When it comes to “oneness” and “unity” you really cannot discuss such without addressing the question of fellowship. If a person, in order to have a right relationship with Jesus, must “get it all right,” then the question of fellowship is something that necessitates proper understanding and application. Hence, it’s a most important and challenging topic, especially when it comes down to our being consistent. In this regard, John wrote:
Everyone who goes on ahead and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God. Whoever abides in the teaching has both the Father and the Son. 10 If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house or give him any greeting, 11 for whoever greets him takes part in his wicked works. (2nd Jn. 9)
Again, if you and I, in order to have a right relationship with Jesus, must “get it all right,” then the topic of fellowship – who we accept and don’t accept – must also be correct. Who is the person we are not to receive into our house? Who is it that we are not greet? Well, according to John, it’s the one that “does not abide in the teaching of Christ.” At the surface, the question of what is and is not to be a matter of division seems quite simple. However, let me suggest that it is anything but simple.
Case in point: in February of 2005 I traveled from South Carolina to West Tennessee in order to attend a religious discussion in which two well-informed and highly-respected Church of Christ leaders addressed the question: “Should the use of instrumental music in worship be a barrier to fellowship with others, such as Independent Christian Churches?” After attending the event and reflecting upon the discussion I began to appreciate just how complex the question of fellowship is. What was noteworthy (and I must say frustrating) about that event was the approach of the brother representing the Acappella position. Instead of addressing WHY this act was to be a barrier for fellowship among believers (which was the point of the discussion), he sought to establish that the use of instruments in worship was sinful. Those are two totally different questions!
Friends, there are a lot of beliefs and practices that we as a fellowship disagree on and believe to be/not be sinful, yet we don’t necessarily divide over them. (Such things as: children’s church, orphan homes, Christian colleges, Easter & Christmas as religious holidays, translations, small groups, raising hands in worship, some questions concerning the role of women, certain marriage & divorce questions, modesty, mixed swimming, communion cups, the war question, whether a Christian must marry a Christian, last things, etc.) I’m not suggesting that these aren’t important questions or that we should not discuss such. I am saying, however, that at least in some situations we differ over such, yet still sustain fellowship. So the question of determining whom you may and may not have unity with is more than just establishing whether or not they believe or practice something you view as sinful.
So back to John’s comments, it really comes down to this question: What is the “teaching of Christ”? Is it the teaching which Jesus taught (meaning every single command and principle as well as those of His commissioned apostles, correctly understood and applied in every single situation) or is it the teaching about Jesus (His historicity, death, burial, Resurrection, and Lordship over the church)? While, per the language in Scripture, such can be interpreted either way, practically, there is only one way, in my judgment, which is reasonable and sustainable. The former (which is how we have traditionally understood the passage) forces us back to the “you have to get it all right” view of fellowship. Such is problematic because NO ONE has the definitive list. Plus, our lists all DIFFER. (If we can only fellowship those who share the same list, our religious circle will be infinitesimally small. That’s troublesome since Jesus said “unity” was to be one our identifying characteristics.) Furthermore, it neglects the fact that we’re saved by grace through faith, not perfection–whether moral or doctrinal.
What if, however, instead of our assessing whether a fellow believer measures up to “our list,” we view them through the lens of love, knowing that as a sincere follower of Jesus they are to “work out their own salvation” as Paul mentioned. (Phip. 2:12) There will, of course, be differences, and due to conscience, there may be times that we will not be able to participate in joint efforts. However, that doesn’t mean they aren’t on the Lord’s side.
There was a friend I knew in West Tennessee who would call everyone “brother.” We were visiting one day and he volunteered his perspective. He said, “I take Marshal Keeble’s (I believe it was, LB) approach – if I can’t get them through Jesus, I’ll get them through Adam.” Well said! If we want to have “oneness” and “unity” and make a difference as a church body and as individuals in our community, perhaps a good approach would be for us to lovingly help everyone we know to take their next step in following Jesus – whatever it may be. I believe we all have a “next step.” I know that I do and I’m sure you do as well. More to come.
You are loved!