Friday, September 10, 2004

Doctrinal partisanship

This election season reminds me of how partisan I am by nature. I want my side to win because I truly believe my side stands for much that is right about America. Does it always do what is right in every case? No. But I put aside minor, and even some major differences, and rally behind my party because I perceive that the good that can be done if my party is in power will outweigh the bad they will do that I may disagree with. Others may disagree. That does not make them un-American. But at election time, I make no apology for wanting my party to win power.

The Lord's church is not to be about acquisition of power or influence over the brethren, and therefore is not to be political in nature. It follows, then, that it should never be partisan. Partisanship divides and is only useful for winning elections. It is not useful for anything else. Any effort to divide the Lord's people over a particular doctrinal bent upon which honest brothers can disagree has no place among the Lord's people. We may differ without being divided.

Basis of fellowship

Partisanship, the 20th century legacy of the 19th century restoration movement, has been furthered by a misunderstanding of the basis of Christian fellowship. While the denominational world has relished their creeds, insisting that uniformity of opinion on "these essential things" would bring about unity, we have fallen into the same trap using our own unwritten criteria as "tests of fellowship."

But the foundation upon which Christian fellowship and unity are built is not uniformity of opinion but uniformity of obedience to the gospel of Christ. All who are obedient to the gospel call are in the fellowship of the saints, not just those with whom we have come to associate over time. 1 Corinthians 11:13 says that "by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body--whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free--and have all been made to drink into one Spirit."

Fellowship is our joint participation with each other in the blood of Christ. We don't choose to be in fellowship with each other. Fellowship is a state to which we are admitted by the Lord when we are brought into the likeness of his death. If we have been redeemed, we are put into fellowship with each other through Christ whether we like it or not. Our responsibility is to maintain that fellowship by walking in the light (1 John 1:7), defined by the apostle John as loving our brethren: "Whoever loves his brother lives in the light..." (1 John 2:10). We can't love our brother if we don't acknowledge that he is one.

Koinonia is the Greek word that has been generally translated "fellowship" in the New Testament scriptures. It is defined by the KJV New Testament Lexicon as:

fellowship, association, community, communion, joint participation, intercourse
- the share which one has in anything, participation
- intercourse, fellowship, intimacy

True, we are a community of believers. We share in common many similar doctrinal opinions, many of which I believe are correct. But I hope none of us would dare claim to be the sole faithful community of believers. Our doctrinal deductions are not even remotely a scriptural basis for unity or fellowship any more than our political affiliation. The fact that restoration movement churches have made them so is what has caused the sad state of division we see today, with this or that group forming partisan lines in the sand around their particular hobbies.

But we have not so learned in Christ. Doctrines and opinions, however correct, were never what brought us into our fellowship with Christ. As such, they cannot be the basis for denying some from that fellowship.

Paul in Romans 12:16 says "Be of the same mind toward one another. Do not set your mind on high things, but associate with the humble. Do not be wise in your own opinion." Our own opinions and deductions are just that--our own. They may be utterly right, but they are not the standard by which we measure our brethren.

Romans 14:1 tells the Christians to "Receive one who is weak in the faith, but not to disputes over doubtful things." Paul goes on to write "let not him who does not eat judge him who eats; for God has received him." Who God has received, we are to receive as well, and not for the sake of holding debates. We are to receive each other as equal heirs in the work of Christ on the cross, because God has cleansed us and them alike. What God has cleansed in the waters of baptism, we should not call common or unclean. All who have been washed, whether we think they are practicing their faith correctly or not, must be accepted as full brothers, not distant relatives.

Our English word "fellowship" is composed of two root words. One (fellow) means "a comrade or associate; a person of equal rank, position, or background; a peer." The other (-ship) is a suffix that means "quality, state, or condition." Put them together and you have the real meaning for our word "fellowship:" The quality, state, or condition of being a comrade, associate, peer, or person of equal rank, position, or background.

Fellowship means brothership. In baptism we are put into a state of brothership with all others who are in Christ, and to deny that brothership over a doctrinal statement is to make a creed out of our beliefs, even if they are correct. Galatians 3:26-28 bears this out: "For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ, for you are all one in Christ Jesus."

All who have been immersed into Christ are comrades in the cause of the gospel and equal participants in the grace of God. To deny this is to place a condition of fellowship on our brethren that God never placed upon us. We have fellowship with God only because of the propitiation of His Son, which brings us into that fellowship. He did not demand that we learn at once the mind of God, nor all the fine points of the apostle's doctrine before we were accepted into His fellowship. Neither can we raise an artificial standard of intellectual achievement to which all must submit before they can be accepted into our fellowship. (See Alexander Campbell's "Parable of the Iron Bedstead.")

We cannot force upon others our own intellectual accomplishment, because our intellects belong to us and to us alone. Just as we ourselves arrive at a conclusion and cannot accept it until it is our own, we cannot demand that others suddenly arrive at the same place we are at the same moment. We are to grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ, and if we are all growing, then we are all at different places in our understandings on various issues. And yes, that includes our practice of "mutual edification," which I continue to believe holds much merit and scriptural precedent.

A simple fact, a simple cause

Sometimes there arrives in our consciousness a simple fact so compelling that it causes us to reassess the fundamental truths that motivate us. The idea of God-endowed liberty was one of the simple facts that defined 18th century politics. This simple idea gave birth to our nation. The life-changing axiom that all are in the fellowship of the saints who have been added into it by the Lord is one that is historically just as earth-shaking to the Lord's people. This simple idea gave birth to a spiritual kingdom with no sectarian boundaries in the 1st century, and it will do the same in the 21st. Whether we claim that heritage of unity or not is our prerogative.

In political partisanship, we compromise some issues when we throw in our lot with a particular candidate. We have to, because no candidate agrees with us on every single issue. But when we form tests of fellowship over matters of intellectual understanding we are compromising the cause of Christ by creating factions. We are diverting precious intellectual resources from our primary mission of spreading the good news of our Lord Jesus Christ.

The armies of the Lord are much bigger than we ever imagined. So are the mission fields. Let's go out and recruit souls into Christ and stop trying to recruit them into doctrinal camps whose boundaries change with maturity.

~Dedicated to the poor soul who had to categorize churches in Where the Saints Meet.