By Hoyt Houchen
Questions: (1) Can 1 John 4:1 be used to put newcomers to a church (who want to place membership) on probation? (2) Does the church have the right to pick what people they want to attend? (3) If there are no elders in a church, do the members (men) have the same right as elders? (4) Can you send a letter withdrawing from a member, without first going to him and telling him he has sinned.
Reply: (1) 1 John 4:1 says, “Beloved, believe not every spirit, but prove the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets are gone out into the world.” This verse pertains to teachers and their teaching, not to people as such. The expressions “spirit” and “spirits” refer to the doctrines. The idea here is that a teacher is not to be believed just because he claims to be of God. Rather, he is to be tested by the word of God. It will determine whether a teacher is of God. False prophets (teachers) were abundant when John wrote his epistle. Please note that John says at the close of our verse, “because many false prophets are gone out into the world.” This is the reason why teachers had to be tested or proved. There are some who were denying the deity of the Lord, while others were denying His humanity. John’s readers were to discern between the spirit of truth and the spirt of error. How they were to make such discernment is set forth in verses 2, 3: “Hereby know ye the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God: and every spirit that confesseth not Jesus is not of God: and this is the spirit of the antichrist, whereof ye have heard that it cometh; and now it is in the world already.” These false teachers exhibited the spirit of the antichrist by the doctrine they were espousing. Their denial that Jesus Christ himself “is come in the flesh” (deity becoming incarnate) was contrary to the truth that these brethren had been taught. John’s readers are warned, as did Jesus warn (Matt. 7:15), that such teachers are not to be believed. Teachers, then, are under consideration. Confidence is not to be placed in every man who calls himself a prophet.
In view of the foregoing, it is completely out of the context of 1 John 4:1 to place brethren on probation who wish to be identified with a local church. To hold them off at “arm’s length” until they are proven is not the teaching of 1 John 4:1. Brethren should be accepted into fellowship of a local church, unless a warning, a charge or a notice of withdrawal from them is sent by another congregation where they were members. We should at least be as fair as are the courts of law in our land. A person is considered to be innocent until he is proven guilty. This is not to say, that if brethren show that they are not worthy of fellowship, that we must throw our arms around them and accept them anyway. And, if there should be some cause for doubt in accepting newcomers to a congregation, then an investigation should first be made. Otherwise, we should place the same confidence and trust in those who come our way that they have placed in us by wanting to be a part of our fellowship. That none will even have any question or doubt, it is a good policy (not mandatory) that a letter of recommendation be brought from the congregation where they were formerly members. But for whatever these remarks may be worth, 1 John 4:1 does not teach that all brethren who are strangers must be put on probation before they can become a part of a local church.
(2) God’s people are all part of God’s family. The word of God teaches that we are to be impartial to all fellow Christians. Respect of persons has no place in the Lord’s church. James warned against the evil of showing partiality in James 2:1-9. In verse 1 he wrote, “My brethren hold not the faith of our Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with respect of persons.” Then he warned in verse 9, “but if ye have respect of persons, ye commit sin, being convicted by the law as transgressors.” Divine wisdom is without “variance” (ASV), “partiality” (KJV). Here the word is a verbal adjective (Gr. Adiakritos) from the Greek word diakrino. Moulton and Milligan state that its out of the general sense of “making distinctions” (The Vocabulary of the Greek N.T., p. 150). When brethren pick whom they want to attend a church, it is obvious that they are making distinctions (showing partiality) which is a plain violation of the Scriptures. Cliques or clans among God’s people are divisive and, therefore, destructive.
(3) Men who are not elders in a local church do not have the same right as elders. Elders are to be men who have met the qualification of the Holy Spirit to oversee the local church (1 Tim. 3:1-7; Tit. 1:5-9). Men in a local church who have not been selected and appointed to be elders have no right to act as elders. Elders are bishops and the term bishop (Gr. Episkopos) means “an overseer” (see W.E. Vine et al). For men to assume the work of elders who have not qualified, and who have not been appointed, is without scriptural authority. The men in a congregation must obviously take the lead in work and worship of the congregation, but this by no means is to be regarded as a substitute for the eldership. If such were the case, then why should elders be selected and appointed in the first place?
(4) A disorderly member of the congregation should certainly first be contacted before a letter of withdrawal is sent to him and read before the congregation. The letter of withdrawal should only be written and read as a last resort. First, every effort should be made to reclaim the fallen member. Only after he has been reproved, rebuked and admonished should he be withdrawn from. Even then, the action of withdrawal should be for the purpose of saving the soul of the offender. (See Gal. 6:1; Tit. 3:10 etc.) These Scriptures bear upon the matter of first admonishing an erring brother.
Guardian of Truth XXVIII: 10, pp. 292, 305
May 17, 1984