A Review of Fellowship on Marriage, Divorce and Remarriage by Samuel Dawson

By Tom M. Roberts

There are limits to fellowship, unless one accepts the tenets of Universalism. How these limits are defined continues to be a matter of study and controversy among brethren. While a generous spirit would suggest that the most noble of motives activates most of us to seek the truth regardless of personalities, it must also be acknowledged that misguided desires might predominate: the desire to broaden fellowship so as to include doctrinal error; the desire to plead for special privilege for esteemed persons who teach error; the desire to avoid another division among brethren at all costs, etc.

A booklet written by Samuel Dawson (Fellowship on Marriage, Divorce and Remarriage, Gospel Themes Press, Sumner, WA, 1992) has been widely distributed across America in which he advocates expanded fellowship concerning Homer Hailey, et al, and their teachings on marriage, divorce and remarriage (MDR). One should not be surprised to discover, upon reading, that his desire to extend this open hand of fellowship to those who teach error on marriage, divorce and remarriage is caustically backhanded to those who oppose the error. While claiming not to reveal his true feelings about the doctrinal position of marriage, divorce and remarriage (p. 30), he leaves no doubts at all as to his position by the deliberate and prejudicial manner in which he equates those who oppose the marriage, divorce and remarriage error with those who split the church over the missionary society, instrumental music and institutionalism.

Who Is Guilty of Church-Splitting?

Must we, at this late date ask, “Who split the log?”

Three separate occasions are cited when “a small group of men” met respectively in Cincinnati, Ohio (1840s), Ridgeway, Kentucky (late 1800s), and Abilene, Texas (I 950s) and “made decisions that impacted every church of Christ in America” (p. 3). These decisions, you may recall, resulted in the missionary society, instrumental music and the sponsoring church and divided churches on each of the three occasions. Brother Dawson adds one other meeting of a “small number of men” in Belery, New Mexico that “threaten(s) to affect every church of Christ in America, this. time, on the subject of marriage, divorce, and remarriage” (p. 4).

This comparison leaves little doubt as to his position on marriage, divorce and remarriage! Those “young men” who opposed Hailey in Belen were guilty, in brother Dawson’s eyes, of threatening to denominationalize the church. Preaching the truth on marriage, divorce and remarriage is equal to starting a missionary society or importing a piano into a congregation!

According to Dawson, Hailey had the right to teach a doctrine that others felt would cause men and women to be lost in hell, but no one had the right to answer him. We must not only permit such studies, but must also encourage fellowship with the error and rebuke, censure, tar and feather anyone who dares to question Hailey or his doctrine. Why, brother Dawson, is it so noble to defend brother Hailey and condemn those who exposed him unless you agree with Hailey? I suggest that your objectivity on the subject of fellowship is suspect due to your own views on marriage, divorce and remarriage. Your speech betrays you.

Aside from this review, brethren must examine the practice of permitting teachers of error the privilege of privately teaching their views without being challenged.

In fact, a strange and horrible event is occurring today among brethren. Blatant and grievous error is being advocated whereby the teaching of Christ concerning marriage, divorce and remarriage is being openly and widely denied. Doctrines are being advocated whereby anyone, for any cause, can divorce his mate, marry another, and continue in full fellowship with brethren. This is sinful and shameful and opposed to the doctrine of Christ. The smoke screen of fellowship with individuals (Hailey, Wharton, Bassett, et al) is obscuring the real issue. Brother Dawson clearly wants not only fellowship with these public figures who have heretofore privately taught this error, but also wants brethren everywhere to permit public teaching of this error to persist without consequence. Faithful brethren during the 1800s and 1900s were falsely accused as being church splitters and brother Dawson continues the practice. My brother, when you “go beyond the doctrine of Christ” (2 Jn. 9ff), you and others who do will have to bear the guilt and not those who submit to the will of the Master.

God Hates Divorce

The Bible clearly teaches that God wants marriage to be one man and one woman for life with one exception (adultery) permitting remarriage of the innocent party (Gen. 1,2; Matt. 5; Matt. 19; etc.). God hates putting away (Mal. 2:16). Thus, divorce is sinful and is an abomination to God. Jesus clearly taught the will of God and bound that upon his disciples. Even as brother Dawson says, “It is not my purpose to suggest that the issues on divorce and remarriage are so complex that we cannot understand them. I don’t believe it” (p. 30). Yes, the will of God is understandable on marriage, divorce and remarriage. But it is quite clear also that many are denying what Jesus taught even while they want others to roll over and play dead while they teach their error. Some want to allow their long-time friends and influential brothers to be allowed special privilege to teach this sinful doctrine. Whether being taught to the church universal (through the medium of magazines, private classes, etc.) or in local churches, this error will not pass unchallenged. It is sinful. It violates the will of God. It will cause people to be lost in hell.

If Homer Hailey had taught at Belen, New Mexico that two homosexuals who were married were okay in their marriage and should continue in it and be received into the fellowship of that church, would you or Ed Harrell defend brother Hailey in that error, brother Dawson? If not, why not? I can hear now what you would say. You would say, “Why such a homosexual marriage is sinful and you can have no fellowship in such a sin.” Yes, and you would be right. But can’t you see that an adulterous marriage is also just as much an abomination to God? If not, and if you accept adulterous marriages, then your objectivity in your booklet is a farce. The defense by Harrell, yourself and others must have one thing in common: you do not really believe divorce and remarriage to be an abomination in God’s mind and that it can be practiced with impunity. Each of you may come to your conclusions in different ways: Hailey argues for the alien and a universal moral code; Bassett argues for each to “abide in his calling” (1 Cor. 7:20); Wharton argues that “if one is loosed, both are loosed”; Harrell says you are all wrong but that it doesn’t make any difference. He’ll fellowship all of you in your error and encourage your use while you preach your error so his protestations of disagreement are futile and impotent. The end result is shameful in that each of you comes out at the same conclusion: divorce is permitted for every cause. The clear teaching of Jesus is violated and those who believe and practice what Jesus taught are labeled as church splitters and guilty of denominationalizing the church.

Congregational Autonomy

Brother Dawson suggested that it was and is an “unhealthy” situation whereby “anyone could meet anywhere, especially Cincinnati, Ridgeway, or Abilene, and make decisions that influenced every church of Christ in America” (p. 4). He included Belen in that category. I wonder, brother Dawson, if when you made a decision in Sumner, Washington to write your booklet and send it to churches across the nation, did you intend to “influence every church of Christ in America”? He also deplored a situation whereby local churches allowed “outside forces (to) propel them into another denominational split” (p. 30). He advised that “each local church should study the issues for itself, determine its own conduct on these matters, and not allow any outside preacher, paper, college, or coalition of congregations to determine its action” (p. 4). He warned that there is “another denominational split coming ” (emp. his, tr), saying “a few preachers and editors feel that congregations must line up, and that open discussion and study in each congregation is dangerous. These few advocate that lines of fellowship must be drawn. They bring undue influence to bear on congregations which will inevitably result in many congregations being split, and there will be another denominational line-up of congregations” (p. 6),

Does preaching the truth cause denominational splits? Does writing for a paper that is read by brethren cause denominational splits? I challenge brother Dawson to name a single church that has had its autonomy violated by Torch Magazine, Searching the Scriptures, Gospel Anchor, or Guardian of Truth. I challenge him to prove that I or any who writes for these papers views the church in a denominational sense. I know of no one who has advocated that churches line up or that teach that open discussion in a local church is dangerous. I know of no one bringing undue influence on any congregation and would oppose that practice if I did. For the record, brother Dawson is not alone in defending congregational autonomy. I am as jealous for it as he. But it seems somewhat facetious of brother Dawson to accuse those who disagree with him of violating church autonomy and denominationalizing the church by teaching what they believe in sermons, papers and bulletins when he wrote the booklet advocating his expanded view of fellowship and sent it “to every church of Christ in America.” Was it “unhealthy” and sectarian for him to use a directory of churches (does this suggest he views these churches as a “coalition”) to mail his booklet? Was it “unhealthy”of him to contradict his own advice about outside interference in the following material: “You can help. If you are a preacher and are agreed that local churches should be able to study these matters and determine local church action without outside interference, won’t you help get copies of this booklet into the hands of the local elders, and other influential members? Think of others who would benefit from being warned of the danger that confronts us all.

“If you are an elder in a local church, you of all people should object to outside stifling of study within your local congregation. Copies of this booklet could help alert your members to the denominationalizing tendencies of previous divisions in churches of Christ, so they will not be willing to inadvertently participate in another one.

“If you are a Christian who is a Bible teacher, copies of this booklet will serve to admonish those you influence to study for themselves” (p. 31).

I stand somewhat amazed that he would criticize people for writing and teaching what they believe, stating that such would denominationalize the church while he does the exact same thing! Is your booklet “outside interference” in local churches? How does it differ from the Guardian of Truth and other papers? Your appeal to preachers to “get copies of this booklet into the hands of local elders, and other influential members” does indeed smack of undue influence, meddling and conspiracy to violate the local autonomy of local churches.

Brother Dawson Advocates Drawing Lines of Fellowship One accusation leveled against some of us in his book is, “These few advocate that lines of fellowship must be drawn” (p. 6). Once again, brother Dawson contradicts himself. Maybe it depends on “whose ox is being gored.” Does he not draw any lines of fellowship? Would he fellowship anyone in a local church involved in a homosexual marriage? Would he fellowship one who drove a wedge in a local church with an instrument of music? Would he limit his fellowship and financial support to a congregation that supported human institutions? I dare say that he would limit his fellowship in all these instances because he would agree to the sinfulness of these matters and limit his fellowship. It is this exact point that proves that Samuel Dawson does not believe what the Bible teaches about divorce. If he believed marriage, divorce and remarriage (as being discussed) to be sinful, he would draw lines of fellowship just as we do. How can I know this? Let brother Dawson tell us in his own words.

In an earlier publication, Fellowship: With God and His People (Gospel Themes Press, Santa Maria, CA, 1988), brother Dawson has some things to say on fellowship as he discusses “The Way of Christ Without Denominationalism.” While there are things in that publication as well that are worthy of review (many good things are taught), he includes “Chapter Five: Fellowship with Other Christians” (pp. 75-101).

To the point is brother Dawson’s use of Paul’s statement to Timothy in 1 Timothy 5:21-22 which concludes with the warning “neither be partaker of other men’s sins” (p. 80). He observes, “The term ‘partaker’ comes from the same root word for ‘fellowship,’ the subject of our study. Paul instructs Timothy not to be a partaker in other men’s sins, nor to conduct himself in a way that makes him a partner in their evil deeds.” He references another passage having the same thrust: 2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1. He accurately observes: “The very tenor of these words instructs us not to be in fellowship with sin, to be holy and separate from it. This is a condition of fellowship with God, in Whom no darkness exists at all.”

Brother Dawson adds a study of Ephesians 5:6-11 and Ezekiel 18:1-20 and raises the question, “How can we associate with others in such a way as to make us a partner or fellow’ in their sins?” (emphasis added). He lists the following things Christians should not do or else be guilty of fellowship in sin:

“A. Commit the Same Sin Together.” This is illustrated by Acts 5:1,2,9: Ananais and Sapphira had fellowship in the same sin of lying to the Holy Spirit (p. 81).

“B. Commit the Same Sin Separately.” He listed Acts 7:51-52 in which Stephen accused the Jews of “being partakers in the sins of their fathers” (p. 82).

“C. Consent with Sinners.” Brother Dawson showed that some were guilty “not by committing the same sin ourselves, but merely by consenting while someone else does it. For example, in Acts 8:1 ” where “Saul was consenting unto his death” (p. 83).

“D. Know Another’s Guilt But Fail to Act.” In powerful words, Ezekiel 3:17-21 is used showing that God set Ezekiel forth as a watchman with all its attendant responsibilities. “Clearly, God held Ezekiel responsible for informing the people about their sin. He was not to ‘wait for them to bring it up!'”

Further, he used 1 Samuel 2:12,17,31 and the house of Eli to show that “Eli was in fellowship with his sons’ sins because God said, ‘I am about to judge his house forever for the iniquity which he knew, because his sons brought a curse on themselves, and he did not rebuke them.’ Eli’s part in his sons’ sins was that he knew their guilt, and he failed to act sufficiently to stop their sins.”

Brother Dawson approaches eloquence when he adds Paul’s statement to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20:26-27 saying, “Paul makes it clear he lives under the same admonition Ezekiel lived under. When one knows the truth and fails to apply it where he can, he becomes partaker in the very sins he should restrain. Parents who keep quiet become partaker in their children’s sins just like Eli. Christians who look the other way become partakers in others’ sins” (pp. 84,85). Exactly! Amen! Perhaps the “young men” at Belen felt the same way. Should they have looked the other way?

“E. By Our Example and Influence.” 1 Corinthians 8:4-12 is used to show “another way we become a partaker in another’s sins, that is by failing to consider the power of our example and influence” (pp. 85,86). What influence will your booklet have, brother Dawson? What influence will brother Hailey have in sending souls to meet God unprepared because of adulterous marriages he has approved by his teaching?

“F. By Improper Association With False Doctrine.” “Here, though, we speak of the corruption of others by false teachers! In Ezekiel 13:8-10, Ezekiel condemns the false prophets of his time for this very sin. . . . A little reflection enables us to see this is in reality what all false teachers do: (1) they discourage the righteous, and (2) they encourage the wicked not to turn from their wicked ways. Thus it has always been, it would be entirely possible now for us to be partakers in the teaching of a false teacher” (pp. 86,87). I agree with you wholeheartedly, brother Dawson. But you disagree with your own writings on pp. 7-8 of the booklet being reviewed when you quote from Ed Harrell. He says that you cannot call a man a false teacher unless he is dishonest and/or ignorant. You say false doctrine makes false teachers. Does this contradiction disqualify you and brother Harrell from writing?

“G. By Financially Supporting Error.” He said, ” . . .When we support one who teaches false doctrine, we are in fellowship with his evil works. We ought always to look out that we don’t partake in another man’s sins in this regard” (pp. 87-89). Would you invite brothers Hailey, Bassett and company to Sumner for a gospel meeting and pay them wages to teach what they believe on marriage, divorce and remarriage? Would you accept into your membership a convert in that meeting who was living with his “nth” wife? If so, would you invite James Bales to Sumner and support him (wages) to teach his view on marriage, divorce and remarriage? Would you also let him preach his view on institutionalism? If not, why not? If you can fellowship Hailey, why not Bales? Could you support one who taught the use of the piano? Just how far will you go in your advocacy of fellowship? Surely there are those who believe in “unity in diversity” that will be interested in your answer.

Brother Dawson, your own words convict you!

You do believe there is false doctrine today. You do believe there are false teachers. You do believe that you must limit your fellowship so as not to be a “partner” with them. This is an admirable stand and, while we may have some discussions about what constitutes true and false doctrine, we can indeed agree that we must limit our fellowship. However, when you hide behind a pretended objectivity and point the finger at brethren, accusing them of denominationalizing the church when we practice the same thing you do, you add nothing to our discussions. If you believe the loose doctrines on marriage, divorce and remarriage as taught by Hailey, Bassett, Bales and others, say so. I believe this to be false teaching and will say so, even as I respect you for your candor and honesty. If you disagree with me, you think me a false teacher and I would expect nothing less from you. Open discussions can then begin which could go far to shedding more light than heat.

But, my brother, don’t ask us to gloss over these differences as though they don’t exist, while permitting you to go on teaching your error and chastising us as fomenters of splits when we reject your terms. Would you submit to this same treatment by those of the institutional persuasion, by homosexual advocates, by Christian church preachers? Doesn’t it rankle you to be unjustly called “anti” without proper definitions? You have harshly criticized every brother who believes the truth of Jesus on marriage, divorce and remarriage as being in league with other generations of rebels and church splitters. Why would you even want to extend fellowship to such reprobates?

So please don’t plead special privilege to us on the basis of what is good for the church. False doctrine is never good for the church. Please don’t act as though our differences are not real and substantial. It begs the question of fellow ship to ask us to continue in fellowship while brethren spread false doctrine. You would not do it, but you ask us to do it.


Seldom has a document been presented which purports to encourage fellowship that does more to defeat it. Arguing a respect for local church autonomy, it pleads for an assault on every church to sell his publication; pleading for peace, it uses inflammatory language; claiming scholarship, it contradicts other works by the author; asserting reverence for truth, it cites few, if any, scriptural supports; professing to have an answer for our dilemma, it quotes from many men to show how divided we are and have been.

Fellowship is a worthy goal to pursue. Each of us can well be ashamed of the conditions we have inherited and of our own contributions. However, true fellowship is to be found by “walking in the light as he is in the light” (1 Jn. 1:7); preaching only the gospel of Christ (Gal. 1:6-9); and refusing to “go beyond the doctrine of Christ” (2 Jn. 9), but abiding therein. This gospel has built into it a recognition that we fall short of God’s glory (Rom. 3:23) but makes full provision for forgiveness when we repent and pray. But it nowhere suggests compromise of God’s truth or of the unityin-diversity that accompanies it.

If we really want to have fellowship, let’s unite on the gospel message.

Guardian of Truth XXXVI: 13, pp. 400-403
July 2, 1992