Conserving the Whole Counsel of God – 4

To conserve the whole counsel of God, conservative Christians must understand how fellowship with other Christians works. Christians will not find exact agreement on the whole counsel of God, therefore we must understand how we are to respond to our differences in doctrine. Because many Christians have not understood fellowship, and its corresponding doctrine, separation, they have often failed to conserve the whole counsel of God. This is because of the two extremes in approach towards Christian fellowship.
The one extreme, common to some fundamentalists, is to treat fellowship or separation as an all-or-nothing deal. In other words, someone like this might say “I am either in fellowship with you, or I am separated from you!” With this kind of thinking, separation becomes akin to finding leprosy in a person in Old Testament Israel. Once the separatist discovers some difference in doctrine or practice deemed important by him in another believer, he ‘separates’. This, to him, means that he no longer fellowships with the person he has separated from, on almost any level. To this thinking, the people you fellowship with you are not separated from, and the people you separate from you have no fellowship with.

The problem is, after some time the pool of people with whom you are actually still in fellowship with grows ever smaller, until it begins to produce a kind of incestuous fellowship with ‘our group’, ultimately breeding a schismatic, if not ultimately heretical, attitude towards Christianity. Eccentricities abound, religious pride seeps in, political in-fighting occurs, territorialism grows and it is safe to say that many such groups end up falling on their own swords while dying for some quirky doctrine far removed from the gospel.

The other extreme, common to ecumenists, is to treat unity as an end in itself, and to regard all instances of separation as disobedient acts of schismatic believers sniping at each other. For the ecumenists, the reason for unity is not defined, except for the unquestioned premise that Christian unity is always more desirable than Christians separating. “If unity is possible on any level, it must be experienced on every level”, they reason. Ecumenists are definitely minimalists when it comes to deciding on what (if anything) Christians must agree on to be in unity, and usually work to artificially create or foster outward forms of unity between Christians of all stripes. The problem with the ecumenist is that because his guiding principle is inclusiveness of fellowship, his restrictions on fellowship grow ever smaller. At some point, he meets people who are outside the boundary line of the gospel itself, while professing to believe some of the things inside the boundary line. Usually, his response is to extend Christian fellowship to them as well. This goes back to the problem of indifferentism. The gospel is demeaned, the Christian faith re-interpreted, and the whole counsel of God loses some of its integrity in the eyes of observers.

Conservative Christians must know that neither of these approaches will succeed in conserving the whole counsel of God. They must instead remember that fellowship and separation are not either-or propositions, and that unity, while crucial, is not to be attained at the expense of the gospel.

Fellowship and separation are best understood like two points of the compass. The closer I am to west, the further I am from east. The more fellowship I have with certain Christians, the less separation I have from them. The more I separate from them, the less fellowship I have with them.
And here is the point: as a Christian, you never experience complete fellowship or complete separation from another believer. Here is why.
Fellowship is what we hold in common. By definition, two believers, at absolute minimum, have the gospel they believed in common. Even if they agree on nothing else, they have fellowship in the gospel. Extending inwards from the boundary of the Christian faith is the whole counsel of God, with its various doctrines, of varying importance. At the beating heart of Christianity is our loves – loving God supremely, loving what He loves, to the degree He loves them, in the ways He loves them.
Maximum fellowship includes the whole counsel of God and extends right into the centre of our affections. The more of the whole counsel of God that I hold in common with another believer, the more fellowship I have with him or her.
This is where the taxonomy of doctrine detailed in the last post becomes so important. If you cannot work out the relative importance of doctrines, or see the relative weight of errors in doctrine, you will not be able to know if you hold in common is more or less important.

Following on from this definition of fellows ship and separation we see that depending on how much fellowship actually exists determines how it will be worked out in real life. On the lowest level, I might have minimal fellowship with a believer who has a completely skewed system of theology. But, we can have a cup of coffee together and rejoice in Christ’s grace in the gospel. You could say I am separated from him as far as ministry partnerships, church membership, and other such things go. I did not have to engineer such separation: the fellowship simply didn’t exist in enough areas to merit those endeavours.
I might meet a charismatic believer who becomes my friend. Our differences are very wide, but it is possible, because of his openness, for us to begin a type of discipleship relationship. He is not yet close to being able to teach in my church, evangelise with me, break bread with me or lead – but where fellowship exists, we take it and grow it.
On a higher level, I might have friend who is a Presbyterian elder. We have fellowship on a number of doctrines, but not on the matter of baptism, nor on certain issues of church polity. We could enjoy each other’s company, we will discuss baptism privately, and I might have him preach in my pulpit – but not on the topic of baptism or church polity. We couldn’t plant a church together, nor could he be a member of my church (or I of his), nor could he be an elder in my church or vice-versa. On those levels, we practice separation, because of the areas in which fellowship does not exist.
On a higher level, I might have a friend who is a dispensationalist Baptist pastor. We have more areas of fellowship between us, and we be able to do all the things mentioned in the previous levels, and furthermore undertake a joint evangelistic outreach. We have enough fellowship to make such targeted collaboration possible, and fruitful. However, he does not hold certain views on the Regulative principle of worship, and is more pragmatic in some of his ministry philosophies. He probably wouldn’t be comfortable in my church, and couldn’t be a member, nor be a leader. Our fellowship is quite thorough, but where it does not exist, by implication, we are separated.
On an even higher level is church membership, for to covenant together in church is to agree on fairly specific doctrine, agree with the church’s philosophy of ministry, and find great like-mindedness.
On the highest level would be church leadership – the level of agreement needed here is as high as it gets.

The point of all of this is to say that conserving the whole counsel of God includes how you relate to other professing believers who do not believe the whole counsel of God as you do. We do not have to submerge our differences beneath a façade of Christian unity, hypocritically pretending to have fellowship on all levels, when we don’t. We don’t need to turn our backs on every believer who differs from us, however slightly. You do not have to drop the doctrine to gain an artificial unity. You do not have to drop your brother to conserve the doctrine.
Our taxonomy of doctrine and militancy towards error informs our taxonomy of fellowship and on what level it can be realised. Our understanding of how much agreement is needed for what kind of collaboration further informs it.
We experience fellowship where it exists, and by implication, we experience separation where the fellowship does not exist. We design our interactions to include as much fellowship as can be experienced, given what we actually hold in common.

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2 Responses to “Conserving the Whole Counsel of God – 4”

  1. Nathan Eckman Says:

    fabulous.

  2. Terry Michaels Says:

    Great post! Very balanced. A good word those on both sides of the extreme.
    Thank you for sharing!!!

    God bless,
    Terry Michaels
    ‘The Preacher who hates religion and loves God.’
    http://www.strategicbookpublishing.com/ThatIMayKnowYou.html

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