WOULD YOU DISFELLOWSHIP PAUL?
T. PIERCE BROWN
Apparently there are brethren today who would chastise, rebuke, and even disfellowship a preacher who would do the same kinds of things Paul did, both in teaching and practice. In Acts21:23-27 there is a story that seems almost inconceivable to some brethren. Not only is Paul in the temple where the ungodly Jews meet and worship, but he actually took some men who had taken a vow and went through the rites of purification with them. If this is not compromise and fellowship with those who teach false doctrine and even with those who crucified Christ, what could it be?
Of course it was not, but my point today is not so much to explain the propriety of doing what he did, but to point out that many of my brethren would call anything similar to that an act of weak, compromising unfaithfulness. Some commentators go so far as to say that Paul was wrong; others that he was right then, for the truth had not been completely revealed, but he would not do it now. On matters of doctrine, he is equally inconsistent, according to the reasoning of some. On the one hand he yielded to the pressure of false teachers who thought circumcision was important and had Timothy circumcised. Then he “made a fuss” and refused to have Titus circumcised. Again, we have no problem showing that he is not inconsistent, for Timothy’s circumcision was a matter of expediency whereas the case of Titus had to do with yielding to false doctrine and compromising the gospel plan of salvation. But my point is: according to the rhetoric of some today, a person who would act in a similar way would be accused of vacillating and compromising.
On the one hand Paul taught that it was not wrong to eat meat offered to idols (1 Cor. 8:1-4). On the other hand, he taught that it should not be done (1 Cor.8:11-13). As far as I know, none of our preaching brethren have any difficulty seeing that and explaining it properly. However, when it comes to matters today when some brother teaches that a certain action may be proper and scriptural in some circumstance and not necessarily so in another, there are those who apparently are quick to accuse him of being doctrinally unsound, contradictory and unscriptural.
There are liberal brethren who take Romans 14 and try to make it teach that no doctrine is important. They assume that when Paul said, “Let every man be fully assured in his own mind” (Romans 14:5), it means that one doctrine is just as valid as another, and even assert that doctrine is not important. Surely any thinking person can see that this idea is false to the core, and contradicts various passages that emphasize the value of teaching truth. On the other hand, we have brethren who seem to take this position: One brother believes and teaches that it is wrong to eat various kinds of meats, especially that which is offered to idols. The Bible plainly teaches that it is not wrong, so the brother is teaching false doctrine. Since he is believing and teaching that which is wrong, he is to be marked, avoided and disfellowshipped. This is exactly what Paul says should not be done. It is not enough to say, “This has to do with matters of expediency, and both the weak and strong brother are right.” It is true that both are right in what they do. That is, it is right to eat meat if you want to. It is right to refuse to eat meat if you do not want to. That is not the point at issue at the moment. The point is that although the weak brother is right in what he practices, he is wrong in his doctrine, for he teaches that it is wrong to eat meat. What he is teaching may be classified as “false doctrine.” However, many of us who think we are sound in the faith seem to have difficulty with what to do with a person who teaches any thing that might be classified as false doctrine.
I think the solution is found, not in ceasing to have fellowship with anyone who is wrong about anything, but in analyzing whether the false belief or wrong concept is such that it destroys or does damage to the gospel plan of salvation, or the purity of worship. Some illustrations from the Bible and my own personal life may help.
We have already alluded to the case of Timothy and Titus. It should be apparent that a person who thought Timothy should be circumcised, but did not make a law about it and try to make it a part of salvation were in a different position than those who tried to make it a part of the gospel plan. It should be evident that a person who thought it wrong to eat meat should not eat it, but his not eating it does not corrupt the worship or endanger his soul, even though his belief is wrong.
Some years ago I was teaching a class in a congregation that did not believe in Sunday Bible classes. One of the preaching brethren nearby was advocating withdrawing from all those ungodly false teachers. I suggested to him that if he wanted to withdraw from all who did not believe in Sunday Bible classes, that he start with his own congregation, for at least one third of them never came. These brethren were believing and teaching that it was wrong to have Sunday Bible classes. They therefore were teaching false doctrine. I did not withdraw from them, however, for their practice of having Bible classes sometime besides Sunday morning did not prevent the person who believed it from being a Christian, nor corrupt the corporate worship.
When they learned that having a Bible class on Sunday morning was no more unscriptural than having a Bible class on Thursday night, they ceased their objection to it and had Bible classes on Sunday as well as other days in the week. In another congregation, there was a man who believed that it was wrong for a congregation to have more than one container for the fruit of the vine as we partook of the Lord’s Supper. He was not disfellowshipped, although he believed and taught false doctrine. He was reasoned with on this fashion: “If we are wrong in drinking the fruit of the vine out of a different cup than you do, it is our mistake or sin, and not yours, is it not? As long as you do not condone or participate in what you consider our sin, God will not hold you guilty, will He? Why not go ahead and take the fruit of the vine from the one cup you have been using, and if we choose to do something else, let God be the judge?”
The fact that it might seem silly to us did not change the reality that he was not forced to do something contrary to his conscience, neither were his peculiar views forced on the rest of the congregation. We can dismiss the episode in our own minds by saying, “It was a matter of expediency, and not of doctrine.” However, to him it was a matter of doctrine. He believed something that was not so; namely, that is was against God’s will for the members of one congregation to fail to all drink from the same container. So, he believed and taught false doctrine. But it was not the kind of false doctrine that would undermine the plan of salvation nor cause a person’s soul to be lost unless they made it a point of contention and bound it upon another. It is important for every person to act in such a way that his conscience does not condemn him. If he has a misunderstanding of what God requires, those of us who think we know more than he does are duty bound to try to teach him better. However, unless his misunderstanding is of such a nature as to pervert the gospel, endanger the soul of the one who practiced it, or corrupted the worship, his misunderstanding should not cause a breach of fellowship.