Christian Fellowship on the “N” Train

by Dr. Steve Davis and Dr. John Davis
Metro 2The “N” Train runs from Coney Island in Brooklyn to Astoria in Queens, taking the long route as an express train through Manhattan. Half the time it runs above ground and includes views of Brooklyn, Queens, and Manhattan as it travels across the Manhattan Bridge and views of Astoria and Long Island City as it runs through Queens. The route of the “N” Train captures the ethnic diversity of the city as the train winds through Russian, Hasidic, Chinese, Italian, Hispanic, Middle Eastern, and other ethnic neighborhoods. The economic diversity of the city is also reflected in its path as it stops in a lower-income area like Sunset Park, which is situated among a flurry of small businesses in Chinatown, or at the upscale stores of both Fifth Avenue and Lexington Avenue. If you love to eat, then you can enjoy the cuisines of the world starting with borsch in Coney Island, ending with fried kefalotiri cheese in Astoria, and enjoying the rest of the world in between.

On one hand the path of the “N” train reflects the wonderful God-intended diversity of the world in which we live; on the other, it reflects the beautiful diversity of the body of Christ. People who ride the train often take something to read. It is not uncommon to see people reading their Bibles in Arabic, Chinese, Korean, Spanish, Greek, Russian, Romanian, Italian, an the list goes on. As you inquire about their interest in the Bible and discover that they are believers in Christ, you instantly experience a sense of belonging: “We are of the same family of God through faith in Jesus Christ.” As you meet some of these brothers and sisters in Christ, you find people of various denominations and others without a denomination. You meet Calvinists and Arminians and those who never heard of either. You meet dispensationalists and amillennialists and others who know only that Jesus is coming. We can talk about our Christian experience and our churches, and we may even discover some of the doctrinal and practical differences we have. But on the “N” Train we always treasure meeting another family member and value the unity we have in Christ.

It is this spirit of family unity that we desire to retain in all our interactions with brothers and sisters in Christ. We believe that “N” Train fellowship honors the Lord. It relegates systematic and ecclesial differences to a secondary place and elevates the Lord Jesus and His gospel to their central place. “N” Train fellowship manifests that which Jesus desired as the primary mark of His followers:

“By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35 ESV)

We understand the functional difference between personal and ecclesial fellowship—in other words, that the basis in which one church cooperates with another church differs from the basis in which one believer fellowships with another; however, essentially all Christian fellowship is primarily personal—person to person. It is tragic if we allow our ecclesial and personal differences to override our family identity and destroy our fellowship with other sincere, God-honoring believers.

The question must be raised: what is the basis for genuine, universal Christian fellowship? The phrase “like faith and practice” has been an integral part of the fundamentalist identity and has become a frequent basis for enjoining separation from other brothers in Christ. Historically, “the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, having been given by inspiration of God, are the all-sufficient and only rule of faith and practice, and judge of controversies” (A. A. Hodge, Outlines of Theology). This classic formula has been abbreviated to “like faith and practice” and used to describe a position based on the faith and practice of the apostles. The “faith” refers to the “faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). The “practice” refers to the apostolic tradition (2 Thess. 3:6) found in the early New Testament church by which faithful believers and churches can be identified. In this sense, “like faith and practice” retains its appeal as the basis for Christian fellowship.

However, in our day many have used and abused the phrase to define a narrow basis of fellowship that goes not only beyond the original sense of the words but also beyond Scripture itself in truncating Christian fellowship in subjugation to peripheral issues and provincial concerns. Many have enlarged the “faith” part to include interpretations that may be unauthoritatively valid but not essential to fellowship among believers. The “practice” part of this confession often evolves into a catchall for concerns and preferences that cannot be claimed as apostolic. As a result, the unity of believers is threatened, and the mission we have received to disciple the nations is endangered. Certainly we face a danger and a tendency to minimize doctrine and find the lowest common denominator in order to ensure the largest fellowship possible. That tendency is unacceptable to Bible-believers; however, neither should we seek to exclude from Christian fellowship brother who are not excluded by the one authority we have in these matters—the Word of God.

On a practical note, one glaring example of this issue becomes apparent when many churches decide whether to support missionaries. Church leaders ask missionaries if they agree with the “faith and practice” of the church. That question would not be a problem if churches did not define “practice” with restrictions (Bible versions, theological systems, dress standards, music, and the list goes on). Therefore, only those who have mastered the art of diplomacy or evasion can be considered for support—or if they conform to the church’s practices albeit with mental reservations. We understand that local churches have the right to require agreement in faith and practice and support those who most closely align with the church as representatives of the church. Yet in being more restrictive than Scripture, more “right” than others, many churches may lose the blessing of supporting missionaries who hold to “like faith and practice” in the true, historical sense but may not hold to some church practices that reflect local concerns and are often of no importance in cross-cultural ministry.

In our opinion the outworking of this mind-set in the larger community of believers is where the greater harm is done to the body of Christ. Local church practice and related issues are not unimportant and may reflect legitimate, local concerns. However, local concerns are not necessarily common and must not be elevated to a status of universals. We certainly should not see them as reason for separating from brothers who hold to the same faith and compatible practice. We realize that “compatible practice” may cause gasps among some who find whiffs of compromise in ideas that depart from the received position. By this we contend that the faith once delivered to the saints is that body of non-negotiable truth to which we hold and to which we must return if we have in fact gone “beyond what is written” (1 Cor. 4:6). While “the faith” is unchanging, our practice of applying scriptural truth to our situation in life changes with greater understanding of the truth. And our practice, which reflects this faith, must be compatible with the Word of God. Yet a brother in Christ who holds the same faith may differ in his practice as far as the emphases, application, and implications of that faith.

One example is the near obsession by which many American Christians passionately defend their eschatological schemas. Undeniably the coming of Christ is the purifying hope of believers (1 John 3:2-3) and is an essential component of the faith. What a glorious truth! Jesus is coming again! It might come as a surprise that many Christians outside of North America, while looking for the coming of Christ, have far less interest in all the details over which much division takes place among us. The details are not without interest; those expressing competing positions should continue to state their case, and churches and seminaries should express their preference or conviction for a particular viewpoint. Yet if we require “like faith and practice” in the modern sense of the phrase—agreement in areas of interpretation and application of principles— we will experience a tendency to seek sameness, fail to appreciate the diversity of how Scripture comes alive and takes root in every culture, and miss opportunities for encounters with other believers to spiritually and theologically enrich us. Apart from clear scriptural teachings and biblical commands, of course, we should not expect other believers’ faith and practice to exactly mirror our own. Faith must be founded on the Word of God. Practice must be compatible with the Word of God and will bear a family resemblance to the practice of other Christians, but it may not be “like faith and practice” as currently and commonly expressed.

The “N” Train creates a welcome environment for trans-doctrinal, trans-denominational, trans-cultural fellowship among diverse believers who have a common faith and compatible practice. A ride on the “N” Train makes us wonder if many issues that seem important in the local church are irrelevant to the microcosm of the church found on the “N” Train. A ride on the “N” Train, where we can interact with diverse expressions of biblical Christianity, may be a good exercise for all of us before we make that critical choice of refusing fellowship to a brother. After all, he may hold to apostolic faith, though perhaps unrefined by modern systematics, and may seek to live and serve in ways consistent with apostolic faith and practice, though expressed differently due to varying backgrounds, cultural influences, and concerns. We must practice biblical separation where Scripture is clear. We must also seek fellowship with God’s people based on our union with Christ, our allegiance to His Word, and on our family likeness in the body of Christ.

John DavisDr. John P. Davis is currently planting a church in Sunnyside (Queens), New York. Grace Fellowship Church is a gospel-centered city church seeking to reach people of all nations. John received the Bachelor of Arts in Bible with a minor in Greek at Bob Jones University, a Master of Divinity from Calvary Baptist Theological Seminary, the Master of Theology in Old Testament from Westminster Theological Seminary, and the Doctor of Ministry from Biblical Theological Seminary. His Th.M. thesis was on A Critical Evaluation of the Use of the Abrahamic Covenant in Dispensationalism. His D.Min. project/dissertation was on Common Factors in the Practice of Ongoing Personal Evangelism. In addition to Sunnyside, NY John has pastored churches in Buckingham, Pennsylvania, in Brooklyn, New York, and in Roslyn, Pennsylvania. Two of the churches were new church-plants.

Steve DavisDr. Stephen M. Davis is associate pastor and director of missions at Calvary Baptist Church (Lansdale, PA). He is also adjunct professor at Calvary Baptist Theological Seminary (Lansdale, PA). He holds a B.A from Bob Jones University, an M.A. in Theological Studies from Reformed Theological Seminary (Orlando, FL), an M.Div. from Calvary Baptist Theological Seminary (Lansdale, PA), and a D.Min. in Missiology from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (Deerfield, IL). Steve has been a church planter in Philadelphia, France, and Romania. His views do not necessarily represent the position of Calvary Baptist Ministries.
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