By O. C. Birdwell, Jr.
This article will deal, as forthrightly as possible, with the question, “Do the scriptures allow an on-going fellowship with those who teach or practice unscriptural divorce and remarriage?” It seems that another fitting question would be, “Do the scriptures allow an on-going fellowship with those who persist in any sinful practice, or with those who teach that it is acceptable to do so?” To answer the later question is to answer the first. Please consider what the apostle John had to say which seems to be right on target with our subject.
Whosoever goeth onward and abideth not in the teaching of Christ, hath not God; he that abideth in the teaching, the same hath both the Father and the Son. If any one cometh unto you, and bringeth not this teaching, receive him not into your house, and give him no greeting: for he that giveth him greeting partaketh in his evil works (2 John 9-11).
The “teaching of Christ” is not just that which is taught about the person of Christ. It includes the teaching from Christ, or the teaching that Christ did. Wayne Jackson correctly wrote, “It is ludicrous to argue that one may be disfellowshipped if he repudiates the doctrine about Christ, but he cannot be touched if he merely perverts the doctrine that is from the Lord” (Friendly Review 19).
In a similar vein, the apostle Paul wrote the following: “Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them that are causing divisions and occasions of stumbling, contrary to the doctrine which ye learned; and turn away from them” (Rom. 16:17). The word “doctrine” often means “teaching.” The teaching under consideration was that which they had received from Christ through the Holy Spirit and inspired men such as the apostles John and Paul. It includes teaching on our present subject and every other subject about which Christ spoke personally or through the Holy Spirit. Note that Paul said “mark” those causing the divisions “contrary to the doctrine.” When a thing is marked, it is identified. When a teacher is marked, he is identified. What he teaches that is false should be specified. It would be improper to accuse one of being a false teacher and not say what it is that he teaches that is false. If a person teaches one thing contrary to the teaching of Christ, he is a false teacher on that point. It could be, however, that teaching is false only in the eyes of the beholder, and not false because it is unscriptural. For this reason the teaching needs to be specified. Then, let all take the Scriptures and judge if it is or is not false, based on what the Scriptures say.
In view of what the apostles John and Paul have written, I stand amazed that brethren will try to justify fellowship with one who causes “divisions and occasions of stumblings” by teaching contrary to the doctrine of Christ on marriage, divorce, and remarriage. To justify such, some will say, “We are all false teachers.” Or, they will say, “I am a false teacher.” When this is said, I ask for specifics. What is it that you teach contrary to the teaching of Christ? One may have done wrong things that were repented of and corrected. One may have said ugly and rude things that he confessed and corrected. One may have taught false doctrine, but learned the truth and changed. One, however, who says “I am a false teacher,” not only is condemned by Scripture, but stands self-condemned.
Death and fornication are the only reasons given in New Testament scripture for remarriage (Rom. 6:3; Matt. 19:9). Many who believe this and would not regard a marriage contrary to this to be scriptural will try to justify one who teaches differently. They often affirm that acceptance of brethren with judgment differences on the subject is equal to accepting one who teaches contrary to the doctrine of Christ on the subject. Judgment differences do exist. Should the word “adultery” be in the divorce decree? When does the actual putting away take place? What about the woman in a society where it is legal for a man to say to his wife “I divorce you,” and then may, the next day, or soon after, marry another? There may be other judgment areas which are clearly within the doctrine of Christ which affirms remarriage only after death or one put away for fornication.
Some seem to think that the practictioner is worse than the teacher. Generally, however, we regard the drug pusher more harshly than the drug user. The promoter and seller gets a greater sentence than the user. Why would one living in adultery be judged more harshly than the one who teaches that it is acceptable before God for him to do so? Paul said, “Know you not that a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump?” (l Cor. 5:6). This was spoken relative to fornication among them and the “puffed up” attitude they had about the sin. It seems that those who are “puffed up” or teach so as to circumvent clear-cut teaching by Christ and thereby cause people to endanger their souls are dangerous leaven. An older college professor sat on a discipline committee to judge a young student who had made a mistake. The professor was uncompromising as he affirmed “He must leave; the other students must be considered first.” This may have been the proper position. Yet, I have more compassion and sympathy for a young student who makes a mistake and wants to correct it, than for one of us older gospel preachers who persists in teaching false positions on divorce and remarriage that will damn the souls of men and women. There is no excuse for one to defend a friend, or anyone else, who teaches that which is, admittedly, contrary to what the New Testament teaches.
The articles in this issue of Truth Magazine deal with some of the material in a book, Who Is My Brother?, written by F. Lagard Smith. Smith proposes a comprehensive five-fold fellowship: Universal Fellowship, Faith Fellowship, “In Christ” Fellowship, Conscience Fellowship, and Congregational Fellowship. His publisher says, “Never before in the history of the restoration movement has so dramatic a change occurred in so short a time with such little opposition.” For several years LaGard worshiped six months out of the year with a group that used instrumental music and apparently practiced other innovations. LaGard, in his book, strongly condemns those who would oppose the false teaching that Homer Hailey has done on the divorce and remarriage subject. He does not want strong biblical teaching done on this subject. He thinks that will keep churches from growing. I know this to be so because of a personal experience and discussion with him.
Several years ago the church where I preached invited a young preacher to present a weekend series of sermons on the home. LaGard Smith was present for the last sermon and heard the visiting preacher talk about the sin of adultery in an unscriptural marriage and the solution to the problem. After the service we went to a member’s house for refreshments. On the way there, LaGard severely, and, I thought, rudely, criticized the preacher. He said, “No wonder small churches do not grow, with such preaching as this.” The young preacher took the criticism more calmly than did I. My response was, “If churches are small and do not grow because of our teaching what the Lord said on divorce and remarriage, or any other Bible subject, let them stay small.” There is no good reason to build large numbers with unconverted worldly people who have come in because of a lack of teaching of what the Bible says. If people are not going to repent they cannot be Christians.
In view of LaGard’s “Comprehensive Five-fold Fellowship” position, it is not surprising that he would worship with a denominational church half of the time. His fellowship position may explain how he can work for and promote Pepperdine University and Lipscomb University. He might even speak to a non-institutional church and say, “I am still opposed to institutionalism.” Keep in mind, however, that when he says he is opposed to something, he may not mean that he thinks it displeases God and will cause one to be lost eternally. From reading his writing and hearing him talk, I do not conclude that he believes many sincere people will be lost, regardless of their religious position or what they teach. Especially is this so if they happen to be both sincere and scholarly!
Brethren who have commended Who Is My Brother? need to restudy their position. Consider the book in the light of the author’s practice. If he teaches what he practices and a congregation accepts his teaching, then, the congregation will have no distinctive identity, but will accept any teaching and anyone who is sincere in his religious practice and teaching. Everyone will be fellowshipped one way or another. My friend, if you find this kind of fellowship in New Testament Scripture, please let me know. Until then, I will continue to teach that there should not be an on-going fellowship with one living in adultery; with one who teaches that living in adultery is acceptable; and with LaGard Smith, as long as he persists in his unscriptural teaching and position on fellowship.
P. O. Box 858, Athens, Alabama 35612, firstname.lastname@example.org