Subjective Grounds For Determining Fellowship

By Larry Ray Hafley

It has been suggested that before an issue or doctrine is sufficient to disrupt fellowship among brethren that three criteria must be considered. First, is the issue clear? Is it generally understood and acknowledged as truth? If so, it may be used to “draw a line of fellowship.” If not, then the issue should be left for each person to decipher without a break in fellowship. Second, are the advocates of the doctrine honest and sincere? If they are, they are to be received. Third, is the teaching serious enough to warrant a break in fellowship? Is it an important issue? If it is, fellowship becomes a problem. If it is a harmless or insignificant topic, fellowship should not be broken.

Before anyone “falls out” with me over this article, must they be sure that the issue is clear and easily understood? Must they determine whether or not I am sincere in answering the views stated above? Must they decide that this particular issue (subjective grounds for determining fellowship) is grave enough to cause their anxiety over it? It is strange that some may resent this article and reject me for it, but if one teaches error on the marriage question, error that may lead and leave some in a state of adultery, that person is accepted and defended while I am rejected and criticized for writing about it!


Just who is to decide whether or not an issue is clearly taught in the Bible? If clarity is necessary to determine fellowship, what board, what panel, what group is to decide this for us? We have been accused of being “creed makers,” of setting human guidelines for fellowship, but this is creed making with a vengeance! Again, who will provide us with a list of items that are unclear and “murky,” and that cannot, therefore, be made a “test of fellowship”? Who will list specific doctrines that are clear enough to rupture fellowship?

Evidently, teaching about the second coming of Christ was “hard to be understood” (2 Pet. 3:16). It was “hard,” but it as not impossible. The Thessalonians were troubled over matters relating to “the day of Christ,” even though Paul had “told” them “these things” before (2 Thess. 2:5). The Corinthians had problems with the resurrection and things that would transpire “at his coming” (1 Cor. 15). Hence, doctrinal matters relative to the resurrection and the Lord’s coming again were not entirely clear to some.

Shall we conclude, therefore, that doctrine concerning the second coming of Christ cannot affect fellowship with brethren? If clarity is the key, then events surrounding the Lord’s return cannot cause us to mark and avoid them that teach falsely about it. However, Paul did that very thing regarding Hymanaeus and Philetus, “who concerning the truth have erred, saying the resurrection is past already; and overthrow the faith of some” (2 Tim. 2:16-18). Peter, after saying that such questions were difficult to understand, immediately warned that those who were unlearned and unstable would wrest or twist such things, “as they do also the other scriptures, unto their own destruction. Ye therefore, beloved, seeing ye know these things before, beware lest ye also, being led away with the error of the wicked, fall from your stedfastness” (2 Pet. 3:16,17). Hence, despite the apparent lack of clarity of understanding, they were held responsible and accountable and were in danger of destruction.

We dare not accept “the error of the wicked,” even though the teaching may be “hard to be understood.” There is difficulty regarding the sovereignty of God and the free will of man, but one dare not extend “the right hand of fellowship” to a Primitive Baptist on account of it. There is a lack of clarity on nearly everything to some people. Men debate and discuss topics as diverse as Shiloh and psallo, but the judgment that decrees a lack of clarity on them and advocates fellowship as a result of that lack is false.


Assuredly, teachers of the truth must be honest (2 Cor. 2:17; 4:2). Who shall determine which men are honest and which are dishonest? Oral Roberts, the noted “faith healer,” is regarded by some as an honest, sincere man. Suppose he is. Shall we “fellowship” him because he is honest? On the other hand, “Some indeed preach Christ even of envy and strife . . . not sincerely . . . in pretence” (Phil. 1:15,16,18). With Paul, we may rejoice “that Christ is preached,” but shall we have fellowship with the works of the flesh and the men that are motivated by them?

Just how honest and sincere were Hymanaeus and Philetus? If we assume and presume their personal integrity, does that free us to ignore Paul’s command to shun their “profane and vain babblings” (2 Tim. 2:16-19)? No matter how conscientious, prayerful, pious and devout these men were, the consequences of their doctrine overthrew “the faith of some.” The issue was not, “Are Hymanaeus and Philetus men of unimpeachable character?” “Concerning the truth,” Paul said, they “have erred,” and no amount of respect, regret, love or brotherly kindness could change that harsh reality.

Despite the fact that the resurrection is fraught with difficulty and despite the fact that Hymanaeus and Philetus may have been men of staunch faith, sterling quality and stirring ability, their teaching was to be shunned (cf. Rom. 16:17). “Cry aloud, and spare not, lift up thy voice like a trumpet, and show my people their transgression, and the house of Jacob their sin” (Isa. 58:1). “And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather reprove them” (Eph. 5:11). Be not deceived. One’s zeal, honesty and earnestness can neither save him nor them that hear him when he errs “from the truth” (Jas. 5:19,20; Matt. 7:21-23; 1 Tim. 1:3; 4:6,16).


Some say that before we split and splinter over an issue or doctrine that we must determine its relative importance or gravity. Fine, but who shall decide which teachings are major and which are minor? Who is it that will list doctrines that are too frivolous to fracture fellowship and those that are so serious that they sunder it? Before someone signs up to provide us such a definitive delineation of doctrine, let him hear this, “but if thou judge the law, thou art not a doer of the law, but a judge” (Jas. 4:11).

(1) To some folks, the communion of the body and blood of the Lord is the important thing, so they will not be bothered with arguing over whether or not it is to be limited to the first day of the week. How do they decide this? Well, eating the Lord’s supper is important, but when you eat it is not! (2) To some people, singing and making melody in your heart is the main thing, but whether or not a piano, guitar or organ accompanies it is of no consequence. How do they decide this? Simple! Singing is important, but playing is not! (3) Many believe that baptism is vital, essential, and necessary to please God, but how it is done, whether by sprinkling, pouring or immersion, is inconsequential. How do they decide this? That is easy! Baptism is important, but how you go about it is not! (4) Relieving the needy is important, but whether the church chooses to do the work itself or send a donation to a benevolent society is not worth “fussing over.” How do they decide this? No problem! Doing the work is the thing that really matters. “How” we go about it is none of your business!

Before we decide that certain aspects of God’s will are not significant enough to warrant our concern, perhaps we should note a few of God’s ways and thoughts (Isa. 55:8,9). Since his ways are not our ways, and since “there is a way which seemeth right unto a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death,” and since “it is not in man that walketh to direct his steps” (Prov. 14:12; Jer. 10:23), it behooves us to consider that “which the Holy Spirit teacheth.”

First, if you had a garden and had a gardener to tend it, how important would it be if the gardener merely ate of the one and only fruit that you had forbidden him to eat? If he tended it as he was supposed to do, how “big of a deal” would it be if he just ate of one tree? It is not like he painted obscenities about you or chopped down several prize trees. Would you really fire a gardener who ate the fruit of one tree? See Genesis 3.

Second, Nadab and Abihu were not burning incense unto a heathen diety (Lev. 10:1,2). They did not neglect to burn incense. They did not curse God and complain about having to burn incense. So far as we know, their “heart was in the right place.” So what if they “offered strange (foreign) fire . . . which he commanded them not”? After all, fire is fire. Whether you obtain it from the coals of the altar or from a farmer’s match, it is still fire, and you are doing what God said do; namely, burn incense. How much “gravity” should we attach to the source of the first we use to do what God said do? See Leviticus 10: 1,2; 1 Corinthians 10:1-14.

Third, we know all about the ark of the covenant. It was not to be touched; it was to be carried by the Levites in a certain way (Deut. 10:8; Exod. 25:14; Num. 4:15; 1 Chron. 15:2). When Uzzah touched it, God “smote him. . . And David was displeased” (1 Chron. 13: 10,11). Note these extentuating circumstances. (A) It was not a matter of transporting the ark. God had not said that it could not be moved. So, they were doing a thing which God allowed. They were just moving it in a way that God had not authorized (Num. 25:14,15; 1 Chron. 13:7). “I mean, what’s the big deal? It could be moved, and they were moving it. It doesn’t matter how you do it.” Oh, really (1 Chron. 15:13)? (b) When Uzzah touched the ark, he thought he was doing a “good work.” The ark was about to fall because the oxen stumbled, so Uzzah tried to steady it. It is not like he was sneaking around at night and saying to himself, “I know the ark is not to be touched, but I think I will just touch it with the tip of my finger and see what it feels like.” No, Uzzah’s intentions were good, and he was, no doubt, a very honest and devout man, but “he died before God.” (C) Suppose Uzzah had refused to hold the ark when it shook and suppose it had fallen and been scratched and dented. In other words, the end justifies the means. Imagine how Uzzah may have been reproached by his brethren if he had let the ark fall when he could have prevented it! “Uzzah, what’s wrong with you? Surely, the Lord would not have condemned you for trying to save the ark? Sometimes you have to let some things take precedence over other things that are not so important.”

Fourth, a “man of God” prophesied as God had directed him to do (1 Kgs. 13). The prophet was not to eat or drink, neither was he to return the same way he came. However, because he believed a lie, he ate and drank. Because he “was disobedient unto the word of the Lord,” he was killed by a lion. Now, who would argue that eating and drinking or the route you take is as important as preaching the truth? The prophet showed great courage to go into enemy territory and deliver an unpopular, negative, condemnatory message. He did his duty and manifested great faith and a willingness to sacrifice his life, if need be, to preach the truth. Who among us would say that he should die because he did eat and drink? After all, he believed a lie. He thought he was doing the right thing. How important are those things? See 1 Kings 13.

Fifth, even such a matter as eating meat, which I have the right to eat, may result in my sinning against my brother, wounding his weak conscience and in sinning “against Christ” (1 Cor. 8). On a scale of 1 to 10, what is the gravity level of eating meat as compared to idolatry itself? Perhaps from my view, there is no comparison, but my opinion as to the relative seriousness of each issue does not mean that I may dismiss either with impunity (cf. Matt. 23:23).


There are subtle, subjective grounds for determining fellowship that will, if followed to their logical conclusions, lead men into compromise at best and error at worst. As the case of Barnabas shows, one who is “carried away,” however innocently, stands “condemned” (Gal. 2:11-14). Hence, my fellowship with error does affect my position and condition before God (Col. 2:8).

If God “tolerates contradictory teachings and practices on important moral and doctrinal questions,” as some have affirmed, does this toleration include instruments of music in worship, Thursday night communion, sprinkling for baptism, institutionalism, sponsoring church arrangements, church sponsored recreation, and those unscripturally divorced and remarried? If so, we had better cease opposition to such things, lest we be found to bind where God has not bound. Are we to weigh and evaluate each subject by its clarity, by the honesty of its proponents and by the gravity of its consequences? If so, who is sufficient to determine such things? How do we know they are qualified? Who shall appoint them? If the premises are accepted, these queries demand an answer.

If subjective grounds for fellowship are followed, several things are inevitable. (1) Doctrinal and moral evil of every kind will be unopposed, unchecked, unrestrained. As a result, men will live and die in sin and go to the judgment to face God. (2) The pattern for the work, worship and organization of the church of the Lord will perish from the hearts of men. (3) Every man will become a law unto himself. (4) Human creeds and confessions and centers of human authority, which are demanded by the philosophy we are reviewing, will abound yet more and more. (5) Sects, divisions, and parties built around men will be multiplied. History, both sacred and secular, testifies to the truth of these consequences (Col. 2; Jas. 3).

What alternative do we have? Be obedient to God’s law, not a judge of it (Jas. 1:25; 2:12; 4:11,12). If you know God, if you love God, you will keep his commandments and not seek to avoid them (1 Jn. 2:3-5). The man that hears God is the man that hears the apostolic word. In this manner, in this way, we know the teacher of truth and the teacher of error (1 Jn. 4:1,6). Take heed unto yourself and unto the doctrine; hold fast the form of sound words (1 Tim. 4:16; 2 Tim. 1:13). Repudiate that which is contrary to sound doctrine, even the words of our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Tim. 6:3-5). “Honor all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the king” (1 Pet. 2:17). “Prove all things; hold fast that which is good” (1 Thess. 5:21). “Be thou faithful unto death” (Rev. 2:10).

Guardian of Truth XXXVI: 1, pp. 33-35
January 2, 1992