Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Our community is at a crossroads. The decisions we make over the coming months will determine the makeup of our fellowship. We are being pulled in opposite directions. Two factions, one more inclusive, the other more exclusive, are promoting their positions amongst us and insisting the rest of us chose between them. At present these two factions combined represent less than 20% of our community in North America. These factions are sincere; they are driven by their consciences; and they both claim Scriptural support for their positions. Having listened carefully to all sides we have come to the conclusion that choosing between these two positions is a mistake. They form a false dichotomy; neither position is complete by itself. Rather, they are like two sides of a coin: both perspectives are essential to a fair representation of Bible Truth. Choosing one of the positions alone fails to account for the whole counsel of Scripture.
Scriptural basis for the two positions
The more inclusive faction emphasizes passages like the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, in which the King’s judgment of his servants is determined by their treatment of the least of his brethren:
“Then shall the King say unto [the sheep] on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me. Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee? And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.
“Then shall he say also unto [the goats] on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels: For I was an hungred, and ye gave me no meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked, and ye clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not. Then shall they also answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee? Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me. And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal” (Matt 25:34-46).
The inclusive faction is deeply moved by the lesson of this parable, and so they fear leaving anyone out of fellowship who should be included. Their view here is right: all of us must embrace our obligation to include those who should be
In contrast, the more exclusive faction bases its position on passages like this warning against supporting those who teach false doctrine:
“If there come any unto you, and bring not this doctrine, receive him not into your house, neither bid him God speed: For he that biddeth him God speed is partaker of his evil deeds” (2John 10-11).
The exclusive faction is significantly influenced by this Scriptural exhortation, and so they fear including anyone in fellowship who should be excluded. Again, their view is right: all of us must embrace our obligation to exclude those who should be excluded.
So both factions are at least partly right; but if they do not simultaneously embrace the position of the other, both extremes will wind up being wrong in the end, with potentially devastating consequences for us all. The danger of the exclusive faction’s position is that it can cause us to exclude some who ought to be included. On the other hand, the danger of the inclusive faction’s position is that it can cause us to include some who ought to be excluded. The answer to this dilemma is simple to articulate, but difficult to implement: we must include those who should be included and exclude those who should be excluded.
Avoid being too exclusive
Scripture provides examples to help us understand the dangers of being too exclusive, including these four.
(1) Jesus rebuked the Apostle John for “forbidding” someone who did not follow them:
“And John answered him, saying, Master, we saw one casting out devils in thy name, and he followeth not us: and we forbad him, because he followeth not us. But Jesus said, Forbid him not: for there is no man which shall do a miracle in my name, that can lightly speak evil of me. For he that is not against us is on our part” (Mark 9:38-40; Luke 9:49-50; cf. Num 11:26-29).
(2) The Pharisees threatened to “disfellowship” (and worse) anyone who confessed that Jesus was Christ:
“[The parents of the blind man Jesus had healed] feared the Jews: for the Jews had agreed already, that if any man did confess that he was Christ, he should be put out of the synagogue… Nevertheless among the chief rulers also many believed on him; but because of the Pharisees they did not confess him, lest they should be put out of the synagogue… They shall put you out of the synagogues: yea, the time cometh, that whosoever killeth you will think that he doeth God service” (John 9:22; 12:42; 16:2).
(3) John condemned Diotrephes’ exclusivity:
“I wrote unto the church: but Diotrephes, who loveth to have the preeminence among them, receiveth us not. Wherefore, if I come, I will remember his deeds which he doeth, prating against us with malicious words: and not content therewith, neither doth he himself receive the brethren, and forbiddeth them that would, and casteth them out of the church” (3John 9-10).
(4) The first century ecclesia faced a difficult time determining, for example, whether or not Gentiles were required to keep the Jewish dietary and calendar laws. The situation was in many ways comparable to ours in that it was a time of transition and those on opposite sides of the question were condemning each other. In response, Paul gives a powerful exhortation for inclusivity, arguing that believers should not judge each other, but that instead everyone should be persuaded in their own mind:
“Him that is weak in the faith receive ye, but not to doubtful disputations. For one believeth that he may eat all things: another, who is weak, eateth herbs. Let not him that eateth despise him that eateth not; and let not him which eateth not judge him that eateth: for God hath received him. Who art thou that judgest another man’s servant? to his own master he standeth or falleth. Yea, he shall be holden up: for God is able to make him stand. One man esteemeth one day above another: another esteemeth every day alike. Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind… Let us not therefore judge one another any more: but judge this rather, that no man put a stumblingblock or an occasion to fall in his brother’s way… For he that in these things serveth Christ is acceptable to God, and approved of men. Let us therefore follow after the things which make for peace, and things wherewith one may edify another” (Rom 14:1-5, 13, 18-19).
The exhortation for us is plain; we are commanded to:
Receive the weak.
Avoid doubtful disputations.
Not despise or judge those who decide differently than we do.
Let everyone be fully persuaded in their own mind.
Not judge others in order to avoid causing them to stumble or worse to fall.
Follow the things that make for peace and that build up others.
The reasons for these required behaviors are also given:
For God has received them.
For God is able to make them stand.
For they are acceptable to God.
All of these lessons apply to our situation today: we are to receive our fellow brothers and sisters, because God has received them.
Liberty constrained by the consciences of others
On the other side of the coin, we must be careful not to exercise our liberty to the extent we cause others to be offended. In addressing the issue of meat offered to idols, Paul explains that our liberty is judged not by our own consciences, but by the consciences of our weaker brethren:
“But take heed lest by any means this liberty of yours become a stumblingblock to them that are weak… But when ye sin so against the brethren, and wound their weak conscience, ye sin against Christ. Wherefore, if meat make my brother to offend, I will eat no flesh while the world standeth, lest I make my brother to offend… All things are lawful for me, but all things are not expedient: all things are lawful for me, but all things edify not. Let no man seek his own, but every man another’s [well-being]… But if any man say unto you, This is offered in sacrifice unto idols, eat not for his sake that shewed it, and for conscience sake: for the earth is the Lord’s, and the fulness thereof: Conscience, I say, not thine own, but of the other: for why is my liberty judged of another man’s conscience? For if I by grace be a partaker, why am I evil spoken of for that for which I give thanks? Whether therefore ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God. Give none offence, neither to the Jews, nor to the Gentiles, nor to the church of God: Even as I please all men in all things, not seeking mine own profit, but the profit of many, that they may be saved” (1Cor 8:9, 12-13; 10:23-24, 28-33).
Both extremes today, the inclusive faction and the exclusive faction, need to understand that they are causing offense. Their extremes are begetting further extremes, in a vicious cycle that is pulling apart brothers and sisters on all sides. Offending one’s brothers and sisters is a sin (1Cor 8:12), and the judge himself says that the punishment for doing so is severe (cf. Matt 18:6; Mark 9:42; Luke 17:1-2). As we will all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, it is incumbent upon each of us to avoid giving offense to any; instead we are commanded to seek not our own profit, but that of others (1Cor 10:32-33), to seek not our own, but each other’s well-being (1Cor 10:24 NKJV).
The importance of this exhortation to constrain our behavior for the sake of others is made clear by its repetition in Paul’s other letters:
“For the love of Christ constraineth us; because we thus judge, that if one died for all, then were all dead: And that he died for all, that they which live should not henceforth live unto themselves, but unto him which died for them, and rose again” (2Cor 5:14-15).
“For, brethren, ye have been called unto liberty; only use not liberty for an occasion to the flesh, but by love serve one another. For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this; Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself” (Gal 5:13-14).
Constraining our actions so as not to offend the consciences of others is perhaps the most difficult of the commandments of Christ. We must follow Paul’s Christ-like example: “Be ye followers of me, even as I also am of Christ” (1Cor 11:1).
Summary: The middle path is the right path
For the first time in many decades we are in a position to bring unity to the body of Christ. The transition from division to unity faces many hurdles. Though the current disharmony we are experiencing is temporary (God willing), we need to do everything we can to minimize it. Two conflicting paths have been laid out before us. Each path seems right and easy to those on it, but causes serious concern to those who are not. Both paths have merit, but neither will get us to the finish line. The proper path, the one that will get us back to equilibrium, requires aspects of both positions in order to avoid the offense of a significant portion of our community. We must embrace the essence of both positions by following a third path that avoids either extreme. This middle path respects the consciences of others. It requires us to include everyone who should be included and to exclude everyone who should be excluded. By following this path, we avoid causing offense to the inclusive faction by making sure we include the least of our Lord’s brothers and sisters, and we avoid causing offense to the exclusive faction by making sure we do not allow false doctrines or their teachers into our midst. This third path incorporates the whole counsel of Scripture by defining our fellowship community to be the whole body of Christ, and nothing but the body. We encourage the ecclesias in Ontario, the Midwest, and the rest of North America to pursue this middle course.
The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you. Amen.
The Christadelphian Tidings Publishing Committee