From the beginning of the Restoration Movement, brethren have put a great deal of emphasis on doctrinal accuracy. This is a good thing because all disciples of Christ should be keenly interested in continuously shedding human fallacies and replacing them with divine truth. Truth is vitally important to the Christian. Without it, we cannot become Christians in the first place. In the parable of the sower, Jesus said, “But he who received seed on the good ground is he who hears the word and understands it” (Mt 12:23). Yes, we must understand the gospel in order to obey it. “When anyone hears the word of the kingdom, and does not understand it, then the wicked one comes and snatches away what was sown in his heart” (Mt 13:19). Failure to understand the gospel results in one being lost!
God has recorded His revelation to us in written form and He therefore expects us to study it and gain an understanding of it. “…He made known to me the mystery (as I have briefly written already, by which, when you read, you may understand my knowledge in the mystery of Christ)” (Eph 3:3-4). Paul declared that it is possible for us to understand the knowledge of this revelation by reading it. Furthermore in 2 Co 1:13 Paul stated, “For we are not writing any other things to you than what you read or understand. Now I trust you will understand, even to the end“. Paul anticipated that when his readers read his letters they would be able to understand the intended message. Yes, the Bible can be hard to understand but with study, prayer and time understanding will come.
Those of us in the Churches of Christ have emphasized these points in our zeal to strive for doctrinal accuracy. Again, this is a good thing. But have we taken this quest for truth to extremes? How can such a noble endeavor be considered extreme? When we start to act as if perfect doctrinal understanding is a prerequisite to be in fellowship with God and with each other. An all too common attitude among us is that if someone isn’t “doctrinally correct” they need to be “studied with” and shown the truth. Its interesting that what is considered to be “the truth” is usually the same thing being taught by the BNPs (Big Name Preachers) in the brotherhood publications. Some seem to have an unspoken conviction that our salvation is dependent upon our ability to be perfect in our understanding of the scriptures.
Is this true? Does fellowship with God depend upon Christians having a perfect understanding of the Bible? The answer is NO. God has never required this of His people and its not hard to prove. Did those who became the first Christians in Acts 2 have perfect doctrinal accuracy when they came into fellowship with God (i.e. became Christians)? Of course not. They tarried and spent time under the tutelage of the apostles to learn (Acts 2:42). Were they in fellowship with God in spite of their ignorance? Most assuredly. Did Peter have perfect doctrinal understanding when it was time for him to preach to a gentile household (Acts 10)? No, for God had to send him a vision and perform a miracle in order for him to accept the truth that gentiles could be saved. Was Peter in fellowship with God in spite of his ignorance? Most assuredly. What about the church at Jerusalem in Acts 15? There was much disputing about matters surrounding the new gentile converts. Obviously not all of them had a good understanding of God’s intentions. Ultimately there was unity on the matter, but were these brethren out of fellowship with God before they studied out the matter. Most assuredly they were still in God’s favor.
What about you? When you first became a Christian, before you had time to come to the understanding of the scriptures that you have today, were you in fellowship with God? Of course you were. Have you ever had to change your belief on a religious matter because your study brought you to a better understanding the of topic? For those who are true students of the Bible this is unavoidable. Were you in fellowship with God when you were in error on this matter? Are you in fellowship with God now? If so, does this mean you have perfect knowledge?
Our fellowship with God does not depend on the excellency of our Bible knowledge. What it does depend upon is faith and a penitent heart. Have you read Hebrews 11 lately? Did you notice that these men of faith were not justified by their accurate knowledge of the scriptures? Verse 39 tells us that all the “heroes” mentioned in the chapter, “obtained a good testimony through faith“. The fourth chapter of Romans has a good bit to say about this and it tells us in verse three that, “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness“.
Yes, we are to be diligent in studying God’s word and doing our utmost to understand it accurately. We must “handle aright the word of truth” (2 Tim 2:15). However, if we misunderstand something God doesn’t appear in a flash of light and smite us. In contrast, too many of us in the Church of Christ have the mentality that if we don’t come to an agreement on what the Bible teaches on subjects we deem important, then we must break fellowship with one another. Since God does not part ways with us when we aren’t perfectly accurate in doctrine (as if we ever can be) then why do we insist on parting ways with our brethren when we don’t agree with them.
No two people will ever be in complete agreement of their interpretation of the Bible. If you know two people who are, it simply means that only one of them is doing the thinking! Brethren who love the Lord and the truth and who honestly and conscientiously study the scriptures will invariably come to different conclusions on various topics. What do we have to be in agreement on to be in fellowship with one another? If doctrinal accuracy is to be the basis of our fellowship, then we are doomed to undergo endless splits within the Church of Christ because no two people will ever be in total agreement. On the other hand, if the basis for our fellowship rests on common goals, and we agree on the methods for reaching for these goals then we are on more solid footing. All that Christians have to be in agreement on to be in fellowship with each other is what they do collectively as a local congregation. Christians ought to be able to study together on any Bible topic without fear of opening a can of worms and splitting the church. If we can’t do that then it isn’t Bible study we do when we meet on Sunday mornings and Wednesday evenings; its a creed rehearsal!