Christian Unity
John 17: 21a May they all be one, as You, Father, are in Me and I am in You. (HCSB)


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Friday, December 01, 2006
  Who Is My Brother: Part III
As a review of recent posts, Who Is My Brother by F. LaGard Smith is subdivided into three parts:

Part I: The Quiet Revolution
Part II: Five-fold Fellowship
Part III: Rethinking Sacred Cows

In Part III, Smith discusses the withdrawal of fellowship, or disfellowship. Illustrating with a famous court case following a disfellowship action in 1984, he demonstrates that biblical disfellowship is not accepted in our modern culture, but nonetheless we must practice it in certain scenarios. The key question is, which are those scenarios?

After referring to Matt 18:15-17, 1 Cor 5:1-13, Titus 3:10, and 2 Thess 3:6, he states:
Undoubtedly, this list is not exhaustive, but merely suggestive of any number of similar situations which merit action on the part of the church against one of its members.
He concludes that disfellowship is justified whenever there is a threat not only to the individual Christian but also to the church corporately.

I have a different view. Disfellowship is such an extreme step that it should only be taken when explicitly authorized by scripture. Clearly the members of the Corinthian church had many sins and doctrinal problems, but the scriptures tell only of one brother singled out for disfellowship. By taking these scenarios as "merely suggestive" we invite an escalation of disfellowship far beyond the examples seen in scripture.

Matt 18 is different from the other passages cited in an important respect. It addresses a case where one Christian sins against another. The offended individual is given instructions on how to proceed toward reconciliation. When repentance does not result after the final step, that individual is instructed as follows:
Mat 18:17 And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as a heathen man and a publican. (KJV)
I quote from the KJV because it distinguishes between singular and plural "you". Here the instruction is to "let him be unto thee..." The pronoun is singular. Only one person is instructed to treat him as a tax collector and a sinner. So I am not convinced that this justifies exclusion from the church. In fact, by maintaining fellowship, the rest of the church could have a powerful positive effect to bring about repentance and reconciliation over time.

On the other hand, in cases where behavior is divisive or otherwise destructive to the church, a more general shunning is taught (Rom 16:17, Titus 3:10, 2 John 9-10). And in certain specified cases of sin (1 Cor 5), the offending brother is to be expelled. Left unaddressed, that sin could infect the entire church:
1 Cor 5:6b Don't you know that a little yeast works through the whole batch of dough?
But Smith says that these passages do not support the kind of disfellowship epidemic that has been seen in churches of Christ over doctrinal disagreements:
In the absence of some divisive crusade leading to dissension and strife, mere differences in doctrinal understanding are not a cause for disfellowship. [p. 186]
On the other hand, he points out that the practice of biblical disfellowship is nearly abandoned in today's church. He identifies the "first stone syndrome", the idea that only those who are not guilty themselves can initiate the process, as a major cause. Churches need to do some soul searching to see if we have truly become so corrupt that we cannot perform biblical discipline.

In the subsequent section, F. LaGard Smith addresses the mean-spirited way in which many people treat those with whom they disagree. Smith painfully details the treatment he and others have received from those who disagree with them on various topics. He discusses a controversy over whether or not God has prerogative to save whomever he wants. And in the epilogue, he closes with an open letter to Max Lucado, a heartfelt appeal on the subject of baptism. I won't go into the details of that letter. But F LaGard Smith leaves no doubt that he loves and respects Max Lucado. Yet he feels Max goes too far in reaching out to the unbaptized believers. In the letter he demonstrates a better way to disagree. That alone makes the book worth reading.

But there is much more. I have struggled with how to summarize a book that is so full of profound and compelling ideas. This book is a must read for every leader in churches of Christ. May we all come to a better understanding of "Who Is My Brother?"


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  Who Is My Brother: Congregational Fellowship
The last of the Fivefold Fellowship levels, described by F. LaGard Smith in his book Who Is My Brother, is called Congregational Fellowship. Smith says,
Congregational fellowship is God's sublime answer to Cheers, "where everybody knows your name." [p. 159]
He compares it to a Neighborhood Watch, where people know us and watch out for us. It is our family.

However he confesses difficulties in the family. As the "token conservative" in his congregation he struggles with doctrines and practices that make him uncomfortable. He wrestles with the question of whether to remain or to leave:
So what shall it be? Stay or go? Fight or withdraw? Maintain unity in the bonds of peace, or abandon unity in the same spirit of peace? I can't tell you how many times I've revisited these tough questions.

...I can't help but think that learning to honor differences of conscience and style within an immediate family of brothers and sisters in Christ is a noble quest. Indeed, a spiritual imperative. [p. 161]
He discusses six questions that help him clarify his decision to go or stay:
1) Is my discontent a matter of conscience or comfort zone?
2) What efforts have I made to effectuate change?
3) What endorsement am I lending by my continued presence?
4) What good influence might I have by staying?
5) What are my alternatives?
6) Is my discomfort worth the cost of broken fellowship?
[pp. 163-165]
He then acknowledges that there is little or no scriptural instruction telling us when we should leave a congregation. The biblical record does not show people leaving one congregation for another because of doctrinal differences or personal preferences. Perhaps that option is not supposed to be on the table. First century Christians did not choose a congregation. Instead they, themselves were chosen and placed in a congregation. To me this is the biblical answer. As long as they remain brothers and sisters in Christ, do not separate from them over disputable matters.

The freedom of each Christian to follow his conscience (in the sense of Romans 14) must extend also between congregations. While two congregations may not share identical convictions on every disputable subject, they must embrace one another with "In Christ" fellowship despite the differences. Biblical congregational autonomy means embracing one another without binding one another. Inter-congregational encouragement and teaching is appropriate. But each congregational leadership is accountable before God for its own flock, and there is plenty for them to keep busy without attempting to police all the other congregations.


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  Who Is My Brother: Conscience Fellowship
The fourth of the Fivefold Fellowship levels, described by F. LaGard Smith in his book Who Is My Brother , is called Conscience Fellowship. In Smith's words:
Inevitably, as we have already seen, there are certain doctrinal teachings which of necessity will separate brothers and sisters whose consciences are violated by those teachings. Conscience fellowship is fellowship within fellowship, with those in each sub-fellowship, as it were, continuing to recognize their part in the greater family of God. It is fellowship which says, "We are brothers, but we must take separate roads."
A key question necessarily follows: Which issues demand that two groups sharing "In Christ" fellowship must take separate roads? After enumerating a laundry list of issues that have caused Christians to take separate roads, he proposes this principle: that only those issues that affect the church as a whole, rather than merely as individuals, can lead to separate enclaves of Conscience Fellowship.

To illustrate these separate enclaves, Smith points to the Jews and Gentiles in the New Testament church. He describes them as "Distinct but united. Separate but equal. Playing separate notes, yet called to harmony." [p. 143]

I disagree with that description. Gal 2:12 teaches that separation between Jews and Gentiles was not acceptable in the first century church. Paul rebuked Peter for separating from the Gentiles when the Jewish Christians came around. The differences between Jew and Gentile, while dramatic, did not justify "separate but equal" status.

Not all disagreements are to be tolerated. Smith lists immorality, homosexuality, and unscriptural remarriage as examples of issues that cannot be tolerated as accepted enclaves of Conscience Fellowship within the broader "In Christ" fellowship.

He describes the "Heart of Conscience Fellowship" based on Romans 14. He argues that this passage does not merely apply to "authorized liberties" that are indifferent to God. In the specific examples of the text, one brother believed God forbade eating meat. For that brother, eating meat was not an "authorized liberty." Yet the passage teaches:
Rom 14:3 The man who eats everything must not look down on him who does not, and the man who does not eat everything must not condemn the man who does, for God has accepted him.
So the man who believes eating meat to be sin must accept another man who eats meat. The principle at work is that "all matters of conscience will ultimately be judged not by us but by God." There will inevitably be disputable matters. Each individual Christian must follow his own conscience in these matters. Each is accountable to God for his practices and his conscience. And each has an obligation not to cause the other to stumble. [p. 146]

Smith describes the danger of a party spirit emerging between the various Conscience Fellowships. That certainly has been a common pattern in the churches of Christ. The animosity between groups defies the heart of Jesus in his prayer for unity. And it thwarts our efforts to persuade the world that we are His disciples.

Smith points to one final line in the sand which conscience fellowship cannot cross. Those who would extend "In Christ" fellowship to unbaptized believers are rejecting a defining doctrine in Christianity. Few doctrines in Christianity are more fundamental than how one becomes a Christian. In Smith's mind, this is a point at which we cannot maintain "In Christ" fellowship.

I had one big problem with this chapter: I think that enclaves of Conscience Fellowship are forbidden by scripture. These are exactly the situations that passages like Rom 14, 1 Cor 1:10, and Eph 4:4 teach against. We need to accomodate differences on disputable matters without causing separation.


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Monday, November 27, 2006
  Who Is My Brother: "In Christ" Fellowship
The third of the Fivefold Fellowship levels, described by F. LaGard Smith in his book Who Is My Brother, is called "In Christ Fellowship". This category includes all those who have been forgiven of their sins and adopted as sons of God. These are our brothers and sisters "in Christ".

But these brothers and sisters of ours are not all alike. There is immense variety in appearance, in language, in education, in knowledge and in understanding. They are our brothers and sisters, not because they are just like us, but because God forgave their sins and adopted them as sons and daughters, just as he did us. They are our brothers and sisters by God's choice, not by ours.

Smith asked the question:
Are there any biblically-baptized believers that you would be ashamed to call your brothers? How about the leaders of the Boston movement? Or those who worship in congregations of the Disciples of Christ or the Christian Church? [p. 121]
The three groups he used to illustrate are groups that many in his primary audience would find it difficult to accept as brothers, at least at the time of his writing nearly ten years ago. Actually that is probably still true today, in many cases. But Smith subsequently admonished us to answer carefully, because:
Heb 2:11 Both the one who makes men holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers.
If Jesus is not ashamed to call someone His brother, who are we to stop short of that?

A very interesting point is raised in the section subtitled "On the Cusp of Fellowship" [p. 127]. Starting from Acts 19:1-7, he reminds us of the disciples (yes, they are called disciples) who had not been baptized in the name of Jesus. Paul taught them what they were missing, and they were baptized in the name of Jesus. That shows us that "technicalities" of that nature are significant. He then drew a parallel to the modern day people who believe that they are saved prior to baptism. However he also points out significant differences. Today the ecumenical churches baptize "in the name of Jesus", but the Ephesian disciples had not done that prior to Paul's arrival. The Ephesians had not been baptized with an incorrect understanding of the baptism they received (John's baptism). Rather, they had been baptized with an obsolete baptism. The baptism they received was not based on the redemptive work of Jesus on the cross and on His resurrection.

To those of us who believe (as I do) that sins are forgiven at baptism, it seems clear that the common ecumenical teaching on baptism is inaccurate. But does that misunderstanding invalidate their obeying the command to be baptized?

Quoting from Smith:
What it suggests is the possibility that--despite their misunderstanding of baptism's purpose--believers who are immersed in order to obey the command to be baptized might nevertheless be regarded in God's eyes as saved believers. If so, of course, they would not have been saved at the point of faith (as they, themselves, think) but only at the point of their baptism--an odd situation, to say the least.
Two compelling questions are raised by that rather bizarre possibility. First, must a person have a completely correct understanding of the doctrine of baptism in order for his adult, faith-prompted immersion in the name of Jesus to "count"? I know of no passage that gives us a useful answer... [p. 128]
For the second question, Smith draws an analogy to marriage. If two people live together and are subsequently married, is the marriage invalidated by the incorrect sequence? And, if the two believed they were already married but went through the ceremony merely to formalize their assumed marriage, would that invalidate the marriage ceremony?

Smith expressed concern that accepting this idea could lead some to abandon the accurate teaching about the purpose of baptism:
My great concern is that, in trying to correct any mistakes we may have made in this shadowy area, we don't begin promoting a clearly unbiblical view of baptism. It is one thing to give someone the benefit of the doubt in terms of fellowship; it is another thing to give that doubt doctrinal legitimacy. It is one thing to honor a fellow believer's incorrectly understood obedience; it is another thing altogether to think that God will honor us for our own quite well-informed disobedience. [p. 130]
Smith emphatically states that we should continue to teach baptism for the forgiveness of sins. But he also suggests that we might need to extend "In Christ" fellowship to those who do not agree, but are nevertheless immersed into Jesus as believing and penitent adults.

I think this will be very difficult for many churches of Christ to swallow. But like F. LaGard Smith, I have not yet found a "useful answer" in scripture contradicting the idea. In the interest of the unity for which Christ prayed, we must think about some difficult questions.


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  Who Is My Brother: Faith Fellowship
The second of the Fivefold Fellowship levels, described by F. LaGard Smith in his book Who Is My Brother, is called Faith Fellowship. This level describes our relationship with those who honor the same God as we do, while unfortunately not having been forgiven of sins through Jesus Christ, and not having been adopted as sons of God according to the scriptures. Cornelius (Acts 10) is a great biblical example of this kind of person. He was devout, gave alms, was generous to the poor, and prayed to God--and God gave him His attention. As a result God sent an apostle to Cornelius to teach him about forgiveness through Jesus.

It is obvious that people in the category of Cornelius can gain much from those who have already received forgiveness and adoption as sons of God. But there is much that true Christians can gain from inadequately taught believers as well. Smith illustrates this with examples of the many hymns we sing, hymns with deep spiritual meaning, hymns that stir our hearts every time we assemble--hymns written by people who never heard about baptism for the forgiveness of sins.

Jesus taught his disciples to respect those who were seeking to follow him, even when such a person was not "one of us":
Mar 9:38-41 "Teacher," said John, "we saw a man driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us."

"Do not stop him," Jesus said. "No one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, for whoever is not against us is for us. I tell you the truth, anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name because you belong to Christ will certainly not lose his reward."
Solomon also showed respect for the outsider who prays to God seeking his favor:
2Ch 6:32-33 "As for the foreigner who does not belong to your people Israel but has come from a distant land because of your great name and your mighty hand and your outstretched arm--when he comes and prays toward this temple, then hear from heaven, your dwelling place, and do whatever the foreigner asks of you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your own people Israel, and may know that this house I have built bears your Name."
It seems to me that our inclination is to discredit and oppose those who, in our judgment, come short of the obedience that brings salvation due to their lack of understanding. And it seems to me that the Son of God Himself, as well as the wisest mortal who ever lived, advocated a different approach.

We certainly should not whitewash over doctrinal errors, especially in an area as crucial as the forgiveness of sins. If we know the truth we need to teach it clearly and persistently (consider Jesus with the woman at the well in John 4). But we need to do it with gentleness, patience, and respect. That requires a monumental change from our standard approach.

The truth is, the most devout Christians seem to have more in common with some unbaptized believers than they do with some half-hearted, worldly baptized believers. That common ground covers some of the most important issues of life: raising godly children, living righteous lives, helping the needy... We can learn from each other, and we can help each other. Maybe we should try to do that.


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  Who Is My Brother: Universal Fellowship
I am continuing to read Who Is My Brother by F. Lagard Smith. In my previous post I talked about Part 1, The Quiet Revolution. Part 2 of the book is titled Fivefold Fellowship. This section is loaded with deep thinking on questions that relate directly to Christian Unity. These issues are too important to be addressed superficially in a single post. So I will be posting an article on each of the five levels of fellowship, beginning now with Universal Fellowship--The Family of Man.
Deu 23:7 Do not abhor an Edomite, for he is your brother. Do not abhor an Egyptian, because you lived as an alien in his country.
Mat 5:47 And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?
There is a sense in which we are brothers with every person created in the image of God. As Smith says,
We rake leaves together, work in polling stations together, participate in condominium associations together, and join forces in the local Neighborhood Watch. By and large it doesn't seem to matter if they are divorced and remarried unbiblically, or knock back a six-pack while watching the Super Bowl, or subscribe to Playboy. When it comes time for the 4th of July community barbecue, we plop ourselves right down next to them and have a hearty laugh together about the latest neighborhood happenings. [p. 89]
When people are struck by a tsunami, a hurricane, an earthquake, a tornado, or any other tragedy, our hearts go out to them. We do not first consider whether the survivors share our understanding of scripture, or have even heard it. We show compassion because we are all in this together. It could just as easily have been us instead of them.

A Christian is to love his neighbor as himself (even if that neighbor is a total stranger).

Of course Universal Fellowship does not imply that we accept everyone as a Christian. Perhaps when we meet with Christians on Sunday, we talk about how our neighbor is headed straight for eternal punishment. Do we then return home to watch a football game with that neighbor, without ever mentioning the matter about eternity? If so, maybe we have forgotten that we are in this thing together. We have forgotten our universal brotherhood.


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Tuesday, November 21, 2006
  Who Is My Brother? (Part I)
I am in the process of reading Who is My Brother by F LaGard Smith. The book is in three parts:
  1. The Quiet Revolution
  2. Five-fold Fellowship
  3. Rethinking Sacred Cows
Today I will comment on Part 1, The Quiet Revolution.

From the introduction:
For some years now, I have become increasingly concerned that our noble commitment to doctrinal purity has had the unwelcome side-effect of producing an unhealthy addiction to infighting and division. A pervasive party spirit, church splits, acrimonious brotherhood papers, and divisive issues of every kind have made a mockery of Jesus' plea for unity among his followers.
As Smith prepared to write a book on that issue, another imperative caused him to modify his plans.
However, as I was in the process of formulating my thoughts for such a book, it suddenly came to my attention that an equally compelling question was being asked by others from a completely different direction With surprising rapidity and intensity, I began to hear calls for a wider Christian fellowship with all who have faith in Christ, whether or not they have been biblically baptized.
So F Lagard Smith added Part 1 to the book to address the question of fellowship and baptism. His original ideas became Part 2 of the book.

In Part 1, he describes the problem of how to treat those who have an evident love for God but have not been baptized. Some within the churches of Christ have decided that such people should be accepted as brothers, and therefore they have adjusted their views on baptism to accomodate those people as brothers. Others within the churches of Christ hold to the literal teaching about baptism in scripture, and therefore cannot accept those people as brothers. One group takes fellowship as a given and adjusts baptism to fit. The other takes baptism as a given and adjusts fellowship to fit.

Smith argues forcefully for the latter position, that baptism is not optional. He points out inconsistencies he sees in the teachings of those who hold the opposing view. According to Smith, they try to hold onto the idea of baptism for forgiveness of sins as a requirement, but adapt the meaning of the words to allow more wiggle room. They treat conversion as a process rather than an event. Yet Smith points to numerous scriptures that paint baptism as a watershed event in the conversion process. In baptism we are clothed with Christ, we are buried and raised with Jesus, we receive forgiveness and the gift of the Holy Spirit, etc. The scriptural teachings about baptism are not helpful to those who wish to make conversion a process in which baptism is optional.

Yet he speaks of working side by side with unbaptized believers in many common causes. In those contexts he does not emphasize the differences on baptism, but their common commitment to the cause at hand. But in one case, the Promise Keepers, members are required to promise that they will accept people as brothers in Christ despite differences over the scriptures. Smith laments that he cannot do that in good conscience, since the Promise Keepers specifically teach salvation through the sinner's prayer.

For Smith, brotherhood and Christian fellowship with one another begins when a person receives forgiveness of sins and becomes a son of God. I strongly agree.

At the end of Part 1, he outlines the Five-fold fellowship concept, which is the topic of Part 2. I plan to finish the book over the holidays and will post on the remaining portions at that time.


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Name: Alan Rouse
Home: Georgia, United States
About Me: I've been a Christian since being baptized in 1976 at the Brooks Avenue Church of Christ in Raleigh, NC. I currently serve as an elder in the Atlanta Church of Christ in Gwinnett. You can email me at blogger[at]rouses[dot]net About my beliefs
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