I read an article this week where an author talked about a congregation which follows a worship practice that he believes to be incorrect. He holds these brothers ‘in error’ and insists that fellowship with this group should be abandoned.
A wise man once said,“Brothers in error are the only kind of brothers I have.” There are often two problems with abandoning fellowship with a fellow believer in Christ with whom we have doctrinal differences.
The first problem is that if you are of the opinion that your ‘brother in error’ should be delivered over to Satan (1 Tim. 1:20), you are likely operating with a mistaken definition of what false teaching really is.
“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.
Mark 9: 38-41
The disciples are operating with the assumption that if you are with us you are O.K. ‘Affiliation makes you right’, but Jesus does not agree. In this case Jesus commands a policy of non-interference. “Do not stop him.” A good deed done in the name of Christ cannot be used for evil.
In Acts 15 the question of circumcision is brought to the council in Jerusalem. Does a person need to be circumcised to be a Christian? This is certainly a matter of salvation; it is as serious as it gets but nowhere in the text, on either side of the issue, is anyone called a false teacher. Heresy is not charged, and fellowship is not withdrawn.
Later, we read the story of Apollos:
… a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria, came to Ephesus. He was a learned man, with a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures. He had been instructed in the way of the Lord, and he spoke with great fervor and taught about Jesus accurately, though he knew only the baptism of John. He began to speak boldly in the synagogue. When Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they invited him to their home and explained to him the way of God more adequately.
Acts 18: 24-26
Without speculating what else is going on here, the example is that the response to significant doctrinal difference is not slander or isolation but continued dialogue. Are these examples of false teaching? If they are then the example is clear: we are to continue to work toward understanding and patiently submit ourselves to the leadership in our fellowship. If not, then what is false teaching? Let’s deal with the second question first. John writes,
I do not write to you because you do not know the truth, but because you do know it and because no lie comes from the truth. Who is the liar? It is the man who denies that Jesus is the Christ. Such a man is the antichrist—he denies the Father and the Son. No one who denies the Son has the Father; whoever acknowledges the Son has the Father also.
1 John 2: 21 – 23
This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist
1 John 4: 2-3a
False teaching is to deny the Lordship of Jesus Christ. It is to substitute anything for the grace of God. If we can agree with a bother in Christ that Jesus Christ is the ultimate authority in our lives then we can work out any other difference. If we cannot agree on that one fact then there isn’t anything of significance that we can agree on.
At the root of this misunderstanding about what constitutes real heresy is a confusion between unity and unison. Jesus prays in John 17 for unity, not unison. Unison literally means, ‘one voice’ while unity can be found in a harmony of different voices, and different opinions. The example in Scripture is that whether the issue is big or small, the appropriate Biblical response is conversation: Loving dialogue that honours the body of Christ. We are in some cases taught in the Bible to abandon fellowship with other believers, but for totally different issue:
Warn a divisive person once, and then warn him a second time. After that, have nothing to do with him.
Titus 3: 10
The second problem with abandoning fellowship with a fellow believer in Christ with whom we have doctrinal differences is that you walk into a logical trap from which there is no way out. You are holding one of two unsustainable positions:
The first possible position you are operating under is the assumption that your opponent is guilty of doctrinal sin and you are not. You are assuming that you have no doctrinal error and that you are correct on every point of doctrine. This is at best arrogantly presumptuous. How can you seriously think that you have understood the full counsel of God on every single doctrinal point? If you hold this position then you are in danger of being guilty of pride and that’s what got Satan kicked out of heaven.
If you are not assuming that you are correct on each point of doctrine, then you are assuming that your errors are less significant, less serious than your brother’s. This is also not Biblical. Nowhere in Scripture is there a sliding scale of heresy. While you are correct in assuming that each of us has enough sin in our lives to warrant a death sentence by God, you are mistaken in assuming that your sin does not convict you to death while your brother’s sin does. What you seek is grace for yourself and justice for others. What should we do then, when we identify a difference of doctrine, a difference of practice? The Scriptural example is to patiently, lovingly preserve the unity of faith. Paul writes:
As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to one hope when you were called— one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.
Ephesians 4: 1-6
What life is worthy of the calling? One of doctrinal correctness? No, one of humbility, gentleness, patience and longsuffering.
What preserves unity? Peace.
Why do this? Because of the unity of the Trinity: One Spirit, One God, One Father, One Lord.
If there is grace for my sin then there is also grace for my doctrine as well.