Because we are all human, there will likely be times when differences arise within the body of Christ regarding matters that are, in some people’s minds, incredibly important to the way they live and express their faith in Christ; while, to others, it may only be matter of expediency. For example, while living in San Antonio several years ago, our community outreach brought me into contact with a group of people calling themselves, “The Way.” From what I could tell at the time, these people were, indeed, the ekklesia—the “called out” children of God. They believed and taught virtually everything exactly as the Bible presents it, right down the line. From what I could see, these people only differed from our group in one respect: they did not believe it Biblical, appropriate, or even expedient that the church own property and build buildings. All of their fellowship was facilitated through small home-groups; and sometimes larger temporary venues for bigger gatherings.
So, what is to be done when a group of God’s children believe fervently that certain things should be done in certain ways, while others within the family of God believe just as fervently that things should be done in a different way? And more to the point, to what degree can we have fellowship with one another when our personal beliefs about how we should go about putting our faith into practice vastly differ?
The Apostle Paul answers this dilemma when He says to the ekklesia at Rome:
Therefore let us not judge one another anymore, but rather determine this—not to put an obstacle or a stumbling block in a brother’s way. I know and am convinced in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but to him who thinks anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean. For if because of food your brother is hurt, you are no longer walking according to love. Do not destroy with your food him for whom Christ died. Therefore do not let what is for you a good thing be spoken of as evil; for the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. For he who in this way serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men. So then we pursue the things which make for peace and the building up of one another. Do not tear down the work of God for the sake of food. All things indeed are clean, but they are evil for the man who eats and gives offense. It is good not to eat meat or to drink wine, or to do anything by which your brother stumbles.
(Romans 14:13-21, NASB)
Notice in this passage that Paul is not talking about offending somebody simply by doing things they don’t like or agree with. He is talking about seriously injuring people, destroying people, and tearing down the work of God. To give “offense,” as Paul uses the term here, means to wound someone—to deliver a serious, perhaps even faith shattering, blow. Paul is not talking about simply hurting people’s feelings, or making them angry or contemptuous because they happen to disagree with something you believe or that you are doing. He is talking about doing things that may very well lead people who are weak in their faith back into sin; thus causing them to “stumble” by putting at risk their faith and continued commitment to Christ.
In a similar passage, Paul stated the same concept when he said to the ekklesia in Corinth:
But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. For if someone sees you, who have knowledge, dining in an idol’s temple, will not his conscience, if he is weak, be strengthened to eat things sacrificed to idols? For through your knowledge he who is weak is ruined, the brother for whose sake Christ died. And so, by sinning against the brethren and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food causes my brother to stumble, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause my brother to stumble.
(I Corinthians 8:9-13, NASB)
Jesus had a few things to say about “stumbling blocks” Himself, remember:
…but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him to have a heavy millstone hung around his neck, and to be drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe to the world because of its stumbling blocks! For it is inevitable that stumbling blocks come; but woe to that man through whom the stumbling block comes!
(Matthew 18:6-7, NASB)
Believe me, neither you nor I want to become “stumbling blocks” whereby others who are “weak” are led back into sin and thereby “ruined” with regard to their faith in Christ.
But where, then, does this leave us with regard to matters of opinion that are not actually going to lead people away from Christ and back into a life of sin; things that are really just matters of someone’s private interpretation or personal feelings about how we should go about doing things, but are still important enough that some people simply cannot, or will not, compromise or give them up? So some of God’s children believe deep in their hearts that it is not appropriate for the ekklesia in a given area to incorporate themselves, purchase land, and build church buildings because there is no command, example, or even an inference in scripture suggesting that Christians did these things back in Bible days. However, for others, incorporation, purchasing land, and building church buildings are far more than mere matters of expediency, they are considered essential to carrying on the work of the Lord in the modern era.
Do those who do not want the buildings “bite the bullet” and just go along with the plan, even if every time they enter a church building they feel like they are compromising their faith—“but to him who thinks anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean” (Romans 14:14, NASB). Or, do those who want to incorporate, own property, and build buildings forego these desires for the sake of their “weaker brethren,” and resign themselves to simply meeting together as small-groups in one another’s homes? At least the latter group could do so without sinning in their own minds; and unity might prevail.
Remember our lessons on love from Chapter 11? Love can certainly be a tough cookie to digest sometimes. To love God and to love one another are not only the greatest commandments, they are also the toughest. I think there are times when the sort of conundrum I just described can only be answered by appealing to the spirit of Paul’s teaching in the verses above; and, specifically, his statements: “Now accept the one who is weak in faith, but not for the purpose of passing judgment on his opinions” (Romans 14:1, NASB); “The one who eats is not to regard with contempt the one who does not eat, and the one who does not eat is not to judge the one who eats, for God has accepted him. Who are you to judge the servant of another?” (verses 3-4); “But you, why do you judge your brother? Or you again, why do you regard your brother with contempt? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God” (verse 10); and “Therefore let us not judge one another anymore” (verse 13).
When it comes to situations like the one described above, the hope and the prayer is always that a parting of the ways does not become necessary; and that people can remain in fellowship with one another despite their differences. However, this is only possible when people on all sides of an issue can take up their cross, die to themselves, and not be controlled by the flesh; that is, when they are spiritually attuned to the heart of Christ and truly walking in love. But what usually happens is that, for what is called, “conscience sake,” some people simply cannot continue meeting together regularly under the same roof. And maybe, just maybe, it is in the best interest of all parties concerned, and the cause of Christ is far better served, if people, sometimes, do go their separate ways. Let’s face it, many a new church fellowship has been planted in just this way.
Whether or not people feel like they can continue to fellowship together regularly is one thing; but of far greater importance are the hearts involved in such matters. Remember the Apostle John’s admonition: “…for the one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen” (I John 4:20, NASB); and, “We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love abides in death” (I John 3:14, NASB). What is of utmost importance, then, is not so much whether or not people can meet together, but how they think and feel about one another; as well as how they treat each other when they are together.
We dare not simply “write one another off,” as though people are no longer a part of the body of Christ simply because they happen to disagree with us. While people may feel like they need to go their separate ways, this does not mean that they cannot continue to honor one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. It does not mean that they cannot get together as often as possible under circumstances that are mutually agreeable and edifying to both. It does not mean that they cannot continue to labor side-by-side at loving and serving their community, and preaching and teaching the word of God at home and abroad. And it certainly does not mean that they cannot, “with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing tolerance for one another in love,” be “diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:2, NASB). It just means that they may need to be a little more “diligent” and purposeful in looking for opportunities to have fellowship with one another.
Regardless of how successful we are at facilitating meaningful fellowship with one another, and despite the differences that may exist between us, at the very least, the passages of scripture above teach that God’s children must refrain from judging and condemning one another; especially over issues that have nothing directly to do with anyone’s relationship with God. Just as young David, whom God had already selected as the new king of Israel, said to King Saul, “I will not stretch out my hand against my lord, for he is the Lord’s anointed” (I Samuel 24:10, NASB), so also, it is terribly unbecoming for any one of God’s covenant children to hold in contempt, or to deliberately strike out to injure, another one of “the Lord’s anointed”—a fellow covenant child of God who is honestly and sincerely seeking to please the Lord.
When we look at the ekklesia back in the Bible days, we see a beautiful example of the simplicity and elegance of Christianity played out in the context of local community—just people loving God, living for Him, meeting in their homes, sharing life and love, and trying to make some eternal difference in this world.
Those of us who are, perhaps, a little more fundamental in our outlook may ask, “Why can’t we engage in that kind of local Christian community today; free from all the corporate structure and organization of the modern era? Why can’t we just get together with a few other Christians in our homes for study, prayer, and to celebrate the Lord’s Supper; and laugh, and sing, and enjoy one another’s fellowship, and just live life to His glory?”
There is nothing in scripture to suggest that we cannot, or should not, do that. In fact, we may come to the conclusion that our quest for authentic Christianity in the modern age even requires forsaking our megalithic monuments to human pride and denominational infrastructures; and content ourselves with planting small, independent, Christian fellowships in homes all across our nation and around the world. Some people have dubbed this idea, “house church,” or “simple church,” or even “underground church.” But I don’t like those kinds of artificial designations—why do we think we have to stick a label on everything? As we’ve seen from scripture, meeting together in one another’s homes is nothing new. Christians have been doing it for more than 2,000 years.
But, a word of warning—even if we were to decide that it is in our best interest, and even that of our local community, that we give up our corporate, church-based approach to Christianity in favor of a more authentic, small-group approach, still, we must realize that the danger exists that we could be easily sidetracked in our efforts. Satan, is the master deceiver. Jesus calls him, “a liar and the father of lies” (John 8:44, NASB), and the Apostle Peter warns us that, “Your adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (I Peter 5:8, NASB). Deciding to depart from the status quo of modern, corporate Christianity doesn’t mean that people leave all their personal baggage behind. People are still people; and people are perpetually plagued by pride—one of the adversary’s most subtle and destructive weapons.
When we, the ekklesia, strive to cultivate the Christian community that we read about in the New Testament, regardless of our approach, it is vitally important that we also strive to keep ourselves humble before the Lord and before one another. Our pride can easily play right into the enemy’s hands and become one of the greatest hindrances to meaningful fellowship and unity. In fact, if we are not careful, our pride can lead us right back into the same kind of denominationalism that the Apostle Paul rebuked in the 1st century when he said, “each one of you is saying, “I am of Paul,” and “I of Apollos,” and “I of Cephas,” and “I of Christ.” Has Christ been divided?” (I Corinthians 1:12, NASB).
Notice in this passage that even those who were “of Christ” were guilty of contributing to the division that existed among them. Paul lumps them together right alongside all the others who were saying that they were of one man or another. Simply wearing the name of Christ, or saying one is “of Christ,” does not thwart the pride and divisive spirit that contributes to denominationalism. For that matter, neither does calling oneself, “nondenominational.” Imagine that—people taking pride in their nondenominational approach to Christianity to the point that they actually facilitate more division—denominationalism. The fact is, people can take pride in their small-group fellowships just as easily as they do their big denominational organizations. In fact, small-group fellowships can become even more exclusive and insular than their larger counterparts. I think we all have to continually remind ourselves that, “God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6, NASB).
God’s covenant children need one another. It is, therefore, important that we seek to thwart isolationism and the dangers is poses. As our small circles of fellowship grow, we may want to connect with other groups who are also pursuing authentic, nondenominational, New Testament Christianity. We may seek to engage in larger fellowship activities with other such groups; and even share resources.
Eventually, men may emerge from within our associated circles of fellowship who we all come to recognize as elders—pastors, or shepherds—among us. These men, too, must remember that they are to be gentle servants to the flock of God, and not overlords. The Apostle Peter says:
Therefore, I exhort the elders among you, as your fellow elder and witness of the sufferings of Christ, and a partaker also of the glory that is to be revealed, shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God; and not for sordid gain, but with eagerness; nor yet as lording it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock.
(I Peter 5:1-5, NASB)
While I enjoy occasionally getting together with large groups of Christians for special events and activities, and usually find such experiences stimulating, I know that personal faith cannot be long sustained by those kinds of big events. We need the power of intimate fellowship on an ongoing basis if we are to experience the priesthood of all believers and truly minister to one another on a meaningful level. We need people in our lives who are more than brothers and sisters in an ecclesiastical sense; we need people who know us well and love us anyway—people who are really our friends.
As you continue your personal quest for authentic Christianity, beloved child of God, the time may come when you decide to expand your circles of love and join up with some larger, more organized group of brothers and sisters in Christ within the ekklesia. But let me encourage you—from the bottom of my heart—before you do that, to first make careful search and inquiry into what that particular group really believes and teaches so that you are completely convinced that the group is, indeed, the ekklesia — remember the seven essential of the Christian faith as presented in Ephesians 4:4-6.
Then, if you are really sure that the group is actually the ekklesia, don’t wait for the church ministerial staff to facilitate some program and assign you to a small group, or some other area of ministry. Rather, take the initiative to exercise your priesthood by asking God to lead you into meaningful relationships with people who need you in their lives; people with whom you can go places and do things and share life and love; people who will not only minister to you, but alongside you as, together, you seek to make a meaningful difference for the cause of Christ in this world—to God’s eternal glory.
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