Different relationships, different responsibilities
Believers need to understand that there are varying levels of relationships within the Body of Christ, each with differing responsibilities. Although somewhat inclusive on the broadest level (our brotherhood in Christ), relationships become increasingly limited as one moves toward the individual’s standing before the Lord (priesthood of the believer). Thus, the most limited level of relationship is the priesthood of the believer, a level so exclusive that no one except the individual believer and the Lord are able to enjoy it.
Confusing the limitations of one level with those of another is where the majority of detonations occur in the minefield of biblically mandated relationships between believers. Seeking to apply the freedoms intended for a “lower” level to a level designed to be more limited produces inclusivism and compromise. Likewise, seeking to impose the restrictions intended for an “upper” level to a level designed to be broader brings exclusivism and unwarranted schism. Therefore the Pyramid of Responsibility of biblically mandated relationships must be understood and applied as believers seek to emulate our holy and loving God.
Responsible biblical relationships are not identical when viewed in context of the levels of responsibility within the Body of Christ. A believer’s opportunity for cooperation with other believers becomes more limited as the levels of responsibility progress toward the ultimate relationship known as the priesthood of the believer. We as true believers should look for areas where we can demonstrate our mutual respect and love for the brethren. Our lives should not be dominated by seeking ways to identify those from whom we must separate. Nor should we overlook the importance of separation when the Scripture clearly demands it.
We maintain that implementing separation is not for the primary benefit of the one separating. Rather its ultimate purpose is to provide a platform for ministry to those with whom you differ. Paul placed great emphasis on this when he wrote to the Thessalonian believers: “If anyone obeys not our instruction in this letter, take special note of that person and do not associate with him, so that he will be put to shame. Yet do not regard him as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother” (2 Thessalonians 3:14-15). Believers who rightly understand this will never rejoice over the necessity of separating from brothers. They will mourn the breaking of unity that separation always produces. Severance from relationship will be the last resort.
If we properly regard the principles of biblical separation, there will be a marked similarity with the biblical principles of church discipline. Rightly understood, church discipline is exercised (1) to bring glory to God, (2) to achieve the restoration of the errant believer, (3) to produce purification of the Church, (4) to bring godly fear to the believers, and (5) to prevent the further chastisement of the Lord. Limiting relationships when the Scripture instructs to do so (1) brings glory to God, (2) provides the platform for restoration, (3) maintains the purity of relationships, (4) provides a biblical example to other believers, and (5) allows God to continue to bless uninterrupted by wrong attitudes and actions.
The various levels of responsibility help a believer identify the relationships among believers that are appropriate. The Pyramid of Responsibility will answer questions such the following.
With whom may I fellowship as brothers in the Lord?
“You are a Brother” is the broadest of the levels of responsible relationships. If a person is a genuine Christian, he is my brother and I have the biblical responsibility to value him as a member of the Body of Christ. Although I am not necessarily free to have uninhibited relationships with him, on a personal level I can share a common faith and love for the Savior.
With whom may I cooperate as the salt of the earth?
On the level of “You are Salt,” there are various ways believers are able to band together within our society for the purposes of enhancing flavor, creating thirst, drawing out infection, and preserving from decay. It is on this level where believers can find common ground even though they may have differing views on less essential doctrinal issues. Certainly when it comes to answering the call of the Lord to do good unto all men, there is room for brothers to respond commonly from a diversity of positions. He is the Lord of all, and each believer has the duty to respond in His name. Engaging in social issues on a variety of levels is necessary in order for the people of God to fulfill their role as “the salt of the earth.” Yet social reform is not the solution to the problems caused by sin in a culture. The danger of striving to serve as “the salt of the earth” is to become so consumed with the effort of preserving morality that it becomes an end in itself. Efforts that fall short of presenting the gospel as the solution are deficient. Lack of balance in this endeavor leads either to a Social Gospel (which is the error of the liberals) or to an isolationism that abandons the social process (which has been the error of the Fundamentalists.) Both of these errors disable the purposes of God for the believer’s impact in the world.
With whom may I reach out with the light of the gospel?
It is on the “You are Light” level that the limitation of responsible relationships begins to be more evident, for the preaching and preservation of the gospel is a sacred trust. Faithful Christians must be extremely careful about entering into any relationship that would compromise the integrity of the gospel. There are certain hindrances to cooperative relationships in proclaiming the light of the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ. But there are also opportunities for partnerships with whom cooperative relationships may be established in the effort to reach the world with a genuine biblical declaration of the gospel.
With whom may I worship within the context of the local church?
From the very first days of the Church, God expressed through the apostles a tremendous priority on biblically responsible relationships within the local church. On the “You are the Local Church” level, the expressed concern is that the responsibilities for responsible relationships must be even more vigilant and focused than on any of the other levels previously discussed. However, there is the tendency within the church to remove existing barriers in order to build relationships with people. Doctrine is often perceived as the great divider, and so it is frequently minimized in order to appeal to people and maintain relationships. There must be a degree of interdependence within the body, emphasizing that believers are to rely on each other for encouragement, edification, and greater effectiveness. Interdependence also provides the platform upon which churches are able to work together. It is appropriate for local churches of like faith to cooperate with each other for the presentation and propagation of the Gospel. However, each local church, through its leadership and their interpretation and application of Scripture, should determine the extent of and qualifications for such cooperation.
With whom may I enjoy a true family relationship?
The “You are Family” level involves relationships within families that should be intimate, personal and responsible. They must be maintained even when other relationships are biblically limited. In fact, family relationships are so important that maintaining them often supersedes other considerations. The family is, by God’s design, one of the basic building blocks of society and the Scriptures address family relationships specifically. The family begins to disintegrate when the biblical relational principles are ignored. There are strengths and weaknesses in today’s families and we must look for ways in which strong marriages and lasting relationships within the family may be enhanced.
Are there any relationships that include no one except the Lord and me?
The ultimate level of biblical relationships is the personal relationship that exists between the individual believer and the Lord Jesus Christ. On the “You Are a Priest” level of relationship no one else is permitted. When one stands before God on the day of reckoning, the only question that will be relevant is whether or not a sinner has an intimate relationship with God through Jesus Christ.
I hope to provoke careful thought and evaluation regarding the levels of responsibility and how they apply to proper biblical relationships. The answers to each of the above questions sharpen the understanding of possible relationships and conclude that each level requires a more limited level of responsibility in establishing and maintaining them.
Seeking to apply the freedoms intended for a “lower” level to a level designed to be more limited produces inclusivism and compromise. Seeking to impose the restrictions intended for an “upper” level to a level designed to be broader brings exclusivism and unwarranted schism.
Although each believer is responsible to every other believer to recognize their value as brothers in Christ, many mistakes have been made because the various levels of relationship within the Body are ignored. When this is the case, there is inevitable confusion concerning the responsibilities believers have toward one another. It is important to recognize that as relationships within the body of Christ become more focused in intensity, biblical responsibilities correspondingly increase. Careful study of the Word of God will reveal the progression of responsibilities God expects believers to fulfill. These responsibilities begin with one’s relationship to all believers, and culminate with the enjoyment of the Lord alone through the priesthood of the believer.
Ours is an attempt to identify the various levels of relationships within the Body of Christ based upon the biblical responsibilities that each level demands of believers. Understanding these levels and the responsibilities each invokes will help maintain proper Christian attitudes in applying the principles of biblical separation. Believers cannot escape the biblical mandate to distinguish between the holy and the unholy and the sacred and the profane. The holiness of God demands this. Having the spiritual disposition to make that distinction is vital to the fulfillment of God’s expectation that we be a people separated unto His name, while at the same time loving one another.
As the Pyramid of Responsibility of biblically mandated relationships is understood and applied, may believers seek to emulate our holy and loving God. And may He alone receive all the glory!
(This two part article is adapted from On the Level: Discovering the Levels of Biblical Relationships Among Believers, IFCA Press, 2005. It appeared in Voice as a single article.)
Richard (Dick) Gregory entered glory July 23, 2013. He pastored for 57 years (two churches while in school, then as senior pastor of three). He ministered on the boards of several Christian organizations. As a member of two mission agency boards and executive director of IFCA International, he traveled to 28 countries and lectured in 26 colleges and seven seminaries.