The Agora
Biblical Fellowship

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2. Paul’s Reaction to Error (1 Corinthians)

In a broad view of the brotherhood in the first century, one point becomes very clear. Newly baptized brethren and even entire ecclesias in the formative stage were treated by the apostles with a great deal more patience and sympathy than is customary in these days. Even extreme errors and gross misconduct were the subject of careful explanation and entreaty, not broad and summary excommunication.

The best example of this is the Corinthian ecclesia, which seemed to lack a comprehensive grasp of one of the greatest of first principles — the resurrection (1 Cor. 15)! Can we imagine the reaction of many Christadelphians today? ‘Why, these people are obviously not in the Truth at all! How can we have anything to do with them?’

In contrast to this attitude, the apostle Paul strives mightily and tirelessly to reclaim those who have been misled — while at the same time strenuously repudiating the false doctrine. Obviously, as far as he was concerned, these Corinthians were brethren. Admittedly, they were brethren who very much needed assistance, but they were brethren nevertheless.

In a similar vein are Paul’s words to his Galatian brethren, who were sorely beset by error:

“O foolish Galatians, who hath bewitched you?” (Gal. 3:1).
Paul does not consider the false teachers and those brethren who are falsely taught to be in the same category. He bluntly exposes the wrong, attempts to isolate the perpetrator of the wrong, but still patiently and lovingly instructs the ones who are misled. This is a theme which will recur time after time in this survey, and it would be well to watch for it.

“An important distinction is made — between the urgent need to disfellowship the circumcisers and their advocates and the treatment urged upon those Galatians who may have been gullibly led astray: ‘Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness.’ They were to remember that self-examination, not self-conceit, is required of all who would thus assume the role of ecclesial monitors and shepherds. Such are not free from temptation themselves! (Gal. 6:3)” (A. Eyre, “Problems of Fellowship in the First Century Ecclesia”, The Christadelphian, Vol. 108, No. 1281 — March 1971 — p. 106).
It must not be contended from such passages that we (either as individuals or ecclesias) are at liberty to overlook error when we encounter it. And yet an enlightened view of the first-century ecclesias as presented in the New Testament must encourage a substantial measure of restraint in our actions. Perhaps there is less reason for patience and latitude today (it may be argued), since Christadelphian doctrines and practices are so solidly established. Yet human nature never changes, some brethren will always develop slowly or erratically or not at all, and some ecclesias will always be in formative or turbulent periods. Consequently, those who are most firmly grounded in the Truth will always be building, always desiring maturity (yes, even perfection) for themselves and their brethren, but never quite attaining it. And so it must be until Christ returns.

Again, with regard to the Corinthians, Brother Roberts adds:

“There were men among the Corinthian brethren who denied the resurrection; did Paul charge the [other] brethren with complicity with that heresy because of the presence of such among them? Doubtless their rejection of the resurrection nullified their claims for that place [i.e. among the brethren], but still it did not make the true brethren guilty of their false doctrine while merely tolerating it, pending an appeal to Paul” (“True Principles and Uncertain Details”, p. 417).
Some of the other above-mentioned examples of error and misconduct in the first-century ecclesias are listed below:

  1. There is no resurrection (1 Cor. 15:12; 2 Tim. 2:18).
  2. Suing at law (1 Cor. 6:1,6).
  3. Fornication, incest (1 Cor. 5:1).
  4. Drunkenness at the “love feast” (1 Cor. 11:21).
  5. Women speaking (teaching) in the ecclesia (1 Cor. 14:34; 1 Tim. 2:11).
  6. The Great Heresy: “Circumcision is essential to salvation”, or (in its milder form) at least preferable (Acts 15:1; Galatians, esp. 2:12,13).
  7. Jesus was merely a man, and not the Son of God (1 John 2:22; Luke 1:35).
  8. Jesus was “God”, not man (1 John 4:2,3).
We notice that in latter times Nos. 2 and 3 have, on a local level, been the cause of many ecclesial problems; and that No. 5 has been the basis for numerous local problems. Also, that the questions of the precise nature of Christ (Nos. 7 and 8) and details about resurrectional judgment (No. 1) continue to bother Christadelphians.

But also, the “Great Heresy” of the first century (No. 6) is quite interesting, in that it practically reproduces the “fellowship” viewpoint of some groups of believers even today. If we simply substitute “cutting off doubtful brethren” in place of “cutting off the flesh” (in circumcision), the parallel becomes obvious. The unwarranted division is described as follows:

“Perhaps news of this (Peter’s reception of the Gentile Christians in Antioch) reached Jerusalem and encouraged the ‘ultra-conservatives’ to make investigations. Perhaps the death of Herod encouraged Judaean brethren to go and fetch Peter back to Jerusalem. Whatever the reason, a disastrous visit was made by some ‘from James’.... These visitors to Antioch forced a division in the ecclesia by demanding that circumcision be made a matter of fellowship.

“We have very sparse details of the actual course of events, but there is no doubt that it took a very serious turn. Peter, challenged by those from his own ecclesia, afraid of conservative reaction and failing to face up to the implications of the vision in Joppa (Acts 10), crumbled under the attack of the Jerusalem bigots. He ‘stood aside’ and withdrew his fellowship from his Gentile brethren. The Jewish members of the Antioch ecclesia, faced with this lamentable lapse of one so prominent, had little alternative but to follow suit. Paul says they ‘acted insincerely’ (Gal. 2:13), the implication being that they viewed the division as being expedient, with fellowship to be resumed perhaps when Peter and the others had gone. Even Barnabas was carried away and met with the ‘circumcision fellowship’. Perhaps it is something of a comfort in our own problems to know that for a time two great apostles were not in the same fellowship!

“How the division was resolved we do not know, but resolved it must have been, for shortly afterwards an apparently united Antioch ecclesia sent Saul and Barnabas forth together on their first sponsored missionary journey. Probably, Paul’s forthright yet sincere stand on the matter may have helped; in any case, in God’s providence such a disastrous division was not to be” (A. Eyre, Vol. 108, No. 1280 — Feb. 1971 — p. 60).
And so, in the first century, there existed for a time a second or “elite” “fellowship”. No doubt, like similar associations today, it included the most radical — who urged that their peculiar viewpoint was essential to salvation — as well as the more moderate element. These moderate ones did not deny to the “others” the possibility of acceptance at the judgment seat, but merely wished to remain separate either for expedience’s sake or for fear of personal “contamination”. How little the ecclesial world has changed from that day to this!

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