The Bounds of Christian Unity

by Dudley Ross Spears

       BOTH brother J.T. Smith, editor of Gospel Truths, and Ed Harrell, co-editor of Christianity Magazine, have asked for a review of a series of articles authored by brother Harrell. The articles appeared in Christianity Magazine and were written under the title, “The Bounds of Christian Unity.” Hopefully only good, only closer understanding of each other and of the issue involved, will be the result. Someone once said, “Where there is much desire to learn, there of necessity will be much arguing, much writing, many opinions; for opinion in good men is but knowledge in the making.” Hopefully the differences expressed in this exchange will bring us to a fuller knowledge of the question of fellowship.

          Let the readers be fully aware that brother Harrell is a man of precision with words. He is an accomplished writer, author of several excellent books, and an astute historian. Such a man weighs his words well before committing them to print for public consumption. When his very words are cited, they are the words he thought out very carefully and express precisely what he meant. This is not going to degenerate into a semantic fist fight, nor into some low level hair splitting contest. Brother Harrell taught error on at least two major issues.

          The two errors are: (1) a proposition endorsing the right of some Christians to teach on matters of “considerable moral and doctrinal import” (Christianity Magazine, May 1989, Page 6) and remain in fellowship, (2) putting moral and doctrinal differences in the same category as the issues Paul dealt with in Romans 14. Brother Harrell said much with which there is absolute accord. What he said on these two points, however, constitute our basic disagreement.

          Brother Harrell wrote, “Romans 14 confirms the right of Christians to disagree in matters of faith, but the chapter specifically forbids the violation of one’s conscience” (Ibid., July 1989, Page 6).

          One of the long standing principles by which men have tried to “restore” New Testament Christianity is expressed, “In matters of faith unity, in matters of opinion liberty, and in all things charity.” Whether you agree with all the implications of that statement or not, brother Harrell has expressed the very opposite relative to faith. According to the principle of allowing liberty of opinion, liberty is not allowed in matters of faith. We have no choice when it comes to a matter of faith. When we say, “in matters of faith unity,” we should affirm, “only in matters of faith unity.” When we say, “in matters of opinion, liberty” we should mean, “only in matters of opinion is there liberty.” That means we are not allowed to differ over matters of faith. Brother Harrell, a man of precise words, is simply wrong.

          But to say we have liberty to differ only in matters of opinion is incomplete. We have to determine what, if any, is the difference in faith and opinion. One writer, known for his strict application of Scripture, wrote: “Faith is a firm conviction resting upon clear and satisfactory testimony. Opinion is an impression resting on human judgment, without clear and satisfactory testimony. In religion, faith is a conviction based upon a clear revelation of the Divine will. And we must ‘walk by faith.’ That is, we are led by faith in God to do what the Word of God clearly requires us to do. Whatever is clearly revealed in the Word of God, is a matter of faith. What is not clearly required therein is (a) matter of opinion.” -- David Lipscomb, Christian Unity, How Promoted, How Destroyed, Faith and Opinion, McQuiddy Printing Company, 1916, page 9. Brother Harrell’s use of the term faith in Romans 14 is wrong. It blurs any distinction between faith and opinion and extends the realm of private opinion far beyond the bounds of New Testament usage.

          Faith is that which is produced by divine revelation (Romans 10:17). Opinions are strong convictions based on deductions, assumptions, and inferences from passages of Scripture. Those who differ in matters of opinion may remain in brotherhood with one another. Those who differ in matters of faith cannot scripturally remain together at peace in fellowship without either one or the other compromising the truth of God.

           Romans 14 uses the word “faith” to mean strong convictions in irrelevant matters held by certain members of the church. Verse one mentions one who is “weak in the faith” obviously meaning weak in convictions relative to unimportant issues such as dietary restrictions and the observance of certain days held to be special. Likewise Paul asked, “Do you have faith?” and concluded, “Have it to yourself before God” (verse 22). This cannot be anything other than opinion for surely everyone can see that it is impossible to keep our faith in Christ to ourselves. Our faith is to be public and preached; our opinions are to be held privately.

          The divisions we experience are neither necessary nor are they approved of God. Brother Harrell erroneously concluded the opposite. He wrote, “Of course, all division is not sinful. Paul acknowledged that certain divisions were necessary: ‘For there must be also heresies among you, that they which are approved may be made manifest among you’ (I Corinthians 11:19). He instructed the Romans, ‘Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offense contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them’ (16:17)” (Christianity Magazine, May 1989, Page 6). Brother Harrell is wrong; all division is sinful. The reason division occurs within the body of Christ is not that matters of faith are bound as the sole test of fellowship; rather it is the binding or forcing of opinions as tests of fellowship. Division never takes place over what the Bible expressly teaches; it takes place over what the Bible does not expressly teach.

          Brother Harrell misused the principles in Romans 14 by lumping differences on marriage, divorce and remarriage with the irrelevant issues discussed in that chapter. He applied the principles of Romans 14 to a position on marriage, divorce, and remarriage, which Harrell says is not correct. He affirmed that many of our disagreements over “moral and doctrinal” issues are covered in Romans 14 and he contends that we should be able to continue working and worshiping together without division. His conclusion is that God allows His people to continue unrestricted in fellowship while preaching and practicing different things in matters of faith. Those Jews who compelled Titus to be circumcised were not tolerated at all by the great apostle Paul (Galatians 2:5). Paul said that the truth of the Gospel could not have continued with the Galatians had he become tolerant toward those Jews who “came in privately to spy out our liberty which we have in Christ Jesus.” The liberty we have in Christ is to be free from the bondage of human opinion. We are not at liberty to choose which matters of faith are the bonds of Christian unity and fellowship.

          Harrell says our disagreements are limited only to what he considers a ban on “doubtful disputations” because they are schismatic, factional dispositions shown in controversy. He conjectures that “doubtful disputations” are those things that preclude “our capacity to work together as Christians.” Brother Harrell not only blurs the distinction in faith and opinion, he is far too liberal in his application of the doubtful disputations. But if he recognizes no difference in faith and opinion relative to unity in Christ it is logical that he would include all of our doctrinal and moral differences in these doubtful disputations. But the doubtful disputations (“decisions of scruples”, ASV) of Romans 14 are limited to the issues discussed in the context. In fact, the issues were doubtful simply because they were not of major importance. The issues in Romans 14 were not matters of faith; they were matters of opinion.

          The disputations of the passage were cultural issues: they were certainly not moral or doctrinal differences. God settles doctrinal and moral issues for us through revelation making them matters of faith. Since when do we relegate adultery, a moral issue, into the realm of opinion?

          These disputed points in Romans 14 were to be hushed, not debated The New English Bile reads, “without attempting to settle doubtful points.” The chapter is addressed to those who are strong in the faith. They are the ones who are to receive the weaker brethren, and when Paul said for the stronger to receive them he demanded that they not discuss these minute and inconsequential matters. Have we forgotten a similar restriction? “But shun profane and vain babblings, for they will increase to more ungodliness” (II Timothy 2:16).

          Romans 14 is clearly not dealing with major doctrinal and moral problems. Yet Harrell affirms, “It is obvious that Christians sometimes disagree about scriptural instruction, even in matters of considerable moral and doctrinal import. In spite of these disagreements, we work and worship together, leaving many matters of individual judgment in the hands of God. That behavior, uniformly practiced throughout the history of Christianity is, I believe, the issue addressed in Romans 14” (Ibid., May 1989, Page 6). But that is not the issue addressed in Romans 14. If it is, the difference we experience over marriage and divorce is of no significance. We should not even discuss it. We should shun it for it will increase to more ungodliness. And, it really makes no difference at all what one teaches on the issue, for verse 3 affirms that God receives both the weak and the strong in the passage. And if God receives both, then both are right? Romans 14 deals with two groups that differ and both of them are right in what they believe.

          Brother Harrell disavows a position on marriage and divorce which argues that those outside of Christ are not subject in any way to what the Bible says about marriage. He said, “If brother Hailey should write a summary of his views on this subject, I would regret that he might convert people to a view that I think is wrong” (Ibid., November 1988, page 9). But he condones those who proclaim it as truth. Since we are to do nothing by partiality (I Timothy 5:21), then Ed would have to include all those who teach error on any aspect of divorce and remarriage. Something has changed. In the Reed Lectures for 1966, brother Harrell preached the following. Please read it carefully.

          “I am a fanatic of sorts. I am not a dangerous enthusiast. Most members of the Churches of Christ share the American heritage of freedom of religious expression and are fully committed to religious toleration. But I have my zealot side. Any man who believes that he can find literal truth in the Scriptures must also believe that those who do not find the same truth are wrong. What follows is that such people are sinful. The next logical conclusion is that they will go to hell.” Harrell admitted later in the speech, “All members of the Churches of Christ do not have such an attitude, but I do. (Reed Lectures for 1966, page 35). If brother Harrell still follows the guidelines he preached in this fine lecture, how can he allow continued fellowship with those who, by their own admission, are wrong in their teaching on marriage, divorce, and remarriage? He said, ”those who do not find the same truth are wrong...(bold letters mine for emphasis - DRS) those who are wrong are sinful...they will go to hell.“ How interesting that Ed is quoted in the above paragraph as saying bother Hailey’s teaching is wrong.

          When we differ over nearly anything, usually we seek to determine the bounds of fellowship before we ever sit down and thrash out whatever it is causing us to differ. But the scriptural procedure is first to investigate the issue in the light of Divine revelation. After a diligent research of the principles in any division is exhausted then the question of continued fellowship is dealt with. We reverse this order.

          Does the Lord allow us to believe false teaching? II Thessalonians 2:1-12 teaches that those who believe error are deceived and will be damned if they do not repudiate it. We have no more right to teach error than we do to believe it. We cannot condone that which we cannot preach as truth. It is my sincere prayer that Ed will retract his statements. But this difference will never be settled in the papers that publish this exchange; it must be settled in the hearts of those of you who read with profit and a sincere desire to be right first, in fellowship with God’s people second, and consistency should fall in line somewhere.

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