Letter to Farragut

Majoring on Minors, Babies and Bathwater, the Danger of Exclusivism, and Why Some Christians Don’t Like Us! Oh yes, and don’t forget those Torpedoes!

(As with my earlier ‘Letter to Oglethorpe’ this is based on actual correspondence. The names involved have been changed to protect people’s privacy and some literary adjustments have been made purely for the sake of readability.)

My Dear Farragut,

It was good to hear back from you, though I am sorry that I had to write under less than ideal circumstances. I am sorry too that the church in your house came to grief and is no more, though I am glad that you at least realize there had developed somewhat of an unfortunate sectarian edge to it. When I tried to warn you all about this during my visit last summer my pleadings very much fell on deaf ears, but I am grateful to the Lord that you have thought the better of it now. However, let me, firstly, clarify what I was saying, and then, secondly, try to encourage you not to react to the failure of the church by throwing the biblical baby out with the unscriptural sectarian bathwater.

What I said about the danger of ‘majoring on minors’ wasn’t pertaining merely to the fact that you were emphasizing the Lord’s eventual return (after all, no-one was questioning that), but rather that both you and others were so strong in your assertions regarding the timing of that event in relation to the Great Tribulation so as to actually be making judgments concerning people’s discipleship based merely on whether or not they agreed with your own position regarding it. I do indeed concede that the fact of the Lord’s future return to earth is a ‘major,’ and would happily ‘major’ on it myself should anyone be questioning it, but the issue as to whether the Lord’s return is pre-, mid- or post-Tribulation is, to be sure, purely a ‘minor.’ Remember, there are countless perfectly genuine and honorable believers who hold to that rather curious a-millennial viewpoint, and who therefore don’t even believe there is going to be a literal Great Tribulation. It is valid to discuss these things, of course, but they are not foundational.

Other things, however, would fall into a somewhat more ‘major’ category, and I would certainly put what scripture teaches concerning church life into that category. But of course there is no question of there ever being a breaking of fellowship with, or a spiritual coldness towards, others who practice church life differently, or of us ever having a prideful attitude of superiority over them. To make a judgment concerning the quality of someone’s discipleship based merely on whether they are part of a particular type of church or not is, frankly, ridiculous.

Finally, there are things sufficiently foundational that we must be prepared to actually break fellowship and divide over them. A denial of the Trinity would be such an example, as would a denial of the divinity of the Lord Jesus. A denial of salvation being through faith in Him alone would also constitute such an example, as would the presence of the wilful and blatant practice of sin or immorality. But even then the dividing and breaking of fellowship should be done with tears, and for the primary purpose of the restoration of the one who is erring. Never should it be with trumpets and a big fanfare.

One of the reasons the church of which I am part here at home is still going strong after three decades is precisely because we have quite deliberately and intentionally observed these biblical principles from the beginning, thereby managing, as do many other Christians, to remain clear of exclusive attitudes and a denominational/sectarian-type spirit. And of course the point is that if people do have such a sectarian and exclusive attitude to folk outside of their church, then that same attitude will ultimately destroy them as a church as they eventually turn on each other regarding a thousand secondary matters which they end up considering to be non-negotiable, and which they therefore demand agreement on in order to continue in fellowship with one other. In other words, the rejection of an exclusivist/sectarian attitude towards those of the Lord’s people who disagree with one, whether it be regarding church life or anything else, is actually both fundamental and foundational to a correct understanding of biblical church life in the first place. Anyone who thinks that it is merely about getting the wineskin right, and then just arguing the toss about it with other Christians, hasn’t actually begun to properly understand biblical church life at all. You might as well say that marriage is to do with a man and woman having a marriage certificate and living under the same roof, and that that’s basically it. Which leads me nicely on to babies and bathwater.

If you have genuinely become persuaded from scripture that what I term ‘biblical church’ is a mistake, or merely an allowable option as opposed to a scriptural mandate, then all well and good. Each man must live and act according to his own best and honest understanding of scripture itself, such being ultimately more important than whether or not he is actually right or wrong in his understanding. After all, what is the point of just passively accepting what someone else says that the Bible says if one has suspicions that their understanding might be incorrect? Even as a Bible teacher I have always said to people that I would rather they disagree with what I teach because they honestly have a different understanding from scripture, than to agree with me just because what I say ‘sounds’ right to them, or because they think me a laudable fellow. We must embrace scripture for ourselves and not merely go with what others say about it. Scripture itself commands us to test all things, and it’s of the utmost importance both that we do so, and that the test we apply is what scripture itself actually teaches and not what anyone else says about it. Our individual and personal obedience to Jesus is of far too paramount importance to merely base things on biblical hearsay and second hand opinions. Straight to the horses mouth my dear fellow! That is where we should going! To the scriptures themselves!

However, I nevertheless want to encourage you not to reject what you once understood should it be that your change of mind is merely from a pragmatic standpoint, or in reaction to the fact that you became tainted with exclusivist attitudes. The tragedy of the wrong kind of exclusivist thinking (there is a right kind) is that Christians become sectarian and bigoted over things which are genuinely scriptural, be it church life, believers baptism, gifts of the Spirit or a thousand other things. And of course what Satan is then doing is bringing biblical truth itself into disrepute through the ungracious and proud way in which believers embrace and proclaim it. The unfortunate result is that it can oftentimes cause folk to reject things that scripture teaches merely because they have had unfortunate associations concerning them. For instance, demented Pentecostal/Charismatic-type Christians who are obsessed with speaking in tongues, and who don’t even believe you are saved if you don’t too, are of little help to those seriously enquiring about the gifts of the Spirit, but who may still have genuine reservations. It is frighteningly easy to put someone off of a good thing by embracing and endorsing it badly. Think about it like this:

There are many genuine Christians in Anglican churches who truly believe that the authority of God is passed on through the succession of Bishops, and that only a genuine Anglican Bishop can ordain a priest into their spiritual duties, thus passing on to them the anointing and power of the Holy Spirit. They believe that the early Church Fathers were inspired in much the same way that the original Apostles were, and that Anglicanism/Episcopalianism is the only way in which church life should be practiced, the foundation of which being, of course, infant baptism. It is therefore obvious that such Christians would not, for instance, want to be part of a Baptist church. Conversely, Baptistic believers think that such thinking and practice as found in the Anglican/Episcopalian Church is completely unbiblical – a hangover from an incomplete Reformation – and that the doctrines of the Apostolic Succession, sacramental priesthood and infant baptism are completely unscriptural. It is therefore equally obvious that such Christians would not want to be part of the Anglican/Episcopalian church.

But here is the point: if such Christians are also mature and godly Christians, then even though they would not want to be part of each others churches – indeed, might not want, on grounds of conscience, to even visit – they will nonetheless still accept one another as brothers in the Lord, understanding that their fellowship and oneness in Him is by virtue of their being part of the Universal Church of Jesus Christ, as opposed to merely a specific and individual local expression of it. Further, they would honor the fact that the basis of assessing each other’s commitment to, and love for, the Lord is through the test of a godly life and the manifestation of the fruit of the Holy Spirit, plus orthodoxy on the fundamental doctrines of the faith. So even in these days of the wrong kind of ecumenism, Christians accept each others right to be part of whichever church they think it best for them to be part of, whether Anglican, Baptist, Methodist, Independent Charismatic, or whatever. Here is how I see it!

As long as those of us who hold to what I call ‘biblical church’ do so without sectarianism or arrogant exclusive attitudes; that is, without rejecting fellowship with genuine Christians just because they understand church differently to us, then it is totally valid that we observe church life in the way we best understand from scripture, just as it is totally valid for them to do likewise. Or, to put it another way, as long as we recognize that any church – that is, any group of genuine believers meeting as such, be it an Anglican, Baptist or house-based one – is simply a specific and particular church, being just the tiniest fragment of the wider body of Christ throughout time, and therefore only a genuine church on that basis, then all is well and our relationships with believers in other churches can be as they should be. But of course there is another problem which those of us who believe in and practice biblical church life come up against, but which believers in the more traditional churches don’t, and it is this.

We have already noted that Christians in Anglican and Baptist churches, or any other churches for that matter, can reject each others expression of church life without, at the same time, denying that such are, nevertheless, genuine churches. They can do this as well without rejecting one another as genuine Christians, or demanding that anyone deny their particular ‘brand’ of church and repent of ever having been part of it, understanding that such recognition depends not on which particular and specific church a person might be part of, but purely on whether they are a genuine believer and disciple of the Lord Jesus. Christians, therefore, happily accept, by and large, that there are all sorts of different kinds of churches that genuine believers can be part of without considering there to be any great problem: unless, it would appear, they are part of a church such as I would personally advocate.

I have found, over the last 40 years – and it remains amazing to me that such is the case – that Christians, both leaders and non-leaders, who would never question the right of Christians to be part of whichever church they see fit to be part of, whether Anglican, Baptist, Methodist, Pentecostal or whatever, become unhappy in the extreme when confronted with the notion of churches which simply replicate those found in the pages of the New Testament. Or, to put it another way, they believe that just about any expression, or model (this being the new-fangled modern term for it), of church life is valid except the one that bases itself purely on the practice and set up of the churches as seen in scripture. Even more serious though, many Christians actually reject the proposition that such churches are churches at all, accusing those who comprise them of being divisive and sectarian merely for believing and practicing church life such as they do.

Even though there is no denying what churches were like in the New Testament, as uniformly and routinely set up by the apostles of Jesus, believers who now just copy what they did, and who form themselves into such churches, are frequently accused of being schismatic by very definition, and even denied validity as churches. The problem is not that those who practice biblical church life are trying to maintain that churches who do otherwise are not genuine churches, I for one have never maintained any such thing, but rather that the traditional churches reject us, and accuse us of being divisive merely for being the sort of churches we are.

Over the four decades that I have been teaching and practicing a simple replication of churches as seen in the pages of the New Testament, I have never once broken fellowship, or fallen out, with anyone over the subject, and have friends, as I have always had, in traditional churches. I cannot tell you though how many Christians, both leaders and non-leaders, who, when they realize what I believe and practice, have lectured me for being divisive and then made a change of mind on the subject on my part the condition for them being willing to fellowship me. If it was the case that I was making fellowship with me dependent on them agreeing with my understanding concerning church life, then such a response might be understandable, but I always make it as clear as I possibly can that, as far as I am concerned, the fact that I am part of a church such as I am part of is no different to a Christian in a Baptist church not wanting to be part of an Anglican church, or a Christian in the Anglican church not wanting to be part of a Baptist church. I even get accused of not being part of a church at all, being then lectured on not being willing to be committed anywhere, when the reality is that the church I am part of, and have been for three decades, is not being recognized as a church.

It seems to me, then, that most Anglican and Baptist Christians (or whatever combination you care to think of) seem to fellowship together just fine, and without the need to lecture each other or bash each other over the head for being part of a church different to their own. I can also say, because I have known myself for quite a long time now, that I have always happily fellowshipped with believers in churches different to that which I believe in without, likewise, making agreement on the subject a condition for that fellowship to continue. But I have come across a great many Christians who are critical in the extreme of churches such as I advocate, and who will even refuse to fellowship with one because of it, even though they would never take such a stance toward any other kind of church.

So what, exactly, is the deal here? Just what is the situation we keep finding ourselves in? Well, apparently it is this: Being part of an Anglican church is, apparently, fine! A Baptist church…fine! A Methodist church…fine! A Pentecostal church…fine! An Independent Charismatic church…fine! In fact, you name it and it’s fine! But churches which simply replicate what churches were like in the New Testament, as set up by the apostles of Jesus…most definitely not fine! And not only most definitely not fine but, apparently, divisive, sectarian and schismatic…by very definition! And possibly not even churches at all!

What we have here is the quite amazing phenomenon of Christians accepting just about any church that wouldn’t be recognizable as such to a New Testament believer, whilst rejecting, whilst often making the extremely serious allegations of divisiveness and sectarianism to boot, churches which are set up in conscious and deliberate accordance with the teachings and practices of the apostles of Jesus. Or, to put it another way, just about any which way of doing church appears to be acceptable except the way the New Testament believers went about things as directed by Jesus, His apostles and other writers of scripture.

It is, whether viewed from a biblical viewpoint or merely just a purely logical one, a perfectly ridiculous scenario. But it’s not those of us in such biblical churches that are the guilty party here. We aren’t being divisive and sectarian. We are just being part of churches that best fit our honest understanding of the teaching of scripture. No, it’s not us at all! It is those believers in the traditional churches, who seem to consider any expression of church life to be valid but ours, who are causing the problem! Of course, many are thankfully not of that opinion and accept us as they do any other believer; but many don’t, and especially church leaders, and that is where the real problem lies!

So let me encourage you not to fold on this; if, that is, your folding is merely in the face of what I have described, or something akin to it. As I have already said, if you now reject the idea of the simple replication of New Testament churches on biblical grounds, then fine; but whatever you do don’t go rejecting it just because you feel you will have a better standing with others if you do, or because you now feel you ended up being a bit sectarian concerning it. When believers become sectarian over something they genuinely believe scripture to teach they need to repent of their sectarian attitude, not necessarily change their mind concerning the thing itself. As long as one is not withdrawing from other believers over this just because they see things differently, then all is well. I therefore urge you not to compromise anything you know to be biblical merely because of the fear that other Christians, whoever they might be, will disapprove. So full speed ahead, that’s what I say….and damn the torpedoes!

So that is my two pence worth, dear brother. Here also endeth the lesson for today. I wanted to clarify my position just so there was no misunderstanding on your part, and so that you don’t end up connecting the idea of biblical churches with sectarian attitudes per se – as if the one inevitably leads to the other. There are, of course, and this is so sad, Christians in what I would call ‘biblical’ churches who are ugly and sectarian, and who don’t fellowship with believers in traditional churches, and who just look down on them spiritually. But at the end of the day that is no different to, for example, extreme Calvinists who won’t fellowship with anyone who isn’t a Calvinist, or extreme Arminians who won’t fellowship with Calvinists. Or, for that matter, Christians in Brethren churches who won’t fellowship with anyone who isn’t Brethren! But then what has any of that that got to do with us? The problem with folk like that isn’t whatever the issue itself is, it’s the accompanying sectarian and exclusive attitudes that are born of their doctrinal pride. I call it doctrinalism, and have been banging on against it for as long as I can remember.

Indeed, I am very happy to be able to assure you that, when it comes to biblical churches – and I do spend time with a good number of them, and know of, and am in touch with, many more – Christians like that are very much in the minority, the vast majority of folk being just like us lot in the church I am part of here at home. That is, they are happy and joyful to fellowship with all believers, irrespective of agreement or disagreement over secondary matters, whether concerning church life or anything else. So whatever else you decide, or end up believing, please don’t think for one moment that everyone who believes that the Bible teaches that we should replicate church life as seen in its pages is sectarian in their attitude to Christians who believe otherwise. To think in such would be a most terrible, to say nothing of completely unjust, slur on a very large number of Christians across the globe who gather in what I call biblical churches. Remember, I was the one who warned you and Drayton against being exclusive and judgmental in the first place, and I was precisely extremely careful to specify that what I was saying applied especially to our attitude concerning church life, as well as things like the timing of the Rapture in relation to the Great Tribulation.

So I hope this helps you a little bit in your thinking, and that it enables you to better come to a resolution concerning what you all went through as a church. I just don’t want you to throw the baby of biblical church life out with the bathwater of the unfortunate sectarianism you became party to. I look forward to hearing back from you and hope very much that our fellowship together can continue, despite the distance and your changed church circumstances.

On other matters, my family and I will be back in the States for a few weeks fairly soon and duly covet prayer for the ministry entailed. We do think they are the most wonderful folk, but my goodness, they do go on about that pesky old War of Independence a bit! Dashed bad manners, if you ask me! But then they don’t play cricket either, so what can one say? Nowadays, if they get onto that subject with me I just bring up their Civil War, and that seems to take the wind out of their sails a tad. Thank heavens they don’t know over much of our history (there’s just so danged much of it) to realize that we had one too. But of course the less said about that the better! So bless their little American cotton socks! That’s what I say! After all, it’s not their fault they aren’t English!

Take care and God bless.

In Him,