The Fellowship of Christians
Fellowship is not peculiar to Christianity; in all the varied relationships of life there exists fellowship. Men join together in the exercise of common interests and the attainment of common objectives. This is true in the business, political and social activities of our lives. Fellowship involves the matter of co-partnery in such activities. It is founded on the principle of relationship. It is maintained and directed by a unity of purpose, united by an identity of interests, and characterized by a mutuality of respect and affection. There is no relationship existing between men which is comparable to that of Christians with one another. It is the one relationship which shall continue unbroken beyond and despite death. This is both a sobering and thrilling thought. Anything, therefore, which arises to break it here, is to be appraised with respect to its seriousness in the light of eternity. I would be "afraid to be ashamed and ashamed to be afraid" to not contend earnestly for the faith once for all delivered to the saints, but I would be both afraid and ashamed to contend for one thing apart from the faith which would rupture the fellowship, peace and unity of God's children. I have never consciously so done, and God being my helper I pray I never shall.
While believing in both the possibility and desirability of all Christians being "perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment," yet I know that such can and must be realized only by an appeal to, and satisfaction with, the Word of God. It is not a matter of acquiescing in either the judgment of the majority or the minority, but an acceptance of a "thus with the Lord." There are points of teaching wherein a perfect unanimity of persuasion does not exist between the people of God. Some are of greater seriousness than others. This is true because these vitally affect the question of fellowship. There have been, and are, questions about which brethren differ which never has imperiled the unity of the church. The rejection of all human creeds, and the plea of "in faith unity, in opinion liberty, and in all things charity" saved the church from division over the civil conflict which raged from 1861 to 1865. While others divided why was this so? Simply because the popular denominations were creed-bound and politically controlled, and the church was not. A question which arises with every war is that of the Christian's relation to civil government. It was discussed at length and with considerable passion during the last war. It did not rupture the church. Why? Fundamentally, it is a question which is to be individually determined, and involves only individual action and responsibility; it has no legitimate bearing on the functions of the church in either the realm of work or worship.
Today, the church is in the thralls of a conflict which has reached a convulsive stage. Life-long friendships are being imperiled; fraternal feelings of respect and affection are being destroyed, and the cause of Christ is being paralyzed because of this internal discension. The heart that remains untouched, and the soul that is not grieved thereby, if aware- of it, is not that of a Christian.
Whether the situation can be healed is doubtful; that it could have been prevented is not, at least to me. Both we and our fathers have had, and sought to apply, a prescription for the division and discord of the religious community. We have besought our neighbors to "search the scriptures to see whether these things be true;" we have plead with them to lay aside human creeds and human opinions and take that which is written as their sole authority in faith and practice. We have urgently invited them to point out that which we teach and practice that is without Divine warrant. We have claimed to walk by faith rather than by sight, or appearance. We have stressed the thought that it is not within man to direct his own steps, and that the foolishness of God is wiser than man, and the weakness of God is greater than the strength of man. Are we willing to abide by our own plea, and heal ourselves by the remedy we prescribe for others? That we could have prevented the present state of affairs by this course, there can be no doubt; that many are willing to do so now is fearfully questionable.
What is the present and predominant condition in the churches of Christ that renders highly improbable the resolving of differences and the healing of the widening breach? Primarily, it is the uninformed mind of the vast majority of Christians as touching both the scriptures and the real point of the issue.
The church is filled with people who are essentially and tragicly worldly-minded. Therefore, they think and reason as does the world; they are short-sighted, viewing everything within the limits of the immediate rather than the far-reaching consequences. A present and utilitarian philosophy of thought pervades their thinking. In the absence of an appreciation of the word of God, they have become infatuated with humanly contrived mechanics of operation, and theirs is an emotional reaction rather than an intelligent appraisal of questions in dispute. This affords a splendid opportunity for creating prejudice in their hearts through misrepresentation and thereby a clouding of the issues, and the imputation of unholy motives to those of the opposing side.
In order to insure the effectiveness of this course, there must be a stifling of free discussion; hence, we see papers, lecture platforms and pulpits closed to all discussion except in defense of that which is questioned. This clearly bespeaks the fact that those thus acting are either distrustful of the truth of their position, or distrustful of the ability and fairness of the people to discern the truth; the first is an indictment of themselves; the second an insult to the mass of their brethren. In order, however, to secure and effect this course it is necessary to create a cleavage between themselves and those who favor a full, free discussion. To do this they have projected the question of fellowship into the fore, and are pressing for the "marking" and withdrawing of fellowship from all who do not conform to their pattern of thought and practice.
Is this course justifiable? That there are differences which never justify a broken fellowship between Children of God, it is assumed all will grant; and, on the other hand, that there may develop differences as will inevitably, unless resolved in time, issue into a broken fellowship, must also be granted.
That any divergence in the views, persuasions and practices of brethren should rapidly crystallize into a clear, definite break in the ranks of God's people is emphatically denied. We are admonished to walk worthy of the vocation whencewith we have been called. And what is essential to this walk? We're to exercise all lowliness and meekness, with long suffering, forbearing one another in love, endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Eph. 4:1-3). This forbids a rash and precipitate, and willful, insistence on having our way or else. It enjoins considerateness, love and forbearance exercised by a lowliness of mind and meekness. The absence of this will damn our souls and rupture the body of Christ; and be it remembered that the unity of the Spirit involves and recognizes but one body. When, therefore, two distinct bodies of religious faith and practice emerge, it is evident that at least one of them will not be the body of Christ. Whoever, therefore, is responsible for thus separating those who presently constitute the body of Christ will face an awful tribunal in the last day.
Is it necessary in order to preserve unity that anyone stultify his conscience? If so, it is not the unity of the Spirit. Is it necessary that the minority submit to the majority sentiment of thought, or the majority to the minority? If so, such constitutes not the Unity of the Spirit. The Unity of the Spirit is created and sustained by the one faith, consequently any unity effected or preserved by any force other than that exerted by the faith, or gospel revelation, is not the unity of the Spirit. And no other unity is either required by God or pleasing to Him.
Churches and individual members are being marked and branded as unworthy of the fellowship of those thus marking, solely on the basis they are not supporting brotherhood programs of work in evangelism and benevolence. It isn't competent that a congregation be a simple New Testament church, circumscribed in its activities by the New Testament, but it must join in the schemes and operations of confessedly human arrangement in order to have the good-will and favor of the "powers that be" among us. We know a gospel preacher who refused an invitation to preach in a gospel meeting because the inviting congregation does not support an orphan home! On this principle of action, he would have been unable to preach in any congregation founded by the apostles, so far as we know anything about them. Of course to have so done then would not have marred his popularity, as doubtless he fears it will now!
These issues have arisen within the last few years in their present form. They are, in principle, not new. They are as old as the church, practically. The first appearance of decided and fundamental differences in the church was referred to the judicial decision of the apostles for settlement. They settled it for all time, and acting on the same recognition of apostolic authority, these current problems can be met and settled. Properly we have been and are in the definitive period; that is, a period wherein there is properly the need to define just what the real issues are, to the end that they can be wisely and safely resolved. It has not been, nor is it now, a time for rash and ill-tempered behavior, inflamed passions and prejudicial pleadings. It is a time for calm and intelligent study of the scriptures, for the cultivation of a more humble attitude which expresses itself in a willingness to abide in the teaching of Christ, whatever that teaching may be found to be. Human tradition, brotherhood practices and sentimental affusions count for nothing; to the spiritualminded only what pleases God is of any moment or virtue. The current practices which are in dispute arose gradually, the danger of the course they pointed being perceived by a few, if any, clearly. We are all liable to error, even when directed by the best of motives. We should never become unwilling to be taught by our brother, or anyone else. With the proper feelings pervading, the proper course directed toward a search for truth, and the proper attitude toward the righteous supremacy of truth motivating us, the unity and fellowship of the church could be preserved. Otherwise it is impossible. To people of sincere and deep convictions of, and a love for, the truth, no pressure, no threat, no political strategy, no earthly interest will ever deter them from "standing fast in the liberty wherewith Christ had made them free."
Fellowship between Christians rests on the fundamental and accepted fact of fellowship between them, severally, and the Lord. He is the source of attraction, and His word contains the stated conditions and directions for the securing and enjoying of this fellowship. "If we walk in the light, as He is in the light, we have fellowship one with the other, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanseth us from all sin" too, "That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you that you might have fellowship with us, and truly our fellowship is with the Father and His Son Jesus Christ" (I John chapter 1). Also, "Whosoever transgresseth and abideth not in the doctrine of Christ hath not-God, but he that abideth in the doctrine of Christ hath both the Father and the Son" (2 Jno. 9). Any fellowship enjoyed and attained at the expense of forfeiting the fellowship of God and Christ is too costly.
At what point one loses his identity and acceptance with God, I do not know. Therefore, I do not, as I have been accused, brand those with whom I differ on these matters as apostates. That a diversion from the apostolic pattern of teaching and practice does not immediately entail a rejection by God of His people, I believe; that .such persisted in, and continued, will result in such rejection, I also believe. With the retention of an attitude, by any individual, of a loose regard for and liberal treatment of the revealed will of God there will come to pass inevitably his ruin before God.
A pressing, urging contention that brethren must accept that which occupies, in its most favorable form, only the position of a questionable expediency as necessary to continued fellowship will indict those so doing with the guilt of diversion. I have no right to require of anyone, as a condition of fellowship, that which is not essential to his fellowship with God and Christ.
The fellowship of my brethren I desire; the fellowship of my God and Savior I must have. God forbid I should ever desire the former to the extent I would endanger the latter in order to have it. This subject shall be continued next month.
Truth Magazine, V:11; pp. 2-5