Who Are the “We” or “Brotherhood”?

By Ron Halbrook

A correspondent asks for clarification on who are the “we” reflected in the title of my recent articles entitled, “Are We Doomed to Divide over Every Difference on Divorce and Remarriage?” (Guardian of Truth, August 15 and September 5, pp. 496-98 and 548-50). The reader also requested some discussion of how the “brotherhood” divides, though that term was not used in the articles. Through the years, some brethren have been sensitive to references to such terms as “we” and the “brother-hood.” It is felt in some cases that the terms are used too vaguely, or even that they are used unscripturally in reference to a denominational concept of the church as a conglomerate of local congregations and such service institutions as publishing businesses, bookstores, and schools. It is in order that such terms be properly clarified and that we “speak as the oracles of God” (1 Pet. 4:11).

“We” in Context: Brethren,

Christians, God’s People

“We,” of course, is a pronoun, and its point of reference must be deter-mined by the context. In the articles, “Must We Divide…?”, the word “brethren” is used often, beginning with the first two paragraphs (“we be brethren,” and, “brethren to dwell together in unity,” Gen. 13:8; Ps. 133:1). Synonyms used in the article include “God’s people,” “people” dedicated “to a restoration of the ancient order of things,” and “Christians.” “We” refers to “people” professing to serve God, as in the following statements:

As time goes on, more and more people under the influence of these theories participate in such worldly practices as immodest dress (in mixed swimming and daily dress too), gambling (lottery tickets and Las Vegas too), dancing, and drinking intoxicants (beer, wine, mixed drinks, etc.). This carnality will in-crease. Worldly-minded people and spiritually minded people inevitably separate themselves from each other (2 Cor. 6:17; Eph. 5:11) (GOT, August 15, 1996, p. 498).

The “people” referred to are we who profess to be Christians. If this use of “we” is not scripturally accurate, would someone please point out why or how?

Wherever brethren come into contact with each other, however they (we) may work together at any time, they (we) will face questions and issues which must be scripturally resolved. For instance, if they (we) are to work together as members of the same local church, they (we) must agree with each other on “the faith of the gospel” in order to strive “together for the faith of the gospel”  they (we) must be united in “one Lord, one faith, and one baptism” (Phil. 1:27; Eph. 4:5). If a local church wants to use a man to preach in a gospel meeting, the same unity must exist between the church and the preacher, even though he is not a member of that lo-cal church. In that case, the church and the preacher are the “we” who will find themselves united or divided. The same is true if a church is to provide financial support to a man to preach somewhere else. In that case, the church and the preacher are the “we” who will find themselves united or divided. If two or more brethren wanted to travel and preach together where there are no churches (as Jim McDonald and I have done alongside Filipino preachers), “we” must be united in the faith of the gospel.

If a couple of preachers wanted to teach some lessons on an individual basis to improve the understanding and skill of younger preachers, the teachers would need to be united in the truth of the gospel. Brother Harry Pickup, Jr. has taught some lessons of that kind from time to time through the years. He does not give the right hand of fellowship to premillennialists or institutionalists to teach “damnable heresies” to these young men, but he brings in people of “like precious faith” to help him teach (2 Pet. 2:1; 1:1). Here is the reason for that, in the form of a rhetorical question: “Can two walk together, except they be agreed?” (Amos 3:3). Brother Pickup might say of those who walk together with him in presenting the truth, “‘We’ try to present lessons which are challenging, profitable, and practical.” If he made such a statement in a context referring to himself and like-minded teachers, it would not imply that he conceived of a brotherhood-wide organization of churches and human institutions.

Some false teachers tried to create the impression that Paul was not preaching the same gospel preached by faithful brethren in Jerusalem. This tactic was designed to drive a wedge of division between Paul and the Jerusalem saints. To defeat this tactic, Paul and Barnabas went to Jerusalem, where Peter and other prominent brethren publicly ex-changed “the right hands of fellowship” to demonstrate that they all were united in faith, preaching, and practice (Gal. 2:9). Brethren some-times have in mind local church fellowship when they speak of ex-tending “the right hand of fellowship,” but “the right hand of fellowship” may acknowledge the common faith and practice of any two brethren on other occasions as well.

John’s Use of “We” and “Us”

In the Epistles of John as else-where, careful attention must be given to the point of reference or the antecedent of pronouns such as “we” and “us.” Sometimes, the writer has in mind a more restricted reference and sometimes a broader one. This is true in common with our use of language today. Context is always the guide. In 1 John 1:1-3, “we” is used exclusively of the apostles of Christ as his chosen eyewitnesses, but in 1:6 – 2:6 “we” is used of professed Christians in general. The very nature of some of John’s statements shows that division was inevitable among the “we,” be-cause error and sin were being excused and justified. Two very different mindsets were developing:

Truth and Unity

Error and Division

But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another….If we say that we have fellowship with him, and walk in darkness, we lie, and do not the truth.

If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us….If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.

And hereby we do know that we know him, if we keep his commandments. He that sayeth, I know him, and keepeth not his commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him.

These contrasts were not theoretical or academic, but were reflected in the attitudes and conduct of brethren. Some among the “we” or “us” were beginning to advocate and practice the errors described by John  apostasy and division were developing. In warning against these dangers,

John is not speaking exclusively of our efforts as members of one specific local church, but of our lives as Christians in general  in all aspects of our conduct.

In 1 John 2:19 (“They went out from us…”), John in essence explained that people who abandon apostolic teaching sooner or later separate from those who adhere to that teaching. John recognized that when men leave the faith, they leave the faithful. As in Philippians 3:15-19, we not only can recognize apostolic teaching but also distinguish between those who adhere to that doctrine  “walk by the same rule”  and those who depart from it  “enemies of the cross of Christ.” This is true in a lo-cal church or in any other situation where we encounter professed brethren.

In 2 John 9-11, Christians are taught not to “receive” or to endorse by words of commendation anyone not abiding in “the doctrine of Christ.” This principle applies to each of us whether we might contemplate aiding such a man with personal hospitality, or traveling and preaching with him, or agreeing to accept him into local church membership, or working with him in a gospel meeting (even when we are hopeful “he won’t preach his false doctrine here”), or joining our-selves with him in any other spiritual work. We are to recognize and distinguish between those who follow apostolic teaching and those who do not, wherever we may encounter them (Phil. 3:15-19).

“The Brotherhood”: Christians,

Not Churches Combined

Into An Organized Structure

Clarification has been requested on what the “brotherhood” is and how it can divide. 1 Peter 2:17 says, “Love the brotherhood.” This refers to loving brethren in Christ generally  as members of the same local church  as saints in distant places  when we visit them or they visit us  when-ever and however we may encounter them. The suffix “hood” refers to “a group sharing a specified state or quality” (The American Heritage Dictionary, 2nd College Ed., 1991). In this case, it is the state or quality of being baptized believers, professed Christians, brothers and sisters in Christ. The units making up the brotherhood in 1 Peter 2:17 are individual Christians, not churches, and not service institutions operated and utilized by Christians (whether bookstores, publishing businesses, schools, etc.).

“Now the Spirit speaketh expressly, that in the latter limes some shall depart from the faith” (1 Tim. 4:1). When some among us depart from the faith, there is division. When brethren part ways as individuals, they eventually and inevitably part company in all of the ways they formerly worked and worshiped together  in individual efforts and in local churches. As a consequence of that process, individuals will separate with regard to working together in publishing journals and other religious literature, but stores and businesses are not the brotherhood spoken of in Scripture.

While there is no organization combining local churches into a brotherhood of churches, churches of Christ share a common head and thus a common standard of truth, faith, and practice. Speaking from that viewpoint, Paul said he taught the same thing “everywhere in every church” (1 Cor. 4:17; 7:17; 11:16). Ties of love for the Lord, for the truth, and for each other existed between brethren who worshiped in various congregations from place to place (Col. 2:1-5). Churches sharing those common bonds of truth and love exchanged greetings, information, and varied communications with each other (Col. 4:7-18; Rom. 16:16; Acts 18:27).

When some of those churches departed from the inspired standard and refused to repent, they thus were divided or separated from churches which continued to maintain that standard. Mutual greetings and other communications ceased. Though never joined by organizational ties, they once shared a common allegiance to the authority of Christ and to the task of preaching and practicing his word, but while some churches faithfully maintained that commitment, others lost it. The unfolding of such a division is reflected in the letters to the seven churches of Asia Minor, as recorded in Revelation 2-3. Again, I emphasize, this is not a division of an organization of combined churches, but it is a division of faith and practice which can be recognized between or among local churches.

When individual brethren become divided in faith and practice, eventually the local churches in which they were once united become divided, and eventually entire local churches can be recognized as embracing one faith and practice or another. Such division has occurred over instrumental music, missionary societies, premillennialism, and institutionalism. Churches which become corrupt in doctrine and practice often form organizational arrangements which centralize and combine local churches into some larger structure, some organized brotherhood ofchurches, but churches which maintain the New Testament pattern of faith and practice do not do so (1 Cor. 4:17).

When faithful preachers cry out against rising dangers, they sometimes are charged with harboring the concept of some imaginary organization constituting a brotherhood of churches. Vague aspersions are cast publicly and juicy rumors are shared privately about self-appointed “guardians” stirring up trouble by trying to “run things” and “control the brotherhood.” Generous references are made to “brotherhood directors,” “brotherhood dictators,” “brotherhood watchdogs,” attempts to impose “an official creed on the brotherhood,” and the like.

In the first place, the logic of some among us is curious and convoluted. When faithful brethren use Scripture and moral persuasion to warn about certain dangers, this “proves” they believe in an imaginary brotherhood of churches and are seeking to exercise legislative, executive, and judicial powers in it. But, when their critics cry out against the dangers they see (such as certain supposed brotherhood directors), this “proves” they do not believe in an imaginary brotherhood of churches and they are not brotherhood dictators or even watchdogs. Solomon explained this kind of logic when he said, “The legs of the lame are not equal” (Prov. 26:7).

Secondly, such charges were used as a smokescreen by those promoting and defending false doctrine during the divisions over instrumental music, missionary societies, premillennialism, and institutionalism. Faithful men have always suffered the illogical and inconsistent charges of such critics without being intimidated and without losing sight of the very real doctrinal issues which lay behind the charges. Such charges are being used as a smokescreen now by those promoting and defending false doctrine on divorce-remarriage, fellowship, Romans 14, and related matters. Brethren, let us assess these tactics for what they are and resolve not to be diverted from the very real doctrinal issues which lie behind such charges, “lest Satan should get an advantage of us: for we are not ignorant of his devices” (2 Cor. 2:11).

Guardian of Truth XLI: 2 p. 16-18
January 16, 1997