Whenever the Gospel is truly preached we must rejoice that this is so, even if the one preaching it does not as yet understand all things precisely as we do. This is seen from Mk. 9:38-40: “And John answered him, saying, Master, we saw one casting out devils in thy name, and he followeth not us: and we forbade him, because he followeth not us. But Jesus said, Forbid him not: for there is no man which shall do a miracle in my name, that can lightly speak evil of me. For he that is not against us is on our part.” This man was obviously a disciple of the Lord Jesus, even though he was not a member of the apostolic band. Many “follow not with us” who are yet genuine servants of Christ, and we must rejoice in their work for the Lord, even if there are some things about it which are defective. After all, we are not without errors and faults ourselves!
This does not mean that we should not expose the errors of one who is a brother in Christ. Error must be opposed no matter where it is found (Gal. 2:11). Nevertheless, even where we have to oppose a true Christian’s doctrinal errors, we are still to rejoice for the truth he does preach.
We will at times have doctrinal differences with other believers. But even so, if they are truly converted, giving evidence of being our brethren in the Lord, fighting the same foe, we are on the same side – the Lord’s side – and we should praise the Lord for it. They are our brethren, albeit “brethren in the other ship” (Lk. 5:6,7)?
We must be zealous for the truth, holding it fast and not budging an inch in defending it (Jude v.3; Phil. 1:17; Tit. 1:9). But at the same time we must be big enough to recognise that the Lord has His true followers out there, who are growing in grace and in the knowledge of Christ (2 Pet. 3:18) just as we are, but who are at different levels of understanding on various issues. We must be wise enough to “judge between cattle and cattle” (Ezek. 34:22); to discern the difference between the true and the false brother.
3. What is Essential for Fellowship Between Christians and Churches?
Accepting, then, that all Christians are at different stages of understanding and growth, what is essential for fellowship between churches and Christians, and what is not? In other words, where do we draw the line?
In these evil ecumenical times, when all kinds of professing churches are holding “fellowship” with one another, ignoring differences of doctrine and practice, enthusiastically holding hands and saying that doctrine does not matter and all that matters is love, it is not surprising that many of the Lord’s flock, desiring to remain separate from such satanic counterfeits of true unity, are confused as to where to draw the line.
It is necessary to ascertain, as far as possible, who are genuine Christians and who are not. We must “try the spirits whether they are of God” (1 Jn. 4:1). If they are not, then our duty is clear: we must not join in fellowship with them. But if they are, then we must receive them as brethren, even though they may not be precisely in agreement with us on every single matter of doctrine and practice.
Two tests must be applied: the test of doctrine, and the test of conduct (or what the Bible calls fruit). “Free intercourse and mutual confidence between the churches is very desirable, and every one should labor to promote it; but purity of doctrine and practice should never be sacrificed to effect it” (John Dagg). These are two sides of the same coin, and we must not focus on only one. Many appear to live outwardly godly lives who are heretics in doctrine; and many are sound in doctrine who live ungodly lives.
4. Doctrines Essential for Salvation Are Essential for Fellowship
There are certain doctrines of the faith which are essential to be known and believed for salvation; and thus they are also essential for fellowship between professing Christians. If a man rejects these, he is not as yet a true Christian – it does not matter what other truths he may hold, nor how godly his life may appear to be.
But let us be clear. This does not mean that we are saved by an intellectual acceptance of certain doctrines! We are saved solely by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ (Eph. 2:8,9). But it is Christ as He is revealed in the Gospel, and thus there are doctrines which are basic to the Gospel, and without which there is no Gospel at all. A person must have at least some understanding of the basic truths of the Gospel, pertaining to the nature of God, the Person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ, repentance toward God, and faith in Christ.
Rom. 6:17 says, “But God be thanked, that ye were the servants of sin, but ye have obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine which was delivered you.” We believe in Christ unto salvation – yet this verse says we have obeyed from the heart a form of doctrine! John Gill has some excellent comments on this: “By the form of doctrine, is meant the Gospel, which is the doctrine of the Scriptures, of Christ and his apostles, and is sound and according to godliness; and is a form, or contains a summary and compendium of truths, and is a pattern or exemplar, according to which ministers are to preach, and people to hear and receive…. This form of doctrine was obeyed by them; by which is meant, not a mere obedience to the ordinances of the Gospel; nor a bare hearing of the doctrines of it, and giving an assent unto them; but an embracing of them by faith for themselves, so as to lay hold on Christ in them, submit to his righteousness therein revealed, and be willing to be saved by him, and him alone, in his own way; and this is the obedience of faith… And this obedience did not lie in words, or proceed on mercenary views, and in an hypocritical way; but was from the heart; and was real and sincere: and good reason there is why a hearty, cheerful, and voluntary obedience should be yielded to the Gospel”.
To believe with saving faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, we have to know who He truly is, and what man’s true and terrible condition really is. “For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Rom. 10:13) – yes; but so many quote this verse and ignore the next one: “How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard?” (v.14). In order to believe in Christ, men must know who Christ is. This means they must know the truth regarding Christ and His great salvation, i.e. the true doctrine about Christ!
1 Cor.15:1-4 says: “Moreover, brethren, I declare unto you the gospel which I preached unto you, which also ye have received, and wherein ye stand; by which also ye are saved, if ye keep in memory [“hold fast”, as the marginal note puts it] what I preached unto you, unless ye have believed in vain. For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; and that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures”. In these words we have the Gospel presented in a nutshell. It is only briefly stated, and there is certainly more to it than this, but even so these verses contain essential aspects of the Gospel: that Christ died for sins (which means it is necessary to know who Christ truly is; what sin is; etc.); that He was buried, and resurrected (which must include the basic reasons for his death, burial and resurrection); etc.
When the Ethiopian eunuch desired to know who Isaiah was prophesying about in his great book, Acts 8:35 says, “Then Philip opened his mouth, and began at the same scripture, and preached unto him Jesus.” Jesus Christ must be preached to the lost! And this takes time. Philip’s sermon was not some short, “Just believe in Jesus” nonsense, as is so commonly preached by many today. He began at the Scripture in Isaiah, but he did not stop there. He went on, preaching fully and comprehensively about the Lord Jesus Christ, His Person, work, etc.