall me. Read his words and think: “Globally, it is hard to overestimate the good that has been done by Anglican and Roman Catholic missionaries in civilizing pagan cultures. (Their notorious errors and excesses pale when compared to the good done.)” (109). I am not able to comprehend how a man of LaGard Smith’s knowledge could make such an assertion. These false religious systems teach errors that lead souls away from Christ and into the eternal agonies of hell. Does that horrible fact pale when compared to the material good that they have done. Is the fact that they lead souls to eternal damnation outweighed by the fact that they have civilized some cultures?

Expressing his appreciation for the fellowship he enjoys with unbaptized believers, brother Smith writes: “I recently shared with my colleagues on the law school faculty my distress at having come to the conclusion that I had more of a spiritual bonding with a visiting professor who is Catholic than I have with some of my colleagues who are baptized members of the Lord’s church” (113-114). The author thus reflects his assessment of the law professors at Pepperdine. I am thankful that I have through the years enjoyed association with more spiritual brethren.

Extolling the spirituality and commitment of certain unbaptized believers, brother Smith writes of the edification he receives from his fellowship with them. I have a different viewpoint. Brother Smith is talking about people who profess faith in Christ but reject his conditions for salvation, teach others to reject those conditions, and engage in human religious practices rather than those that are divinely revealed. I am not even comfortable calling them believers when they do not believe what the Lord has taught us to do to be saved. I do not share with them a common faith and I do not consider myself to be in fellowship with them. I commend them for their zeal, but they and I are going in different directions. Despite brother Smith’s talk of their devotion and commitment, their devotion and commitment have not been sufficiently strong to lead them to reject their human doctrines and religious systems and be guided by God’s word. When people renounce fundamental truths of the gospel and vigorously oppose faithful saints who teach those truths, I do not consider them to be “like family.” “What fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness?” (2 Cor. 6:14).

“In Christ” Fellowship: The Extended Family

This is the fellowship we have with all who have been scripturally immersed. It includes those with whom we have serious doctrinal differences and those who have gone into sin. It is true that these are brethren in God’s family. Nevertheless, we must not extend the “right hand of fellowship” to those who teach doctrines that condemn souls or engage unrepentantly in sin. We must not give the impression that we endorse their teaching or conduct or that we regard them to be right with God (2 John 9-11; Eph. 5:11). The Bible does not teach that the faithful are in fellowship with those in sin (2 Cor. 6:14).

In his discussion of this level of fellowship, brother Smith discusses those who are baptized without understanding its significance. They should be taught the true meaning of baptism, he says, but then they may be regarded as brethren and given the right hand of fellowship. I believe that in order for baptism to be biblical, it must be for the biblical reason: the remission of sins (Acts 2:38). Being baptized without understanding its significance is of no more value than eating the Lord’s supper without understanding its significance. Repentant believers who were baptized for the remission of sins are my brethren.

Conscience Fellowship: Close Family

Brother Smith says that conscience fellowship “provides elbow-room for the exercise of individual and collective conscience” (78). Certainly, allowance must be made for differences of conscience in our personal lives. However, we are not free to tolerate practices that are clearly sinful. Our brother recognizes this fact, acknowledging that “there are some doctrines too obviously ungodly to leave to others’ conscientious understanding” (143). He mentions, for example, homosexual marriages and “also heterosexual re-marriages that violate Jesus’ clear teaching” (143). In fact, he avers, “Such obvious sin cannot simply be a matter of individual or congregational conscience” (144).

Having said that, however, brother Smith warns of the danger of confusing sin with doctrinal differences. As I understand it, he believes that if someone’s doctrinal belief leads him to believe that a remarriage is not adulterous, then allowance should be made for his view. That puts the matter on the level of a doctrinal difference rather than sin. He asserts that we may be guilty of “accusing others of tolerating adultery without acknowledging that, if the other person is right about the remarriage not being adulterous, then there is no sin at all being tolerated” (146). Brother Smith does not discuss whether he would make the same allowance for those whose doctrinal beliefs lead them to believe that homosexual marriages are acceptable. Those inclined to accept his position would do well to consider this point. If the Bible clearly condemns a practice, the fact that some brethren do not accept that teaching does not make the practice any less sinful or any more worthy of acceptance.

Brother Smith also discusses differences among congregations due to diversity of conscience regarding congregational practices. He says, “If the extended family must at times be separated into enclaves of conscience fellowship, it can never be at the expense of koinonia fellowship. We must still care. We must still share.” This means “that, despite those differences, we recognize and appreciate brothers and sisters in Christ who are as much a part of the extended family as we are” (148). Regarding the division over institutionalism, he states, “Unfortunately what should have been a victory for conscience fellowship has turned out to be a colossal defeat in terms of our attitude towards those on the other side of the doctrinal fence” (150). Certainly, good attitudes must be maintained and brotherly love must continue; nevertheless, those who are involved in unscriptural practices cannot be regarded as faithful saints, and we must not speak and act as though we regard them as such.

Congregational Fellowship: Immediate Family

This is the fellowship among Christians who work and worship together in the local congregation. Brother Smith discusses the blessings of such a family relationship, but he also discusses the problems that sometimes lead one to consider departing a particular congregation. Sometimes the congregation’s activities are such that one has difficulties maintaining a good conscience while participating. Our brother shares with us that he has experienced that dilemma.

He has already given indication of the flexibility of his conscience. In chapter 7 he tells of attending a church in England and singing with an instrument despite his opposition to the use of instrumental music in worship. He consoled himself with the thought that everybody else there was singing with the instrument, but he was singing without it (103). He admits that this rationalization did not solve the problem and that the use of instrumental music marred the worship; nevertheless, he continued to worship with that church. We should not be surprised, therefore, if his conscience allows him to remain in a congregation engaging in activities he believes to be wrong. Indeed, our brother acknowledges that he has long remained with a congregation that has posed many questions of conscience.

Brother Smith sets forth six questions to consider when one is determining whether he should remain with a congregation. They are legitimate questions worthy of sober consideration. However, regardless of how good the questions are, one who is seeking to justify a particular course of action can answer them so as to justify that course. The author says, “Having struggled with these complex questions for many years now, I have somehow managed to maintain a continuing, if rocky, fellowship among brothers and sisters with whom I sometimes disagree almost as much as I love” (165).

Our brother believes that his remaining in the congregation despite his strong disagreements with its practices has enabled him to be a part of vital evangelistic work in his community. He writes, “It’s easy to be so consumed with the problems of family fellowship that we forget our far greater responsibility to bring others into the family” (165). One must consider, however, into what are we bringing these converts? When we baptize people, we should teach them to observe all our Lord’s commandments (Matt. 28:18-20), not lead them into a congregation teaching or practicing error.

In his discussion of congregational fellowship, brother Smith acknowledges that doctrinal differences may require two groups within the congregation “to go their separate ways.” When such occurs, each group should respect the conscience of the other and “continue to respect each other as fellow Christians doing their very best to follow in the steps of Christ” (166-167). He has more to say later in the chapter about our attitude toward congregations engaging in practices contrary to our conscience. He writes that “we must nevertheless honor the collective conscience of each and every other congregation” (172) and that we have no biblical right to ostracize them (173). Yet, he says that we should seek to teach them what we believe to be the truth.

In considering our attitude toward such a congregation, we must remember this: When a congregation is engaging in unscriptural activities, it is not just one individual practicing his personal conscience. The leadership is leading the whole congregation to believe and practice error. In addition, it is binding those unscriptural practices on all who would  become a part of that congregation. The congregation’s message is, if you do not join with us in these practices, you may not be a part of us. Even though we love them, we cannot be tolerant of their propagation of error. Far more than individual conscience is involved.

Brother Smith’s discussion of our attitude toward such congregations leaves me somewhat unclear as to the practical applications. Does “ostracizing” them mean that we make it clear that we regard them as unfaithful? In order to respect their collective conscience and avoid ostracizing them, must we announce the activities (Gospel Meetings, Vacation Bible Schools, etc.) of congregations we believe to be teaching and practicing error? Or if one of the elders or the preacher were an excellent song leader, would we ask him to lead singing in our Gospel Meeting? Such would surely give the impression that we regard them as faithful. Would brother Smith apply these principles to the congregation consisting of homosexuals and upholding homosexuality? If not, why not?

Conclusion

There is some good material in brother Smith’s book, but the purpose of this article has been to briefly explain what he means by the five categories of fellowship and to point out some views I believe to be in error. Fearful of misrepresenting my brother, I have diligently endeavored to be fair and accurate in dealing with what he has written.

4992 County Road 26, Rogersville, Alabama 35652 johnnys@

Truth Magazine Vol. XLIV: 19  p3  October 5, 2000
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