The Basis of Church Fellowship
Larry Ray Hafley
There is much division in the church. Why is this? And what can be done about it? Some persons may, perchance, question our wisdom in writing an editorial in which these difficult issues are brought out and set forth plainly. They may think it better to suppress, as far as can be, the knowledge of these things. But I do not sympathize with any such timid policy. Ministers of the gospel must count it their duty to look difficulties and objections squarely in the face. The truth is to be held in love, and it is to be presented in love. We must not be merely negative or critical, nor must our only concern be to win an argument. We must always contend for the truth in the right spirit. That spirit is, that in all that we do, his honor and glory is paramount.
Among our people, there are two extreme positions. The first is that some draw the bounds of fellowship too narrow while others leave them too broad. Both of these positions are wrong. We must let the Bible set the limits of fellowship. This is not always easy to do, but we must simply strive diligently. There are some in the religious world who believe there are no restrictions at all placed upon church fellowship. But what saith the Scriptures? "Whosoever transgresseth, and abideth not in the doctrine of Christ, hath not God. He that abideth in the doctrine of Christ, he hath both the Father and the Son. If there come any unto you, and bring not this doctrine, receive him not into your house, neither bid him God speed: For he that biddeth him God speed is partaker of his evil deeds" (2 Jn. 9-11).
This passage makes it plain that there are limitations on love and limitations upon fellowship. We simply cannot invite heretics into our churches. We simply cannot fellowship with those who would deny the Deity of Christ or those who would deny his humanity. We cannot fellowship with persons who would deny his atoning work on the cross and his resurrection. All doctrine and all Bible verses are important and essential in one sense of the word. I do not believe anything in the Bible is unimportant. What I do believe, however, is that there are some things that are non-essential as far as fellowship is concerned. There are surely some things that we may disagree upon and yet have fellowship with one another. The question is: Where do we draw the line?
All of our people agree that we cannot fellowship with those who deny the doctrine of Christ. There can be no fellowship with those who deny the reality of heaven and hell. There can be no fellowship with those who do not practice a Bible morality and a Bible discipline. It is at this latter point where most of our trouble rests. It can hardly be denied that ideally the churches of Christ should be one. However, no less clear is the fact that the basic cause of division within the churches, namely sin, is operating as powerfully today as it was in the past and that beyond all reasonable doubt it will continue to operate as powerfully in time to come. This is an exceedingly hard fact which must be faced with utmost realism. Fully aware that we will not reach the goal of sinless perfection in this life, we must yet press on with all our might toward that very mark.
Those churches involved in division should be willing to bring the doctrinal issues out in the open. There needs to be more open debate on issues. The truth has nothing to hide. Only those who would desire to fellowship things that they ought not, and those who would declare non-fellowship where it should not be declared, have anything to fear.
To divide the churches on what, according to the word of God is an "indifferent" matter; that is to say, a practice which God has neither condemned nor commanded, is wrong. Riding a theological hobby is by no means an innocent past time.
Brethren, we must all surely know that there is too much division among us. I know personally that many of our people are disturbed about it, but they don't know what to do about it. Ignorance is one of our biggest problems. Brethren, we dare not bury our heads in the sand in this regard. There are many of our preachers who do not use enough Scripture during a sermon to fill a thimble. The reason some of our brethren know so little is because they have been taught so little. Furthermore, some of the teaching that is done, is done in such a disorderly way that it is a wonder anybody learns anything at all from it.
Many of our preachers have failed to take the admonition of 1 Timothy 4:14-16. "Neglect not the gift that is in thee, which was given thee by prophecy, with the laying on of the hands of the presbytery. Meditate upon these things; give thyself wholly to them; that thy profiting may appear to all. Take heed unto thyself, and unto the doctrine; continue in them: for in doing this thou shalt both save thyself, and them that hear thee." The answer to this problem is not to try to ordain only those preachers who have been to college, but for preachers to, "Study to show thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth" (2 Tim. 2:15). A formal college education is not a Bible qualification to preach the gospel. I will stand opposed to any who try to make it such.
What a colossal task a preacher has: He must teach the word of God, not only to those who are within the church, but also to those who are without, in order that they may be brought in. He must teach the word, not only publicly in the pulpit, but also privately in the home (Acts 20:20). He must teach the word, not just in the abstract, but by way of practical application to concrete situations, and he must apply the Bible not merely to personal difficulties but also to community problems. He must preach the word both constructively and controversially. He must set forth the truth positively, to be sure, but also contrast it with error. He must declare "all the counsel of God" (Acts 20:27). It goes without saying that he cannot possibly do all this without being a diligent student of the Scriptures.
Part of what ministers must teach churches is about the basis of fellowship. They must teach the people about Unity and Division. They must teach the people as to where we may differ and still fellowship. If the people aren't taught, they will not know how to act.
There is a double standard employed among some of our people which is deplorable. For example: Here we have a certain church that some think is disorderly. Yet, they will allow certain "big" preachers to visit that church and preach for them. Then a " smaller" preacher goes there, or one they don't like, and they call him on the carpet for his visit. Brethren, how can this be justified? I know for a fact that some of these so-called "big" preachers never say anything about the problems interfering with fellowship while visiting a church like this.
The two times I went to Bethel church in Nashville, I stayed up late in the night talking to Vern Jackson, the preacher, about the Masonry that they had in the church and also about the adultery issue. Brother Jackson told me that he believed in taking Masons into the church and then to try to preach it out. I told him that this did not make good nonsense and that I doubted that he ever made a strong attempt to preach it out.
In spite of Jackson's errors, I thought he was a good man, and had I been able to talk with him a good deal more, I might have been able to help him. But just as soon as brother Jackson died and the church got a man in that the brethren in the area would accept, some of them started going to Bethel. But nothing had changed as far as Masonry or the adultery was concerned. This is more politics than anything else, and it smells.
We have some division among us that is caused by nothing more than jealousy among preachers. Preachers who do not make an effort to tear down these kind of bars are not doing their duty. It takes courage to do it, and we must try. Study 1 Corinthians chapter three.
In closing, may I say to you that the only place I know of in this world where there is perfect peace is in the cemetery. No one is fighting there. But they are all dead. The only kind of tree that will split is a live tree. A dead tree will not split. The Bible says, "Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity" (Psa. 133:1)!
Important Note to All Readers of This Article:
Though my name is under the title of the article above, I did not write it. It was written by Elder Eddie K. Garrett, a Primitive Baptist preacher. It appeared in his paper, The Hardshell Baptist, August, 1990. It has been slightly modified and adapted. I thought you might be interested to learn of some of the problems that Primitive Baptists are having in their churches over fellowship and false doctrine. Of course, any similarity to issues among brethren in churches of Christ is purely coincidental. "He that hath ears to hear, let him hear."
Guardian of Truth XXXVI: 2, pp. 39-40