Amazing Grace: Does God Forgive Doctrinal Error? (expanded)

grace2.jpgThis is the big one–the very question that causes the Churches of Christ to repeatedly divide over countless issues.


Just to give a flavor of the tragedies caused by our unrelenting insistence on dividing over every disagreement at all, consider the current efforts of “Dub” McClish, editor of the Gospel Journal, to treat elder re-affirmation as a doctrinal issue that requires us to disfellowship those who disagree with us! Read this and then this.

Elder re-affirmation is simply a process whereby sitting elders submit themselves to the congregation for a fresh determination of whether they should remain elders. If the flock decides that a sitting elder is no longer qualified, he is removed.

I’ve been aware of this process for decades, but now it’s become an issue of fellowship. Worse yet, Br. McClish would refuse to fellowship anyone who treats as a brother someone who considers elder re-affirmation permissible! Hence, you are to be disfellowshipped (by men who are not your elders and not even part of your autonomous congregation)–even though you think re-affirmation is wrong–solely because you think it’s not a fellowship issue!

More recently, the Oklahoma and Texas Churches have been distressed over the publication of a full page ad in the Oklahoman disfellowshipping the preacher for the Quail Springs congregation over the church’s addition of an instrument service. See this post.

These are just two of many hundreds of similar ilk all derived from the identical cause: the Churches of Christ’s lack of a theology regarding which doctrinal errors damn and which do not.

I’ve written numerous editors of and contributors to conservative periodicals asking: by what standard do they decide whether a disagreement is covered by grace or damns? I’ve yet to receive a straight answer.

Some respond that all error damns, but on closer inquiry they don’t really enforce such a strict rule (well, a few actually do, but not many). Some point out that all rebellion against God damns. When I ask about those who err honestly trying to obey God, they either repeat that all rebellion against God damns (as though all mistakes were rebellion) or else they say it’s obvious that certain truly horrid errors damn. When I ask how they distinguish horrid error from non-horrid error, they change the subject.

For a while I wondered why I couldn’t get straight answers to simple questions, but it finally occurred to me that we simply don’t have an answer! Indeed, in the recent Freed-Hardeman University debate on whether instrumental music is a fellowship issue, the debater taking the Church of Christ position, Dr. Ralph Gilmore, a professor at FHU, frankly admitted that he’d read through the entire New Testament in preparation for the event and could find no guidance at all on which doctrinal error is covered by grace.

Now, just step back for a minute and think about this. The New Testament’s epistles were written to handle all sorts of disputes, including doctrinal disputes. Sometimes Paul declares his opponents lost, other times in grace. Surely God did not leave us without guidance!

Sin is sin is sin

It would seem obvious that the grace God extends for doctrinal sin is surely the same as the grace he extends for moral sin. Absent some really strong evidence to the contrary, why wouldn’t we figure that grace is grace is grace? After all, sin is sin is sin. Moral sin and doctrinal sin both miss the mark and both sadden God.



Now, before going further, we have to clarify our thinking just a bit. Grace is for the saved, not the lost. In other words, the fact that God offers grace for some doctrinal error for the saved does not mean he’ll forgive those who were never saved in the first place. He won’t overlook a lack of faith in Jesus, for example. Therefore, there’s no reason to worry that God’s gracious provision for his children somehow destroys the doctrine of baptism.

After all, the scriptures make a distinction between baptism and other commands–

(Matt. 28:19-20) “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

Notice that the command to baptize is before and separate from the command to teach obedience to Jesus’ commands. It’s two different questions that we often confuse. As a result, as soon as someone suggests that God might overlook a doctrinal mistake by a Christian, we think they are arguing against baptism of those becoming Christians.


As James famously argues, grace does not destroy the need to do works. Indeed, works should be the natural, joyous outcome of salvation. We don’t work to be or even to stay saved. We work because we’ve been saved — because we were saved to do good works (Eph. 2:8-10).

But we’ve already discussed this in the earlier lessons on grace. The point is that God’s forgiveness of doctrinal sin no more approves and encourages doctrinal error than God’s forgiveness of moral sin approves or encourages moral sin.


As discussed in earlier posts, “faith” includes and requires both intellectual faith (such as the “faith” the demons James speaks of have) but also commitment to the faith (which the demons lack). We like to say that to become saved the convert must both believe and repent, which is right.

The way a Christian loses his faith is to surrender either his faith (1 John 4:2-3) or his penitence (Heb. 10:26-27). Or as the NIV well translates this passage, to “deliberately continue to sin” or as stated earlier in Hebrews, to rebel against God.

Now, if I teach that the earth is a certain age or that worship may be conducted in a certain way intending to teach error and to deceive God’s people, then my soul is in serious jeopardy intend. I’ve made myself God’s enemy and deserve my fate.

But if I teach error in worship just because I made an honest mistake despite diligent, prayerful study, then I’m still penitent, I’m not in rebellion, I still believe in Jesus, and I’m not deliberately continuing to sin.

Just how broad?

This standard seems overly broad to many, allowing false worship and improper forms of organization, and such, but we’ve seen the dangers of teaching the contrary view! If we insist on total uniformity, then because we are imperfect beings who make mistakes, we’ll never get there and instead we’ll divide and divide again. (This is the story of the Churches of Christ in the 20th Century.)

If we look for some tougher, objective standard, we find ourselves confronting the same problem. Imagine that the rule is that we must agree on whatever is “obvious.” Well, what’s obvious to me isn’t obvious to you. It’s just not. I think it should be and you think I’m obviously wrong. “Obvious” makes me–the one deciding what “obvious” is — the standard by which you are lost or saved, which is obviously ridiculous.

If we impose the “plain commands” as the test, then we again make the person deciding what is “plain” God on earth! After all, I think my views on divorce and remarriage are plainly commanded. You think your views are plainly commanded. And yet we disagree. Which one of us gets to go to heaven?

The only possible outcome is to make the test a test of the Christian’s heart: faith and penitence.

Modern Gnosticism

The Gnostics were Second Century heretics who made the mistake of trying to blend certain ancient Greek philosophies with Christianity. One of their errors was to make salvation depend on the acquisition of the answers to lots and lots of questions. Another was to consider the flesh hopelessly flawed but the spirit completely flawless.

We sometimes make similar mistakes today. We admit that people will suffer from pride, materialism, and lust, and so we admit that God must provide grace for such fleshly failings.

However, we think the mind is perfectible. And so we argue that the teachings of the Bible are plain and simple and men of goodwill are entirely capable of reading it, understanding it, and coming to complete agreement on it.

Therefore, we conclude, that those who disagree with us lack goodwill. They are intentionally avoiding obvious truths! They therefore deserve their damnation. Hence, some claim that no grace is even available — to Christians! — for mistakes made in reading the Bible. Or at least not for obvious or plain commands, that is, commands that are obvious or plain to us!

As a result, we sometimes actually think that to go to heaven we have to have the right “positions” on all the issues — as though when we die we’ll have to sit for the “Great True-False Test in the Sky”! If we don’t make a 100 on the “issues,” then we’ll go straight to hell!

Sadly, those who teach this way are surely unaware of all the issues that there are. We know the issues that our segment of the Churches of Christ argue over–and we might even have the right answers–but we don’t know what others are arguing about, haven’t studied those questions, and somehow we assume that God only cares about the fights we are arguing over!

One of the most incredibly tedious studies you could ever undertake would be a study of all the doctrinal fights that the Christian community has disputed over since New Testament times! We’ve been arguing about all kinds of crazy stuff for 2,000 years. No one even knows all the questions–much less the answers! Consider this site, for example. I hope there are no questions about Monothelitism on the Test! And I have no intention of studying the question.

Two kinds of repentance

We have unconsciously defined repentance two different ways. See this post.

Faith and opinion

And we have a tendency when discussing this topic to adopt Alexander Campbell’s language of “faith” and “opinion.” “Faith” is what I say the Bible says. “Opinion” is what you say the Bible says.

For a deeper understanding, go here.

The scriptures

I’ve not cited a lot of verses to this point because (a) the passages dealing with grace have already been laid out in the preceding posts on Lessons on Grace and (b) I wanted to show that it’s just logically impossible to defend our traditional position. In the next post, we’ll take up a few critical passages, however.

[Teachers, I’m going to move to the home page a post on humility bubbles and add a new post on Restoration Movement slogans, to cover material we discussed not in this post. Use the additional material in your discretion to help make your points.]

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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0 Responses to Amazing Grace: Does God Forgive Doctrinal Error? (expanded)

  1. Pingback: A Plea to Reconsider: Abusing Restoration Movement History « One In

  2. Alan says:

    We are expected to recognize some things as obvious. The works of the flesh are obvious (Gal 5:19-21). Paul even concludes the list with "and the like." So there are other works of the flesh which he did not even list, but which are like the ones he did list, and we are expected to recognize them because they are obvious.

    There are other things which we are not expected to be able to distinguish. The parable of the wheat and the tares tells us that we can't reliably tell the difference between who is saved and who is not. We cannot see the heart. And as a result, our tendency might be to judge too harshly, deeming someone to be a weed when they are in fact wheat. Jesus specifically taught that if we did it, we might accidentally uproot the wheat along with the weeds.

    Therefore we are to err on the side of acceptance rather than on the side of rejection. At the end of the age, when the net has been pulled to the shore, the angels will separate the good fish from the bad. That is not a job for this era, and not a job for us.

  3. Jay Guin says:

    I would add to Alan's insightful comment that if you do those things that are obviously sin, then you aren't penitent and you've denied the Lordship of Jesus.

    What's obviously wrong will vary from culture to culture. A few years ago, our minister baptized a young, engaged couple that had previously been completely unchurched. A few weeks later, they said something to him about their decision to live together before they married.

    He sat them down and gently but firmly explained that God does not approve sex outside of marriage. They were astonished. They had never heard this! They immediately repented and stayed apart until they were married.

    Now, they were certainly sinning in having sex outside of marriage, despite their ignorance of God's will. But I think they were very much in grace, because they clearly had penitent hearts. As soon as they learned better, they honored the will of God.

    Our minister had not yet instructed them on fornication because, to him, it was obvious. It's something everyone should be presumed to know. And for those of us who grew up in a Christian community, we'd certainly know better. But no longer is this true of the nation at large.

  4. Raymond Perkins says:

    Jay, I very much appreciate your efforts here as I regularly read your posting. After reading the link articles at the beginning of this post, I am glad I no longer wrestle with such Pharisaical, gnat straining, legalism. (Several years ago my family and I moved to the Independent Christian Church after 15 years in the ministry within the CofC and have not been happier.)

    Thanks and God's Speed!

  5. Charles McLean says:

    If I try to follow McClish's logic (and it's not easy), I find that there is no logical endpoint for the second-hand connections which act as a bar to fellowship. Let's follow the trail, if we can.

    I speak in tongues. Therefore, I am unsound. McClish cannot fellowship with me.

    My minister father invites me to his CoC congregation when I visit and that congregation occasionally invites me to lead prayer when I am there. McClish cannot fellowship my dad, because of his association with me, or that congregation.

    Now, Dad has preached in over a hundred churches in the US and abroad and maintains cordial relationships with them. Several thousand more Christians just fell out of the McClish fellowship, because they fellowship a man who associates with me.

    Some of the members of one of these churches are alumni of Harding University and are part of its alumni association. Their inclusion in the Harding alumni cuts that group off from McClish, since they associate with men who won't disclaim my father,…

    …except for the fact that McClish associates himself with certain Harding graduates. Which means McClish cannot fellowship with McClish.

    Yes, there's "the foolishness of preaching"… and then there's simple foolishness.

    "My four and no more. And now, not even us!"


  6. Paul says:

    We just recently made the switch also to the Independent Christian Church/Church of Christ. After getting an ulcer from all the legalistic stuff, it is so nice to enjoy church again. I grew up and was educated in the Accapela Church as was my wife, so it was a hard choice, but now I don't dread church services anymore…

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