(Sixth of eight installments)
As we continue to consider the beauty and joy of Christian fellowship, we recognize that the biggest threat to such fellowship is the intrusion of false teaching. Our Lord has told us what to do when false teaching takes over some earthly organization. We are to take note of such a group and avoid it in order to remain faithful to the teaching of our Lord.
But we need to remember always that this avoiding of persons who promote false teaching is not the same as excommunication. We are not declaring that those who are in groups where false teachers are tolerated are unbelievers. That is a determination only the Lord can make. Christ our Lord declared the congregation in Sardis to be a “dead” church, and yet He said: “You have a few names even in Sardis who have not defiled their garments; and they shall walk with Me in white, for they are worthy” (Revelation 3:1, 4). He had His own also in the congregations in Pergamos and Thyatira where false teachers called Nicolaitans were tolerated, contrary to His will. “Thus you also have those who hold the doctrine of the Nicolaitans, which thing I hate. Repent…” (Revelation 2:15-16).
We need to abide by the two watchwords which St. Paul gave to Timothy. “The solid foundation of God stands, having this seal: ‘The Lord knows those who are His,’ and, ‘Let everyone who names the name of Christ depart from iniquity’” (2 Timothy 2:19). We know and believe there is a Christian community in the world known only to God. It consists of all the believers in Christ. All of these are in fellowship with God and with their fellow-Christians in an inward fellowship of which we also are part as believers in Jesus, although we cannot practice fellowship with all such while on the Earth. Martin Luther could not outwardly express his fellowship with the adherents of the pope or the followers of Zwingli or the many that were misled by the Anabaptists and other sects. Yet he confessed in his Large Catechism: “I believe that there is on earth a holy little flock and community of pure saints under one head, Christ. It is called together by the Holy Spirit in one faith, mind, and understanding. It possesses a variety of gifts, and yet is united in love without sect or schism. Of this community I also am a part and member, a participant and co-partner in all the blessings it possesses” (The Book of Concord: Large Catechism, Third Article, #51 – Kolb-Wengert Edition, pp. 437-438). As Christians we rejoice whenever we hear Christian truth from any source and when we see evidence of truly Christian behavior.
But we dare not forget the second watchword, where we are told that every Christian should “depart from iniquity.” False teaching is such iniquity, and our Lord does not want us to make common cause with adherents of any kind of false teaching. Such a stand in obedience to the Lord’s Word has often brought about accusations of pride, arrogance, selfishness, and stubbornness from those who want to be tolerant of false teaching. Think of how often the people of Israel mistreated God’s prophets among them. Think of the persecutions endured by the apostles of Christ. Those guilty of persecution may not only be persons outside the churches but also persons calling themselves Christian. Jesus once said to His apostles: “The time is coming that whoever kills you will think that he offers God service” (John 16:2).
We should not be unduly troubled by false accusation, verbal threats, or even physical persecution, for as long as we are trusting in Jesus for salvation and following His Word, we are part of His fellowship and true partners with all true Christians in the whole world.
In the midst of earthly distress we long for the day when we shall be able to enjoy the perfect beauty and joy of Christian fellowship with all Christians everywhere—after Jesus returns to take all of His own to be with Him forever.
(to be continued)