Devoted to the Propagation and Defense of New Testament Christianity
July 17, 1969
NUMBER 11, PAGE 3b,5b-6

Fellowship With "Liberals"

William E. Wallace

To fellowship or not to fellowship, this is the question. When one gets this settled he will likely twirl around in a theological doodle-bug hole seeking adequate definitions and consistent policies.

A number of commendable dissertations and essays on the subject of fellowship have been offered. Also, a number of less worthy approaches on the matter are in circulation. It seems that if a semi or pseudo theologian has some program or ideology to advance, for the saving of the church, he has his own slant on fellowship to go with it. On the other hand, the fellow who sees everything in black or white, without consideration of shades or trends, is likely to be arbitrary and exclusive in the extreme.

It seems natural and right to sever approving relationships from folks like the man in I Corinthians 5, or from one like the character of I Thessalonians 3:6, or of Titus 3:10. But I find myself being pulled by what the apostle Paul taught in Romans 14 and I Corinthians 8 and 10.

It alarms me a little, to contemplate the possibility of my "fellowshipping" those whom Christ wouldn't have, or disfellowshipping some that Christ possesses. I want to be cautious, yet not so theologically cautious as to be soft toward that about which the Bible requires a hard-nosed attitude.

The ideas held on fellowship have not allowed me to disfellowship my 'liberal' brethren over such things as institutionalism, sponsoring churches, and unlimited benevolence. But I do not want to have anything to do with what they are doing, because I think they are unscriptural in what they are doing. I have disfellowshipped some of them, or have been involved in a disfellowshipping of some of them, on the basis of what they did in the way of tearing up a local church. My attitudes and actions have been tantamount to the disfellowshipping of some 'liberal' brethren whom I thought to be rascals in their attitude, methods, and weaponry. However, I can say in good conscience, I have not disfellowshipped brethren or churches merely over church support of institutions, sponsoring church arrangements, and unlimited benevolence. I would not feel secure in consigning them to hell on these matters. I would prefer to let God do the judging in this realm, although unlawfulness on their part is involved.

I would not hold membership in a congregation where a "liberal" policy is expedited in the "issues" mentioned in this article. I would go elsewhere, or help to start another church, if I couldn't get them out of the "liberal" trend. But I would not disfellowship the "liberals" merely on the basis of these issues. In a congregation where there is hard-core divided sentiment over the issues, I would recommend a peaceful, non-factious separation, if the 'liberal' side insisted on promoting the 'liberal' projects. Such a division is not a schism. When separation comes due to the "flesh" (Gal. 5:20), and there have been many such divisions, the opposing groups may indeed be factious.

Stand Off And Remain Aloof

So, what is my attitude? Two words describe my personal view of 'liberal' brethren and 'liberal' projects. (I think the use of liberal within quotation marks — 'liberal' — will become fashionable in order to distinguish from classical liberalism or modernism.) The two words describing my attitude are "stand-off-ishness" and "aloofness." Conviction leads me to stand off from identification with `liberal' brethren and to remain aloof from their promotions. I cannot conscientiously serve as a member in one of their congregations nor deliberately encourage their promotions. But I can hold and enjoy some degree of fellowship with them — how much fellowship depends on how nice they are to me and how kind I am to them. They are not likely to be overly impressed with my being kind to them, and I'll not be swept off my feet by their niceties. But it seems that all children of God who enjoy the possibility of being in fellowship with God ought to be nice and kind to one another.

My stand-off-ish-ness and aloofness will not allow me to act toward 'liberal' brethren and churches as if nothing of importance exists between us. So I would not announce their meetings and programs indiscriminately, in a way that might minimize differences in the eyes of "my brethren" or encourage a softening of conviction. (My brethren — another term made special by use of quotations — 'my brethren'). I want to be careful not to leave the impression that I have softened or that I am following a new line to the effect "that all is well between us so let us de-escalate our opposition."

The things liberals are doing are important, vital. They are important deviations from New Testament authority and involve detrimental trends which gnaw at the vitals of New Testament ways and means. So I'll stand off from these promotions and try to remain aloof from anything that might smack of endorsement or unscriptural projects.

Brethren who have something to offer in this matter of fellowship, in the way of teaching, will find their audiences less susceptible to teaching if they presume to know all there is to know on the subject, or if they appear to go way out in the left field of intellectual libertinism, or if they apparently bog down in sticky and cruel Phariseeism.

Until I can see something in scripture which I do not see right now, I'll still fellowship my "liberal" brethren if they act alright, if they will have me. It is like I told some of them in a meeting at this year's Abilene Christian College lectures: "We are not about to give up our opposition to things we have opposed in the past, but we are moving out of an era of bitterness and recrimination..." I wish I could help get 'liberals' out of their unscriptural projects, but it will not help them or me if I disfellowship them, or they me.

In the face of modernism splitting the ranks of "liberals," the human element almost has me saying, "We told you so." But we must be careful. We have some of that stuff among us too, among us 'conservatives' (might as well put conservative in quotes too). They have their problems and we have ours. We both are endangered by real theological modernism. But their projects and centralizations make their ranks more susceptible to the sweeping influence of modernism. Modernism will not hurt us as badly as it will hurt them. We ought to be concerned about how badly it will hurt them. We can contribute something to the fight they wage against modernism while we try to limit its influence in our own ranks.

It seems that our common enemy — modernism — offers a challenge in the realm of fellowship, and I wonder what our common problem might do to us, or for us. Fighting on the same front in this battle might in some way draw us closer together in this thing called fellowship. It is a good thing — this thing called fellowship. We would do well to be cautious about refusing to enjoy it with those to whom God extends it. On the other hand, we must be careful not to extend fellowship to those from whom God has withdrawn it.

From what we read about the brotherhood of New Testament times there is at least some room for a little diversity within the one fellowship. Romans 14, I Corinthians 8 and 10 are cases in point. When the diversity is as great as that created by the Judaizers (Gal. 5:4), then it is time to sever relationship from those in error. The broad fellowship advocated in the ecumenical movement, and by ultra-liberals among churches of Christ, is not based on biblical principles. It is contrary to biblical principles — unscriptural, dangerous... wrong.

I fear that our 'liberal' brethren are walking the same road on which the Disciples of Christ (Christian Church) walked, the road which carried the Disciples into their organizational "restructure." Our 'liberal' brethren who are not modernists are digressing, but they are not digressive. They are drifting, but they are not gone. They are caught in a trend, but they are not over the hump. It is important that we recognize that there are different degrees or stages in the "liberal" ranks. We cannot accurately stenotype them as one, nor can we rightfully represent all of them as accepting all the various innovations of "liberalism." They are not united. They are much divided.

Personally, I would not hesitate to participate in a local skirmish with "liberal" brethren for the saving of a church from them or a salvaging of a remnant out of them. At this writing I am planning on engaging in just such an operation in a Texas town. But I hope we are leaving an era when bitter battles are necessary. I would rather see peaceful separations with proper attitudes manifested, lines of communication maintained, and some sort of fellowshipped continued.