By Robert F. Turner
The words “brother” and “sister” suggest family ties, with first application to the blood relationship that exists when we have the same parents. However, most of us are familiar with its application in a broader sense: as Jewish “brethren” (Acts 2:29); and fraternal or social “kinship,” even “brothers in Adam.” We also recognize its extension to the spiritual realm, where “children of God” (Rom. 8:16) conform to the image of God’s Son, “that He might be the firstborn among many brethren” (v. 29).
When we write of “brethren in the Lord” we refer to a spiritual tic made possible by the Lord and enjoyed only “in Him. ” Such a designation has a warm and meaningful connotation, and should not be carelessly applied. It should not be cheapened by use as a title, as is “Reverend.” Once it was announced that “Brother and mistress Robert Turner are with us . . .” and I arose to a point of order. I said “brother” is not my title; and if I am a “brother” my wife is a “sister.” These designations, applied to spiritual relationships, indicate our belief that the ones addressed are children of God, and that we have kinship with them in God’s family.
The “Grace-Fellowship” movement (and I suppose that means whatever the reader chooses) frequently produces a criticism of those who “fail to recognize” one another as “brethren.” They reason that since all children of God are brethren (or sisters) on the basis of Fatherhood (having the same spiritual Father), our “recognition” has nothing to do with it. There is an element of truth here. All true children of God are in one and the same family, and are therefore brothers and sisters in God’s sight, whether we recognize it or not. But our sight is not as good as God’s sight. The observation about “Fatherhood” does not address the problem of how we are to know brethren, and extend fellowship. It plays with pretty words while ignoring the issue.
God knows absolutely who are acceptable in His sight, and who are not (2 Tim. 2:19); for He is author of the relationship, and sees the innermost recesses of each heart. But we can know only in a relative sense those whom God approves. We know (believe) such things to the extent we have learned the divine will (from God’s word); and to the extent we are able to read the hearts of individuals on the basis of apparent “fruits.” In neither of these fields are we infallible, no matter how sincere our efforts. We would like to recognize all brethren, and are trying to do so; but man’s desire is not enough to correctly identify the children of God.
(1) Shall we treat as brethren all who claim to be His children? This would ignore what we know of the divine standard. (2) Shall we select from God’s will that which we deem important, and fellowship on the basis of these limited rules? This makes us judges of the law, rather than those judged by the law, and brings us under God’s condemnation (Jas. 2:10-12; 4:11-12). (3) Shall we rest our case on “the way we do it”? There is no avoiding the fact that application of God’s law is possible only to the extent we know that law; but to be satisfied with our way as the standard is tantamount to saying we know it all (1 Cor. 8:1-3), or do it perfectly. Paul says we should not 46measure ourselves by ourselves” (2 Cor. 10:12f).
The legalist tries to solve these difficulties by legal technicality – by finding a “loop-hole” in the law, that seems to justify his conclusion. Others seem to think d4grace” can be applied at their discretion (like a Watkin’s liniment), regardless of God’s instructions. Presuming to speak for God is a dangerous practice. “He will not require it . . . . God hath forgotten . . . . He will never see it . . . .” These are the thoughts of infidelity, no matter how piously they are uttered (Psa. 10).
Brethren with strong “Church of Christ” loyalties may find it difficult to accept, but the truth is: doctrines we have espoused, “the way we have done it,” and our traditional concepts of “brethren,” are not the final word. They are products of our study and understanding of God’s word, subject to human error. We are only saying what most of us surely know to be true. Truth is not relative; it is absolute, and will judge us in the last day (Jn. 17:17; 12:48). But our knowledge, and our practices, are subject to corrective revision. Willingness to “search the scriptures” and readjust faith and practice as needed to conform, is proof of a noble spirit, God approved (Acts 17:11).
Is it a sign of weakness to acknowledge we have less than perfect knowledge? Do not confuse truth searching with instability (Jas. 1:8). Conviction is an essential element in the service of God; and with Paul we should say, “we also believe, and therefore speak” (2 Cor. 4:13). But our convictions must be objectively determined, the results of prayerful and diligent study of God’s word. I am persuaded such convictions will be coupled with humility – for we will become aware there is so much more we do not know. On the other hand, superficial knowledge or a few “church doctrines” learned by rote and not well grounded by “going on to perfection,” may leave us heady, cocky, and with little more than a sectarian faith. The strong man continues his search for truth; the weak fears to question his traditions with further study.
We treat as brethren in the Lord those we sincerely believe to be participants with us in the search for truth, and whom we believe to have come far enough in their knowledge and obedience to be treated as children of God. We freely acknowledge our judgment does not make them children of God, nor does it prevent that relationship; but it is all we have by which to determine fellowship during our earthly sojourn. God knows exactly those who are His; we know (?) to the extent we know the truth, and the heart and life of the individual.
With such a concept, can we be positive and emphatic in our teaching and practice? We cannot be honest with self and God and if we act any other way. Conviction and conscience demand we act in keeping with what we truly believe,. and we are warned that any other course is sinful (Rom. 14:5, 23). We may also sin by failing to be considerate of another’s conscience (vv. 1-3, 10); but this does not mean ceasing to teach what we believe to be the truth, seeking to change another’s conscience (v. 14; 1 Cor. 8:8; 10:27f). Honesty and concern for one we believe to be in error prompts us to teach and warn him. The same level of understanding that gives me hope, tells me others have no hope. If I am convinced you are about to partake of a poison, have I no obligation to warn you? Failure to teach truth and exercise corrective discipline are often the results of lack of conviction and/or concern for lost souls.
We believe God’s word is unified and understandable, and no division can be rightly blamed upon God. The “sword” Jesus brought was not wielded arbitrarily Jesus did not come desiring division among families (Matt. 10:34f). But the very nature of God and truth tolerates no rejection. His sword separates those who love self more than God, who love their own way more than God’s way. God wields that sword in the final and absolute sense; and knows exactly what He is doing. But we too have a swordwielding obligation, despite our limitations of relativity. We are to recognize those who serve Satan (judging by their fruits), and have no fellowship with them (1 Cor. 5; etc.). Our judgment will not be infallible, but failure to act may be inexcusable.
In the final analysis, all we or anyone else can do is apply ourselves wholeheartedly to the service of God, doing the very best we can to follow His will in faith and practice. If, in our sincere effort to serve God, we err in judgment concerning our brethren on earth; surely this is better than lack of conviction and effort on earth, which can separate us from our brethren and from God in heaven.
Guardian of Truth XXIX: 23, pp. 711-712
December 5, 1985