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Appeal to Unamended, Abrahamic Faith

An appeal to Unamended and Abrahamic Faith brothers and sisters regarding submission and ecclesial fellowship

A clause in many ecclesial Constitutions, modeled on the original Christadelphian Ecclesial Guide, reads as follows:

"In matters not affecting essential doctrines, we mutually agree to submit to the arrangements preferred by the majority."
We may make the mistake of supposing that "majority rule" is simply a convenient way of doing things, borrowed -- with no particular Bible support -- from the democratic governments of England and America. So we might assume that this rule is not especially binding, and in fact really means:

'We agree to submit to the arrangements preferred by the majority, unless we believe them to be wrong.'
But it should be evident -- after some reflection -- that the rule cannot be limited to such an interpretation: If everyone agreed to submit to the will of the majority only when he or she thought it to be right... and if everyone felt free, and were free, to strike out on his own whenever his ecclesia made a decision not to his liking, then such a clause would have no real application and thus would mean... nothing at all! This would then be the perfect prescription for ecclesial disunity. Sadly, this has happened far too often among Christadelphians. Brothers and sisters have stayed together in ecclesias, thinking themselves to be in perfect harmony, until the first real problem arose. Then they have divided from one another because one side or the other had supposedly "departed from the Truth", even if only in a relatively minor matter... basically because they did not see, or did not care about, the wisdom summarized in this clause.

No, the proper way to interpret the clause is surely:

'In matters not affecting essential doctrines, we mutually agree to submit to the arrangements preferred by the majority, even if we believe the majority is wrong.'
Even if our ecclesia makes what we consider to be a wrong decision, our duty is to remain peaceably with the ecclesia, and honor its decision... unless that decision affects the ecclesia's official position in regard to one or more essential doctrines of the Truth.

It may be that our ecclesia has decided to embark upon an expensive building project which we feel is imprudent. Or it may be that our ecclesia has decided to take back into fellowship a sister whom we feel should remain out of fellowship. In such cases, and other similar ones, our recognition of the principle of "majority rule" compels us to abide by -- and even support -- the ecclesial decision.

Why should we do this? Because "majority rule" is much more than a convenient way of doing things; it is really the restatement of a Bible principle -- which is just as binding as any other commandment!:

"All of you be subject one to another, and be clothed with humility: because God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble" (1Pe 5:5).

"Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ" (Eph 5:21).
These passages most directly "prove" that the rule is Scriptural. There are other passages which, almost as directly, say the same thing, and they are the passages which teach the unity of the Body of Christ (eg Rom 12:4,5; 1Co 12:12-27; Eph 2:14-18; 4:4,12-16). All the passages, in Paul's letters and elsewhere, that command us to "be of the same mind" or "one mind" (Rom 12:16; 1Co 1:10; 2Co 13:11; Phi 2:2,3; 1Pe 3:8,9) also make essentially the same point: that in matters of non-fundamental questions, we must for the sake of peace and unity submit to the will or "mind" of others (ie, the will or "mind" of the majority), even if (especially if!) we think they are wrong. Just as our obedience to certain commands (to love, to be kind, and to "turn the other cheek") is only truly tested when we are wronged -- so also our obedience to other commands (to submit to one another, to be of one mind, and to unify the Body) is only truly tested when we have a significant difference of opinion with the majority of our brethren.

We now must ask a question with very serious implications:

If the above is good advice for individuals within the local ecclesia, is it not also good advice for an ecclesia as a whole within the collective body of many ecclesias?

Or, to put it another way, do we believe in a worldwide "ecclesia", a single worldwide Body of believers of which we (as individuals and as ecclesias) form a part? IF we do, then I think we have to acknowledge that the passages cited above, and others besides, have some bearing upon the fellowship policies of ecclesias:

"At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, 'Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?' He called a little child and had him stand among them. And he said: 'I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven' " (Mat 18:1-4).
"Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all" (Mar 10:43,44).

"I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought" (1Co 1:10).

"Aim for perfection, listen to my appeal, be of one mind, live in peace. And the God of love and peace will be with you" (2Co 13:11).

"Make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves" (Phi 2:2,3).
These are not "easy" passages; in fact, they very much go "against the grain". They are just the sort of passages of which we might well think, 'Those certainly apply... to the other fellow!' But -- read in the right light, and understanding how difficult this might be -- we have to ask: Do we have a duty to "submit" to the desires of other ecclesias in regard to our fellowship practices? Do we have a duty to "submit" -- even if we believe we are more right than they, and even if we believe our general approach is more Scriptural -- for the sake of peace and unity?

I suppose there is one premise to which we all agree, without question: The greater unity of the One Body is our ultimate desire:

"Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others" (Rom 12:4,5).

"The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ... Now the body is not made up of one part but of many. If the foot should say, 'Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,' it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. And if the ear should say, 'Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,' it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be?... The eye cannot say to the hand, 'I don't need you!' And the head cannot say to the feet, 'I don't need you!'... God has combined the members of the body and has given greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it" (1Co 12:12-27).

"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... so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ... speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work" (Eph 4:4-6,12-16).
We assume, therefore, that the greater unity of the One worldwide Body is an object fervently to be desired from a Scriptural standpoint.

Now, following along these lines, a second premise must be stated: The Central (or Amended) Christadelphian community comprises by far the greatest number of true believers worldwide (approximately 95% of the total). [Note: This whole appeal is intended only for Unamended and Abrahamic Faith brethren who agree that the Central community contains true believers. I realize some may not agree; for them, these points will hold no weight.] This overwhelming majority is often lost sight of in North America -- where the Central "fellowship" comprises perhaps only 60% of all generally-recognized believers. But the other Central brothers and sisters in the rest of the world are a serious factor in any unity discussions in North America, because North American Central brethren interact with them in Bible schools, fraternal gatherings, traveling abroad, visiting, personal correspondence, and all sorts of "missionary" and "service" capacities. This interaction necessarily affects the ability and desire of North American Central brethren to "go the extra mile" in offering fellowship to non-Central believers, for fear of endangering or disrupting the "fellowship" they already enjoy. To put it bluntly, consideration of the "cost-benefit" ratio suggests that such broadening of fellowship is just not worth the risk.

Given the two "premises" above, how can the spiritual goal of a greater unity be achieved? And the answer must of necessity be: 'Only under the umbrella of the Central fellowship, by some recognition of its generally accepted statement of faith (the BASF) and by some agreement with its generally followed fellowship practices.'

We therefore cannot reasonably expect reunion discussions to be some sort of "negotiation" between two (or among three, if we include the Abrahamic Faith, or CoGAF) more-or-less "equal" entities. It must be something more of a "petition" on the part of the much smaller group (or groups) to "join" Central. This may not seem "fair", but it is the practical reality of things. And it is the only way for the isolated fragments to achieve the spiritually desirable result of unity with the One Body.

To summarize the differences: The Central "fellowship" practices fellowship on the basis of the BASF only, which is expected to be applied consistently by each ecclesia. The Unamended "fellowship", on the other hand, allows fellowship either on the BUSF, the BASF, or sometimes other statements, and its ecclesias apply such statements much less consistently. It is interesting to note, however, that the Central "fellowship" -- with its "stricter" policy -- continues to grow, while the Unamended "fellowship" -- with its "looser" policy -- continues to fragment, and more so especially since reunion has become an important issue. Why is this so? Because Central has a higher degree of collective recognition of the standard of fellowship. That is, all know where they stand, and they feel secure in that knowledge (something like children whose parents practice "tough love", and therefore they know "where the lines are"). In short, the parts (individual ecclesias) honor the whole (the BASF), and the whole (all ecclesias) treats each part (each single ecclesia) with honor (look at the 1 Corinthians 12 passage again!). Therefore, "If you're in, you're in!" This has been disparaged, sometimes, as the "card carrying" or "club" mentality, but there is no denying the security this affords, and that security may well have a lot to do with the relatively much greater growth in Central.

On the other hand, the "looser" Unamended "fellowship" allows each ecclesia -- to some extent -- to do what is right in its own eyes (cp Jdg 17:6; 21:25). There is little "security" in such an arrangement; certain Unamended ecclesias are apt to "disfellowship" other Unamended ecclesias for relatively minor differences, and it can be very difficult for the individual to figure out where he or she stands. And for every ecclesia that "reaches out" beyond the Unamended group (either to Central or CoGAF), there is another Unamended ecclesia that cuts them off for doing so. Unamended "fellowship" is very much a relative thing: it changes from place to place, and from day to day. The result, for all the best intentions of some, is more fragmentation. And individual ecclesias remain adrift from the main Body of believers, denying themselves many of the benefits chiefly pertaining to that main Body.

It may be argued that the Unamended/CoGAF ("UC") policy of fellowship (with its greater ecclesial independence, and fellowship recognition on the basis of individual faith) is "better" -- that is, more "Bible-based" -- than the general Central policy (with its collective adherence to a single standard, and fellowship recognition on the basis of ecclesial position). But -- even if this were so, and given the realities of general ecclesial practice, and prevailing attitudes -- could the UC policy ever hope to achieve the greater unity among all who share a common faith -- which, after all, is (or should be) our desire?

Aside from the relative "rightness" of each possible fellowship policy, there may also be (what can best be called) "the test of fruitfulness":

"By their fruits you will recognize them" (Mat 7:16; cp Mat 12:33; Luk 6:44).

By this "test" there is simply no comparison. In terms of: all this, the worldwide Central fellowship passes the "test of fruitfulness" hands down! It far outdistances the "minorities". (Does this mean that Central brethren or Central ecclesias are in any sense more righteous than their counterparts in Unamended or CoGAF? No, nothing of the sort! But it does suggest that their "system" works better!)

Add to this the fact that the Central brethren, worldwide, outnumber all the others -- in total -- by about twenty to one, with the disparity increasing all the time. Given all the above, should the Unamended, or the CoGAF, really expect the "twenty" to "join" the "one"? Should they even expect that the "twenty" will go very far in "accommodating" the special "needs" of the "one" -- if there is a risk of jeopardizing any of the benefits listed above?

Let us assume -- for the sake of argument -- that the UC policy of fellowship is "more correct" in a theoretical sense, being based on the faith of the individual rather than the standing of his ecclesia. Nevertheless, as a practical matter the UC policy can only work to achieve greater unity in the wider sphere if it is actually practiced (or at least acknowledged and tolerated) by quite a number of other ecclesias. I have to say now, after some years of experience with this practice, that it does not appear to have (or to have gained) wide enough acceptance. Many Unamended ecclesias and most CoGAF churches practice similar fellowship -- and even some Central ecclesias do too, but not very many. (And where Central ecclesias do this, they are subject to serious scrutiny and sometimes sanctions, and are more or less "forced" into secretive practices -- which may give the appearance, at least, of dishonesty, and which in any case is not a very healthy situation.)

So, accepting the premise that the greater unity of the wider Body of Christ is an object to be desired, then we have come back to our original idea: there is a place, and a rationale, for humility, and submission by "minorities" to the wishes of the "majority"-- not just by individuals to a single ecclesia, but also by whole ecclesias to the greater worldwide Body.

We must conclude, then, that in order to achieve true unity with the worldwide Body of believers, an ecclesia should acknowledge the validity of the BASF as an acceptable basis of saving Truth, and undertake to limit its fellowship to others who do the same.

This, I suggest, is the practical way -- now -- to do our part toward making peace in the brotherhood:

"Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God" (Mat 5:9).

"But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness" (Jam 3:17,18).
Finally, please consider Paul's teaching about "meat offered to idols", and its general application to situations where the "strong" should take into account the consciences of the "weak" (Rom 14 and 1Co 8). (But be aware of the apparent contradiction here: The "stronger" fellowship position may be considered an indication of brethren with "weaker" consciences, who feel comfortable only by insisting on some restrictions that others think unnecessary; whereas the "looser" or "weaker" fellowship position may indicate those of "stronger" faith, who are not troubled by such concerns.) To paraphrase Paul, it is possible that the "exercise of your freedom", in an otherwise justifiable fellowship practice, may "become a stumblingblock to the weak" (1Co 8:9). True, it may be permissible to try to instruct the "weak" as to the legality of the "stronger" position, and this has been done over the past decade or two. But... there may come a time when Paul's words apply to us:

"If your brother is distressed because of what you eat [or 'with whom you eat'?!], you are no longer acting in love. Do not by your eating destroy your brother for whom Christ died" (Rom 14:15).
There is, of course, the counterargument: 'But we are not talking about mere food here; we are talking about other brethren, with whom we may not be able to break bread if we join Central!' (And that is an important consideration: we should be concerned about how we treat all our brethren!) The proper response, I think, is this:

'Those other non-Central brethren also have their own obligation to consider the mind of the majority, and to achieve a greater worldwide unity by joining Central themselves, just as we have (or will). If we maintain any fellowship "accommodation" with them which falls short of unity in the Central group, then we are implying that they need do nothing else themselves, even while they remain separate from the main body. This is "enabling" their continued disunity and isolation, and ultimately doing them a disservice under the guise of friendly "fellowship".'

And, just maybe, there is the opportunity -- for those who must "give up" something -- to learn true humility, to esteem others better than ourselves, to serve them rather than perhaps proudly insisting on our own "better" way. But perhaps that is what we all need, to build ourselves up by the exercise of sacrificial love. It is just possible, in all of this, that God is offering the "stronger ones" a very great blessing: the opportunity, through a loving submission, and a sacrifice of our own wills, to learn more about following Christ.

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