By Bobby Witherington
There are many vital questions concerning which various members of the church are in strong disagreement. In fact, some would even take issue with the first sentence of this article which mentions “members of the church. ” You see, they would have us believe that “church” is wrongly translated, that Jesus therefore did not build, establish, or purchase “the church.” Consequently, armed with money supplied by various members of the church, some are seeking to destroy and to deny the rightful existence of the very hand that has fed them for most of their adult lives!
Others, however, are much more tolerant and “loving”(?). They do not oppose the rightful existence of “the church,” but they have imbibed the ecumenical spirit. They appear ready to extend “the right hand of fellowship” to virtually any morally upright person who has been baptized for the remission of sins – regardless of what that person believes and teaches on a broad range of issues, such as: the work of the church, instrumental music in worship, premillennialism, marriage, divorce, and remarriage, etc. And some are even more ecumenical than this -claiming to be in fellowship with all (regardless of denominational affiliation) “who love and trust Jesus as Savior” (paging Edward Fudge). In fact, Leroy Garrett says that churches of Christ, in order “to be saved,” must have their “own Vatican II,” patterned after the spirit of Catholicism’s ecumenical council of 1965 when “it went on record as acknowledging all other Christians as true brothers and sisters in Christ” (Restoration Review, May 1991). Apparently, according to brother Garrett, we, too, in the same way and for the same reasons, must reach out to those in the Denominations around us, regarding them as “Christians as our equals,” and that we should do this “beginning right now.” Moreover, this is something which churches of Christ “must do” in order “to be saved!”
Yes, the winds of change (and of compromise) are blowing. In some quarters these “winds” have assumed the destructive force of a major hurricane. Of course, the force of these “winds” varies from place to place, and from group to group. But regardless of the varying intensity of these “winds,” it seems that brethren who love the truth, and who cannot conscientiously bid “God speed” to those who abide “not in the doctrine of Christ” (2 John 9-11) increasingly are being criticized, ostracized, and vilified. Meanwhile their broad-minded, tolerant, compromising counterparts are idolized, immortalized and canonized.
In self-justification for their compromising spirit, many now say that “everyone practices unity in diversity.” “Unity in diversity” is a loaded phrase. If one disagrees with its connotation he is likely to receive a lesson on Romans 14. Admittedly, in this chapter Paul mentioned various items concerning which some then disagreed. However, notwithstanding their differences, they were told to “receive” one another (v. 1); they were admonished not to “set at naught” their brethren (v. 10), nor to “judge one another any more” (v. 13). Furthermore, they were urged to “follow after the things which make for peace, and things wherewith one may edify another” (v. 19). Hence, in view of the fact that this chapter mentions a diversity of beliefs which different ones held, but which were not to interfere with their being “like-minded one toward another according to Christ Jesus” (Rom. 15:5), then, Presto! we must all practice “unity in diversity.”
It is not that we are opposed to the brand of “unity in diversity” which is taught in Romans 14. However, what is often overlooked is that Romans 14 deals with matters which do not inherently affect one’s relationship with God. For example, the fact that one person can conscientiously eat meat does not make that individual more acceptable to God than another whose conscience will not allow him to thus eat. In matters of indifference, but concerning which we disagree, what really counts is our attitude – our attitude toward truth and toward one another. There are some areas of disagreement wherein every man must “be fully persuaded in his own mind” (Rom. 14:5), and which should not become issues which alienate and separate.
In view of the fact that Romans 14 is more thoroughly discussed elsewhere in this issue, I will only make one more observation about this chapter. The observation is this: There are some matters which belong outside the realm of Romans 14 – matters about which the Bible is very explicit, which pertain to both the preaching and practice of error, and which (if pursued) will damn one’s immortal soul to an eternal hell! Fornication and adultery belong in this category (cf. 1 Cor. 6:9,10; Gal. 5:19-21; Eph. 5:2-6; etc.). Generally speaking, brethren (and many denominationalists), historically speaking, have recognized this fundamental fact. However, as ancient Israel in Canaan was gradually, and environmentally conditioned to accept the idolatry and immorality of the Canaanites, many of our brethren are being similarly conditioned to accept the ways of the world. This is especially true in such matters as divorce, fornication, and adultery. By its very nature, this is an emotionally charged issue. Almost every congregation is affected in some way. Few families have escaped unscathed by the tragedy of divorce. All of us have friends who have been affected. People we love, people we have tried to convert, are living in adultery! The temptation to play the part of a lawyer (“looking for a loophole”) is enormous!
Consequently (and not surprisingly) various able men have made numerous ingenious arguments which are designed to justify people who are living in sin. At present, these arguments often pertain to marriage and divorce. But if present immoral trends continue, we will ultimately be amazed to hear similar ingenious arguments designed to justify abortion, euthanasia, homosexuality, gambling, and bigamy! Some preachers will preach almost anything – that is, anything except repentance and what it entails!
This article is not intended to analyze the various positions espoused, and arguments made – arguments which are designed to justify a person being married to his second, third (ad. inf.) wife, though his first wife is yet alive, and from whom he was divorced for some cause other than fornication (cf. Matt. 19:9). Some teach that the guilty fornicator has the same right to remarriage as the innocent spouse. Others say the alien is not amenable to God’s law, thereby justifying any number of divorces and subsequent remarriages prior to baptism. A few have redefined “adultery” to make it a non-sexual act! The point is, many theories are being advanced; the arguments differ, but invariably the conclusion is the same – regardless of the cause, a divorced person can remarry with God’s approval!
Fortunately, many preachers still oppose these modern theories of convenience. If they are queried concerning what the Bible actually teaches, they give correct answers. However, some of these same brethren, when questioned about others who teach error, are not so forthright. They will brand their doctrine as false, while arguing that the teachers of false doctrine are not to be branded as false teachers! Especially if the teacher has a good attitude, and agrees with us on the work of the church! Frequently, under pressure, brethren who try to justify their fellowship of these false teachers will exclaim “but everyone practices unity in diversity.” Hence, in essence, they are saying that a preacher who justifies adulterous marriages is to be regarded in the same light as one who justifies the eating of pork!
But what should we do about those who practice the errors others are preaching? For example, those who practice the errors others preach with regards to marriage, divorce, and remarriage are living in adultery! (cf. Matt. 19:9; Lk. 16:18; Col. 3:5-7) These people, if they are brethren, are to be withdrawn from (1 Cor. 5:5-10). So long as they remain in their sin they are out of fellowship with God (1 Jn. 1:6,7), and therefore out of fellowship with those who are in fellowship with God (Eph. 5:11). My question is this: if Scripture compels us to withdraw from those who practice the errors which others preach, then how in the name of common sense can we regard the preacher of these errors as anything less than a false teacher? You may call it “an implement used for digging in the ground, ditching, cutting turf, etc., an instrument heavier than a shovel and having a flatter blade,” but where I came from a spade is a spade! By the same token, you may call him “a friend,” “a beloved brother,” “a learned man,” “kind,” “a person of great intellect,” etc., but when all glowing epithets are used up, a false teacher is still a false teacher!
Yes, we must love one another. Yes, we must love those who are caught in the web of sin. Our hearts must agonize for those who have learned by bitter experience that “the way of the transgressor is hard” (Prov. 13:15). And, yes, we must love those preachers who are preaching error. No good purpose is served when we impugn motives, misrepresent, and verbally lash out at those with whom we disagree. However, love does not ignore sin, nor does love seek to justify those preachers whose preaching tends to justify those sins which will cause souls to be lost. We must learn to regard immortal souls of greater value than temporal friendships. And in our attempt to practice unity in diversity, let us make sure that the unity practiced does not involve the condonance of divers sins and divers errors which tend to put one in a state of perversity before God!
Guardian of Truth XXXVI: 1, pp. 21-22
January 2, 1992