Recycled "Open Fellowship" Concerns

by Aubrey Belue

Solomon truly said, “The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun. Is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new? it hath been already of old time, which was before us” (Ecclesiastes 1:9-10).

Each generation may be approached by methods and teachings which vary, but the underlying problems and mindsets which produce apostasy are prone to repetition, and must be overcome by each generation of saints.

Once more, God’s true church is under siege, and because of the same old issues which have repeatedly been confronted, merely appearing in new clothes.  From a personal perspective, I have been trying to preach the gospel for over 60 years, and thus have lived long enough to observe several of these “Cycles”.  They continually come up because of the nature of God’s kingdom, and the intended exclusiveness of it.  The divine plan is too exclusive for some, and so repeated efforts are made to blur the line between truth and error, and provide for accommodation with those whom God would exclude from the “fellowship”.  Once more, we are confronted with the “untaught” zeal and good intentions of men – usually young, highly intelligent men – who are trying to rewrite church history and diminish divine boundaries.  Their design is to focus on the areas of agreement, and largely ignore the differences that are stipulated in Scripture.  Their preaching is “inclusive” and urges the acceptance of those who are clearly outside the practice of truth.  The unintended consequence of their work is not to bring unity, but merely to “rearrange” the boundaries that divide.  The effort to broaden the areas of “fellowship” has created division with a different constituency – now, in order to include those who are guilty of innovations in worship and work, they would exclude (or force to leave)  those who hold to the original pattern.  I continually read from the writings of such men, and warn you that the scriptures introduced below may be new to you – if you are depending on their teaching, these passages are  rarely are referred to!  Careful and correct textual study is not their strong point! Instead, there is an obvious selective use of certain passages, and a prevailing lack in using others.  There is also a prevailing disinclination to defend these “new” ideas, and when they have their way there is no discussion of contrasting views (which in itself should alert us to the likelihood of error – Jude 3; I Peter 3:15; etc.) These are tactics we are familiar with, because denominational teachers have used them for years.  It is also typical that they come to work with a congregation without revealing their true agenda, and only gradually, over time, do they fully disclose their concept of “truth”.  And, most sadly, there is nothing “new” in what is going on!  The “special insight” they profess to have is nothing but dressed up compromise! Their “piety” and “concern for truth” is nothing more than an arrogant reframing of divine grace to replace it with their own.

First, we need to look at what God wants for His people.

The people of God are “called out” of “darkness”, into “light” (Colossians 1:13-14), and are expected to maintain a “separation” –a separation which is accomplished by applying the “light”, abiding within the law of God — from worldliness

"Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness? And what concord hath Christ with Belial? or what part hath he that believeth with an infidel? And what agreement hath the temple of God with idols? for ye are the temple of the living God; as God hath said, I will dwell in them, and walk in them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing; and I will receive you, And will be a Father unto you, and ye shall be my sons and daughters, saith the Lord Almighty" (II Corinthians 6:14-18).

and from the “words of men”

"For this cause also thank we God without ceasing, because, when ye received the word of God which ye heard of us, ye received it not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God, which effectually worketh also in you that believe" (I Thessalonians 2:13).

"Ye hypocrites, well did Esaias prophesy of you, saying, This people draweth nigh unto me with their mouth, and honoureth me with their lips; but their heart is far from me. But in vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men" (Matthew 15:7-9).

These men have indirectly inferred that the scripture is not clear enough regarding the majority of doctrinal and practical issues, and that people who err regarding them must be allowed to remain in fellowship with those who realize that they are unscriptural.  But, we must trust God to say exactly what needs to be said, and to even hint that His word is not clear is to question His choice of words.  The fact that some it may not be clear to some of us lays the cause of such ambiguity at OUR feet, not His.  Our response to His word is not measured by our personal understanding of it, but what it actually teaches. The fact that some of us may not be clear on all issues does not remove our responsibility to take appropriate action when we do understand it. It would certainly be in order to teach those who believe wrongly, but we are taught clearly how to deal with those in error.

"Whosoever transgresseth, and abideth not in the doctrine of Christ, hath not God. He that abideth in the doctrine of Christ, he hath both the Father and the Son. 10 If there come any unto you, and bring not this doctrine, receive him not into your house, neither bid him God speed: 11 For he that biddeth him God speed is partaker of his evil deeds" (II John 1:9).

"And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather reprove them" (Ephesians 5:11).

"Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offences contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them" (Romans 16:17).

Over and over, God calls for watchfulness, and repeatedly warns of false teachers and their danger. Why do these men minimize this warning, and rarely refer to that message, which is more common in the New Testament than the affirmation of the need for “faith”?

A Bit of History

As we indicated by our title, and in the first part of this article, this compromise with error is not new.

  1. In the 1930's brethren James deForest Murch and Claude F. Witty promoted a “unity movement” designed to bring the Christian church and Churches of Christ together.  Judging those who advocated instrumental music and societies as “spiritual” and desirous of harmony, it was suggested that these issues need not cause division.  These men were before their time, and such rank compromise did not get very far among brethren.
  2. Carl Ketcherside, along with some others, in the 1950's, “discovered” that the church, instead of seeking a ground for unity among believers, was too rigid and unbending in holding forth a “pattern” for proper individual and collective action. Ironically, he had been one of the chief offenders in railing against “located preachers” and other things, and had caused many congregations to split over his contention. In a complete reversal, he began to advocate tolerance and inclusion at the expense of many of the things he had formerly insisted upon – among which were some of the doctrines which distinguished God’s church from human imitations.  His contention was that differences over such things did not actually matter, and should not come before “unity” among believers.  To achieve this condition, he made an unscriptural distinction between “gospel” and “doctrine”, insisting that “gospel” (plan of salvation, etc.) must have agreement but that “doctrine” (everything else) need not.  According to him, matters of contention such as the instrument, institutional homes, etc., were matters of “doctrine” and could be endured.  Again, most churches and individuals were not “ready” for such an inclusive step, and minimal damage resulted.
  3. In the 1970's, a group of younger men (Ed Fudge, Bill Roper, Mike Tanner, etc.) were attracted to a comprehensive idea of “grace”, which stressed a “spiritual relationship” with God which did not necessarily demand agreement on practical doctrinal issues.  Minimizing the human element, they put forth the idea that salvation was “wholly” of God, and human works were not critical. Maintaining a different view of the “doctrine of Christ” in II John, and an umbrella of “walking in the light” (I John 1) which claimed that God continually cleansed one even from errors of ignorance and even in spite of them, they claimed that these errors were not serious enough to exclude their proponents from fellowship among brethren.
  4. Currently, we have a new crop of such men, young for the most part, highly intelligent and capable, who are directing their talents toward blurring the lines between truth and error, and are involved in the same old tired efforts to make fellowship among brethren more inclusive. Based on their own definition of “legalism” and “works salvation”, they are trying to rub out the boundaries of “unity”, and replace the “key of knowledge” with their own key.  The logical end of their efforts is to render the church inter-denominational and powerless to confront the true threats to Biblical unity.  Unfortunately, for true believers, they come along a t a time when many have a weakened sense of “separateness”, and there is not nearly the overall commitment to truth as a basis for unity – so the brotherhood is much more vulnerable to their mistaken ideas.


All of these “movements” have certain things in common.

In every case, the emphasis is shifted from “truth” to “unity”.

Biblically, “unity” is subordinate to “truth”

"But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, and easy to be intreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy. And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace of them that make peace" (James 3:17-18).

In all of these ripples of discontent such thoughts are prominent.  Currently, we hear the excuses that we lack “clarity” on issues which leads to likely misinterpretation or disagreements, and that since we are inconsistent in reaching our conclusions we are therefore limited in our strict application of various doctrines.  The real ground for determining fellowship is said to be to judge the intentions of those who believe, not the actions which may or may not be valid.  Do we not see a problem here?   The heart is God’s area of expertise, and actions are what men must judge each other by, and which will even be the basis upon which God judges as well!  (Matthew 25:31-46; II Corinthians 5:10; Revelation 20:12-15)  He does expect sincerity and honest intentions, but these must accompany proper action, not replace it!

In every case, the “enemy” is “traditionalism” or “legalism”.

The avenue in each of these movements to the goal is to identify the prevailing practice as an unholy “legalism”, and indict the brotherhood as steeped in a legalistic “traditionalism”.  Either of these two “isms” is holy, or unholy, depending upon your definition of these terms.  When “legalism” is defined as adhering to the letter of the law, not the spirit, it does not define prevailing activity, nor is it condoned by either group!  If by the term is meant “going strictly according to the word of God”, it is right for us to do so! The word “tradition” simply means acting according to accepted custom, and its being right or wrong is judged by the source of the custom!  The purpose of hijacking these terms is to undermine the idea that there is a fixed pattern, or ideal, which properly define the people of God.  The thought is, we should not be held to a stipulated code of action, and are not bound to be exactly right in what we believe and practice.

In every case, the “remedy” is “greater spiritual insight”, and “deeper understanding of faith”.

The proponents of this “larger fellowship” constitute modern-day “gnosticism”.  In the first century, the church was plagued by an intellectually elite element, where its advocates claimed a “special knowledge” of God’s will, and did not respect opposing views because their proponents had not arrived at this “special knowledge”.  In order, they say, to understand the approved method of dealing with doctrinal and practical differences, we must dig deeper, and open our hearts to a special kind of understanding, so that we will just “know” how important it is for us to coexist with erring brethren.

In every case, the approach is “more love, less judgmental attitude”.

It is automatically inferred that those who hold out for agreement in teaching and practical matters have not attained to the proper level of concern for mutual association and interaction.  “If we loved one another more, we would not apply God’s law of separation so strictly.” “If a person is sincere, and shows a continued desire to unite, we must not invoke God’s boundaries”. It is also inferred that, in time past, and since most brethren pushed for a distinctive body of instruction, and a fellowship based on the truths that we knew, that it was our rigidity and lack of love for the brethren we would not fellowship that created and expanded the “ditch” between the “legalist” and the “spiritually minded ones who might have ignorantly fallen into some doctrinal error. When we see men engaging in what we “know” is unscriptural, we must see them as the “ignorant”, and patiently bear with them without being so judgmental.

In every case, the attitude is to be less confrontational and argumentative, more accepting of others.

Militancy is frowned upon, and even more so the air of certainty possessed by those who are convinced that the Bible actually limits what we can agree with and who we can agree to.  You will not hear these men in a forceful advocacy of Bible truth, or a defining disagreement with error.  We are cautioned to forego arguments, and not strive for an open confrontation with those on the “other side”.  These brethren with “special insights” are too loving and kind to ever suggest that others need to conform to the truth, or who look with favor on having their own pronouncements questioned.  A formal debate will be out of the question.

In every case, there is an attack on Bible authority and essential conditions for divine and human fellowship.

We are now being told that the Bible is a “guideline” and not a “rule book”.   It is out of order for us to call for “bible proof” for what we teach and practice, and it is certainly too much to expect to find a settled authority upon which to base our actions. Using a divine command, or an accepted apostolic practice, as an effectual foundation for action, or a basis for condemnation, is both unworkable, and against the spirit of Christianity.

In every case, there is a major diminishing or modifying of the foundations which separate true disciples from pretenders.

In every case, the advancement of the “cause” is progressive.

Beginning in the apparent common  understanding  of distinctive brotherhood tenets, and as confidence is strengthened, the gradual introduction of more heretical aspects of the overall agenda.

In every case, the movement is spearheaded by serious, “spiritual” and highly intelligent men who appear to be devoted to the kingdom.

In every case, these men obviously had more in common with those responsible for the innovations that had divided brethren, and eventually joined their fellowship on the way to areas even more liberal. 

They studied more from such men, they associated more with such men, and defended such men in the conflicts which existed.


Today’s movement is different in that it comes during a time in which strong “Bible proof text” preaching which sharply defines doctrinal error and its consequences has become almost a thing of the past.  Congregations are full of disciples who have been brought up on the teaching of platitudes, and a steady dose of love and tolerance. [There are still many disciples who thirst for a more robust diet that includes constant reminders of the dangers we face, and the solutions the Bible gives.]  I do not claim to be the “poster boy” for such content, but I personally am told by brethren wherever I teach publicly that they do not hear much of what I teach in the pulpit and from teachers generally.  Only the devil’s side of issues like that are being offered, and one of the surest ways to draw criticism is to speak openly of troublesome doctrines, or the danger of compromising with false doctrine, and to specifically identify the offenders.  In this environment, things like “love” and “peace” (without including the necessary components of limits and indications) are extremely attractive to a brotherhood that is tired of “fighting”.

In a word, the solution to such a threatening situation is balance.

Perhaps in past years the emphasis has almost entirely been that of doctrinal purity, distinctive marks of true disciples and congregations, with too little being said about attitudes and considerate treatment of others.  But, today, almost the entire content of teaching from such men is to talk of spirituality, toleration, and potential for growth which allows for an endless coexistence of competing doctrinal beliefs. I am reading from the websites of such men and the congregations where they work, where lip service is paid to “truth”, and then  the substance of their message is in opposition to it.

We should applaud reminders that we must be more concerned about manifesting the right attitude, and not diminish our efforts to maintain doctrinal and practical purity.

There must remain forums of intense discussion of the various points of view, and these teachers (and all others) should continually be called upon to justify scripturally the message they bring.  Instead of diminishing, the frequency of such forums and encounters should be multiplying! We must try to rebuild the atmosphere which prevailed in Berea (Acts 17:11), where there was a ready mind to study, but a strong commitment to verify the things taught.  On a practical level, keep your guard up!  There is no sign on the forehead of the errorist which says “false teacher”!  Jesus said, “by their fruits shall ye know them” (Matthew 7:15-21).  Paul warned us that the agents of Satan would appear as “angels of light” (II Corinthians 11:13-15).

Peter describes “false teachers ... among you who privily bring in damnable heresies ...” (II Pet 2:1).

The hallmark of these men is NOT openness.  Many times saints “never see it coming”.  They are lulled into a comfortable spirit of toleration, and gradually succumb to such denominational ideas as “faith only”, and a condemnation of “works salvation”.  Truths like “nobody is perfect” are used to suggest we must not make our own understanding of truth a consideration with regards to fellowship.

Not surprisingly, these men are basically untaught in the fundamental nature of Christianity, and the clear doctrinal foundation of God’s kingdom and work.  Their errors begin in such areas as the relation between faith and works, the extent of grace, and the limits of God’s approval.  To them, every Bible doctrine is suspect, and must be re-examined in the light of a “more enlightened” view of grace, faith, and works. For them, the very content of a given passage is subject to a variety of interpretations, and men cannot be blamed for getting it wrong.  (It does not seem to occur to them that this reveals their degraded view of the actual power and wisdom of God – He wrote it, how could it not be perfect?)