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Being judgmental is an interesting concept. An over-used and often misapplied verse from Jesus is this one: “Do not judge, or you too will be judged” (Matthew 7:1). Jesus also said, “Stop judging by mere appearances, but instead judge correctly” (John 7:24). Paul wrote about judging in opinion areas in Romans 14:4, 10: “4 Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand…” “10 You, then, why do you judge your brother or sister? Or why do you treat them with contempt? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat.”

So what should we make of these passages? That judging by mere appearances, based on our assumptions, and by our personal opinions is forbidden. On the other hand, we are to judge correctly, or righteously, which means using the Bible’s teaching as a basis for judging rather than our assumptions and opinions. The problem is that we often have a difficult time distinguishing between personal opinions and biblical doctrine. Dogma is easily mistaken for doctrine. Dogma is defined thusly: “a principle or set of principles laid down by an authority as incontrovertibly true.” If that authority is man and not God, error has entered the picture.

Well over a decade ago, our movement of churches went through a time of upheaval, examination, repentance and change. The repentance often was expressed in public settings by individual leaders and by leadership groups. One oft-repeated apology by church leaderships was that we had been too judgmental of others outside our fellowship of churches. However, we did not define that well, if at all, leaving the impression that anyone who claimed to be a Christian probably was. One result of that poorly defined statement was that evangelism dropped off rapidly because it became hazy regarding who was a Christian and who was not. Another result was that we actually did not become less judgmental in how we viewed others. Without a specific definition of sin, how can anyone repent of it?

A brother sent me a letter and an article recently in response to an article I had posted on this website entitled, “How Important Are Doctrinal Differences?” He came into our family of churches in the same year that I did – 1985. He and his family have been a part of several different congregations, but are now members of the Los Angeles church. He is a sales representative / account manager by career, but he is also a very good student of God’s Word and of restoration church history. His article addresses the topic of judging righteously, and one point he makes caught my attention especially. It is going to raise some eyebrows, but I think in a good way. Read the article carefully and see if you can discover that eyebrow-raising point!

The Gospel Divide

By John Teal

How in the world could Christians divide over the gospel? The answer largely depends on how they define the gospel. Gospel means “good message,” and it is biblically used to describe the message of salvation through Jesus.[1] Yet, sadly Christians throughout the centuries have defined the gospel in ways that encourage sectarian divisions. Good hearted disciples have embraced false assumptions leading to unnecessary divisions.  The gospel gives birth to the baby Christian and doctrine feeds the child into maturity. In The Twisted Scriptures, Carl Ketcherside explains how equating the gospel with the entire New Testament revelation leads to disunity.

The common fallacy assumes that all of the apostolic epistles are part of the gospel of Christ and any exposition of the doctrine contained in these letters is preaching the gospel…It is further assumed that those who do not subscribe to the orthodox interpretation placed upon every passage thereby “reject the gospel.” Each sect, party or faction, thus makes its traditional explanations and deductions “the gospel” and we end up with as many “gospels” as we have parties. It is easily understandable that the ones who so reason will conclude that only those who are allied with the party will be saved, and all others are outside the pale since they have not “obeyed the gospel.”[2]

Thousands responded to the gospel long before the first word of the New Testament was penned.[3] Yet, Peter set the standard for conversion at Pentecost – faith, lordship, repentance, and baptism. We should not add or subtract to the gospel he preached. Certainly, converts were fed by “the apostles’ teaching.”[4]  But, they were added by grace through faith and not by obedience through knowledge.[5] Isn’t defining the borders of the kingdom based on knowledge or performance inconsistent with the gospel of grace? Surely, knowledge leads to repentance and repentance to a change in behavior. But, knowledge or performance is not a biblical litmus test for salvation.

Baptismal cognizance is one such doctrine.[6] Some argue that the one who lacks understanding that sins are forgiven at baptism, even in the presence of faith, lordship, and repentance, are lost because they lack understanding of the purpose of baptism. This argument is based on inference – not sound exegesis. Certainly, we can guard against soft teaching and at the same time embrace that we are not the judge or the spiritual police force – we are ambassadors of Christ.[7] Gordon Ferguson, in his paper on baptismal cognizance, warns against extreme positions yet challenges us to hold firmly to biblical truth about baptism.

We cannot soften or alter the message of passages like Acts 2:38; 3:19; 22:16; Romans 6:3-4; Galatians 3:26-27; Titus 3:4-7 and 1 Peter 3:21. Baptism is inseparably connected to the forgiveness of sins as we come out of darkness into God’s marvelous light, and no man has the right to disconnect it. Period. [8]

Let us protect biblical truth and at the same time avoid extreme judgments. Furthermore, let us guard against using knowledge as a test of fellowship, for when we do we become exclusive and we compromise grace.

After being “pierced to the heart” and responding to Peter’s message of the lordship of Jesus, Peter issued the following:

“Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God will call to Himself.”[9]

In this passage, there are two commands and two promises. The commands are to repent and be baptized and the promises are forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit. When we repent and are baptized in faith, surrendered in lordship, we receive forgiveness and the Holy Spirit. There is no need to discuss exegetical arguments over “eis,” for clearly sins are forgiven at baptism.[10] The question is are we saved by a responsive faith or by specific knowledge.

Being in the state of California does not depend on whether one accurately identifies the precise time and place he/she entered the state, i.e. crossing the state line.  A legal marriage does not depend on one’s precise understanding of when it became effectual. Was it at the vows, the pronouncement, the kiss, signing the license, or the actual recording of the document? The specific knowledge of this is not a prerequisite. Likewise, salvation does not require an understanding of the precise point in time or the efficacy of baptism for sins to be forgiven.  One must simply respond in faith, lordship, repentance, and baptism to receive the promises.

In Romans 14:4, 10, and 13 Paul challenges attitudes and judgments regarding disputable matters. He says:

Who are you to judge the servant of another? To his own master he stands or falls; and he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand…But you, why do you judge your brother? Or you again, why do you regard your brother with contempt? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God…Therefore let us not judge one another anymore, but rather determine this—not to put an obstacle or a stumbling block in a brother’s way.

Many in the ICOC are concluding that the lingering exclusive attitudes toward those outside our fellowship are negative and spiritually toxic. They are realizing that one can hold firmly to the gospel truth and at the same time refrain from judgmental attitudes. They are not compromising on the expectation that the one placing membership should embrace a clear understanding of the biblical purpose of baptism. However, they are concluding that one who has made Jesus Lord, and who has been immersed outside of our fellowship, may not need to admit they are lost or require rebaptism.

They are reasoning that these decisions should be left to the individual and their God. If we have taught the gospel truth, if they are confident in their conversion, and if they accept and adhere to biblical conversion, then we should welcome them into our fellowship as fellow members of our congregations. As we struggle with our tendencies to define the borders of His church we might ask ourselves the following: “Could we be trusting our discernment over and above the power of the Holy Spirit to inspire, lead, and move His people unto salvation?”

The church of Christ functions more like an organism than an organization. It is the universal body of believers – the redeemed regardless of tribe or sect. Organisms are fragile and they require sustenance to survive. Their health can be compromised by a toxin or virus. False narratives or assumptions, like the one above, can jeopardize the health, well-being, and growth of the fellowship. Let us hold firmly to sound doctrine, for it will ensure the health of our fellowship.  However, let us distinguish between the gospel that brings salvation and doctrine that matures and sanctifies. Let us apply caution when tempted to define the borders of the kingdom with doctrine. May we surrender all forms of legalism and fully embrace grace.

As humble servants and ambassadors, we recognize that “the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”[11] The important distinction is that the “Lord added,” thus we are not the ones who add to the body. As we grow in our understanding, let us value open and healthy dialog. Let us coordinate, communicate, and collaborate. Let us value all, ask all, and listen more than we speak.  Let us pray diligently and trust the One who judges justly. And let us preach the gospel boldly remembering “we are free to differ but not to divide.”[12]

[1] Gospel: Neuter Noun: εὐαγγέλιον euangélion, yoo-ang-ghel’-ee-on; from the same as G2097; a good message, i.e. the gospel:—gospel. /  Verb: εὐαγγελίζω euangelízō, yoo-ang-ghel-id’-zo; from G2095 and G32; to announce good news (“evangelize”) especially the gospel:—declare, bring (declare, show) glad (good) tidings, preach (the gospel).

[2] http://www.unity-in-diversity.org/Books/tts/index.htm?inside e-book accessed July 12, 2017, Chapter 4

[3] James was the first NT book written, dated approx. 49 AD. Acts written approx. AD 63.

[4] Holy Bible: New American Standard Bible (LaHabra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995), Acts 2:42

[5] Ibid. Eph. 2:8-9

[6] The Church of Christ debated baptismal cognizance fiercely between 1897 and 1907. It was referred to as the Tennessee and Texas Traditions (rebaptism). John Mark Hicks article Rebaptism: “The Real Rub” is a must read. http://johnmarkhicks.com/2009/01/30/rebaptism-the-real-rub/  Accessed July 15, 2017

[7] Holy Bible: New American Standard Bible (LaHabra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995), 2 Cor. 5:20

[8] http://gordonferguson.org/articles/baptismal-cognizance-a-deeper-look7/ Accessed July 14, 2017

[9] Holy Bible: New American Standard Bible (LaHabra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995), Acts 2:38-39

[10] εἰς eis, ice; a primary preposition; to or into (indicating the point reached or entered), of place, time.

[11] The Holy Bible, New International Version, Biblica, Inc, 2011, Acts 2:47

[12] “We are free to differ but not to divide” was a slogan of the American Restoration Movement.

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