Inside the Boundary
Fellowship is by definition that which is held in common. Unity is a function of that which unites. The quality of unity is always defined by the thing that unites, and the quality of fellowship is always defined by the nature of the thing that is held in common.
To speak of Christian fellowship and unity is to say that Christians hold something in common and that they are united by something. Christian unity and fellowship are not primarily experiential, but positional. All legitimate experiences and expressions of Christian unity and fellowship grow out of the real unity that exists among them.
The most basic form of Christian fellowship and unity is defined by the gospel. However else they may differ, Christians hold the gospel in common. Christian fellowship and unity are like a circle, and the boundary of the circle is the gospel.
Those who deny the gospel—whether explicitly by flat rejection or implicitly by denying some fundamental doctrine—are outside of the circle. No Christian unity or fellowship exists with someone who denies the gospel. Where no actual unity exists, any pretense of unity is the merest hypocrisy. Therefore, to profess unity or fellowship with someone who denies a fundamental of the gospel is always sinful.
All of those inside the circle hold the gospel in common. In other words, some level of fellowship and unity exists between all those who believe the gospel. This actual unity provides the basis for experiential unity and fellowship.
The circle, however, not only has a boundary but also a center. The center of the circle is “all the counsel of God” (Acts 20:27). In other words, the center of Christian unity and fellowship is the fullness of what God wishes His people to know and do.
This fullness—all that God wants His people to know and do—is what the New Testament calls “the faith.” The gospel does not exhaust the faith. The gospel is the foundation upon which the superstructure of the faith is built. In terms of Christian unity and fellowship, the gospel is the boundary of the circle, and the faith is its center.
The faith has both a boundary and a center. Therefore, Christian unity and fellowship also have a boundary and a center. The necessary inference is that not all Christian unity and fellowship are equal. We do not possess the same actual degree of unity and fellowship with everyone who is inside the circle. Consequently, we are unable to experience the same degree of unity or fellowship or to exhibit the same degree of unity and fellowship in ministry.
Wherever two Christians do not hold some aspect of the faith in common, they do not have fellowship. They no longer have joint ownership of that area. Every area of the faith that Christians do not hold in common is by definition a truncation or abridgement of fellowship. Therefore, every area of disagreement about the faith is also an area of disunity and disfellowship. To some degree, that area thwarts the actual fellowship in which they ought to participate, and it also inhibits the experience of fellowship in their lived Christianity and shared labors.
Not every abridgement of Christian fellowship is equally far-reaching, however. When Christians experience a difference over the faith, their fellowship is necessarily hindered. Nevertheless, two factors imply that the effects of differences are not always equal.
On the one hand, fellowship occurs at different levels. Fellowship is not all-or-nothing. Christians may fellowship in one area of the faith even though they may not hold another area in common. Wherever they hold the faith together, Christians do participate in actual fellowship, and in those areas they have a basis for experiential fellowship and shared ministry.
On the other hand, not all differences are equally serious for the simple reason that not all aspects of the faith are equally important. To be sure, every affirmation and attitude of the faith is of consequence. God reveals nothing that is merely incidental. Some aspects of doctrine and practice, however, are more important than others.
Which aspects of the faith are more important? Is there a test that will help God’s people to weigh their doctrines and practices? The answer to this question is yes. A full discussion of that test is beyond the scope of the present essay, but its outlines can be sketched. It involves three basic questions.
The first is, How closely connected is a particular doctrine or practice to the gospel? The second question is, How far-reaching is this doctrine or practice in its implications for the system of faith? The third is, How immediate or urgent are the real-life implications of this area of faith?
Whenever Christians experience disagreement about a doctrine or practice, they must make two choices. They must first decide what they think is a correct solution to the doctrinal or practical problem. Then they must weigh the doctrine or practice for its importance. Christians who disagree about some aspect of the faith may discover that their experience of fellowship is still largely intact if the difference is relatively less important. Differences over more important areas are more inhibiting.
At the end of the day, there is no simple yes-or-no rule that governs all fellowship between Christians. Rather, questions of fellowship must be subjected to a matrix of considerations. When we are attempting to discover the limits of our fellowship (whether it is actual fellowship understood in positional terms or experiential fellowship to be practiced at the level of shared endeavor), Christians should ask questions such as the following.
What levels of fellowship are we considering? Which doctrines and practices are affected by those levels of fellowship? What do we need to hold in common to participate together at these levels?
What differences do we experience in our understanding of the faith? Which doctrines and practices are at stake? How are those differences likely to affect the levels at which we are considering fellowship?
How serious do we judge those differences to be? How closely are we (either or both of us) identified with the differences? How distinctive have those differences become for us, and to what extent are we able to set them aside? Are we moving closer together in the area of difference, or are we moving further apart?
Every difference hinders fellowship to some extent. The hindrance, however, will be greater or lesser depending upon the anticipated quality of fellowship, the gravity of the difference, and our mutual attitude toward the area in which we disagree. Learning to weigh and apply these differences requires a biblically-informed sense of judgment, not a list of regulations.
These principles govern differences between Christians in general. Naturally, they apply to the specific differences that exist between fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals. As subsequent essays explore those differences, we will not merely ask which position is most likely correct. We shall also ask how serious the differences are. We shall observe not only where fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals disagree but also where they disagree about the gravity of the disagreements. Finally, we shall attempt to assess whether and where the differences should inhibit mutual cooperation between individuals from the two groups.
George Herbert (1593-1633)
Hark, how the birds do sing,
And woods do ring!
All creatures have their joy, and man hath his.
Yet if we rightly measure,
Man’s joy and pleasure
Rather hereafter than in present is.
To this life things of sense
Make their pretence;
In th’ other angels have a right by birth.
Man ties them both alone,
And makes them one,
With th’ one hand touching heaven, with th’ other earth.
In soul he mounts and flies,
In flesh he dies.
He wears a stuff whose thread is coarse and round,
But trimmed with curious lace,
And should take place
After the trimming, not the stuff and ground.
Not that he may not here
Taste of the cheer;
But as birds drink and straight lift up their head,
So must he sip and think
Of better drink
He may attain to after he is dead.
But as his joys are double,
So is his trouble.
He hath two winters, other things but one:
Both frosts and thoughts do nip
And bite his lip,
And he of all things fears two deaths alone.
Yet ev’n the greatest griefs
May be reliefs,
Could he but take them right, and in their ways.
Happy is he whose heart
Hath found the art
To turn his double pains to double praise.
This essay is by Dr. Kevin T. Bauder, president of Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN). Not every professor, student, or alumnus of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.