I get emails —
I’m a devoted follower of your blog and I’m always thankful for everything you’ve written. I often pray that God continues to bless you with strength and wisdom to keep on doing what you’re doing.
I’m writing this email because I’m desperately hoping for your insight on a fellowship issue that persists in my conversations with other members in my congregation. I’ve noticed this insidious issue for some time now and it has pushed me to the limits of my wisdom on how to deal with it. I’ll try to give you the context of the problem and then explain the problem to you below. I’m praying that you’ll be able to see a way through this that I’m just not able to see. So here’s the situation: …
My goal in the study was to get us to come to clear, Biblical definitions of “the truth” and “the gospel” so that we could then apply it to the bounds of unity. The discussion about “truth” and “gospel” wasn’t too controversial, although I noticed some people were a little uncomfortable that I was reducing “the truth” to the truth about Jesus (I closely followed your series on the truth that was prompted by your discussion at GraceConversation).
The last portion of the study was taking Romans 14:1-15:7, and applying it to practical decisions we make about fellowship. I began with the question, “Do all doctrinal errors condemn us to hell? (Everyone said no. And everyone was humble enough to admit that no one understands all doctrine perfectly and grace covers doctrinal error.). Then I asked, “Which doctrinal errors condemn us to hell?” Here’s where the discussion took a completely unexpected turn…Everyone said the only doctrinal error that damns are doctrines relating to salvation (belief, repentance, baptism, and confession in their minds). Someone then asked if ‘the truth’ was that Jesus was the Messiah, Son of God, in the flesh, could being wrong about water baptism really condemn someone to hell? Everyone that spoke up said things like, “We shouldn’t judge the salvation of others,” “there’s no way to know for sure who’s going to hell or heaven, that’s God’s judgment, not ours.”
Our small group figured out a way to talk about those outside non-institutional Churches of Christ that makes them feel like they’re being as open as they need to be. I’ve noticed time after time that whenever we get into discussion about fellowship with other groups like Baptists and Methodists, they never say Baptists are going to hell, rather they say, “I can’t judge either way” (something they would never say about those within our little network). I usually point out that if I asked them how they felt about my salvation, they’d say without hesitation that I was saved, but when it comes to the soul of a Baptist who’s a better Christian than me, their answer is “Only God can judge.” At that point, there answer is usually, “but that’s because I know you personally.” I then ask them how they would feel if I was exactly the same person, except that I did not believe water baptism was essential to salvation? Their answer is usually, “I don’t like it when you ask hypothetical questions.”
The Bible study last night resulted in parsing of words on a level that I’m still reeling from. They were defensive in a way that I just could not break through. When I told our group that although God is the only one that judges, we discern all the time whether someone is “saved,” “our brother/sister in Christ,” or “a Christian.” To make a bizarre study short, I had people re-define words in a way I never thought they would have. Some said they would call a Baptist a “brother in Christ,” but they could not make a judgment about their salvation. Some said they would call them “believers” but not “Christians” (while in the same breadth telling me that there’s no difference between the two terms). Some said they would “treat them like brothers in Christ,” while maintaining that it’s impossible to truly know whether someone is truly a brother in Christ or not. And they insisted that they treat every single person this way (when it’s obvious that they don’t).
When we talked about “Accept one another just as Christ accepted you,” I asked them how they can fulfill that command if they have no idea whom Christ has accepted and whom he hasn’t. We read the context of Rom. 14-15 together and I told them that Paul commands people to accept each other in the same way that Christ accepted them. They told me they didn’t understand the verse. I even made it simple by asking, “How has Christ accepted you?” (hoping to then ask them how they accept others). Foreseeing this trap, they told me my question was confusing and refused to answer. They said they’d have to do a greek word study on what “accept” meant and get back to me on it. These are extremely intelligent people who, in their attempt to justify their attitudes towards Baptists, told me they didn’t know what Paul meant when he said, “Accept one another just as Christ accepted you.” That’s how far it went. I went at it from so many different analogies, examples, and hypotheticals, and I got the same dead ends every time.
Jay, I feel like I’ve reached the limit in my abilities to work around the sectarian code-words, and I was wondering if you (or any of your readers) have had similar experiences where there’s a new kind of sectarianism that is much harder to expose. Hook, Garrett, and Ketcherside were great at pointing out the problems of explicit sectarianism, but I feel like some younger Christians have more “implicit sectarians,” that is, people who would never say outright (and even think it’s wrong to say) that Baptists aren’t saved, but they eschew fully accepting them by saying they can never judge anyone’s salvation, only God can. They feel good and undenominational about themselves because they haven’t condemned a Baptist, but their subtle language choices imply that there’s a meaningful difference. Sometimes I feel like I’m living in the Civil Rights era and listening to people talk about “separate but equal” all the while subtly implying inferiority. I mean, people in my study were more willing to admit that they didn’t know who their brother in Christ was than they were willing to admit that they don’t accept Baptists the same way they accept each other.
Sometimes I wish they’d just say Baptists are going to hell so that we could begin to address the problem. But instead, I’m told that I’m making a big deal out of nothing or worried about a problem that doesn’t exist. I asked them on what certainty they could say their loved ones are in heaven (and if they would extend the same certainty to an equally faithful Baptist), and they back-tracked by saying that they can’t really know for sure about anyone! I really don’t know how to expose a problem that’s so good at hiding. Because the sectarianism is implicit, the writings of great progressive Christians of the previous generation don’t help us as much. Only a few people in my congregation are even willing to admit that this problem even exists. And the ones who agree with me have about as much wisdom as I do. So we’re all stuck.
I know this email was long, but I wanted to make sure I explained this situation in case you haven’t had any experience with it. Thank you so much for taking the time to read this–I don’t know how you make all the time to do what you do (I’m going to have to assume it’s the power of the Holy Spirit until I know otherwise). I know you’re on vacation right now and I’m glad that you’ll get some time to relax. So this’ll be one email among a sea of them. Please feel free to answer as briefly or lengthily as you desire. I also would understand if you just don’t have the time to respond. At the very least it’s something you can keep in mind if others talk to you about the same problem in the future.
As you can see, I didn’t trim this one much, because I thought it would be helpful to get the full flavor of the issue — avoiding the accusation of legalism by adopting a non-legalistic vocabulary while nonetheless acting as legalists. And, yes, I’ve seen it before.
Among my conservative brothers, there are multiple approaches to the accusation that they have no doctrine of who falls away, making their declarations entirely subjective. For example, it’s argued —
* That it’s improper to even ask what causes someone to fall away, as asking the question implies a desire to get as close to the line as possible. But, of course, the same people are often quite glad to declare some people to have fallen from grace — so it’s obviously permissible to ask: by what standard? More importantly, how do we know whether to convert someone or welcome him into our fellowship if we aren’t allowed to ask the question? It’s just a way to avoid the question.
* There’s the argument the reader ran across, seeking to make distinctions between “brother,” “Christian,” “believer,” and “saved.” The assumption is that one can be a Christian, believer, and brother and yet not be saved.
(Rom 8:1 ESV) There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.
Paul seems to disagree. So does John —
(John 5:24 ESV) Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.
So does Peter —
(1Pe 4:16-19 ESV) 16 Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name. … 19 Therefore let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good.
The only parsing I’d agree with — a little — is that “brother” is sometimes used of fellow Jews —
(Act 3:17 ESV) 17 “And now, brothers, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers.”
The notion of an unsaved Christian or unsaved believer is entirely foreign to the New Testament. You see, when you fall away, you’re no longer a Christian and no longer a believer. After all, a believer is someone with faith, and “faith” includes faithfulness. It’s the unfaithful who fall away.
There are those who have a form of “faith” who are not Christians because their false “faith” does not accept Jesus as Messiah, Lord, and Savior. Some have a faith that denies the sufficiency of Jesus to save or that denies any obligation to be faithful. They aren’t believers because they don’t have real faith.
One last point. Point out that your class has defined different classes of people —
1. Christians who think like we do on certain important doctrines — who are certainly saved.
2. Christians who don’t think we do on these doctrines — whose salvation is uncertain.
Ask them to tell you how you can tell the difference. And then crack 1 John and apply its teachings to the same people. Ask whether your class and John teach the same thing.