Collyer on Fellowship
The question has been raised whether it is possible to find
scriptural principles to give us clear and unmistakable guidance in the matter
of fellowship. Of course, there are some obvious truths which are recognized by
all men and women who are Scripturally enlightened. There are errors of doctrine
and offences of practice so serious that all enlightened men and women would
agree that we cannot fellowship them. There are, on the other hand, errors so
slight that no one would think of making them a cause of division. Between the
two extremes there is more debatable ground and the difficulties arise in
determining where the line should be drawn.
In time of strife there is a natural tendency for men to
exaggerate and indulge in parody. It has been so in the brotherhood. "If you are
going to tolerate this", one party says, "you may as well fellowship a man who
does not believe the Gospel, or one who steals." "If you are going to cut off
for this", another party may reply, "you may as well withdraw from a brother
because he does not agree with you as to the king of the North, or because he
has been known to visit a Natural History museum."
Such efforts of satirical exaggeration may relieve the
feelings of disputants, but for every other purpose they are worse than useless
in a serious discussion. They simply present the familiar spectacle of extremes
begetting extremes, and they lead to a chaotic condition of the mind in which
principles are ignored and men form arbitrary judgments according to their
feelings for the moment and the subject which is most to the front.
Perhaps the first scriptural principle that we should note in
this matter is that God sometimes leaves men to try them and prove all that is
in their hearts. Even when the Apostles possessed the power of the Spirit in
such large measure, they were not relieved of this difficulty of forming
judgments. There was a difference of opinion between the Apostles Paul and Peter
as to how far Jewish prejudices might be conciliated in the attitude taken
toward Gentile believers. Evidently the Apostle Peter was in the wrong,
withdrawing himself from some of the Gentile brethren, not on principle but for
fear of what some of the Jews might say. Inspiration did not relieve these men
from the onus of individual judgments and decisions or they would not have
experienced the trials and temptations necessary for the formation of character.
In writing their epistles, however, the Holy Spirit was their constant guide,
and these writings bear witness regarding the truth of this dispute. The
epistles of the two men are in agreement. There is no disputing there.
We may assume then that in these days also it is the will of
God that we should experience some difficulty in applying scriptural principles
to the circumstances of our own times. We must try to be honest and faithful in
our application and on our guard against the fleshly feelings that so
continually come to the front in time of strife.
There is another principle that needs to be mentioned before
considering what the Bible has to say regarding fellowship. All should pay
earnest heed to the scripture now cited and reflect upon the truth stated
regarding human weakness.
It is wrong to "watch for iniquity", and yet in time of strife
it is the most natural thing in the world to do. If a fleshly politician is
angry with another over a dispute in parliament, how delighted he is if he can
find some discreditable story about his rival. How ready he is to believe the
ill report and to put the worst possible construction upon it. It may have
nothing whatever to do with the original quarrel, but that does not matter.
Anything will serve as a weapon in the fight.
This is, of course, sheer diabolism, but unfortunately it is
characteristic of human nature, and we are all tinged with it. It comes out the
worst when a man is half conscious of having a weak case and is making desperate
efforts to convince himself that he does well to be angry. If he believes in the
Bible he needs then to remember that all who watch for iniquity and make a man
an offender for a word shall be cut off (Isa 29:20). It is usually an easy
matter to collect reports derogatory to any man or any body of men. There is
quite a temptation to use these "make weights" in time of controversy,
especially if the original cause of dispute is slight. One on the defensive can
be kept busy chasing the false reports and unfair interpretations, but never
succeeding in catching one before the next is on the wing.
In a court of law a litigant is tied down to the actual
charge. It is useless for him to try to fatten out his suit by all sorts of
complaints remote from the original accusation. We are free from any such legal
restrictions now, but it is well to remember that we have to go before a
judgment seat far more searching than any ever set up by man, and for "every
idle word" that we have spoken we shall have to give account. Do not let us
watch for iniquity, then, either in those we accuse of specific errors or in
those who accuse us. Such watching inevitably leads to countless idle and evil
Coming now to the matter of fellowship, we cannot make a
better start than by taking all the passages of Scripture in which the word
occurs. Truly it is not safe to assume that a word is used in the Bible in
exactly the sense that men employ it now. The story is told of a theologian who,
when challenged to show any scriptural warrant for the modern ceremony of
confirmation, made a full list of all the passages in which the word
confirmation occurs, and triumphantly exhibited it as conclusive proof. This was
foolish as an argument, for he was assuming a meaning for the word quite remote
from the original intention of the writers. Nevertheless, an earnest seeker
after truth might have found that list of passages very helpful as showing the
manner in which the early believers were confirmed in their faith.
We desire to use the word and to treat the doctrine of
fellowship in accordance with scripture teaching. We may find benefit therefore
in considering all the passages in which we have the word in our English
rendering of the New Testament. In each case sufficient is quoted to bring the
teaching to the memory of all persistent readers of the word. Any who fail to
remember the connection can easily find the passages.
In addition to these passages there are one or two other
examples where a slightly different word is given the same English
- Act 2:42. "Continued steadfastly in the
apostles' doctrine and fellowship and in breaking of bread and
- 1Co 1:9: "God is faithful, by whom ye
are called unto the fellowship
- of his Son Jesus
- 2Co 8:4. "The fellowship of the
ministering to the saints."
- Gal 2:9. "They gave
the right hand of fellowship."
- Eph 3:9. "The
fellowship of the mystery."
- Phi 1:3-6. "I thank
God upon every remembrance of you always in every prayer of mine for you all,
making request with joy, for your fellowship in the gospel from the first day
- Phi 2:1. "Fellowship of the Spirit."
(Connection of idea, comfort, love, and mercy in
- Phi 3:10. "Fellowship of his
- 1Jo 1:3. "That ye may have
fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and his Son
- 1Jo 1:6. "If we say we have
fellowship with him and walk in darkness, we lie"; v 7, "But if we walk in
light... we have fellowship one with another and the blood of Jesus Christ his
Son cleanseth us from all sin."
Surely these passages give us explicit teaching of vital
truths that are often forgotten.
- 2Co 6:14. "What fellowship hath righteousness
- Eph 5:11. "Have no
fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather reprove them; for
it is a shame even to speak of those things that are done of them in secret."
(Fornication, uncleanness, covetousness. See
The fellowship to which we are called is a fellowship of the
Gospel. It is a fellowship with the Father and the Son, and it is a fellowship
to which God has called us (1Co 1:9). This is, of course, quite in harmony with
the statement of the Lord Jesus: "No man can come unto me except the Father who
hath sent me draw him."
Surely these passages should lead us to the conclusion that
fellowship in the Gospel is a sacred matter not for a moment to be treated like
the ordinary fellowships of the world. If men have been called to this
fellowship by God Himself, we need clear scriptural ground before we cut them
off from it.
We will next consider the commands regarding the matter of
withdrawal. There are two of these commands that have often been quoted with
very little regard to the context. "Have no fellowship with the unfruitful works
of darkness", clearly may involve withdrawal, and it has been quoted in that
connection. The context, as we have already seen, speaks of the works of
darkness in question, evil wrought in secret of which it is a shame even to
The other command referred to is the admonition to withdraw
from those whose walk is disorderly (2Th 3). The context shows that the
immediate reference is to men who did no honest work, but were "busybodies". The
Apostle goes on to say in more general terms, "If any man obey not our word by
this epistle, note that man, and have no company with him, that he may be
ashamed. Yet count him not as an enemy, but admonish him as a
There was the explicit command to withdraw from the one who so
grievously offended in Corinth, and one of the objects stated and made clear in
both the letters of the Apostle to that church was that the sinner himself might
be brought to sincere repentance and salvation.
There is another direct command as to withdrawal in 1Ti 6. The
immediate reference is to the perverse disputings of men of corrupt minds eager
for worldly gain rather than godliness. There are several commands which clearly
require a refusal to fellowship those who have not the doctrine of Christ or who
depart from any element of the Truth. It should not be difficult to form a sound
judgment as to where to draw the line in these matters. As Dr Thomas remarked,
the first principles of the Truth are few and simple. Moreover, they are so
opposed to all fleshly wisdom that from the natural standpoint they do not seem
attractive. If men are prepared to accept them at all, it should not be
difficult to accept them as a whole.
In actual experience, the divisions on doctrinal points in
these latter days have illustrated this fact. New theories have been brought
forward and have come into collision with first principles. The unity of first
principles has been revealed in the strongest light. Where the right spirit has
prevailed the new idea has been repudiated as soon as its true character has
been revealed. Sometimes, however, there is a wrong spirit; worse still, there
is personal feeling. Then there is hardly a limit to the possibilities of evil
that may surge round the dispute or of the monstrosities into which the confused
thought may grow. An illustration of what is meant was furnished some years ago.
A well-known brother put forward an idea in a Bible class, and although he was
quite unconscious of the fact, he raised an issue affecting a principle of God's
dealing with men. An older brother took the matter up in the right spirit, and
after some discussion the younger student of the Word saw his way more clearly
and repudiated the idea that he had expressed. Some years later, the one who had
instructed him espoused the discarded theory, and with hidden causes at work to
urge him forward, he elaborated it until division was inevitable for the sake of
purity and peace. It is doubtful whether anyone living now holds the theory as
it was put forward in time of strife. It played its part of mischief and
destruction, and then it passed into the shadow of forgotten things.
For many years there has been unanimity among us as to the
first principles of the Truth. New theories which menaced those first principles
and caused division have not endured for the final judgment. They have perished
of their own weakness, and if any of the pamphlets which caused such havoc are
still extant, they are only retained as curiosities, not quoted by a single
living soul as standard expositions of the Truth. There is a lesson for us in
Another series of scripture injunctions that we do well to
call to mind in connection with the matter of fellowship is in condemnation of
contention. We are required to contend earnestly for the faith once delivered to
the saints, but we are not expected to contend among ourselves. Strife and
debate are ranked among the evil works of the flesh (2Co 12:20; Jam 3:14-16). In
the letter to the Galatians there is a terrible warning as to the results of
such strife (Gal 5:15). We must be careful then to see that our contending is
for the Faith and not merely a strife of words to no profit.
Yet another series of commands must be remembered. "Judge not,
that ye be not judged. With what measure ye mete it shall be measured to you
again." "Judge nothing before the time until the Lord come who will bring to
light the hidden things of darkness" (1Co 4). "Who art thou that judgest another
man's servant? To his own master he standeth or falleth" (Rom 14:4). "Speak not
evil one of another, brethren. He that speaketh evil of his brother and judgeth
his brother, speaketh evil of the law and judgeth the law. But if thou judge the
law thou art not a doer of the law but a judge."
Some might despairingly raise the question, How can we
reconcile these very serious warnings against judging each other with the plain
commands to have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness and to
withdraw from those who are disorderly?
The answer is that the very plainness of these commands helps
us, for Scripture passes judgment on such matters. Truly we have to apply the
judgment of Scripture, and there is danger of mistake in the application. It is
the will of God that such responsibility should be ours and we must discharge
the duty as faithfully as we can. We must try to remember the teaching of the
Word as a whole, and we must be honest in the application of specific rules. If
one quotes the passage regarding unfruitful works of darkness, things done in
secret "of which it is a shame even to speak", and applies the passage to one
well reported of for good works, the only real complaint against him being that
he is too reluctant to be severe with offenders, surely it is evident that in
such an application there is the most amazing perversity. If one in resentment
of a difference in judgment as to the precise application of these commands
denounces his brother as guilty of disorderly walk, repudiation of the faith and
re-crucifixion of the Lord, it is difficult to believe in such a case that there
is even an attempt to find righteous judgment.
The time has come to use great plainness of speech regarding
this vital matter of fellowship in the Gospel. There has been much failure to
realize the sanctity of the fellowship of the Father and the Son to which God
has called us. There has also been a failure to understand the real meaning of
brotherly love. It has been thought of as a weak, sleep-inducing sentimentality
which may stand in the way of faithfulness to God.
An amazing but most illuminating comment was made by a brother
who advocated withdrawal from some who were alleged to be no longer worthy of
fellowship. There were doubts, he said, as to the faithfulness of these
brethren, so let us "give to the Lord the benefit of the doubt, and cut them
off". It seemed that any tendency toward maintaining unity was regarded as
sentimental weakness, the motion to withdraw was zeal for the Lord. It seemed
that there was no recognition of the possibility that we might sin against God
in wrongful cutting off of members called by Him to the fellowship of the
Gospel. If there were doubts as to the standing of those accused, we should be
giving the Lord the benefit of the doubt by cutting them off!
Surely everyone should know that we can give nothing to God
but the tribute of our obedience, that we can only learn of Him through His
Word, and that all the commandments are equally authoritative. And surely
everyone must know that for every one passage of Scripture commanding withdrawal
from workers of evil, there are scores of commands to love and to be forbearing
and long-suffering; exhortations to be meek, temperate, kind, courteous,
pitiful, to comfort the feeble, build up the weak, restore the faulty; to be
rooted and grounded in love, to bear one another's burdens, to esteem others
better than ourselves; to do all things without murmuring and disputing, and to
be at peace among ourselves.
When we urge the law of love we do not mean sentimental human
affection with all its partiality, its inconsistency and blindness. We mean love
after the pattern set by the Lord Jesus who died for a church full of
imperfection and who, under the very shadow of the cross, gave comfort to his
faulty disciples. This law of love so incessantly urged upon us in the Word of
God is the most soul-searching and the most difficult of all the commands. It
involves a crucifixion of the flesh far more complete than that which comes to
us from the bitterest criticisms of misguided opponents. If we ignore these
commands while giving an extreme and unjustifiable application of the command to
withdraw from the disorderly, we sin doubly. We sin in that which we do and that
which we neglect.
From the testimonies cited, it is surely safe to draw the
Are these principles helpful? Are they fairly stated? If you
think not, then take your Bible, put in a few hours' study yourself and try to
draw up a more faithful summary. Add such scripture as you think may be
necessary, but do not ignore any of the testimonies referred to here.
- Fellowship in the Gospel is a fellowship with the Father and the Son, to
which God calls us. It is therefore a sacred matter to be treated with reverent
- If we join ourselves to the world we join that which God has ordained
to be separate (2Co 6).
- If we cut off brethren from fellowship without
scriptural warrant we put asunder that which God has joined (1Co 12; Eph
- We must at all times remember the warnings against judging each other
and the countless exhortations to love and forbearance.
- There are times when
on the judgment of the inspired apostles we are called upon to withdraw from
offenders. From those who turn from any element of the Faith (2Jo 1:10); from
those who by perverse disputings cause wrath, strife of words, railings, evil
surmisings (1Ti 4:6); from those who are guilty of moral offences (1Co 5:11);
such to be restored in love after repentance (2Co 2:7,8).
- That all
unrighteousness is sin, but there is a sin not unto death. Many such offences
are to be reproved or rebuked and left to the judgment of the Lord (1Ti 5:20;
Tit 1:13; 1Co 4:5).
- That in this sacred fellowship with the Father and the
Son we can have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus will cleanse
us from all sin.
In time of strife some may agitate that we cut off some of the
Lord's servants who are judged beforehand to be unworthy. Some may be frightened
by the suggestion that to decline shows them to be weak in the faith. Well, "to
the law and the testimony", that is the only guide. Have these brethren denied
any element of the faith? Are they guilty of perverse disputings which are
making your ecclesial life impossible? Have they been guilty of any of those
moral lapses mentioned by the apostle? In short, is there any scriptural
principle which justifies you in saying, "These men were called by God to the
fellowship of the Gospel, but they are now taking such a position that Scripture
requires me to take the extreme step of cutting them off"?
Perhaps there is no one charge that can so easily be tested,
but rather a multitude of alleged offences which in the aggregate are regarded
as providing a cause. Beware of these "many and grievous charges". It is easy to
bring charges against any body of men to show that their general standard of
conduct is inferior to that of others. Whether true, half true, or wholly false,
such accusations are difficult to judge. Fortunately we are not called upon to
judge. Rather are we required to refrain. We have responsibilities in our own
ecclesia to make it a real light-stand, but there is nothing in scripture to
suggest that we are called upon to make a detailed examination of the way of
life in other towns. Smyrna was not held responsible for the sins of Laodicea,
and Smyrna would have been at fault if it had attempted to pass judgment. It was
the Lord who judged.
Brethren need not be distressed by the thought that they are
bound to pass judgment when others have fallen out. We need not take sides at
all, indeed there are disputes in which those at a distance cannot possibly take
sides. If some brethren in misplaced zeal insist on an unscriptural division,
the whole responsibility lies with them. If they cut our brethren off they cut
us off. Clearly we cannot seek their fellowship while they have cut off the body
to which we belong. It is equally clear that they alone can repair the breach.
We can say with perfect truth, "We have not cut you off, you have cut us off."
The old man of the flesh hates to make such a confession, but it expresses a
distinction which may make all the difference between life and death in the day
If there is in these days a Laodicean church, the Lord will
pass judgment on it. He is the only one qualified, and God has committed all
judgment to him. We need to be very careful how we even form an opinion on such
matters. A thousand times more careful how we speak and write.
THROUGH belief and obedience of the Gospel we are privileged
to have fellowship with the Lord Jesus. We can even be his friends if we will
obey all his commands. This scriptural use of the words is quite in harmony with
the meanings they bear when employed in merely human relationships. Fellowship
is on the basis of one definite cohesive capacity or profession; friendship is
more, comprehensive. Fellowship may bring together the most diverse individuals
so long as they conform in the one particular. A fellow of the Royal College of
Organists must be an expert with the organ, but his religious and political
opinions are of no consequence. The fellows may be of such diverse temperaments,
tastes, and connections that they could not agree together for an afternoon, and
they could never form real friendships. These diversities do not matter in the
least so long as they have passed the test which gives them
This principle holds good in the fellowship of the Truth. The
most completely different temperaments are drawn together; men who on a worldly
basis could never even be acquaintances meet at the one table as fellows and
brethren. In the world they might be at the opposite ends of society; at the
Lord's table they are equals, for they are fellows on the same basis. Here,
however, the Truth transcends all other kinds of fellowship. It is an entity so
complete and so beautiful that when properly apprehended it can break through
all barriers and fuse the most divergent temperaments. Under the influence of
the enlightened love that it brings, individual differences are moulded towards
a common ideal and men become friends of each other because each is trying to be
the friend of Christ.
It would seem that this fellowship is a matter too sacred for
the adjudication of man. Only the Lord can give the privilege, and only he can
take it away. In the final sense this is certainly the case; but as custodians
of God's Truth, members of the Church of Christ are called upon to take such
disciplinary measures as may be necessary for the preservation of purity in both
doctrine and practice, even to the extreme of refusing fellowship to
We are given explicit instructions as to the principles by
which we must be guided in these matters, but we are necessarily left with a
considerable margin for judgment in the application of those principles. We are
told to withhold fellowship from those who do not accept the full truth
regarding Christ's redemptive work, and we are instructed to withdraw from those
who are guilty of disorderly walk.
An example is given in the treatment of an offender. In the
church at Corinth there was a man who committed a sin, exceptionally vile even
for that city of loose morals. We are told that the brethren were puffed up
perhaps using the sin of the erring brother as an effective background for a
gratifying exhibition of their own virtue. Their proper attitude should have
been one of sorrow because of the wrong done and the necessary severance that
Quite definitely the apostle instructed the brethren to
withdraw from the offender -- for that is plainly involved in the words, "hand
over to Satan." With equal clearness the apostle indicates that the first object
should be the purging and correcting of the transgressor that he might
eventually be saved.
In the latter-day history of the Truth there have been several
divisions caused through the introduction of a false doctrine. As brother
Roberts pointed out not long before his death, the main divisions were caused by
attacks on the fundamental truths of Christ's redemptive work. The "no will"
theory was in effect a denial of Christ's trial and perfect obedience. The
"renunciation" theory was in effect a denial that "Christ came in the flesh."
The "theories of inspiration" attacked the Word and therefore made a direct
attack upon Christ. The divergent views regarding resurrectional responsibility
were never treated as serious until in an attempt to formulate a coherent theory
it became plain how closely the matter was connected with the redemptive work of
There have also been many cases of withdrawal from individual
members for individual offences. In many cases the right spirit has prevailed,
the right effect has been produced; the transgressor has been delivered from
overmuch sorrow and "in the spirit of meekness" has been restored.
On the other hand, it must be sorrowfully confessed that there
have been divisions over matters that should never have caused any trouble and
there have been times when the right spirit has not prevailed. Moreover, there
has often been great confusion of thought as to the principles which govern
fellowship, and there is danger that brethren may be led into grave errors in
their attempts to be consistent. If, therefore, we can have a little clear
thinking and speaking on this matter many may be helped.
First, we can state positively that no rules can be laid down
in such a manner as to spare us all trouble in the application. The most
illogical opinions regarding fellowship have been expressed just when brethren
have tried to be most logical. Sometimes one has attempted to draw up a series
of propositions on such lines as these: (1) To do thus and so contravenes the
law of Christ; (2) One who contravenes the law of Christ is not fit for
fellowship; (3) Therefore, however painful the duty, we must withdraw from him;
(4) Those who refuse to support a motion for withdrawal are defending
wrong-doing, and therefore are partakers of the evil deeds; (5) Therefore we
must withdraw from them too.
Even such crude reasoning as this would be accounted sound and
logical by some. It is possible that many brethren might examine the
propositions for some time before they detected the fundamental error. That
error turns on the meaning of the word 'fit'. The fact is we are none of us fit
for fellowship with Christ if our personal record is to be the test. A man who
was among the greatest of the prophets testified that he was not fit to untie
the thong of the Lord's sandal. Where, then, do we stand? If we were to take
fitness in that sense no brother or sister of intelligence would ever dare to
withdraw from anyone, while at the same time daring to claim the fellowship of
Christ. We are not left to our own sense of fitness, however. We are given
instructions that we must withdraw from those who are disorderly; not
withdrawing in the spirit of self-righteous men preserving ourselves from
contamination, but with the hope of saving the offender. It certainly does not
follow that every offence against the law of Christ must be punished in this
way, for in many things we all offend. We have to deal with each case as it
arises, asking the question, "What would the Lord have us do?" and acting
faithfully to the answer of our conscience. We can readily agree on the
principles involved. When a member transgresses we may all agree that some
disciplinary measures are necessary; but if we make use of our powers at all, it
is improbable that we shall all agree in our judgment as to the exact course to
take. In such matters we all have to be "subject one to another," which is the
beautiful scriptural way of putting the idea harshly expressed in the modern
phrase that "majorities must rule." When there is no difference of principle but
only variability of judgment in the application of a principle, this subjection
in love one to another is the only workable method.
This brings us to another point in connection with which there
has been much confusion of thought. Some brethren have reasoned as if withdrawal
from a transgressor was the only way of expressing disapproval. It has been
repeatedly assumed that if a brother is hesitant to the point of weakness in
supporting a motion for withdrawal, he is necessarily weak in his views of the
error that has called forth the motion. If he argues against cutting off from
fellowship, he is regarded as supporting the sinner in his evil way.
I suppose it has always been so in this unreasonable world.
Little more than a century ago, men were hanged for sheep stealing in this
country. At one time boys of sixteen were hanged for stealing as small a sum as
five shillings. If I say that such punishment was wrong am I supporting
thieving? No one would say so now; but, doubtless, at one time such charges were
brought against the first men who suggested counsels of moderation. And after
the milder men had protested with wearying re-iteration that they condemned
thieving as fully as any of their neighbours, critics would come back with a
repetition of the charge, "These men say it is right to steal."
I am sorry to use such a crude illustration, but if it serves
to clear the thoughts of any distressed reader the roughness may well be
There are many scriptural ways of dealing with the offences of
brethren. Withdrawal, or cutting off from fellowship, is the most drastic of
all. We may entreat brethren, or reprove them privately, and so leave the
matter. In some cases of error everyone would agree that nothing more is needed.
We may take others with us, and finally bring a matter before the ecclesia. We
may, as an ecclesia, rebuke an offender 'before all, that others also may fear,'
or, finally, we may if we feel confident that this is what the Lord would
approve -- cut the offender off from fellowship.
Are we to make it a test of fellowship that there must be
unanimity of judgment as to the appropriate method of dealing with an offender?
When we withdraw from a member for prolonged absence from the
table is there to be a division, and an extension of cutting off, because all
cannot agree that the time has come for action? Are we to cut off those who
refuse to support one of these painful motions because of some real or fancied
special circumstances in the case? Assuredly not. These are not matters of
principle but of application, and the proper course is for all of us to be
subject one to another.
Finally, to make this matter as plain as words can make it,
let us briefly review the history of the last thirty years in the
It is about thirty years since the ecclesias throughout the
country began to treat certain offences more severely than had been their wont.
It was argued-quite soundly, as I think -- that for a brother to take a course
which bound him to an alien or any body of aliens was a more serious offence
than any ordinary failure in a moment of temptation. Among offences of this
class, marriage with an unbeliever is, perhaps, most prominent. It is certainly
condemned most directly in scripture, and it has unquestionably been of more
frequent occurrence than any other sin of similar character. This will serve as
well as any matter to illustrate the point, and as I have been urged by a worthy
brother to make my position quite clear on this subject it will be well to make
At one time the general practice was to reprove or rebuke any
who offended by marrying outside the Truth, but to go no further than rebuke. In
some ecclesias -- I believe it was so in London -- the rebuke took a public
form. Marriages of brethren and sisters were announced to the meeting with
appropriate words of goodwill and commendation to the blessing of God. Marriages
outside the faith were only referred to that grave disapproval might be
Nearly thirty years ago the Leicester ecclesia passed a
resolution deciding to go further and to withdraw from offenders. I supported
that resolution in a very intemperate speech which, for fiery zeal and merciless
condemnation, would be hard to beat.
May I assure the brethren that while I would never think of
using such language now, I feel a horror at the bare idea of marriage outside
the Truth such as the ignorant and zealous stripling could never have felt. It
is a sin against the law of Christ, a sin against the life partner, a sin
against the children; and in addition to all this it is a renunciation of the
greatest joy that life has to offer. If the more drastic rules of later days
have saved any young people from this fatal error in the establishment of their
homes, surely the severity is justified.
There is, however, a grave danger that growing severity may go
too far. It may come to be regarded as the test of soundness in principle, and
then weak men will vote for harsher measures than they think are right in the
effort to appear strong. When Christ was writing on the ground before he spoke,
what would have been our attitude if we had been called upon to express an
opinion? We might have been merciless for fear of merciless
When an ecclesia changes its constitutional practice in
dealing with certain offences, all members must certainly be loyal in the sense
of not opposing the constitutional action. A faithful brother will not remain a
member of the ecclesia if he feels that a matter of principle is involved. He
will not be coerced into doing wrong. If, however, it is not a matter of
principle, but only of application, he will be subject in love to the
Now in these matters which have caused such agitation there is
not any difference as to the principle. All recognise that it is wrong to marry
an alien or to enter bond service to Gentile power. It is true that in the
stress of argument some have even appeared to defend unholy marriages, but the
extremes of heated discussion should not, be treated too seriously. In quiet
moments all agree as to the fault; even the offenders admit it. We cannot
reasonably require that a brother who has married outside the Truth shall say
that he is sorry. To ask for such a confession is going too far. Usually,
however, he will admit the principle that he has violated. He will recognise
that he has given way to a human passion, and in the grip of that passion has
broken the law. But while we all agree on these principles there never has been
and there never can be unanimity as to the disciplinary measures the Lord would
have us take in all these cases. Some of the best and strongest of brethren have
urged that we should rebuke offenders with all humility, but not cut them off
from the one anchorage that can save them. The Lord has left us to judge for
ourselves in these applications of his principles, I know of no workable method
but the scriptural one of being subject to one another in love.
It will be a sad day for the Truth if any considerable body of
brethren shall ever insist that in future there shall be no liberty of
conscience. That when a decision has been reached to treat certain offenders in
the most drastic way permitted to us, all who have any scruples as to the
correctness of the ecclesial decision must stifle them, must actively support
the drastic action and confess that it is not only a permissible action but
right, without any mental reservation whatever. Such a demand as this is
certainly entirely new in the latter-day history of the Truth, although it is
not new if we review the bitter history of past ages.
We may mention one more matter in which there has been
confusion of thought. Some have suggested that they may be forced into a
position in which they have only a choice of two evils. They say that they may
be forced into withdrawing from one section or another, although in neither case
do they feel that the withdrawal is right.
It is not true that you can be placed in such a dilemma. You
never are forced to cut off any whom you regard as sound in the Faith. To do so
would surely be a terrible sin, far worse than the error of those who act with
honest but mistaken zeal. You may be forced into a position in which others will
cut you off, but that is a different matter altogether. The wrong done is not
your responsibility, and if you maintain the right spirit, presently the fever
will pass away and wounds will be healed.
There is only one sound course in this matter of fellowship.
Stick to "true principles," and do not strive about "uncertain details." Pray
for divine guidance, but do not neglect the divine guidance which is near, in
our memories and on our shelves. Try to keep in their proper place the weightier
matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith. Then, when there is a difference
of judgment in the application of principles, and you have to record your vote
on a motion for withdrawal, vote for what you think is right though your dearest
friends should cut you off for it.
IC (The Christadelphian 60:261-265)