I think I agree with him completely, although I say that with fear and trembling, because once in the past when I thought we agreed, (about the Sabbath) he thought we didn’t—so we could not agree on whether we agreed. Whew!
Jeffrey rightly points out, and I hope I paraphrase correctly, that there is a threshold somewhere, and if a group goes beyond that threshold, then fellowship is not possible.
Setting that threshold is the tricky part. Liberalism sets the circle so big that everyone fits within. Cults draw it so far in that only those who adhere completely with their teachings are inside.
In yesterday’s post, I talked about things that should not preclude fellowship. I included among these ones views of predestination and eschatology and the age-of-the-earth. I essentially defined the circle as I see it. Many have a tighter circle than I do and exclude me because of my belief in an old earth.
I think Jeffrey is exactly right when he says the defining issue should be what one teaches about salvation. The plan of salvation is, after all, the Gospel, and Paul gave us explicit warning and instruction to curse anyone (or anything) who teaches another gospel (Gal. 1:8).
Furthermore, all the Christian essentials: Christ’s divinity, the Trinity, etc. can all be placed under the umbrella of the Gospel, since they all either point to or are a critical part of God’s plan of salvation.
So I want to talk about that a bit, and it will probably get me in some trouble, but first I want to expand on the term fellowship.
What is (Christian) fellowship?When I say that I cannot have fellowship with someone, I mean I cannot have Christian fellowship. I can (and should) have normal, friendly fellowship with anyone including non-Christians. I must not stop being a Christian when I am with them, but we are not supposed to count among our friends only Christians.
Christian fellowship is something different. It means that while I may not completely agree with someone I can worship with him. He is within my circle, and I am within his. We agree on the Gospel. If someone follows a different gospel I cannot worship with him. I cannot have Christian fellowship with a Mormon, for example.
We should not deny fellowship lightly. As Jeffrey points out, in his high prayer of John 17 Jesus is praying for unity. Woe to the person that would stand in opposition to His prayer.
Who teaches a different gospel?Even if we agree that it is one’s view of God’s plan for salvation that can separate us, there will still be disagreements over what is an “orthodox” view of salvation.
Some boundaries are easy to draw. Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Unitarians are so far out there that not many of those who call themselves Christians would deny that fellowship is impossible with adherents of these groups.
Jews in some sense are a special case because of our heritage and other reasons. But clearly it does not make any sense to the Christian or the Jew to talk about any sort of ecclesiastic fellowship.
The real issue comes within those who call themselves Christians, both Protestants and Catholics. Let me grossly oversimplify and put everyone into one of four groups.
- Liberals (both Protestants and Catholics)
- Conservative, Calvinistic Protestants
- Conservative Arminian Protestants (What some mean by “Evangelicals”)
- Conservative Roman Catholics
Liberals, by definition, deny some of the Christian “essentials”, typically by first denying the inerrancy of the Bible, which then gives them freedom to excise passages they find offensive. I cannot have Christian fellowship with a religious liberal of any stripe.
How about between the two broad types of conservative Protestants? There is disagreement here. I think it is a huge mistake for one group to exclude the other, but this sometimes happens. It is true that the two groups differ in their view of salvation, and that the difference is not trivial, yet I do not view it as substantive enough to preclude fellowship. We are bonded by the rallying cry of the Reformation: Justification by Faith Alone.
The dicey part comes when we talk about conservative Protestants and conservative Catholics.
As I pointed out in this post The Roman Catholic Church is clear in its position: Those (i.e., all conservative Protestants) that affirm Justification by Faith Alone are accursed, in her view. Likewise, I personally view the official Catholic Church as apostate. The Catholic view of salvation, which includes works and treats Christ’s work as unfinished (hence purgatory) is so alien from my own as to constitute an irreconcilable difference.
Interchangeable ProtestantsIn some sense, I agree with Mark Byron that (conservative) Protestants are interchangeable. Listen to this story from D. James Kennedy:
Just a few weeks ago, I was out on visitation, and I ended up in a home where there were seventeen people present. There was a family that were in our new member class. There was a visiting family that were a part of our sponsors that happened to be there. There were a bunch of kids, and there was a mother of one of the adults there, an elderly woman from Brooklyn and she was a Roman Catholic. Now there were some other relatives there—they came from five or six, maybe different churches and backgrounds. I went around and asked them these questions: I asked each of them, one by one, "In what were they trusting for their hope of eternal life. Why should God admit them into heaven?" This woman, before, had said, with a little bit of hostility, that she thought it was terrible that there was all these different religions. Everybody had their own religion, there own views, they are all different, and she didn't like this idea that everybody had a different religion—they all ought to be one. It was fascinating to see that one, after another, after another—the person said the reason God should let me into heaven is:
"Christ died for my sins."
"Jesus paid for my sins."
"I have no hope but Christ."
"By the grace of God, through faith in Christ alone"
"It was through Christ who died for me."
"I put my trust in Jesus Christ."
"Christ paid for my sins."
"I am trusting in Jesus Christ."
"Christ is my Savior."
"I have no hope but Jesus."
And on and on it went, and this woman said, "Because I'm good!" But she was stunned by the fact that what she thought were all of these different churches, in disunity, were all in perfect unity when it came to the essence of the gospel. I think as John [MacArthur] has said, there is a unity of Christians, of true believers. You can go anywhere in the world, as many of you have, and you will find a person is a true Christian and you have discovered a brother or a sister in Christ, regardless of what denomination he's in—if he really trusts in Christ. You have been joined together in one, and you are one in Him.
The Visible and Invisible ChurchDoes this mean that I think that that no Catholics are really Christians and all conservative Protestants are? Of course not! I know Catholics that I am convinced are saved (I don't know if they think the same about me) and hardcore Calvinists about whom I have serious doubts. Augustine talked about the visible church, those people who profess belief and attend church, and the invisible church (invisible to us, not to God) of true believers. These can be pictured as two circles that intersect, but the invisible church is not necessarily a smaller circle within the larger circle of the visible church. (Think of your old friend, the Venn diagram).
We do not know where members of the invisible church are stationed, nor can we even identify them with certainty, but I believe that among their numbers are to be found members of the Roman Catholic Church.