More Comments on Church Letter
We appreciate this pertinent correspondence from L.R.S. of Australia. This, the third part of his letter, is the end of his answer to the letter of enquiry reproduced in the July-August, 1969, number.
4. Who are the subjects of discipline?
The foregoing will indicate that the writer knows no Scripture which authorizes or suggests the excommunication of assemblies, or permits a declaration that a company of believers is “not an assembly, but only a meeting.” He believes that there is no such Scripture. But assemblies may be troubled, as was that at Corinth, by the conduct of individuals within them. The Corinthians were admonished by reference to Israel (1 Cor. 10). The first four verses tell of ties that bound them ALL together, and of experiences which they all shared. But verse 5 tells us that God was not pleased with MANY of them; and verses 7-10 tell us that SOME of them were idolators, some fornicators, some “tempted Christ,” some murmured. Israel was and is still Israel, but the transgressors were judged.
So it is in Revelation 2-3. In Pergamos there were some who held the doctrine of Balaam, some held the doctrine of the Nicolaitanes; that did not exclude the assembly from the number of the seven, but the Lord said He would deal with the transgressors. Things were seriously wrong in Thyatira, but there were some who “had not this doctrine,” and the Lord said He would deal discriminatingly with the individuals there. The suggestion conveyed by these considerations is that individuals, not assemblies, are subjects of disciplinary action; and this is abundantly substantiated in the Epistles.
Evil against which action of one kind or another is enjoined in the Scriptures may be described as moral, doctrinal, heretical or social.
Moral: Evil of this kind is described in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10; 1 Timothy 1:9-10; but only in 1 Corinthians 5:11 is it associated with a professing believer within an assembly. Instruction regarding it is plain; the sinner was to be “put away from among” them, the old leaven purged out.
Doctrinal: Passages descriptive of this kind of evil include Romans 16:17-18; Galatians 1:6-9; 5:7-10; Colossians 2:4-8; 1 Timothy 1:19-20; 4:1-3; 6:3-5, 20-21; 2 Timothy 2:16-18; 3:1-9; Titus 1:10-13; 2 Peter 2:1-3; 1 John 2:22-26; 4:1-3; 2 John 9-11; Jude 4-19. In all cases where action is called for, it is with respect to the teacher of evil doctrine himself. We quote, with abbreviations:
“Mark them - - - - - and avoid them.”
“If any preach - - - - - let him be accursed.”
“He that troubleth you shall bear his judgment, whosoever he be.”
“If any man - - - - - from such withdraw thyself.” (In connection with this verse, and the similar expression in 2 Thessalonians 3:6, it is distressing to hear it said sometimes vaingloriously by Christians that they have withdrawn themselves from godly believers, to whom the descriptions in the passages could not possibly apply).
“From such turn away - - - - - these also resist the truth.”
“There are many - - - - - therefore rebuke them.”
“There shall be false teachers - - - - - whose judgment lingereth not.”
“If there come any - - - - - receive him not.”
Heretical. A “heretic” in New Testament meaning is not one who holds unorthodox beliefs, or does not conform to generally accepted practices. He is a sectarian person, a self-willed man who pushes his wrong ideas to the extent of dividing the saints. “Sects” and “heresy” are translations of the same word. In the language of Acts 20:30 the heretic “speaks perverse things to draw away disciples after” himself. Romans 16:17-18 applies to him. He “causes divisions contrary to the doctrine which we have learned,” and is to be avoided. His heretical leanings will no doubt be seen before the point of open rift comes; he is to be warned at this stage, and if necessary warned again. If, despite repeated warning, he persists in his work of disruption, he is to be “rejected” (Titus 3:10). He is acting against known truth, and is self-condemned (v. 11). The attitude enjoined is concerning leaders in division; we are not told to adopt it against those who in their simplicity are misled.
Social. Some are mentioned in 2 Thessalonians 3:6 who, although they are “brothers,” are to be “withdrawn from” because of their “disorderly walk.” The nature of the disorder is given in v. 11, and further comment is made in vs. 7-15. Paul’s “tradition” (v. 6) regarding such matters is fully set forth in other Scriptures. He “wrought” with Aquila and Priscilla at tent making (Acts 18:3). He laboured with his hands so as not to be chargeable to the saints (Acts 20:33-35; 2 Cor. 11:9). Yet he was emphatic that they who ministered in spiritual things should be partaker of the material things of those whom they served. See Galatians 6:6. It is evident that those spoken of in 1 Thessalonians 3 were serving neither God nor men, but were expecting “financial support” from the saints; this was not to be given, but rather the idlers were to be made to feel the wrongness of their position.
Those described in 2 Timothy 3:1-6 are guilty of worse social evil. They are of such a character that the believer is to “turn away” from them; they are obviously not in Christ.
There remains the case of elders who sin (1 Timothy 5:20 taken in its context). These are to be openly rebuked. In view of the first verse of the chapter much grace and wisdom would be demanded of those who are called upon to perform, so solemn and sad a duty.
The whole purport of all this is that disciplinary action, where necessary, is always against individuals. Nowhere in Scripture are men called upon to judge assemblies.
5. What are New Testament “rules”?
This word “rule” occurs in 2 Corinthians 10:13; Galatians 6:16; Philippians 3:16. It signifies a guideline, such as a plumbob, against which our practices and precepts are to be placed so that we may check their correctness. Our word “canon” is derived from it; that is the rule by which the authenticity may be checked of writings which claim divine authority; similarly our word “cane” has the same derivation as signifying a straight rod against which deviatians from straightness may be detected.
The “rule” in Galatians 6 is the truth that the believer is not of the world (v. 14) or under law (v. 15) but in Christ. His Christian conduct is to be checked against this standard. The cross stands between me and the world, between me and the law’s demands; if I live as a “new creature” (v. 15) then I conform to the rule. This is individual conduct; benediction is pronounced on those who conform, but nothing in this context is said against those who do not.
The “rule” in Philippians 3 is a straight line from the cross to the glory. In effect it is the same rule as in Galatians 6. How could it be otherwise? The very best that man in the flesh can be (Phil. 3:1-7) is a terribly unsafe rule (2 Cor. 10:12-13) but there is a standard of conduct befitting those who know Christ and the power of His resurrection, and who look for the Saviour from Heaven. The parenthic verses 18-19 tell us of those who are not governed by this rule; they are “enemies of the cross of Christ,” and their “end is destruction” — words which cannot possibly apply to believers. The application is again to individuals’ walk and conduct; there is nothing in the chapter to suggest that “church truth” is being taught here.
In our “doing justly” we are to “love mercy” (Mic. 6:8; a humble walk with God will help to ensure both attitudes. Each of us is responsible to follow the Lord, and not to be obsessed with the service of our fellow-saints (John 21:19-22). Certainly we are not called upon to adjudicate on the genuineness or otherwise of CHURCHES OF GOD, and the path of joy and peace is to leave their disposition where it belongs — with the Lord Himself, who knows all things.