Church 2.0: Part 10.11A: Congregational Autonomy, Part 5A (May We Condone Error?)


Larry asked,

The question then arises, when we understand that the organization with which we are associating is upholding teachings that we can prove are not supported by scripture, are we not also supporting the same if we support the organization? Can we be faithful to Christ and still support an organization which teaches what we see as a false doctrine?

Why would it? The Church of Christ teaching that we somehow condone someone’s sin by worshiping with that person is made up out of nothing.

Consider the following:

1. The example of Jesus

(Matt. 9:10-13 ESV) 10 And as Jesus reclined at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were reclining with Jesus and his disciples. 11 And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” 12 But when he heard it, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. 13 Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”

The Pharisees believed that they honored God by being separate from sinners. Jesus believed that he honored God by being among sinners because he saw his mission as being redemptive rather than about separation. We should do the same.

2. Romans and Galatians

Rom 14 teaches that we must not divide over “disputable matters.” Of course, both sides are convinced that they are right (Rom 14:5). “Disputable” doesn’t mean “we’re not sure.” It means it’s something over which we might dispute. If we’re disputing over it, it’s disputable — unless it’s faith in Jesus as Messiah (faith/faithfulness/trust), because we cannot disagree over that and remain saved.

Hence, when we damn someone over holy days (pro or con), we become guilty of the Galatian heresy (Gal 4:9-11), teach another gospel, alienate ourselves from the Messiah, and fall away. But when we consider holy days a disputable matter and welcome one another as Christ has welcomed us (Rom 15:7), then–

(Rom. 14:4-8 ESV) 4 Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand. 5 One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. 6 The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God. 7 For none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. 8 For if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.

In contrast to —

(Gal. 4:9-11 ESV) 9 But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more? 10 You observe days and months and seasons and years! 11 I am afraid I may have labored over you in vain.

In Romans 14, honoring days is disputable. In Gal 4, honoring days risks damnation. Why the difference? Because in Galatians they made honoring (or not honoring) days a salvation issue. They treated faith/faithfulness/trust in Jesus as Messiah insufficient to save unless certain works were added (circumcision; either honoring or not honoring days). But in Romans, if the two sides treat each other as saved despite what the other side perceives as error, they are both saved.

(Rom 14:4 ESV) Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.

Now, the example of Jesus particularly appropriate because it’s about table fellowship, as are Rom 14 and likely Gal 4. (In Gal 2:11, Peter was condemned for not eating with the Gentiles, you’ll recall.) The grammar of Rom 14 has been shown to be about household hospitality because the church ate meals — love feasts — together in homes at which they shared communion. And the post of mine that you are asking about deals with taking communion — a meal — with other denominations.

3. The Churches of Christ

In any town that has more than one Church of Christ (and few towns have just one), there are disagreements on doctrinal matters. In any town with just one Church of Christ, there are disagreements over doctrinal matters, although they may be unspoken. But those churches will have decided their internal disagreements are not “salvation issues.” But next week, someone may publish an article in the Spiritual Sword or Seeking the Old Paths declaring X or Y a salvation issue, and then suddenly it is.

But the Churches of Christ have never articulated a coherent test for what is and isn’t a salvation issue. Rather, if it’s something we’ve split over, it’s a salvation issue. It depends on how strongly our editors and lectureship sponsors feel about it. But there is no test actually taken from scripture.

Years ago, I corresponded with several editors of well-known Church of Christ publications asking for the test, and received nothing but bluster and a refusal to explain their positions. I debated the question at The conservatives couldn’t even state an agreed position. Todd Deaver published Facing Our Failure, demonstrating with meticulous research the utter intellectual bankruptcy of the conservative point of view.

4. Congregational autonomy

So, yes, we can break bread with a fellow believer who disagrees with us about all sorts of things. If he disagrees with me, then, of course, I think he’s teaching contrary to Christ’s teachings. He thinks the same of me, of course.

On the other hand, as we’ve recently covered, there are situations where disfellowship is called for. But the last time I checked, we in the Churches of Christ still believe in congregational autonomy, and that means I have no right to impose disfellowship on sheep of another set of shepherds. I can meet and talk with that person’s shepherds and urge them to adopt my position, but I cannot arrogate to myself oversight of someone else’s sheep.

If I can’t get comfortable with not having my way at other congregations, I suppose I should join a denomination with regional bishops and then seek to become one.

5. The sufficiency of faith in Jesus

Thanks for the question. It’s raises an important topic. Either faith/faithfulness/trust in Jesus saves or it doesn’t. The rule can’t be that our errors (as believers) are forgiven by grace but your errors (as believers) are not. That would be beyond presumptuous.

Rather, the rule is quite simple and easy to teach and to understand —

(Jn. 3:18 ESV)  18 Whoever believes in [the Son] is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 

(Rom. 5:1-2 NET) Therefore, since we have been declared righteous by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ,  2 through whom we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in the hope of God’s glory. 

6. Baptism

Baptism raises two thorny issues. First, we have traditionally taught that anything less than an impeccably performed baptism is no baptism at all and that salvation is impossible without baptism. Second, we have traditionally reasoned that if baptism is an essential work, then any work that we happen to feel strongly about (church organization, pattern of worship, name of denomination, use of the church treasury, fellowship halls) is as much a salvation issue as baptism.

And this leads to efforts to ignore or explain away most of the Gospel of John, the epistles of Paul, 1 John, and many, many other parts of the New Testament. We quite literally try to overrule the plain language of these scriptures with a few verses taken from James. And we ignore the entire narrative of scripture in so doing. After all, as Paul teaches in Rom 4 and Gal 3, salvation by faith/faithfulness/trust goes all the way back to Abraham.

But we’ve covered baptism here many, many times (most recently in the series that begins here), and I’m not inclined to repeat the arguments yet again. I just say this so that new readers know that I’m not ignoring what to them is the obvious objection. Anyone wishing to debate the necessity of an impeccably performed baptism may do so here.

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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4 Responses to Church 2.0: Part 10.11A: Congregational Autonomy, Part 5A (May We Condone Error?)

  1. Ray Downen says:

    Each of us has opinions. Many have wrong opinions, for they don’t agree with mine. But if they can put up with me, I suppose I’ll somehow have to be willing to put up with them! Else how can we together seek to honor JESUS who is always right?

  2. Bob Brandon says:

    Always a little helpful to break out “Facing Our Failure” by Todd Deaver if I find my thinking becoming burdened by our peculiar issues.

  3. Dwight says:

    One of the interesting things that we don’t ever mention is the fact that Paul and John wrote about congregations in towns and regions that had many issues, but he never told them to separate themselves from the others or from the ones who were having issues. He never told the 2 good congregations in Asia to separate from the others or told people to leave to go to other congregations. .

  4. Amen, brother Ray! I believe my opinions are the vert best in the world – and so do you and most people (some are so muddled, they have no identifiable opinions on anything). BUT, I believe mine are the best, because as soon as someone convinces me he has a better opinion than mine about something, I drop mine and adopt his – so I still believe my opinions are the best, even though I know that at least some of them are likely wrong. I just don’t know which ones.

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