Why We Can't All Get Along

Throughout the history of the Christian church there has been debate as to the extent to which differences should be tolerated within the Christian community. Along with this issue is the issue as to what constitutes appropriate Christian toleration or intoleration. Martin Luther, for example, was much more tolerant than John Calvin. Luther defended his toleration of nominalism with the parable of the Wheat and Weeds in which the Lord commanded to leave the weeds alone and let them grow up together among the wheat. And he took a firm stand against the killing of heretics as we can see in his statement,
"this Gospel teaches how we should conduct ourselves toward these heretics and false teachers.  We are not to uproot nor destroy them. Here he says publicly let both grow together. We have to do here with God's Word alone; for in this matter he who errs today may find the truth tomorrow. Who knows when the Word of God may touch his heart? But if he be burned at the stake, or otherwise destroyed, it is thereby assured that he can never find the truth; and thus the Word of God is snatched from him, and he must be lost, who otherwise might have been saved. Hence the Lord says here, that the wheat also will be uprooted if we weed out the tares. That is something awful in the eyes of God and never to be justified." Martin Luther
Calvin however was much less tolerant and advocated not only the murder of heretics, but even the murder of those who disagreed with his stand concerning the murder of heretics. To quote John Calvin,
"Whoever shall now contend that it is unjust to put heretics and blasphemers to death will knowingly and willingly incur their very guilt." John Calvin
Thus logically John Calvin should have put Martin Luther to death!

But does Luther also perhaps go too far in the other extreme, being overly tolerant? For Paul writes

1Cor 5:9-13
I have written you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral peopleó
not at all meaning the people of this world
who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters.
In that case you would have to leave this world.

But now I am writing you that you must not associate
with anyone who calls himself a brother but is sexually immoral or greedy,
an idolater or a slanderer, a drunkard or a swindler. With such a man do not even eat.
What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church?
Are you not to judge those inside?
God will judge those outside. "Expel the wicked man from among you."

And at times Luther, probably in reaction against Catholic legalism with its deemphasis of faith and grace, gives the appearance of even advocating an Antinomian Free Grace theology.
"It suffices that through God's glory we have recognized the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world. No sin can separate us from Him, even if we were to kill or commit adultery thousands of times each day." Let Your Sins Be Strong: A Letter from Luther to Melancthon. Letter no. 99, 1 August 1521.
This is contrast to Paul's writings:
"Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God." 1Cor 6:9,10
And John speaking in a lifestyle sense also writes,
"No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because Godís seed remains in him; he cannot go on sinning, because he has been born of God. This is how we know who the children of God are and who the children of the devil are: Anyone who does not do what is right is not a child of God; nor is anyone who does not love his brother." 1John 3:9,10
While some may point out the parable of the wheat and weeds, or Jesus' toleration of Judas as one of his apostles, or the fact that Jesus ministered among his Jewish brothers who were spiritually sick and Paul's toleration of the carnal Christians among the Corinthians. Yet others could point out the teachings on leaven and Paul's commands in Corinthians and Galatians to separate from false brethren. Let us consider the matter more carefully.

Why Regulate Fellowship?

In actual practice people will gather around their own kind. (Birds of a feather flock together) That's basic human nature. Christians who think alike will tend to fellowship together. So also Christians who don't think alike will prefer not to get together. So why not just rely on the regenerate nature of those born of God to exercise their own selective fellowship? And in fact much of Christian fellowship does rely on this natural tendency to associate with one's own kind. However there are basically two issues which make this less than ideal and thereby reveal a need for some regulation.

1. Our regenerate nature is imperfect

Is it not written that "whoever is born of God doesnít commit sin" 1John 3:9 and "this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. His commandments are not grievous.  For whatever is born of God overcomes the world." 1John 5:3,4? Yet other than than the Charles Finney type of Perfectionists in the Arminian community who reckon themselves to have obtained sinless perfection and who reckon that every time one sins they lose their salvation, the rest of us recognize that we still will sin from time to time even though we are in fact born of God and continually justified by the blood of Christ. For John of course is speaking in a lifestyle sense here rather than speaking of moment by moment. Why are there commands to Christians throughout the New Testament letters if in fact we could simply rely on our regenerate nature alone to direct our behavior? Yes, some are speaking potentially to nominal Christians, but that doesn't explain all the commands. Let's take a typical example of a list of commands to Christians:
Romans 12:
6  Having gifts differing according to the grace that was given to us, if prophecy,
let us prophesy according to the proportion of our faith;
7  or service, let us give ourselves to service; or he who teaches, to his teaching;
8  or he who exhorts, to his exhorting: he who gives, let him do it with liberality;
he who rules, with diligence; he who shows mercy, with cheerfulness.
9  Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor that which is evil. Cling to that which is good.
10  In love of the brothers be tenderly affectionate one to another; in honor preferring one another;
11  not lagging in diligence; fervent in spirit; serving the Lord;
12  rejoicing in hope; enduring in troubles; continuing steadfastly in prayer;
13  contributing to the needs of the saints; given to hospitality.
14  Bless those who persecute you; bless, and donít curse.
15  Rejoice with those who rejoice. Weep with those who weep.
16  Be of the same mind one toward another.
Donít set your mind on high things, but associate with the humble.
Donít be wise in your own conceits.
17  Repay no one evil for evil. Respect what is honorable in the sight of all men.
18  If it is possible, as much as it is up to you, be at peace with all men.
19  Donít seek revenge yourselves, beloved, but give place to Godís wrath.
For it is written, "Vengeance belongs to me; I will repay, says the Lord."
20  Therefore "If your enemy is hungry, feed him. If he is thirsty, give him a drink.
For in doing so, you will heap coals of fire on his head."
But if these come naturally to those born of God due to the regenerate nature, then why even give this instruction? Indeed why teach at all? I think the answer lies in the fact that the regenerate nature, even while imperfect, naturally listens to what God has to say. It is naturally submissive to God. But submission cannot be exercised unless a command is given. That's simply the nature of submission. In fact even Jesus was submissive to his Father's commands. "I spoke not from myself, but the Father who sent me, he gave me a commandment, what I should say, and what I should speak." John 12:49 "I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me." John 6:38 So first there is the issue of role. But secondly is the issue of the very imperfection of our nature. We are imperfect in knowledge. Even our awareness of what is right and wrong, good and best is corrupted and undergoing sanctification as we mature in Christ. Thus though we will inevitably be saved from God's wrath in the future, in the present we are in the process of being saved from ourselves. And thus we are also in need of instruction and other spiritual gifts which in fact we find throughout the Christian community in everyone born of God. So as a community though none are perfect yet one's strengths can compensate for others weakness.

And there lies one of the problems. Healthy Christian fellowship requires diversity of giftedness. But "diversity" is contrary to the principle of "birds of a feather flock together". For example one of the basic problems in the early Church was that while it started off dominated by Jews, Jews were naturally racist against Gentiles and thus there was a good deal of tension and resistance to accepting Gentiles into the Christian community. The communion between Jew and Gentile Christians was a major theme in many of the New Testament letters. But we still have to distinguish between legitimate diversity which should be tolerated and illegitimate diversity which should not be tolerated.

2. Institutions inherently need to be regulatory

Institutional Christianity, while not constituting the whole of the Christian life, does constitute part of it due to the fact that if you get enough people together on a regular basis an institution of some kind will inevitably form. If you have an institution like the BoyScouts you need some kind of rules and regulations to prevent homosexuals from forcing themselves and their lifestyles upon the group, for example. When Christians go to institutional churches to practice part of the Christian life, they shouldn't have to be forced into fellowshipping with those of whom the Bible commands we should shun, as 1Cor 5:11-13 commands. If such associations occur there it seems that going to church would actually be sinful!  And thus Paul calls for institutional action to prevent such people from forcing themselves upon the Christian community. And certainly there needs to be some regulation to prevent such deviants from positions of institutional authority, whether they be deviant with respect to doctrine or behavior.

But many modern churches take a different approach. Rather then disfellowship the deviant they practically eliminate fellowship in the church altogether. Only the institutional elite are allowed to exercise spiritual gifts, while the rest are supposed to behave as stupid sheep incapable of only standing up, sitting down, and singing songs which only the institutional leaders pick out. By gagging the congregation they supposedly prevent deviants from having a negative influence, but in the process have eliminated much of the purpose for getting together in the first place. Such institutional Christianity tends to come down to doing a bunch of rituals. Now compare that with what the Bible teaches about assembling together:

Ephesians 4:11-16
It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets,
some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers,
to prepare Godís people for works of service,
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.

Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves,
and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning
and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming.

Instead, 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.

But given the degree of corruption and deviance from Biblical Christianity that many institutional forms of Christianity have taken, going to church seems to become more an opportunity for evangelism than it does an opportunity for discipleship, at least for the few who are actually allowed to speak in church.

Areas of Toleration

There are two areas to concern ourselves with when considering the question of toleration. One has to do with LIFESTYLE and the other has to do with DOCTRINE.

In some cases Jesus commended churches for their lack of toleration:

"I know your works, and your toil and perseverance, and that you canít tolerate evil men, and have tested those who call themselves apostles, and they are not, and found them false." Rev 2:2

"you have this in your favor: You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate." Rev 2:6

And rebuked some for their toleration:
"I have this against you: You tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess. By her teaching she misleads my servants into sexual immorality and the eating of food sacrificed to idols." Rev 2:20
Notice these that both teachings and behavior are issues here. Naturally both are linked in that a person's lifestyle inevitably correlates with their beliefs, unless they are hypocrites, in which case their alleged "beliefs" are not really convictions. Among Paul's letters I would point out 1Cor chapter 5 and 6 focussing on judging deviant behavior, and Galatians focussing on judging deviant doctrine. "This was because of the false brothers secretly brought in, who stole in to spy out our liberty which we have in Christ Jesus, that they might bring us into bondage;  to whom we gave no place in the way of subjection, not for an hour, that the truth of the gospel might continue with you." Gal 2:4,5 It is interesting to note however that while such "false brothers" were tolerated in the Jerusalem church I would have a hard time imagining Paul tolerating them in his churches. So also we see in Revelation different levels of toleration among the churches.

Degrees of Toleration

Toleration is not always a black and white issue. For there are areas in which we should allow for diversity of opinion and practice. Such is commanded by the Lord, especially with respect to ritualistic matters.

Immature Christians divide over ritualistic matters, even though the Bible says, "Kingdom of God is not eating and drinking" Rom 14:17 and "Let no man therefore judge you in eating, or in drinking, or with respect to a feast day or a new moon or a Sabbath day." Colossians 2:16  Those dividing over these kind of areas are disobeying the Lord. Consider those who make a big deal about practicing the Sabbath on Saturday and judge those who practice it on Sunday, or those who reckon Sunday as a holy day and judge those who consider all days to be alike, Paul writes, "One man esteems one day as more important. Another esteems every day alike. Let each man be fully assured in his own mind. He who observes the day, observes it to the Lord; and he who does not observe the day, to the Lord he does not observe it ... Therefore letís not judge one another any more, but judge this rather, that no man put a stumbling block in his brotherís way, or an occasion for falling." Rom 14:6,13 Judging others with respect to such matters of ritual is sin. But then there's the issue as to whether Christians should tolerate such legalists, since they have chosen to illegitimately judge others contrary to the Lord's command. But legalists tend to separate themselves anyhow into their own legalistic groups, so that toleration does not necessarily become an issue in practice.

And thus also while the "birds of a feather" principle may hinder legitimate diversity in the body of Christ, yet the nice thing is that the deviants will at times naturally separate themselves and thus free up the Christian community from having to deal with the toleration issue. We see for example some of the deviant of whom John writes in 1John separated themselves. "They went out from us, but they didnít belong to us; for if they had belonged to us, they would have continued with us. But they left, that they might be revealed that none of them belong to us." 1John 2:19

Immaturity, Nominalism, and Apostates

The most difficult issue is to what extent sin should be tolerated in the Christian community or more generally how it should be dealt with. Paul writes of the Corinthian Christians, "Brothers, I couldnít speak to you as to spiritual, but as to fleshly, as to babies in Christ.  I fed you with milk, not with meat; for you werenít yet ready. Indeed, not even now are you ready,  for you are still fleshly. For insofar as there is jealousy, strife, and factions among you, arenít you fleshly, and donít you walk in the ways of men?" 1Cor 3:1-3 Notice that Paul doesn't excommunicate, disfellowship or shun such Christians despite their imperfect behavior. However he does deal with their sin, as he elaborates upon throughout 1st Corinthians. On the other hand he does excommunicate a sinful Christian in 1Cor 5 saying, "Put away the wicked man from among yourselves." What's the difference between these two cases? First let us note that in both cases Paul deals with their sins. What is different is the way in which he deals with their sins. So also with Jesus. All his disciples were sinners and he deals with their sinfulness. At times he rebukes and humilates them. But other than in the case of Judas he doesn't cut them off. And even in the case of Judas despite the fact he was stealing from the money bag his sinfulness was subtle until the betrayal. It was when he sinned overtly, willfully and shamelessly that he was officially cut off.

In the case of Corinthians the difference simply seems to be the degree of deviant behavior. In the first case Paul approaches the Corinthians as simply being immature. The Corinthians were generally selfish, jealous, factional, prone to being led astray by their passions and worldly philosophy, and there are indications of feminism in the church. They were tolerating things they should not have been tolerating and they were not tolerating things which they should be tolerating. (See also the Corinthian study) The argument in 1Cor 3 is reflected also in the gospels where the apostles themselves selfishly argued which of them was the greatest. However there is the sense that these characteristics were not so much a product of willful or conscious disobedience, but rather that they lacked a spiritually mature perspective.

But in the second case concerning the Christian overtly, willfully, and shamelessly involved in sexual immorality, that behavior is something not to be tolerated in the Christian community. But let's not stop with sexual immorality. Let's consider the rest of Paul's list in intolerable behavior in the following passages:

1Cor 5:11
1Cor 6:9,10
2Tim 3:2-5
a sexual sinner
an idolater
a slanderer
a drunkard
an extortioner.
the sexually immoral
male prostitutes
lovers of self, lovers of money, boastful, arrogant, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, without natural affection, unforgiving, slanderers, without self-control, fierce, no lovers of good, traitors, headstrong, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God; 
holding a form of godliness, but having denied the power thereof. (Turn away from these)

The lists here deal with moral apostates but the list is not comprehensive. The sense is that when sinfulness is an overt characteristic of a Christian's chosen lifestyle, such Christians should not be associated with. See also Characteristics of Evil Men for scriptual elaboration on moral apostates which also affirms this perspective.

However, notice in 1Cor 11:21 he mentions of some Christians getting drunk at the communion feast, and yet he doesn't excommunicate them, even though in 1Cor 5:11 he said that Christians who are drunkards should not be associated with! But the Bible does make a distinction between those who fall into sin from time to time and those who jump into it as part of their chosen lifestyle. Such a lifestyle will inevitably produce such deviant behavior due to the further corruption of the conscience that one's sinfulness will become obvious and overt.

Doctrinal Differences

Virtually all Christians claim to believe and walk in accordance with the Bible, and yet there is much diversity of beliefs in the Christian community.
There are Christians who claim to follow the Bible 
who believe once saved always saved who don't believe once saved always saved
who believe in baptismal regeneration who don't believe in baptismal regeneration
who hold to a pre-millenial eschatology who hold to a post-millenial eschatology
who believe in purgatory who don't believe in purgatory
who believe that Jesus was not a created being who believe that Jesus was the first created being
who believe it unBiblical for women to hold positions of authority over men who believe it Biblical for women to hold positions of authority over men
who believe remarriage after divorce is adulterous who don't believe remarriage after divorce is adulterous
who believe all should reckon Sunday (or perhaps Saturday) as a holy day who believe the reckoning of holy days is a matter of preference.
who believe all should tithe who believe all should give in accordance with their own conscious.
who believe in Young Earth Creationism who believe in Theistic Evolution

And the list can go on and on. If membership in a Christian fellowship is established simply on the basis of whoever claims to believe and follow the Bible, it may end up containing a great diversity of actual beliefs and practices, more so than you would have thought.

Doctrinal differences are not necessarily so distinct from Applicational differences, or differences in behavior, for our behavior is a reflection of our beliefs. Applications are the fruit of Teachings. Though when immaturity characterizes the Christian community as in the case of the Corinthians and as is the case for much of the history of Christianity, doctrinal differences get blown out of proportion while issues of character and behavior are largely ignored. In such an environment issues of arm-chair theology being relatively non-application oriented tend to be the "hot" issues in the Christian community. But then again there was hardly a time in the history of the Church when it could have been reckoned mature. When the church first became hyper-institutionalized it was arguing over the details of the concept of the Trinity and infant baptism. They made saints into idols to worship, making a particularly big deal about Mary. They took the Bible away from the people and replaced it with human traditions, making rituals the substance of the Christian life. Then after the reformation a big deal was made of the non-application oriented pre-salvation concepts of Calvinism. Christians disagreeing on some point would put one another to death. Today eschatology tends to be the big issue. Though it tends not to affect how Christians actually live, yet it provides a basis for division. If something is to be "Left Behind", let's make it Christian immaturity. Let us leave behind a non-application oriented attitude to the Christian life and let us run the race set before us.

Dealing with Apostacy

Whether the disagreement is over what constitutes appropriate Christian behavior or correct Christian doctrine, there is but one truth, though perhaps many applications. When there is diametric opposition somebody's got to be wrong. Should differences simply be ignored? Should Christians even be forbidden to ask certain questions? Much of modern American Christianity being influenced by the pluralistic philosophy of the society tends to do just that, in fact so much so that even disagreeing itself, offering a dissenting opinion, or even asking controversial questions can get one thrown out of a church and ostracized from the Christian community. Jesus himself wouldn't last long in such groups. Jesus and the authors of the New Testament letters are quite direct in dealing with sinful behavior and false teachings, and urges the believers to do likewise. "Take heed and beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees." Mat 16:6 "Donít believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world." 1John 4:1 "contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints." Jude 1:3 And contrary to the misconception of forgiveness which many in the Christian community hold, the Bible teaches that forgiveness between Christians should not be unconditional. (See the Forgiveness study guide) Matt 18:15-17 teaches that those who obstinately refuse to listen and change their sinful behavior, such people should be disfellowshipped.

However, I've noticed that when it comes to doctrinal differences, the Bible teaches a different approach. It certainly does advocate confrontation as the verses above show. However it doesn't appear that doctrinal apostates were proactively disfellowshipped. Moral apostates are disfellowshipped directly. But not so with doctrinal apostates.

Examples: The false brothers of the circumcision were part of the church of Jerusalem. In Galatians while Paul vehemently opposed the doctrine of the circumcision he did not directly disfellowship them in the manner in which he disfellowshipped the moral apostate of 1Cor 5. In 1st John it appeared he tolerated the presence of the docetist cult in the Christian community until of themselves they got up and left. He didn't tolerate their doctrine any more than Paul tolerated the doctrine of the circumcision, or Jesus the false teachings of the Pharisees, but he tolerated their presense among the Christians. Notice also 2Peter 2 is an extensive description of false teachers and yet Peter gives no instruction as to what to do about them.

The difference is that moral apostacy is a fruit of doctrinal apostacy. Don't pull the weeds out while they are young. Wait until they mature and produce fruit. Then pull them out. Else you may excommunicate someone who was simply an immature Christian. The Christian community should allow for debate over ideas without the threat of disfellowship being based simply on ideas alone. False teachings should not be approached with a "burn him at the stake" mentality. Alleged false teachers or false teachings need not be cut off, but rather confronted with the Bible. Else what may happen, and in fact what has happened, is that legitimate teachings may be replace with human dogma and legitimate Christians cut off from fellowship, which was Martin Luther's observation as he mentioned in his comments on the application of the Parable of the Wheat and Tares saying, "Therefore this passage should in all reason terrify the grand inquisitors and murderers of the people, where they are not brazened faced, even if they have to deal with true heretics. But at present they burn the true saints and are themselves heretics. What is that but uprooting the wheat, and pretending to exterminate the tares, like insane people?"  Notice also John's comments in 3John 1:9-11 "I wrote to the assembly, but Diotrephes, who loves to be first among them, doesnít accept what we say.  Therefore, if I come, I will call attention to his deeds which he does, unjustly accusing us with wicked words. Not content with this, neither does he himself receive the brothers, and those who would, he forbids and throws out of the assembly.  Beloved, donít imitate that which is evil, but that which is good. He who does good is of God. He who does evil hasnít seen God." Even in the early church legitimate Christians were being thrown out of churches. Yet notice that though John deals with this Diotrephes' deviant behavior even implying that he may not be a real Christian, he doesn't disfellowship him.

False teachers may in fact rise to positions of leadership in institutional churches. Paul saw this as inevitable in his speech to the Ephesian elders of Acts 20. And so also Peter in 2Peter 2. That's really not so much the problem. The problem arises when the institutional churches forbid the ordinary Christian with Bible in hand from offering a dissenting opinion. The Bible itself is the weapon against false teachers. But if the Bible is taken away from the congregation, not allowing them to use it to keep the leadership on track, then institutional corruption cannot be corrected. So there's the problem. By not allowing Christians to debate using the Bible, what happens is that when a false teacher comes to leadership, you can't easily get rid of him. Futhermore by disallowing Christians from applying personal Bible study, they become ignorant of the Bible and more prone to false teachers. (Such is the history of institutional Christianity)

Conclusion - Application

Christians should feel free to attend any assemblies that claim to believe in the Biblical Jesus. But many assemblies will not receive just any Christian. When my father, who is catholic, came to visit we went to a Catholic church. There I read in the manual provided that I was not allowed to take communion with them because I was not Catholic or Orthodox. So also among Protestant denominations, Christians who are not of a given denomination are often treated like second class citizens in their assemblies. But that's not the main problem. The main problem is that there is not much actual Biblical fellowship going on in the churches in general. But given the opportunity to fellowship the main application of this paper is this: If there are teachings or behaviors which deviate from the Bible, feel free to speak up. But don't just cut people off at the first sign of trouble. Jesus didn't run away from the lost. He came to seek and save that which was lost.  "Those who are healthy have no need for a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance."  Mr 2:17 Stop running around looking for the perfect church. Instead Follow Jesus.


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