George Booker
Biblical Fellowship

31. Old Testament “General Teachings”

It is worthy of note that the idea of disfellowship, or excommunication, of many ecclesias worldwide for the sins or supposed sins of those in one corner of the world is often confidently advanced under the umbrella of “the overall teaching of the Old Testament”. Such passages as Deuteronomy 17:2-7 (the idolator’s punishment); 18:9-12 (the elimination of false religions); 20:16 (Canaanite abominations); and Joshua 7 (Achan and the Babylonish garment) are cited to support the like treatment of those who espouse wrong ideas today in spiritual Israel.

The difficulties in such a generalization are manifold. In the first place, New Testament fellowship should be established and controlled on the basis of New Testament passages. It would be a very easy matter to produce a number of plainly absurd conclusions by applying the same methods to other Old Testament passages. For examples, should arranging boards recommend the stoning of “Sabbath-breakers”? What should believers do today, preach the love of Christ and the coming kingdom of God to their more-or-less “heathen” neighbors, or launch military campaigns against them?

Secondly, the great principles of God are fundamental and eternal — we are speaking of the majestic themes of Scripture, such as the covenants of promise, light and darkness, love and hate, and the holiness of God — but the personal applications vary enormously from time to time. Our twentieth-century ecclesial leaders do not have the inspired wisdom that the apostles and many of their co-workers had in the first century. It must not be forgotten that the “general teaching” of the Old Testament was the application of sound principles to changing circumstances by men inspired by God. These men, like Moses, were directly and explicitly commanded, when God judged the time as ripe, to punish evildoers. A close parallel between those days and ours is clearly impossible.

Even such Old Testament “retributive” passages as listed above do not go so far as to require the “elimination” of those otherwise righteous worshipers of God whose only “sin” was living side by side with such as Baal-worshipers. Yet the principle of worldwide fellowship responsibility, to be proven, would necessitate some such Mosaic precedent as the annihilation of entire villages, the worshipers of the Lord along with those of Baal, simply because they did not act against the error in their midst. And, even if this sort of reasoning be allowed thus far, which is without Scriptural precedent, should the next village over the hill be similarly destroyed for failure adequately to “police” its neighbor town?

Perhaps the best argument against such an exaggerated view of fellowship responsibility is one that has already been mentioned elsewhere; yet it is so important that a second reference would not be out of place. Where the prophets of Israel witnessed against the spiritual abuses among their contemporaries they did so while still continuing full fellowship with those whom they denounced. More than this, the examples of Moses (Exod. 32:30-33), Daniel (9:5-14), Nehemiah (1:6,7), Jeremiah (3:25; 9:1), and Ezra (9:6,7,13) show these men intimately associated with the people whom they reprimanded, even so far as confessing the sins of the nation as though they were their own. Here is the spirit of true fellowship, or sharing, by which those most exercised against error bear the burdens of their brethren, and strive with them as partners — not outsiders — to defeat the enervating effects of sin. Such a policy stands, with God’s blessing, a chance of success. But the opposing policy condemns from the beginning innocent and guilty alike, and invariably fails in the object it purportedly seeks — that is, the elimination of error; for who ever gives serious attention to those who “walk out”? By all standards of law, both human and divine, such “deserters” forfeit any voice in the affairs of the enterprise. Who welcomes, or even listens to, the advice of those on the outside looking in? Imagine a brother who, finding his neighbor’s ox in the ditch (Deut. 22:4), stands carefully aside but generously gives constant directions to the sorely-beset owner as to how to extricate his animal. And James similarly tells of the rather impractical (to say the least!) character who says to the cold and hungry, “Be ye warmed and filled” (2:16), but cannot bring himself to become “involved” enough to really help.

A final point completely overturns any appeal for severity to the general Old Testament teachings. It is this: the Lord was in unbroken “fellowship” with the nation of Israel from the time He brought them out of Egypt until Ezekiel’s day. This is proven by the presence of the “Shekinah” glory, leading the people by cloud and fire through the wilderness, and afterward enthroned in tabernacle and temple. The nation was from time to time filled with the grossest abominations, with widespread indifferent to the prophets’ messages, and with every other imaginable sin. God’s messengers were incessant in their demands for reform; but no matter how evil the nation, a righteous remnant always remained and consequently the nation was preserved. Its “fellowship” with God was only withdrawn when His glory was seen departing by stages from the Temple on the eve of Jerusalem’s captivity (Ezek. 9:3; 10:4,18,19; 11:23). Until then, no matter how imperfect their service, Israel remained in communion with God. Thus, if anything may be learned of the general principles of fellowship from the Old Testament, it is that it was never lightly withdrawn from those who bore the name of God — as has been done in His Name, and often for the flimsiest of reasons, by more than a few modern believers.

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