Saturday, July 07, 2007

A note on "withdrawing" in "The Ecclesial Guide"

A reader has pointed out to me that Robert Roberts' Ecclesial Guide uses the terms "withdraw/withdrawal/withdrawing" and "separate" approximately 50 times, but never uses the words "reconcile" or "reconciliation" even once!

This should immediately alert us to the fact that the author of The Ecclesial Guide was more interested in separating, dividing and "standing apart" than in what Paul calls "the ministry of reconciliation".

The Ecclesial Guide was first published in 1883. The following year saw the beginnings of what would become known as the "inspiration controversy" which led to a major division in the Christadelphian community in 1885. That would seem to be a good opportunity to see how the suggestions laid out in the Guide for resolving disputes were applied. To all those people who insist that ecclesias today should follow The Ecclesial Guide, I would suugest they take a look at how Robert Roberts and the Birmingham ecclesia applied the Guide in 1885.

In an earlier post about Robert Ashcroft I gave the details as to how Roberts went about "withdrawing" from Ashcroft. Here is some of that information again:

In January 1885, an ecclesial meeting of the Birmingham (Temperance Hall) ecclesia was held at which an article by Ashcroft in his Exegetist was discussed. A vote was taken, and the majority were against Roberts. The following month Roberts tried again, and at a meeting of the ecclesia a motion was adopted regarding their understanding of inspiration which said "[we] will take no action of withdrawal from any member of the ecclesia, until accusation is made against him in scriptural form, and he has been heard in his own defence".

Roberts then invited several brethren 'to tea' and for a quiet talk on Friday 22 May. After tea Roberts dropped a bombshell asking several brethren to resign from the ecclesia, and then proposed that if the brethren present denounced Robert Ashcroft and Joseph Chamberlin all could be forgiven and forgotten. They refused.

The next day Roberts posted 'postcards' asking the recipients to sign their acceptance of Roberts' view on inspiration, and their promise to withdraw fellowship from brethren Ashcroft and Chamberlin. Roberts made it clear that he held the lease to the ecclesial meeting place "and whoever remained with him would remain in the premises".

Roberts then sent ‘tickets' to his supporters in the ecclesia, which they were to produce in order to gain admittance to the meetings of the ecclesia. Fellowship was therefore denied to anyone not holding a ticket, and a physically strong brother was put in charge of the door to bar their entry. A meeting of Roberts' supporters, possessing tickets, dissolved the ecclesia and reconstituted themselves with a new basis of fellowship including Roberts' definition of inspiration.

Take another look at the suggestions set out in the Guide for resolving differences of opinion and you will see none of this heavy-handedness: nothing about issuing 'tickets' to your supporters, putting 'strong brethren' at the door to keep your opponents out, or going against the clear decision of the ecclesia to allow differences of opinions. Roberts taught one thing and then practiced another, because a foundation for "withdrawal" and "separation" rather than reconciliation had already been laid. Yet it was Roberts' example, rather than his lofty words, which was ultimately followed by the religious purists and so to this day there remains an atmosphere of fear, intimidation and isolation in the Christadelphian community.

Paul's advice would be to keep a watchful eye on those who cause troubles and make difficulties, in plain opposition to the teaching you have been given, those who take bits and pieces of the teaching that you learned and then use them to make trouble, and steer clear of them, giving them a wide berth. (Rom 16:17).

It's time that fair-minded Christadelphians spoke out against this heavy-handed bullying and intimidation, and steered well clear of those who teach about "standing apart".

A note on dichostasia or "standing apart"

In the previous post I explained that the Greek word translated "divisions" in Romans 16:17 is dichostasia which literally means "standing apart". I noted that it is seen in a party-spirit where people who hold the same opinion cluster together and vote or act as a group.

The terrible irony is that the very people who insist on a uniform understanding of "fundamental doctrine" as the way of achieving unity in the Body of Christ are very often the same people who are creating division by "standing apart" from those who hold differing views.

I recently came across an incredibly brazen example of this. On May 10 this year a group of 38 delegates from 10 ecclesias in the Brisbane area met to discuss, among other things, how to handle ecclesias in their area who weren't conforming.

The official minutes of the meeting noted that one of these ecclesias under investigation was feeling "intimidated" and "isolated" as a result of previous discussions. It was suggested that this ecclesia (Kedron Brook) should be invited to join the "Combined Arranging Brothers Meeting". Incredibly, the minutes record that it was decided not to invite Kedron Brook (KB) to attend their meeting because "Bro XX raised the point that by KB attending this meeting would not allow discussion of them to take place"!

Here is a very clear example of dichostasia - the party-spirit where brethren who hold the same opinion cluster together and vote or act as a group, and exclude dissenters or non-conformists.

Not only is it unbrotherly and divisive for a group of ecclesias to decide that they want to "stand apart" and talk about another ecclesia without them being present, but it seems to me that it's just plain stupid to circulate this in their official minutes. But then, I will probably never understand the thinking of such brethren.

Wrested Scriptures (2) - "offences contrary to the doctrine which you have learned"

In my last post I showed that one of the Scriptures which are frequently quoted in support of "withdrawing fellowship" when read in it's context actually means something quite different from the meaning attached to it by religious purists*. In this post I want to consider another passage whose meaning has been reversed by the purists.

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

Of all the scriptures which have wrested (twisted or distorted) by the purists, this one may have suffered more maltreatment than most others. Written for the very purpose of protecting and preserving the church from division, it has become one of the chief instruments of such division.

What did Paul mean when he wrote about "the doctrine you have learned"? We first need to look at the context to see what Paul had been teaching the Romans which would cause them to avoid those who were divisive. The context shows that Paul had been teaching them that division among brethren is a sin. The "doctrine" he is referring to is the teaching that no one should cause division ("doctrine" literally means "teaching"). In a nutshell, that teaching in Romans is summed up in 14:19 "Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification".

The verse we are looking at comes at the end of a body of teaching which commences in Romans 12:1. Paul devotes the next 4 chapters to Christian conduct, especially as related to unity in the community of God's people. His primary teaching is that God's people should not be divided and its members should not put obstacles in front of another believer.
Here are some key verses from that body of teaching:
  • "In Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others" (12:5).
  • "Love must be sincere." (12:9)
  • "Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves." (12:10)
  • "Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited." (12:16)
  • "Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another". (13:8)
  • Chapter 14 deals at length with the attitudes necessary to preserve unity in spite of differences. The foundation of Paul's teaching about this is laid in verse one: "Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters."
After having given this extensive teaching about avoiding division and preserving unity, Paul recognises there will be those who will not follow this teaching. There will always be people who refuse to follow the example of Christ, but who create a factional atmosphere. Almost every church at some time will encounter people who want to set up their own power bases, who recognize as brethren only those who agree with their opinions, and who will drive out the believers who will not submit to their authority. Jesus encountered this in the religious leaders of His day, the New Testament letters show how such people infiltrated the church from an early stage, and the divided state of Christendom in general is evidence of this factionalism.

So what should be done about a person who insists that his/her view is the right one and that everyone else should agree with it? How do we handle a person (or group of people) who is/are threatening to divide a church or group of believers by making a big issue out of a difference of opinion? Paul says "I urge you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned. Keep away from them" (Rom 16:17 NIV).

We should note several things about these words:
  1. Paul is not advocating any public or corporate action here. He is not telling a congregation that they should excommunicate or disfellowship any one.
  2. The "avoiding" recommended by Paul is an individual thing - they are simply told to steer clear of those who create division and stay out of their way.
  3. The KJV says "Mark them which cause division." The word "mark" is from the Greek skopeo and literally means "to observe, watch, to keep an eye on." The person is not "marked" in any way and nothing is actually done to them. They are simply put under surveillance, or carefully watched.
  4. The word "divisions" is from dichostasia which literally means "standing apart" and here it refers to "alienating one from another." It is seen in a party-spirit where people who hold the same opinion cluster together and vote or act as a group.
  5. The word "avoid" is from ekklino which means "to turn away from, to hold aloof from, to stay out of the way." There is nothing in the word which implies any formal or organised disciplinary action. W.E. Vine in his Expository Dictionary of NT Words says, "In exhorting them to turn away from false teachers, the Apostle is not speaking of excommunication, but of personal dissociation from the offenders." Commentator Albert Barnes puts it this way: "That is, avoid them as teachers; do not follow them. It does not mean that they were to be treated harshly; but that they were to be avoided in their instructions. They were to disregard all that they could say tending to produce alienation and strife; and resolve to cultivate the spirit of peace and union."
Here are some ways other translations paraphrase this verse:
  • "And now I implore you, my brothers, to keep a watchful eye on those who cause troubles and make difficulties among you, in plain opposition to the teaching you have been given, and steer clear of them." (J. B. Phillips)
  • "One final word of counsel, friends. Keep a sharp eye out for those who take bits and pieces of the teaching that you learned and then use them to make trouble. Give these people a wide berth." (The Message)
Everyone who uses this verse as justification for separating from people with different views, who equate "this doctrine" with some form of creedal statement (such as a statement of faith), or some other definition of "the true faith", or who insist on agreement with a doctrinal interpretation of some sort, are the very people who are disrupting unity and who Paul says we should avoid!

It is sadly ironic that the chief offenders against unity are the ones most likely to quote this verse to justify the divisions they are causing. Such is the nature of the religious purists that they wrest, or twist Scripture to make it say the opposite of what it was intended to mean.

* I will explain this term "religious purists" later when we get to a Scripture about it.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Wrested Scriptures (1) - "withdraw fellowship"

In earlier posts I've written about Jesus' teachings on the injustice of exclusivism (especially as it was practiced by the religious leaders of His day) and the "good news" that God was welcoming into His Kingdom those who had been excluded, marginalised, disenfranchised and rejected by the religious purists.

In this short series I'd like to look at the Scriptures quoted by the religious purists of our own day to support their practice of "withdrawing fellowship" from people who disagree with them. We will see that these Scriptures have been "wrested" in order to make them mean something quite different from what they actually say.

The expression "withdraw fellowship" is often regarded by Christadelphians as preferable to "disfellowship" (although that is still a very common term) or "excommunicate", because it is claimed to be a Biblical expression. Christadelphians almost certainly adopted this practice from the Disciples/Churches of Christ (sometimes called "Campbellites" by Christadelphians, but more accurately described as the Stone-Campbell Movement) who also use the term "withdraw fellowship" in some circles. Robert Roberts' Guide to the Formation and Conduct of Christadelphian ecclesias (1883, aka "The Ecclesial Guide") in referring to an "offender" says it is an ecclesia's "duty to separate him from their fellowship by withdrawal".

The expression "withdraw fellowship" does not occur in the Bible. However, religious purists usually quote 2 Thessalonians 3:6 from the King James Version in support of their fellowship practices.
"Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye withdraw yourselves from every brother that walketh disorderly, and not after the tradition which he received of us."

To understand this verse we first need to understand the context. Thessalonica was a free city (urbs libera) within the Roman Empire. One of the privileges of being a free city was that freedom from taxation (libertas cum immunitate) was granted, and direct descendants of original families, as well as retired soldiers, were supported by the dole if they registered and requested it.

This status as a free city provided a lot of opportunity for leisure. Being devoid of scholastic opportunities, the tendency was for many of the men to degenerate into lazy and irresponsible louts and loungers, ready for any excitement which might be aroused to offset the monotony (and Acts 17:5 provides a hint as to how easy it was to find people of that type in Thessalonica).

This explains why Paul emphasised to the Thessalonian believers the necessity of securing honest employment, holding it, and earning one's own livelihood. He mentioned this in his first letter:
  • Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody. (1 Th 4:11-12).
  • Surely you remember, brothers, our toil and hardship; we worked night and day in order not to be a burden to anyone while we preached the gospel of God to you. (1 Th 2:9)
This teaching provides the background for Paul's instructions in 2 Thessalonians 3:6 "In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, we command you, brothers, to keep away from every brother who is idle and does not live according to the teaching you received from us" (NIV).

We should especially note the immediate context. Paul's makes it clear in the words that follow that he is referring to the problem of laziness which was rife in the Thessalonian community.
  • For you yourselves know how you ought to follow our example. We were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone's food without paying for it. On the contrary, we worked night and day, laboring and toiling so that we would not be a burden to any of you. We did this, not because we do not have the right to such help, but in order to make ourselves a model for you to follow. For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: "If a man will not work, he shall not eat." (2 Th 3:7-10).

The KJV expression "walketh disorderly" has been used by religious purists to expel anyone who doesn't measure up to their standards, doctrinal or behavioural. In the Thessalonian context we can see that the NIV's translation "every brother who is idle" is a reference to the problem of idleness in Thessalonica. Other translations render it similarly:
  • "Keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness" (RSV)
  • "Refuse to have anything to do with those among you who are lazy and refuse to work the way we taught you. Don't permit them to freeload on the rest." (The Message)
  • "Withdraw and keep away from every brother (fellow believer) who is slack in the performance of duty and is disorderly, living as a shirker" (Amplified Bible)
  • "Keep away from all brothers who are living a lazy life." (TEV)
  • "Hold aloof from every Christian brother who falls into idle habits." (NEB)
The brethren in Thessalonica were simply commanded to refrain from extending hospitality to loafers and shirkers. They were not to feed them for the command was that "if any would not work neither should he eat". If one of these lazy brethren appeared at the front door just before mealtime he was to be offered a job instead of food. If he refused the former he was to be refused the latter. One who shunned honest toil was to be gently shunted from the dinner table.

The word "withdraw" is from the Greek stello which means "to avoid, to hold aloof." There is not the slightest hint of congregational, ecclesial or corporate action. There is no public or formal discipline. Nothing is done to the idle person. He is simply left where he is while the brethren step back from him. To "withdraw yourselves" means to step back, to retreat, or to retire from the scene. It does not mean to expel or remove. The phrase "have no company with him" (v. 14) is intended to forbid the extending of hospitality. It would preclude invitations to social gatherings to which the idle might flock and at which they would eat at the expense of others.

We should also note that the one from whom the brethren are to step back or hold themselves aloof is referred to as a brother, although a lazy one who is living in idleness. Paul twice refers to the lazy individual as a brother. There is absolutely no justification for the practice amongst religious purists of refusing to call a disfellowshipped person a brother. This practice in the Christadelphian community began with John Thomas and Robert Roberts who, after they had fallen out with a brother, thereafter referred to him as "Mr". But there is no Scriptural justification for it - a brother does not cease to be a brother just because you disagree with him, or even if you "withdraw" from him.

It is almost impossible to imagine how the tangled maze of disciplinary action - accusation, boycott, disfellowship, and congregational exclusivism - has grown out of this passage. When authoritarians seek justification for their bullying attitudes they undoubtedly find that the words "withdraw yourselves" provide a handy tool to satisfy their divisiveness and they appropriate them as a weapon in the arsenal of factionalism.