Doctrinal Basis for Fellowship

My last post on fellowship was pretty straightforward, and it provided some basic principles that I think would be fairly universally accepted among believers. From this high view, it would seem like this fellowship thing is a piece of cake. But I have found the subject of fellowship, its nuances and its application to be difficult, and I do not think I am alone in that assessment. By way of reminder, in my last post I provided a three-pronged basis for unity: relationship with God, a common truth and a common practice of righteousness. The consideration of doctrinal fellowship would mainly fall under the category of a common truth above, and I have found this aspect to be particularly difficult with a wide variety of approaches. This is particularly true when considering the doctrinal basis of fellowship.

As I reflect on this, I’ll provide some different categories I have seen for approaching fellowship on a doctrinal basis. Some of these I like better than others, but I may not have some definite answers on these.

  • One category of doctrine – the unessential. In this view, doctrine does not matter at all. Some suggest that any search for the divine, whether in the form of Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, etc. is acceptable because all roads lead to the same place. This is increasingly popular in a world approaching extreme relativism, but frankly, it is not Christianity.
  • Two categories of doctrine – essential and non-essential. This view categorizes a doctrine as either essential or unessential. In other words, agreement is completely necessary for the essential items. To step outside of the essential category is to step outside the bounds of Christ and should be considered unChristian. Every other doctrine not considered essential is, of course, non-essential and often considered unimportant.
  • Three categories of doctrine – essential, important and non-essential. This view expands upon the last one with an additional category. There are still the groupings of essential and non-essential. Certain doctrines are absolutely necessary to be considered a Christian and other doctrines should never reach that status. This view adds another grouping of teachings in between these two. Important doctrines are not central enough to discount another as a Christian, but they are not unimportant either. They are important, and they should be studied because they impact the life of the Christian, often in big ways.

These three options provide a skeletal framework for thinking about fellowship on the basis of doctrinal agreement.

The first option seems untenable to me. I present it as an extreme, but it seems that I have heard several who have espoused something similar. The doctrine of Christ becomes so watered down in this view that it ceases to mean anything at all. With that said, we should grant a respect for practitioners of other religious faiths and rejoice in moral living. We can live in peace and societal cooperation with other faiths and fully illustrate the message of Christ while working with people of other faiths. But, this view of unity minimizes the common truth that Christians share.

Even with the last two options, decisions must still be made like what exactly should be considered essential. This means that the last two options do not necessarily represent “liberal” or “conservative” (I don’t like those terms, but I can’t think of any others to use). Those more liberal-minded may determine that a small amount of doctrinal agreement is necessary and everything else is unimportant. Conservatives may determine that a large amount of doctrinal agreement is vital and there should be a relatively small amount of disagreement.

Either way you go, I think all Christians must value the doctrine and teaching of Christ, and there should be a recognition that not all teachings carry the same weight. There will also invariably be levels of agreement and disagreement among all believers. Both of these truths are a fact of life, and a recognition of this fact will go a long way in attaining unity among believers. Lastly, fellowship demands a consideration of what is essential in the Christian message and teaching. Unfortunately, the Bible does not provide a list of essential items (at least not in so many words). Yet, to the Bible we must turn to make these determinations. This is the challenge and the task at hand.

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One Response to Doctrinal Basis for Fellowship

  1. Patrick says:

    Personally, I think the hardest thing is what to do when people disagree about what is essential (should the list of essentials be considered an essential?). From the little I’ve studied about church history, I know that the topic of essentials/non-essentials came up frequently during the early days of the Reformation (and, I suppose, ever since). In the Lutherans’ Augsburg Confession, they described their own marks of the one-true-church: “The Church is the congregation of saints, in which the Gospel is rightly taught and the Sacraments are rightly administered.” These two characteristics (authentic gospel and correct sacraments) were also listed in the Anglicans’ 39 Articles. The Scots Confession added a third, “ecclesiastical discipline uprightly ministered.” (Of course, the question of what is included in “the gospel” is a point of contention in itself.) But all of these statements also included qualifications stating that total conformity was not necessary, and there were stern warnings against requiring things for salvation which were not commanded in Scripture (see article XV in the Augsburg Confession). But as the years went by, later writings like the Westminster Confession tended to multiply the list of required beliefs and practices. (I suppose churches of Christ tend more in the direction of the latter, though with an unwritten list.) At any rate, we’re certainly not the first to struggle with these questions…nor will we be the last.

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