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Fellowship and Controversy

When error is taught religiously, history shows people to be divided into one of three groups.  First, there are those who advocate the error.  Second, there are those who combat the error.  And, finally, there are those who seek to minimize the differences, thus compromising with the error.  Issues in the past 150 years have shown this to be true with the battles over the instrument in worship, and with the institutional issues that troubled brethren in the middle of the last century.

The same circumstance can be seen in the division of brethren over what the Bible teaches concerning marriage and divorce.   There are the false teachers who advocate the error, the faithful brethren who combat the error, and a sizable number of brethren who seek to maintain fellowship with those who teach the error.  As is commonly the case, the compromisers have turned to the 14th chapter of Romans, abusing that text in an attempt to justify their compromise with the false teacher.

In the November 1988 issue of Christianity Magazine, co-editor Ed Harrell gave voice to the compromising spirit in his “personal defense” of Homer Hailey.  In his life, Hailey taught that the alien sinner is not amenable to Christ’s teaching on divorce and remarriage.  He published a book on the subject entitled, The Divorce and Remarried Who Would Come to God.    Despite  his  error,  Hailey has enjoyed a good reputation among some brethren.  Interestingly, he continues to be defended by many, who refuse to label him as a false teacher.  Also interesting is  the fact  that he  has had  a book  published posthumously  that  denies  the Bible teaching concerning the eternal condemnation of the wicked.  This new book indicates another subject where Hailey leads others astray with this teaching of error.  Despite such error, note the following attitude expressed by Harrell in his article:

“I suspect that most people  who invite Homer Hailey to preach do so because they admire his life and have been enriched by his preaching, in spite of his views on divorce and remarriage.  He is a great and a good man, and brethren have sought to use him and to honor him.  At this late date, he deserves nothing less.”

Harrell began a lengthy series of articles examining the “Bounds of Christian Unity” in the February 1989 issue of Christianity Magazine.  The articles gave a rationale for the continued fellowship of some who teach error.  This series must be examined and understood in light of the error Hailey and others have taught on the divorce and remarriage issue.  It has been trumpeted as a legitimate basis for continued fellowship with those who teach error.  In the May 1989 issue of the magazine, he wrote the following:

“It is obvious that Christians sometimes disagree about scriptural instruction, even in matters of considerable moral and doctrinal import.  In spite of these disagreements, we work and worship together, leaving many matters of individual judgment in the hands of God.  That behavior, uniformly practiced throughout the history of Christianity is, I believe, the issue addressed in Romans 14.”

In the years that have followed, brethren have taken this erroneous principle and applied it to numerous instances of false teaching.  They have advocated the continued fellowship of men who have denied the literal account of creation, who have denied the deity of Jesus Christ, who have denied the exclusive pattern of a first day of the week observance of the Lord’s Supper, and who have advocated lax standards of morality and righteousness.  While some would limit the application in the chapter only to those who advocate error, some include in the application those who practice sin, thus opening the door to fellowship with the immoral, immodest, and even the adulterer.

A careful reading of the 14th chapter of Romans shows their treatment of the text to be an abuse of the passage.  The context advocates a continued fellowship in differences that are of no consequence to God.  In the two scenarios presented by the Apostle, no sin was involved.  A man could eat meat or not eat meat, and please God (vs. 3).  A man could observe a day or not observe a day, and please God (vs. 6).  Such things do not matter to God (cf. 1 Cor. 8:8), so we should not divide concerning them.  Therefore, God instructs, “Receive one who is weak in the faith, but not to disputes over doubtful things” (Romans 14:1).

That doctrinal error and sinful practices are not included in Paul’s instructions to “receive one” is evident not only by the immediate context, but by the greater context of the epistle.  Notice that Paul later in the epistle (chapter 16) wrote, “Now I urge you, brethren, note those who cause divisions and offenses, contrary to the doctrine which you learned, and avoid them” (vs. 17).  If the limitation of chapter 14 was not present, these two passages would be contradictory.

God demands that doctrinal error be rooted out. (1 John 4:1).  We are to mark and avoid those who teach contrary to the learned doctrine (Romans 16:17).  Paul declares a curse against those who teach another gospel (Galatians 1:6-9).  Paul exposed the names of those who advocated error (1 Tim. 1:20; 2 Tim. 2:17), and those who had sinned (2 Tim. 4:10,14).  Even Peter did not avoid Paul’s censure for his public transgression (Gal. 2:10).  Peter later indicated that those who twisted Paul’s teaching, or that of any scripture, brought about “their own destruction” (2 Pet. 3:16).  Paul warned about those who would compromise, “For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables” (2 Tim. 4:3-4).

In the face of such compromise, error must be rooted out, and the truth must be defended.  Paul told Timothy, “But you be watchful in all things” (vs. 5), and  Jude exhorted, “…Contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (vs. 3).

Concerning the Bible teaching on Divorce and Remarriage, the truth is clear:  One man, one woman, for a lifetime. Jesus established only one exception to this rule, “fornication.”  Anyone who does not teach and practice this doctrine must be rejected by those who love truth, and those who desire fellowship with the Lord (cf. 2 John 9-11).