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Doctrinal Soundness and Consistency in Fellowship
by Kerry Duke

An explorer went to Antarctica for several weeks of research. Upon arriving he set up his tent and organized his supplies. One day he went outside with some equipment to gather samples when a fierce blizzard struck. By the time he had gathered his equipment and started toward the tent, he could no longer see it. Though he was only a few feet away, the blizzard was so thick he could only see a very short distance. Having lost his sense of direction, he was in a real quandary. If he began walking in the right direction, he would find his tent; but if he guessed wrong, he would certainly die. He wisely decided to drive a flagpole he had into the snow and use it as a point of reference. He would walk a few paces in one direction from the flagpole to see if the tent was visible, and if not, he would retreat to the flagpole. The farther he walked from the flagpole, the less clear his path was, so he was careful to stay close to it as his point of reference. He kept experimenting in different directions until he found the tent. Staying close to the flagpole kept him from wandering into ground where he had increasingly poor visibility.

An Old Problem

Jewish rabbis in Jesus' day were in the midst of a doctrinal snowstorm. They were extremely divided on virtually every question of doctrine, splitting hairs on insignificant questions and leaving the common people confused. Religion had largely become so complex and technical that it was bogged down with needless debates. Judaism as taught by the scribes and Pharisees was so stringent that it was an almost unbearable burden. This is why Jesus' teaching was so refreshing — it was simple, understandable, and practical. He "taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes" (Matt. 7:29), and "the common people heard him gladly" (Mark 12:37). But how did Jewish scholars reach this point? How did they become so obsessed with solving these issues that they ignored the plainly revealed and clearly emphasized teaching of the Old Testament?

The roots of this problem go back a few generations before Christ arrived. A group of orthodox Jews known as the Chasidim or pious, separated ones saw a need to preserve the law of Moses and to make its teaching more applicable to the specific questions of the day. This concern was given further impetus by the fact that the Greek culture to which the Jews were being exposed gave rise to specific moral choices they had never confronted. How could they apply the law of Moses, which was delivered for the most part within the cultural context of the Israelite nation, to special circumstances not explicitly addressed in that law? To solve this problem, the Chasidim set out to connect the dots from the explicit statements of Scripture to situations that were not specifically discussed in the law. The goal appears noble, and perhaps at first it was. But in time the less clear applications of the statements of Scripture to very difficult questions took precedence over the clearly stated teaching of Scripture itself. The scribes became more concerned about proving their point than about assessing the importance of the issue in the overall scheme of Old Testament teaching. They frequently resorted to arguments based on extremely fine nuances in the Hebrew text, analyzing every jot and tittle to find an alleged basis for their view. They employed laborious, complex lines of reasoning to make their case. But as their doctrinal conclusions grew more tenuous in connection to the Scriptures they used, the scribes themselves became more dogmatic in their teaching on these intricate questions. They insisted that these conclusions were just as binding and just as important as statements of Scripture. In time, they claimed divine guidance for these positions by alleging that God gave to Moses oral law in addition to the written law. These Jews maintained that the oral law was a right and an ability given to Moses to supplement the written law by giving answers to questions not specifically addressed in the law. They further claimed that this oral law was passed down to succeeding generations of Jews. The Pharisees were the New Testament heirs of this theology, and their oral laws were given the name "traditions."

A revealing example of this dominant theme in Jewish theology is rabbinical interpretation of the Old Testament sabbath labor law. The law of Moses generally forbade labor on this day (Exod. 20:8-11) and specifically prohibited gathering sticks (Num. 15:32-36), gathering manna (Exod. 16:22-30), kindling a fire (Exod. 35:3), bearing burdens, and selling merchandise (Neh. 13:15-21) on the sabbath. But Jewish rabbis wanted more explicit answers: What constitutes the work forbidden in Exodus 20:8-11? How heavy does an object have to be before it becomes a "burden"? Is any physical activity on the sabbath a violation of the law? The Mishnah records the endless lengths to which the Jews went to answer questions about the most minute applications of the law. In the section Shabbath ("sabbath"), the views of Hillel, Shammai, and other famous rabbis are presented and compared. Among the questions they debated were: What kind of oil and wick should be used for the sabbath lamp? Can a man go out of his house on the sabbath carrying a piece of rope or a loaf of bread? What if a man killed one of the "creeping things" on the sabbath? May one scripturally use a sewing needle to remove a thorn on the sabbath? In view of this doctrinal background, it is not surprising to find extreme yet dogmatic extensions of the sabbath labor law among the Jewish leaders in Jesus' day. Healing (Luke 13:14), plucking grain (Matt. 12:1-2), and carrying a bed after being healed (John 5:1-18) were viewed as violations of the sabbath.

This mode of interpretation created a terrible atmosphere among the Jews. In the first place, only highly-trained Jewish rabbis could speak with confidence about the traditions because rabbis were the ones who formulated them. The common people were dependent upon these experts for their instruction. This situation tended to cause confusion and insecurity in the people while it became a ground for arrogance among the leaders (John 7:45-53). Also, since precisely discerning these traditions was beyond the practical reach of the people, the oral law became a manipulative tool for the Pharisees to maintain power over them. When anyone opposed the Jewish authorities, he was labeled as disobedient to the law by virtue of the traditions that supposedly flowed from it. Furthermore, there could never be an end to the oral laws the Jews propounded; the traditions would need constant revision because they were never explicit enough to cover every circumstance. Time has proven this: the Mishnah, which recorded the traditions allegedly based on the law of Moses, was followed by the Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmuds, which deduced further laws from the Mishnah, and the process continues to this day. There was also this inevitable predicament: these laws were so numerous, so complex, and so tedious that no one could be consistent in keeping them. Jesus often pointed out this weakness, exposing the hypocrisy of condemning Him when Jewish leaders in principle did the same thing (John 7:21-24; Matt. 12:1-13). But perhaps the most tragic consequence of this preoccupation with fine questions about the application of the law was that it eclipsed the overarching virtues of the law.

New Testament Specifics

Is this syndrome inevitable? Can we be serious about being biblical without getting into the same doctrinal condition as the ancient Jews? Is it possible to have a concern for doing things scripturally and at the same time be balanced and consistent? Is there a biblical way of assessing issues of application so that we do not neglect primary duties? Is there any way to be consistent in this area as it relates to the subject of fellowship?

 

Consider some examples. The Bible says that an elder must have believing children (Titus 1:6; I Tim. 3:4-5). Does this mean that he must have a plurality of children, or can a man meet this qualification if he only has one child? Must his children be faithful after they leave his home, and does his unfaithful child living outside his home disqualify him from being an elder? My purpose is not to answer these questions or to deny that we can know the right answers to them. I am simply illustrating what we already know: disagreements in congregations and between congregations on these questions are not made tests of fellowship. There are differences on the application of Bible doctrine that we tolerate. Should we? Or should we also make these matters a test of fellowship? If we do not, how can we be consistent in opposing the installation of a young man who has never been married and has no children as an elder, even to the point of viewing these violations as matters of fellowship? Are the two sets of questions different, and if so, how are they different biblically? One can brush these questions aside with an arbitrary response such as "Well, the first scenarios you posed are not big issues." Why not? What makes them lesser issues? Unless one has a biblical basis for making this distinction, his approach is subjective.

The Lord's Supper has often been scrutinized in regard to specific details of its observance. The question of offering the Lord's Supper a second time at an evening worship service has been discussed and informally debated for decades. Then there is the question of taking the Lord's Supper to a nursing home or a hospital for people who are unable to attend the regular worship assembly. Also, is the order of the Supper a biblical pattern? Must we eat the unleavened bread first and then drink the cup? Are we sinning if we do not, and is this a test of fellowship? Can we be consistent in tolerating differences on these questions while refusing to tolerate using other food on the Lord's table or not having the Lord's Supper in worship at all? Is the distinction we make on these questions biblical or arbitrary?

This difficulty arises with many biblical principles and obligations. I remember being in an open forum a few years ago where the question of the death penalty arose. Everyone in the audience who spoke out as well as all those on the panel agreed that capital punishment is authorized in the New Testament. Then those specific application questions began to be posed. Is it morally right to execute an insane person who is guilty of murder? Should the death penalty apply to a young man who is eighteen? What if he is fourteen? What if an eleven-year-old commits murder? Would a government be morally justified in executing not only murderers but also adulterers or fornicators? Though I did not learn the answers to all these questions, I did gain a valuable insight that day: no matter how clear a Bible teaching is, its application becomes less and less clear when one tries to trace that application as it trickles down into specific situations not treated explicitly in Scripture.

Major Approaches

The problem we are discussing is recognized in the major strands of denominationalism and in divergent camps in the Lord's church, and each offers a perspective or solution to the difficulty. The Roman Catholic Church, modeling their doctrine after the example of ancient Jews, basically says, "That is why we have the Magisterium." The Catholic position is that the Bible is not sufficient to address the multitude of specific situations where questions arise concerning the application of Bible teaching. Their "solution" is that the Catholic Church is guided by the Holy Spirit to answer the intricate, changing issues of each generation which (they assert) the Bible does not address. Catholics maintain that the Bible is "materially sufficient," that is, the raw materials are present in the Bible for these issues, but it is not "formally sufficient," that is, it does not give the explicit details we need, and this formal sufficiency is supplied by the Catholic Church. Without the Catholic Church, they insist, those who believe in sola scriptura are bound in hopeless division and are unable to determine the answers to complex issues.

    

The Protestant response to this problem is varied, but in general the essence of its "solution" lies in the doctrine of salvation by faith alone. In this model, only faith in Christ is essential to salvation, and since, as the doctrine asserts, one who is saved cannot lose his salvation, no other questions of biblical doctrine should be considered as matters of salvation. But there is a curious twist in the practice of this belief, at least among some of the more traditional denominations. Though these churches hold that issues of doctrine and life other than faith in Christ do not affect one's salvation, they do maintain that some of these issues are grounds for disfellowship. For instance, the Winter, 2000 issue of the Southern Baptist Journal of Theology was devoted to the subject of church discipline. The articles in it were interesting and insightful, but the good points that were made were overshadowed by the implied belief that church discipline is for people who are saved. But the overall conclusion of Protestantism is that faith in Christ is the only issue that is related to salvation.

 

The approach of the progressive movement in churches of Christ to this question is to varying degrees a modified version of the Protestant model. Those in this camp argue that if we insist on following the biblical pattern, there is no end to the details of doctrine that we must press. They maintain that disintegration of the church is inevitable with the blueprint approach to doctrine. Also, representatives of this movement say there is no solution in this system of interpretation to questions such as: Why do we make a strict stand against women serving as bishops, yet tolerate differences regarding a bishop's children? Why do we make the interpretation of Matthew 19:9 a test of fellowship, yet we agree to disagree on the meaning of "only in the Lord" in I Corinthians 7:39?1 Progressives insist there is no consistent way to avoid making every question of doctrine a matter of fellowship given the way we interpret the Bible. The solution they propose is a paradigm shift in which the need to be "sound" and "scriptural" is replaced with an emphasis on the "person of Christ." As a result, they view issues like church government, acts of public worship, the role of women, divorce and remarriage, and in some cases even baptism as non-essentials that detract from the cross and inevitably lead to the same kind of dogmaticism in fine, technical questions which characterized ancient rabbinical thought.

 

One of the main problems with this alleged solution is that it does not solve the difficulty at all. It merely transfers it to another field of questions. Progressives seem to breathe a sigh of relief at not having to worry about separating over issues pertaining to worship, church government, or the role of women. Faith in the person of Jesus, they insist, will furnish the unity they seek. But once they have made this transition, the problems associated with doctrine and fellowship do not disappear. In fact, their number and scope increase due to the sheer size and diversity of the Protestant world they are trying to befriend. For instance, will they fellowship people who believe in Jesus but deny the inspiration of Scripture or the miracles of the Bible? Will they accept practicing homosexuals who believe in Jesus? Will they support seminaries with professors who deny Jesus' virgin birth? Will they accept Catholics into their fellowship? If the reason for abandoning "traditional church of Christ interpretation" is that it is impossible to be consistent in applying it, then where is the representative of the progressive movement who is consistent in applying the "unity based on the person of Christ" paradigm?

 

Another approach in churches of Christ that also occurs in varying degrees is the tendency to view virtually every question of doctrine as a matter of fellowship, or at least as potentially a matter of fellowship. Though this thinking is more common among non-institutional churches because of their hermeneutic, it also appears in some cooperative congregations, especially in isolated cases of individuals who tend to reason in this direction. The tendency is to place all doctrinal errors on an equal level. As a result, intricate questions about the use of a church building can become as serious as the sin of adultery. These modern church members commit the same mistakes as the ancient Jewish rabbis: they do not in practice remember or foresee all the implications of the rules and are invariably inconsistent, and their preoccupation with the finer application of these rules prevents them from fulfilling the primary duties of the law of God.

 

Is there any alternative to these approaches? Can we deal with this problem without resorting to the Catholic doctrine of continual revelation, the Protestant model of salvation by faith alone, or the extreme approach of making every question of Bible teaching a test of fellowship? Can we avoid being arbitrary in the selection of issues to press and issues to tolerate? Is there a biblical way to look at these questions without surrendering respect for Bible authority or becoming extreme like the Pharisees? Is it necessary or even possible to be consistent in addressing the vast array of doctrinal questions that present themselves to us?

Seeing Our Way Clear

The explorer analogy offers some help at this point. When he stayed close to the flagpole, he kept his bearings. With each step he took away from it, his sense of where he was became increasingly dubious. He was clear about his location when he took one step, but his vision was not quite as clear as it was when he was next to the pole. The farther he moved from center, the more hazy and blurry his vision became. If he wandered too far, he would lose sight of the flagpole and lose his sense of direction entirely. The pole will represent the Bible, and the three flags we will attach to it signify three principles of Scripture which share in common a scale of seriousness or importance in which there is a diminishing or tapering aspect.

 

The first flag is the scale of the inherent importance of the Bible teaching in question relative to other Bible teachings. This flag on the pole represents the most important duties of Christianity. There is no excuse for being ignorant on this point. Jesus plainly taught that the most important of all the commandments is to love God with all of one's heart, mind, soul and strength (Mark 12:28-30). Next in importance is to love one's neighbor as himself (Mark 12:31; cf. Matt. 7:12; Rom. 13:8-10; Gal. 5:14). In the context of Mark 12, these two duties are contrasted with the positive requirements of Jewish public worship (vv. 32-34). This comparison is given special emphasis in the Old Testament. "To do justice and judgment is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice" (Prov. 21:3). "He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good, and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?" (Micah 6:8; note the contrast with offerings in vv.6-7). "For I desired mercy, and not sacrifice; and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings" (Hosea 6:6). Hosea's words are cited twice by Jesus in the New Testament (Matt. 9:13; 12:7) in response to the overapplication of the law by the scribes and Pharisees. "I will have mercy, and not sacrifice" does not merely mean, "I will have mercy also, and not just sacrifice." The last part of the verse shows that a comparison is made: mercy is "more," that is, more important, than sacrifice. This scale of value is clearly established in Matthew 23:23: "Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone." Tithing, being just, showing mercy, and having faith were all required but the last three took precedence over the first. They are more weighty in terms of importance.2

 

The other side of this coin is that some errors are more grievous in God's sight than others. Some sins are "greater" or more serious (John 19:11); some spiritual conditions are "worse" than others (I Tim. 5:8; II Pet. 2:20). The book of First Corinthians teaches by example that some errors require more urgent attention than others. Paul scolded these Christians for not resolving "the smallest matters" among themselves (I Cor. 6:2). Rather than settling these disputes among themselves, the Corinthians took each other to court before unbelievers. It is important to remember that these conflicts were not over purely legal differences having no connection to morality. The contentions sprang from actual wrong which one member had done to another (I Cor. 6:7). Their differences were over wrongs done, but these wrongs were small matters that should have been resolved among themselves. But how could Paul say these things if all sins are equally serious? Another indication in this epistle of a scale of grievousness among sins is the manner in which he dealt with the problems at Corinth. These Christians were guilty of childish bickering, envying each other, suing one another, and acting out of order in the worship assembly. Paul verbally chastises them for these things. But there was one sin among them he did not merely reprove: fornication. He issued verbal reproof for the other errors, but he called for action toward this sin by instructing the church to withdraw from a brother who was guilty of it (I Cor. 5). There were a number of things wrong at Corinth, but some were more and others were less serious than others.

 

We are not talking here about the difference between matters of Bible teaching and matters of opinion. What we are saying is that the duties of Scripture are given on a scale of importance. All are not on an equal plane of importance; some take precedence over others. We are also saying that errors in doctrine and practice are not all equally serious; some are more serious than others. Admission of this point is implicit in the label "fatal error" — a designation which obviously suggests that some doctrinal errors do not lead to damnation. Of course, a man can cause division in the church over a smaller matter of interpretation and endanger his soul, but it is his way of dealing with the question, not the importance of the issue itself, that places his soul in jeopardy. It is also true that men agree in principle that some questions of Bible teaching outweigh others but differ widely in their beliefs about what those issues are. But this disagreement does not remove the point that the Bible establishes the fact of this scale of importance and clearly states the most central elements of it.

 

Recognizing this principle will go a long way toward helping us to see our way through the doctrinal blizzard we are experiencing. Keeping our eyes on this flag of the biblical pole means emphasizing most what the Scriptures emphasize most while giving less stress to issues that are farther away from this center. This is not an either/or approach where we obey some of God's commands and neglect others. The point is one of emphasis: there are some duties we should focus more on than others. Conversely, since some errors are more serious than others, we must look to the flagpole to remember what those errors are. Again, the idea is not to avoid some sins and tolerate others; it is to be specially watchful of some sins and error and to be more urgent in our efforts to correct them. It is an acknowledged fact that no individual Christian or congregation will ever be free from all sin and doctrinal error. This principle teaches that some issues deserve more attention by virtue of the scale of priority being discussed. The practical truth is that if we really take care of the most important matters first, we will have little opportunity to become enamored with the smaller things. But if we blindly and arbitrarily go after issues without looking back to the flagpole to see where they stand in relation to center, we will never have a clear sense of doctrinal direction.

 

The second flag on this pole of reference is the scale of application flowing from the clarity and explicitness of revelation on a given point of Bible teaching. When we focus on the wording, the details, and the examples of Scripture, our footing is more sure and our sense of direction is more clear. As we move from the statements of Scripture to the specific applications of this teaching, the answers gradually taper or shade off in terms of clarity, and as the clarity of revelation lessens, so does the seriousness of the issues in question. As the applications become more narrow and less clear, their relation to fellowship and salvation becomes less central. This does not mean that matters of implication are uncertain or that they are necessarily not binding. It does mean that matters of implication are not necessarily important. Implication and importance are not inherently connected; a thing may be implied but it may not be all that important. Also, we must remember that the things Jesus identified as more important matters are simple — simple to understand, that is, though they can be difficult to keep in focus because of our weaknesses. We should learn from the mistakes of the ancient Jewish rabbis on this point. Their arguments to prove their traditions were so complex that they lost any practical benefit. There was no way for the average working Jew to learn and grasp, much less remember and put into practice, the long, complicated lines of reasoning alleged to establish these doctrines. By the time a common Jew tried to sort through the positions of the rabbis and the arguments used to sustain them, he would have little time or energy left to actually study the Bible itself. And it would have been extremely difficult to keep up with every question of Bible application and stay focused on the primary duties in the written Word. The same holds true today. The longer and more complex the chain of application or implication is, the less likely it is that the average person will understand it. This does not mean it is wrong to examine these issues. But it does show that we should disagree less strongly on such fine, technical matters, that we should be less dogmatic when we're not as sure, and that we should be more accepting and tolerant of differences on these points. Also, no matter how intelligent a person is, the farther he moves from this flagpole, the deeper he descends in this chain of application to specific circumstances, and the harder the questions become. Another qualification that needs to be observed is that clarity of a biblical statement is not by itself a guarantee of importance. A thing can be clearly stated in Scripture without being a priority in terms of the knowledge one needs for salvation. It is the clarity of revelation on a given matter when it is given authority and importance from the totality of biblical teaching that constitutes its primacy in the area of application.

 

Consider this principle in the application of Bible teaching regarding the qualifications of elders. It is clear that a young man who has never been married and has no children cannot meet the requirements to be "the husband of one wife" and have "faithful children." It is clear that a woman cannot be the husband of one wife and that religious groups that teach a bishop must not have a wife contradict this Scripture. We see these applications clearly because we are close to the flagpole. But what if a man meets the qualifications and serves faithfully as an elder for years, and then his wife dies? Or does he become disqualified if his children die? And what about the word "children"? Does this word demand plurality, or does a man with one faithful child meet the qualifications? Does the requirement of having faithful children mean the children must be faithful only in their father's home while they are being raised or does it mean they must also be faithful after they are grown and live on their own? My purpose is neither to answer these questions nor to deny that we can arrive at the answers. It is to highlight a difference in the status of the questions, a difference that is not arbitrary but one that is rooted in the principle under consideration. Many preachers and elders would say these latter questions should not become points of division, but they are unable to explain why. This is where the principle of the scale of application comes into play, providing a scriptural basis for the distinction.

 

The Lord's Supper is another example. It is clear what food items are to be used on the Lord's table (Matt. 26:26-29). It is clear that the disciples came together for the purpose of observing the Lord's Supper (I Cor. 11:17-34). We see these things plainly because we are close to the flagpole, but our sight becomes less clear as we move away from it to consider the practical application of this teaching to specific circumstances which the Bible does not expressly discuss. Which must be taken first — the unleavened bread or the fruit of the vine? Is this order a matter of Bible teaching or a matter of option? Is it scriptural to offer the Supper a second time on the Lord's day at the Sunday night service? Is it biblical to take the Lord's Supper to Christians in hospitals or nursing homes? Would anyone say the answers to these questions are equally clear and equally important as the question of what kind of food we are to use in the Lord's Supper? Would anyone withdraw fellowship on these points? Should we disagree as strongly on these issues as we would object to having pizza and soft drinks on the Lord's table? Historically we have not. But is there justification for taking a strong stand on some aspects of the observance of the Lord's Supper while agreeing to disagree on others? Is there a biblical basis for saying that some of these issue are more serious than others? The principle under discussion makes a contribution on this point. Emphasis on the explicitness and clarity of revelation on a given matter provides a basis for determining which questions are greater and which ones are lesser in importance.

 

Perhaps in no other area is this principle more plainly illustrated and needed than in the subject of church buildings. The Bible authorizes church buildings by implication (I Cor. 11:22; Heb. 10:25). What a church can scripturally do with a church building has been a perennial source of controversy in the brotherhood. A brother posed this question in 1850 in the Millennial Harbinger: Is it scriptural to use a church building to sing secular songs?3 In an 1855 issue of the Harbinger a reader asked if a meeting house could be used as a school house during weekdays.4 The question of using instrumental music at a wedding in a church house was posed in the Gospel Advocate in 1932,5 and in 1935 a question appeared about using a church building for a political meeting.6 The interesting thing is that the answers given in these journals by good and knowledgeable brethren were general, brief, and less than dogmatic. How could they be otherwise? Outside of general principles of the New Testament, the authority of elders in matters of expedience, and definite prohibitions in the Bible, what scriptural basis is there for taking dogmatic positions on these technical questions and dividing congregations over them? If the Bible does not even explicitly mention church buildings, how can we expect to develop from the Bible a specific set of rules about how to use them in every circumstance? F. B. Srygley in 1937 offered this perspective on the question of using an instrument of music at a wedding in a church building: "We have a right — in fact, it is our duty — to object to a corruption of the divine worship, but we weaken this when we begin to split hairs over the meetinghouse. In my opinion, there is already too much made out of the meetinghouse. There is great waste on buildings already without trying to make the building as important as the worship of God."7

 

This descending of degrees of importance in the scale of application is inherent in numerous Bible teachings. It is clear that a woman who teaches an assembly of men and women violates the Scriptures (I Tim. 2:11-12; I Cor. 14:34-35). But do these passages forbid a woman to say "Amen" in the worship assembly? Is the application as clear in this situation as it is in the case of a woman preaching? Should this be an issue of fellowship? It is likewise evident that the Bible condemns forsaking the assembly of worship (Heb. 10:25). Forsaking the assembly to watch television is a clear violation of this passage, but are we or should we be just as urgent toward one who is absent because of a job that involves questionably long hours, a funeral of a loved one, or poor judgment in travel plans? Even baptism involves this principle. Just how much does a young boy or girl have to understand to be scripturally baptized? For that matter, how much does an adult have to know in order to obey God from the heart? I am not trying to discourage discussion on these points; I am saying that how we look at these fine questions of application should be kept in perspective and should not be allowed to overshadow the original statements of Scripture to which they are related.

 

The third flag on the pole is what we will call the scale of
participation.8 This means that the more directly or intentionally a person is involved in a situation where God's word is violated, the more serious his part in the transgression is. Conversely, it means that less blame is attached when the person is less directly involved or less aware of the transgression. Jehoshophat is a biblical example of this principle. This king evidently had a weakness which allowed him to go along with other kings who were committing ungodly acts. He joined forces with Ahab, and God rebuked him for this: "Shouldest thou help the ungodly, and love them that hate the Lord? Therefore is wrath upon thee from before the Lord" (II Chron. 19:2). He also allied himself with Jehoram (II Kings 3) and Ahaziah (II Chron. 20), both of whom are described as evil kings.

 

These reprobate kings were guilty of sins ranging from injustice to idolatry. We may be tempted to say, "If Jehoshophat went along with them, then he was just as guilty as they were." But the record shows that this does not follow. After God rebuked him through Jehu the prophet, the Lord said, "Nevertheless there are good things found in thee, in that thou hast taken away the groves out of the land, and hast prepared thine heart to seek God" (II Chron. 19:3). None of the other kings to whom Jehoshophat allied himself prepared their heart to seek God. Also, the intriguing record in II Kings 3 shows that God made a distinction in how he looked at Jehoram and Jehoshophat, even though they were together in preparation for battle at this point. These two along with the king of Edom went together to speak with the prophet Elisha. When the prophet saw Jehoram, he immediately rebuked him: "What have I to do with thee?" (v. 13). Then he made this interesting observation: "As the Lord God of hosts liveth, before whom I stand, surely were it not that I regard the presence of Jehoshophat the king of Judah, I would not look toward thee, nor see thee" (v. 14). Elisha did not think Jehoshophat was just as bad as Jehoram even though he was with this wicked king in plans to fight together against the Moabites. So the prophet did not put them in the same category.

 

Jehoshophat "helped" the ungodly, and for this he was wrong, but he was not an ungodly person himself. Ahab was an idolater; Jehoshophat was not. Ahaziah did "very wickedly" (II Chron. 20:35); but good things were found in Jehoshophat. These evil kings turned to idols for guidance and served them; Jehoshophat sought direction from true prophets of God (I Kings 22:7; II Kings 3:11-12), and removed idols from Judah. Though we can be rightly critical of Jehoshophat's mistakes in joining himself to these evildoers, we must admit the distinction that the Bible makes between the overall character of this good king of Judah and the wicked kings of Israel he at times helped.

 

What is the principle which serves as a basis for holding Jehoshophat less guilty than these three kings? It could not be that Jehoshophat was ignorant, that he was unaware of the idolatry in Israel. It must be that God makes a distinction between the character of men like these three kings and a man who, out of weakness, joins himself to them but is in the overall scheme of things a good man. These three kings directly participated in idolatry and other sins. Jehoshophat participated on another level, cooperating with them in one sense but not engaging in their idolatry and other transgressions. As there were degrees of participation in these situations, there were also degrees of guilt. Applied to our time, this principle means that among those who on different levels are involved with or connected to a situation where wrong is done, with some who personally commit the wrong, others who are close but a step removed, and still others who in lesser ways are a part of the situation, there are also different levels of responsibility and blame.

 

This principle is evident in the letters to the churches of Asia. The church at Thyatira, for instance, was plagued with sin and error (Rev. 2:18-29). At the center of the trouble was a false prophetess called Jezebel (vv. 20-23). Some participated directly with her in her sin "them that commit adultery with her" - v. 22) and her false doctrine ("her children" - her disciples or those who accepted her teaching, v. 23; cf. Matt. 12:27). Then there were those who "allowed" this to take place (v. 20; although these could be the same ones already mentioned). Still, Jesus makes a distinction between what these members tolerated and committed and what some others did: "But unto you I say, and unto the rest in Thyatira, as many as have not this doctrine, and which have not known the depths of Satan, as they speak; I will put upon you none other burden" (v. 24). The same distinction appears in the letter to the church at Sardis (Rev. 3:1-6). In general the church was dead and needed to repent (vv. 1-3). But Jesus said, "Thou hast a few names even in Sardis which have not defiled their garments..." (v. 4). These members at Thyatira and Sardis were not responsible for the sins of the disobedient Christians there, even though they continued to participate in worship with them.

 

Unless this principle is true, it would be impossible to hold faithful membership in virtually any congregation, since congregations have their share of problems with sin and error. A good older sister in a congregation is not to blame for a brother who uses bad language in the community. As long as she does not condone his sin, she does not share his guilt, even though she does participate and share with him in worship and in other activities of the church. She is not responsible for a brother advancing an unscriptural view in a Bible class, again, as long as she does not endorse his position. Yes, the members of the congregation have an individual and corporate responsibility to deal with such problems in the church (I Thess. 5:14; II Thess. 3:6). But this takes time and is an ongoing process, so in the meantime the guilty member and the others participate in worship together. Even when these duties are not discharged like they should be, it is not necessarily true that those who are in a congregation where some have allowed sinful practice and doctrines are just as guilty as those who committed or allowed them. The faithful at Thyatira were not.

 

There is another aspect of this problem that needs examining. Sometimes members of a congregation say they cannot give into the collection because of wrong being done or overlooked in the church. They believe that contributing financially would necessarily mean endorsing the wrong. Yet they continue to sing, pray, and commune with those same people. That is not consistent. If participating in the act of giving in worship makes one a partaker of other men's sins, then so does the act of singing, praying, or communion. They would be more consistent to leave the congregation for conscience sake rather than to pick and choose acts of participation or sharing.

 

If a congregation does something wrong which directly involves every member, then every member bears direct responsibility for the wrong. For instance, if a congregation refuses to observe the Lord's Supper or decides to change the required day of worship from the Lord's day to the sabbath, every member who complies is guilty of violating the will of God. They are directly involved. But in congregations where some are doing wrong and others do not comply with this wrong, the distinction under consideration should be remembered.

 

This principle has important ramification for questions that have been sticking points during the doctrinal transition that has been occurring for the past few decades. One is that teachers who teach falsely will be judged more severely than those who are not (James 3:1). This means that we cannot necessarily hold other members of a congregation equally responsible. Another is that elders who make decisions which are unscriptural are held to a higher degree of responsibility than the members they oversee (Heb. 13:17). True, the members should confront elders who do so. But here again we must ask how serious the error was. In any case, there is a difference in levels of participation between elders who make wrong calls and members who are not in a position to make those decisions. Then there is the question of a member who holds to a false belief but does not publicly teach it. Still again this depends on how serious the false belief is. But I believe, based upon the principle I am setting forth, that the man who holds "privately" to a false doctrine is not to be handled with the same level of urgency as the man who teaches it publicly because teachers as James said will be judged more severely. Direct involvement in sin or false doctrine in a public way is a more grievous error. The same difference in degree is present in binding in matters of judgment. Paul showed that a Christian can hold to false beliefs in this area and still be saved (Rom. 14). But if he imposes this view on others, he has sinned. So there is a difference at least in some cases between holding privately to a belief that is not scriptural (either because it condemns what God allows or because it allows what God condemns) and demanding that other Christians must hold to that belief. That difference depends on the level and intensity with which he expresses that belief.

 

There are many practical applications of this principle in daily life. It means there is a difference between a man who drinks alcohol or owns a bar and a man who works at Wal-Mart where beer is sold. It means there is a difference between a soldier who does the best he knows how on the battlefield and the leaders who use him for evil intents. It means there is a difference between corporate executives that swindle people and their employees who suspect but cannot prove wrongdoing. Of course, we must remember the role of an individual's conscience in all such situations (I Cor. 8).

    1.    I am not claiming that these principles, which are generated from one central idea, will resolve every doctrinal problem we face. But I believe they will help in many cases.

    2.    Simply focusing on what the Bible says rather than on the questions we ask about it would significantly help the situation. Moreover, making sure we take care of the weightier matters would leave much less time to get stuck on the smaller ones.

    3.    Could it be that God wrote the Bible the way He did to prevent the kind of union men often want — a superchurch, a hierarchy, a denomination? Disagreements in interpretation are practically inevitable. This makes building an organization higher than the local congregation difficult. The Catholic Church began by forcing people to comply doctrinally; Protestants achieve "unity" by demoting or ignoring the authority of the Bible. I am not saying there is a fault in the Bible; the weakness is in men, and God knows that weakness. Could it be that one of the reasons God did not give more specific answers to some of these questions is that He knows how opinionated we can be, and that is His way of keeping us from building a spiritual tower of Babel?

    4.    Progressives in churches of Christ are highly critical of inconsistencies in applying the Scriptures, but they almost always share this in common: they offer no alternative other than abandonment of the "old way." They see problems, but they offer no solution.

    5.    Hypothetical questions sometimes take precedence over actual problems. This is not good, but it can happen to us as surely as it happened with ancient Jewish rabbis.

    6.    The most important duties connected with salvation are simple. We must be careful to present the gospel in simple terms and we should be cautious about technical, complicated disputes.

    7.    Let us emphasize the plain statements of Scripture. We will be doing good if we can just instill the basic truths of the Bible into members, far too many of whom are ignorant of them. Why should we focus on fine questions of meaning and application when Christians are often ignorant of the fundamentals?

    8.    Even if anti-cooperation brethren were right, (that congregational cooperation in evangelism, church support of orphans, and church assistance to non-Christians are without New Testament authority), it would not necessarily follow that these issues should be tests of fellowship like they have made them. Even these brethren tolerate some level of doctrinal disagreement.

    9.    Some cases of sin and error are deserving of disfellowship; others are not. Let us not treat every sin and error as a point of withdrawal, and let us make sure that we fulfill the duties clearly emphasized in Scripture.

    10.    We must not discount the grace of God in all this. No one of us is perfectly consistent either in his practice or his teaching. We are fallible, forgetful, and limited. If we have to be right on every specific question of Bible interpretation, we are in trouble. Let us remain close to the flagpole of Scripture so that we can abide in the grace of God and make our calling and election sure.

 

Notes
1 For a discussion of why this is so, see "The 'Only' Question is not the Only Question" in Living Oracles, March, 2008, pp. 8-11.
2 For a further discussion of this point, see Kerry Duke, "Are All Issues on the Same Level?" in Living Oracles, May, 2008.
3 Millennial Harbinger, October, 1850.
4 Millennial Harbinger, March, 1855.
5 Gospel Advocate, January 7, 1932.
6 Gospel Advocate, December 19, 1935.
7 F. B. Srygley, "The Place of Meeting," Gospel Advocate, June 24, 1937, p. 581.
8 For an extended discussion of this point, see "Even to the Tenth Generation?" by Kerry Duke in Living Oracles, October, 2007.

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