Can We Have Common Cause With the Denominations?

By Bobby L. Graham

This study considers another aspect of F. LaGard Smith’s book, Who Is My Brother? in this special issue. The need to consider this matter is the result of little and ineffective teaching concerning the uniqueness of the Lord’s church in the world and its distinctiveness from all human religious systems in most quarters over the last several decades. Preaching that points out the pattern of Christ for the guidance of his people in a collective sense is overdue, as well as teaching which causes people to understand the difference between the church belonging to the Lord and those human efforts called denominations. Proof for this statement could easily he produced in the multiplied statements that have referred in recent years to the church as “just another denomination.”

In an April 1940 article “Why Oppose Denominationalism,” Granville W. Tyler stated: “Denominationalism is a term used to describe modern Christianity divided as it is into parties (more than two hundred in America) with their distinctive names, creeds, and practices. Sectarianism means divisions, factions, and parties. The term describes, for example, the Lutheran Church, the Presbyterian Church, the Baptist Church, the Methodist Church. All started hundreds of years after the days of the apostles, and all have conflicting doctrines and practices. Their teaching is in addition to and different from the Bible.” How long has it been since you heard or read frank teaching kindly expressed like that?

As Tyler proceeded to show, denominationalism exists without Scriptural authority, violates Bible teaching on unity, belittles the Lord’s church, and teaches pardon short of scriptural conditions. One can be a Christian (part of Christ’s church) without being part of any denomination (Acts 2:47). Though one who obeyed the gospel might have later joined some denominational body, he is not a Christian by virtue of such membership and ought to depart their ranks to be faithful to Christ. The existence of such a religious conglomeration in our world is neither God pleasing nor Christ-honoring, though many thank God for the choices allowed by this situation. All must remember that it is not men’s choices, but God’s, that establish the standard of right. Understanding the place of denominations in relation to the Lord and his church should move us to oppose them and to try to rescue those honest souls who have been caught in the web of sectarian teaching and practice. We do not fight them but the error in which they are participating.

Perhaps a brief statement concerning the church would also help to keep matters in sharp focus. When we speak of “the church” in this article, reference is being made to the people of Christ, characterized as they are in the New Testament as submitting to the Lord in all respects, both individually and collectively — doctrine, local organization, congregational work, public worship, and individual life. The only functioning unit of the church in the general sense is the individual child of God, while the local church alone has the right to operate collectively in carrying out the will of Christ for the church. It is because Christians have answered the summons of the gospel to follow Christ that they have become the ecclesia of Christ. The express meaning of this term describing them impresses on our minds their separation from the world and their loyalty to Christ. Does not their status as people belonging to the Lord and existing for his service demand that they “make common cause” with him and his people, rather than with those who have erred into the realm of denominationalism, in violation of his will?

“Faith Fellowship” Explained

Smith referred to the kind of sharing that he proposed with those in denominations as “faith fellowship,” based upon their belief “that Jesus Christ is Lord.” He places this kind of fellowship (one of the five kinds that he postulates and explains) one step closer to Christian fellowship than “universal fellowship,” but outside the boundaries of the kingdom of the Lord. Smith says that they share faith in Christ but not rebirth. He judges them possibly closer to kingdom citizens than nominal Christians; in this respect they are “like family,” because they think and act as those in the family in most ways, as in bearing the fruit of the Spirit. He applies Mark 12:28-34 to them in their being “not far from the kingdom.” He also wrote that they are similar to the demon chaser of Mark 9:38-41 in that they are not the Lord’s enemy, but not of him either, possibly being in jeopardy of eternal condemnation.

Smith believes that we should honor those who give honor to Christ in what they do. Such honor to them, which, he believes, is the reward assured them in Mark 9:41, shows appreciation for their faith. We already demonstrate it by seeking to learn from their faith, receiving rebuke from their faith, being prompted by their faith, reading the words of their faith, and singing the feelings of their faith in songs written by them. Because we willingly do this honor to them, we should also acknowledge their Christ-centered faith, refuse to view them as spiritual lepers (by attending their revival meetings), think about the blind spots in our own faith (try to learn something that we don’t know), seek out the spiritually-minded among them for daily association (he prefers a believing friend with faith on fire over a brother who is not electrified), and try to teach them.

Commendable Points in Smith’s Book

Not all that Smith wrote in Who Is My Brother? is incorrect; much is laudable because it conforms to the teaching of Christ in the New Testament, as we gladly point out. The presence of much truth in Smith’s writings is the factor that makes them most dangerous. Error is never so well camouflaged or concealed as it is by truth. As with a drop of poison in the medicine bottle, so the error combined with truth has the potential of spiritual harm.

The book’s epilogue, “Open Letter, Open Heart,” is Smith’s response to Max Lucado’s In the Grip of Grace. He wrote it to encourage “tough and tender dialogue” on issues that divide, and he particularly targeted Lucado’s call for unity with “believers who have never been immersed or whose only baptism was as an infant.” At this point Smith clearly stated that the unbaptized are not part of Christ and have no fellowship in him. In his effort to deal with Lucado’s attempt to minimize baptism, he correctly said that baptism is not just a symbol but does accomplish something in the work of salvation.

It should be remembered, then, that LaGard Smith masterfully presented some matters:

  • He strongly challenged the position of Lucado in his “Open Letter” epilogue.
  • He clearly delineated “faith fellowship” to be different from the fellowship of those in Christ.
  • He well presented biblical teaching concerning the need for baptism.

To Lucado he wrote these pointed words: “As hard as it is for us to grasp the thought that there are friends and colleagues who live and think perhaps more Christianity than we do, yet still are not biblical Christians — still not saved, still not forgiven, still not brothers and sisters in Christ — even so our quandary is no cause for open mutiny. It’s not our ship. We don’t make the rules.” This reminder will also serve its author well.

Weaknesses in Smith’s Book

The author repeatedly alleged that denominational people share our faith in Jesus Christ or believe that Jesus Christ is Lord; in doing so, he did not represent them completely. While it is correct that they do have some faith in Christ, their faith is weak and incomplete. If Smith meant to say only that their faith was weak and needed strengthening, he should have said it. Intellectual faith, which merely says Jesus is Lord, is not the faith that saves the soul (Heb. 10:39). Faith apart from works is dead, being alone (Jas. 2:14-25). The faith of the unbaptized and the faith of the saved person are alike in this respect; faith must show the same willing response to God’s stated will, whether before or after baptism.

Smith’s basing of “faith fellowship” on a misuse of Mark 9:38-41 is another weakness, though he does say that he rejects the wide-open Christian fellowship espoused by many who cite this passage. He described the man rejected by Jesus’ apostles as “not one of us,” and yet not his enemy. Notice, however, that the Lord acknowledged the man was a true disciple, casting out demons in the name of Christ, but not one in the immediate company or acquaintance of the apostles. How could he do the miracles unless authorized and empowered by the Lord to act thus? Jesus thus conceded him to be one of his disciples, not a pretender. He further lent him his approval in his concession that the man was for him. This passage provides no basis for any kind of sharing with denominational members. In fact, those who teach and practice in denial of the lordship of Christ are acting in opposition to him, though they might have some faith in him.

The author’s use of 2 Chronicles 6:32-33 comes closest of all passages introduced; he presents it as suggesting  something very much like “faith fellowship.” The passage, in fact, presents Solomon’s prayer of intercession on behalf of the foreigner, who came to the Temple because of the Lord’s great name and outstretched arm. The king prayed that God might hear such a one so that even he might know the Lord’s name, fear him, and know the Temple was called by his name. This passage clearly envisions a role of influence by example for Israel in leading the nations to know Jehovah, though God did not set before his people an evangelistic mission. Observe that the influence was that of Israel, not the foreign power; and the learning was that of the foreigner, not Israel. In describing his “faith fellowship,” LaGard reversed the influence/learning by suggesting our learning from denominational people: the meaning of worship from his English associates, a more emotional expression of faith from the Pentecostals, the value of meditative silence in listening to God from the Quakers, a greater zeal for social justice from the Anglicans, thinking more Christianly in everything from the Dutch Calvinists, and a greater need for confessing sins from the Catholics. It must be emphasized, however, that our Lord did not refer first-century believers to other “believers” like the Pharisees, Sadducees, or Samaritans. Instead he consistently reminded them of the law of God by quoting or alluding to what was written in the Scriptures. There might be some examples of certain desirable traits in unexpected places, and honesty demands that we acknowledge such, even as Jesus acknowledged faith in Gentile individuals whom he encountered during his earthly work. On the other hand, the Scriptures are adequate for every purpose in our learning desired by the Lord (2 Tim. 3:16-17).

Danger of This Concept

In addition to indicting the weaknesses of the plan proposed in this book, we must also cite dangers of the concept as a whole. By using the word “fellowship” in such a broad sense as to refer to different kinds of fellowship, it sets forth a sliding scale of fellowship, thus leaving room for the conclusion that when the Bible refers to fellowship, it must speak of these various kinds. The truth of this matter is that the New Testament is entirely silent concerning the reality of any kind of fellowship except that enjoyed in Christ by the fellows of Christ. It provides no basis for spiritual fellowship with denominational people. We can conclude this by realizing that Christians are in fellowship with other Christians, who are in fellowship with God, and that denominational members are not in fellowship with God. Because fellowship with God is the sole basis of approved fellowship with one another, there exists no basis for the fellowship here described as “faith fellowship.” Spiritual fellowship requires spiritual fellows.

There are also additional dangers of this concept and the approach induced by it. The idea of honoring people claiming faith in Jesus Christ, at least as illustrated in this book, comes close to encouraging acceptance/approval of denominational people as they are by growing comfortable with the differences, exerting little effort to teach them further, and eventually compromising convictions (as in singing with them with the instrument playing and rationalizing it as Smith did). Smith’s own compromise is a strong argument against this approach, in view of Scriptural teaching to the contrary. 

Appreciating and honoring the measure of faith observed in others seems to be the commendable desire of the author. We can show them true honor and appreciation for their faith by helping them to understand the biblical basis for whatever faith they have achieved and helping them to submit to the lordship of Christ in all matters. The essence of being a believer or a Christian is found in Matthew 28:18, where Jesus said, “. . . teaching them to observe all things, whatever I have commanded you.” Loyalty to Christ will lead any person to this desired standard. For individuals to join with other concerned citizens in a common cause, even in dealing with social/moral issues about which the Lord has spoken (like abortion or acceptance of homosexual lifestyle), is acceptable. We need to know, however, that calling such an endeavor “fellowship” and trying to justify it with the Bible is to distort a biblical idea by misapplying a biblical word.

24978 Bubba Trail, Athens, Alabama 35613 bobbylgraham@)

Truth Magazine Vol. XLIV: 19  p2  October 5, 2000