Sunday, September 12, 2004

The highest common denominator

Have you ever felt that someone was trying to cheapen or soft-pedal the gospel to curry favor or gain crowds at their church? I have. In fact, much of my life I have viewed others' religious practices with a hyper-critical eye, secure in the knowledge that they were doing things out of insincere motives and greed. They were, in my view, making the gospel too "easy" and bringing our faith down to its lowest common denominator.

Fortunately, I realize now that another's motives are not mine to judge. Even more liberating is the simple realization that the gospel is not the lowest common denominator of our faith, but the absolute highest. All who are obedient to it are to be received as brothers regardless of differing understandings about church practices that currently divide the Lord's people.

There is a tendency for us to think that the gospel plus a correct understanding of the apostles' doctrines are what put us into fellowship with each other--that being right or agreed (not necessarily in that order) on a list of issues is what makes us brothers. If that is the case, we are not truly in fellowship at all, because we all hold differing opinions on things both on and off that list. In fact, we probably don't all agree about what should be on that list in the first place. Has anyone ever suggested chucking the list altogether?

"Well, we all agree on the major issues" you say. Major issues? Who is the arbiter of what is a major or a minor issue? Was the issue of eating meat in Romans 14 of equal importance to all the brethren? Of course not! To one it was a major issue, to the other, a minor one. That's why Paul penned the chapter in the first place! One may be right or both may be wrong, but no difference of opinion is cause to divide from our brethren.

I suggest that a person can be right on every doctrinal interpretation and still be lost if his heart is not where it should be. Likewise, it is possible for a man, in accordance with his intellect, to incorrectly understand every one of the apostolic letters and still be saved by his obedience to the saving good news of Jesus Christ. Such a person is not a step-brother, but a fellow Christian whom we are not to "set at naught" by failing to receive as a brother. Receive him, Paul argues, and not for the sake of doubtful debates.

Alexander Campbell wrote in 1826: "I have no idea of adding to the catalogue of new sects. I labor to see sectarianism abolished and all Christians of every name united upon the one foundation upon which the apostolic church was founded." Amen, brother. And what is that one foundation? Is it a particular church practice, or is it something else?

Remember, the gospel was fully preached on the day of Pentecost in Acts Chapter 2. From that day forward, nothing was added to it. It was that gospel message that took the keys of the kingdom and opened up the gates for new citizens to be let in by the thousands. It was on that foundation that Jesus' church was built. The first apostolic letters were not written for many years after that first sermon. While God continued to reveal additional knowledge about the practices of the church, these instructions were for the bettering of the saints, not the making of them. Paul wrote that "from Jerusalem all the way around to Illyricum, I have fully proclaimed the gospel of Christ." We can be certain that the same message Peter preached on Pentecost is what Paul "fully preached" from Jerusalem to Illyricum; that Jesus was God in the flesh, died for our sins, and rose again to sit at the right hand of God.

Obedience to this good news in the waters of immersion is what all believers have in common. That is our shared faith. Obedience to the gospel is not the lowest common denominator of all Christians - it is the highest. There is nothing more important to our salvation than that we are in Christ. All other issues on which brethren disagree may have valid forums for discussion, but should never be used to withhold the right hand of fellowship from one brother to another.

As we grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ, we will arrive at various understandings throughout our lives. That is how God designed the human mind. The saints throughout the world can no more arrive at a correct understandings on doctrinal matters at the same time than they can all shout "amen" at the precisely the same moment. There is only one issue which can rightfully be maintained on any list as a test of fellowship, and it is the only one to which all must say "amen" in our brotherhood; and that's the pure and simple gospel of Jesus Christ. That is the highest common denominator of the faith we share.