FALSE DOCTRINE AND FELLOWSHIP
T. PIERCE BROWN
Last night at a meeting atTennesseeBibleCollegeinCookeville, I was asked to present my views concerning some problems that are facing the church. The College had called a meeting of various congregations and members in the area to consider dis-fellowshipping some of the local congregations because they were planning to have a gospel meeting with two brethren who have been accused of false teaching, and having fellowship with other false teachers. Although I was accused in the meeting of not practicing what I preach, the assistant to the President had asked me to speak, and after the speech the Vice President suggested that I write an article about it so I attempted to make some of the following points, although interrupted several times by those who apparently disagreed with my views.
I want to address principles in three areas that I think it highly likely that many have not studied as deeply as they should: 1. False doctrine, 2. Fellowship 3. Guilt by association. They are related, so any discussion of one will necessarily overlap the others.
Let us first examine the issue of false doctrine. There are many in the Lord’s church, or connected loosely therewith, who teach that doctrine is not important, for only the gospel is important. That seems to me to be about as silly a statement as one can make, for doctrine is simply teaching, and when one is teaching the gospel, he is teaching doctrine. However, not everyone seems to understand that some false doctrines are far more dangerous than others are, and need to be placed in a different category. In order to clarify my point, let me ask this question, “Have those of you who have been preaching for 25 years or more ever learned anything new since your first sermon?” If not, I would suggest you probably are not worth hearing. If you preached something 25 years ago, and now preach differently about it, then it could be said about you that either you teach false doctrine now, or did then. Let me illustrate: All my life I have heard some of the greatest men in the brotherhood say that the great commission has 4 imperatives: Go, Teach, Baptize & Teach. That statement is not so. It has one imperative and three participle phrases. Of course those participle phrases have the force of imperatives, but they are not. Since they were teaching something that is not so, we could say they were teaching false doctrine. Will they, or anyone else, be lost for teaching that? I deny it, so I can be accused of teaching that false doctrine makes no difference. I could say that is a false accusation, or a lie, or I could say that the person who says that I think a false doctrine makes no difference misunderstands what I have said. I choose to say that is probably a misunderstanding, although some brethren would not hesitate to say that a brother who makes an accusation that is not so is simply lying. Truth is always better than error, but not every misunderstanding of some doctrinal point is fatal.
I did not think I should not have to dwell on that with an audience as perceptive as those to whom I spoke, and to you who read this report, but it needs special emphasis. So, when a person is accused of teaching false doctrine, we need to do more than merely ask if his understanding of some scripture is accurate, but does his misunderstanding corrupt morals, pervert the gospel plan of salvation, corrupt the worship or cause a person to be lost who has that faulty understanding.
I have commentaries on Romans by R. L. Whiteside, Roy Deaver, Moses Lard and several others. I notice that there are several places they disagree. One of them is wrong, and possibly all of them on some particular point, in case they disagree with me. But in no case do I recall any point on which they disagreed that would corrupt one’s morals, pervert the worship, or prevent a person from being saved. Only those kinds of things are called unsound doctrine in the New Testament. Name the issues that we have been divided over, and you should be able to see the difference. The necessity of a woman wearing a hat in the assembly is a far different issue than instrumental music, for the reasons named.
Second is the issue of fellowship. If one has a faulty definition of what is involved in fellowship, or if one makes a faulty application of the principle, then several tragic results follow. The Pharisees made this mistake with Jesus. He ate with publicans and sinners. They defined fellowship merely as joint participation and wrongly condemned him. It must be joint participation in such a fashion that it endorses the sinful actions or fatal doctrine that is being taught. I might jointly participate in a discussion with a Baptist preacher, but that would not be fellowship unless I endorsed his teaching and practice. Paul would be condemned by some brethren today for taking a vow, going up into the temple with four men (Acts21:23). Paul even had fellowship with the Church atCorinththat had some of the most ungodly practices and teaching of which I am aware. Of course he condemned those practices, and any preacher or Christian today who would not condemn those practices and the fatal false doctrine that would deny the resurrection of Christ should be rebuked. But my point is that not everyone should be withdrawn from just because he acts in a way that seems strange or inconsistent to us, or that we do not understand, as Paul and Jesus did.
Many years ago I was preaching in a place where a neighboring congregation that could not afford a preacher asked me to come on Thursday night and help them in Bible study. They had been opposed to Sunday Bible Schools, and still had none. One of the local preachers was demanding that all faithful brethren withdraw fellowship from them. I said, “If you want to withdraw from all anti-Sunday school brethren, start with your own congregation. About one third of them never come. Let me alone and I think we can solve the problem.” So I continued to have Bible classes with them on Thursday nights. If some of you had been around then, you no doubt would have accused me of having fellowship with people who taught false doctrine, for I did not blast them every time I was there about their stupid and ungodly doctrine. Eventually I asked them, “Does it make any difference what time we have Bible study?” They thought I wanted to change to Tuesday night, so they said, “No.” So I said, “How about Sunday morning at10 a.m.?” One of their leaders looked up at me and said, “Bro. Brown, you have taught me more in 5 minutes than I have learned in 20 years.”
You have the right to disagree with my judgment that this was the way to handle it. You do not have the right to accuse me of having improper kind of fellowship with those who taught false doctrine, and then withdrawing from me and every other person that did not agree with you.
Which leads me to the third principle I want to deal with. It is called “Guilt by association.” Is it true that a person is guilty of sin if he associates with someone who is guilty of some sin, either a moral sin, or a sin of teaching false doctrine? The answer is, “Not necessarily so,” as we have already indicated. Even if we use the expression, “He is guilty,” we need to specify in more detail of what he is guilty. In the case mentioned, I may have been guilty of using bad judgment. I may have been accused of having fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but that does not make it so. So, if you take the position that I was guilty of condoning false doctrine and having fellowship with those who taught it, and you withdraw from me, and then you assume that you are required to withdraw from everyone else that does not agree with your accusation of me, you have opened a can or worms or a Pandora’s box that will be devastating in its consequences. Let us clearly understand that point: You have the right and responsibility to not have fellowship with those who teach doctrines that pervert the gospel, corrupt the worship or lead to immorality. You do not have the right to refuse to have fellowship with a person who may have used bad judgment in some kind of association with such persons, but who does not either teach or approve of the fatal false doctrines.
Let me summarize by saying: It is one thing to make a mistake about some point of Bible doctrine, and another thing to teach a doctrine that destroys a soul. It is one thing to make a mistake in judgment about some activity, and another to deliberately uphold some sinful act or doctrine. It is a sin to cause division, hate, confusion and strife about things that are matters of judgment. It is improper to associate with sinful persons and false teachers if that association automatically involves you in upholding their sinful lives or false doctrine. But to assume that if I associate with someone who associated with someone who associated with someone who did wrong, I am therefore approving of that wrong, and should therefore be disfellowshipped, is unwarranted, improper and destructive. Let us be careful that we make the proper distinctions when we can.
There is so much liberalism, destructive false doctrine and lack of concern for Bible teaching, and so many things for which we need to fight the good fight of faith, when we spend our time and energy in fighting for things that are matters of opinion, we do great damage to the cause of Christ. Of course no one who is waging such a warfare would call those things matters of opinion, for apparently all of their opinions are matters of faith, and all who act differently are involved in heresy.