The average person who comes into contact with Christadelphians will have met up with the main, Central body of Christadelphians, numbering about 50,000 world-wide. However, there are a further 2,000 or so Christadelphians, divided up between a number of mutually exclusive 'fellowships'. Each of these fellowships believe the same, distinctive Christadelphian doctrines, but has chosen to place great emphasis on one or two non-fundamental issues, often relating to aspects of Bible teaching concerning marriage. They all disfellowship any of their members who break bread with members of any of the other groups, even if the individuals broken bread with do not themselves hold a different view to what they hold. The whole situation can become very confusing for those who are baptized by members of one of the smaller groups. The following chart illustrates the degree of fragmentation which has developed.
It must be emphasized that the main, central body of Christadelphians (numbering around 50,000 and accounting for the vast majority of Christadelphians) is not divided in this way. The sad picture presented below is, unfortunately, incomplete. There are literally dozens of small break away groups, none of them numbering more than 20, who have separated from the above fellowships. These also preach, eager for converts. The smaller the fellowship and the more earnest the belief that only they are right, the greater the desire for members. This may account for the observation that the smaller the fellowship, the greater the emphasis on preaching. Sadly, as things stand at the moment, the Lord will find His household divided at His return. We each have a solemn duty to do all within our power to bring about at least some unity in the body, before that time comes.
The question arises: How ever did this fragmentation develop? The answer lies in the fact that all the break away groups have a view of fellowship which results in this kind of thing being inevitable. They insist that every member of their group believes the same thing even on matters which are not fundamental to the basic Gospel, and they disfellowship anyone who breaks bread with anyone who breaks bread with anyone who breaks bread with someone who may be in error. So, let's say there is a brother in South Africa in isolation, baptized by one of the smaller groups. He finds that living next door to him there are Christadelphians from the main, Central group, believing exactly as he does. He breaks bread with them, and is visited by a brother from (say) Kenya, who breaks bread with him. The small fellowship would disfellowship the South African brother, plus the Kenyan brother, and then anyone who would break bread with the Kenyan brother. If some Kenyan brothers won't agree to this, then they are disfellowshipped. If they then travel over the border to Uganda and break bread there, then the Ugandan brothers are disfellowshipped, etc. etc. This view of fellowship is bound to cause world-wide division- as it has done. You will notice from the above chart that nearly all of the break away groups have subsequently sub-divided, e.g. the Dawn subdivided into the Purley group, the Antipas and the Watchmen (and many other smaller groups). This endless subdivision is inevitable if the theory of 'guilt by association' is held- i.e., that the guilt of one erring member passes to another through the breaking of bread, and then from him to another, from him to another, etc.
Not only is this view of fellowship unworkable, it is never taught in Scripture. Whoever is baptized after believing the doctrines of the true Gospel is our brother or sister- regardless of who baptized them, or what name they go under. Titus was Paul's son " after the common (Gk. koinos) faith" (Tit. 1:1). The faith, the doctrines which he had been taught by Paul and been baptized upon believing, were what had made him Paul's son; and therefore that faith was what bound them together in fellowship. The Faith, as in the basic doctrines which make baptism valid, are the basis of our commonality, our fellowship, with each other. All Christadelphians are united in understanding what those doctrines are. If someone is validly baptized, we have a solemn duty towards them. If we cannot love our brother whom we have seen, we cannot claim to love God our common Father, who is manifested through that brother (1 Jn. 4:20). Even if we think that there may be some bearing the name 'Christadelphian' who are not validly baptized, this doesn't take away from our unity with those who are validly baptized.
Unity and avoiding division is vital. Paul even argues in Gal. 2:2 that all his colossal missionary effort would have been a 'running in vain' if the ecclesia divided into exclusive Jewish and Gentile sections. This may be hyperbole, but it is all the same a hyperbole which reflects the extent to which Paul felt that unity amongst believers was vital.
There is one body- this is a very common theme in the New Testament. But it has strong Old Testament antecedents. There was one chosen nation, one land, one tabernacle, one altar, one covenant, one temple- unity was God's evident intention for His people even in Old Testament times. Israel were redeemed from Egypt as one family (Am. 3:1). The earliest anticipation of the one body was the fact that man and woman become one flesh / body in the marriage process (Gen. 2:17). If we are all members of the one body, this fact requires us to strive for unity with each other. We can't just sit back and think 'OK, so there's one body'; rather like a married couple can't just say they are one because they are " one flesh" . They must work on it if they want to be truly one. And likewise with the one body of Christ.
Throughout the Law of Moses, the unity of Israel was emphasized. Moses in his last great speech as recorded in Deuteronomy seems tp have purposefully confused his use of “ye” [plural] and “thee” [singular] in addressing them; as if to show that they, the many, were also one body (e.g. Dt. 10:12-22; 11:1,2). Although God created the division between Israel and Judah as a punishment for their apostasy (cp. how He gave Egypt and the Shechemites a spirit of disunity likewise, Is. 19:1,2,14; Jud. 9;23), He never essentially recognized that division; for there was one Israel, one body. Indeed, He said that the division was the greatest tragedy to come upon His people (Is. 7:17). The way the new garment of Ahijah was torn up to symbolize the division, reflects the utter waste (1 Kings 11:29). For an outer cloke was a garment a man could wear for life; to have a new one was something significant. Significantly, the road to Jericho which features in the parable of the good Samaritan was the very dividing line between Judah and Ephraim (Josh. 16:1). The significance of this may be in the implication within the parable that Israel fell among thieves, needing the Messianic grace and rescue, as a result of their division into two kingdoms. And so many other spiritual lives have been shipwrecked over the rocks of division. Indeed, the Greek words for "division" and "stumbling block" are related; divisions are a stumblingblock to so many, even if they externally remain within their faith communities.
There is much emphasis on the ultimate union of Israel and Judah at the second coming (e.g. Jer. 3:18; Ez. 37:16,19; Hos. 1:18; 10:11; Zech. 9:13:). The division was evidently a source of concern to the faithful at the time of the prophets, and the sadness of the division was deeply felt; as it is in the present body of Christ. There are many passages where God emphasizes the essential unity of Israel and Judah through the device of parallelism. Two examples:
" In Judah
is God known:
His name is great
In Israel" (Ps. 86:1).
" For the vineyard of the Lord of Hosts
is the house of Israel,
and the men of Judah
His pleasant plant" (Is. 5:7).
By Judah and Israel working together, the whole people of God could have brought forth spiritual fruit: “Ephraim is an heifer that is taught, that loveth to tread out the corn…I will set a rider on Ephraim. Judah shall plow, Jacob [i.e. Ephraim, the 10 tribes] shall break his clods. Sow to yourselves in righteousness…break up your fallow ground”” (Hos. 10:11,12 RV). Ephraim, the 10 tribes, were the heifer, Judah the plough, and Messiah the rider. But both Ephraim and Judah would not. And so an environment for spiritual fruit wasn’t possible, and Messiah at that time could not unite them in His service. In the nations around early Israel, the extended family was the basis of ‘fellowship’. But this was not to be so amongst them. “Better is a neighbour that is near than a brother far off…there is a friend closer than a brother” (Prov. 27:10; 18:24). This was all in specific contradiction of the prevailing idea that your blood brother was the closest to you, no matter how far he was. All Israel were to see themselves as one family, one body. It was a radical idea. Our Christadelphian way of calling each other brother and sister ought to imply the same. For us, blood needn’t be thicker than water. It all depends whether you have your brother or sister in Christ near at hand.
There is one fold, in which are all the true sheep (Jn. 10). If we all respond to the voice of the same Shepherd, we will be gathered together unto Him (Ez. 34:5). The most serious problem in the Corinth ecclesia, Paul said, was that they were divided (1 Cor. 1:18 Gk; and notice how he begins his letter by addressing this problem, not the incest, the drunkenness at the breaking of bread, the false doctrine...). We are all grafted into the same olive tree (Rom. 11). There is one vine, and we are the branches (Jn. 15). It's not that Christ is the trunk and we are the branches. We are the branches, we make up the vine, we make up the Lord Jesus. He spoke of " we..." to mean 'I...' in Jn. 3:11, such was the unity He felt between Himself and His men. He asked Saul " Why persecutest thou me?" (Acts 9:4), again identifying Himself with His people. The term " Christ" is even used of the believers, such is His unity with us (1 Cor. 12:12). Christ is not divided, and therefore, Paul reasons, divisions amongst brethren are a nonsense. Christ is not divided, and therefore neither should we be (1 Cor. 1:13; 3:3). Let's remember this powerful logic, in all our thinking about this issue. Paul even goes so far as to suggest that if we do not discern the body at the breaking of bread, if we wilfully exclude certain members of the body, then we eat and drink condemnation to ourselves. This is how serious division is. The devil’s house is divided (Mt. 12:25,26); Christ is not divided (1 Cor. 1:13 s.w.). We were called to the Gospel so that we might share in the fellowship of the Lord Jesus Christ- i.e. fellowship with Him and His Father, and with all the others within His body (1 Cor. 1:9,10). If we accept that brethren and sisters are validly baptized into and remain within His body, then we simply must fellowship with them. Should we refuse to do this, we are working against the essential purpose of God- to build up the body of His Son now, so that we might exist in that state eternally. Causing division within the body is therefore a sin which may exclude us from the Kingdom (1 Cor. 11:19 alludes Mt. 18:7). To refuse to fellowship a brother is to effectively say that he is not within the Lord's body; for when we break bread, we show that we are one bread and one body (1 Cor. 10:16,17). And as we condemn, so we will be (Mt. 7:1). The purpose of the cross was to gather together in one all God's children (Jn. 11:52), that the love of the Father and Son might be realized between us (Jn. 17:26). If we support division, we are denying the essential aim of the Lord's sacrifice.
The Lord Jesus spoke of how “I am come to send fire on earth [after the pattern of Elisha against apostate Israel]...I am come to give...division” (Lk. 12:49,51). He parallels the fire of condemnation with division. And yet He says that this figurative fire is “already kindled”. If we are divided willingly, of our creation, then we stand self-condemned. This is how serious this matter is. I fear, really fear, that in the day of final account it may be that a brother or sister has lived separately from the world, believed all the right things, and yet his or her divisiveness means that they are condemned together with the immoral and the worldly. A divided house is the characteristic of Satan’s house or kingdom, and it will fall- just as the house built on sand fell at the day of judgment (Lk. 11:17,18). This doesn’t mean, though, that just because our community is divided therefore the Christadelphians are ‘satan’s kingdom’. Those who leave us in despair at our divisiveness never find an undivided church, until they fellowship only with themselves. The Lord taught that an inevitable by-product of His Gospel was that He would send division, often within families (Lk. 12:51-53). To be unwillingly caught up in a divided house / family is not, therefore, a sin or a sign of our personal condemnation. There must be schisms amongst us, that they might make manifest who the faithful are, by their attitude to them.
If there are divisions, then it is evident that they only exist in the minds of Christadelphians- not in that of God, for whom there is only one body. If we admit that our brother is validly baptized and in Christ (i.e. a Christadelphian), then we are intimately connected with him, regardless of what his background, colour, language, geographical location etc. may be. This is one of the finest mysteries of fellowship in Christ: that we are so inextricably linked: " We, being many, are one body in Christ, and every one members one of another" (Rom. 12:5). We enter into the one body by correct baptism into the body of Christ. Our baptism was not only a statement of our relationship with the Lord Jesus; it is also a sign of our entry into the body of the Lord Jesus, i.e. the community of believers, the one ecclesia (Col. 1:24). Members are added to the church through baptism (Acts 2:41,47; 5:14; 11:24); thus baptism enables entry into the one body of Christ. Consider carefully how that whoever is properly baptized is a member of the one body, and is bound together with all other members of that body: " As the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also is Christ. For by one spirit are we all baptized into one body...for the body is not one member, but many" (1 Cor. 12:12-14). Paul, in his relentless manner, drives the point home time and again. He goes on to reason that just because the hand says it isn't of the body, and won't co-operate with the feet, this doesn't mean that it therefore isn't of the body. And so it is with those like the Dawn fellowship who say they have broken away from Christadelphians; because they say they are not of the body doesn't mean they are not of the body. We are called to the hope of the Kingdom " in one body" (Col. 3:15); all who receive the call of the true Gospel are in the same one body. There is one body, based around sharing the one faith, one hope, understanding of the one Father and Son, having participated in the one baptism (Eph. 4:4-6). So whoever believes the doctrines of the basic Gospel and has been baptized and walks in Christ, we have a duty (and should have a desire) to fellowship. The need for unity amongst us is so very often stressed (e.g. 1 Cor. 1:10; Rom. 15:5,6; Phil. 2:2; Eph. 4:31,32; Col. 3;12-15). The essential divide is not between Christadelphians, but between Christadelphia and the world. James urged the divided church of the first century to remember that God had visited the Gentiles to take out of them a people; he said this in the context of a conference seeking to unite factions within the brotherhood. His idea was clearly to put the whole debate into perspective- the Gentile believers were called out of the world, and therefore ought to be fellowship by those who had likewise left the world.
The declaration that we are in the one body is shown in terms of breaking bread together. " The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion (the sign of sharing in) the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ? For we being many are one bread, and one body: for we are all partakers of that one bread. Behold Israel after the flesh: are not they which eat of the sacrifices partakers of the altar?" (1 Cor. 10:16-18). All who share in the saving work of the Lord Jesus by true baptism into Him ought to break bread together. In the same way as the Jews were connected with the altar by reason of eating what was upon it, so all who are connected with the Christ-altar (Heb. 13:10) show this by eating of the memorial table. If we deny the breaking of bread to brethren, we are stating that they are outside covenant relationship with God, that they have no part in Israel. The Lord Jesus reconciled all true believers unto God " in one body by the cross" (Eph. 2:16). All who are reconciled by the Lord's sacrifice are therefore in the one body, and therefore we have a duty to fellowship with others in the one body. If we refuse to do this, we in some way attempt to nullify the aim of the cross. He died in the way that He did in order that the love which He had showed might be manifested between us (Jn. 17:26). To break apart the body is to undo the work of the cross. And yet, as a sad, wise old brother once remarked under his breath, " it's a shattered cross" .
It is God's intention that " there should be no schism in the body" (1 Cor. 12:25). If we refuse to break bread with validly baptized, good living brethren- then we are working against God. And if we then go on to disfellowship anyone who will not agree with our opinion on a brother, we are doing just what Diotrephes is condemned for doing: " Diotrephes, who loveth to have the pre-eminence...receiveth us not...and not content therewith, neither doth he himself receive the brethren, and forbiddeth them that would, casting them out of the church" (3 Jn. 10,11). Now this is exactly the position of the minority fellowships. If a member breaks bread with someone in another fellowship, even if they believe the same things, then they are disfellowshipped. And if another member will not accept this disfellowship, then they too are " cast out of the church" . This is the big mistake: a sincere brother breaks bread with another brother, who doesn't hold or live false doctrine- and he is disfellowshipped. We should never hold a view of fellowship which allows this to happen. The bread which we break is a symbol not so much of the blood-covered body which hung on the cross, as of the body of Christ, the one ecclesia. The physical body was not broken; but we break the loaf to show how we being many each have our part in that one loaf of Christ. Paul lays down quite clearly the blasphemy of breaking bread without respecting the Lord's body. In the context, the Corinthians were divided and hateful against each other. When they broke bread, therefore, they were abusing the Lord's body. Whenever we break bread, we show our fellowship with all members of the body- both geographically, and also over time. To accept that a brother is a valid member of the body but not to break bread with him is therefore a contradiction in terms.
It is worth reflecting that all who will be in the Kingdom are in the one body. Therefore that body exists, in God’s eyes, not only over space, but also over time. Both Moses and Jesus were faithful in God’s house, “whose house are we” (Heb. 3:5,6), as if we were actually His house then as much as now. We will all be saved through our identification with Christ’s body. The Law encouraged each man to “enjoy the inheritance of his fathers” through only marrying within the tribe, to encourage this sense of unity with earlier believers (Num. 36:8). There are even examples of where the individual Israelite had the actions of the body of Israel in the past imputed to him (Dt. 1:26; 5:2; 29:1). This isn’t ‘guilt by association’, but rather an example of the ineffable unity of all God’s people, wherever and whenever they lived. Thus the most lonely individual can read the historical records of God’s people in the past and feel a true sense of community with the people of God, knowing that these things are his very own personal legacy and spiritual inheritance. The full beauty of unity will only be appreciated fully in the Kingdom; Zechariah was given the vision of the unified candlestick after awaking from a figurative death (Zech. 4:1,2). And yet there is also wonderful evidence of the height of unity that was achieved amongst some even in this life. Paul sincerely felt the joy of others as being his personal joy (Rom. 12:15 cp. 1 Cor. 15:31; 2 Cor. 2:3). Because we are in one body, we rejoice with those who rejoice. “We are partakers of your joy”, Paul could write. The comfort which Titus felt was that which Paul felt (2 Cor. 7:6,7,13); Corinth’s joy was Paul’s (2 Cor. 7:13). This should ensure a true richness of experience for the believer in Christ, sharing in the joys and sorrows, the tragedies and triumphs, of the one body on the Lord. “He that separateth himself seeketh his own desire” (Prov. 18:1 RV). This says it all. Any separation from our brethren, whether it be from personal dislike of them or for fear of losing friends amongst others who order us to separate from them…is all ultimately selfish.
There is, however, another side to the question of fellowship. Light has no fellowship with darkness. Therefore there is an urgent need to separate from those brethren who in their doctrine or way of life have openly rejected the way of God's Truth, despite repeated and extensive dialogue with them. However, our responsibility for withdrawing fellowship cannot go beyond our local context. Each individual Israelite had to ensure that there was no leaven in his or her immediate area on Passover night (Dt. 16:4- " thee" singular). And it must constantly be stressed that we also have a responsibility to fellowship with all who believe and live the one Faith. Most importantly, we must not slip into a mindset which is endlessly concerned with the supposed weaknesses of others; if we must rebuke another, let us do it considering our own weaknesses (Gal. 6:1). And let us beware of the tendency to think that our brother has a splinter in his eye, when we have a plank in our own (Mt. 7:5). This little parable surely teaches that it is likely that whenever we see something wrong with another believer, we are similarly guilty; for a splinter is also made of wood like a plank is. The Lord is saying that it's highly likely that we are failing in a much greater manner in the very area where we see a slight weakness in our brother.
There are different levels of being out of fellowship with other believers. Any analysis of the NT teaching about ecclesial discipline will make this clear. Some brethren should be simply avoided, kept away from, not necessarily because they themselves are teaching any false doctrine (Rom. 16:17 Gk.). More seriously, 2 Thess. 3:15 speaks of some cases where we should not count a brother as an " enemy" , 'an opposing one', but admonish him as a brother, while separate from him; whilst Mt. 18:17 describes other cases where the errant brother should be treated as we would a worldly Gentile (although note: “Let him be unto thee” singular; this is talking about personal decisions, not ecclesial withdrawal); and, going a stage further, 1 Cor. 5:11 suggests we should not even keep social company with a brother who is involved in sexual perversion. These different levels of being 'out of fellowship' can be applied to the different level of separation there may be in practice between us and a false teacher, and those who perhaps in a misguided view of 'love' still tolerate him in fellowship. Even if we insist that Mt. 18:7 should be applied to someone, it must be noted that the Lord’s attitude to tax collectors and Gentiles was to mix with them, even share table fellowship with them, with a burning desire to win them for His cause (Mt. 9:9; 10:3; 11:19; 28:19). It is no accident that all these passages in Matthew have some reference to Matthew the tax collector being called and saved by the Lord. Matthew is effectively saying under inspiration that we should treat the person we decide to relate to as a tax collector and Gentile just as he had been treated by the Lord’s saving, calling grace.
" It is not my province to issue bulls of excommunication, but simply to shew what the truth teaches and commands. I have to do with principles, not men...All whom the apostles fellowshipped, believed [the truth]; and all in the apostolic ecclesias who believed it not - and there were such- had not fellowship with the apostles, but opposed their teachings; and when they found they could not have their own way, John says, 'They went out from us, for they- the antiChrist- were not all of us' (1 Jn. 2:19). The apostles did not chase them out, but they went out of their own accord, not being able to endure sound doctrine (2 Tim. 4:3). Then preach the word etc., and exhort with all long-suffering and teaching. This is the purifying agent. Ignore brother this and brother that in said teaching; for personalities do not help the argument. Declare what you as a body believe to be the apostles' doctrine. Invite fellowship upon that basis alone. If upon that declaration any take the bread and wine, not being offered by you, they do so upon their own responsibility, and not on yours" .
John Thomas, 1870.
Compare this with the Lord's rebuke of the immature disciples when they effectively demanded that John's disciples be disfellowshipped:: " Forbid not: for he that is not against us is for us" (Lk. 9:49).
However, all such separations are not in any sense judging. We learn from the parable of the tares that the Lord alone will uproot the tares, at the judgment. That same parable reveals that the Lord foresaw how His future servants would have a tendency to uproot other believers who were in fact acceptable to Him- and therefore they should be willing to allow the wheat and tares to grow together, even if they have misgivings about some in the ecclesia. Likewise Rom. 14:1 counsels us to receive him that is weak in the faith- as long as he is in the faith. Ecclesial discipline is not, therefore, 'rooting up' our brethren and condemning them. We dare not do anything of the sort- for the sake of our own eternal destiny, if nothing else. What we are doing is obeying the very basic Biblical command to separate from that which is wrong. Any such separations are brought forth from much sorrow; Corinth ecclesia were told that they should have mourned as they withdrew from one who had left the faith (1 Cor. 5:2). " The whole house of Israel" were commanded to " mourn" the necessary destruction of Nadab and Abihu (Lev. 10:6). Samuel mourned and God repented when Saul was finally rejected (1 Sam. 15:35). Paul wept when he wrote about some in the ecclesia who had fallen away (Phil. 3:17-19). It must be said that 'block disfellowship'- the cutting off of hundreds of brethren and sisters because theoretically they fellowship a weak brother- hardly enables 'mourning' and pleading with each of those who are disfellowshipped.
The Law taught, time and again, the vital need to make a difference between clean and unclean (Lev. 10:10)- on pain of death. Leaven (a symbol of false doctrine) within the house (cp. the ecclesia) at Passover time (cp. the breaking of bread) meant death (1 Cor. 5:7,8). The man who sacrificed an animal to Yahweh at a place other than " the tabernacle of the congregation" had to die (Lev. 17:4). This might sound rather severe: he was worshipping Yahweh, but he was to die because what he had done might encourage other Israelites to offer sacrifices to other gods (Lev. 17:5). So someone was disfellowshipped, not just because of their own physical action, but because of what it might lead to in its effect on others. Eli, although apparently righteous himself in many ways, was rejected specifically because " he frowned not" upon his sons' apostasy; he personally was counted as 'kicking' at God and profiteering from His sacrifices, even though he himself seems to have truly loved God (1 Sam. 2:29; 4:18). Because Eli wouldn't exercise ecclesial discipline, he was somehow seen as committing those very things which he failed to rebuke. The man who wouldn’t discipline his wayward ox was to be treated like as if he had committed the crime the ox did, and therefore must die if the ox killed a man (Ex. 21:29). False doctrine is likened to leaven (Mt. 16:6); and the classic characteristic of leaven is that it spreads and influences. It must, therefore, be removed, Paul says (1 Cor. 5:8), in order to prevent others being influenced. However, note how he commanded the 'leaven' of the erring brother to be removed, not for his own sake- Paul couldn't be defiled by 'guilt-by-association' with him- for the brother's sake, and that of the others in the ecclesia (1 Cor. 5:7-9,12; 2 Cor. 7:12).
Separation is taught right through the type of Israel leaving Egypt through the waters of the Red Sea (cp. baptism). It is possible that Jn. 12:11 implies that the Lord's early converts left the synagogue membership roll of their own volition, once they perceived the Truth of Christ. And yet on the other hand, the Lord predicted that His people would be cast out of the synagogues, as if He was happy that Christianity remained a sect of Judaism until such time as Judaism wouldn’t tolerate it. His prediction that His people would be beaten in synagogues (Mk. 13:9) implies they would still be members, for the synagogues only had power to discipline their own members, not the general public. It is sometimes wrongly suggested that we can stay with another church until we are pushed out of it. But according to so much Bible teaching, separation is a stage in our redemptive process, it is something we must work together with God to achieve; we can't, for the sake of our very salvation, remain in fellowship with the apostasy. Anyone who properly understands the true Gospel will know of themselves that they must leave an apostate church; they know this themselves, almost without having to be explicitly told. To argue that we are free to fellowship with the apostasy indicates a sad lack of understanding of the basic doctrines of the true Gospel. The danger of returning to the apostate religions was almost an obsession with Paul (Acts 20:31; Hebrews; and so many other letters). Yet he was inspired by the Spirit to have this attitude. If we allow false doctrine into our midst, we will not be held guiltless. The ecclesia is the temple of God. In the past, gatekeepers checked who came in (2 Chron. 23:19). Yet as time went by, the gatekeepers let Gentiles in, people who were not in God's covenant: and this was the basis of their condemnation (Ez. 44:7,8). Probably they did so in a misguided conception of " love" towards the surrounding world.
By nature, we are slow to accept that sin is serious, that it spreads, and that we must separate ourselves from it. Jeremiah and Ezekiel were both amazed at the extent of doctrinal corruption within Israel when it was revealed to them (e.g. Ez. 8:9; 13:22). Phinehas' wife honestly thought that her apostate husband and father-in-law were " the glory of Israel" (1 Sam. 4:21). Paul told Timothy to shun, to turn away from false teaching. He was shy to correct others, he didn't want to break fellowship when he should have done, his own awareness of his own sins held him back; whereas Paul says that these things should not stop him rebuking and upholding the Faith. We as spiritual Israel have just the same tendencies. The classic example is in the events of Num. 16. In an ecclesia of 2 million, only a dozen or so saw the depth of apostasy to which they had sunk (v.41). They found it hard to accept that Korah, Dathan and Abiram were as bad as God knew they were. Even Moses and Aaron struggled with it: " Shall one man sin, and wilt thou be wroth with all the congregation?" . God's answer was basically: " Yes" . He told Israel to separate themselves from these men, or else they too would die. In similar vein, the prophets warned that not only the false teachers but those influenced by them would face judgment (Ez. 14:10; Hos. 4:5).
Had Phinehas not killed the man who was teaching that marriage out of the Faith was quite acceptable, God would have punished all the people of Israel (Num. 25:11). God is a jealous God, and Phinehas is commended for his jealousy for God in terms of separating from that false teacher. We naturally turn away from the seriousness of these things. Within our humanity, we would rather God were not like this. But there is a harder side of God, a side which we come to know, to respect, understand and appreciate as we grow spiritually. However, all this said, we must seriously ask whether the Christadelphian community has sunk to the level of apostate Israel. Even if we feel that some have, and we must separate from them, then those others who have not done so are still our brethren whom we ought to fellowship. We must speak out against weakness and corruption in the ecclesia. " They that forsake the law praise the wicked: but such as keep the law contend with them" (Prov. 28:4). We must earnestly contend for the defence of the Faith (Jude 3). " Thou shalt (frankly, NIV) rebuke thy neighbour, that thou bear not sin for him" (Lev. 19:17 AV mg.). But if we do contend with our erring brother- this doesn't of itself mean that we forbid him the emblems of the Lord's gracious forgiveness. And neither does it mean that we should disfellowship many other brethren who also are willing to contend with the weak brother, but would still share bread and wine with him.
It must also be remembered that although in some ways all Israel were guilty for the sins of some of them (e.g. Daniel and Ezra describe themselves as guilty members of a guilty nation), this 'guilt by association' could not be 'escaped' by leaving Israel, the covenant people. And neither did God ever hold any individual Israelite personally guilty of the sin of another Israelite (Dt. 24:16 etc.). Ultimately, God will not destroy the righteous with the wicked (Gen. 18:24), although the righteous in Israel sometimes suffered the effect of the nation's wickedness (cp. our suffering the effect of Adam's sin without being personally guilty of it). However, punishment for sin was not given indiscriminately. There was a time when one wicked city was punished by drought, but a more righteous city had rain (Am. 8:4). Let's ever remember what is the end, the goal, of the commandments to resist false teaching and practice: love out of a pure heart, a good conscience, and faith unfeigned (1 Tim. 3:3-5)- not bitterness, self-righteousness, smugness that we are pure and others aren't, thanking God that we are not sinners as other brethren are.
Our attitude to the doctrines of the one Faith is our attitude to the body of Christ. Paul recounts how he destroyed " the faith" and also destroyed (same Greek word) " the church of God" (Gal. 3:13,23). If we weaken the doctrines of the One Faith, we are hurting our brethren and sisters, and therefore hurting the Lord Jesus. If new converts are not taught the Truth properly or taught with little emphasis on the importance of doctrine, the people they convert will not know the Truth, their baptisms will not be valid, and the Truth will be lost; but there will still be a community bearing the name " Christadelphian" . If we do not disfellowship those with false doctrine, " many (will) be defiled" (Heb. 12:15); not 'run the risk of being defiled'; they will be defiled, and lose the Hope of the Kingdom. This is serious. Again, these principles were laid down in the Law: Dt. 29:22-28 threaten that because of the toleration of false teachers (v. 18-21), the land / Kingdom would be destroyed, the Truth would be lost, and Israel would no longer be God's Covenant people. Think about it. If a group of believers, on their own admission, tolerate false teachers, they will lose the Faith because of it. Silence means consent (Num. 30:12,15). Can you at least appreciate why we are so serious about rebuking false teachers? The sad story of natural Israel is written for our learning.
Let's summarize the last few paragraphs:
We must separate from false doctrines and those who teach them. We each have a responsibility in this. But this must be balanced against a principle which is given even more Biblical emphasis: that we must fellowship all brethren who believe and live the One Faith, whatever their attitude to a third party may be.
If we allow the Truth to be lost, we are harming our present and future brethren and sisters.
However, on no account can we judge each other or even speculate as to the outcome of the judgment seat. But we each have a duty to separate from what is false.
We cannot be responsible for the disfellowship of false teachers in areas outside our immediate concern.
And yet we must be balanced. It is inevitable that there will be moral and doctrinal weakness in the ecclesia. The parable of the wheat and tares teaches this; and it is not for us to be over-concerned with identifying and rooting up the tares. That's surely the basic lesson the Lord was seeking to get over. If there is such a thing as guilt by association, then this parable becomes meaningless- for our eternal destiny would depend upon hunting out any contamination from our community. If we insist on having a " pure fellowship" , aren't we being self-righteous? None of us is pure, we fail time and again. How then can we refuse to break bread with a brother who has broken bread with another brother whom we classify as 'impure'? Our salvation is ultimately by pure grace alone, not separation from false teachers. If other brethren will not separate as we think they should, our response should not be to separate from them, if they are validly in Christ. The prophets of the Old Testament remained within an apostate community to plead with Israel; the faithful of the New Testament remained within corrupt ecclesias like Corinth. Even there, in an ecclesia riddled with immorality, false doctrine, abuse of the breaking of bread etc., Paul makes a point of calling them his " brethren" (far more than in any other letter).
The greatest evidence against the view that we must maintain a totally pure fellowship is to be found in the letters to the seven ecclesias in Rev. 2 and 3. The " few" in Sardis who had not defiled their clothes attended an apostate ecclesia; and yet they are not seen as " defiled" by the Lord Jesus (Rev. 3:4). This is proof positive that there is no such thing as guilt by association with erring members of an ecclesia. Those faithful members were not rebuked for not disfellowshipping the others. The Lord’s criticism of the ecclesias seems to be that they had allowed false teaching to develop, rather than the fact they hadn’t separated from it. Smyrna was an ecclesia which received no criticism at all from the Lord; they weren't rebuked for not disfellowshipping the other local ecclesias who were apostate (Rev. 2:8-11). The elders at Sardis, an ecclesia holding many false teachers, were told to strengthen what remained (the Greek is usually used regarding people)- they were to strengthen the faithful minority, but nothing was said about withdrawing from them because they fellowshipped weak brethren.
The Proverbs often taught the need to separate from and contend with those within Israel (cp. Christadelphians as spiritual Israel) who were astray (e.g. 14:7; 28:4). They were not to fellowship, not walk in common, with thieves (1:11,14; 28:24 LXX koinonos). But they were not guilty by reason of just being in the same community as those people; they were not to walk with them, not to fellowship them, in the sense of not behaving as they did. And there was never the hint that the faithful were to somehow leave the community of Israel because there were wrongdoers in it.
If the above reasoning has been followed, we come to the following practical conclusions:
- We should fellowship with all who have been validly baptized into the one body of the Lord Jesus Christ and continue to hold the Faith. We cannot insist that complete agreement on every aspect of Christian life is essential for fellowship. Our fellowship is on the basis of the basic doctrines comprising the true Gospel.
- We should rebuke and discipline those in our ecclesia or immediate circle of contact who are weak in the faith.
- We cannot be responsible for the errors of distant brethren which we hear about. We should not listen to rumours concerning the failures of those we don't know.
- We should do all that we can to bring about unity between brethren and not disfellowship those who themselves hold and live the One Faith.
- Holding the above principles should not lead us to tolerate doctrinal weaknesses on fundamental issues. If we meet a Christadelphian we don't know, we should make sure he / she believes as we do, and then break bread with them. To refuse fellowship to another believer is a sin; but it is also wrong to open the table of the Lord to anybody, regardless of their belief and behaviour.
I have no relish in pointing out the logical contradictions in the position of others. And yet I present the following as food for thought to the many sincere brethren and sisters in minority fellowships who really think that their position on fellowship is unassailably correct.
- If a brother marries a sister in another fellowship, this isn't treated as marriage out of the Truth. Therefore we accept those in other fellowships as in Christ, not in the world. So, why not fellowship them?
- A member of (e.g.) the Dawn fellowship can attend the meetings of other fellowships, pray with them, write in their magazines, study with them, court them- but can't break bread with them. But this is surely using the breaking of bread as a political weapon. Fellowship consists in many things apart from breaking bread; thus the early believers continued in fellowship in breaking of bread, prayers, preaching and holding on to the doctrines taught them by the apostles (Acts 2:42 RV). The breaking of bread ought not to be singled out in the way it is.
- It has been observed that there are serious personal failures amongst all Christadelphians. Yet because they accept a certain position on (e.g.) fellowship and divorce, they remain in fellowship- whilst a member who is far more spiritual is disfellowshipped for breaking bread with another member of the One Body, who happens to be in a different fellowship.
- Brother Robert Roberts repeatedly went on record as accepting that there was an exceptive clause- i.e. that divorce and remarriage was possible where there has been adultery. If he were alive today, many of the minority fellowships would not accept him in fellowship; and yet they wish to give the impression that they have followed his teachings faithfully.
- The baptisms of other fellowships are usually accepted as valid. They are addressed as " brother" and " sister" (except by a minority of extremists). Generally, there is no re-baptism if someone from another fellowship wants to join one of the minority fellowships. So if it is accepted that the baptisms are valid, that they believe the Gospel and are true brethren in Christ, thereby members of the one body- why not fellowship them?